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On another forum I read, someone made a complaint that folks in the poly community tend to see monogamy in terms of ownership and control; that is, for many poly folks, monogamy is about owning your other partner, while polyamory is more egalitarian, treating other people as fully actualized human beings.

And, sadly, I've encountered poly folks who do believe that. The misguided notion that polyamory is "more evolved" than monogamy comes, in many cases, from the assumption that monogamy is inherently rooted in ownership and polyamory is inherently egalitarian.

As with many preconceptions, it's possible, if one squints hard enough, to see where this idea comes from. There's nothing inherently wrong or controlling about monogamy per se; monogamy, by itself, is not necessarily disempowering or ownership-based.

But there is some truth to the notion that monogamy as a cultural norm comes with a set of social expectations that are deeply planted in the soil of ownership of others.

People in our society are expected to believe not just in monogamy, but in a whole set of social expectations that comes along with it. People say things like "you let your wife spend time with other men?" or "you let your husband talk to his ex?" as though it is natural and expected that we should be able to control who our partners interact with. People say things like "I would never allow my partner to masturbate" or "I would never permit my partner to fantasize about other people" as if it is normal to control our partners' bodies and minds.

Not every monogamous person does this, of course. But these ideas are very commonly attached to our social expectations of monogamy; monogamy as a social institution began in cultures in which ideas of ownership were deeply embedded, and those ideas have proved very tenacious.

There's a problem, though, in that polyamory is not necessarily any better.

People who live outside the cultural mainstream love to believe that they have escaped the petty social norms that enslave all the other sheeple still trapped in the spider web of normative behavior. In reality, though, cultural ideas have an insidious way of seeping into us even when we're aware of them. Simply knowing that we were raised in a climate of ownership assumptions about sex and love doesn't make us immune to internalizing them. In fact, many, many people in the poly community cling just as strongly to paradigms of ownership and control as they believe all those poor "unevolved" monogamous folks do--they simply manifest differently, that's all.

I've been putting some thought to the sneaky ways that social expectations can creep into relationships even when they're outside the social mainstream. Here are some examples I've come up with.

Control paradigm Egalitarian paradigm
I let you have other partners. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you who, under what circumstances, when, and how you may have other partners. You are a human being with the right to make your own choices about having other partners. I will tell you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, and trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.

I let you have sex with other people. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you how you may or may not have sex or otherwise control the timing or manner of your sexual activity. You have an intrinsic right to make choices about your sexuality. I will communicate you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, because I trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.

My sexual health is your responsibility. I will set limits on your behavior to ensure that you only engage in sexual activity that meets my sexual risk limits. My sexual health is my responsibility. I will communicate to you my sexual health boundaries, risk limits, and concerns. Because your risk limits and concerns may not match mine, you are free to make whatever choices with your own sexual health that you like. If your behavior exceeds my threshold of risk, I have the right to change the sexual relationship between you and I, including adding barriers or even ending it entirely. If having a sexual relationship with me is something you value, you can make choices to remain within my levels of acceptable risk.

I may fetishize your other sexual partners for my gratification. I have the right to tell you how to or not to have sex and/or demand the intimate details of your sexual activites for my sexual gratification. Your sexual activity with other people and your other partners are not merely for my sexual gratification. I will accept your right to choose sexual activities that you and your other partner find fulfilling, and that you and your other partner have a right to privacy about your own intimacy.

If I am sexually attracted to your other partners, it is your responsibility to share them with me. You have an obligation to provide me with access to your partners if I want it.

Your other partners are human beings. As they are not your property, it is not your obligation to make them sexually available to me.
My sexual partners are mine. You are not permitted to express an interest in them; if I want to keep them to myself, this overrides the wishes or desires of both you and my other partners. My other sexual partners are human beings. As they are not my property, I do not have the right to "keep" them; they are people, not things, capable of making their own decisions about sexual intimacy and partner choices.

My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are your responsibility. I have the right to control your behavior and/or the behavior of your other partners in order to manage my fears and insecurities. My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are my responsibility. I have the right to communicate with you about them, and to ask for your help in dealing with them. Because you love and cherish me, you will work with me to help me when I am afraid or insecure. These feelings do not give me the right to dictate your choices, however.

I have the right to ensure that you may have other partners only to the extent that your other partners do not affect me or our relationship. I may limit or control your other relationships so as to make sure they do not affect me. I understand that there are many uncertainties in life. Everything from a new job to being fired to illness to family of origin problems to being hit by a runaway bus may affect our relationship together. When your other partnerships affect me in a way that concerns me, I have the right and the responsibility to communicate with you about it, so that we can work together to address my concerns.

