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Why Your Polyamorous Friend's Relationship Sucks
i present before you a list of reasons
I did a survey where I asked 26,000 people about relationships.
Here’s how many people reported being polyamorous (on a ‘fully monogamous’ to ‘fully polyamorous’ spectrum):
Let’s assume you’re forming opinions about non-monogamy, and so you think of all your friends who tried some degree of open relationships. Let’s take a closer look at these people:
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Only poly people:
I’m going to refer to the “slightly monogamous/polyamorous” category as just “slightly poly”; I think this tracks with the way people answered in the survey for a variety of reasons, but also just helps for simplicity
I’m also using the term ‘poly’, but I’m aware there’s lots of varieties of non-monogamous; in the survey I clarified it as ‘poly/non-monogamy’, but am gonna use the term ‘poly’ cause it’s only four letters.
Most poly people are only slightly poly!
So if you know a poly person, they’re probably not going to be totally, balls-to-the-wall polyamorous - only 16.3% of poly people belong to that group! Instead, your friend is probably going to be ‘slightly poly’ - which makes up 63% of poly people in my data.
The wince part is, at least according to people who answer the survey, there’s two groups that have the best quality relationships - fully monogamous, and fully polyamorous people.
For example, let’s look at some graphs (poly people only!) with how they agreed with various statements about their relationship.
(these charts are zoomed in, but is a consistent zoom across all charts, and I am down to defend my zoom decision in the comments, fight me)
Fully poly people in fact match or slightly beat fully monogamous people on relationship quality, but both full poly and full monogs really beat out slightly poly people. According to my data, the more poly you rate yourself, the better your relationship.
But remember - most poly people are not fully poly. Which means if you draw a random poly person from the poly population, they are most likely to be slightly poly, and thus more likely to have a worse relationship than a monogamous person.
Why is this? A few theories:
Sometimes, monogamous people “go poly” in an attempt to fix problems in their relationship. They end up slightly open, not fully, since they’re not actually committed to the lifestyle, but of course this group is disproportionately likely to have some issues going on, since they’re poly because of relationship problems - so they downflate the quality in my data.
Relationship asymmetry - one partner wants to be poly, the other monogamous, and so they hit some sort of middle-ground compromise. This ends up causing a lot of conflict. I especially notice the “I have no secrets from my partner” rating - my guess is asymmetric relationships end up with way more secrets, as one partner probably “doesn’t want to hear about it”. Thus the other partner becomes hesitant to share tales of their romantic adventures, and this slowly accumulates. As in - maybe you go off and kiss someone, and your partner doesn’t want to know about it. And then maybe later the kiss escalates to sex, and now you feel pressured to hide this from your partner, as now you don’t to just dump the full extent of what you’ve been doing on them all at once. Things build until they’re too large to share without exploding things.
Some sort of natural orientation:
(My somewhat idiosyncratic definition of ‘polyamory’ is here, which I strongly recommend reading - but to summarize, I define polyamory as “not forbidding your partner from intimacy with others” - I do not define it as “actively engaging in multiple relationships”)
I consider myself orientation-poly. In my first monogamous relationship as a teenager, I caught my boyfriend sexting another girl. I remember doing ‘performative upsetness’, but not actually feeling mad about it. I just didn’t care? It didn’t seem like it actually mattered, for some reason? It didn’t seem like it impacted me any more than him playing video games did.
And the next year, when I was 19, a poly couple told me what ‘polyamory’ meant. It was the first time I’d heard the word, and I instantly, without question, knew that’s what I was. Ever since that moment I’ve never once doubted it. Any form of monogamy has been a complete dealbreaker for me; I put it clearly in dating profiles, establish that I’m poly before any first date. Monogamous people are generally much less attractive to me. For me, polyamorous is not a choice; I can’t imagine being monogamous; that world feels like it would kill a huge part of me. I would rather never have a relationship again than agree to monogamy. This is one of the clearest, deepest, most stable values I’ve ever had in my life.
I’m one of the rarer “full poly” data points; but most poly people aren’t like me. For most poly people, it seems to be closer to an optional lifestyle.
And I think this makes things in fact quite hard.
Too Much Optionality
As in; imagine you have a child. The child vomits on you, and makes a mess, and throws a tantrum. From the outside, your life as a parent looks like hell. And people ask you “man, are you sure you want to live that life?”
Probably you’d say yes, because there’s something you clearly value beneath all of the shit. You love the child, there’s no doubt, and so every minute you spend cleaning poop off the walls is in fact laden with meaning. It is pain in service of something you value. Your decision to stay awake cradling your sick kid as they cry is less a choice and more of an inevitability. You don’t have to stop and figure out if you actually value this kid enough - it’s already baked into you, and so your next step is obvious.
This is what happens when you are completely aligned with your values. If your value lies at a deeper level than the painful choices you have to make, then you can endure near superhuman levels of agony, because you are acting in service.
