May 13, 2010

The Monogamy Assumption

Filed under: facebook — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — alsuren @ 12:00 am

As an Engineer, I believe that simplifying assumptions are morally essential for a well lived life. When I consider Kant’s Categorical Imperative[1], I think of it as a simplifying assumption, which makes your life better, rather than something which produces moral value from nothingness.


One key assumption that I’ve been re-evaluating recently is the one that says “You can only be romantically faithful to one person at a time.” The question that interests me is: “does this assumption actually make my (or my partner’s) life any better?”

I’m going to focus on the problem of finding a potential life partner, because this is one of the main things I look for. The aim here is finding someone who is good for you, and working around kinds of problems that might break you up. What I’m going to do is take a few problems that I have encountered in the past, and see how they might work out under different sets of assumptions.

One of the problems that I have come across is the fear that you will fall in love with someone and prematurely commit your life to them exclusively. If you do this, then you will spend the rest of your life wondering what life could have been like with someone else. This surfaces as a problem when someone thinks “My life would be better with this other person that I’ve just met.” and jumps ship without consulting their current partner. This is a common grounds for divorce, so it’s obviously a big problem for monogamous relationships.

If you and your partner both question the monogamy assumption, then you have a lot more options open here. Being in love with someone other than the person you first thought of is not something that needs to be a problem. If you have discussed the possibility, and are both comfortable before you start pursuing it, then it doesn’t have to weaken your existing relationship. In fact, hearing about and meeting the other wonderful people in your partner’s life can be an extra special source of joy. It certainly has been for me.

It should probably be noted at this point that I have only ever broken off a relationship with one person (Marci) due to a fear of not knowing anyone else. I don’t think we had an explicit understanding that we would get back together afterwards, but we did have an understanding that it wasn’t a lack of love that was causing me to want to seek other partners, and it allowed us to remain friends while we dated other people (she even helped to set me up with my second girlfriend) and pick things up from an even stronger base afterwards. I think that the signature of good communication and re-negotiation in that relationship is something that it shares with most shining examples of poly-amorous relationships from the literature, even though we each considered ourselves to be monogamous, and were in our own monogamous relationships during the year that we weren’t seeingeach other.

So far, we’ve covered the ‘other people’ problem. What else is there? This next one might be quite specific to me, but it’s still worth addressing. Sometimes, I find myself in the situation where I have not been able to devote the time/attention to my partner that they deserve. In most cases, it’s because of a change in our every-day commitments, but It’s especially bad when I find myself in a different timezone from my partner. The fact that I find myself in this situation might also have something to do with the fact that I enjoy having very involved conversations with people over IM, and I often end up forming relationships off the back of that. IM is significantly more time consuming than phone or face-to-face communication, so in the long run, it is easy to spend hours chatting and at the end not feel like you’ve given as much of yourself as you wanted to. If you feel like your partner is passing up on other opportunities in their life in order to talk to you, and you don’t feel like you are able to give them enough of yourself to really deserve that, then there is a case for improving your time management, or expectation management skills. The danger here is if you let this make you feel guilty, and associating that guilt with your partner without really asking why, or addressing it with them until it becomes a problem. I could probably improve my skill at pro-actively discussing my emotions with my partner, and where they come from, so I have (on more than one occasion) let negative feelings undermine my relationship with someone, and then springing it on them when it’s already too late to address the problem constructively.

In terms of the energy and devotion in a polyamorous relationship, I don’t think that I can really comment with any authority. This is because my current relationship is still very new, and there tends to be a skew towards obsessing about your partner whenever you have a new relationship (This is referred to as “New relationship energy” in the literature). This means that any data I have about how much attention to expect might be skewed. On the other hand, it is worth questioning the notion that love is a quantifiable thing: “If you have 100 pounds of love, you can give 100 pounds to your partner, but if you have multiple partners, you have to split the 100 pounds between them” [2]. There are a lot of people who will tell you that this really isn’t how it works. Certainly, I would object if an only child asserted that they got twice as much love as me or my sister.

[2] Ideas and quotes taken from Opening up (A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open relationships) — Tristan Taormino.

So I don’t think that I have enough experience to conclude anything about how much attention to expect from a partner in a stable polyamorous relationship. I also don’t have *any* first hand experience of how the time-management might work if I found *myself* in more than one relationship. At the moment, I am spending a lot of time reading around the subject of polyamoury, as well as writing blog posts like this one. This is a devotion that hopefully won’t be so time-consuming once I feel comfortable enough to start a new relationship with someone else. I guess I’ll have to try it and report back. Watch this space.