Your other relationships exist only on my say-so and only for so long as I permit. I have the right to order you to terminate any of your other relationships if I feel it is necessary or desirable. Your other partners are people with needs and feelings; they have have the right to explore and develop their relationship with you, to be supported by you, and to expect that their relationship with you will continue for so long as it benefits you and them. I may reasonably expect that they will respect the relationship between you and I; they may reasonably expect that I will respect the relationship between you and them.

Understanding my needs is your responsibility. If you fail to meet my needs or expectations, even if I have not made them explicitly clear, you have wronged me, and I have the right to control your behavior so as to ensure they are met. Understanding my needs is my responsibility. Communicating my needs with you is also my responsibility. You can not be expected to meet any needs of mine that you are not aware of. I may ask for your help in making sure I am taken care of, and trust that you value me and want to take care of my needs.

The relationship between me and your other partner is your responsibility. I may require that you arrange meetings between us, that you keep the other person separate from me, that you ensure I am comfortable with your other partner, or otherwise make it your responsibility to manage the relationship between us.

The relationship I have with your other partner is our responsibility. As I am an adult and your other partner is an adult, it is on each of us to negotiate what kind of relationship we want to have with each other.
I permit you to have other relationships only so long as they are subordinate to me. The people with whom you develop relationships have needs and feelings, and have just as much right as I have to asking your help in meeting them. Should our needs run into conflict, we can come together to communicate and negotiate as adult human beings; I may not claim authority over another human being merely because I met you first.

I have the right to control your emotional engagement with other people. This includes the right to tell you that you may not experience certain emotions (for example, you may not fall in love with another partner) and/or the right to control the extent to which you feel emotions with others.

Your emotional experience is one of the most fundamental parts of who you are as a person. I recognize that it is impossible for us as human beings to place arbitrary controls on our emotions.
I have the right to control how far and to what extent you become entangled with other people. For example, I may forbid you to become financially entangled with other partners. Decisions about how to conduct your life can only be made by you. Realistically, whatever promises you have made and whatever rules I have made, there is nothing short of a shotgun and a length of chain that compels you to stay with me. I have the right to expect that you will uphold agreements you have made with me, and I have the right to expect that your decisions will account for the responsibilities you have incurred with me. Beyond that, I can not realistically lay claim to your autonomy; even if I want to, it is not possible for me to compel your decisions.

I have the right to control your expressions of love, affection, or feelings for others. I may forbid you to give gifts to other partners, do errands with other partners, use certain pet names with other partners, or have certain experiences with other partners. The way you express love is one of the most intimate of all choices you can make. Attempts to dictate how you may or may not do this are not only extremely intrusive, they may undermine the foundations of your other relationships. As long as you express the love you feel for me with me, it is not necessary for me to control your expressions with others.

My emotions are your responsibility. If I feel something that I don't want to feel.this is your fault, and I may limit your behavior as a result. My emotions are my responsibility. Even when they are surprising or unpleasant, they belong to me. I have the reponsibility to communicate with you about my emotions, and I may ask for your help in feeling loved and supported by you.

I have the right to define your other relationships. As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to define your relationship for yourselves.

I have the authority to place your other relationships in a hierarchy of my choosing. As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to determine the shape of your relationship. I have the responsibility to communicate my needs to you; as long as you are able and willing to work with me to meet those needs, the ordering of your other relationships is a decision between you and your other partners.

Agreements between you and I are binding on any other partners you may have.

All the people involved have a right to negotiate any agreements that may affect us.

I'm sure there are more. What are your experiences?


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
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Feb. 11th, 2013 09:00 pm (UTC)
This is excellent.
Feb. 11th, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
This is an incredibly useful post, thank you.
Feb. 11th, 2013 09:25 pm (UTC)
This is great.

A personal pet peeve of mine is treating a person as a highly-interactive sex toy within the confines of an opened (not even polyamorous, because it tends to veer far out of the realm of polyamory--though when I've seen this it's sometimes occurred with people that label themselves as polyamorous) relationship. I.e. within the control paradigm: We will put our relationship above all others. We will share a partner and then when he/she is perceived as a threat or he/she is no longer interesting or exciting we can break things off with him/her without any regard for his/her feelings or autonomy.
Feb. 11th, 2013 09:29 pm (UTC)
But of course, this is problematized by the existence of individuals for whom unequal power or ownership is a big part of their kink or relationship, and so long as they're all good with it and buy into it, I don't think one can simply say that they're wrong.

In other thoughts, I'd add:

Our other relationships are there to address a bug/feature in our relationship, and that is their primary function.