The real issue comes in when you are constantly reevaluating your values every step of the way. As in - if you do not hold polyamory as a deep, unshakeable value, then every unpleasant moment won’t be the clear nobility of cleaning your kid’s poop off the wall, it will instead be a question asking, enticingly, do you actually want this? Maybe you should quit?
I think this is one benefit marriage often has, and why people talk so positively of commitment - if you’ve committed, then you no longer waste mental resources on trying to remake the decision to stay with your spouse, over and over again. The marriage is a given, and all of your resources go towards how do we make this work? In a way, it’s freeing.
But maybe most poly people are not married to polyamory?
An example: Once, a few months into a new relationship with a boy I was infatuated with, circumstance landed me sitting in the next room while I listened to him having sex with a new girl. This was terrible. But I didn’t have any anxiety around what to do, I didn’t have any doubt that polyamory was the right path for me, even in the middle of that acute pain. It sucked, but it was clear.
When I tell people about this experience, they ask why be poly if it puts you through that? From their point of view, the pain conflicts at the level of the value - why have a child if you have to clean poop off the walls? Each option - the good thing and the pain thing - is held in one hand, weighed against each other. For me, though, the pain thing is in my hand, but the good thing is wedged into the bottom of my soul. It’s not the sort of thing you can compare.
If you’re not committed to polyamory, you might not just have the pain I did, you might also have the additional loop of doubt and re-evaluation - do I actually want this? Why am I putting myself through this? Is it right for me? Am I a bad person if I want him to stop? You’re checking the weight of each hand, squinting, calculating.
I suspect this is a big part of the reason why fully monogamous and fully polyamorous people have the best outcomes - they are the most committed to their style of relationship, and don’t spend extra mental cycles on figuring out where their values are. They are more likely to know what they want, and lifestyle decision is settled, unquestionable and deep.
Not Forcing Yourself
My other, related theory is that semi-poly people are more likely to be engaging in self-coercion.
As in - maybe you feel like poly is morally superior and you desperately want to be a good person. Or maybe your partner wants to be more poly than you, and you’re trying to be reasonable and magnanimous.
Here, the experience of polyamory isn’t one of obvious choice, but rather trying to wrangle yourself into some configuration that you feel you ought to be in. It’s not the natural, emergent result of what you value - it’s a top-down attempt to reconfigure yourself. You are treating yourself like an object to be ordered around, not as a vulnerable being with wants to discover.
I think healthy polyamory - if you are actually polyamorous - comes from getting in much clearer touch with what you actually want from life and relationships. If you simply settle and observe, sometimes polyamory is the thing you discover is already in there. What do you actually value? Is it freedom? Maximizing intimacy? When you’re in clear contact with this, then polyamory no longer becomes a chore, but rather a joyous, natural expression. It’s part of you, one with you, as much separable from your mind as your arm is from your body.
And of course, if you try to get in touch with what you want and the thing that emerges from this isn’t polyamory, then you shouldn’t be polyamorous.
My guess is that a lot of half-polyamory lifestyles come from either people who don’t actually want to be poly, but are trying to force themselves into it because they are convinced it’s a better way to be, or people who do actually want to be poly but haven’t become fully aware of why they want it yet. Probably, these types of relationships naturally end up worse!
If for you, polyamory feels like being at war with yourself, like having to constantly renegotiate within yourself the decision to be polyamorous, if there’s no deep core at the bottom of your belly that is quietly screaming yes, this is what I want, then maybe you shouldn’t be polyamorous?
And to be clear, I don’t mean that full polyamory is easy! It’s often full of “shit, am I doing this right?” and “oh god I am so insecure right now” and “I have no idea what the best way to communicate here is” and lots of “AHHHHH”. Much like committed, intentional monogamy, committed, intentional polyamory can be full of hardship and failure.
But if, in the midst of all that, if your answer to “if I could press a magic button and undo our decision to be polyamorous in this relationship, given my partner is perfectly happy with this and there’s no side effects, would I?” is “no”, then congrats - you probably actually want this.
To be clear, I think it’s very possible for slightly-poly people to have fantastic relationships! If you maintain great, open communication, if it stems from a clear YES to this being in line with your values, if, when your hand touches the stove, you cry “I wouldn’t have this any other way”, then you are one of us, even if all your polyamory includes is a harrowing threesome once a year.
It’s just that I suspect that people who are not fully poly-aligned disproportionately end up in the middle of the spectrum, which pulls down the ratings for that group.
My guess is that much of the current polyamorous culture is coming from a position of coercion - you should be poly, this is better, don’t you want to fix your sex life, your partner will like you more, this will make you feel less alone, you’ll be more virtuous, aren’t you sexually liberated, etc. Probably many people who are currently polyamorous, do not in fact actually want to be polyamorous.
