Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest post: Poly-Mono Judgment

A member of VP101 recently posted this to her blog, and I was impressed with its clarity and fairness.  I asked her if I could re-post it here:

An acquaintance of mine recently complained in her blog about the judging that goes on between monogamous and polyamorous folks, with mono people calling poly people sluts and poly people calling mono people selfish and unenlightened.

In general, I find refreshingly little of this among both the mono & poly people I hang out with IRL. Mostly when I see it, it’s online. (‘Course I also think my mono friends who judge me have just quietly dropped out of my life rather than confront me with their opinions. Which is too bad, because I would have liked a chance to discuss it with them—but it’s their choice.)

I think the whole thing probably stems from envy, fear of judgement or insecurity about people’s own choices. For example, it seems to me that the monogamous people who are most judgemental about poly people are those who either can’t find stable relationships for themselves or have been making themselves miserable trying to maintain long-term, committed monogamous relationships that aren’t making them happy, and have convinced themselves that being unhappy to preserve a relationship makes them more noble (oh, and do poly people ever do this too!). And a lot of poly people do face a hell of a lot of judgement from people in monogamous society (and frankly, that judgement often gets a lot uglier than what poly people lay on mono people), and they can get pretty insecure and defensive. Convincing yourself that you’re superior can be one way to help deal with that.

I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding, too, about what people are really saying. I’ve seen exchanges along these lines:

Mono Person: You, Poly Person, are selfish for wanting more than one partner.

Poly Person: What does selfishness have to do with it? I could just as easily say you are selfish for wanting to keep one partner all to yourself.

Mono Person: How dare you call me selfish?!

Now Poly Person didn’t actually call Mono Person selfish, but was trying to point out that the “selfish” label is subjective and can be applied in either case depending on how you look at it—or depending on the behaviour of the particular mono or poly person—and is therefore useless as a generic label. But Mono Person interpreted it as a judgement on them (perhaps because Poly Person, already in defensive mode, failed to phrase their reply as delicately or eloquently as they could or should have).

(Note that I had Mono Person start the exchange and Poly Person be the more reasonable one because I recently saw almost this exact exchange in a comment thread about a poly documentary, not because I think Mono Person would be less reasonable by default. The same discussion could easily go the other way.)

I can also say with complete honesty that I would have totally failed at polyamory ten or even five years ago because of a lot of unresolved insecurities, and that the work I’ve had to do on myself is what’s made me successful at it now. I can say the same for my husband, and I would venture similar predictions for certain other people I know who I think are poly but just haven’t reached a place in themselves or their lives where they can live that openly (as distinguished from my perfectly happy & secure and truly monogamous friends). So while I’m more secure, less selfish, and perhaps a tiny bit more enlightened than I used to be, and that’s part of what makes poly work for me, that doesn’t mean that I’m more of any of those things than someone else, who may be perfectly happy being monogamous. But if I say that working on my insecurities and selfishness has made me a better poly person, an insecure mono person could interpret that as saying they haven’t done equal work, when in fact, doing the same work would just make them better at being monogamous.

There’s also the issue of people who are mono or poly pretending or trying to be something they’re not, in which case a suggestion that they need to do some soul-searching may be in order. For example, someone who’s really poly, but who either doesn’t know that’s a real option or who says, “I would love to do that, but I’m too jealous/selfish/insecure/afraid/whatever,” can cause a lot of pain to themselves and other people in trying to have monogamous relationships and making themselves and their partner miserable. In those cases, I think it’s fair to point out (in a compassionate and friendly way) that they—and their partners—may be better off in the long run if they work on the issues that keep them from being poly rather than trying to deny their poly-ness. On the other hand, there are monogamous people who stay in poly relationships that don’t make them happy, because they’re afraid to lose a poly partner who they love, or they hope their partner will someday become mono, or they think philosophically they’d be somehow better if they were poly. They probably have some things to figure out, too. And to further confuse matters, there are emotionally monogamous swingers who try to be poly because they can’t admit they just want casual sex, and they also hurt themselves and other people—and maybe also deserve a kick in the pants to get them to ‘fess up to what they really want or need. But—in an online forum in particular—a response about the individual behaviour of any one of these people is likely to be interpreted as an overarching judgement on all people of that “type,” at least if the speaker/writer is a poor communicator (or prone to generalizations), or the listener/reader is inclined toward defensiveness and starting flame wars.

Anyway, I’ve seen pretty much equal amounts of selfishness, sluttiness and enlightenment among both mono and poly people. (Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with being a slut, mind you.)

And then there are the young ‘uns, who are convinced no matter what that their choices—whether they involve veganism or born-again Christianity or polyamory—are the only right ones, period. (Not that I’ve ever been like that, of course.) For them, all we can really do is model patience and tolerance and wait for them to grow up.

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