What makes two people in a long-term loving relationship decide to let others in? For every couple, the reasons will be entirely different. For my ex-partner and myself, who explored the option of non-monogamy towards the end of our relationship, the reasons were varied. What I’m fascinated by is the amount of people I know and have encountered since then who are in, or have been in, open relationships. For some, it is definitely about sex – one-time encounters with strangers, fulfilling various hungers; for others it is about exploring a capacity for intimate relationships with more than one person. Here, I will examine non-monogamy as a concept, intertwining the personal, observational, and philosophical, with a consideration of social context. The umbrella term I use is ethical non-monogamy – ethical because there is agreement and communication; there is no deception. I will also mention the more specific concept of polyamory, where intimate connections and commitments are formed with more than one person at a time.
One line I related to in Lee Kofman’s memoir and exploration of non-monogamy The Dangerous Bride, which I read just after my ex and I had made our decision to be ‘open’, is this: ‘All I hoped for was bursts of excitement threaded throughout my life.’ But then, each burst has a morning after.
Baby’s first buffet
When I was a child, my family went to Las Vegas. In the restaurant at the Luxor hotel, beneath a bright pyramidion, my 10-year-old self was overwhelmed by the choices at breakfast. I walked from the buffet to the table with two plates piled high, and I’ll never forget the look on my mum’s face – of horror and shame. I honestly didn’t know how a buffet worked, that you could go back and get more. Everything just looked so good.
I have always been attracted to a great range of people: male, female and in between. Before my long-term relationship with X, when single, I had been involved with couples, partly as a tentative way of exploring my own sexuality (and all that skin is, frankly, exciting), but within my relationships I had been largely monogamous and able to express desires without acting on them.
When I went off the pill at the age of 29, at the same time as getting a job in a bar, my mind and body became drunk on desire. I had been entirely unprepared. I developed an obsessive crush on Benedict Cumberbatch, channelling some of these desires into something harmless and far away, like when I was a teenager. It was stressful, the way all my friends suddenly appeared to me – I salivated over them like a cartoon dog dreaming about steak. I started to talk with X about all these in-betweens that might exist, between affection and lust. I lost a lot of sleep. I found websites that catered to my fantasies.
And then the both of us went there. And it was wonderful, and it hurt, and I felt alive, and I felt mad.
Sexual activity (even intimate activity, like building deep friendships) outside the realm of a relationship might be viewed as an expression of our inner freedom, and this is one reason it may be sought out and understood by some people, and not so well understood by others, whose inner freedom is expressed differently. If some people exercise their inner freedom through sex and intimate connections it may also explain why there is often a link between non-monogamy and other non-normative or unconventional sexual practices, like kink. This rallying against traditional relationship structures and embracing of personal freedom through sex and intimacy was very important to some of the people I encountered in my ‘adventures’.
He had collars hanging on the back of his door, a drawer full of leather. I knew it wouldn’t continue because of how sterile and clean his room was, and the terrible ‘calm’ music he listened to. There was something cold about the way he spoke. The first time we met he told me about layers of gloves being peeled off so you could move around a room, to different bodies. One time we were lying in bed and he told me love was an illusion. I said: ‘I don’t know, it’s nice to fall.’
While ethical forms of non-monogamy have existed throughout history, the thought has often come into my head that the system under which my peers and I have grown up might nourish these explorations, through the encouragement of individuality and the expression of personal freedom, and having endless choices available to us. I only intend to raise this as a question about motivations, a grappling that takes broader social structures into consideration, though I know it’s an unpopular one among non-monogamists. I don’t think we can divorce ourselves from our consumer-capitalist context, the ideologies that are imbedded within us.
You have so many choices. You can do whatever you want. Those were the key messages of my childhood. I can be whoever I want. But many people don’t know what they want. And it is hard to settle into a life because of all the options available, or at least the options that seem to be available. The choices are often illusory. So too in regards to settling into relationships. To many, monogamy seems anathema to their socialised sense of personal freedom. I was able to have a relationship and also have relationships outside of it. Could it be that some of us do this purely because this option seems to be available to us? Could the amount of choices we have mean that we will avoid making one?
“And then the both of us went there. And it was wonderful, and it hurt, and I felt alive, and I felt mad.”
The span from wanting to having, from desiring to choosing, depends partly these days on your ability to successfully swipe and scroll, match, message, and set up dates. As eminent social theorist Zygmunt Bauman says, the ‘consumerist syndrome…radically shortens the life expectation of desire and the distance in time from desire to gratification and from gratification to the waste disposal tip. The “consumerist syndrome” is all about speed, excess and waste.’ Open Tinder, swipe, message, meet, fuck, see you later. Not always, of course. You make deeper connections, sometimes more often than you want to. But there, of course, lies a further dilemma:
‘The more fluid their life settings, the more objects of potential consumption are needed by the actors in order to hedge their bets and insure their actions against the pranks of fate. Excess, though, adds further to the uncertainty of choices which it was intended to abolish, or at least to mitigate or defuse – and so the excess already attained is unlikely ever to be excessive enough.’ This is also Bauman. So even if you make a deep connection (‘prank of fate’), the possibility that there are so many more connections to make (excess, within a fluid life setting) leaves you uncertain about the current connection, and means you’re likely to continue looking.
