Polyamory and Respect

I have been in an open, polyamorous relationship with my partner Amanda for about a year and a half. The relationship began as open for somewhat coincidental reasons, but over its course, I have developed a respect for polyamory — an understanding of why it makes sense for me, and why, I suspect, I might want my future relationships to be open as well1. And it is not for the reasons that most people think.

For the first time in the course of the relationship, I’m currently being intimate with someone else. However, I was supportive of polyamory before I had taken advantage of its freedoms, even though Amanda was seeing other people reasonably often. The question is: why? Why would I put myself in such a position? Why would I allow Amanda to sleep with other people while she is with me?

The key lies in a word of that final question — “allow”. To me, a healthy relationship is founded on mutual respect. There are many relationships which are not, but I find the most fulfillment from a relationship which is a coming together of two whole people with respect for each other. Anything else, to me, is just a fling (maybe a long-term one). So, under the supposition that I respect my partner, what does it mean to “allow” something? More pointedly, what does it mean to “disallow” something?

Both allowing and disallowing suppose that I have the power to make decisions for her. It supposes that I am informed enough, without even being present, to make the judgment call about whether her actions were right. In a traditional monogamous setting, I have a wholly un-nuanced view of the situation — if she has slept with someone else, she has made the wrong choice, and I, therefore, have been wronged, and I (with the assistance of social norms) am the one who has decided that.

Let’s imagine a polyamorous situation to help get to the heart of this. Let’s say that she met a new partner, and asked me if it’s okay if she sleeps with them. I will not respond with yes or no. She has offered me the power (and responsibility) to decide the best course of action for her, and I feel it necessary not to accept it. In accordance with my values, I can’t accept that power for anyone but myself: it would be a disservice to us both.

However, I don’t mean to say that there are never any emotions that come with it, or that if there are I have an obligation to bury them. Indeed, I often get jealous and feel hurt when she is with someone else. But as a partner, I want to understand. Why did what she did make sense to her? How did she perceive that would affect me? — knowing that I am considered in her decision-making process is important to me. I will communicate how it actually affected me. Perhaps I spent the night alone feeling shitty — it’s important for her to know that, to take that possibility into account next time she makes a decision, and it’s important for me to understand that I am still alive and that we still love each other. But the key is that, because of respect, I give her the benefit of the doubt that she made the best choice she had — I just want to understand her reasoning, and probably be reassured that she still cares — which she always has.

There are certain “codes” that I see as being very powerful, as leading to a stronger and more aligned internal experience. One of these is honesty — I am committed to always being open & honest (in a more nuanced way than I have been in the past). This is not because honesty in itself is “right”, but because integrity (i.e. always doing what I feel is right) is a quality that is important to me, and I have found that honesty is a code that is easy to verify (i.e. it is easy for me to know if I am abiding by it), which leads to integrity. This is because if I do something which I feel is wrong, I learn that, because of my code of open honesty, I will need to tell someone that I felt what I did was wrong. And that pressure is huge — I can no longer keep it to myself, now I need to show others about my lack of integrity when it happens. This pressure very quickly causes me to start acting with integrity.

In the same way, I see polyamory as a code which is easy to verify, which leads to respect as a consequence, and respect for my partner is something I value. Jealousy happens — when she talks to someone I can tell she thinks is attractive, when she stays out later than I expected her, when she tells me she has or had a crush on someone. But I know that we are in an open relationship — we have agreed that being attracted to others, even to the point of acting on it, is okay, and therefore my feeling of jealousy cannot be instantly transformed into a feeling of righteousness and being wronged. Hence, I have to consider the larger situation — I have to see where she is coming from, I have to understand her and her choices, I have to know her better. And in doing so I understand her values, her wishes, her way of being, her way of relating to others — and such a deep understanding leads me to respect her. I have not felt such a deep respect for anyone else I have ever been in a relationship with, and I think the openness of our relationship has been a major factor in that.

Further, polyamory leads to more communication and strength in our relationship. Consider “cheating” in a monogamous relationship. Let’s say I am in a monogamous relationship with my partner and, in a flush of sexually-excited irrationality I slept with someone else. I still love my partner very much and want to be with her, and we have a good, mutually supportive relationship, but I just made a mistake. (The idea that I could sleep with someone else while still being in love with her may seem impossible to some; that idea is worth examining — consider these prompts: masturbation, past relationships, fantasizing.) The question is, do I share my mistake with her? If I do share, it’s very likely that the relationship will end by social contract — many consider cheating to be an unforgivable offense. I don’t want the relationship to end, because I still love her and want to be with her. If I don’t share, I turn one wrong into two, and eventually many — not only have I wronged her with my actions, I wrong her by lying once about it — and, as lies are, probably many more times to cover up the first one. So not sharing is incompatible with my respect for her, and sharing is incompatible with my love and desire to be with her.

