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.


September 18, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — alsuren @ 12:40 am

In my previous post ( I think I may have misrepresented myself. In the interests of not tainting the mood of the previous post, I stopped at a point that probably showed me in a better light than I maybe deserve. Also, it probably presented me as someone who is ready for something new, but while writing it (specifically because of the things that were deferred into this post) I realised that this is not the case.

In the time between then and now, I have had two serious relationships, and backed out of both for similar reasons. We will come to them when we come to them.

We start off with me just come back from Utah. Jared demonstrated himself to be a good friend, and introduced me to Linux, which became the object of my love and energy in the absence of a muse. When I returned to Bancroft’s, my friends were good, and didn’t treat me any differently. I also met a load of new people from the year below, who were great fun. I developed a crush on Aysha, who was fighting with a crush on Rory. At some point, I tried to kiss her in the computer room, and got nothing. Some time later, there was a little roleplaying (started by her, and ending with me almost telling her to fuck off if she didn’t mean it). Other people I was [secretly] interested in during that time were Irma (mostly because she’s cute, though she lost her girlfriend-appeal for me when she got her hair permed into curls) and Qian (who often comes across as shy, and embarrassed, but when she gets passionate about something, she is quite forceful (and hot as hell, I should add)). Obviously, everyone fancied Ka, but she was well and truly attached.

Also worthy of mention is Lu. Now don’t get me wrong. Lu is a bitch. I didn’t very often miss an opportunity to remind her of this. I became her favourite seat that year (especially during film club). There were many instances of possibly inappropriate snuggling, but it became clear to both of us quite early on that there was no chance of us going out, so it was all in good fun (my whole group of friends from bancrofts were always very sexually suggestive towards each other). Also, she had a massive crush on Sam (from the last post, who is two years below me, and therefore one below her). I found this hilarious when I found out, because this is Sam, who I had down as quite possibly the worst boyfriend anyone could ever have, and Lu…. anyway: she got her man, and it lasted until after I lost touch with them both. Mel (as we treat each other these days) is similar to Lu in my mind.

Also during that year Mandy (now Amanda) who we left in the last post, got back in touch (triggered by the Marci incident). We had a relationship which started off essentially as roleplay (though I knew her to be smart and good to talk to from before), and got her into no end of trouble with her mother (I often think that she *wanted* to get in trouble with her mother). It got more serious partly out of need, because fighting Mandy’s mother takes some dedication. When I look back on it, I think of it as mostly sexual, with the fight against a common enemy as the binding that made us stronger. I think that the contrast between her arts geekiness and my science geekiness made us a good match from the beginning, but it was overshadowed by the sexual aspect in many cases.

When I went to visit her (close to Saratoga, New York) we had a blast of a time (there might be a post or two in the archives somewhere if anyone cares to look). There were a few fights with her mum (like when she thought we were being naughty in my (her brother’s) bed). There was some play, hidden from her mother, but no penetration.

When we both moved away to university, I was finding that there was too much going on in the process of settling in that I was missing by trying to keep in touch with her (observe that I didn’t really get involved in any societies in first year, as the first few weeks were spent mostly online. I also didn’t do all of the preparatory problems). Also, since her mother wasn’t there to fight against, we lost some of our strength. She was also convinced that I didn’t love her, and she possibly loved me too much. I think that if it were Marci, we would have just taken a break at this point, and gotten back together a few months later. Then again, if it were Marci, we wouldn’t have had sex. I tried to break it up and remain friends. Someday I will learn that this is impossible. Maybe I should have just let her go, and let her get back in touch when she wanted to. I don’t expect she will ever talk to me again.

Now I gained a lot from Mandy. It was her that recommended The Fountainhead to me. I didn’t read it with the same passion as she did: I simply read it as a novel. It was polocrunch who first made me aware that what I had been reading was more a work of philosophy than fiction. I really need to read it again (I’m sure my regular readers will be tired of me saying this, but I still haven’t asked Gill for my copy back). She also recommended another book on my to-read list. Annoyingly, I’ve forgotten the name, and can’t exactly ask her what it is. From what my mind can remember, it’s young adult fiction, and involves school kids and time-omniscient (and therefore fatalist) beings (Note that the wikipedia article on fatalism suggests that it is Slaughterhouse Five. I suspect that it may be right :P.)

On the other hand, ours was a long distance relationship based on sex, and therefore involved unhealthy amounts of masturbation. I have not recovered from the resulting addiction, even though it has probably already ruined my life. I have looked for help on one occasion, but it was only temporary. This is the first time I have publicly admitted to it, and I welcome help from anyone who has experience with addiction, and is willing to offer their support.

After Mandy, I had a brief thing with Charles (From Christs. Not Charlie (Cao), my supervision partner: that would be wrong). I found out that he already had a boyfriend before we did anything stupid, though he was a good kisser, and I do actually quite enjoy being overpowered, as long as I feel safe. Now while Marci had been dating some guy the second time we got together, that was different, because we’d already had something together, and I also knew about her boyfriend already. I told Charles that I wouldn’t get between him and his boyfriend. When he told me they were no longer going out, it made no difference. Last I heard he’s going strong with someone from cambs, though I’m also told he still sleeps around.

I tried to get together with Jenny at some point during first year. That never happened. It seems that Jenny is good at attracting the attention of men she doesn’t fancy, but not those that she does. In the end, she got her man though (Dave).

I also became good friends with Liz (after I ranted about my problems over MSN, completely out of the blue). Over the summer, we were both doing internships in cambs, and she dragged me dancing. There were many times when I almost ended up kissing her, but I think we both knew that it would have been wrong. We became hug-buddies, though we don’t talk so much anymore. She tried teaching me the charleston, and failed, forcing me to seek swing lessons. Turns out she didn’t like Matt and Lotte as much as her previous teachers, so she left me to it after dragging her then-boyfriend along to one lesson.

At some point in second year, when Liz was single again, I was invited to dinner (formal) with her and her friend from Christs (also a friend of Charles). It transpired that her friend was bisexual, and going out with some guy. It also transpired that she was trying to set me up with Liz. Rather than tell her why this would never happen, we just went along with it. Everyone ended up kissing everyone, and nobody meant anything by any of it, even if it was a little awkward. It’s funny now, because she’s supervision partners with Charles, and she knew about me and him before she really met him properly. Also, her boyfriend apparently gets worried about the whole hug-buddy thing. I’ve not met him though. (We were supposed to meet up this summer. Shit.)

And then we get to Gill. I initially went to dancing with the explicit intent *not* to be kissing anyone. Turns out Blues after-parties aren’t good for my resolve, but the full story of this is documented elsewhere on my blog, so I won’t repeat it in full.
Lessons to be taken from Gill include:
Don’t jump into bed too quickly. It gives you the wrong priorities (but you’d have thought I’d already known that one)
Don’t hook up with anyone who’s in a long term relationship. It makes you not expect it to be serious. If it becomes serious, you may not be able to adjust.
If you fancy someone mostly because you enjoy dancing with them, be careful, because it may not last if you over-do it.
If you are both of a small community (eg. CambridgeLindy, or an office) the aftermath will be hell, as all events suddenly become mutually exclusive.

So if you wish to add another few terms specifically for lovers (to add to the basic ones at ) we have:

Do not put yourself at my mercy, because I will destroy you.
Long distance relationships have eaten my soul. Don’t ask me to start another.
Don’t ask me to dance with you with you as your boyfriend.
I’m a massive wanker. Don’t let me sleep with you.
Please tell me you’ve got a boyfriend if I start hitting on you. If you want me to, I will wait.

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