Relationships are complicated regardless of whether sex is involved. Because feelings are complicated!
One of my husband’s friends has been asking him a lot about being poly, and how our relationship works, and such. Because I’m not directly involved in this conversation, and because I think a lot of the things that have come up in it are common questions and misconceptions about being poly, I kind of want to put forth my own take on it, with reference to the perspective of a non-poly person.
A brief note on language before I begin: Sex Geek recently posted a thorough take-down of the mainstream poly narrative, and while I have reservations about many of her criticisms, she did mirror my own concerns around the hierarchical primary/secondary etc. language so often used to talk about poly relationship structures. I might talk more about this at another time, but suffice to say that I will be using the term “domestic partner” to refer to my husband, who is the person I live with and share domestic chores and finances, and with whom I have committed to raising a family.
One of the questions that came up, which I think is a common way of framing poly hesitations is “isn’t your domestic partner enough for you?” I think this question sheds light on the primary misconception/bias that makes it difficult monogamously inclined people to wrap their heads around being poly.
Because it’s pretty rare that people get asked “aren’t your existing friends enough for you?” We are generally not discouraged from trying to make new friends lest we will no longer be able to maintain our existing friendships. And friends who get jealous of our new friends are generally considered to be overly controlling or unhealthily invested in the friendship.
Ok, but romantic relationships are romantic, and that makes them specialer than friendships and more of a finite resource, right? Well, no. And, no. And also, well, no, love is not a finite resource. Again, we generally don’t make this argument in any other context. People are not discouraged from having more than one child because it will prevent them from loving their first child properly, or fully. It certainly isn’t ever suggested that they are not fully committed to raising their first child. That would be silly.
Similarly, people with large numbers of siblings don’t love their siblings any less than people with only one – they may have individual and varying levels of closeness with each sibling, and they may relate in different ways or over different interests, but these relationships don’t devalue their other sibling-relationships.
And yes, there are some finite resources that affect poly relationships (time, emotional energy, etc). But these resources are necessary for all relationships of every kind, and still, we don’t discourage people from forming all kinds of relationships with all kinds of people.
Moreover, many people have friendships that can be as deep and meaningful and emotionally fulfilling as romantic relationships. It’s also true that monogamous people can be made very uncomfortable when their partners form this kind of friendship (and emotional infidelity is most definitely a real thing), but I also can’t help but notice that in the hetero world, this discomfort usually only arises when such a friendship is of the mixed-sex variety (i.e. we only tend to see emotional infidelity in relationships where the friends could conceivably be sexually attracted to one another). And this actually confuses me, because honestly, I don’t think adding sex to the equation in the kind of relationship demonstrated in the link above makes any big difference at all.
Because the thing is, sex? It’s not magic. It is wonderful and it can be a very powerful experience. But sex itself is not the thing that keeps relationships strong. That’s all your shared interests and emotional compatibility and other things that you have with all of your friends that does that.
All of those things, plus the actual magic ingredient, which is far more mundane than sex or love: commitment. What shapes my relationship with my domestic partner into something different than any other relationship of any kind that I have right now are the things I used to define it above. We share a living space. We share finances. We are actively and deliberately building a life together, and supporting each other in creating fulfilling lives for ourselves and each other in ways that go beyond (most) friendships. This is what makes our relationship meaningful to me. The sex is icing.
Honestly, as for as I see it, the main difference between a very close friendship and a romance is the expectations placed on that relationship. Most of us are more emotionally invested in our romantic partners than our friends, for approval, and for continued and (fairly) consistent emotional support. And I think that this is the main thing that makes people see romantic relationships as so different from other relationships, to the point of wanting some form of exclusivity.
Because I understand that most people have different/stronger feelings of jealousy with romantic partners than with friends – a lot of of this comes from the greater degree of dependence (emotional or otherwise) that we have on romantic partners relative to friends. But I also wonder at the idea that asking for a monogamous commitment makes your relationship inherently stronger or safer. If there’s structural problems in a relationship, it will crumble, monogamy or no. And if your partner is actually at risk of leaving you for someone else, they are still interacting with other people and forming new relationships and sharing different kinds of intimacies with other people every day. Regardless of whether they are allowed to actively seek out sexual relationships, they are at risk of finding someone better. You either trust that they are actually committed to you, or you don’t.
I do want to make it clear that I’m not against two people deciding together to be monogamous, if they’ll both be happier that way. I actually think there is something really beautiful about freely made monogamous sexual commitments. But that “freely made” bit there is a little slippery. So often, monogamy is presented as a natural and non-optional part of proving that you are truly committed to building a life with someone. Those two things are not connected, and we need to be able to untangle their threads in the way we talk about relationships and commitment.
It so often happens that a person who doesn’t want monogamy gets demonized or told that they don’t *really* love their partner(s) because if they did they would get the super-special kind of love that they wouldn’t want to share with anyone else ever. Or worse yet, that sex is only really special and good when it’s with your one twoo wuv. These myths devalue so very many functional and valuable relationships models, and not just poly ones. What about any relationship wherein the partners are sexually incompatible but still totally love each other? Companionate marriages, where people stay together over values that have nothing to do with sex, are wonderful things. What about people who just prefer to have their own space, and don’t want a live-in partner? Are they less capable of love? Are they less capable of commitment? Of course not, it’s just that their commitment looks different than the standard form of commitment.
The truth is that all of us juggle the relationship expectations and emotional needs of all kinds of different people in our lives, all the time. The only substantial difference is that poly people might have more relationships of the romantic variety, or all over the friendship-romance spectrum. All of us have many different people in our lives that we love in all kinds of different ways, with different expectations as to what each love means in our lives. And poly people are more likely to explicitly establish the expectations and boundaries around their relationships, which is a skill that everyone needs to have, regardless of whether poly is for them.