Would it not be easier for everyone if I felt free to share my mistake, if I were not in this terrible bind after making it? With the roles reversed, what would it say about how much I care if I were willing to put my partner in such a bind? Letting go of the moral attachment to fidelity allows this situation easily to be a conversation — she can tell me how it affected her, I can understand that and that may inform my desire not to be so reckless again. Perhaps the conversation will reveal something about our relationship dynamic that needs attention, or perhaps something that is secretly making us both unhappy (one of the possible causes of sleeping with someone else). In that sense we can make a plan to repair it, or possibly we will mutually agree it is in both of our best interests to end the relationship, allowing us to be friends afterward, feeling sadness for our loss but not hurt and anger, because we both know that it was the right decision. In the case that the relationship does not end, the conversation may have revealed a deep problem which we are now on the road to solving, strengthening the relationship and bringing us closer. And maybe it was no big deal, and we understand that as sexual beings sometimes we just need to feel attractive and get our rocks off, and the relationship has not been harmed. All of these are preferable to an abrupt end due to an objective wrong, in which one person feels deeply guilty and the other feels deeply wounded.

There are things which I will only briefly mention: for example, it is freeing to know that a friendship/relationship with someone other than my partner can develop in whatever way seems natural, without worrying if every action has crossed the line. This freedom allows me to get closer to others in my life, even if their gender allows some sexual tension, which brings me more fulfillment and happiness. In my experience, even though I like this other woman a lot, it has not in the least diminished the love I feel for Amanda, and experiencing that helps me see that it is probably the same for her when she is with someone else. In fact, since she has asked me for more reassurance now, I am verbalizing why I love her more, thus reminding myself and strengthening my sense of love for her. Where does the idea that love is a finite resource come from?

These are the reasons why polyamory makes sense to me as a way of conducting myself in relationship. It leads to more honest communication (and therefore more integrity), more mutual understanding and respect, and ultimately a stronger relationship. I see traditional monogamy as a way to defend yourself from scary thoughts of abandonment, but the cost is a dynamic in which it is possible to justify a sense of ownership over your partner, controlling them and taking away their free agency. Is that really worth it?

1One reason is that I get to have future relationships without first ending this wonderful one.

13 thoughts on “Polyamory and Respect

  1. Out-of-band comment from a friend: “Interesting blog post. I still personally see things a bit differently: Monogamy isn’t about disallowing your partner from stepping out. It’s also about mutual respect in the sense that you wouldn’t want to be with someone else because your care for your partner and their feeling outweighs your desire for the new person. Interesting stuff though for sure…”

    I see what you’re saying, but I think you’ve made a tacit assumption of symmetry. I read this subtext to your comment: “and so, if my partner respects me, they should feel the same way.” But different people have different affects towards sex, fidelity, and respect, so that is not necessarily true — and indeed, I consider recognizing this potential difference a part of respect.

    Of course, if you both feel the same way, you can always both agree to be monogamous. That makes sense to me (in my personal value system, under the condition that the conversation remains open in the event of changing feelings). What bothers me is that the agreement is usually assumed without ever talking about it, even just asking “do you want to be monogamous?” — some of my friends ex-boyfriends seem to think that having sex at all implies an agreement to monogamy. It also bothers me when infidelity is considered such a wrong as to immediately end a relationship, when this conversation has never even been had.

    But in cases of such a question, “do you want to be monogamous?”; three or four years ago, had I asked, I would probably have not taken any answer but “yes” very well — likely getting upset at them, which puts them in another awful bind if they still really like me. So I think there’s more to it than just asking…

  2. As the person who made the comment you reference, I feel like I have to follow up again:

    Asymmetry is going to happen in every relationship, and not just with respect to dealings with other people. All relationships involve compromise – I want to live on the West coast and my partner wants to live on the East coast, say. We clearly can’t do both so we have to decide what kind of trade-offs we feel comfortable with. Even if I don’t want to live on the east coast, I want to be with that person and so I have to consider moving there anyway to maximize our overall happiness.

    It seems similar in regards to the question of sex. If one partner wants monogomy and the other wants polygamy, some compromise must be reached that attempts to maximize happiness of both parties if the relationship is to continue. I don’t really see how the more open-partner can claim to love and respect the less-open partner if they don’t feel bad about being selfish with regards to that compromise in the same sense that I would feel bad about just saying “fuck it, I refuse to live on the East coast” in the previous example.

    None of this is an issue if both people agree, of course, which is what it sounds like you guys have, and that’s awesome! I guess my point is that love and respect and compromise are all tied together and you shouldn’t have to tell your partner “I don’t want you to hurt me.” That IS implied and doesn’t need to be confirmed with a prior conversation. Point being, back to not wanting to allow or disallow your partner from doing things because that’s not a health way to relate to people, trust is about knowing that person doesn’t WANT to do things that will hurt you regardless of how much they would want to do that thing otherwise. If they do want to do something that they know will hurt you, they probably don’t actually love you and you have a deeper problem.

