Since it is Valentine’s Day, this article is about romance. And since this is Mindful Construct, it’s about how we can mindfully construct our ideas about romance, with respect to the monogamy-polyamory debate.
Monogamy is when two people are in an exclusive romantic relationship, meaning they are committed only to each other and they are not open to exploring new romantic relationships with other people, as long as they are together.
Polyamory is when two people are in a relationship that is not necessarily exclusive, but open. Depending on their relationship agreements, the two people may become involved with other partners while still being committed to each other. It’s not cheating because it’s part of their relationship contract, meaning that all people involved are involved by consent.
The debate between monogamy and polyamory
It would seem that both relationship styles are simply a matter of preference and personal need. But what often results is that proponents of one relationship style defend their philosophy at the expense of the other. It then becomes a fight over which is the “higher,” “more conscious,” “more spiritual,” or “more loving” relationship style.
Those judgment terms are meant to invalidate the other side as being inferior and less worthy of human attention. Those judgments do not respect each person’s right to choose how they want to relate to others romantically based on their own needs—and not for anyone else or for any group standards.
Debaters talk at, not to—and in doing so they ignore the flaws in their arguments
But really, it’s not about love at all (which we will explore later on). Granted, we enter romantic relationships because of love (or in hopes of love)—but we construct our notions of romance and our values for romantic relationships based on our personal beliefs and needs.
While many people debate which relationship style is more natural for humans, meaning more “right” for them to conform to, they forget what makes humans unique—that we are endowed with personal choice and individuality. And they also underplay the important fact that there is not sufficient research to show that either style is more natural or fitting for humans—who are very much shaped by their cultural systems.
But our primate relatives hold the answer, right?
If we look at the primate order, to which humans belong, we see extreme variety in terms of mating style. Titi monkeys mate for life. Bonobos are rather promiscuous for life. They use sex as a social currency, as well as for group cohesion. Bonobos form matriarchal societies, and sex with anyone goes—including sex with the same gender and even sex with children (with some exceptions). So there’s quite a range in our primate relatives. And monogamy seems to be the minority.
But when considering animal studies, we need to be mindful of the role ecology and culture play. My “Animal Cognition” professor from college repeated several times over the course of the term that the more a species depends on extended child-care and thus learning, the more that experience will shape each individual—and the more that individual differences will abound.
Humans are a unique primate because of culture and individual differences
Humans are especially dependent upon extended child-care, learning, and culture. And we are especially diverse. So it doesn’t make sense to apply animal mating studies to humans—without taking into full account the role that culture and individual experience play.
This is why we don’t know whether monogamy or polyamory are more natural for humans. And why I argue that neither is. What a person is drawn to will be based upon their individual life experience and how they were raised. It doesn’t have to do with what’s right, moral, or even more loving.
To see how choosing one relationship style over another is one of choice, rather than one of love, let’s explore the major argument in favor of each style—and why it doesn’t hold weight in the name of “love.”
Argument for monogamy:
Romantic love is intended to be between only two people, because when you love someone, you love only them and you devote yourself only to them as an expression of that love. Therefore, when a person is in love with someone whom they are romantically involved with, it is their moral obligation not to fall in love with or become involved with anyone else.
Major flaws in this argument:
- Love is not a moral obligation—love is a continual choice to respect and accept another person unconditionally. You love because you choose to, not because you have to. Love is a verb—whenever it becomes a feeling or a state of being, such as “in love,” it easily masks the true motivation of infatuation and codependency. Furthermore, when you really love someone, you never stop loving them, even if you are no longer in a relationship; that total respect, appreciation, and acceptance will live on.
- The love a person has for one person does not diminish or detract from the love they have for another; a person can love different people differently. However, it’s the way that a person expresses their love for one person that can detract from how they express their love for another (or if they even do). Love is infinite, but the physical ways in which we express love are bound by laws of nature. Thus, it is healthier for two people in a relationship to be honest about their feelings for others, if they arise, in order to strengthen the honesty and integrity of the relationship—rather than suppress their feelings from fear.
- Love is not a binding contract. Again, it is a choice. It healthy for two people in a relationship to negotiate their relationship needs and come to agreements about how they want to express and honor their commitment to each other. This open honesty builds trust, motivates each person to stay in the relationship because they choose to—not because they feel they have to—and it also decreases the chance that each person is staying in the relationship for codependent, rather than interdependent reasons.
Argument for polyamory:
A person needs sexual variety to be satisfied in life. Additionally, a person needs the freedom to grow personally and spiritually—which often occurs most intensely in intimate relationships. Therefore, a person needs to be free to be emotionally and physically intimate with whoever they so please, so that they may exercise their freedom to get the most satisfaction and growth out of life.
Major flaws in this argument:
- Sexual variety is an abstract concept; it is possible for a monogamous couple to experience sexual variety to a greater extent than a polyamorous couple. In turn, a person by nature embodies variety, because they are inherently multi-dimensional with perhaps unlimited potential to explore different aspects of their self. So then, what is actually meant is that “a person needs to have sex with multiple partners, perhaps simultaneously, in order to experience sexual variety”—which is not a logical assessment.
- Intimate relationships are intense opportunities for personal and spiritual growth, but they are not necessary. A person can grow from virtually any experience or relationship, depending on their own commitment to growth. Growth is a personal choice that comes from within; it is not created by an external event or another person. Furthermore, intimacy with more than one partner does not ensure “greater” or “deeper” intimacy, and may be used as a codependent excuse to avoid intimacy with a primary partner.
- A person is free to make their own choice about how many partners they want to be involved with. But respecting your partner’s choice to pursue other relationships is a separate issue from respecting your own core needs and choices—which may be monogamous. You can respect a partner’s needs without disrespecting your own needs in the process.
What it all comes down to
What it all comes down to is the practical, not-so-pretty, real life nitty gritties—not the lofty romantic ideals (that are merely our personal constructs).
What it all comes down to is your resources as a physical being living in a physical world.
You have limited time, energy, attention, emotion, and so on. While your love and ability to love may be infinite, the way you express love in the physical world is limited by your resources—there’s no denying that. In other words, there are no limits on how much can unconditionally accept and respect other people (our previous definition of love), but there are limits on how much you can invest yourself into relationships. Just as there are needs for how much you want to invest.
No such thing as more “natural” for all of humanity
No one relationship style is more natural than the other—for all of humanity. The only thing that is natural is for you to be honest with your feelings, and acknowledge your needs and your limitations when it comes to romantic relationships.
No one can tell you which relationship style you should pursue. If a partner insists that you change for them, then they aren’t respecting you. If you feel compelled to change for your partner, you may be more afraid of abandonment than acting in love for your partner.
What it all comes down to is your relationship with yourself—this is your relationship for life. You are either committed to making it the healthiest and happiest it can be, or you set yourself up for continual internal conflict and self-inflicted pain.
You either try to conform to a partner’s or a society’s ideals for what is the more “natural” relationship style, or you only settle for a partner who respects you completely and aligns with your core relationship needs.
It doesn’t sound romantic to say that you are with someone because they meet your relationship needs, but it also doesn’t seem romantic when you maintain and honor strong, healthy personal boundaries that protect your precious limited resources.
Whether or not it’s romantic, maintaining your personal boundaries is how you express self-love. And self-love is necessary for any other-love to be possible. So this Valentine’s Day, celebrate with some self-love, and remember that your relationship with yourself is the most important one you will ever have.
To me, that sounds like the most natural thing for a person to do.