People in meatspace keep looking at me funny when I use the term “monoganormativity,” so I guess it’s time to talk about it.
For a long time, I’ve noticed similarities between queerness and polyamory when it comes to the trajectory of each movement and the focus on more normative versions of a given identity. In queer-land, this is the tendency of large LG(B)((T)) organizations to focus on same-sex marriage, adoption, and other priorities and messaging that support a “just like you” framework. We call these tactics, as well as relationships that default to assumptions about how relationships work that come from the straight world, “heteronormative.” Monoganormativity is the same idea, just a corollary that springs up in poly-land.
monoganormativity: culture, practices, and behaviors that mimic those considered “normal” among monogamous people within the context of a polyamorous culture or relationship.
For example, when the default focus in conversations around polyamory is jealousy or relationship hierarchy, I consider that focus monoganormative because it’s aligned with the monogamous culture norm that partners should be jealous of and need to be more important than others, despite the fact that the context is polyamory. I’d also call the tendency of a lot of (but certainly not all) newly poly folks to focus on one couple as a foundation and write relationship rules springing from this baseline, rather than rethinking possible relationship styles, monoganormative–and the same goes for media coverage that focuses only on triads and couple-plus structures when discussing polyamory.
This isn’t intended to be an indictment. Most of us grow up in a context where monogamy is the norm. Even typing “monogamous culture” felt funny to me, probably because like white culture, it’s unnamed and pervasive. No one ever asks “when did you decide to practice monogamy?” just like no one ever asks “when did you realize you were straight?” It takes time to defeat internalized monoganormativity, no matter how proudly poly you are. I’ve heard so many folks who practice radical, non-hierarchical poly express guilt when they realize they “just want to be the most important!” in a situation, despite their fundamental commitment to egalitarianism.
So I don’t want to condem anyone who feels these feelings (myself included), but I do want to suggest an awareness of monoganormativity both in culture and in how we conduct intimate relationships. It’s okay to be jealous, it’s okay to practice consensual relationship hierarchy, it’s okay to have moments when you want to be the only one. It’s also okay to be monogamous. Let’s just stop pretending that monoganormativity doesn’t exist.
So, readers, I’ve gone through a lot of relationship changes in 2015, and thus a lot of personal introspection. My local partner (I’ll call her the QA, as I do on Twitter) joked just the other day when I was trying to figure out some things about my own sexuality, “you should probably take your own Workshopping Your Sexual Orientation class.” And it’s true—do as I say, not as I do. But of course, deciding what one wants out of romantic (or any other kind) of relationship takes time in practice, and also changes over time. Personally, I’ve realized that what I want in a relationship has fundamentally changed, particularly in the last 6-9 years or so, and I thought a little post about how I’ve been thinking about these things might be helpful for others, particularly other poly folks. (And if you think your community group, conference, etc. could benefit on a class that helps participants clarify their thinking around this topics, just shoot me a line.)
This post is the final one in a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.
This post is something of a footnote or a wrap-up to the Poly in Practice series. We started with talking about equity vs. equality in poly, then moved on to how capitalism fucks us all up, and then in the last post talked about some of the particular challenges of healing from past relationship trauma. Now, I want to come back to a theme I only briefly touched on in posts two and four: how we might tie disability justice ideas, and specifically the concept of universal access, in with practicing polyamory.
Really, ableism runs throughout this topic, and throughout the models of poly I’ve been challenging as too limiting in this series. The concept of equality is often applied in ableist ways, as is capitalism. Disability justice reminds us the playing field is not, in fact, level. Not everyone can reach the same milestone of equality by pulling on their bootstraps—nor should they. The concept of universal access suggests that the solution, however, isn’t necessarily trying to level the playing field by changing the milestone for people with disabilities, or helping with the bootstrap-pulling through charity or medical advances. Instead, entire systems can be designed from the ground up to be accessible to everyone—whether we’re thinking about architecture, communications infrastructure, or even relationship models.
Universal access focuses not on the “person with disabilities,” but on the range of ways in which people work, live, move, and communicate. Rather than “accommodating” one person or group of people, this model looks at how everyone can benefit from a broader definition of accessibility. Here, I’m thus going to make an effort to apply the idea of universal access to love—focusing on how poly communities can radically change the way we look at love and access to love with a focus on community growth rather than individual relationship challenges.