Our other relationships are their own creations and exist and flourish and find their ways independently of our relationship with one another. A relationship may overlap with and address something I need that you and I don't focus on, but that is only a part of my relationship with that person, just as the things we are and do together is only a part of our relationship.
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(no subject) - joreth - Feb. 12th, 2013 04:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - sashajwolf - Feb. 12th, 2013 08:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - khall - Feb. 13th, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 14th, 2013 02:26 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think a lot of us start on the left and move to the right. But it's wonderful to see what the best version of poly could/should look like!
(no subject) - dawnd - Feb. 14th, 2013 09:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tiny_nomad - Feb. 14th, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cunning_plans - Feb. 14th, 2013 07:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 12th, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thank you for sharing this.
Feb. 12th, 2013 04:33 pm (UTC)
This is where I get the phrase Monogamous Mindset (TM), and why I add the disclaimer whenever I use it that not all monogamous people have the Monogamous Mindset, and that people in non-monogamous relationships can still retain the MM. The MM is that collection of social expectations that go along with monogamy that many people (non-mono included) take as a given part of relationships. I don't know who used that phrase first, or where I saw it, but it was helpful to have a phrase to distinguish between that collection of expectations and the act of relating to a single romantic partner (or being married to a single partner, depending on one's definition of "monogamy").

And, as I also so often say, polyamory and monogamy are not all that different, for all that the number of partners differ. Habits, practices, mindsets, assumptions, expectations, and even solutions are quite often universal. If the "solution" to a poly problem is often the same as the solution to a monogamous problem (i.e. what about the children? - handle kids the same way any other "non-traditional" family handles kids, like single moms or adopted parents), then it stands to reason that the problems themselves are often the same as well, and that being polyamorous is not like some Life Graduation certificate, where we only earn the right to call ourselves Polyamorous (like "doctor") after passing some exam that leaves us more "enlightened" than other folk.

Edited at 2013-02-12 04:34 pm (UTC)
Feb. 12th, 2013 08:52 pm (UTC)
--- PART 1 ---

I feel this article makes a few good points, but overall merely slaughters a few straw men.

"People who live outside the cultural mainstream love to believe that they have escaped the petty social norms that enslave all the other sheeple still trapped in the spider web of normative behavior." - This is certainly true for all sorts of people outside the mainstream, not just in relation to one's partnership behaviours. However, it doesn't really fit with my personal impression of people who identify as polyamorous. While there may be some youthful exuberance at the recognition that one can have multiple meaningful relationships, I don't think polyamory is driven by a particular desire to "be alternative" or "transcend the mainstream". The article makes it sound as if poly people are driven by some sort of ideology, when in fact it's usually simply a discovery they've made about what works and doesn't work for them in relationships. It seems to me that polyamorous people are *very* acutely aware of cultural narratives of ownership, and they know very well that they are *not* immune to them. Instead, successfully maintaining a poly network of relationships requires a great deal of self-reflection about precisely the sort of cultural influences, lapses of communication and empathy, and personal insecurities that make a less monopolistic model of relationships such a challenge.

I'm not sure what sort of argument the "control paradigm" vs "egalitarian paradigm" table in the article is supposed to support, but it certainly works as an indicator that the author seems to confuse "open relationships" with "polyamory". Since everyone may have different interpretations of such terms, here is my take. I'll try to argue that the difference is important:
There are many ways of being non-monogamous. One of them is what Dan Savage calls "monogamish"; other terms are "open", "poly", etc ... Of course it's up to individual partners to define what their relationship(s) mean to them, and dictionary definitions are not the way to resolve such practical tasks. However, talking about the topic, I do think there are significant differences between some terms, even if not all of them are clearly defined. As a shortcut, I'd suggest that "open" usually means partners allow each other some level of involvement with others (this can include all sorts of sexual behaviours and various levels of emotional involvement, but usually stops short of fully parallel love relationships), and frequently they don't want to know too many details about each other's involvements. (Some enjoy the sexual titillation of hearing what their partner got up to, but not necessarily their emotional involvement). By contrast, "polyamorous" implies (to me and my partners) that one hasn't abandoned the right to be sexually and romantically involved with others in the first place. This difference between "open" and "poly" is reflected very well by the first row in the table in the article linked above. Moreover, rather many poly people seem to be quite interested in their partners' involvements, and not just from a sexual perspective. It's interesting and enlightening to understand what a partner finds attractive, fascinating, sexy, and adorable in someone else, and it's good to know that they, in turn, are communicating about the things that are important to them.

I feel that the article is correct in pointing out all those ways in which the "control paradigm" can slip into any kind of relationship, but I don't think the assertion that poly people feel somehow immune to those dangers is correct. Instead, they are perhaps more aware (sometimes from bitter experience) than others of all the ways things can go wrong if trust and communication break down. Certainly the "Egalitarian Paradigm" column lists the sort of attitudes that polyamorous folks identify with, and "Control Paradigm" are the pitfalls they strive to avoid. I don't feel they claim to be immune to them.