But while my generation grew up with 50 choices in the yoghurt aisle and encouragement of our individuality and personal freedom, we also grew up with the message of Disney films and romcoms and every manner of heteronormative texts which promised a particular ideal, that one day you would make the choice and would commit fully and become everything to one other person. People are still trying to have committed relationships while everything around them has inbuilt obsolescence – their phones, TVs; the suburbs they live in developing and changing rapidly. We have learnt that there is an ‘ultimate’ product, and that we better make the right decision, further complicating these uncertainties.
Polyamory, which is about love and not just sex, therefore seems like a solution that meets this paradox of endless choices and freedom versus ultimate fulfilment. It’s a combination of the smorgasbord of non-monogamous sex and the more emotive or transcendent aspects of romantic love. Commitment is certainly on the table with polyamorous unions. Hence its appeal, perhaps, to my generation. It’s the toy section in Kmart meets Leo and Claire in Romeo+Juliet. The polyamorist has both choice and love. Freedom and fulfilment. Play and depth. Is polyamory, then, a way of conforming to, rather than resisting, dominant social structures? It’s worth raising the idea.
Love like it’s 1899
So here’s the counter-argument. A spilling over of affection, lust, love, has of course existed outside of current structures. Maybe we feel more entitled to our insatiability, but ethical forms of non-monogamy have been around for people in other times, in different contexts. So besides a socialised element, perhaps there are also genetic predispositions or a certain personality type that is more inclined toward excessive affection. Some of us who have leant this way might remember a family member who was called ‘passionate’. I think of my Oma, who gave me a Fabio book to read when I was 12. I think of being called affectionate as a child. There can perhaps be some predisposition towards reaching out and out and out.
Then there are history’s bohemian writers and artists. Kofman quotes the wonderful Iris Murdoch in her book, writing about all the things she wanted in a letter to a friend, a list that runs from learning different sports and languages to studying ‘comparative mythology…politics…America, psychology, animals…’ When I began dating my current boyfriend I showed him a prose list on my phone of all the things I wanted and wanted to do in my life, many of which are contradictory and some of which have already evolved. Some of us want it all. And perhaps even if we were born in another era, we still would have.
A friend. Hunger that comes out in flirtation and frustration. Drunk, pounding at the toilet door. Waiting for her crush-of-the-night to come out and resume their kissing. Meanwhile, her partner talking about books in the lounge room. ‘Don’t worry, I understand,’ I said in the kitchen, ‘Everyone is beautiful and you just feel so much you can’t contain it.’
When I come back to the table with my two plates there are some people who would look at me as my mum did (don’t get me wrong, my mum is lovely and supportive), but there are some who might find it charming. Mostly, those of us who are like this find solace in each other. I make connections with people who are loud and inadequate and drunk and boldly wanting. X told me the other day about a rock’n’roller he met who came up to him after a gig and asked if he fancied a fuck. When X let him down he chased after some young waiters. ‘You’d love him,’ X said. Even before we became non-monogamous, he was always able to understand this about me.
“It’s more about creating some kind of new meaning, like Sisyphus noticing some bold bloom as he rolls that boulder up the hill again.”
Another friend called me the other day and part of our long conversation was about her wondering whether her texts to her new boyfriend were too ‘full on’. This woman has one of the most incredible brains I’ve ever come across. I told her I couldn’t give much advice because I always struggled with this too, this wanting to express too much. The act of writing this is similar. I cannot just let my life unfold; I must explore the circumstances – or some of them, anyway. Maybe it’s putting some kind of lid on the excess, or at least pushing up a louvre to vent, hopefully in a way that also lifts a louvre for others.
And then there’s being a woman…
The fact that I was unprepared for the strength of my own desires and the changes in myself physically and psychologically when coming off the pill means there are conversations still not being had with women, and girls, about their bodies, about desire. The fact that a lot of women go through a kind of second adolescence due to hormonal surges I had only heard raised in a jokey, sexy kind of way. Like hey you’re going to be fun. But what it’s like for the woman herself? Boys get videos at school about erections at swimming pools and cum on the sheets but we slowly learn our preferences over time by trying on selves with lovers, or alone, until we find out what we really like, and even then we’re scared to be that because where are the stories about that? We’re not sure it’s OK.