This post is part three of a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.
In thinking about models for polyamory that don’t revolve around competition and scarcity, I couldn’t help thinking about healing and recovery. In the last post, I talked about healing from the societal wounds of capitalism and an alternative model for poly relationships. In this post, I’d like to talk about a different kind of healing, from interpersonal relationship trauma. This post does not describe details of my relationship history, but it does provide some thoughts on healing from emotional abuse and how abusers can manipulate a scarcity mentality. It also draws parallels with my experience of EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). For this reason, I’m putting most of the post below the cut tag. Please proceed with caution if this content may be triggering for you.
This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.
In the first post in this series, I talked a bit about how some societal norms around the relationship escalator have pushed me into an inadequate framework for looking at relationships, particularly in the practice of polyamory. In this post, I’d like to dig more into those societal norms, and particularly into how we can practice polyamory in a healthy way while healing from the wounds a capitalist society constantly and pervasively inflicts on us. I’ll note by way of introduction that I have some privileges particularly relevant here: I’m white, college-educated, and benefit financially from the capitalist economic system in the United States. While I’m ideologically opposed to capitalism, it’s important to note that I also materially benefit from it (and often allow my 9-to-5 work to get in the way of active resistance). I imagine that many of these points apply even more starkly to working class people and people of color.
So to start, I think it’s no surprise that a capitalist, data-driven culture can affect our romantic relationships. I talked in the last post about the dangers of a framework of equality in relationships, and I think it’s this culture that creates the myth that equality is possible. The bootstrap mentality encourages us not only in work but in our relationships to focus on competition, rather than on community: when we allow this poisoned economic model of relating to gain a foothold in our lives, our romantic relationships become tainted by a feeling of scarcity.
I frequently hear poly folks talking about their struggles with a fear of scarcity, whether the scarce resource is time, energy, or even love. We often forget to talk directly about that fear, though, and are afraid to ask for what we actually need from our partners or our metamours in this perceived scarce environment where naming a need means acknowledging that a scarce resource may not be available to us. Instead, we expect that our needs will be met and feel hurt if they are not. This is no surprise, given how most of us spend most of our time at work in environments with limited resources and no salary transparency. We become accustomed to a culture of hoping that if we do our best (in work or in love) we will get what we need without any direct negotiation.
This post is part one of a four-part series on poly in practice. Look for part two next week.
Inspiration comes in odd places sometimes. I’d hardly expect the kind of mandatory culture-building sessions I take part in from time to time at work to have an effect of how I think about practicing polyamory, but I’m finding an interesting parallel. We talk a lot in my organization about equity versus equality: how the goals of social movement work aren’t grounded so much in a straight-up definition of equality (i.e., everyone is “the same”) but rather in a desire for equity (solutions that make sense for the actual humans and communities involved in a problem). I’m finding this framework to be equally useful in addressing the challenges of practicing non-hierarchical polyamory.
My knee-jerk tendency, I’ve realized, is to look for equality in relationships. Particularly when I find myself in what I would consider a similar position to a metamour’s (we started dating a partner around the same time, we have similar relationship desires and needs, etc.) I have a hard time not drawing comparisons and setting the bar down on a level playing field. The problem with this approach, which may be obvious, is that the level playing field isn’t really something you can see when it comes to relationships. So this approach has a tendency to create a couple of different problems—when I’m with a partner who does practice hierarchical poly and has a primary, it leads to the feeling of not being treated “equally” because of that prioritization, and eventually to resentment. Even when my partner also practices non-hierarchical poly, this approach can lead to insecurity or a fear that my partner is starting to lean towards the hierarchical when some relationship “milestone” happens: i.e., “you don’t feel that thing or aren’t at that milestone with me, and therefore we’re unequal and your other partner is really first.” Though I know those feelings don’t make sense in the non-hierarchical poly model, it’s still hard to get past them.
And so I’d like to start thinking about relationships in a slightly different way: thinking about whether I’m getting my needs met in non-hierarchical poly should actually be about equity, not equality.
