When Polyamorous People Go Back to Monogamy
If you don’t develop the skills to keep defining your relationship for yourself, it’s probably not going to work
There’s a woman in my Facebook polyamory group who is in a monogamous relationship. She stays a part of our group because that just happens to be the configuration she is in and wants to be in right now. She is not necessarily a monogamist; she just only wants to be with this particular person at this point in their lives. She hasn’t definitively rejected polyamory. Instead, what’s she’s rejecting is the notion that she has to fit into someone else’s relationship paradigms and since that’s a core aspect of polyamory, she continues to be a part of the group.
Mary (as I’ll call her here) has been in polyamorous relationships for many years. The same goes for the guy she’s with right now, but they’ve decided that what they want at this point in their lives is to focus only on each other. He’s told her that if she ever wants to change that, she absolutely can and she’s told him the same. Their commitment to each other excludes other people right now, but not necessarily until the end of time. That’s what makes it different than the kind of monogamous relationships that most people have.
These two people have consciously chosen their relationship style and communicated thoroughly about what they want the parameters of it to be.
The main thing here is that these two people have consciously chosen their relationship style and communicated thoroughly about what they want the parameters of it to be. There’s no one right way to be in relationship(s), but it really is optimal if the people involved aren’t just falling into someone else ideas about how things should look but are instead working out together what they expect and desire. Because there are no inherent rules for polyamory and because it is so varied, this type of communication tends to happen more often.
Polyamory is a mindset. It isn’t just sanctioned sexual infidelity. It’s a way of thinking about relationships that is expansive, rather than restrictive and it doesn’t work well with either co-dependence or controlling behaviors. Most of the time when I hear about trouble within a polyamorous relationship, it’s because monogamy-oriented ways of thinking are in play. You can’t just start dating other people and call it polyamory. Well, you can, but chances are it isn’t going to go very well because the “rules” of monogamy, which are about exclusivity and allegiance to one person, don’t apply. Polyamory requires creating new relationship parameters that are agreed upon by all.
But for many people, the safety of known boxes is a hard thing to completely dispense with. Even though they want to embrace non-monogamy, the mentality of monogamy still creeps in because it’s all most people have ever known and our culture is highly geared towards it. This can be one of the things that most sabotages polyamorous relationships, leading to drama or unsustainability. If you are trying to insert a round peg into a square hole, it’s just not going to fit right.
Polyamory requires creating new relationship parameters that are agreed upon by all.
As my husband James and I were first beginning to talk about no longer being monogamous, we read a book called Opening Up: A Guide To Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. There are several such books out there, and they all help previously monogamous people begin to understand the ways that polyamory is different from monogamy and give good tips about the kinds of things you need to think and talk about when changing relationship styles. I’m very glad that we had those conversations long before we ever were actually intimate with anyone else. It’s clear to me now that some people never have them, or only have ones that are fairly superficial.
I can see how this might lead some people to believe that polyamory just isn’t for them, and although that might be true for some who have tried it, from what I’ve seen and read, it seems to be more often that it was embarked upon without a real understanding of how monogamy and polyamory are fundamentally different relationship styles. Diving into the physical aspects without good communication around the other elements tends to lead to jealousy and unmet expectations. Some people go back to monogamy because they feel like they at least know what the rules are.
For me, getting to co-create what the parameters of a relationship are is one of the most attractive elements, but it does require you to be more intentional and clear to ensure that you and the other person or people you are involved with are also on the same page. There’s a certain vulnerability to talking that stuff through, about what you want and expect. But the payoff is that once you have, there’s a real chance that it has bumped up your intimacy in the process. Really honest, and transparent communication leads to a different kind of connection.
When my husband James and I were monogamously married, we didn’t hide things from each other, but there were things that we never really talked about because we’d gotten social messaging that it wasn’t appropriate for married people to do so. We didn’t discuss the other people that we found attractive, and we certainly didn’t talk about any of the above-board but still potent subtext that might have been going on with anyone else.
As we started to plan for inviting other people into our lives, James told me about the strong pull he’d once felt for a co-worker, a pull that was reciprocated by her although neither of them ever acted on it in any way. I told him about the subtle flirtation I’d been having with one of his friends. Again, neither of us had done anything inappropriate, but we also had never felt that it was OK to share those things. Once it was deemed alright to not have to pretend that our mate was the only person who ever interested us, James and I got even closer than we already were. There’s really nothing that is off the table to talk about at this point.
I suspect that this is why things are going so well for Mary and her partner. They have the stability of a steady commitment but also all of the communication skills and openness of people who have practice with co-creating a relationship without just relying on preconceived notions about what it’s supposed to be like. I think the divorce rate would probably be a lot lower if more people would do this.
We have the comfort of a long-standing commitment to each other, but also the novelty and enjoyment of spending time with other people.
I feel like James and I have the best of both worlds as well. We have the comfort of a long-standing commitment to each other, but also the novelty and enjoyment of spending time with other people. He and I only see people together, which isn’t necessarily a common way to go about polyamory but it’s one that works for us and makes us happy. That’s one of the relationship parameters that he and I have co-created. We have chosen to keep our relationship primary but to still have intimate connections with others.
There’s no one-size-fits-all polyamory. Some people have multi-person group relationships, some people don’t live with any of their partners, some give equal weight to all relationships, and some people prioritize them. The list of variables goes on and on. Assuming that the other person/people you are involved with will want or expect the same things as you is a recipe for heartache. So is trying to overlay the dynamics of monogamy to a very different relationship style.
At least some of these unhappy people decide that polyamory creates too many problems, and go back to monogamy or monogamy infused with infidelity, where they at least know what to expect. Polyamory isn’t the right fit for everyone, and it can be complicated at times, but as Mary’s relationship demonstrates, the most important thing in any relationship is making your way together. I think that any relationship benefits from making the effort to be really honest and vulnerable with each other.
© Copyright, Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story appears anywhere but Medium.com it has been stolen.