A Few (Not Particularly Soft) Words on Non-Monogamy: An Open Letter

Annette O'Neil
Mar 21 · 5 min read

“There is no problem of how to love. We love. We are love, and the only problem is the direction of love.”

— Alan Watts

At this point in my life as a poly person (nearly a decade, but who’s counting), I’ve hit all the brick walls a non-monogamous girl can hit. Mostly, with my forehead. Repeatedly, when I didn’t know how fast I was traveling. And often, to my great despair, when I had taken some pains to clear them, and I was fairly sure I was cruising down an open road.

At the beginning, I hit them out of ignorance. Now, I generally hit them out of other people’s ignorance, willful or otherwise. I’ve never been a great friend of the benefit of the doubt, but I’d like to take a few indulgent moments to proffer it — because y’know what? My goddamn forehead hurts.

1. I’m a commitmentphobe? Nope.

So: You roll your eyes and dismiss poly as a dodge around the sacred responsibilities of “commitment,” as chiseled on the great stone tablets of the recent world’s most popular organized religions?

Au contraire, darling. I love commitment.

Serial monogamists love the idea of commitment but fail all its practical tests; plenty of functional monogamists fight an ugly battle every day against the steady onslaught of the societally-prescribed commitments they’ve made, building the bloated fortifications of codependency between themselves and the untiring armies they hear over the walls. Neither of those options is an option I, personally, would ever choose in the presence of an ethical alternative.

It’s not commitment that I take issue with. It’s the idea that any human person is ownable, or that any one of us needs another person to “complete” them. (“Another being regarded as property,” said Alan Watts, “Is automatically a doll.”) Those are insidious ideas, based in neither biological nor functional reality, and they have done more injury to more people over more time than it’s easy to think about.

Monogamy is not a permanent fixture of the human condition. It’s a common social contract to which many people reflexively subscribe. That’s all.

2. I’m indiscriminate? Haha wow.

So: You’re already going for your top buttons when the word “poly” crosses my lips? Hm. Let’s just get those hands where I can see ’em for a minute.

I call two of the cleverest, most affectionate, most heartfelt, most driven, kindest, hottest, most straightforward, most resilient, most thoughtful men I’ve ever met my partners. At 6'6"ish, they’re both taller than you. If you’re like most of the people I meet, their hobbies will eat your most interesting hobbies for breakfast and then spit them back up for their second-most-interesting hobbies to nibble on. And they know every single detail of me. To say that I love them is a gross understatement, and their love for me makes the strong nuclear force look like a soggy handshake.

To play in those leagues, my chemistry with you has got to be strong enough to put me in a damn fugue state. The good news: Yeah, it happens. The bad news: It happens incredibly rarely.

The moral of the story: I am far from a sex dispenser. If you catch me at exactly the right moment, you might find a clear path to the tidal island of my carnal favor; statistically, however, your chances are probably better with almost anyone else.

3. It doesn’t matter that you’re in a relationship with someone non-poly? Um…yes. Yes, it does.

So: You want to hang out with me, but only if you can manage to hide our dealings from the person who’s pretty sure you’ve committed to them? …Or do so in the convenient absence of any mention of that person’s existence?

Right. Let’s break that down.

I have gone to inordinate lengths to design my life around the commitment to be totally honest about what I want and need. If there is so much as one item of clothing on the floor, I have certainly gone to further inordinate lengths to explain to you the importance of radical honesty in my value system. Even beyond that — perhaps surprisingly — I deeply respect the choice to be monogamous. (How could I not? My own parents have been happily married for forty years.)

With that in mind, you can imagine how disgusted I am by the idea of someone choosing me, of all people, to be the unwitting accomplice in their fuckaroundery.

It’s simple: If you want to be poly, make the hard choices to be poly. If you want to be monogamous, make the hard choices to be monogamous. Just don’t be — y’know — shitty. Because, if you choose neither, the latter is exactly what you are.

Love spits at your shitty, and so do I.

Love is everything. Love comes in as many forms as the people who carry it through the world. And non-monogamy, in the form of consciously undertaken polyamory, is a love of many-faced, vibrating, open-handed purity; a trust in its own transformative power so strong that it, in many ways, feels like a direct experience of god. I am exaggerating not at all. And, as a god always does, it takes its price.

That price, that ritual sacrifice of a particularly nasty, ugly corner of the isolating self, is so. Exultantly. Worth it.

So:

What are you so afraid of?

“Well now really when we go back into falling in love. And say, it’s crazy. Falling. You see? We don’t say “rising into love.” There is in it, the idea of the fall. And it goes back, as a matter of fact, to extremely fundamental things. That there is always a curious tie at some point between the fall and the creation.

Taking this ghastly risk is the condition of there being life. You see, for all life is an act of faith and an act of gamble. The moment you take a step, you do so on an act of faith because you don’t really know that the floor’s not going to give under your feet. The moment you take a journey, what an act of faith. The moment that you enter into any kind of human undertaking in relationship, what an act of faith.

See, you’ve given yourself up.

But this is the most powerful thing that can be done: surrender. See. And love is an act of surrender to another person. Total abandonment. I give myself to you. Take me. Do anything you like with me. See.

So, that’s quite mad because you see, it’s letting things get out of control. All sensible people keep things in control. […] So, actually, therefore, the course of wisdom, what is really sensible, is to let go, is to give oneself up and that’s quite mad.

So: we come to the strange conclusion that in this madness lies sanity.”

-Alan Watts, Nature, Man and Woman