Polyamory and the Distinction Between Practical and Preferential Considerations

I had an interesting conversation the other day about polyamory and monogamy and what makes someone naturally inclined toward one or the other. There is an aspect of the language people use around poly and monogamy and preferences that I have a problem with that I had never been able to articulate clearly before this conversation. I’m still not sure I can articulate it perfectly, but at this point I feel confident enough to give it a go.

I’ve had a number of conversations with people who have said that they could never do polyamory because they get too jealous. I think this is a completely understandable reaction to the idea of polyamory, and a completely understandable decision to make for oneself. At times, though, I have heard this decision with respect to jealousy conflated with the idea of being “naturally” monogamous*. That idea sits less well with me, and I think I have finally figured out how to express why.

In my mind, jealousy is a different beast altogether from relationship style preference. In my mind, saying that you are “naturally monogamous” because you have too much jealousy in poly situations sounds similar to saying something like, “I’m heterosexual because I always get really jealous in relationships with people of the same gender as me”. The idea that you might choose not to date people with whom you routinely become destructively jealous is a completely reasonable one, but I don’t think that making that decision makes a bisexual** person heterosexual, and by the same token, I don’t think that making that decision is what separates naturally poly people from naturally monogamous people.

Part of this thought process stemmed from thinking about a post that Natalie Reed made a while back, in which she related an anecdote about a conversation she had with Matt Dillahunty:

Matt was describing his days in the Navy, back when he was still a conservative Christian, and told the story of how he once had to fire a guy who was a good sailor and good at his job because of DADT. He then talked a bit about how his views on homosexuality have evolved over time. Matt said that a long time ago he used to find two men kissing to be disgusting, and he had a reaction of revulsion to it. But while attending the recent wedding of two friends of his, gay men, his reaction when they kissed was one of happiness for them. No revulsion, just dawww.

That’s all well and good, but what jumped out at me was how Matt then stated that this leads him to believe that he’s become “more gay”, relative to the Kinsey scale, over time…it wasn’t the spectruming itself that got to me so much as the description of his revulsion with homosexuality as being a condition of straightness…the opposite of attraction is not disgust. The opposite of attraction is boredom.

I’m leaving out a lot of really interesting discussion about gender and orientation theory that goes on in the post for the sake of brevity; read the full post for the full experience. For now, the point that I want to make is that the distinction Natalie Reed makes here is similar to the one that hit me in the brain the other day: that in the same way that the opposite of being homosexual isn’t being disgusted by homosexuality, the opposite of being “naturally” poly isn’t having jealousy issues with poly. The opposite of being “naturally” poly is being uninterested in poly. It’s being bored by the idea of poly in the first place. Jealousy is a practical consideration, not a preferential consideration.

This may be a purely semantic point to make. As I said before, the fact that I make this distinction doesn’t mean that I think it’s a bad idea to decide to be monogamous because you have jealousy in poly relationships. I think that can be a perfectly rational, valid, good decision to make. I just don’t think that it’s exactly the same thing as being naturally monogamous. The point may be purely academic, but it’s helping me think about things up here in my brain, so I’m writing it out.

* The phrase “naturally monogamous” is here being used in a style roughly analogous to “heterosexual”, where “monogamous” would be more analogous to “in practice only dating people of the opposite gender”.

**  Using binary terms for the sake of the simplicity of the analogy. Not sure how to keep this readable and also acknowledge the full breadth of genders and sexual orientations. Any terminology or phrasing advice on this is welcome.


8 comments on “Polyamory and the Distinction Between Practical and Preferential Considerations

  1. I do get amused when people say polyamory can’t work, and then go on to cite problems they’ve had with their supposedly monogamous relationship. I do believe that some people are monogamous, some people are polyamorous, and some people can be happy and function well in either a monogamous or polyamorous relationship, depending on who they are in the relationship with. A rough analogy is that some people people are heterosexual, some gay, and then there are some who are bisexual. A gay person is gay whether or not they are in a relationship. Likewise, there are people who are polyamorous even if they are only seeing one person or nobody at all.

  2. I love this post. The notion of polamory has fascinated me for a while now. I have given it much consideration over the last say 5 years or so and I am decidedly “naturally monogamous”.

    Thing is, I got to this conclusion via-a-vie the constant badgering of men I have dated to participate in a threesome.

