Why Neither Monogamy Nor Polyamory Is More Natural

by Melissa Karnaze

red apple with a carved heartSince 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.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

~~Flow~~ February 14, 2009 at 4:23 pm

What do you mean by limited resources ?
“but it also doesn’t seem romantic when you maintain and honor strong, healthy personal boundaries that protect your precious limited resources.”

I saw the same flaws in those arguments, but they are just someones description of what they should be.
Most people, i feel, enter polygamy only to satisfy this hunger within them, this desire, and then mask it as spiritual growth.
But it is their choice in the end to do so.

‘;’

Melissa Karnaze February 14, 2009 at 10:21 pm

The limited resources mentioned were: time, energy, attention, emotion. But that’s only a starter list. What I mean is that because we are physical beings, we have limited physical resources — which we use to *express* love. For instance, you need time to invest in a relationship, and you need energy so you can do things with the other person, and you need emotional energy in the form of empathy to strengthen the connection.

Personal boundaries are meant to protect those resources (our time, our energy, and so on) so we are not so depleted where our health is compromised.

“Most people, i feel, enter polygamy only to satisfy this hunger within them, this desire, and then mask it as spiritual growth.”

That’s what motivated me to write this article. I think it’s more honest just to admit when you want to have more partners, without caking on spiritual fluff.

But at the same time, the other side has used the same strategy to mask the institution of monogamy as being morally correct.

So to be mindful about this issue, we need to let go of the illusion that there is a more right, natural relationship style that everyone should follow. And instead be honest about our needs, find what works for us, and respect others in doing the same.

Byteful Traveller March 21, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Very thought-provoking article. I’m glad you took a balanced perspective on the issue. The more people find out what works best for them, and stop believing that someone else already has it figured out for them, the happier and more aware people can become.

Melissa Karnaze March 21, 2009 at 10:29 pm

Thanks for your response Byteful Traveller. I agree that we can all be happier if we get to know ourselves better, and find out what we need (and perhaps why).

I’m glad the article came across as balanced, that was my goal. A few times in editing, I had to bite back the “But monogamy is better…” knee-jerk reaction (because I personally am more wired in that direction). How easy it is to slip perspective… but I finally felt I was able to integrate the poly perspective and not have to see it as being wrong, but just a different choice.

Chris August 1, 2009 at 2:16 pm

“Baby, I love you because you respect my relationship needs and respect my personal boundaries that protect my precious limited resources”

sorry but I had to! ;)

Chris August 1, 2009 at 2:41 pm

I am afraid I am a bit of a knee-jerker ;) I wouldn’t so much say monogamy is better as I would say it is natural and in our nature. Just as a deer or a lion has a nature so does a human. We have just completely lost touch with it because we are brainwashed endlessly from cradle to grave that we are all “blank slates” who are nothing more than “the product of our environment.” They even say we are a mutation from monkeys ;)

Sorry but I don’t believe that nonsense, to quote Carl Jung in his German accent “I kan’t believe it,” and dare I say I know it not to be the case!?!?

Notice you said you had to “bite the reaction back”, see I would say you had to “suppress your natural instinct which you’ve been conditioned to believe is merely the product of conditioning”, there is a big distinction but one which is extremely significant and at the center of the whole issue.

There has been research in human nature, specifically I am thinking of a groundbreaking book by Wilhelm Reich called “Children of the Future: On the prevention of sexual pathology.” It is not exactly a PC read but it is serious research into human nature, he talks of the raising of children in line with nature and it is extremely enlightening to see just how much “nature” is in human nature (as opposed to the blank slate nonsense).

Regardless, in my own mind I recognize that to associate with two people sexually is pathological, it’s an impossibility prevented by biology, not by preference or choice, it’s akin to some cosmic debasement and splitting of ones soul, for lack of a better term, it is wrong. I refuse to believe otherwise and I refuse to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, there is no believing something just for the sake of believing it in my book, it’s either in your nature and who you are as a human being or it isn’t. Polylolydollyblahlyfantamerous is just an excuse for human debasement!

Ok, there I said it ;)

Melissa Karnaze August 2, 2009 at 11:01 am

“Baby, I love you because you respect my relationship needs and respect my personal boundaries that protect my precious limited resources”

lol Chris. I would go with, “Baby, I want to be in a romantic relationship with you because you respect my relationship needs and respect my personal boundaries that protect my precious limited resources.” (Because love can exist without romantic relationship.) When you get down to the specifics, it’s not so romantic, is it? But that means that we humans are capable of creating the romantic, which in itself, is romantic.

They even say we are a mutation from monkeys ;)

Ah, but that’s not entirely accurate. The theory of evolution holds that we are descendants of a common ancestor of other primates.

