I have some friends who are closer to me than others; there are friends to whom I’ve told all my deepest, darkest secrets, and there are friends I’ll see a movie with from time to time but not discuss anything really deep. When I’m hanging out with one of the latter, I’m not wishing I was with one of the former; I’m just enjoying the particular charms of the person I’m with.
And yet, for a long time, in dating I was the opposite. If I was seeing two guys and started to like one of them more, I’d feel like there was no point in seeing the other one anymore. I used to think this meant I was “wired” for monogamy, but now I see that our monogamous-by-default society trained me from birth that I’m “supposed” to filter all suitors down to one*. Also, I was super insecure back then; I hated being single and if I liked a guy at all, I wanted to hurry up and nail him down so he couldn’t get away. Because clearly, if I didn’t shackle him into monogamy (and also treat him like the only human in the world who mattered to me) he’d run off with someone else. If I could’ve had a harem of dudes who were all monogamous to me, I’d’ve done it in a split second – Insecure Girl Wants All the Love Ever. But a harem wasn’t on offer so I was looking to glom onto one dude as fast as fucking possible.
Another possible issue muddying the waters back then is that when I “dated around,” it was invariably with guys I’d met at approximately the same time. Even nowadays I find it kind of emotionally taxing to get to know several potentials at once; I’d rather let one person settle into their natural place in my life before adding others (like I did with Minx and The Pedant, and like I’m now doing with The Pedant and…whoever else comes along). So I may have wanted to narrow my suitors down partly for simplicity’s sake.
(Speaking of multitasking and how much it sucks, my dance card is temporarily packed because of that FetLife personal ad; a handful of decent-seeming dudes responded and I didn’t want to keep any of them hanging. And I believe you can’t really suss out chemistry online, so I like to cut to the chase quickly: one or two emails and then we meet. The bottom line: I’m meeting two – possibly three – potential subs this week and talking to two others, and it’s making my brain hurt. If I end up liking more than one of them, the boy-crazy chaos is gonna make me feel like I’m in a particularly baroque Archie comic. But I doubt this will happen.)
Another change I’ve noticed from my old monogamous days is that I no longer have the mindset of breaking up with someone for someone else. When I first started entertaining the idea of polyamory, I still had it in my head that if I had a primary partner and I started dating someone else who turned out not to be that impressive, I’d be breaking up with Unimpressive Guy because he didn’t meet the bar set by my other partner. The old monogamous idea of competition (because, like The Highlander, there can be only one) was seeping into my poly sensibilities. Nowadays I don’t think in terms of comparison or competition – at least not nearly to the same extent. If I dump someone now, it’s because he wasn’t working out. Period.
On the FetLife Poly & Kinky discussion board, I see a lot of people uttering the sentiment “I’m naturally poly – I’ve always been able to love more than one person.” This statement infuriates me because it seems to be missing the point. I think tons of people in monogamous relationships can and do have romantic feelings for their partner and other people at the same time – whoop-de-doo. It seems obvious to me that the real distinction between poly and mono isn’t the ability to have feelings for multiple people, it’s the ability to let your partner love and/or fuck other people without freaking the hell out. And yet I’ve rarely – if ever – seen someone say “I’m naturally poly – I’ve never been particularly controlling or jealous” or even “I’m naturally poly – I’m a very clear communicator and I’m excellent at scheduling.”
Do poly people (or at least the ones on that particular board) genuinely believe that having feelings for more than one person makes them special little snowflakes? Do they really think monogamous people are physically/emotionally incapable of being interested in anyone but the person they’re dating? Because that’s not the world I live in at all. In my world, it’s understood that if you’re monogamous you’ll probably have crushes on other people; you just don’t pursue those crushes because reasons. In my world, most of the family sitcoms depict – at one point or another – one or both halves of a married couple openly having a crush on someone else (sometimes a celebrity, sometimes someone they know), and their spouse rolling their eyes and indulging it because they know nothing’s actually going to happen. Or sometimes a family sitcom will have a Very Special Episode where someone develops such strong feelings for a friend or coworker that they nearly do cheat on their spouse. The show always ends with them deciding not to, though – after all, they may have feelings for this other person but they also love their spouse and promised to be faithful, so in the end they choose to honour that commitment. Everyone I know sees monogamy as a conscious choice to focus on one person, not some weird duckling-imprinting thing where you genuinely don’t want anyone else ever.
I believe some monogamous people imprint like ducklings and don’t want anyone but their partner. And I believe that some poly people were just magically born without a sense of jealousy. But I think the vast majority of us have a high capacity for attraction and jealousy, and we’re each navigating through these contrary impulses as best we can.
*In high school, if a guy and I made out a couple of times we’d start asking each other “So…does this mean we’re boyfriend/girlfriend?” I wasn’t asking because I was ready to forsake all others; I was asking because I believed that a certain amount of kissing or number of dates did mean you were in a committed relationship, but I didn’t know what that magic amount was. I was trying to suss out when it would click over. I suspect the boys were asking for the same reason. That’s how deeply ingrained monogamy and slut-shaming are in our society**: it didn’t occur to me or any of these makeout partners that we could decide for our damn selves whether we were in a relationship, or that it’s okay to make out extensively with someone you’re not dating.
**I’ve seen mono people get annoyed because poly people tell them “Everyone’s poly. You’ve just been brainwashed otherwise.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, and I’m certainly not going to attack anyone’s choice to be monogamous – it’s none of my business, and anyway there are tons of practical reasons to be with just one person. All relationship styles have their benefits. But yeah, to be honest, I do think society has brainwashed most of us into monogamy and I would like people to open their minds to the other options – to know that their monogamy is indeed a choice and not the default setting of the universe.