When I started out with polyamory, I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of “open.” Part of that was that it seemed rather chaotic and haphazard. I didn’t think that there was any reason to limit romantic relationships to just one, but the word “open” gave me a mental picture of extreme promiscuity and I think especially, a lack of control.
Without really thinking about it, though, I’ve ended up in an open, poly situation and I’m happy with that. It was mostly accidental, because I had no interest in setting rules about sex and dating, outside of the important safer sex questions, of course. I still think of myself primarily as a “polyamorous person,” even though I’m only with one person right now, because polyamory has become a lens through which I view the world, rather than a simple way of describing what’s going on in my love life.
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I haven’t been entirely closeted about this. I’ve supported polyamory theoretically, spoken about it publicly and positively, come out selectively to people I thought might be open to the idea, and talked about it here and there online. But I’ve never really come out and said “Hi, I’m Avory, I’m polyamorous, and this is as important a part of how I negotiate relationships as being queer.”
The reason I’m doing so now is that poly comes up a lot in the media, and I think most people wouldn’t have a problem with it if they understood a little bit more. So I’d like to offer myself as an example—not as the only or best way to do poly, but as one possibly more palatable version to act as a conversation starter. I want to be clear that I absolutely support those who have different life experiences—individuals who have had many sexual partners, those who are married and want legal polygamy, those who came to poly because they were tempted to cheat—but that’s not me, and I’d like to share my story, too.
I found out about polyamory long before I claimed it as an identity. I came to accept it fairly slowly, and once I did accept it for others, it was a while before I saw the applicability of poly to my own life. There was a transition period where I said I’d be happy in a poly or a monogamous relationship, before I applied the poly label to myself.
I’ve always gone about sex and relationships in a relatively cautious and selective way. I’ve had fewer than ten sexual partners in my life, a fairly even mix of relationships and briefer encounters. I never felt the urge to cheat, really. Honesty has always been my #1 relationship value and as a monogamous person, I always said that I would rather know if a partner wanted to cheat or did it. I didn’t initially come to poly as a way to have multiple relationships. I simply didn’t have a problem with a partner having more than one relationship.
Over time, the way I practice poly has changed. I was in two relationships simultaneously for about a year. I also had one very positive encounter outside of those relationships, which both partners supported. I talk explicitly with my partners about whether we’re all comfortable with being “open” as well as poly, what we need from each other to make our relationships work, and what we need to do to be comfortable from a safer sex standpoint. Recently, one of my relationships transitioned smoothly back into friendship. But one constant for me in polyamory is that it’s always been mostly about recognizing the variety and fluidity of relationships.
People have all kinds of relationships: sexual, friendship, romantic, official, unrequited, etc. etc. In my life, I’ve been held back by expectations plenty of times—it’s not appropriate to flirt with a friend, or it’s wrong to admit a sexual attraction to someone you don’t want to date, or the word “love” must have a specific meaning that begins and ends along with an official relationship. If you have sex with a friend, you can’t say “I love you,” because that means something. If you end an official relationship, you can’t love that person or have sex after the relationship is over. Many, many expectations. And many of them, frankly, are bullshit.
I think that most of these lines we draw in the sand are artificial, and don’t reflect the nature of how humans relate with one another.
In modern society, especially among liberals and progressives, we allow a lot of things. It’s not generally a problem for someone to date several people at once as long as a name isn’t put to those relationships yet. Friends with benefits is an accepted term. Casual sex is expected, especially for young people. Cheating, though not condoned, is considered a normative behavior. Our standard relationship scripts incorporate cheating, breaking up and getting back together, being caught in a love triangle, and even (though a bit more fringe) open relationships and marriages where the participants have one committed romantic relationship but also engage in additional outside sexual relationships.
These scripts do not, however, include polyamory—the practice of having multiple acknowledged romantic relationships.
This seems kind of silly to me. Why would an official relationship be the line we cannot cross, something so strange to experience with multiple people that it is not only condemned but considered weird or freakish?
I suspect that, like many relationship topics, it has something to do with marriage. Over time, as romantic relationships other than marriage came into acceptance, we started to recognize the concept of a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend” as a kind of audition for marriage, as well as the concept of an unmarried long-term lover or partner. Although these relationships are not the same as marriage, they are similar enough that we want them to have a particular meaning.
