regarding polyamory
June 28, 2010 9:22 PM   Subscribe

Regarding polyamory and potentially breaking up a monogamous LTR. A question for a friend. Special snowflake details inside.

A friend of mine has been with his fiancé for around two and a half years. (They've been engaged for about 3 months.) He has, over the course of this (and other) relationships, generally formed crushes on other women. In the past he's been content to just let these go; however, he has recently taken these as signs that he is not able to do monogamy; he believes that he might be a polyamorous person.

He read The Ethical Slut and found that, in general, the philosophies expressed in the book tend to mirror his own-- he's never been a jealous person and he's always had attractions toward other people.

He believes that he may be able to live monogamously, and would consider doing so for his fiancé, who he lives with and is planning to have kids with. He sees polyamory as something more akin to a life philosophy which he does not necessarily have to live by, even if he feels desire for it. She sees poly as more of an orientation and says she does not want to stay with him if he decides that he is, indeed, poly, even if he claims he can live monogamously.

He isn't sure what to do in this situation, partially because of the ultimatum that she's made and partially because he's invested a lot in this relationship and doesn't want to hurt her. He isn't even sure he wants to live monogamously, but considers it an option among many.

What should be do in this situation?
posted by NoraReed to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

He sees polyamory as something more akin to a life philosophy which he does not necessarily have to live by, even if he feels desire for it. She sees poly as more of an orientation and says she does not want to stay with him if he decides that he is, indeed, poly, even if he claims he can live monogamously.

I don't see how these are incompatible.

If he sees polyamory as just a "life philosophy," then he's not necessarily polyamorous, right? That is, he doesn't need to label himself that way because he doesn't believe it's an orientation, either. And so there's no "deciding that he is, indeed, poly," and nothing for his future wife to get upset about. However, it's clear that engaging in extramarital relationships aren't an option with this woman as his partner. That's not an indictment of his fiance. Some people just really can't tolerate their partners having relationships with others. But he needs to decide for himself if that's a deal breaker, and act accordingly.

For what it's worth, there's nothing unusual about his getting crushes on other women/attractions toward other people. I've never known anyone in a monogamous relationship who hasn't had those feelings sometimes. The difference here is that he's laying the groundwork to act on them--finding philosophical support to justify the behavior.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:38 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Hmm. Option A: lie about his beliefs and feelings. Option B: let her break up with him based on who knows what assumptions. Seems obvious to me.

I guess it's not quite that simple, but unless she will discuss the rationale behind the ultimatum, trust his willingness to live monogamously to be with her, and ultimately reconsider -- it really kind of is.
posted by salvia at 10:21 PM on June 28, 2010

He believes that he may be able to live monogamously, and would consider doing so for his fiancé, who he lives with and is planning to have kids with.

It's one thing if he feels like he could be polyamorous, but knows for sure he can be monogamous. It's another if he thinks there's a chance that he needs to be polyamorous in order to be happy. I would not advise getting married until he knows for sure that it's the former.

Whatever he does, he should not marry this woman thinking she'll come around to his way of thinking in time. That is a recipe for abject misery.
posted by shaun uh at 10:32 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Isn't it perfectly natural for people to have crushes on other people other than their partner? I don't think just having crushes is a sign that he is polyamorous. The question is can he continue to not act on these and does he want to continue to not act on these. I think the former (not being able to pass up the crushes - what the fiancee labels an orientation) would certainly be grounds for the fiancee to leave, the latter (consciously deciding to act or not, the lifestyle choice type scenario) is something that can be discussed.
posted by unannihilated at 10:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

She sees poly as more of an orientation and says she does not want to stay with him if he decides that he is, indeed, poly, even if he claims he can live monogamously.

I'm not sure your friend has much of a choice here. It seems at this point the only way to stay with his fiancee is basically to lie and say he doesn't even have polyamorous feelings; what does it mean to "be polyamorous and live monogamously" if it doesn't mean that you have polyamorous desires or think polyamory is an acceptable lifestyle choice for yourself while acting monogamously? She's said that's not acceptable to her. I don't think it's a good idea to lie about that, or for anyone to have a relationship with someone who's going to convict them of thought crimes. (Not saying here that's she's a bad person; more on that in a moment.)

He'd basically have to tell her that he no longer has the desires -- which wouldn't even be true of many monogamous people -- or that he no longer thinks he could even possibly live that way. Of the two, the latter seems like possibly the only real way they could stay together, but he'd have to actually mean it. I just don't know how he could really mean it at this point. I'm monogamous, very much so because it's nearly impossible for me to get sexually aroused without a deep emotional connection and monogamy seems to be necessary for me for that connection to feel meaningful enough personally... but even I could theoretically imagine being polyamorous, possibly having more than one emotional connection deep enough and somehow working that out. And then morally I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Socially I don't think it's weird. If just that theoretical possibility bothered my husband then I guess we'd have to get divorced or something. I'm just happy with monogamy and figure I shouldn't fix what isn't broken. The way you phrased it seems like your friend might classify me as "polyamorous but living monogamously" because sure, I am sometimes attracted to other people, and I could see polyamory being a life philosophy that I could live by. I'm not living that way, though. For me, I have too many reservations about it, but even polyamorous people aren't pleased with everything about it all the time, so it would be a mistake for her to think reservations on his part mean it's never going to be an issue. Most people have reservations about monogamy too and still live monogamously. And then he probably has even fewer reservations than I do, so it's an even harder sell. To me, you're basically whatever you actually do live by, but it sounds like all she'll allow is a genuine and complete change of mind.