Notice you said you had to “bite the reaction back”, see I would say you had to “suppress your natural instinct which you’ve been conditioned to believe is merely the product of conditioning”, there is a big distinction but one which is extremely significant and at the center of the whole issue.

Polyamory doesn’t feel right for me personally. It may seem that I’m suppressing *my* natural instinct by writing about how it’s not “wrong.”

But in fact, I’ve spent much of my time and energy angry with and triggered by polyamory — by letting out my natural instinct. I had to get out all of those feelings to be confident enough in my own nature to accept it as right for me.

And after I did so, I could see with broader view what romantic relationships all boil down to (my rephrasing of your statement above). Which is what naturally happens when you follow your emotions to where they came from — your perspective changes. And guess what, after I could see that romantic relationships are a human construct, and that research has not made enough of a compelling case for either style to be more “natural”… I no longer felt threatened by polyamory or angry at it.

Does that mean I’ve shut off my natural instinct? Of course not. I can understand and respect why someone else might choose polyamory, but that doesn’t change what’s right for me.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chris.

Kristi September 15, 2009 at 12:48 pm

You say that the article is about “romance,” but isn’t it really about sex? I have yet to hear anyone on the side of polyamory talk about romance. My experience has been that people (usually men) who say they’re polyamorous are really just trying to get away with having sex with as many people as they want while avoiding committing to any one of them. And, in my experience, they make it seem as if “loving everybody” is a more spiritual thing to do.

I am, by nature, monogamous. And I value relationships over sex. To me, a relationship is about making the choice to be with someone and walk together in the world, hopefully grow together and individually. I make the choice and commitment to be with that person and to do the work of being in a relationship. I believe that a lot of people are scared of that or scared of being limited sexually to one partner.

I do have a hard time believing that polyamory is “natural,” and because of my experience I find it very triggering. I’d be interested in someone showing me a couple where both partners are genuinely polyamorous, rather than one person being a narcissist and the other codependent and simply agreeing to what their partner wants. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I just think it’s rare.

Melissa Karnaze September 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Kristi, yes, this article is mainly about sex. Because the construct of romantic love is often entangled with sex. I like to detangle, deconstruct. ;)

I believe that a lot of people are scared of that or scared of being limited sexually to one partner.

I agree.

I’d be interested in someone showing me a couple where both partners are genuinely polyamorous, rather than one person being a narcissist and the other codependent and simply agreeing to what their partner wants. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I just think it’s rare.

I think it’s much healthier to enter a polyamorous relationship if you yourself want polyamory to satisfy your needs. Otherwise, it’s tempting and easy to unconsciously justify your partner’s polyamorous needs at the expense of your own.

Nosferato November 13, 2009 at 8:37 pm

thanks for writing this, you don’t know me or how this has affected me but I’m at peace with my self now.

I think I was over thinking it all, I’m more inclined to monogamy, and I love her-sigh-so..yeah, it stays that way
thanks :)

Melissa Karnaze November 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm

Nosferato, I am happy to hear it. It was my hope that this article would help readers find more peace in discovering their own answers. :)

Skyskrykyr January 3, 2010 at 8:36 am

Hi Melissa, I must say that this is one of the most “impartial” and all-comprising texts I have ever read about this topic. I like your idea on love being a choice and agree on the fact that each of us may have different preferences of lifestyle deriving from different cultural upbringing and needs. While respecing all cultural differences, I still feel that each lifestyle may have its own advantages and disadvantages. I am open-minded and don’t feel that I am pre-wired for any specific relationship style, so I feel that I am still in the process of choosing. I have more reasons to prefer monogamy, yet I wonder what I should do if the person I love is polyamorous. My personal feeling is that if I truly choose to love only one person all my life, even if that person is polyamorous, it is fine and not codependency.

My question is: if a monogamy-preferring person loves only a polyamory-preferring person, and the polyamory-preferring person also loves the former but other people as well, is it still “reciprocate love”? I think it is, but would like to hear what you and others think.

Melissa Karnaze January 4, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Hi Skyskrykyr, what a great question.

The thing is, “reciprocate” is another loose term, like love. Reciprocate for you may mean something completely different for someone else. I shared some of my opinion on this in the Sept. 15th comment. In how it can be easy and convenient to justify a partner’s polyamorous needs at the expense of your own monogamous ones.

However, this is really something only you can answer.

You probably have some criteria for what’s “reciprocal” and what’s not. Like say you need to spend 1 day with your partner for every day that they spend with another partner. Or maybe you need 3 days a week, period. Or maybe just a phone call everyday.

