“Why Are You Poly People Always Yammering About Polyamory?”

“Hi.  I’m poly.  And since I’m poly, you can expect at least five essays on my profile detailing how I do polyamory.”

We poly folks are kind of infamous, like vegans and hipsters and the much-feared vegan hipsters, because we talk about being polyamorous.  A lot.  We talk about how we do poly, and we talk about bad ways other people do poly, and we discuss poly in the media, and I have heard some befuddled monogamous folks wondering why we’re so damn self-centered that we can’t shut up about this relationship choice that we’ve made.

Alas, we are not discussing polyamory because we wish to be walking billboards for the lifestyle.

We’re discussing it because we haven’t had this conversation before.

Look, by the time you were eighteen, you’d seen at least a hundred movies showing you how monogamous people met and fell in love.  They were simplified and often stupid versions of monogamous love, usually leaning heavily on the trope of “the moment you fall in love is the most critical part of the relationship,” but you got taught how to do this.

And if you watched enough television shows, you saw all the ways that monogamous love could go wrong: all the events that triggered fights, all the personality conflicts that caused breakups, all the neglects that caused love to die.  Again, most of ’em were simplified… but oversimplification is often a necessary tool when you’re setting out.

Add that to the fact that you probably had a ton of personal experiences in high school and college, watching how couples formed and spun apart, and by the time you were twenty, well, you had a good solid idea of what made for a good relationship and what didn’t.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve benefited from a decades-spanning discussion on how monogamy works, and what the best practices are for healthy monogamous relationships, and who’s good to date monogamously and who isn’t.

Polyamorous people have not had this discussion.

We’re starting from scratch here, because polyamory in a Western culture is pretty much unheard of.  Not that it hasn’t happened, but it’s a lot like homosexuality in that our records tend to get smeared muddy or just outright washed away.  (There were, I’m told, a lot of gay cowboys, but hoo boy you wouldn’t know that from listening to any of the traditional historical narratives.)

We literally don’t know how to do this.  The Ethical Slut, the bible for many people, was written less than twenty years ago.  You won’t find polyamorous relationships in blockbuster movies.  If you see three people in a love triangle on the WB, that triangle is going to end in disaster because damn, people, monogamy!

So we lack examples.

As a result, we have to become our own examples, sharing our stories so that we can understand what works for us and what doesn’t.  (Polyamory is also far more complex than monogamy, because “traditional” monogamy has a clear line of succession – date, fall in love, move in, get engaged, get married – and polyamory has a lot of “Well, we’re dating, and we’re happy, but how can we tell whether this is healthy stasis or just mashing the ‘pause’ button on all the problems we’re not addressing?”)

Sometimes we get sick of rehashing our issues, too.  But the truth is that we talk about polyamory means to us because we have to.  We need to figure out what it means to us, because there’s no largely accepted definition that we can start with and then pare away details or add them to.

We’re trying to figure out what our own narratives are.  And sometimes that sounds a lot like boasting, or needless head-up-our-ass meanderings, or even attention-seeking behavior – but often, the core is just that question of “How do we do this?  Bueller?  Bueller?”  And realizing that Ferris Bueller isn’t going to appear in this class, he nipped off to steal a car and will not be providing the answers today, so we’re gonna have to sit down and have our own discussion before we figure out how this is gonna make us all happy.

It’s fine.  But we’re gonna have to be a little loud about it sometimes.  And you don’t think of your rom-coms as yammering on about monogamy, but really, they kinda are.

5 Comments

  1. Mighty Minion
    Dec 16, 2014

    Thank you for explaing my point better than I could have.

  2. Michael Cahoon
    Dec 16, 2014

    I’m surprised this didn’t have a “crossposted from fetlife” tag at the bottom.

    It read like it’d be helpful in that community as well.

  3. Yet Another Laura H
    Dec 16, 2014

    Gotta say, not doing the relationship thang, poly or mono, but I’ve gained a lot of insight reading people navigating those rapids, insight I wish I’d had earlier and frankly make a lot more SENSE than romcoms, and I appreciate y’all as a resource.

    That having been said, there was a time that I was a bit irritated by a specific poly behavior. Back when I was bi, I wasn’t really seeking out couples or households. I wouldn’t judge, it just wasn’t what I was looking for at the time. I said so on my OK Cupid profile, too, as was only fair: back then, a bisexual lady who wasn’t interested in threesomes was the equivalent of a coffee shop that didn’t have wifi. Yet I would receive a constant stream of “No, no, we’re the exception, you want to sleep with us, we don’t do drama/ we don’t swing/ we’re not shallow/ we don’t [fill in blank], and that’s obviously what you’re trying to avoid.” And I’d think, “Welp, one of the things I am trying to avoid is people who ignore my stated boundaries.” Which is harsh, in retrospect: they were only saying that “hey, if this is what bothers you about our situation, we want you to know this is not, in fact, the case, and we find you attractive.” It was not their fault that I wanted to be someone’s primary, nor should I have felt intruded upon by “the offer’s out there if you change your mind.” Some of these people were obviously in the first bloom of “poly is wonderful, everyone is poly but some people don’t know it, we’ll message a stranger on OKC and there is no way this can possibly go wrong” shiny phase of things and I think I may have been a unreasonably scathing to them.

    TL;DR: sometimes the prosthelytizing can get a little unnerving. Thanks for acknowledging that, beautiful poly people, and I love you, even if I won’t show it by tying you up and spanking you.

    Much.

  4. Matthew
    Dec 16, 2014

    Everyone of your observations are pretty much bang on.

    In addition to not having a culture that shows developing individuals how to deal with being poly, there is also a lack of community — or familial support — in a lot of cases. And there are very few role-models to learn from or grow up observing, or even going to for advice assuming you weren’t raised in an experimental community at certain points in history, or grow up in the rare few family-structures that exist in relatively recent times.

    Then there is the fact that society at large still doesn’t really understand polyamory and often writing down your rules or philosophies introduces prospective partners to the fact that: Yes, you are poly and this is what you are going to have to deal with: and we can either sit down and talk about this — negotiate — or leave.

    Sometimes people need your boundaries and your philosophy spelled out for them. They can change but that is between you and your partners and it’s always worth exploring. And who knows: it might even educate people and bring a degree of tolerance or understanding to some Western societies at large.

    All that said, there is this danger of discussion verging into the dry and didactic, or the purely abstract and jargon-filled and losing sight of the fact that you are dealing with human beings. Some might see it as arrogant or trendy, but there are a lot of monogamous texts that can go there too and become downright ubiquitous when they aren’t completely assumptive, tacky and stereotypical.

    Also, it’s funny that you mention Bueller. If he symbolized poly, he would be the figure that is constantly absent going on adventures while everyone else is sitting in class talking about events, or waiting for class to end so that they can finally start to do what they want. I’ve also noticed that some polyamorists are too busy trying to live their very busy lives than always talk about them, but that is certainly not the rule.

  5. bettie
    Dec 17, 2014

    (Polyamory is also far more complex than monogamy, because “traditional” monogamy has a clear line of succession – date, fall in love, move in, get engaged, get married – and polyamory has a lot of “Well, we’re dating, and we’re happy, but how can we tell whether this is healthy stasis or just mashing the ‘pause’ button on all the problems we’re not addressing?”)

    I agree with everything but this. I just think that saying that polyamory is inherently more complex than monogamy is (a practice you mentioned earlier in your piece) simplifying things – which, as you also mentioned, may at times be necessary/helpful, but in the context of this conversation, it comes across as reductive. I hope this comes across as respectfully as I mean it!

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