This is the same obsession with meaning that we hear in the same-sex marriage debates. I’ve heard plenty of moderate democrats say that they have no problem with same-sex couples recognizing their relationships, but that the word marriage means something. This sanctity of marriage argument carries over to other romantic relationships in softer form.
We expect that when someone has a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, or partner, it means something that everyone around us can identify and understand. With the official relationship comes benefits—social recognition, being part of the couples’ club, giving the relationship itself a public dimension. Couples get invited to parties as a unit. People talk about “single people” and “people in relationships” as separate societies with collective understandings. And I suspect that some monogamously coupled people, at least on a subconscious level, are uncomfortable with polyamory in the same way those opposed to same-sex marriage are uncomfortable with an imagined slippery slope. If we allow people to enjoy these benefits with multiple partners, where will it stop? Will the importance of my monogamous relationship be diluted?
I think this attitude insults our collective imagination. People have relationships in so many different ways that it seems very arbitrary to leave out those who want their friends and family to recognize more than one significant romantic relationship. If we can recognize friends, roommates, and family members as significant, why not additional partners?
I’ve always liked the phrase “ethical non-monogamy,” because it focuses on the importance of honesty and communication in relationships—the point from which I’ve always approached polyamory. If you’re not sure about polyamory, or it doesn’t sit right with you, I encourage you to get back to the question of values. Using your values as a baseline, consider the example of a person who has multiple romantic relationships where all parties involved are aware of the relationships and communicate about what they mean. There may be disagreements, fights, and jealousy—polyamorous people are just as human and monogamous folks, after all—but honesty and communication are core principles of the relationship structure. Considering this example in the context of your personal values, does polyamory feel like an unethical outlier?
Of course, if the answer is yes, there’s nothing I can do. You feel that I am unethical or immoral, and that’s your decision to make. Or, you may feel okay about this hypothetical, but when presented with examples of how others do polyamory, feel uncomfortable again. That’s your right. But if you found yourself having a kneejerk reaction at the top of this post, when I declared that “I identify as polyamorous,” I would encourage you to go past that initial response and ask yourself why. You may be surprised at what you learn.
A few resources for my inevitably shocked friends and family:
I wouldn’t say they’ve come entirely full circle, but they’re definitely not what they once were. When I was a kid, I fully bought into the whole hearts and flowers romance thing, in the traditional sense of two people, committed to each other. I’m strongly opposed to cheating and honest to a fault. I still feel that way – if I have an understanding with someone that our relationship is monogamous, I won’t cheat and I don’t want them to. I’d rather be completely honest – if you’re considering cheating, then let’s talk about it and evaluate what this means for our relationship.
But aside from that, I’ve started thinking more and more about the poly option. I’ve had poly friends since I was 18 or so, and while respecting that choice, I’ve never identified as poly. After all, I know that I can do monogamy, and I don’t have a need to have multiple relationships or an open relationship. But as I get older and become more and more sure of who I am and what I want, I know that my idea of a relationship does not match that of most people. I’m very unlikely to have a live-in situation, and a relationship is unlikely to be the number one priority in my life. Sure, it could be up there, but other things are at least equally as important. Someone I’m with has to be okay with the fact that I could move thousands of miles away, or get wrapped up in a project, and for most people that isn’t “fair” in a traditional sort of relationship.
So, for those reasons, I’ve been thinking about other options. Part of why I’ve been so happily single for the past few years is that I feel perfectly fulfilled by my friendships, whatever romantic encounters do come along, and my interests. And I also am starting to realise that “relationship” is just a word we use. Saying you’re someone’s girlfriend has different values for different people, but for me a lot of it is about rules and presentation to the rest of the world. I may like to be in a relationship if I were to find someone compatible, but I’m very picky. I don’t have a problem with keeping the labels and definitions away from my love life. I also for these reasons can now see myself in a poly relationship – I would have no problem being with someone in a long-distance relationship, for example, who lives with someone else. I don’t have a problem with relating with people as friends but feeling more romantic about them sometimes. Maybe I’m an odd duck, but I’m starting to think that my sort of relationship philosophy may not, in many cases, be compatible with monogamy.