Obviously, life isn’t so easy to chop up like this, but the point is that there is some time-ratio (as well as other precious-limited-resources ratios) that *won’t* make you feel reciprocated, but rather, cheated out. It’s finding that fine line that’s important.

And, to make it more complicated, intimacy is really hard to measure. You can’t know how intimate a poly partner would be with other partners. Would you be measuring reciprocation based on intimacy? Because in my view, intimacy is something exclusive. Once it’s out in the open to several others, it’s no longer “intimacy” or as intimate as you thought it was — a view, of course, that’s colored by my monogamy preference. :)

Yes, I do think that a monogamy-preferring person who’s in a romantic relationship with only a polyamory-preferring person who loves the former but other people as well — *can* experience the relationship as “reciprocate love.” It’s a possibility, though I think it would be rare.

Because by human tendency you’re either monogamously selfish, or polyamorously selfish; wanting one partner all to your self, or as many partners as you please. In that way, it’s easiest for both partners in a relationship to share the same kind of selfishness — which takes care of a lot the “reciprocation.”

Of course, my opinion on this is also colored by my understanding that emotionally, we are all polyamorous, but romantic-relationship-wise, monogamy is what’s natural to me.

Not sure how much that helped, but I’m glad to continue the discussion.

Skyskrykyr January 5, 2010 at 2:32 am

Hi Melissa, thanks for your swift answer!

I believe the key notion is what you called “selfish” love; which includes the tendency to be jealous of the time/resources/affection/etc. that may be allocated to others. What if we reframed love (yes, also romantic love) into an altruistic relationship?

The Wikipedia entry on Polyamory introduces the concept of “compersion” i.e. the opposite of romantic jealousy. I personally feel that the propensity to either jealousy or compersion may depend on what social norms and traditions one follows.

The first time I really fell in love as a teenager, the girl of my daydreams had plenty of admirers and could charm anyone with her outgoing personality. What I spontaneously felt towards her was pride (fatherly, brotherly) and even more admiration (“Wow, I’m so happy I know a person with such social skill!”). This turned into jealousy only when friends and people around me started instilling in me the idea of promiscuity (Guys sometimes have a great difficulty figuring out whether a girl is just outgoing or also promiscuous, therefore equating the two adjectives…).

Thus, in my personal history, I feel that the need for emotional exclusivity (flirting, affection, communication, etc.) may be socially conditioned. In the case of sexual exclusivity, my preference strictly stems from practical considerations (health, STDs, etc.)

Throughout the years I have become less and less dependent on social standards and more on my personal core values (unconditional altruism, independence of thought). So, in my case of a monogamous person loving a polyamorous person, the choice is between “reciprocal exclusivity” and “reciprocal love (without exclusivity)” – if we consider altruism as being a component of love, then demanding exclusivity from the person we love… would be a limitation of our love towards them.

I know, many in today’s society would call me a potential cuckold :-)

Melissa Karnaze January 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

Skyskrykyr,

The concept of compersion is an alluring one. It taps into one of the true prizes of the human brain, which is cognitive reappraisal. However, there’s a fine, fine line between natural cognitive reapprasial, and sort of premature version of it without a thorough processing of the raw emotions first. There’s a huge lack of proper studies to do this kind of complex cognitive reappraisal the justice it deserves, but simply put: it’s one thing to be able to reappraise an event (a partner being sexual with another), and it’s another to want to consistently reappraise the event in the same manner (in order to sustain the poly relationship).

In other words, there is also some social conditioning attached to the poly lifestyle, one of them being the continued working at compersion over the more naturally hard-wired tendency of jealousy.

Thus, in my personal history, I feel that the need for emotional exclusivity (flirting, affection, communication, etc.) may be socially conditioned. In the case of sexual exclusivity, my preference strictly stems from practical considerations (health, STDs, etc.)

When it comes to romantic relationships, any style is going to be socially conditioned, because we are social and cultural creatures.

One argument that many poly people like to make is that they transcend false definitions of love because they “rise above” the wretched “social conditioning.” But their own lifestyle is also perpetuated by its own sets of social conditioning.

Emotional exclusivity is yes, socially reinforced. But it may also stem from evolutionary advantages of trust, mutual investment of resources, and commitment.

So, in my case of a monogamous person loving a polyamorous person, the choice is between “reciprocal exclusivity” and “reciprocal love (without exclusivity)” – if we consider altruism as being a component of love, then demanding exclusivity from the person we love… would be a limitation of our love towards them.

I regard love and romantic relationship as two separate things in the article. Because when they mingle, they often push an agenda of one relationship style over the other, rather than a view less constrained by such constructs.

