Don’t Blame Yourself For Monogamous Conditioning
I had a reader request for a post on how to help a metamour who is gradually becoming a partner be more comfortable with polyamory. While I will spend much of this post going over strategies for reframing monogamous conditioning and not blaming yourself for when it’s hard to do so, there is a very serious note that I believe in deeply that requires making first.
Not Everyone Is Polyamorous. And that’s OK. By that I mean, some people are legitimately monogamous as an orientation, it’s not worse or less enlightened than polyamory as a choice of relationship style. Some people are ambiamorous, a term coined in recent years to indicate that they’d be happy in polyamorous or monogamous relationship styles, so long as their partner(s) are also happy and everyone’s needs are getting met.
So, while I’m going to go over a bunch of ways to remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world when there are growing pains with your polyamorous journey, remember that you don’t have to be eternally committed to fitting one relationship style, and that no one should pressure you into one you don’t want to be in. It is always up to you where your comfort level is and will stretch to, and don’t cram yourself into feeling badly for someone no matter how much you love them. So, Don’t Blame Yourself For Monogamous Conditioning - But Also Make Sure You Want to Be Polyamorous.
That said, here’s some conditioning we’ve all received or that many of us have received that makes mentally accepting the idea of polyamory more difficult; some situations that commonly cause early or ongoing questions about whether polyamory is “for you;” my (very personal; I cannot speak for you) opinion about whether you should worry about each of those at all; and some strategies to change either the situation or the way you think about it if you’d like to.
Some Common Monogamous Conditioning: that is, the media and ways we’re spoken to that reinforce monogamy as a One True Way with no alternatives.
“Princess” movies (many from a company I can’t name or steal a photo from without lawsuit, but think mouse) that only allow even “feminist” endings (think the frog one) to happen after someone has found a One True Love/single soulmate; or have a driveaway “just married” scene as an ending.
Rom-coms. The whole genre. And the Marriage Plots I so desperately love in older books where we give our heroine a love ending; marriages of convenience are for other characters.
Moms on the playground going “Oh look at that he’s her little boyfriend!” when the kids are four. (I will admit, my six year old sent a friend a love letter the other day and I didn’t make him delete that he’s her boyfriend. It’s simultaneously adorable and terrible.)
Purity Culture, if you grew up in it, mildly or dramatically. Whether it was the mild, Catholic, wait til marriage culture I grew up in and Billy Joel sang about in “Only the Good Die Young,” or the much stricter culture of purity balls and girls entering into “covenants” with their parents that include their first kisses, their virginities, and their marriages, and anything between, growing up in a religious culture that emphasizes purity and virginity will harm your ability to see that there might be more than one “true love” out there for you, and that having “given yourself” to one person doesn’t trap you there. (note: I know there are a lot of non-Christian cultures that also do this, I am just not familiar enough with them to discuss them and I don’t want to stereotype that which me and my closest friends didn’t grow up with. I’m perfectly happy to stereotype that.)
Jealousy is Proof of Care and Commitment: this is the ones my parents get stuck on when I talk to them about non-monogamy. “Well, if you aren’t jealous of them being with other people, one of these relationships is dying or is meaningless or disposable.” This is a message we receive CONSTANTLY in media and in messaging from the larger culture, even if we were lucky enough to not get it at home. It’s a culture where being “overprotective” or “jealous” of your partner’s behavior is normal - Beyoncé has to sing about going out with her girls on several albums because her man wants to control that and culture says that’s MOSTLY ok. (It’s not, ladies. That alternating with massive misbehavior to you and then intense love actions is a sign of abuse. RUN if you have that triad. Gentlemen, same to you, but NB people read as women or women receive this treatment disproportionately )
Culturally, Affairs Are Sort of Fine: People know that other people cheat. Studies give a wild variety of of answers as to how many people cheat, with my quick survey of 10 studies giving answers between 22% and 65%, with the majority (7) landing between 40 and 50% of married people admitting to cheating at some point between when they got engaged and the present (an amount of time varying between 2 and 16 years depending on the study parameters). That’s a lot of cheating. Cheating has been a reality since the days when marriages were simply an economic contract; or a family-uniting contract. If jealousy and monogamy were actually the point, love marriages should lower the rates of cheating. But, people still cheat. A lot. So people see non-monogamy and go “ugh why do I have to know about your affair if it doesn’t mean you’re breaking up?”
Your One True Love Will Meet All Your Needs: I’m not sure this one requires clarification. That myth, that once you’re in a long enough relationship turns into “Well, marriage needs sacrifices.” Compromise because, well, you both should meet all each others’ needs but eventually you can’t and you’ll find friendly workarounds.
That segues us neatly into situations that might make us feel bad about polyamory vs. monogamy as a kind of “I must pick one and polyamory is the weird new one! Situations. The reader who requested this post did so because one of her two new partners is completely new to polyamory, unlike the other two in their triad, which started as a V, and is feeling some doubts about the concept of polyamory in general on and off.
Realizing no one can meet all someone’s needs and that isn’t a failing in you. This isn’t a unique polyamorous problem; anyone in a long term relationship reaches it eventually. So, in that sense, this isn’t a problem to worry about having Feelings about at all. Polyamory deals with this by going “Partners can meet the same and different needs, all at once, and that’s cool and a simple solution, so long as everyone is in on it and doesn’t feel forced.” Monogamy has a built in way to handle this: managing needs yourself; finding a friend to be interested in that thing your partner really can’t even feign interest in; maybe quietly choosing to look the other way at a lot of masturbation or an affair, maybe seeking therapy, because you have mismatched sex drives. (There’s always Dan Savage’s Monogamish). So, you can solve this if you’re polyamorous or monogamous; it’s not something that (in my opinion) should enter into your calculation of whether polyamory is for you; it is something you have to accept as true, regardless of relationship style.
