Welcome to part 3 of my existential musings about relationships and the ways we ‘meet and mate’ nowadays. For the backstory, read part 1 and part 2. To jolt your memory, here’s where I left off:
But if I didn’t want marriage or monogamous partnership, what other choices did I have? What was there in the multifarious, shady world between casual sex and marriage?
The double standard
One of the things I appreciate about poly and RA are that they provide the opportunity, in theory, for the needs of both women and men to be met. It’s been argued that polyamory’s most radical contribution is that it gives women full access to non-monogamy.
Blogger Pepomint raises the issue of the double standard that still exists for men and women when it comes to sexuality. “…men are supposed to originate sex, and sex is supposed to happen to women; men are supposed to enjoy sex, there seems to be less concern around whether women enjoy it…” Freaksexual July 2007
Laura Smith supports the argument that polyamory has woman-friendly roots. She quotes Libby Copeland: “Free love rejected the tyranny of conventional marriage, and particularly how it limited women’s lives to child-bearing, household drudgery, legal powerlessness, and, often enough, loveless sex.” Smith writes of women in poly relationships, “acting on desire as essential to liberating oneself from male sovereignty.” Polyamory, she argues, is about “remaking one’s own little corner of the world”. Polyamorous Women Aren’t Just ‘Pleasing Their Man’ – It’s A Choice The Guardian 19 April 2016
Carrie Jenkins has another important point to make – “…women who violate the monogamy norm, whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control, are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential.”
Prejudices about sexuality relating to gender, to equal rights to pleasure, and to sexuality and aging abound. Why should a woman forego pleasure in sex simply because a man regards it as irrelevant and unnecessary to his ‘primary’ orgasm? Why shouldn’t adults of any age seek and enjoy sexual pleasure? What is inherently wrong with the idea of multiple sexual or romantic partners? If people are sensible and take care of their sexual health, how is it anyone else’s business? Why is a quest for understanding, acceptance, joy and human connection any less valid because it is not driven by a romanticised notion of the One True Love? Suzannah Weiss 12 Reasons Why There’s Orgasm Inequity (And No, It’s Not That Women Are “Harder to Please”) Everyday Feminism December 2015
Personally, I’ve had it with the One True Love myth – I want something different!
As products of the societies in which they flourish, polyamory and RA are not necessarily egalitarian, but what interested me most about discovering non-monogamy in my forties was the idea that I could create my own tailor-made rules for living my life in a way that I could never have done in my twenties.
Apart from my ignorance about polyamory then, I doubt that I’d have found any willing partners. Even now I have struggled with men’s set ideas about how a woman should behave and what is acceptable for her to aim for – the old double standard raising its ugly head. It’s acceptable to be searching for ‘the one’ or a conventional relationship, and it’s sort of okay to just want casual sex and one-night-stands. When you mention poly to a potential mate who’s never heard of it however, it’s a challenge to keep them interested, unless it’s NSA sex they’re after.
Some men can see the appeal or the idealism behind poly; they can see it applying to themselves, but they often can’t abide the idea of their partner/loved one being romantically or sexually involved with another man. Even in poly circles there is such thing as ‘the one penis policy’! And so we come in a neat circle back to the problematic issue of jealousy.
Back to the green-eyed monster
We can’t just discount it as immature or irrelevant; it’s real and intense and complex for most people, even poly people, and it’s not surprising then that a lot has been written about jealousy within the poly context. According to Veaux, jealousy is just a feeling that we’ve created because of our own insecurity.
“Jealousy is most common when somebody feels insecure, mistreated, threatened, or vulnerable in a relationship… Jealousy is not the problem; jealousy is the SYMPTOM of the problem. Address the insecurity or the things underlying the feelings of vulnerability, and you address the jealousy. So the trick to making a poly relationship work is to make everyone involved feel secure, valued, and loved,” he says.
Phew, he makes it sound so easy but we all know that this takes time, energy, commitment, maturity and a host of other adult capabilities. And I’m not being flippant here – jealousy can be valid and it certainly can’t be ignored.
Lola Phoenix says, though, that not everything that goes wrong in a polyamorous relationship is about jealousy. The Hierarchy Polyamorous People Don’t Talk Enough About Medium 24 April 2017
“Beginner reading on non-monogamy over-hypes jealousy to the point where people go into non-monogamy assuming any negative feeling they have about a person their partner is dating is inherently jealousy and any attempt to express that feeling is automatically controlling, abusive behaviour.”