Altruism is indeed a component of love. But “demanding exclusivity from the person we love… would be a limitation of our love towards them” is not entirely accurate. “Demanding” a person to change for you would be, yes. But setting a personal boundary and leaving a relationship because it no longer suits your core monogamous needs would not be a limitation of love towards them, but an expression of self-love, maturation, honesty, and realism.

I would say that for you to really feel confident in being mono with a poly partner, stripping away lingering judgment of monogamy as being a lesser way to love would be very helpful. Because as long as an emotional trigger judgment remains, the real reasons for you choices won’t be as clear. At least as I understand it. :)

Skyskrykyr January 5, 2010 at 4:01 pm

Hi Melissa,

my previous observations were mostly personal sentiments outside the context of any relationship style’s agenda, even though I borrowed some of their notions. The emphasis was more on how to apply “egoism vs altruism” in the scenario I posited.

Having a Christian background, I am talking about unconditional altruism (“selfless love”), which can be quite different from biological or conditional altruism and can often seem idealistic, but is bound to code and discipline (i.e. can go against any natural/instinctive inclination).

What I want to underline is that in the case of disciplined unconditional altruism, it would still be an active choice and not passive behavior deriving from codependency – even in a physical relationship (and not just “love”). Say we have monogamous person (M) and polyamorous person (P).
P gives M love, sex, and a proportion of her resources.
M gives P love, sex, and exclusivity (all resources). M chooses to do so out of unconditional love and his set of values (including not being jealous).

What underlies my reasoning could be an “agenda” promoting discipline and self-control within the context of religious ideals. I do realize that it can, incidentally, complement the arguments in favor of polyamory.

WN January 7, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Skyskykyr –

I believe I’ve been in a similar situation as you.

We’re guys. We love women for so many reasons. You say you fell in love with your woman because she was so social and full of life–well, that’s what we love women for. They radiate something that we are attracted to. We’re drawn into their mystery. Our genes tell us to merge with this beauty. It’s not our choice to desire beautiful women, we just must.

It is VERY EASY to fall into a common trap when it comes to attraction to a woman, and that trap is pedestalizing her. No woman is a goddess or a perfect being, and deep down no woman wants to be treated as such. Resentment will breed from such treatment.

Let’s flip it: if a girl thought I was perfect in every way and looked upon me with awe, I would probably ask her to buy me a coffee and then proceed to get super-annoyed by her presence. It’s human nature. Humans use other humans who present themselves to be used.

Another factor here is the term polyamory. It’s total bullshit. It’s a fancy term created to justify a phase that all humans go through due to hormonal overactivity (or let’s just say normal-functioning hormonal activity). That phase, in layman’s terms is called “the player phase” where women AND men feel the urge to sleep with as many various partners as possible. Whether or not the urges are played out is a different story, but we all pass through this stage, and the stage may last a lifetime, but that’s besides the point.

The player stage is rife with rationalizations and justifications from “this is an existence of higher consciousness” to “it’s just human nature” but when it really comes down to it, we’re just horny. Any layer of meaning beyond that is ego talking. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It just is, and personally, I think it’s a fun stage to go through.

Last point I’m going to make is that you can’t make your woman the focus of all your “amor” because you’ve only got so much to give, man. You and her are obviously not on the same page and you’d be better off finding someone who is… or you know what’s an even better idea?

Find yourself.

Not the self who exists for God or for Woman or for Higher Purpose. God is not You, even if He created you. Find the Self that makes you a whole, individual person with values, likes and dislikes, who knows what is acceptable and unacceptable to himself. And then love that self with the same devotion and monogamous energy that you placed on your external objects of love (external things cannot bring you wholeness).

Bottom line is this. She’s “playing” you and justifying it with “polyamory.” Don’t over-rationalize it.

Good luck to you, man!

Melissa Karnaze January 7, 2010 at 1:51 pm

And self-love re-enters thread. :)

Skyskrykyr January 8, 2010 at 10:05 am

@WN, I am not overrationalizing but trying to look at things from different points of view. I totally understand that polyamory (and its arguments) can be used to justify the straying and vague behavior during our “horny phase” (in the same way overpopulation is used to justify War), but does this mean that the same arguments cannot explain higher/deeper purposes? In some cultures it is actually part of spiritual tradition to love and to look after more people simultaneously…

And of course, “Love” is not the same as “putting on a pedestal”. What you are talking about is probably obsessive infatuation, an unproductive behavior both to the loving and the loved persons. But “finding someone else” just because your investment in a person is not reciprocated in the same exact way is also not a behavior that falls into my definition of Love.

Who said you cannot find God (or any other higher purpose you wish) at the end of finding your “self”? :-)

@Melissa, I totally agree, but I insist that loving someone else unconditionally (especially if it is a choice, based on your values) does not necessarily mean that you don’t love yourself anymore.

