“What are your thoughts on polyamory?”
My friend looked at me, puzzled, prompting the instinctive reply: “Oh no, I’m doing an article – it’s not about me!”.
I was mortified at the accusation that I had strayed from a monogamous relationship model sold to me by Disney princesses from the age of five. However, as I would come to learn, Cinderella-style relationships might not be as wonderful as I once thought, especially with the popularity of open relationships on the rise.
But my reaction did get me thinking, why had I never considered it?
When I discussed polyamory with both men and women, without fail they all commented on how it would affect their self-esteem and remarked on, of course, the inherent jealousy factor. The thought of their partner (or potential partner) sleeping with other people was a clear source of insecurity. When I considered how polyamory could realistically manifest in my life, the defeating questions that came to my mind were, “is she better?”, “is she prettier?”, and, if I’m being perfectly and despondently honest, “is she skinnier?” A Freudian moment, to say the least, I was still only focusing on the physical. I hadn’t even factored in the emotional and intellectual connections that my imaginary partner could form when engaging in other relationships.
I decided to consult my loving 49-year-old mother about polyamorous relationships. She sighed, alluding to how exhausting it sounded after 20 years of monogamous marriage, and horrifyingly explained how it would be a logistical nightmare.
Despite the pragmatic flexibility of polyamory, choosing an open relationship would mean reconstructing my entire idea of love. A friend of mine, once the poster girl for anti-marriage, is now a committed monogamist after finding a partner whom she describes as being “my person”. She acknowledges how fundamentally different they are (and how often they argue…), but with a small smile tells me how he has shifted her perspective on relationships. It was just a matter of finding someone who was right for her. Maybe the reverse could happen for people like me, who choose monogamy because it’s all most of us have ever known.
Upon reflection, these initial assumptions about polyamorous relationships were incredibly naïve and maybe a little self-centred. What about the positive aspects of polyamory that most of us refuse to acknowledge?
The television network ABC airs a thought-provoking show titled You Can’t Ask That, which interviews groups of marginalised Australians. In one episode, they interviewed advocates for polyamory. One man said that one of the greatest aspects of polyamory was watching his two partners fall in love with one another. Perhaps judgmentally, I experienced discomfort at that prospect. However, I soon realised it was my own cognitive dissonance that has, and probably always will, prevent me from accepting polyamory as a suitable form of relationship for myself. Even though I will probably die a serial monogamist, my imagined polyamorous journey has led me to believe that they truly are a misjudged group. More than anything, they are members of society who perhaps have the most open hearts and minds of all in the pursuit of love.
Nevertheless, so many of us perceive polyamorous people as distinctly ‘Other’: as sex-crazed, amoral beings who exist on the fringe of society. In reality, they might just be human beings taking a radically practical approach to their romantic relationships. Monogamy expects us to meet perfectly with our chosen partner at every juncture – career, kids, family. I can acknowledge how monogamy puts pressure on individuals in ways that polyamory never will. Given that one in two marriages end in divorce, open relationships might just give people the freedom to change in accordance with their lives.
Yet, admittedly, monogamy can be incredibly romantic in ways that polyamory isn’t. The prospect of dealing with the trials and tribulations of life beside one special person day in and day out is incredibly appealing, regardless of how profoundly impractical it is. I believe we seek out monogamy not because it’s infallible, but because the comfort and self-esteem gained in knowing that we have been exclusively chosen by another human being is crucial to us. The longevity manufactured in the Disney construct of everlasting love, albeit extremely idealistic, might serve as the greatest contrast to the unpredictability of our 21st century existence. We hold onto it like a lifeline, not only because it fulfills our perpetual desires for security and comfort, but also because we believe it will protect us from our intrinsic fears of change and rejection.
The monogamous task of finding one perfect life partner who will just happen to grow with us seems almost impossible to me. The romantic Hollywood fantasy sold to us is arguably saturated in perfectionism, and exists only in film and dreams. It is the building block of the Australian Dream, alongside nuclear families, barbeques and ‘happy wife, happy life!’. The Australian monogamy fairy tale is an antiquated fantasy that deludes us. I’m not saying we need to trade in monogamy for polyamory, I’m saying that in order for either to work we need to readjust our perceptions of what relationships should be.
I believe in committed relationships which are limitlessly nuanced. They consist of hard work, pain, happiness, love, communication, monotony and longevity. A committed relationship isn’t artificial, it’s real. It operates mercurially, as it reflects the erratic nature of human feeling and the turbulence of life. It looks nothing like the fairy tales portrayed in romance films, the contrived sexual energy in the notorious Fifty Shades, or the ineffable bond between Adam and Eve – it sits somewhere in between.
Whether it be monogamy, polyamory or something else, I don’t think it matters. At the end of the day, it comes down to which form of relationship is the most compatible with who we are and what we want. I don’t think we can place relationships in the ‘one-size-fits-all’ category along with life jackets and falsely advertised socks. If I have learned anything from my imagined polyamorous explorations, it’s how important it is to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you need from romantic relationships. Monogamy cannot, and will not, suit everyone who chooses it. In the wise words of my beloved mother, I truly think it’s a matter of horses for courses.