  3. @Florida Citizen – WTF?

    @Luke – I enjoyed the article. I’ve speculated that polyamory was largely, about recognizing that one might be unable to provide all a partner needs, and respecting their need to find some of it elsewhere. But what you say about it, about how it enables certain conversations and avoids hurt from hard moral lines, is enlightening. I imagine other people will find different value in polyamory.

    Re: Where does the idea that love is a finite resource come from?

    Love is a finite resource, like a garden – it can bloom and grow or whither and shrink, with circumstance and maintenance. But, at any given time, and over a lifetime, love is finite. Like many finite resources, love can be squandered, spoiled, or wasted.

  4. What the %$#@ has this got to with Haskell ? Honestly, what with the pro/anti Israel stuff, John Goerzen’s now thankfully stopped ramblings, and now this, I think PH’s signal to noise ratio is getting too low to be worth bothering with.

  5. @Michael Mounteney, Hmm, I wonder why you’re telling me. Sounds like you don’t want to subscribe anymore. I won’t be personally offended if you choose to unsubscribe.

    From the FAQ: A common misunderstanding about Planet Haskell is that it republishes only Haskell content. That is not its mission. A Planet shows what is happening in the community, what people are thinking about or doing. Thus Planets tend to contain a fair bit of “off-topic” material. Think of it as a feature, not a bug.

  6. @Max:

    Some things are deal-breakers. For some friends back in college that was the question of whether to have kids or not: one wanted them, the other didn’t, and though they were both very much in love and had been together for years, the inability to resolve this meant they had to end things (due to their love and respect for one another). For you and your partner, perhaps the East Coast vs West Coast thing is a deal-breaker. For some people, anything other than the strictest monogamy is a deal-breaker.

    The fact that deal-breakers exist isn’t the problem. Nor are the details of whatever happens to be a deal-breaker for some particular person. The problem is when people never question their standing on these matters, and/or never discuss the deal-breaking nature of things with their partners. Numerous things are considered to be “deal-breakers” a priori, regardless of how the people in the relationship actually feel about them; (non-)monogamy is one example, and (no) sex before marriage is another. The key point is that in any healthy relationship there must be communication about the nature of the relationship. Without that communication, it’s guaranteed that toes will be stepped on and hearts broken. This ideology that we can have relationships without communication is extremely damaging and leads to very unhealthy relationships. It is essentially the same ideology as the one that says people should “just know” how to please their partners, which leads to unhealthy and unfulfilling sex lives.

    Relationships should not be built on “feeling bad” at the right times; they should be built to avoid making either partner feel bad in the first place. It is inappropriate to demand of one’s partners that they should never desire to do things which just happen to make you feel bad. Our partners are human beings with their own free will and self determination, and we have no right to colonize their minds. I’d much rather be with someone who, though they may have such desires, decides instead to abstain from acting on them out of respect for me. Desire and action should never be conflated. Desires rise up all too often out of our control, but we must always be held accountable for our actions. The conflation of desire and action is one of the founding pillars of rape culture, to say nothing of its role in this magical thinking that we can have intimacy, trust, and respect without actually communicating.

  7. I think polyamory in this form is a paradox: you speak about your partner as the only *really* important partner, who matters you the most – and she seems to feel the same way.

    Now think about a “real” polyamorous relationship: you have nobody who is the *most* important for you. You have N girlfriends, and currently you live with one of them. You may decide at any point that you want to move in with another girl – and she can decide it, too. You respect each of your girlfriend’s decision about who is the most important man for them at this point, who they want to live together with, who they want to share most of their lives with.

    Does this sound yummy? Not to me, at all. I think the most important part of a monogamous relationship is that you have a stable point in your life; someone you can rely on at any time. I think this desire is more-or-less built-in: it’s not just old-fashioned or religious attitude.

    So I think what you have is a monogamous relationship with a “sex exception”. It’s like trying to escape from the old-fashioned moral code, but still sticking to the core – because it comes from your natural instincts.

    So maybe those old-fashioned rules about monogamy were not so nonsense in the first place :)

  8. @akos, thanks for bringing up an important tension. I have spent considerable time thinking about this during this relationship. I’m choosing to put aside an image of polyamory which you have, which is that everyone has a lot of partners and everyone is equally important. That happens sometimes, but other times, somebody is most important. The difference in polyamory is how you react when it is in danger of changing.

    The question I hear you asking here is “what if my girlfriend ends up liking another partner more than me?”

    Or maybe, “what if my willingness to allow my girlfriend to spend time with whoever she wants at her discretion causes her to like someone else more than me?”

    Do you feel the respect theme coming back?

