polyamory

The Lines of My Polyamory: Shifting Values and Boundaries

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Maureen Whitcomb

Community activist & feminist advocate. Passionate about prisoner justice, body politics, and all things crafty.

Very recently, I separated from my partner of seven years. It’s a long story, filled with the complexity that long relationships bring. The details of my past relationship and what led to the end of it however is not the focus of this article. I want to talk about monogamy.

Being in a monogamous relationship for seven years has given me quite a bit of personal insight. Throughout my past relationship, but particularly now that I am no longer in it, I have given a lot of thought to my experience and the institution of monogamy. This has come mostly in the arena of asking myself, “What the fuck is so special about being monogamous?” Before I get started, I do want to make a point of saying that there is a real difference between talking about the experience of monogamy and speaking to the institution of monogamy, although they are inextricably interconnected. However, everyone experiences monogamy (and non-monogamy) differently. There are different rules, different boundaries, and different dynamics depending on the folx who are involved. Experiences of monogamy deal with our first-person accounts, our feelings, and our unique sexuality, identities, and backgrounds. The institution of monogamy speaks to who benefits from monogamy, who doesn’t, and the power relations that reflect larger societal structures. We also can’t overlook the power of monogamy as the culturally normalized “way of being” in romantic and intimate relationships. We are inundated with media, pop culture, and classic stories that center monogamy as the end-all, happily-ever-after. We cannot ignore the power of monogamy as a cultural institution that dictates the ways in which people seek out and shape their intimate relationships.

My own personal experience with monogamy has ultimately been one of frustration. While in my previous relationship, I found myself grappling with this frustration and searching for what I thought were solutions that never quite got to the root of what I was feeling. Now that I am reflecting back, I think that is because I was trying to find solutions within the context of my monogamous relationship. But to be honest, I’m not sure I completely understood my feelings as having anything to do with monogamy at the time. I thought perhaps it was because my ex-partner and I got together when I was twenty-years-old and so I hadn’t had the experiences I wanted. For a while I thought of myself as some kind of deviant, as I have found through reading and talking to people, is fairly normal in the process I was going through. I researched swinging, group sex, and sex-positive nightclubs and social spaces. I battled through painful and ugly conversations with my ex-partner about my desire to connect with other people in physically and emotionally intimate ways. These conversations most often turned into arguments in which my ex-partner – very much functioning within his own experience and values of monogamy – would often turn it onto himself. My desires were about me wanting to be with other men because of flaws that I saw in him. Interestingly, these issues did not come up when I expressed my desire to be with other women. Sexism at its finest.

Then one day, through all the muck and complexity of arguments, stifled desire, and internalized shame, I realized what was driving my experience. I did not want to connect with people physically and emotionally within a system that made my body and my spirit someone else’s. I do not belong to anyone, and yet I felt that I did not have ownership over my body or my experiences. I was yearning to live my life free to connect with people intimately in every sense of the word, not just physically. That’s the day that I came out to myself as polyamorous. I use the phrase “coming out” intentionally (and hesitantly) here. In talking to a friend of mine who is polyamorous, the phrase “coming out” slipped when I was talking about my experience. I immediately took it back, because I felt that by using that particular phrase, I was somehow taking away or invalidating the experience of LGBTQ+ folx. However, my friend told me that his experience was very similar and that using the phrase coming out spoke to his process as well. My coming out was an acceptance of myself and of the internal value shifts that I was experiencing as a result of feeling the limits and restrictions of monogamy. That is when I began to conceptualize my polyamory not solely as a preference or a lifestyle, but as a sexual orientation and identity.

Now that I have begun to understand myself personally as polyamorous, I have plunged even deeper into attempting to understand (and grapple with) why monogamy is the status quo for intimate relationships. I am an academic at heart and so when I first began exploring non-monogamy and polyamory, I bought books (a lot of them) and read many (many) articles. Feminist critiques of monogamy spoke to me the most. While I was doing research, there was one sentence from an article by Victoria Robinson called “My Baby Just Cares for Me: Feminism, Heterosexuality, and Non-Monogamy” that really summed up the way I felt:

“[Monogamy] privileges the interests of both men and capitalism, operating as it does through mechanisms of exclusivity, possessiveness and jealousy, all filtered through the rose-tinted lens of romance.”

Possessiveness. That word brought everything that I was experiencing into focus and into a broader context. I am not a possession, but had felt like one for such a long time. I immediately remembered things that my ex-partner used to say to me through those rose-tinted lenses of romance: “Your body is beautiful. I am so happy to call it mine” or “You are mine forever”. And this is nothing against my ex-partner. These things sounded romantic to me at one time, too. I would call him “mine” just as often. We are socialized to believe that is what love looks like and is what we should strive for. Capitalism. I mean, of course capitalism. But that structure really stuck out to me as well. Capitalism drives the mentality of possessions as success. Relationships don’t escape that mentality. That’s why in my relationship, when I disclosed wanting to experience intimacy with other people, it was seen as a flaw, a red flag. It very well could have caused the relationship to “fail”, and I can’t say it didn’t contribute to my personal relationship ending (although I believe it was a small factor). Possessiveness and jealousy are often also causes of intimate partner violence. Feminist analysis of causes of intimate partner violence often look to patriarchal structures. I have come to think that the socialization of monogamy, which is often based in bodily ownership, is a factor in gender-based violence as well.

Unlearning monogamy is challenging. I am consistently struggling internally with my own socialization. Being intentionally polyamorous means more than just changing the ways that we think about and experience intimacy and relationships. It’s about internally uprooting institutions and value structures. It’s about challenging and questioning socialization that shapes our lives and the lives of folx around us. I am coming to believe that like other sexual identities, we can view monogamy on a spectrum. However, I do strongly believe that, like other social and cultural constructions, our freedom of choice is complicated. When we are inundated with messages about monogamy as natural, it is easy to stay in the metaphorical closet forever out of fear of judgment, violence, losing loved ones, or because of our own internal shame and self-hatred. To anyone who is struggling or questioning themselves, there is a great community out there of folx who are non-monogamous in all of the beautiful ways that intimacy manifests. Do not be afraid to seek out community and educate yourself and others. It’s worth it!