This is as good a place as any to talk about my journey towards polyamory – given that my early-life experiences definitely shaped how I felt about romantic (and other types) of relationships.
I grew up in a very rural, Christian part of the U.S., so the only models I had for romance were the upstanding choice of life-long marriage, or the embarrassing not-really-acceptable concept of either being a single parent due to getting pregnant without getting married, or having kids with a partner, but never getting married (the area I lived in was also behind about things like the internet & cable TV, so exposure to poly from those sources wasn’t going to happen either (not that poly had a lot of visibility in either of those mediums in the 90s).). Some people were single parents due to the death of a spouse – that was considered very tragic, and men and women in those situations were encouraged to find another partner to marry.
Depending on who you talked to, divorce was acceptable-ish; if it became common knowledge that there was a divorce because of cheating (which seemed to be the only acceptable reason to divorce; marriage took work! and it was a lifetime commitment, no matter what! People who divorced due to irreconcilable differences were deemed to be embarrassingly weak or fickle), it was often whispered that there wouldn’t have *been* a need for the man to cheat, if the woman had been more attentive or that a woman just “proved herself a bad person” if she was the one caught cheating. Ah, patriarchy.
For myself, I didn’t understand why divorce was such a terrible thing, and the bias against women was apparent to me – and scary. Though I was raised Christian, I was generally in trouble in Sunday school classes for asking too many questions about the Bible, disagreeing with many tenants set down in it, and being an outspoken girl (ah, Christian patriarchy). The best thing that I can say about this time in my life is that the “values” (including racism and the hypocrisy of the political Religious Right) that were prized by many in my hometown somehow didn’t imprint themselves onto me as values that I wanted to follow.
College was in a slightly more progressive part of the country, and granted me my first computer, as well as a bunch of liberal arts, theater friends. Although I still didn’t discover polyamory, I was lucky enough to be part of a group of friends who didn’t presume to make rules about what partners could do/who they could date after a break-up (It was an ugly shock to me, post-college, when I met men and women who held the opinion that a person that they dated was potentially forever off-limits to their friends). I think part of it was that it was a small school, so the dating pool was small. Part of it was because of the casual-touching, intense-feelings, role-playing dynamics of the theater department.
Post-college, my first experience with consensual non-monogamy was thanks to a long-distance boyfriend. When visiting me one weekend, he mentioned a woman at a club who had been all over him the prior weekend, pulling out all the stops to get him to flirt with her and go home with her. I remember him telling me this semi-teasingly; I think expecting me to feel jealous. I felt totally fine hearing about this hyper-flirty woman, because I felt quite confident that he would never cheat on me (more on that in a moment), but a little bummed for him, that he didn’t get to go home with this hot, sexy lady (my first experience of proto-compersion, maybe?). So I told him that if he happened again, and he wanted to go have a one night stand with someone, I was totally fine with that. Just use protection and let me know.
He was pretty taken aback by that, and never took me up on it.
A side note about cheating – I’ve always had very strong feelings about cheating. It’s a pretty big deal-breaker to me. The two times that I learned someone that I was dating cheated on me, I broke up with them immediately, no talking it out, no do-overs. It’s probably clear from what I described in my hometown (and the things I’ve discussed on this blog) that I was the odd duck out where I grew up. Because of that, I spent a lot of time alone and both came to really enjoy my own company and realize that I don’t need anybody else’s company. Not needing anybody else’s company was definitely one of the things that set me apart growing up – good girls want to grow up to be good wives, no matter what, right? Not so in my case. At any rate, if my choices are between a cheating, deceitful partner and being alone, there’s really no contest to me; I’ll take being alone any day. Especially since “being alone” still means having my strong friend-network – there’s really nothing to lose (and a lot to gain) by going it on my own. And if my cheating partner really was going to be happier with the person he cheated with (or anybody else that wasn’t me), my pride didn’t want anybody with me who didn’t really want to be with me – and my compassion wanted the best relationships for everybody. I didn’t want someone to stay with me out of obligation, or because they met me first. I wanted them to be with the person who made them happiest, and even if that was painful for me in the short-term, I truly believed (and still do) that the best situation for everybody is to let someone go who doesn’t want to be with me.
But back to telling my long-distance boyfriend that he could hook-up with women who were hitting on him. At the time, I didn’t initially look beyond the physical to the emotional (“but what if they really like each other?”). That occurred to me after the conversation with my boyfriend, but my feelings on that dovetailed perfectly with my thoughts on cheating – if someone I was monogamous with felt like they would be happier elsewhere, then I wished them luck at that, even if it sucked for me in the short-term.
It didn’t occur to me, in all that musing, that a person I was dating could have both me and another person long-term. I just had no idea that could be done. I did worry if I met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with – what about our sex life, over the decades? But that idea seemed pretty far away, so I didn’t worry about it overmuch.
Eventually I moved to the New England area that I live in now. Through a happy accident, I met a woman through work who I developed a very strong bond with. Aware that I was a new-comer to the area, she introduced me to all of her friends. Some of those people would ultimately become part of the strong friend network that I have today.
Some of those people were also the first polyamorous people that I met. Among other things, they also introduced me to Dan Savage (not literally!) and he introduced me to the idea of being “monogamish” (he also showed me that a fair number of viewpoints I’ve held all my life were held by many other people, and could be my normal).
Meeting people who were polyamorous caused me to examine my own feelings about monogamy. I had never thought that monogamy was an inherently superior way to have romantic relationships; I thought it was the only possible way to have romantic relationships. Although the majority of polyamorous people who I initially met practiced the “one primary partner only” kind of polyamory, the first place my mind went to was the idea that more than one person could have an equal amount of importance. It also went to how much more humanizing those one night stands would be – I’ve never thought that there was anything slutty or wrong with a good one night stand, and always hated the idea that a person who has one night stands is inherently slutty or a bad person. Or, in the case of the patriarchy, men who have one night stands are manly, women who have them are uncontrollable sluts. The biggest thing that concerned me in prior relationships where I gave my consent for my partner to have one night stands was the concept that I thought less of those women, considered them disposable or unimportant. I would expect any partner who has casual sex to be just as respectful (and concerned about things like enthusiastic consent and the enjoyment their partner is having) towards a casual sex partner as they are to a long-term sex partner. As none of my previous partners ever took me up on my offer about one-night stands, I never got to the point of discussing my feelings about those other women in depth with a boyfriend. Learning about polyamory and consensual non-monogamy gave me a chance to full flesh out all those thoughts.
The other thing that I thought about somewhat was the concepts of triads and V polyamory. I really liked the idea of equality and egalitarity between more than just two people. From the beginning, I thought about polyamory on terms of friends and lovers (or non-romantic and romantic partners) being on equal footing. Not that I disliked or didn’t think I could handle the idea of romantically loving more than one person at a time – it was just that most of my life, I’d had strong feelings about my friends being as important to me as my romantic partners.
In the end, I realized that I definitely liked the concept of polyamory and though I’d been dating monogamously up until then, I started to think that I might be happier being polyamorous. At the time of these thoughts, I was dating someone monogamously, and when some careful questioning revealed that my current (male) partner was only ok with polyamory if I was dating women only (insert eye-roll here), I decided to wait until I was single again until I gave poly a try.
What happened after that partner and I broke up? The details of that are in Part 2…