I had a conversation with a friend a while back that took a bit of a baffling turn. It was about relationships, and one thing that was said struck me as peculiar.
We were talking about the various forms relationships can take. She’s in a long-distance one, which presents its own set of challenges versus a cohabitating one. And I’m in a bit of an oddball situation myself, as Ron and I spent years trying to make a romantic relationship work, failed somewhat miserably, and decided to move to separate rooms, but not separate homes, and continue as friends instead. So my friend has all the romance without the living together, while I have the reverse – living in each other’s hip pockets, but all the love, strong as it is, is platonic.
I provide this detail to highlight how neither of us is wed to the idea of tradition. (Or, as it happens, to our life partners.) As the conversation continued, the subject of polyamory came up. In a sort of, “Speaking of non-traditional” segue, I mentioned a couple I know who, after a monogamous relationship that can be measured in decades, decided to open their marriage, and how happy they are with the change. I meant it as an example of how anything can work so long as everybody involved is willing to put in the effort, respect, and communication required. But my friend’s sole take on it was, “What happens if one of them falls in love with someone else?”
It surprised me, although I guess it shouldn’t have. Polyamory is often a step too far outside of tradition, even for open-minded people. Personally, I think it’s an oddly reductive attitude. No one ever asks how someone could have a second child, because what if they stop loving the first? We’re allowed to have as many friends as we want without worrying about having enough love for them all. Want more than one pet? Why the fuck not?
Essentially, we recognize that love isn’t finite – except when it relates to the romantic type. We require romantic love to be exclusive, assuming that if it’s felt for more than one person, it’s a Bad Thing.
However, while the validity of that concept has always seemed questionable to me, I’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship, and thought perhaps I was missing something. So I contacted my friend from the couple I’d mentioned and asked her opinion. She was very generous with her reply, to the point that she said I could quote her. Although since they’re not 100% “out,” she did ask for anonymity. So I’m going to call her Polly. (‘Cause I’m clever that way.)
Here’s what she said:
I have to counter-ask, first, “what does ‘falling in love’” mean?
Here’s where I’m coming from: popular culture tells us all sorts of things about romantic love. It happens all at once. It’s an all consuming. It includes a sexual component but is not exclusively about sex. If it’s ‘true love’ it lasts forever. If it’s not ‘true love’ then it’s not ‘real love,’ or ‘really love.’ There will be one true love for each person. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Love means you never want to be apart from the beloved; that you would forsake all others for him/her.
There are probably no (reasonably experienced) adults who have stopped to think about it who actually believe all those things. Nonetheless, they sort of give the flavour of popular social ideas about love.
So, if one of the couple who have an open marriage ‘falls in love’ with someone else, according to all the above popular conceptions of what that means, they’d leave their open marriage to join fully, completely, and forever with the new beloved. If we shake our heads back to a bit more reality, and say, “well, what the question really means is, ‘what if the person wants to leave the open marriage to go off and be monogamous with the new partner?’”
Well, then, I guess that’s what they’d do.
This struck a chord with me. As I mentioned earlier, Ron and I tried hard to maintain a romantic relationship, but most of the time, neither of us was particularly happy. And while things really evened out for us when we decided to stuff the romantic crap and build a relationship on a foundation that worked for us – like, to the point that I stopped thinking about suffocating him with a pillow when he was snoring – that’s when outsiders’ perception of us got … kinda weird. I lost count of how many people assumed I was only continuing to live with him in a bid to wear him down, until we could be ‘a real couple’ again.
But what the fuck does ‘a real couple’ mean, anyway?
Personally, I think Polly’s got a much better handle on it than most.
I think for many couples in nonmonogamous relationships, many long discussions have happened in order to develop a shared understanding of what the relationship is and what it isn’t. Ideas about not owning the other person, and about being together because each wants to be, are probably fundamental to most of those shared understandings.
So, if things are changing in what someone’s feeling for someone they’ve just met, or to whom they’re newly getting close, the other partner is probably aware of that.
… there’s not much difference to a monogamous relationship in which, if a person falls in love with someone other than their partner, they can leave the relationship, or stay in it.
Maybe a big difference is that the partners in the nonmonogamous relationship are going to be able to fully talk through what it means to be attracted to, to want to spend time with someone else, in a way that would be hard for a couple that had never talked these things through before. And, another big difference is that to fall in love with another person may not be the end of a nonmonogamous relationship.
Maybe what the question really means is: “Aren’t nonmonogamous relationships really risky?” or “Aren’t nonmonogamous relationships unstable & short lived?”
There at the end, I think, is where Polly really strikes gold. And while she’s talking specifically about polyamory, it’s easy to replace ‘nonmonogamous’ with the broader ‘non-traditional’ and still reach the same end-point.
Personally, I think it’s not the relationships themselves that trouble people. It’s the idea of stepping outside the zone of safety. The idea of ‘traditional’ marriage – although over recent years it’s grown to more comfortably encompass foregoing the actual ceremony – is what we’re raised with. It’s the ideal that we’re taught to achieve, and when people stray outside of that norm, judgment is quick to follow.
Perhaps, with divorce rates what they are, it’s time to stop clinging to an archetype that doesn’t seem to be working for an awful lot of people. I’m not saying traditional, monogamous marriage isn’t valid or viable. But maybe, instead of trying to cram everyone into a one-size-fits-all institution, we should allow for some introspection, and exploration, and conversation, so people can find what works for them, and live their truth.
For what it’s worth, it worked for me.