Veaux also says that things aren’t clear-cut when you’re dealing with emotional risk.
“Fears and insecurities are very, very clever at protecting and justifying themselves, and separating something that is actually harmful from something that’s merely uncomfortable isn’t always easy. It requires work. It requires examining, with an unflinching eye, what it is you’re afraid of and what it is you think will happen if your partner continues doing the thing that makes you jealous. And above all, it requires that you ask yourself, on a regular basis, what is the point of all this?”
The point of all this
For me, the ‘point of all this’ is to redefine what I want in this second half of my life.
Do I (eventually) want a live-in partner, for example? Do I want just the one partner, but separate houses? Or do I want to genuinely find a non-monogamous arrangement tailored purely to the people involved?
I know I want intimacy and friendship – but it doesn’t always need to be tied to sex.
During my first year spent online dating I tested the idea of ethical non-monogamy. In applying ‘polo solo’ and the broad principles of RA as my guiding value, I preferred to keep my relationships separate and to remain autonomous. Since then, over the next couple of years, I’ve shifted, returned, challenged and experimented about whether I can live a happy non-monogamous life in the long term.
There is no doubt that relationships are complex, and poly or RA as a life choice has got to be right up there as the king and queen of complications.
Laura Smith, again: “Open marriage has its challenges, as does monogamous marriage, as do all relationships. De Beauvoir did cry in cafes; she was sometimes miserable. Poly advocate Ken Haslam said that polyamory can be ‘poly-agony’… But in much polyamory criticism there is an unwillingness to allow for complicated female desires, a self-serving wish to shove narratives into neater packaging.” Polyamorous Women Aren’t Just ‘Pleasing Their Man’ – It’s A Choice The Guardian 19 April 2016
No one is going to shove my narrative into neat packaging that’s for sure!
My own experiences of finding and developing a deep, long-term poly relationship was not without its challenges. Over more than two years Oscar and I tested our connection step by step, and for the most part, we were able to manage sharing each other. It was important for us both to have freedom to explore other experiences, each in our different ways. One complication that certainly affected me is the almost 20-year age difference between us.
During that time I thought a lot about how we all need to feel valued and special. Sometimes in longer-term relationships, we feel taken for granted, unseen, unappreciated. I adore Veaux’s quote that security comes from knowing that you, and everyone who is important to you, is unique and therefore irreplaceable.
When you see each partner for exactly who they are, he says, “you see that each person is someone who adds value to your life – value that any other person can’t.” ‘Polyamory, Monogamy and Ownership Paradigms’ Franklin Veaux’s Journal 11 Feb 2013
And so, despite the challenges, poly solo or RA is still what I want for this time in my life. Maybe not forever, but for now. I’m still an idealist, for better or for worse.
We’re all familiar by now with the strategy of not ‘putting all your eggs in the one basket’. Sometimes, people choose to be monogamous once they know their feelings; others choose it immediately. Others hedge their bets by ‘simmering’ or ‘icing’. Right now I’m attracted to alternatives to traditional roles and relationships. I might not ever find a perfect fit, but I’ll enjoy the journey.
Having said that, I don’t want to fall into the trap of making value judgements for the wrong reasons. As Lola Phoenix writes, “A lot of beginner non-monogamy writing is made with rose tinted eye implants, practically. Non-monogamy has a way of defying some of the things that are inherent but not exclusive to monogamy. Sometimes it can be freeing to feel like you can flirt without ‘cheating’ or do what you’d like. And that in turn makes people feel like non-monogamy is inherently better, inherently more egalitarian, inherently more socially progressive than monogamy. It can get to the point where non-monogamous people refer to monogamy derisively, almost blaming it instead of structures like misogyny and heterosexism for the way monogamy has kept them in a box.” 13 things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy Medium, 22 October 2016
You might well be after your One True Love – or you may be after a decent relationship with a good person who fits your shape as you spoon each other to sleep. Or you might be intrigued, as I was, by non-monogamous alternatives and what they could offer instead of traditional pairing.
Whatever your choice, I wish you well.
Oh, and here’s how Little Miss Shy Goes Online Dating ends: