“I couldn’t possibly do that.”
“How could she possibly be okay with that?!”
“How do you manage it? One girlfriend’s hard enough.”
“So…how could a guy like me…”
As someone who’s polyamorous — currently happily married (almost 10 years!) and in love with other romantic partners- I get the full range of responses when it comes up in conversation.
What amazes me, though, is that the most vicious replies I see don’t tend to come from religious fundamentalists or radical feminists. They tend to come from other non-monogamists.
Every personal choice- to have a hierarchy or not, to share finances with my partners or not, to allow my wife a say in my relationships or not- invited an argument that seemed to have no hope of a solution… an argument I exited quickly. Why couldn’t we articulate our differences clearly, and why was it so hard to just be happy that someone else was happy in their own way?
I found my answer in a book on politics, strangely enough, and it’s a conclusion with implications for practically any relationship arrangement.
I Once Was Blind
In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell describes two ‘visions’: constrained and unconstrained. These visions are core beliefs that sit underneath our model of the world and filter how we see and interpret events.
The unconstrained vision sees people as perfectible, trainable blank slates. Unconstrained thinkers aim to develop qualities that lift the constraints of human nature. Commitments, rules, and institutions prevent them from making the healthiest, most productive decision in the moment. They seek a final solution, assuming current limitations can be overcome, and are skeptical of compromises. Unconstrained lovers most value flexibility and authenticity. John Lennon’s Imagine is the classic example of this vision.
The constrained vision sees people as limited, flawed, and slow to change. Constrained thinkers aim to design processes that work within the constraints of human nature. Commitments, rules, and institutions guide them towards good decisions despite their mistakes. They seek the best available compromise assuming the current limitations and are skeptical of solutions. Constrained lovers most value consistency and fidelity. When I think “constrained,” I picture Shakespeare’s famous line: “Act your part well- there all the honor lies.”
The Visions in Action
Each of these visions tends to express itself in different ways in a relationship.
Minimize rules, commitments, and restrictions
Thrive on greater autonomy and freedom
Succeed through great flexibility and emotional intelligence
Act as if their relationships are re-negotiable and possibly temporary
Default to rules, commitments, and restrictions
Thrive on known and consistent standards
Succeed through great clarity and obedience
Act as if their relationships are fixed and possibly permanent
Of course, it’s never really that clear-cut, and this is where conflicts come into play. Someone is raised to see duty in marriage but is unconstrained in their worldview and chafes at the restrictions they took on without thinking. An unconstrained partner is caught up in new-relationship-feelz and lacks the emotional intelligence to see they’re twitterpaited with someone who needs consistency and predictability to feel secure in the relationship.
Even worse, our visions have moral implications that inspire us to disgust.
To an unconstrained thinker, a couple with a list of rules about how their partner can date is wrong for restricting each other. To the constrained thinker, the couple that casually breaks up after two years was just lazy and didn’t have the character to stick with it.
This is where I think the idea of ‘visions’ can help.
Playing the Hand You’ve Got
I know some lovely relationship anarchists (far on the unconstrained side) and 30-year-married death-before-divorce types (far on the constrained side) who make their vastly-different approaches work. The key is that there’s more than one way to do it ‘right.’
In general, I think every healthy romantic relationship starts on two pillars: consent and happiness.
Consent: All parties should be able to choose the relationship they’re in, leave as they choose, and negotiate within the relationship. Relevant information should be on the table so everyone knows what they’re agreeing to (no cheating). And decisions can’t be made for someone who’s not there.
Happiness: The end goal should be the greatest happiness for all involved, however they define it. For some, that’s personal growth. For others, safety and stability. For others, ecstatic adventure.
Within these limits, there’s a lot of room.
For both: Be aware of which type you tend to gravitate to and work with it, not against it. Cultivate the emotional skills that will help you best in your ideal relationship. Choose partners who match or complement your style. Be clear about your needs. Hold your boundaries. Don’t try to change your partner to your style.
Constrained, not Restrained: Live up to your own negotiated constraints instead of society’s “Monogamy Track” starter pack (unless that works for everyone in the relationship). State your constraints explicitly. Remember that your constraints apply to you, not to your partner, unless they consent. Own your constraints — don’t blame your partner for ‘making you do this.’ Choose your constraints to cover for your limits.
I’m personally more on the constrained side, and most people I talk to struggle to understand it, so I’ll provide an example from my own life: I tend to get carried away in new relationships, so my wife has a gateway veto with my new partners. For a few months, I’ll take her advice if she thinks they’re toxic and I’m just love-blind, and after that window, her veto closes. If I were to exit a new relationship for this, I’d own that choice and do it for my own reasons (I wouldn’t squeal ‘my wife made me do it’). Most importantly, I tell my new partners about it so they can consent. My wife hasn’t had to use it, and the existence of the rule helps me keep my head so I don’t put her in that position.
Unconstrained, Not Thoughtless: Be clear where you stand with each partner at any given time. Communicate that with them in a loving and caring way, so they can choose to be with you wherever you are. Identify what your partner needs to feel loved and wanted so you can decide whether you can provide that or not. If they complement you, know the rules they’ve set for themselves. Brace for some crucial conversations.
One of the most emotionally intelligent, caring, and thoughtful people I know is an unconstrained thinker, and she had a beautiful metaphor for it: she is a star surrounded by a stellar bodies, each with their place in her orbit. Sometimes closer, sometimes farther, some hot and short, some on a parallel journey. Some see it as selfish or escapist, but after watching her navigate the complex changes in her dynamics, I’m convinced there’s nothing ‘easy’ about it.
Finally, Let People Be Happy
It’s that simple.
As long as someone’s relationships is consensual and aimed and happiness, leave people the fuck alone. Marriage isn’t evil. Hierarchy isn’t evil. Non-monogamy isn’t just a way to get away with cheating. Among non-monogamists, relationship anarchy isn’t just a way of escaping accountability and commitment. Staying in a committed relationship doesn’t make someone a stodgy victim of mononormativity, and choosing to fly solo doesn’t make someone a commitment-phobe.
Consider for a moment that they might be operating under a completely different set of rules than you, and within those rules, they can be perfectly ethical and happy.
After all, honest happiness is what we’re all looking for, isn’t it?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Page Turner at poly.land and her article here for inspiring this post.