For some people, it is also true to “Love thy neighbor as thy self” :-)

Melissa Karnaze January 8, 2010 at 6:30 pm

Skysrykyr, the tricky thing about unconditional love is that you can easily use it to justify ignoring, repressing, or foregoing your own basic needs, especially with a “spiritual” reasoning. Which I do think is a real tendency for being mono with a poly partner.

Here’s another way to look at it, two of many options:

(a) Once you meet someone you like, you re-shape your mono needs based on their poly needs, because it’s the “unconditionally loving” thing to do

(b) You get really clear on what the ideal partner would be for you, who would meet your core needs… and then you don’t spend time with those who aren’t compatible, because you love yourself enough to immerse in only the things that really fulfill you

I think the best bet is to be honest with yourself on what *you* really need, with the other (theoretical) person out of the picture. That’s essentially self-love, making sure the relationship with you is stable before bringing anyone else in.

Reynolds Kosloskey September 18, 2010 at 9:07 am

I would agree that the arguments formed purely from “what is more natural” for humans are flawed. I also do believe that social conditioning in our culture that favors monogamy as an ideal rises to such a level of blind indoctrination that it borders on cult-like behavior.

One can easily point at dangerous religious factions like fundamentalist Mormons to demonize polyamory, though lumping polyamorists in with that crowd would be as drastic a generalization as lumping monogamists in with religions that have allowed men to kill their wives for cheating.

And yes, time and energy are resources that are finite, and it is true that by having more partners means that time that may have been spent with your primary partner may instead be spent with other partners. Though the same argument could be made for work, hobbies that only one partner participates in, or friends of one partner and not the other. If a polyamorist decided to spent the extra time a monogamist spent on friends and hobbies instead with another partner, there’s no real change in the balance of time spent with their primary partner, and that argument becomes invalid.

Since we’re on the subject of time, we should also take into account that the root of monogamy came from an age when lifespans dictated that one had to live in a mad dash to find a partner and raise kids, all while working like hell, and then shortly thereafter die. There was little time available for investments in many romantic relationships, there was barely the time available for one. Nowadays, however, we have lifespans that pretty much guarantee that we will have more time to invest in relationships than those in the early times had to even live.

We would also be naive to ignore statistics in our real world. The socially accepted and indoctrinated ideal of “one true love” marriage has achieved a dismal success rate hovering in the 50% range. Of those marriages that do remain intact, some are second marriages, some are replete with involvement in porn as an outlet, surprisingly many involve dishonest affairs and similar betrayals, and statistically those that are both honest, healthy, and monogamous are clearly in the minority.

I have experienced first hand, as anyone who honestly observes society will also have seen, a very large number of self-proclaimed believers in monogamy who have claimed to have found their “one true love” many, many, many times. Only to then have encountered some incompatibility to use as a rationalization for why the relationship is no longer their “one true love”, and then move on to the next.

People are complex, multidimensional beings, that change over time and develop throughout life. To expect that you should be able to find someone, that for the remainder of your life will continue to be completely compatible with you on all important levels, both is statistically improbable, and places a huge burden on both partners to engage in a lifelong game of bending wills and beliefs to satisfy the other.

This bending game, to me, seems the most likely culprit in the failure of monogamous marriage, and the reason why truly healthy and honest lifelong monogamous marriage is a statistical unlikelihood with a real, empirically measurable improbability.

To me, it would seem more humane and beneficial for all to focus on the beneficial compatibilities we find with our partners, make compromises where they are manageable, and allow each other to form new relationships that satisfy needs or desires without stigmatizing those relationships or labeling them as deviant or unnatural.

Melissa Karnaze September 18, 2010 at 9:26 am

“If a polyamorist decided to spent the extra time a monogamist spent on friends and hobbies instead with another partner, there’s no real change in the balance of time spent with their primary partner, and that argument becomes invalid.”

Not exactly. Perhaps in balance of time, but time is only one of many complex human resources.

Intimacy doesn’t work in such a clear-cut way. It’s messy and difficult to measure all the resources directly and indirectly involved (and impacted) when being involved with a new partner.

But yes, someone could potentially spend the “same amount of time” on a romantic partner that a monogamous person spends on golf, gambling, shopping, or drinking. But then again, anyone without hobbies, only focusing on love interests, seems a bit codependent to me.

Reynolds Kosloskey September 18, 2010 at 10:05 am

While I understand that dividing resources is a far more complex issue than simply substituting one activity for another that takes the same amount of time, it does not invalidate the overall concept. Each type of intimacy or personal involvement would need to be addressed independent of the others in order for any non-monogamous relationship to function, just as any other facet of any relationship needs to be worked on and improved over time.

