No, Polyamory Won’t Save the World
If people want a lot of partners, why do they cheat instead of being open?
“So tell me,” she said from across a huge basket of French fries, “would you ever cheat on your wife?”
We were sitting in a midrange burger restaurant. I owned a small computer consulting company. The lovely woman across the table from me worked for one of my largest clients, where I was knee-deep in a multi-day project involving yanking ridiculous amounts of cable out of the wall as part of a major network upgrade.
She’d been my contact person at this company, a mid-sized advertising firm, ever since I started working for them. On this particular day, she’d invited me to lunch midway through the end of the project.
The question came straight out of the blue, somewhere between “I’d like ketchup with that” and “so how fast will the new network be?” She looked me dead in the eye and without preamble, said, “Would you ever cheat on your wife?” I remember it so clearly, I can still recall the French fry she had halfway to her lips.
“Define ‘cheat,’” I said.
“Would you ever have sex with anyone besides your wife?” she said.
“Yes, I would, and I do,” I told her. “But I wouldn’t cheat. My wife knows about all my other lovers, and I know about hers.”
She tilted her head, thought about it for a while, and then said “No, that’s too weird.” The next time I went on site for that client, I had a different contact person.
I’ve run into this before. Open, honest non-monogamy is “too weird.” Cheating is okay, because there’s a socially accepted script for it. There’s a paradigm, right? The roles in the play are we — defined. Everyone knows the script—what the Cheating Husband, the Scorned Wife, and the Husband’s Mistress are supposed to do.
The fact that cheating means betraying the trust of someone you supposedly love (at least on paper) doesn’t matter. The fact that cheating means deception doesn’t matter. What matters is there’s a script, a socially understood framework, that cheating falls within but open non-monogamy doesn’t.
In short: People worry more about straying outside social norms than they do about lying to their partner…and cheating might be unacceptable (at least on paper) but it’s still within socially normal behavior.
Which is, if you think about it, rather weird…and more than a little messed up.
Polyamory is not the answer
Every so often, when I talk about polyamory, someone will raise a hand and say “Isn’t polyamory justified cheating?” Then I explain that the word ‘cheating’ means ‘breaking the rules,’ which means that if something isn’t against the rules of your relationship, it isn’t cheating by definition.
And about half the time, someone else will raise a hand to follow up with “Okay, so does that mean polyamory the solution to cheating?”
It makes total sense, right? Cheaters want to have more than one lover. Polyamory is about having more than one lover. If cheaters become polyamorous, presto change-o, no more cheating, right?
Many years ago, I knew a woman who had difficulty remaining faithful. I asked her one day, as she was lamenting being alone after her most recent boyfriend had found out she was cheating and dumped her, why she didn’t simply engage in openly non-monogamous relationship. I’ll always remember the horror on her face when she said, “No way! I don’t want to share my boyfriend!”
Cheating is, perhaps paradoxically, simultaneously condemned by and also nudge-nudge-wink-wink accepted by society precisely because it’s an easy answer to a complicated problem: How do you deal with a relationship that doesn’t meet your sexual needs? What do you do if your spouse doesn’t share your tastes? What if you find yourself desiring other people? The rules say you stick with one partner regardless. If you cheat, you’re breaking the rules, but there’s, like, a system for that. There’s a good guy and a bad guy. There’s a framework. Breaking the rules doesn’t challenge the rules.
A completely new way of thinking
The problem with polyamory, from the point of view of folks who say things like “I could never do that, it’s too weird,” is that polyamory upsets the entire applecart. When you’re cheating, you’re breaking the rules, sure, but you’re not trying to bring them down entirely.
Polyamory subverts the whole system. Polyamory says, what if we re-think the paradigm from the ground up? What if we question everything about the rules? What if…there’s a completely different way to do relationships, one that doesn’t require monogamy at all? If cheating is picking someone’s pocket, polyamory is about totally upending the entire legal system.
Some people find they want to shag someone else, but aren’t ready to overthrow the entire socially accepted paradigm of romantic and sexual relationships. To such folks, there is a strange logic in saying yes, I’ll have sex with you as long as you’re lying to your wife about it and running around behind her back, but if she knows what you’re doing and she’s okay with it, that’s a bridge too far. Hard pass.
Folks like this aren’t saying “I’ll only sex you up if it’s an act of betrayal that harms someone you love—I won’t have sex with you if there’s no victim.” Well, I mean, yes, they are—that’s exactly what they’re saying—but that’s not how they frame it.
If I were to have asked the lovely woman who felt polyamory was too weird what she wanted from her future, she might’ve said she hoped to be married one day, maybe have kids (or at least a dog)…the standard-issue default relationship, in other words. She wasn’t looking to tear down the structure of socially-approved relationships, she was looking for some nookie.
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that (because human beings always are). Some folks genuinely get off on the illicit affair: the secrecy, the furtive glances across a crowded room, the shared but untold knowledge, the intrigue.
But polyamory is fundamentally about re-thinking how relationships work. For many folks who are willing to cheat, that’s a bridge too far. Not every pickpocket wants to overthrow the system.