To be clear, I don't think she's being entirely unreasonable; I'd have qualms about entering into a monogamous relationship with someone who seemed to be having doubts about monogamy but said they could live monogamously. I wouldn't even necessarily think they were lying to me, I would just doubt that they could really hold to it in the long run and I'm not sure I would want to put that kind of stress or restrictions on them when it wouldn't bring them the kind of happiness it would bring me. Plus, for people that are into monogamy, part of the appeal is being uniquely special to another person and getting to experience them in a way that other people don't, or knowing that they reserve part of themselves for you alone. (I recognize that polyamorous people feel that's possible in a different sort of way too, that each person might get a special part of you, and I don't disagree. The monogamous mindset emphasizes and derives satisfaction from slightly different things, though.) Wondering if you're not actually the kind of special you want to be, even if just in your partner's mind, kind of deflates a lot of the stuff that makes a monogamous person feel happy in a relationship. When you're confident that your partner is monogamous in philosophy, you get to think things like, "Even though he might be attracted to other people, he saves this for me because it's meaningful to him and I'm special to him; saving this sort of thing for me brings him joy that sharing it wouldn't." But your friend's fiancee can't think that so easily now; she might end up thinking something like, "He's attracted to other people and he's only saving this for me because it will upset me otherwise, and this is not as meaningful to him as it is to me. He does this only grudgingly."

There are much more positive ways of thinking about it too -- i.e. that she must be REALLY special to him that he's willing to live with a lot of restrictions he'd rather not have -- but I think her reservation is valid regardless. It's a lot easier to feel someone else's love for us in a thrilling empathic sort of way if we know that they experience and think about love similarly. It may not be fair and it may not be the most rational thing, but I would bet that for most people, something is lost if you have to parse and translate their affection before you can understand it. Most of us have to do this on a small scale anyway, but on a large philosophical scale it might suck the emotion out of it, and then what point is there to being in a relationship if you just feel tepid or vaguely disappointed about it? If I were her, I'd probably just break up with him.

I don't see any "choice" here with the two of them feeling the way that they do. It sounds more like they really wish there was a choice and they're reluctant to break up immediately, so they're paused in this indeterminate stage where maybe a magical solution will come along where they can both get everything they want, and contradictory things will suddenly stop being contradictory. I don't see how this can end with them staying together unless one of them has a genuine change of heart. The easiest change of heart would be for the fiancee to decide okay, it's fine as long as he decides to live monogamously -- but I wouldn't blame her for feeling like an idiot for taking that in good faith, or for losing passion for the relationship since she can't directly connect with how he feels for her anymore. It seems less likely the guy will have a change of heart that makes all his desires go away. It seems even more improbable that she will accept his living polyamorously, but that does happen.
posted by Nattie at 10:36 PM on June 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I have to say it's really pretty suspicious that he got engaged and then started investigating polyamory. Even if perhaps he was cajoled into the engagement or something. (In fact in that case it seems as though it would be even more likely for him to become unexpectedly non-monogamous at some point.)

It also seems odd to me that what the fiancée has said is characterized as an "ultimatum". If they had previously promised to each other in becoming affianced that they were going to enter into a monogamous marriage... which unless he said anything beforehand about polyamory, it's what he was agreeing to in talking about "marriage"... then all she has stated is "yep, when we got engaged I meant what we said" and he is edging himself into reneging on that.

If he already said he was going to marry her but now considers polyamory "an option among many" that seems like a bad sign to me and I think that he ought to at the very least end the engagement until it's not an option any more, and maybe he'd be even better to end the entire relationship.
posted by XMLicious at 10:51 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

He believes that he may be able to live monogamously, and would consider doing so for his fiancé...He isn't even sure he wants to live monogamously

If she wants a traditional, monogamous marriage, then he isn't a good choice for her partner. A lifetime is a long, long time to be monogamous - even if you're someone who doesn't feel the urge to live a poly life.

It's not that she's asking him to lie and pretend to be monogamous. She's saying I don't want to spend my life forcing my partner into the monogamous relationship I need.

What should he do? Job 1 is sorting out what he wants, not what his partner wants. This relationship is likely to end simply because they want different things. The sooner they figure out that, the sooner they can move onward to more suitable partners.
posted by 26.2 at 10:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

He read The Ethical Slut and found that, in general, the philosophies expressed in the book tend to mirror his own-- he's never been a jealous person and he's always had attractions toward other people.

Agree with those that say that plenty of monogamous people have crushes, and plenty of monogamous people live without jealousy.