(I also suspect that an even greater amount of monogamous culture is also coming from force, and that many more monogamous people also in fact do not actually want to be monogamous, but that’s worthy of its own post. (a teaser))
But I don’t think this is a flaw inherent to polyamory itself! Some parents had kids because of social coercion, and now would in fact press the magic button to go back in time and undo ever having kids. I don’t think this means that the concept of parenting is flawed, only that you shouldn’t do something you don’t actually really want to do. If you do actually want to do it, then it’s a wonderful system!
Remember, we’re also in a culture super hostile to polyamory - what’s the last TV show or movie you watched that centrally featured a healthy polyamorous relationship? I can think of a grand total of two. The first time I saw an example of polyamory in media (Bajirao Mastani - it wasn’t even a great example!), I cried, unexpectedly touched from seeing a story about someone like me. I’ve rewatched that movie multiple times specifically because of that, and the polyamory (it’s just barely even polyamory!) depicted in it makes my entire body vibrate with joy. Is this what monogamous people feel all the time when they watch movies? I envy you.
Imagine living in a world where you’re monogamous, and yet every single example of a romantic relationship in media, culture, movies, songs, etc - is polyamorous. When there are depictions of monogamy - which are very rare! - they’re shown as abnormal, conflicted, or as brief quirky things on the sidelines. And maybe, finally, someone decides to make a monogamous movie. It’s advertised not just as a love story, but as a monogamous love story - exciting! Scandalous! It’s not a great movie, but you of course go watch it, privately, feeling some mixture of skittering excitement and deep grief. It’s wonderful to see a depiction of romantic love that finally resonates with you, and also painful that this is it. This is the one movie you have, now, the single movie where it’s a man and a woman who make an agreement to only love each other. This is all culture has to offer you and your kind.
Imagine in this world, then, actually trying to practice monogamy. You’d probably fail at it! It would probably be terrible! You’d have to reinvent good monogamous norms from scratch, things that might have been default if you’d been raised in a monogamous culture. You’ve seen it done once, after all, in a movie. You’ve heard tales of other people trying monogamy. Maybe you bring up that you’re thinking of trying it. “Oh yeah, I knew some friends who did monogamy”, someone says at at a dinner party. “It exploded. The guy just ended up just sleeping with someone else and not telling her, and she got super mad at him, it was super messy. I think they call that ‘cheating’? Anyway, I guess that’s just what happens when you try monogamy.” Everyone mutters in agreement.
And maybe you finally do find a small subculture of other monogamous people, and this has its own challenges - maybe they’re more defensive, since they’re so rare and used to people saying things to them like “Oh, you’re monogamous? That’s so cool. I could never do it personally though, I’m really into not controlling my partner.”
Do you really think you’d be as successful trying monogamy in this world as you would in ours?
So similarly, if you want to try polyamory without access to a poly culture, you’re completely isolated, cut off from support. You have no general cultural knowledge about how to make it work well. And if you do find a poly culture, they’re probably shaped by defensive norms. No, fuck you, polyamory actually is fine. No, being poly doesn’t mean we’re not committed, no, we’re not cucks, yes we can in fact raise healthy children, no, we’re not degenerates, no it’s not just a phase. Polyamory is great. It’s actually about freedom and respect and love. We value good things! This is healthy! You judge us but you fuckers are cheating on each other all the time!
(and then bam, you have a narrative strong enough to accidentally coerce nearby monogamous people)
For most people, polyamory isn’t an easy decision, it’s an uphill battle, and we’re setting poly people up to fail.
I’m in a lot of poly discussion groups, and half of the posts are about handling coming out to other people, about whether they’ll get fired from their jobs, about trying to keep it secret so their lives don’t explode. I’m delighted that gay people can now marry, but as a culture we haven’t even started the discussion over whether poly people can. In my survey, “fully poly” people made up 3% of respondents; this is probably overinflated, so let’s cut it in half - at 1.5% rates, we make up around the same amount of the population as trans people. I’ll leave the comparison of their acceptance movements up to you.
This is my final theory for why partially-poly people have worse relationships. I suspect that people who are isolated from polyamorous culture end up in the ‘slightly poly’ group - they have no social support, and as thus don’t feel comfortable going completely polyamorous. Full, balls-to-the-wall poly people tend to all know each other, have meetups, date each other; it’s a communal, incestuous, supportive network. These cultures have norms that evolve over time to give people a shared language and expectations for how poly relationships work, and they also give people the power to completely commit, all the way, to the poly lifestyle.
But if you’re not in that world, if you’re living in a kinda conservative town and you don’t really have that many other poly friends? And the ones you do are kinda half-assing it? Then you probably don’t have the resources or mental space to be able to go hard (thus you end up ‘slightly poly’), and then you also don’t have the resources or mental space to be successful in your relationship (thus you end up giving your relationship worse ratings on my survey).
I think, in general, many people are going poly as a reaction to things in their life - to local cultural pressures, to attempts to fix a relationship, to trying to satisfy asymmetrical values - and this tends to have worse outcomes.
But a minority of poly people, the 3% of my survey population skydiving full-blown into open love, seem to be thriving. I think this is quite impressive, given the obstacles to polyamory in our culture!
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