Amidst all the freak shows, FAILs, and occasional pleasant surprises that constitute online dating, one of my girlfriends met a dude who told her, at the outset, that he was “polyamorous.” My friend Sue, being the openly frank, sexually liberated gal that she is, replied, “Yeah. I’m dating other people, too.” But her date went on to clarify that what he meant by polyamorous was more than casual dating or a string of one night stands. He approached dating in much the same way that most monogamists do: he was looking for a sustainable emotional, intellectual, and sexual connection that could last…just with more than one person concurrently.
Polyamory is hardly new, but the growing frequency with which it keeps popping up says something about the psychosexual zeitgeist. On dating websites, would-be matches willingly disclose the fact that they already have a “primary” (i.e. significant other), and they share links to their primary’s dating profiles as further evidence that everyone’s game. There’s even a new movie chronicling the floundering, real-life romance of the filmmakers and how they chose to “explore alternatives to monogamy.”
I consider myself to be an open-minded, decidedly tolerant person with a “to each his or her own” kind of attitude but, I must admit, the whole polyamorous concept gave me pause. In the past, when I’ve heard the word “open” precede the word “marriage” or “relationship,” I imagined bored Empty Nesters, key parties, nudist colonies, and swingers’ retreats: last ditch attempts to fix something that was already broken. The whole notion felt so retro—not something people my age, especially unmarried people, would ever need or want to consider.
What I do understand is casual or non-exclusive dating. I believe people can be sexually and emotionally responsible while playing the field, without the expectation or desire for a long-term, monogamous partnership. So what exactly is the difference between polyamory and non-exclusive dating, if none of the people involved are married?
Sue’s date had adopted polyamory as a sort of open-ended playing card. He was up-front about it so that if a week, a month, ten years into their hypothetical relationship, something happened that might under other circumstances be labeled as cheating or infidelity, in his case it would just be par for the course.
The word “infidelity” is emotionally and psychologically loaded, and rightly so. Many of us are children of divorce, and we’ve seen what the obedient stroll down the path of least resistance did to our parents, our families. US divorce rates have hovered around fifty percent for the last few decades and infidelity, in its many forms, often plays a key role in the dissolution of a marriage. As far as the whole open-communication-full-disclosure part of polyamory goes, I’m all for it. In many cases of divorce, simple honesty might have gone a long way to salvage the relationship if one partner had only given his or her spouse enough credit to handle the truth.
But the truth can be scary, just as the idea of being with one person for the rest of your life and the possibility of falling out of love or growing to despise that person fifteen years down the road is scary. That’s why the emergence of polyamory in our generation in unsurprising, even if many of us never act on what we can intellectually understand to be a reasonable alternative to strict monogamy.
As it turns out, Sue’s relationship with her poly guy lasted a few months. She continued seeing other people and assumed he was doing the same until, one day, he told her he wasn’t—he hadn’t been for some time—and he wanted her to be exclusive, as well. Sue was confused, and a little pissed off. What kind of double-standard switcheroo business was going on here? Sue told him she didn’t want to stop dating other people, but she was more than willing to continue seeing him, as well. He broke it off.
I don’t think this guy was a liar or a phony, or had been disingenuous on that first date with Sue when he told her he was polyamorous. I think that he, like a lot of young, unmarried folk, was just a casual dater who, by asserting a need for permanent open-endedness, was merely projecting his fears for the future onto the present. And in that sense, he was underestimating his own capacity for real intimacy.
We all fall in and out of love; sometimes we love more than one person at the same time; the shapes of our relationships shift and change over the years. But as soon as you label yourself, you risk shooting yourself in the foot if and when you ever move outside the boundaries of your self-assigned categories. So really, it doesn’t matter if you’re “mono” or “poly” because, as far as I can tell, those words don’t mean the same thing to everyone, anyway. The only reasonable promise we can ask of our partners is that of mutual honesty…from this day forth, as long as we each/both/all shall live.