Another point:

When I fell for a polyamorous guy, I was more than willing to give poly a shot, because I felt similarly - I'm not a jealous person, fairly independent, capable of multiple attractions. There is a lot more to poly than just that. Would he mind spending frequent evenings alone while his partner is with another lover? Could he deal with it if his partner got pregnant by another man? Can he handle the risk that she might come to care more about her other lover(s) than him?

(I know his current partner is vehemently mono, but if he decides to break up with her in order to pursue poly, these are things to consider.)

He may have some poly sympathies but be totally unhappy actually living a poly lifestyle. I don't think there's any way for him to know that without trying it - the question is whether he can be content leaving that question unanswered.
posted by shaun uh at 10:54 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fiancée of three months? Interesting that he's bringing up such a large, deal-breaking issue so soon after their engagement. I think he should first seriously assess whether he's having doubts about marrying his girlfriend, entirely separate from the monogamy/poly issue. Aside from that, how does he feel about her?

This doesn't sound promising: "...he's invested a lot in this relationship and doesn't want to hurt her. He isn't even sure he wants to live monogamously, but considers it an option among many." I realize those may be your words and not his; perhaps he would talk about his passionate love for her.

I just wonder if the poly/monogamy issue is actually what is going on here. My advice is that he should first figure out that answer.

(On preview, I agree with XMLicious.)
posted by studioaudience at 11:00 PM on June 28, 2010

He believes that he may be able to live monogamously, and would consider doing so for his fiancé

There are red flags all over the place here. But I'll point out just this one: He should not get married with the attitude that he'd be sacrificing something he may want to humor his fiance. It's a recipe for divorce.

Why do I think this? I married a man who didn't possess a certain quality I knew I needed to be happy. I rationalized and told myself I could make up for it with my existing nurturing platonic relationships. I eventually realized that this person not having quality x meant my relationship couldn't be the one I needed to have in order to be happy.

The fiancee's position is the prudent one: She knows she doesn't want to be in a relationship with a person who wants to be somewhere else--even if he never outwardly expresses it. He won't be happy, and their relationship will suffer for it.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:12 AM on June 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't know whether this particular guy is cut out for marriage or not, but based on what we've read here, I suspect that he might just be grappling with the gravity of embarking on a lifetime commitment. That's understandable. Lacking jealousy and finding more than one person attractive do not define anyone as a poly.

I'm not poly, and to be honest, I don't "get it," but I have friends who are. From what I've seen, agree with shaun uh that there's a lot more to it than just getting to sleep around. For starters, you've got to really, really, really enjoy talking about your relationships, because polys apparently need to do that a lot, for every relationship they're in.

The guy should probably find some polys that he can talk to to get more perspective.
posted by adamrice at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2010

He's saying: "I have these thoughts and these feelings. Maybe this means I'm polyamorous, but I am willing* to live monogamously with you." And she's saying, "no, if you're polyamorous, that's What You Are, and that will mean you won't be able to be happy being monogamous."** He says, no, it's not like I have to act on it. She says, no, I know this better than you do. That's what bugs me. She obviously has to make the right choice for herself, but the entire conversation hints at disrespect and mistrust.
* I agree this willingness needs clarified / solidified.
** I wish I knew better what her reasoning is, so forgive me if I'm slightly off here.

When someone says they know What I Am and what that means for my actions or for our relationship better than I do? That's pretty shaky ground. And if they're ready to break up with me over that? Wow. Go ahead then if that's how you feel.

This seems barely different from breaking up with someone because they're bisexual and therefore they (presumably) can't be happy with only one person. In my view, she should learn that there's no one way, and she should learn to respect someone else's self-definition, or to not be with someone she doesn't trust.
posted by salvia at 9:01 AM on June 29, 2010

Everyone, poly or not, feels attracted to people who aren't their chosen partner. The mere fact of having crushes doesn't make your friend poly. I wonder if what your friend is dealing with is the finality of a life-long commitment. When you're in a long-term dating relationship, if you meet someone cute you tell him/her "I'm in a relationship right now." And maybe the "right now" is silent, but it's there. Even if you're totally in love with your current boyfriend/girlfriend, you have options. You haven't (yet) promised to love and honor your boyfriend or girlfriend even when you don't want to: you're in a totally voluntary, potentially temporary relationship. You can meet cute new crushes and you know that if your current relationship fizzles out, here's this other awesome person you could potentially have a relationship with next. When you take the step of committing for life, you cut off those options. You meet a cute person? Now you're going to be telling him/her, "I'm married." You don't get to wonder if maybe you'd be better off with that cute new person--or, rather, you might wonder but you've made your choice.

I love being married. I think it's great. I don't want those other options. But if your friend isn't ready to be committed in that way, if he's not ready to give up the option of a next relationship, he shouldn't be engaged. The conversation about living poly should happen long before an engagement, and it certainly shouldn't be something you patch onto an engagement to try to smooth over one person's discomfort with that type of commitment and the other person's desire to be married.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2010

What Meg_Murry just said. I'm sorry your friend is getting cold feet, but every man goes through that, no matter HOW they want to explain it away - the threat of lifetime commitment is hugely disruptive. I hope for her sake his fiancé is strong enough to stand her ground, and that your friend makes a smart choice for himself.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 10:31 AM on June 29, 2010

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