A woman may still be called out on her desires: slut, nympho, insatiable. But perhaps the two plates are not about insatiability at all, but balance and growth. Perhaps, by selecting just a small morsel of each bit of food on offer, I am developing a capacious palate – an ability to understand and recognise a greater range of tastes. Maybe insatiability is tied to empathy.
Just a final consideration…
Besides a capitalist-consumerist sway towards an expression of personal freedom, besides a possible affectionate predisposition, and besides an abundance of physical desire, I think some people may go down the path of non-monogamy because, well, we’re going to die. And so I think of the skeletons entwined at Pompeii. I think that being alive means to be alone. I think about how you can’t rely on one person for everything. But do remember that I’m talking about ethical non-monogamy, here. Not a Don Draper-style, deceptive, fuck-everything-that-moves because you’re damaged and privileged and yet still incredibly alone and aware of your mortality and inadequacy as a human being. It’s more about creating some kind of new meaning, like Sisyphus noticing some bold bloom as he rolls that boulder up the hill again.
And while I have posited the idea that polyamory, specifically, may be a way of conforming to dominant societal ideas – a medium between excess and that ‘ultimate’ choice – perhaps it can also be described as reactive, a postmodernist concept (stay with me). Polyamory ‘retains its own contradictions’, to use theorist Linda Hutcheon’s words about postmodern art. Postmodernism is not absolutist, it acknowledges ‘that there are all kinds of orders and systems in our world’, created by us – ‘They do not exist “out there”, fixed, given, universal, eternal; they are human constructs in history’. A postmodern work of art does not call out the meaninglessness of these systems; it invokes them in a way that marks their paradoxes and contradictions. So if a non-monogamous relationship is a postmodernist work of art, it is one that marks non-fixed systems and orders, these human constructs (marriage, love), in a self-aware way.
What I’m saying here is that non-monogamy might also be a philosophical choice.
And now, and so
Why have I, and others, gone down the non-monogamous path? As an expression of socialised consumer-capitalist freedom, as a warm spilling over, as a physical exploration, as a philosophical embrace? All these reasons, too, can be used to argue both for and against, and are open to interrogation. That discussion can happen around this essay, not within it. Within, I have simply raised some of the maybe whys. Beyond it, you might ask about whether it is monogamy or non-monogamy that subverts contemporary Western cultural ‘norms’. To commit fully to one person, physically and emotionally, may be positively refusing a socialised sense of obsolescence and waste, a capitalistic entitlement to ‘inner freedom’, of excess. But sometimes it feels as though complete monogamy might oppress those with a certain physical and emotional predisposition, one that could have existed in other contexts.
Because, for me, this path was also taken at the end of a relationship, there are further considerations too complex and personal to delve into. In some ways, hunger can only be analysed in hindsight. Whether you were loading up two plates or selecting one beautifully cooked piece of French toast you might ask later, What did I really want? If monogamy is my own way forward, I will still have learnt from the experience of having been non-monogamous. Mainly, that it can be beneficial to a relationship to not expect one person to meet all of your needs. It probably shows a certain naiveté on my part that this is only a recent lesson. No matter what, communication is key, and a navigation of desires with the person/s you’re involved with, remaining respectful and open to their own wishes at that time. Figuring your place in the micro-context of the relationship and perhaps considering the effects of the wider one. Either way, you’re always alone in your head, and you are going to die…but there’ll be blooms.
Bauman, Z. Consuming Life. Polity Press, 2007.
Hutcheon, L. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. Routledge, 1988.
Kofman, L. The Dangerous Bride. Melbourne University Press, 2014.
This was a difficult essay to write, because it was inspired by such a personal and private (and somewhat taboo) experience. I started two versions (writing 1000 words of one) before coming up with the current structure, which I hope broadens a personal exploration into something sociological, political and philosophical. I am averse to straight ‘confessional’ writing, and always attempt to somehow take in the bigger picture (both the present neoliberal capitalist context, and historical contexts). The attempt is ambitious, though, and sometimes I do try to capture too much. I was happy that I found a very specific structure for this piece, and bringing myself constantly back to it helped to keep me from going on too many tangents. Finding a central symbol helped, too – that of the two plates piled high. Once the image had arisen (through drafting) I found it popped back up quite naturally when needed throughout.
I also decided deliberately to not take a particular stance, as my favourite kinds of essays are considerations that lead to an opening out, not a narrowing down. I suppose this ties in with the fact that fiction is my favourite form (to both read and write) and so in an essay I like to do similar things that I can do in fiction: to express, emote, explore, evoke, raise with the reader certain ideas they may not have encountered or considered in that particular light, or for other readers, create enough space for them to find parts of themselves. And, as with fiction, I try to retain something of the complexity of life (of love and sex, here), because that feels more honest to me than saying one thing is good and another is bad.
Photo: GoodMorning by ^CiViLoN^