On the Calculus of Partnership: What Nonmonogamy Does Wrong

Adorno, in his unending pursuit of apprehending the most pessimistic aspects of modernity, proposes something that blindsided me in Minima Moralia. He wants to say that commodification leads to a preoccupation with exchange value over use value. This is to say, the value of a thing is now inextricably linked to its market value. Art is a good example. Benjamin says that true works of art are intrinsically valuable — that there is something in a work of art that is beyond our grasp, that we cannot comprehend. Aura. This is what he calls it, and he details very carefully what it is and how it’s been extinguished.

The concept of aura which was proposed above with reference to historical objects may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural ones. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.- IV

I carefully extracted this impeccably poignant passage to advance my point, namely, that these worries, and this critique of modernity, are analogous to the worst aspects of nonmonogamy. This is to say that hierarchical nonmonogamy, or as I call it, unethical nonmonogamy, is an extension of neo-liberalism. It is the act of assigning rank to human beings based on an entirely subjective emotional exchange value (commodification) while retaining the properties of objectification and ownership typically associated with monogamy. Let me explain.

The Love Claim

There are two things we are saying when we take up the banner of hierarchical nonmonogamy, which is not ethical non-monogamy, mind you. Firstly, and most benignly, we are claiming that we love one person above all others whether or not this is said explicitly. Many of you may see this is the most troubling aspect, but I disagree. For what does a love-claim really mean? What does it entail? How ought we to move forward protecting it from interlopers? In short, I see this as a non-issue because it’s a bad-faith claim. It is untenable in ethical nonmonogamy. It is a vestigial remainder from the days of monogamy, something to which we cling in an effort to ease the contingency of nonmonogamy. But it’s a mirage, and attempting to seek refuge from uncertainty by this means will undoubtedly uncover those demons from which we hide.

Within this claim is a mere hint of Adorno’s concern for the commodifying masses of modernity, but a representation nonetheless. This is the interpersonal commodification of love. By placing a reserve on it, by attempting to maintain its exclusivity, we turn it into a commodity. To those who may deny making such a claim, I would ask, then what is the point of drawing this very particular distinction? Many answers could be offered in response, but to my mind, the most common — being that it is a way to resolve logistical troubles — is the worst possible. For in responding just so, this claim becomes transformed from a triviality to something more corrosive. Love is incalculable. The same cannot be said for time.

The Temporal Claim

The malignant claim we make is that one person has a unique right to our time and energy. This is the Love Claim transformed — the complete failure of nonmonogamy to be any better than the popular alternative, and a perfect example of substituting market value for use value. Our existences are set to time-out, making time the most valuable resource — or commodity — we have. Love is many things — a commitment, a feeling, a sickness, a desire — but above all else, it is unlimited. One’s life does not contain a finite amount of love to give. One has no limit on how much love can be received. The same cannot be said of time. Therefore, when a partner stratifies their partners and says, “No, no! I love you equally! This is merely an issue of resource management, of scheduling, of time.” this person is saying the following:

That which I have an infinite amount of will be split among you evenly, and that which is limited and precious will be distributed unequally. But don’t feel slighted, for I love you all the same.

And what they are doing is making a commodity of themself, of their partners, of love, of affection, and of time. The next question asks itself: if you have a relationship hierarchy — primary and secondary partners — and you systematize your relationships in such a way for the sake of resource management, how then do you decide who is primary and who is secondary? Oftentimes, the answer is determined by preexisting marital relations. Is this reasonable? Perhaps, if you have no ill feelings about letting the state decide how you ought to ration your most precious resource. I’m sure, reader, that you feel the weeds growing around us as we begin down this path. But I think too highly of you to force-feed you the obvious.

If you choose not to take this justificatory route, you’re left with a tough job. Will you appeal to love — that nebulous thing which we’ve determined to be meaningless? What will you appeal to? How will you explain? How is it that you decide who is primary and who is secondary without 1) making a bad-faith claim 2) refraining from appealing to the power of the state; 3) commodifying yourself, your partners, and your time?

You are left with one option, and that is to say the following to your secondary partners:

You are secondary partners because I will be spending less time with you, and I will be doing so because I want to spend more time with my primary partner than I want to spend with you.

If you cannot say this honestly, if you cannot actually bring yourself to utter this phrase, then you are living in bad faith. If you cannot say this, you have fallen to traps 1, 2, or 3, or worse yet, it would be a lie for you to say such a thing.

If this were a lie, what it would mean is that you are not actually spending your time as you’d wish… because you are not in control of your time.

If this is the case, if you are not able to spend your most precious resource as you wish, for someone other than you has the final say, you are no longer a human being. You are a slave — dehumanized, unfree. Your life is not your own.

And now, you are a mere commodity with no intrinsic value.

If that is the case, you are in a very deep hole, a deep, dark hole which you most likely won’t escape without a great deal of suffering.

Truly, here, there is nothing left to say except for this: my sincerest condolences.


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