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01 July, 2010

In Defense of Explicit Consent; Or, If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free

I don't want to seem like a polyamory evangelist. Non-monogamy is my life, not my mission. My mission, at least on this blog, has a little more to do with ethics (as much as I've complained about that construct in the past) and raising consciousness of basic social freedoms we may tacitly deny ourselves and our loves. It has to do with what we expect of each other.

It's not true that I can't even imagine living in the contemporary norm, a putatively monogamous lifestyle. If I had never heard of ethical non-monogamous practices or managed to think of the notion myself ... well, we'd be in a universe so vastly improbable that speculation is hardly useful, but I can easily imagine myself with--where'd I leave that pseudonym cypher?--Margaret until the end of my days. Yes, knowing myself, I probably would have one or more sexual betrayals (if I somehow believed I couldn't simply ask for approval ahead of time), but I can imagine myself holding the same person's hand on my deathbed and smiling because of it. It's not hard for me to imagine a couple that doesn't need or want to be with anyone else. That said, I can also imagine a future in which that dyad is not "monogamous" as we know it today.

I'm quoting Sting above not just because he's stuck in my head but also because I think his cliché song has an insight into the nature of romance and human interaction. It strikes me as unethical, and gallingly arrogant, for one person to make an assumption that they have a claim over another's emotion. Rather than swearing an oath to shun all others' affection, I imagine, the happy couple swears simply that they love and honor each other and hope to do so until time parts them; no caveats. As the decades pass, the two grow more familiar, finding new ways to annoy each other and always forgiving each other in the end. Their love becomes something I don't think I can imagine, two decades in to their seven, and as they lie dying, a friend comments on how odd it is that they never married a third or fourth. They shrug and give each other a knowing, loving, look. "Simple tastes," they say, or, "Sometimes one's all it takes." The punster quips, "I bet you they could eat just one! Pay up!"

I've seen too many people assume that we have the right to expect certain behavior of our significant others, even without having discussed it--some folks seem to think that even after a reasoned discussion, one party ought to be angry if the other sleeps around, as a rule. Conversely, of course, it would be callous and shameful to assume that one's new relationship is completely open without discussing the details. Those silent assumptions (and, at times, noisy complaints) are what I hate to see. None of us belong to the others; we give ourselves as gifts, and a gift given under duress is nothing to celebrate. I hear plenty of people say that they're happy being monogamous, and I believe them. I also respect the ones who don't extract promises of monogamy from their partners like blackmail. Talk about it, make agreements, but don't just talk about what you want; talk about what you want for each other, what you deserve. The promises we make between ourselves are our own concern, but if you've told your partner that seeing another person would crush your heart and you still feel the need to extract an oath in public, it's worth asking yourself why.

I know I flirt with cliché, but if you love somebody, set them free. If they don't come back, you were never meant to be monogamous in the first place.


  1. I have a partner who I told about my polyamorous inclinations two years into our relationship, after which we broke up for a year and got back together, and who just seems to be pretending that conversation never took place. It's getting frustrating, he seems to have got MORE possessive since we've been back together, and he keeps 'reassuring me' that he doesn't want anyone else like I'M the one who wouldn't be ok with it! It's not even like I'm a rampant sex-fiend or anything either - he just seems to be trying to extract promises out of me that (I feel) he should know he has no right to expect, given that I've told him who I am and what I want.


  2. @liminalD:

    Damn, but that must be frustrating! I had a mono partner who used to do similarly, before we broke up; I can't tell whether it's a conscious guilt trip or just misplaced empathy. After all, I'm sure that your partner is looking for similar reassurance.

    Sometimes people have hard limits in what they'll accept from partners, and perhaps you two have yet to figure out whose motivations - your drive to be poly, and his to be possessive - are least flexible. Have you had the conversation again since way back then, and did he give any response at the time? If the two of you don't find a compromise, I worry that you'll be testing the limits of what you're willing to give each other.

    I hate to think about love in terms of concessions, but you're making a concession by staying with him monogamously, and he'd be making a concession by staying with you if you see other people. What it comes down to is how much people value each others' love and company: "Is seeing my lover happy with another person worth the unhappiness it would give me," or for you, "Is being trapped with a single person worth that person's extra happiness?" If it were a math problem, breaking up would make sense, but people aren't so simple. I hope you work things out in a way that suits you all. And hey, sometimes people change. We aren't static creatures. Maybe you'll find a way to make him "get it".