Sexual jealousy: This is a big one. For lots of people, this is THE big one, the one that means they’re in or out for polyamory. (In my opinion) that’s super reasonable. If you work on personal insecurities; if you think about all the things we discussed in my earlier post on jealousy; if you talk with your partner til you’re blue in the face about how to make you more comfortable and nothing works, you might just be monogamous. And that’s OK. Monogamy is not more or less valid than polyamory, and staying in a situation you’re desperately uncomfortable in for someone else isn’t healthy. If it turns out your partner really can’t handle the situation without an outlet, you might need to admit you’re incompatible, and that’s a whole different can of worms, but you don’t have to sit while people go “You’re just jealous” and do exactly what they want for any longer than it takes you to sit with your feelings, figure out where they’re coming from, and try a couple solutions. You get to tap out, and and anyone telling you otherwise is unethical.
Emotional Jealousy: This is the one where again you might be incompatible with your poly partner so you might try a fairly long time and end up hurting people you don’t intend to along the way, but you don’t owe anyone but yourself more than trying, and working on insecurities. If you’re doing both those things and you aren’t even getting incremental change, then you might be monogamous; find a partner who is to settle down with. (I’d like to note, as an aside, that a hinge with big Emotional Jealousy issues doesn’t get to dictate that the ends of their V be okay with their relationship but they can’t handle/extremely don’t like/veto anyone the ends of the V start seeing. That’s usually not what people signed up for, and while it’s worst if it’s a One <Part> Policy, it’s worse, but not much.) If you’re seeing incremental change and that’s enough for you and your partner(s) and metamour(s), AWESOME. Keep on trucking, you may yet discover that you are polyamorous or ambiamorous under it all and it was the stereotype of jealousy as conditioned insecurity.
Polyamory is Really Risky for STIs: It can be, but it usually isn’t. Most polyamorous people I know negotiate to death what barriers they’re using, and when they may use fewer, and test regularly. Most monogamous people dating around use a condom for PIV and PIA sex, try to talk their way out of that a bunch of the time, and get tested less often. Your mileage may vary, but if this is your fear just be the one pushing the barriers conversation, and make agreements your partner(s) will do the same. Most polyamorous people will be very understanding, or will send you a half-dozen articles about why treating herpes like death is overrated, and you can make your choices about who you sleep with and don’t. In my opinion, you can certainly add this into your considerations, because more partners is more risk, but it’s really the inconvenience and cost of more frequent testing just to double check, not the risk itself, you should consider.
Onward, then, gentle readers, to the question of “well, how can I stop worrying about these things?”
I have four suggestions. The first is the least effective. Three or four of my exes have claimed it worked for them, but I think they’re liars.
Just stop. It’ll go away. Maybe get busy and distracted enough to just stop. This is the one I think is a lie / Just kicks the can down the road.
Sit with your feelings and peel back their onion layers. Treat forms of jealousy like “check engine lights;” get a code reader or have an old enough car you just look, and find the actual problem to address. Consider if social constructs around love and marriage or childhood experiences are giving you this warning light or if it’s a deeper feeling of your own. Address it with yourself or with your partner together. If the result is “Shit, I’m monogamous,” figure out how you’re going to address that, and if you personally are monogamous but not high jealousy and can stay with your partner who is polyamorous, or if it sets limits on or ends your relationship as an incompatibility. You know a big thing now. Use it.
If you already know it’s a thought pattern you WANT to change; or you’re committed to working on before you make a decision, try psychological techniques to replace negative thoughts with positive or neutral framings. So, as an example: Negative thought: <Partner 1> must not care about me because they aren’t at all jealous when I go out with <Partner 2>. Turn into facts: I go out with Partner 2 and have a nice time. Partner 1 isn’t jealous of that. Turn into a positive thought: Partner 1 is happy for me to have a nice time with Partner 2. Write it out if you have to at first. Repeat the positive one a couple times, until you have it mentally “On hand” when you start spiraling on the negative one. Things like negative self-talk are very hard to change for a lot of us, which leads to fears of being abandoned being hard to change, so be gentle with yourself if you really want this but are scared-jealous for a long time before you aren’t; or if you can only “make the techniques work” when other things are going well in your life. As I said above, there’s a point where it’s hurting you too much and despite a belief that love is infinite, you think romantic love for you is finite and you are monogamous. That’s 100% okay. But there’s also a point where even if you’re nervous about it, and even if it’s hard for you to see progress, your partners do, and then you hit the tipping point where you do, and you don’t have to flip many sentiments at all.
Wait and watch it go well and your mood about it improves, and then apply two and three in hard patches. This works best for people who know from monogamy that they have beautiful intense long lasting early relationships. If you know you burn hot and happy for a year? Work on your self esteem in that year, and maybe do a little of the psych work we mentioned on your own or with a therapist about cultural background, but wait for trouble to start in the back of your head before you throw the door wide open to it, because watching it work for you, and not just in theory or for others, is the best way to get to the point that you want to make it work and you aren’t doing this for someone. Wanting something and knowing you want it is the best way to make you willing to work for it.
I am not sure this is exactly what my reader who requested this was looking for, but I hope it helps someone better reflect on where they’re coming from, feel less guilt about cultural ideals around “being the one,” or be a little more positive about baby steps they’ve made away from negative feelings.
I made an announcement this morning on Facebook, Instagram (@readyforpolyamory) , and Twitter (@lauracb88) , that I’ve launched a Patreon page to support the podcast coming next month. If you pledge support at any level before the first episode, you will receive bloopers of me using language unbecoming of a lady at equipment and gain my undying thanks; if you can’t justify a monthly expenditure but really like a given post (or podcast episode once they’re up), I have a Ko-fi where you can drop a coin in the metaphorical hat.