Feb. 12th, 2013 08:53 pm (UTC)
--- PART 2 ---

Having said that, and returning to the beginning of the article, a lot of poly people do feel that monogamy centres around ownership and control, and polyamory is more egalitarian. That's because ... well, because it *is*. That's not to say things can go wrong; and of course monogamous couples can be very egalitarian, too, but the fact remains that monogamy is built around a (comforting?) monopoly granted to each other with respect to some activities, and some of it doesn't make all that much sense. (Particular activities are ruled out, and some emotions, too, presumably because one can't trust a partner to love one if they are also acting on their attraction to someone else. The attraction itself is fine, as long as it's never expressed. On the other hand, trust and honesty are valued.)

The author then acts as if the recognition of this difference means that poly people think that their perspective is "more evolved". I don't think that's the case. Different things work for different folks; however, there are clearly indications that a lot of people can love more than one person (often that's not welcome, as in being in love with the ex, while also loving the new partner), and certainly people can have sexual fun with a trusted partner, even if they are not in love, so it would seem that many more people might want to consider looking into polyamory as a happy, fulfilling, and nurturing way to conduct relationships. Poly people often recognise that, because of their own experiences, so they might want to spread the news, since we are indeed quite caught up in notions of ownership and control, and there may be different, more communicative, and more egalitarian ways to approach relationships.
May. 30th, 2013 04:32 pm (UTC)
the fact remains that monogamy is built around a (comforting?) monopoly granted to each other with respect to some activities

Speaking as a monogamous person, that is absolutely not what I have built it around. I identify as monogamous because as far as I can tell I am NOT capable of loving more than one person at once and am not particularly interested in having sex with people other than my spouse. I still find other people pretty to look at and even occasionally fun to fantasize about but the actual experience of forming a relationship, sexual or emotional, with someone else is just not something I am interested in or that I expect would add to my happiness.

The fact that I am married to someone who identifies as polyamorous and thus feels differently is a challenge. I might wish that he felt differently and would "grant me a monopoly" in some sense (really, if he only wanted me the way I want him there would be no monopoly involved - it would just be both of us being happy with each other). But the fact that he does not does not change MY identification as monogamous because that identification is about the kind of relationships I am capable of.
Feb. 13th, 2013 01:48 am (UTC)
As always, Franklin, you are beautiful and I love the way you communicate. I've already shared this with folks. xx
Feb. 13th, 2013 07:47 pm (UTC)
Nice catch on the idea of "this is a privilege I grant you" especially as we debate the rights v. privileges question in so many other parts of our daily lives.

"for many poly folks, monogamy is about owning your other partner..."

Franklin (and Joreth), don't forget that that ownership idea comes straight out of our history. After all, the marriage contract originated as a way to control property so, in many respects, wives became chattel, along with the slaves and the trinkets.

We don't believe that anymore, except when we do: "my wife/your lover" is still a pretty typical expression.

Our culture reinforces it. From songs like The Cookies' Chains (written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, btw) to movies like The First Wives Club we implicitly lock our babies up in the chains "of love." Yeah, yeah, the message of First Wives is "you don't own me" but I posit that that underscores the message that "you did own me, once upon a time."

As you say, it sneaks up on us.
Feb. 14th, 2013 12:36 pm (UTC)
I feel a bit bad pointing it out, but you seem like the kind of person who would appreciate it if I'm right:
9th egalitarian paradigm: " I may reasonably expect that they will respect the relationship between you and I"
Shouldn't it be "between you and me"?

I really liked this post, and I agree with it. However, I wonder if there might be a way to simplify it to a smaller number of paradigms and make a poster out of it.
Feb. 14th, 2013 09:33 pm (UTC)
I agree -- I think it has the makings of a good poster. And I also think there are some entries that overlap and could be edited in order to accomplish that. A worthy goal. :)
Feb. 14th, 2013 02:26 pm (UTC)
This is fantastic, well-written, and sorely needed! Thank you for taking the time to put this together so eloquently.

Feb. 14th, 2013 07:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this! I am sort of pasting it all over everywhere.
Feb. 14th, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC)
We don't always see completely eye-to-eye, but on this one, I'm in pretty much complete agreement. :) I still think it's possible to have relationships that look like hierarchies and aren't toxic... but the internal structure of those is closer to your "egalitarian" side than your "control" side, where the terms "primary" or "secondary," etc are being used as a shorthand to denote things like time spent and mutual responsibilities, rather than an assumption of control. And I absolutely agree that the ultimate kicker is that -- no matter what Agreements we may have made! -- there is nothing to compel any of my partners to abide by those Agreements if they change their mind/s (short of a shotgun and a length of chain, as you say, which puts us firmly back in the "control" side.) Negotiating in Good Faith is required to make Agreements work, but if someone is not negotiating in Good Faith, there's not bloody much you can do about it other than choose to leave the relationship or change its form.

Thanks, and I'll be re-posting. :)
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