And never did I suggest that all non-romantic hobbies or activities should be replaced with romantic relationships, it was admittedly a simplistic example given to save words and prevent this turning into a thesis.

Surely any outside relationship would be a blend of romantic and non-romantic activities. Some may be purely platonic, others might be a tennis and bowling partner that involves some level of romantic involvement, others may be more heavily weighted towards romance. Non of this in black and white, and complete balance is never really achievable.

To equate the desire to expand romantic involvement beyond a primary relationship to codependent behaviors may play into some situations and not others, and depends on many factors. To broadly generalize polyamory as a codependent behavior seems unfair.

Sebasvard November 14, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Having just stumbled upon the term and concept of polyamory today, and having done a little bit of googling about it, reactions on the whole seem to be very negative, but fuelled mainly by the mainstream Christian viewpoint of the critics. Chris’ comment above seems to be along these lines, no offense. This article was by contrast very balanced, very thought provoking, and very helpful, so thank you for writing it!

I tend to agree with Ronald that social conditioning has made monogamy the overriding acceptable choice in Western society particularly. And the desire for acceptance, in any society, plus the possible example or behavioural patterns of close relatives and friends, makes monogamy the sought-after status for the majority; we want to be embraced by those around us and gain their approval. We all have friends or relations who have had failed monogamous relationships, but the ones who have made it work become role models, we might say, “That’s what I want to have with someone one day.” Almost every aspect of mainstream culture for hundreds of years has advocated monogamy and presented its culmination of romantic bliss between a man and woman as the ideal.

This societal track record does not lend itself to exploration of other possibilities. If we continue to uphold one way of living as the only way, if we confine ourselves and those around us to the same principles that have been followed for the past however-many centuries, we don’t allow humanity to explore itself further. Mankind has the spirit of exploration within its very soul; how many aspects of life today would not have existed if someone had not tried something new?

Well anyway nothing new there, just musing. Feel free to point me in the direction of any interesting reading material that might touch on the matter, for the record I come from an extreme fundamental Christian background which I abandoned a few years ago, so anything that helps ‘free this mind’ is a good thing. Keep up the good work, bookmarked :)

John July 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm

@ Sebasvard: Are you saying monogamy isn’t exploration? It isn’t exploration if both parties aren’t sexually adventurous. Look, I don’t believe Western Civ. has pimped out monogamy as much as you think, I truly don’t. People need a scapegoat to blame and they blame society, so be it, but then again people always do and never promote self responsibility. And ‘free this mind’ is one of the most cliche sayings EVER when it comes to kids who come from fundamental households. It’s like “I have to escape the Matrix.” Give me a break.

Nehalem February 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm

” I’d be interested in someone showing me a couple where both partners are genuinely polyamorous, rather than one person being a narcissist and the other codependent and simply agreeing to what their partner wants. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I just think it’s rare. ”

Well, I’ve been lucky to have met such a couple – they’re both polyamorous and very devoted to each other, occasionally, they both sleep with other people. So there, when meeting them, my perspective on polyamory went out the window. When I first the first gay man who was a real person to me, my stereotypes on gays went out the window as well.

I know that what one cannot understand or wrap their mind around might make them say such things as you said, I do that as well.. but ..maybe, the reason you’re thinking those things is that you haven’t met somebody who, by their example, will show you that another way of acting is possible without it being the mark of a problem. And because you are not inclined to act that way yourself, you think that nobody could possibly be.

Ralph February 23, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I tend to agree with Kristi. I know this article is a little dated but still relevant and would love for Melissa to contribute to what I have to say, or aqnyone for that matter. Kristi’s comment on Narcissistic versus codependency is well said. First off, I am trying to understand poly but am monogamous by nature. For those who said ther have truly found a true poly couple, are you sure? Many narcissistic people and those who are codependent have no idea they are that way. They will look you straight in the eye and tell you they are not.

On the other hand, I have met so many couples, straight and gay, that have said they were monogamous but practice polyamory, in other words cheating since it was kept from the other partner. I have also met many monogamous couples that didn’t cheat (apparently) but hate each others guts.

Melissa, I do appreciate your views here and it has truly helped me to make sense out of this but the bottom line as you stated, “I argue that neither is. What a person is drawn to will be based upon their individual life experience and how they were raised”. This is so true and I also see that this helps frame how we handle relationships in the future.

