Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What We Do or Who We Are? Round 2 with Dan Savage

Dan Savage has included more thoughts in today's Slog Blog about the controversy he started last week in advising someone seeking his advice that polyamory is something people do and is not who they are as an identity.  He is still having a hard time grasping what many are saying.  I have written an in-depth response because the questions he asks, which seem simple to him, are anything but simple.  In comments I wrote the following.

.... Dan, I think a key component of understanding this question is the context in which died-in-the-wool (if you will) polyamorists live out their poly lives while to at least some degree swimming against the larger mainstream cultural tide.  You know, of course, what that's like.  Trusting in ourselves and our own sense of who we are and what is right for us, without shame or apology, becomes an essential component in withstanding the blow-back we get from people whose esteem we care about and whose tolerance, if not acceptance, we value.  That sense of identity becomes the bedrock upon which we can build a life that will withstand the external cultural challenges we sometimes encounter.  As I am fond of saying, polyamory ain't for sissies.  These challenges take the form of drama and rejection by one's family of origin, the loss of friends who don't approve, loss of a job because the boss starts to question our judgment, or loss of child custody due to false assumptions by family court judges. 

As you point out and as Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha well demonstrate in Sex at Dawn, humans are naturally non-monogamous - of course!  But over the centuries religious authorities' literal crusade to force people to conform to monogamy became a very effective barrier to patterns of relationship openness and non-monogamies of all kinds.  Still today, living a life of integrity as a polyamorist requires a significant amount of swimming against the tide, and that's putting it mildly.  

So with that perspective in mind, you asked:

" poly something anyone can do ...?"

Yes.  Or at least, the majority can if they want it, but not quite everyone.  In my experience, those who want it enough and who are committed to doing the work necessary to live comfortably outside the societal relationship box and make the transition from monogamy to polyamory absolutely can do it.  The exceptions are those who have significant self-esteem and/or abandonment issues.  Likewise as to those who lack self-awareness, live in denial, and don't own their own feelings.  It's also essential that we learn good communication skills.  Mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, depression, malignant narcissism, and oppositional personality disorders are generally prohibitive.  Otherwise, anyone who is reasonably well adjusted, open to new experiences and personal growth, and those who are committed to the process can do it, whether by simple choice or as an aspect of identity. 

Monogamy creates for many a desired sense of security.  Becoming good at polyamory almost always requires giving that up in order to stretch, grow and challenge internalized cultural messaging.  Failing to do this as to what is and is not ethically and morally acceptable is not an option if we are to reach a safe and secure comfort level with sharing with others our loved one's heart, time and attention.  A fair number of people find that the transition is more difficult than they imagined and tend to be those for whom a poly life is a choice.  They don't have that sense of identity that others find the need to fulfill.  No problem!  

"... or is it something some people are." 

Yes.  Or at least it is for many of us.  You've heard from quite a few people who feel a strong sense that this is exactly who they are.  It seems that like so many debates about complicated, emotionally charged subjects, the answers are not found in the black or the white but are instead found in the gray area.  Some of us are doing it because we like it but could live without it in order to gain something else of value.  Others can't imagine being any other way and make sure to choose partners who share their perspective. 

Thanks for discussing this and for considering all the feedback.   


James Jones said...

See, I do have to side with Dan here in that I think that being poly is a choice for most people.

In my experience(I was in a poly arrangement for six and a half years) poly was a set of relationship tools. A way of communicating, arranging, and expanding relationships in a sane and ethical manner.

For a number of years I learned how to use this tool set and was even happy-ish during that time.

After the relationship ended I realized that I was a fool and resolved not to date again.

After a few months I was persuaded to give monogamous dating another try and I have never been happier. Having a person whose sole relationship job to make me happy? Not having to spend hours processing? Not having to troll munches, conferences, support groups, etc. to find an extra person so that I could have as much intimacy as I felt I needed? Much better than any reward I could get with poly.

If poly was an orientation then this would not be true. I would be even more miserable in the mongamous situation because I can't go have sex with/date/soul bond/whatever with any person I come across.

Such is not the case.

And before you say it, yes, there were good points to being poly and yes, I was deeply traumatized by it overall. It's been over a year and the feeling of failure is still there.

Unknown said...

I liked Eva Hopkins comment: "[a kind of] Kinsey scale of gayness to straightness" applied to monogamy to polyamory. Although some of the comments regard this discussion as a "stale" issue, I think it needs revitalization if only because of the muddled thinking by Mr. S and others.
If anything, I hope many will take from this that polyamory is distinct from sexual orientation (poly people can be GLB or straight, or...all other sexual inclinations) and that there may be a grayscale (50 shades of) between those who go in and out of polyamory on occasion and those who are completely polyamorous (i.e. they assert it as part of their identity).
Pity that "PP" (who started this argument with DS) didn't realize he should have told his prospective partner that he was poly and would not change before he became involved with her!

Check this out said...

Not having to troll munches, conferences, support groups, etc. to find an extra person so that I could have as much intimacy as I felt I needed?

Anonymous said...

I am poly. There have been times in my life when was in monogamous relationships but it always felt like a lie, like something was missing. The language that the Gay community Uses to express their biological imperative is exactly right for me. If someone puts a gun to my head I could probably pretend to be satisfied with monogamy or being single. Millions of gays were forced to pretend to be straight. So Dan is gay a choice?

Stentor said...

"Mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, depression, malignant narcissism, and oppositional personality disorders are generally prohibitive."

This is false, and ableist. I know numerous people who have mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety disorders, who are quite successful at polyamory. Sure, those conditions present special challenges in arranging poly relationships -- just like they do in arranging monogamous relationships, or friendships, or employment relationships, or being alone. I see no reason that poly is especially problematic for someone with depression or anxiety who is otherwise poly-inclined.

Anita Wagner Illig said...

Stentor, I hear what you are saying. In saying these are generally prohibitive, I'm referring to those who are new to polyamory and not those who are experienced and managing their condition appropriately. I'm also reflecting my own observations over the past 16 years or so and conversations held with individuals in that situation and therapists who have clients there. But there are also definitely exceptions, and I wouldn't want to discourage someone who was strongly inclined toward poly if their condition is under control.

Still, uncontrolled chronic depression and/or anxiety will almost always make the process of coping with unexpected emotions that often arise while newly experiencing sharing a beloved with another for the first time much more difficult. Those conditions exacerbate the challenges when in play. I've observed this a fair number of times and talked with some who have had that experience or in partnership with someone who did. For a fair number of people it ends up being a dealbreaker as it steepens the initial emotional climb. And yes, sometimes it turns out that way without the additional challenges when we are in uncharted emotional territory.

I don't wish to signal any sort of disrespect for people with mental or emotional challenges. I also am glad you asked about this so I have the opportunity to clarify that statement. Thanks.