Obviously, I know that nonmonogomy is not the norm. Then again, in terms of sexual and relationship paradigms, I’m nowhere close to normal (hell, the tagline to this blog is “sex after three standard deviations” for a reason). It’s not that monogamy lacks any appeal. The scripts are prewritten, it’s legally and socially sanctioned, and there’s a comparative simplicity to it. I wouldn’t be willing to do it: I’d be far too resentful of any partner who wanted me to give up the right to be attracted to, flirt with, fuck, or fall for anyone else (especially as only the second and third are under conscious control). But I will admit that trying to form and maintain multiple relationships can be stressful, difficult to make time for, emotionally risky, and a lot of work*.
When people have stress or problems, and are trying to figure out how to handle them, one of the things we do is look to role models. It’s a way of keeping ourselves from reinventing the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or investing a disproportionate amount of our resources on a solution that hasn’t been proven, at least anecdotally, to succeed. Role models give us hope.
There’s a serious dearth of role models for polyamorous relationships. There are lovely outspoken poly people like Franklin Veaux who provide a great deal of helpful information, but you have to go digging to find them. We don’t have public or historical figures or portrayals in media of polyamorous people just living normal lives and showing us how that works.
What’s worse, the models we do have for relationships are overwhelmingly and specifically anti-polyamory.
Many of the most famous stories in literature revolve around the threat outsiders pose to monogamous relationships. Helen’s marriage to Menelaus/affair with Paris is seen as so monstrous that nations go to war over it **(the fact that we call her Helen of Troy, not Helen of Sparta, suggests that we’ve collectively decided to side with Paris on that one) and don’t get me started on the disaster that comes out of Agamemnon stealing Achilles’ girl. Looking to philosophy, Aristophanes’ whole explanation of human sexuality in the Symposium hinges on the idea that the dyad or couple is the only possible desirable relationship configuration for either gay or straight people.
Then we have Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot–as with Helen, we root for the lover over the husband.
It’s the conflict that drives every shoujo anime I’ve seen–which girl will the protagonist choose? Twilight fans divided themselves into teams to root for either the vampire dude or the inexplicably hairless werewolf. I even have an erotic novel about a happily promiscuous woman who changes her entire personality and philosophy about relationships 3/4 of the way through the book because “love” and “monogamous fidelity” are apparently synonyms. Let me parse that: monogamous relationships are so ingrained that they infiltrate slutty porn***.
Then there’s music. How many songs about cheating do you know? How many love songs that hinge on the “one true love” premise? It’s especially important in music because so many people get twitterpated, thinking of a lover when a love song comes on the radio (or Pandora or what have you). When that association can’t match your relationship, when the very song that makes you want to send gushing text messages to someone is telling you that you can’t want anyone else, it’s hard not to internalize it on some level.
I’ve never seen polyamory portrayed favorably or normalized on television. The Poly in the Media blog tells me there’s a reality TV show called married and dating, but reality TV is typically about drama and dysfunction so I’m not holding my breath for it. In Lost Girl polyamory is literally the only sensible option: the protagonist is a succubus who needs to eat sexual energy to live, and can’t get enough from one person. So obviously she tries to be monogamous even against the advice of everyone not insane in the show because having multiple partners is what bad people do.
So that’s where nonmonogamy stands in terms of role models, as far as I know. The nonmonogamous paradigm is culturally invisible. This makes it easy to fall into traps of thinking about what could be a good relationship in dysfunctional ways. It’s normal, often automatic, to feel rejected when a partner would rather spend any given night with someone else. After all, when this happens in the movies it means the relationship is broken, right? Not having publicly visible role models to draw from means that we’re at risk of being drawn into the very paradigms we reject by choosing polyamory just by existing in a culture that makes monogamy the only norm. It makes it harder to have healthy nonmonogamous relationships. Not impossible, but hard. There is no way to reach a maintenance phase, if you will, a point at which behaviors that support one’s polyamory become automatic. There is a benefit to this: more conscious thought about decisions and behaviors in relationships prevents taking them for granted, encourages communication and evaluation. But it can also mean a huge pouring in of negative thoughts, of panic and paranoia, of desperately looking for the philosophy you know your paradigm is based on while every message around you insists that it isn’t true, can’t work. It’s enough to make most people feel a little crazy, at least on a bad day.
So if you wonder why poly people sometimes seem to never shut up about their special poly polyness****, it might help to remember that no matter how well grounded in reason and ethics we may try to be, we’re still very much social creatures. Even the introverts. Having reassurance that nonmonogamous paradigms aren’t crazy or hurtful is important, and we can’t get that passively the way monogamous folks can with their norms. We have to ask.
*I would argue that a monogamous relationship carries the same problems, but likely not to the same extent in most cases.
** all Odysseus’ fault.
*** It’s called My Prerogative, by Sasha White, and I am far less ashamed of reading smut than I am of even knowing what Twilight is.
****they really should, that shit gets annoying (says the sex blogger writing about nonmonogamy)