My question though, and thank you Kristi for bringing this up, is what can be done of you have one partner that decides to go poly and the other would rather be monogamous but decides to allow the poly partner to be poly. Seeing that both sides may have their life experiences to account for a lot of how relationships work, how the heck could that work? I mean wouldn’t both sides only be able to see things from their own perspective? How could a relationship like that work? A penny for anyone’s thoughts especially Melissa

Sybok Pendderwydd July 7, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I think science has pretty much proven that human primates are poly for the most part. The stats on marriage are that now 55-60% of marriages end in divorce, 90% of which are because of “infidelity” (and both genders are equally guilty).
Monogamy is “programed” into us by society; by schools, religion and popular culture. We therefore believe that monogamy is normal, and we all want to be normal. Capitalism supports monogamy as well. Homes are built with that in mind. Capitalism actually supports the divorce – remarry -divorce cycle, because they sell more stuff that way. Capitalism is against polyamory (and communalism (room mates, intentional communities), because groups share stuff (They REALLY hate Naturists but for other reasons though).
What about jealousy? Jealousy is a learned behavior. In human relations it basically translates into mutual slavery (Look at how many love songs imply ownership). If you really love someone, you celebrate their happiness. If you are jealous of someone, you don’t really love them — you own them (or, at least you think you do) This has religious indications too.

Kelly October 8, 2012 at 2:26 am

I think that this article does sincerely try to be neutral, and makes good points, but I can’t help but point out that the ‘argument for polyamory’ isn’t one that most people who actually practice some form of non-monogamy would use. I also noticed that everyone who is complimenting you on this article mostly sides with monogamy. I know you were ‘trying’ to be neutral, but the idea of polyamory you provided was not especially accurate – there are whole books on the subject that you might read if you want to be better informed. You are focusing on the sexual act and individual will, and that’s not really why most people practice non-monogamy. Instead, they are looking for honesty.

Non-monogamy is about radical honesty, something that is often unconsciously set aside when one enters into a monogamous relationship in western society (I can’t speak for other cultures). Being non-monogamous actually means being MORE responsible about other people’s emotions, one’s own boundaries and limits, and being more honest with oneself and others. After all, if one is in the sort of relationship where it is actually safe or acceptable to reveal needs and emotions usually suppressed in monogamy, then with that freedom comes the responsibility to really express those needs honestly to oneself since one is going to be explaining them to others. I can only speak for myself, but oftentimes in monogamy any feelings that I thought were inappropriate (being attracted to someone else, sharing emotional intimacy with someone not my partner, jealousy of my partner’s friendship with an attractive person of the opposite sex) I’d simply push down and try to ignore. In non-monogamy there are no ‘inappropriate’ feelings, so there is the opportunity to explore them and really find out what is motivating them. This does not mean ACTING on every emotion or urge that comes up – which is where I think your definition of polyamory goes wrong – but rather a thoughtful inquiry into the self’s motivations. Can a person do this in a monogamous relationship? Absolutely. However, often the version of monogamy held up by our culture does not encourage this kind of introspection, because it’s seen as a betrayal of the ‘morality’ you thoughtfully unpacked in your article.

All the non-monogamous couples I know (depending on where you live in the US, there’s actually quite large communities practicing open relationships) have agreements that are tailored to their individual natures, and which are frequently reviewed and updated to reflect that fact that we can change and grow over time. I’ve known monogamous couples to shift into open relationships, and non-monogamous couples to decide they want to be monogamous. The most important aspect of these relationships is that they are chosen consciously, not out of some one-size-fits-all default. I’ve also seen people in non-monogamous relationships make mistakes or act selfishly, just like some people do in monogamous relationships.

It’s interesting that you write “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.” Yet I would argue that these pragmatic and yet radical ideas are what make any relationship last, open or no. I actually think that someone truly respecting my boundaries is incredibly sexy. Others think so, too; I’ve had people I’ve dated say “I love that you have strong boundaries.” Some people have joked about this sentence in the comments section, which in my mind is their way of trying grapple with or lessen the power of something they are uncomfortable with, maybe because they have never considered relationships in this light. That’s really too bad. In non-monogamy this is basic vocabulary, not something limited to psychology students. Non-monogamy as education, if you will.

In the end, it comes down to how much you want fear to guide your relationship versus trust. Again, this works in both monogamous or non-monogamous relationships. Everyone experiences jealousy, fear of losing their partner to another, attraction to others. However, as one author notes “Whether you’re monogamous or not, you’re also going to have to deal with these same issues of self-confidence, desire, trust, and boundaries in your own relationship. Non-monogamy just brings those issues to the forefront in an incredibly powerful and direct way.” The question is: Do you want to interact with and (hopefully) ultimately understand these emotions, or do you want to push them away? I see it as similar to the Conservation of Energy, which states that energy can neither be created or destroyed; it’s just distributed differently. In every relationship there will be both positive and negative emotions; non-monogamy simply chooses to address the negative emotions up front and in small doses, instead of waiting for a blowout. I personally would rather talk honestly with my partner about him being attracted to someone and deciding together what he should do (or not do) about it than to have him feel he can’t talk to me about it and is faced only with the choices of suppressing his emotions or cheating. Nobody thinks that they’re actively choosing to prioritize fear over honesty, yet actually this is exactly what happens, and there will be consequences sooner or later.