    “The opposite of being “naturally” poly is being uninterested in poly. It’s being bored by the idea of poly in the first place”

    I have never had a threesome. I have on a few occasions “almost” been in a threesome but it just never panned out. If in those moments they had well, so be it, I’m always up for new experiences.

    Honestly it is something I would have tried in a HS or college “experimental” phase where EVERYTHING about sex was novel and exciting. As I evolved in my own sexuality, found what really got my blow horns blowing I had an epiphany.

    It wasn’t so much jealousy or lack of attraction to women that led me to continually reject threesomes, it was, as you as you states; it wasn’t interesting to me.

    This came to me after about the 50th time I was propositioned and suddenly when one man asked “why not”, I had an answer. “Think of this way, it’s the same as if you accompanied me to go shoe shopping for 9 hours straight, that idea “turn you on? Or does it sound like the most boring thing you could possibly do?”. I think that got through to them, and more importantly it got through to me.

    • That makes a lot of sense. It’s one of those things that’s strange to me on an intuitive level, because poly feels so natural and awesome to me. But it’s important for me to remember that there really are people who just don’t find it interesting at all, so I don’t turn into one of those obnoxious “everyone should be poly” people. It’s probably helpful that I’m mostly heterosexual (heteroflexible, we’ll say), in that it gives me an easy way to remember that, in other ways, there are things that I am not nearly as interested in as other people, too — guys.

  3. I totally agree with this. I’ve heard so many people say “I could never be poly, I’m just too jealous of a person by nature.” An additional thing that bothers me about that framing is that it assumes that those of us who are poly do it because it’s easy for us. The reality is that it’s not always easy, a lot of us struggle with jealousy too, we’ve just made a choice to handle jealousy in a different way. One of my partners used to be an *incredibly* jealous person before we opened up our relationship, and after more than 3 years of being happily poly, he scoffs at anyone who says “I couldn’t do that, I’m a jealous person.”

    • Yeah, it’s a difficult thing to find the right language around, I find. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to make relationship choices based on what they react negatively to emotionally. I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s choice to be monogamous, and I think there is some risk of unintentionally doing that in these discussions. Particularly given how naturally and comfortably poly has worked for me, I think it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone would find poly as freeing as I have. That said, if someone is fascinated by the idea and the only thing stopping them is the “jealous person” thing, then I often think that it’s probably a much more attainable goal than they realize, and not so much a hardwired-for-monogamy problem.

  4. Definitely food for thought, I think many more people would be poly except for the social and religious stigma attached to it…they want to be good people regarding these measures. Also if there is only one poly person within a relationship they would tend to squash the relevant feelings in order not to hurt their beloved partner.

  5. There are a lot of classification distinctions made about poly preferences (as there are of gender preferences). In my experience, I don’t see behavioral differences between poly and mono people with respect to jealousy. That is, both groups seem to have similar jealousies at times from insecurities in their relationships. Also, I believe there is a sliding scale between mono, binary and poly groupings. As an example, I know mono couples who might consider a poly relationship if they found the right person.

    I do think you touch upon some recurring intersections of poly, jealousy, bisexuality. I would be interested in your thoughts on what relationship they have (if any) to kink, too.

    • Yeah, this whole post was written with a more binary frame on orientation, gender, and mono/poly than I actually think exists in reality. I definitely also know people who are varying degrees of comfortable with either monogamy or polyamory, and monogamous people who make allowances for a variety of different subcategories of types of relationships outside their main one (e.g. kink).

      I haven’t heard people express the same types of thoughts with respect to kink in the sense that they don’t think they’re kinky because they experience a lot of jealousy when interacting in kinky ways. I do think it’s fascinating to see how people who identify as monogamous incorporate kink into relationships that aren’t with their monogamous partners. The sheer variety of the ways that people do this speaks to the incredibly non-binary nature of the whole question, I think.

      The kink question is an interesting one for me as well, because I’m not sure I could do kink with people outside of my relationship if I were traditionally monogamous. Kink is too often too powerfully sexual of thing for me to be able to deliberately divorce it from the rest of my sexuality. I can do kink casually in the same manner that I’m capable of doing sex casually, but if I were in a relationship that was supposed to be sexually exclusive, doing kink people outside the relationship would blur that line incredibly heavily.

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