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Exclusivity vs Commitment

One of the big questions polyamorous people get, over and over, is “Why bother being in a relationship when you’re sharing your partner?” This question assumes exclusivity as the basis of a relationship, rather than the connection as the basis of the relationship. There’s no particular harm in this for the person in their own relationship - it’s a cultural predisposition that folks haven’t had a reason to undo, is all.

There is a gap and some potential harm in how they view our polyamorous relationships, however. We have an opportunity to undo that assumption, and do some education. When someone asks us “Why bother being in a relationship when you’re sharing your partner?” that’s a hurtful question. It reduces our relationships. It assumes the connections we make are less than. So. The answer we give has to be pretty particular, to get through to the person who gives this question as a sincere reaction, while expressing honestly the reasons that we are in the style of relationship we are. A great one, if we’ve got the energy to have an educational conversation about polyamory (because sometimes these comments happen in parts of our lives that have nothing to do with our polyamory and we don’t), would be “My priority in a relationship is connection with my partner and we express that with mutual commitment. Those don’t look like sexual exclusivity but they look like <a couple examples from your relationships> and love, and that’s great for us going into the future. Love and relationships look like a lot of things, these are what mine look like and I hope you can respect that going forward.” I know that’s super long, but you’re basically explaining WHY polyamory for you and WHAT polyamory is, to someone who’s already gone “I could NEVER, why would ANYONE?” at you. If you want the short version, you can say “Exclusivity never guaranteed love and relationship longevity. Studies show polyamory has similar relationship outcomes as monogamy.” It’s true. There have been a few long-term studies now and all of them show this now. There’s no structure that works better than any other.

So, what are mutual commitments? What are these things we can do for each other in any structure that keep the flame lit in our relationships and that polyamorous people drive our relationships with instead of structuring them around exclusivity? Here are some examples from relationships I’ve been in over the years, none of which were exclusive:

  • Having consistent date nights

  • Expressing love regularly

  • Expressing vulnerability and emotional trust

  • Being there for difficult events (for me: deaths, medical events, bad news; for them: bad news, deaths)

  • Being there for good events (weddings, professional success, births, moves)

  • Being considered in big decisions (where to live, where to work, whether to take on a new educational or professional opportunity, etc)

  • Sharing hobbies

  • Having children together or co-raising children

  • Sharing housing

  • Being involved in each others’ creative projects

  • Staying together regardless of physical changes (like weight fluctuation, surgery, illness).

Some other examples that one might have, depending on the relationship:

  • Scheduled calls or visits in a long distance relationship

  • Commitment ceremonies or weddings to add structural commitment to a relationship or have a public party to celebrate your love

  • Sharing finances

  • Exchanging jewelry to remind each other of your love when you can’t be in the same place

  • Planning future housing or trips together that you hope to take.

Obviously, none of these are required, and not all of them will apply to every relationship - however, many of them apply to many, and the "choose your own adventure" nature of polyamory lets you and your partner(s) decide which ones apply to you. In monogamous relationships, you will likely do several of them - most of the structural ones (living together, marrying, combining finances, deciding whether or not you’d like kids and having them if you do) - and hopefully some of the connection ones to keep things going happily together. In a polyamorous relationship, you’ll choose which if any of the structural ones you’d like. You might want some, either because you came to polyamory after already having them, or because you like living with more than just you, or because our society isn’t structured well to live on just one income (and no shame in that) and living with someone you love is the nicest way to live.

When people willfully misunderstand and choose to lay the whole value of relationships on the exclusivity of that relationship in a statement, it feels awful. This is especially true for people like me who take negative statements straight to the heart, but it’s not great for anyone. So, we have to figure out how to deal with it. I tend to do it by going into teaching mode because otherwise I just shut down. If you don’t have the energy for that, reminding people that most of all relationships don’t work out, and then disengaging, if it’s your conversation or online forum, is the best move. If it’s not, just don’t talk to them. People are wrong all the time. We don’t have to correct them all every day. Sometimes they’re allowed to be wrong. We know exclusivity isn’t the only measure of a relationship and that love and commitment are abundant in our polyamorous relationships day to day.

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