And for the always-asked question: But what if your partner falls in love with someone besides you? Again, this question is based out of fear, complete with a not-so-secret judgement behind it. This is a narrow view of non-monogamy, and prioritizes a fear over the deeper questions of whether or not a relationship is healthy or fulfilling for both people. First of all, I would say that I’ve yet to hear of someone leaving a relationship in which they were happy, monogamous or otherwise. So if someone finds that they are more romantically compatible with another person than their primary partner, there is probably something that has shifted in the primary relationship. Maybe two people have grown apart, or their values have changed over time. Maybe one person is going through a personal crisis. This can happen in any relationship, and to pretend that monogamy somehow protects one from this is to ignore statistics on divorce and the personal experiences of ourselves and our friends, especially as one gets into their 30s, 40s and 50s and has been in a relationship for decades, not just years. Relationships are complex, and should be talked about and treated as such. In the end, that’s what I find both hopeful and frustrating about your article. You’re half-way there, Melissa, but it might behoove you to confront your fears more honestly, especially if you’re going to be writing in a public forum. Your ‘neutrality’ is not really neutral, and it shows to anyone who is not on your side of the fence.

Angel December 4, 2012 at 5:38 pm

Hi Melissa. I have to say that your article is not only well-written but it’s also very reasonable in terms of your points and conclusion. I couldn’t find anything to disagree with. I’m personally more for monogamous relationships but I’ve still taken interest to studying polygamy (polyamorous marriage?), and I’ve done so for some years now. I started studying the issue from a theological standpoint, and then that progressed into studying it from a social/cross-cultural and psychological standpoint. I haven’t been able to find much study on the poly lifestyle and the little that I did manage to find were not organized together in a systematic way. Fortunately, I found your article that puts a lot of the pieces together that I hear from both sides of the argument.

You can email me anytime if you want to share any resources on the issue. I have books and/or internet sites on jealousy, polyamory, polygamy, loving 2 people at the same time, the biblical justification of polygamy, etc. I wish you a great and influential career in psychology!

JD Mumma February 21, 2013 at 2:01 am

I appreciate your logic, reasoning, critical thinking skills, unbiased, dialectic quest… and poly-perspective approach.

My experience with people who consider themselves as leaders and followers in the “polyAMORy” tribe, is that they would be more accurate to use the title polySEXual, since the focus is primarily centered around sexual encounters, sex focused entertainment, physical contact… and even shuns those that once were considered the hot-pants in the tribe as outcasts now that they have aged past their prime. A woman I know was deeply saddened and depressed after she finally realized all her years in the polyamory tribe was really about her sexual encounters and not love (amor).
Carpe Amor!

Ana June 20, 2013 at 6:04 am

In regards to this paragraph:

“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.”

How do you propose, within a relationship between a monogamist and a polygamist, can a person “respct the needs of you partner without disrespecting your own needs in the process?” Those two terms seem to be at odds.

Linda June 23, 2013 at 12:42 am

I have the same opinion as to how ‘natural’ monogamy and polyamory are but for additional reasons.

While many birds have been considered to be monogamous most of the time they have been shown to have affairs on the side. A group of scientists found that chicks in a pair of swans didn’t belong to the male of the pair, and then worked out that female swans commonly nick off to find an affair with an alpha male when they are most fertile, even though they mate with both.

Likewise it has been shown that women are more attracted to men with feminine faces for all the times of their menstrual cycle…except when they are ovulating…in which case they go for more masculine testosterone driven features.

So basically, what is natural in a relationship is actually the facade of monogamy with a cheating partner. Isn’t nature beautiful! Looks like society has been doing it ‘right’ all along :P

Not really a fan of lying and cheating myself though. Being the supposed pinnacle of evolution I figure we have to limit our biological nature somehow. I mean, we don’t fling our poo at people we don’t like anymore ;) . However as your article suggests I think that there are probably ways to make either monogamy or polyamory work for people depending on what they want or need.

Sarah June 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

Dear Flow,
I found your words did not not make sense to me. If someone only seeks polygamy for x reason, but it’s ultimately their choice….well…if they are doing it for x reason, is it a choice?
I don’t think you can know why a person chooses anything unless you form a trusting relationship and they actually tell you what motivates them to act in ways that are labelled polygamous.

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