    The hard answer for me here is: then she can choose to be with them. She can choose to move in with them, that is her decision. If she is still my primary, I probably won’t like that so much, I will probably end up feeling hurt. But I trust her, and if she believes living with someone else is going to make her happier than living with me, then I understand and support the decision, amid the heartbreak.

    Mind that nothing like this would occur without extensive discussion with everyone involved (at least with the current dynamic — I don’t believe something like this could survive healthily without the degree of communication we have).

    Here’s an analogous, monogamous situation. She and I are in a monogamous relationship, and she’s spending time with someone else as a friend. She finds them very attractive and gets along with them great. In the sex-exception variant, maybe they have some sex. At some point she decides that maybe this other person would make her happier than me — she doesn’t know for sure, but she doesn’t want to miss out. She doesn’t want to be stuck with the wrong person. She feels compelled to end the relationship with me. I ask why — if she’s honest (which is a hard thing to do in this case with monogamy), she’ll say “I don’t want to miss out, I think there’s someone else who might be better for me.” I’m hurt and heartbroken, and the relationship ends. She then commences a real, monogamous relationship with this other person and it is awful. It was fun when they were courting, with the excitement, but when the expectations of a relationship enter the picture, this other person has control issues and makes her very unhappy, very quickly. She has to end that relationship as well, and now everyone is alone and heartbroken.

    Now, for me, these two situations are not very different. I’m alone and heartbroken in either case. But for her, the polyamorous situation is vastly superior. With polyamory, she has gradually transitioned from a supportive relationship to an even better supportive relationship — with monogamy she has taken a huge risk to end a supportive relationship for a possibility of maybe another supportive relationship.

    What polyamory has allowed is freedom in this other developing relationship for her. She can test the waters, she can find out if it actually works before making rash moves. If it turned out that that other relationship wasn’t actually good once things got more serious, then ours wouldn’t even have to end, which is good for me (although it would be rough for me while the other one was becoming serious).

    Another possibility: maybe her other relationship develops into a healthy one, but she never ends up moving out — or maybe she decides to live by herself for more independence, but still continues both relationships. I can be happy about that, she’s happy, and her new partner is also happy. 3 for the price of 2. (The moving out transition would probably be tough for me, and I’d have to decide if the relationship is still worth it even if I don’t get to be in her bed every night.)

    The thing to remember is, most relationships do end. New, exciting people do come into our lives and make us question our standing relationships. This remains true whether or not there are rules in place that try to prevent it — this isn’t a game, this is real life, and if I have to break a rule to be happy, I will.

    And if it happens that we are partners who are compatible and in love enough to last a lifetime, then we will still last a lifetime. We just did it without twisting each other’s arms to be with each other.

  9. The issues with “symmetric” polyamory, rather than men sleeping around:
    * Cuckoldry. Its easy to tell who the mother is, hard (but no longer impossible) to tell who the father is. If Amanda gets pregnant ( yeah, yeah, birth control… ) and decides to keep it, you’ll be under a huge amount of pressure from her *not* to ask for a paternity test, and a huge amount of pressure from your family *to* ask for one.
    * Its much easier (as you’ve experienced) for women to “get” multiple partners (especially when those partners “know” (feel) they won’t bear the cost of pregnancy). This is why the concept of a “slut” has been so popular throughout history, to shame women into not doing something that is very easy for them to do.

    For most men, the feeling of being a cuckold is impossible to bear, so they won’t enter this kind of relationship. They’d much prefer to be the ones messing around with “another mans woman”.

    Not judging, just saying why most straight relationships will tend toward monogamy (with lies, mostly from men). If it makes you happy (honestly, it doesn’t sound like it really does, more like its the best situation you think you are going to get with a woman you clearly love) then enjoy.

  10. Hi Luke,
    Thanks a ton for writing about this. (I got linked here from trivium.) As someone with close friends who are polyamorous, this is both informative and incredibly interesting. I’ve spent the last year of my long-term monogamous relationship in a considered discussion of polyamory as we evaluate how much of it fits our respective desires and emotions. Again, thanks very much.

  11. Interesting writing, very inspiring. But it’s worth noting that love may not be a ‘scarce’ resource, a person’s body and time is. I think most ‘monoamorous’ couples share the ethics you describe, as they go into the relationship voluntarily and can end it unilaterally, none of them is deprived of their ability to develop feelings for others, they just agree to end the relationship if that ever happens. In this contractual setting, allowing or disallowing does not mean you would have the power to make decisions for someone else, its about you making decisions for you and what to do with your participation in the relationship (for example, ending it if you are displeased). I think the true meaning of “open relationship” should be one where you can make up any rules you want, a contract specifically tailored for the two people participating. It’s also amusing to me to see how the deeper philosophical arguments in your article can also be used when deciding if the correct toilet lid position is up or down.

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