There are a few time management things worth mentioning that are probably orthogonal to monogamy. One is that we use each other for time-boxing (in this case, focussing on specific tasks for 2 hour slots, and reporting back for 10 minutes afterwards). This means that we can have the feeling of being useful to each other, without eating each other’s time or feeling like we’re ignoring each other. The other thing is that we often use Skype instead of IM for talking before work and in the evenings. This genuinely helps in that it lets us make better use of a given amount of time, and we are less likely to have remaining issues to distract us when we’re supposed to be working. The fact that we both have phones with Skype built in probably helps too, because we don’t have the sound issues caused by laptop fans, and we have the freedom to wander around the house while we talk.

Now that I’ve covered an emotional need, and a practical need, what about physical needs? A little disclaimer might be appropriate now. To me, if a relationship is based solely upon physical intimacy (to the point where it can’t survive a period of physical separation) then it is probably not strong enough to endure a lifetime. It would be dishonest to pretend that we don’t have physical needs and desires though, so I’ll try to address them here. Without being too graphic, I’m going to sidestep this topic a bit and assert that while it’s nice to be sexual with the person you love, you don’t actually *need* a partner for sexual release. This leaves the need for physical closeness as a separate, non-sexual requirement, that can be satisfied with lots of hugs. Being in relationships with people from other countries and cities over the years has lead me get quite good at hugging (I’m sure that many people in 6th form assumed that I was either gay, or seeing one of the girls in my group of friends). This is a comfortable arrangement for me, but I can tell what you’re all thinking, so let’s talk about that too: “If I have someone in another city to provide for my emotional needs, why not pursue a purely sexual relationship in my own city?” Having someone to hold in my own city would be good, and I’d be happy having a non-serious relationship involving lots of hugging. If a relationship like that slowly turned into something sexual, then I might be comfortable with that, but I would try to err on the side of taking things slower than they need to be, rather than quicker. I think that alarm bells would start ringing if the sexual side of the relationship obliterated the holding each other and talking side. It’s still something that I am thinking about, and I’m not going to say anything too firm about how I feel at this point, because I’d like to avoid having to eat my hat later.

Finally, I’d like to consider our evolutionary needs. To me, the idea of passing something of myself (not only my genes, but also my beliefs and general perception of the world) on to future generations is very important. What this effectively means in the context of a monogamous relationship is: “could I see myself raising kids with this person?”. To some people, this may be a scary question to be asking at any point, because once you commit to “yes”, you can’t change your mind to “no” without ruining someone’s life. I personally tend to use it more as a measure in the back of my mind. I’m in no rush to actually have kids. My priorities have always been to complete a PhD before I do anything drastic like having children, hence I don’t have this pressure to commit to “yes”. Saying that, if the answer ever becomes “no”, then the “potential life partner” criterion is somewhat in trouble.

If you remove the assumption of monogamy then suddenly the statement “I want to spend the rest of my life with this person” is no longer dependent on “I want to raise kids with this person.” To be clear, it would seem very unwise to enter into relationships with multiple partners with the intention of eventually dumping everyone else and having kids with the person that you like the most. Such an intention would give everyone a reason to feel jealous of (and threatened by) everyone else. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for a healthy relationship. To avoid this situation, you would need to make sure that you get into relationships which you’d want to keep for life, even if you will only have children with someone else.

While I wouldn’t like to pretend that you can plan these things, I’d say that at least one potentially ideal situation is the one where you are involved with someone that you would hypothetically want to have kids with, and then meet someone else who you can fall in love with, but isn’t interested in having kids with you (or would be interested in raising children with your other partner in a triad, but that’s more complicated). If you happen to meet someone who wants to have kids with someone else then you’ve probably hit the jackpot. That way, when you suddenly find that you don’t have as much time for their relationship, they might not mind too much because they are looking after their kids too. I suspect that this comes back to the time management thing again, which is not something that I’m going to explore any further at the moment.

As you can see, I am coming to the conclusion that polyamoury could be quite well suited to the problem of finding a life partner. It really flies in the face of how I’m used to doing things, but I have been quite lucky in finding someone who is willing to invest the time and emotional energy to discuss these things with me. I would really like to encourage discussion in the comments or with me in person, so that people have a chance to question and understand the views that I have. There are quite a lot of concerns that I won’t have addressed (and some that I won’t have even thought of because I’m just starting out), so please do ask lots of questions via facebook or wordpress comments, and I might even turn some of my answers into blog posts in their own right.


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