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Polyamory gains strange traction in the mainstream: except we're calling it monogamy

Because "monogamy" doesn't have the root for "one" in it
Because "monogamy" doesn't have the root for "one" in it
From the Washington Post:

Alan at Polyamory in the News is generally the great follower of news stories about polyamory, but a recent post of his incited me to do a little news analysis of my own.  It's a review of an article in Psychotherapy Networker entitled "The New Monogamy."  The jist of said article?  That therapists need to become aware of how common infidelity is in marriages, and that it is not always a catastrophic, marriage-ending thing.  In fact, some couples even do it openly, honestly, and with prior agreement.  The author, Tammy Nelson, even mentions couples in her care who have children and arrange dates with other partners that might sound familiar to some of us: one parent goes out while the other stays home with the kids; one partner has a lover in for the night, or both have lovers in for the night and they all have breakfast together.

And yet, throughout the article, as Alan points out, she refuses to use the word "polyamory."  Instead, she coins the term, "New Monogamy."  This strikes me as somewhat ridiculous, especially as polyamory has such a wide-ranging definition.  As Alan quips, "Are non-vegetarians 'The New Vegetarians'?"

It makes me wonder what it is about the word "polyamory," or even the phrase "open marriage," which Nelson also eschews, that is so objectionable to people that they have to couch clearly non-monogamous lifestyles as some other brand of monogamy.  Alan points out that in Nelson's case, she's generally speaking of committed marriages that allow outside relationships (even ones that look suspiciously like poly ones), but where the central, primary relationship trumps.  I don't want to be pedantic here, but I know plenty of poly relationships where this model is what works, and they don't call it monogamy, new or old.

It looks to me like a trend that affects the mainstream whenever something that a handful of outliers have been doing for decades starts to become more common: the mainstream not only tries to pretend that they made it up first, but also to fit it neatly into their already-established thought-forms and institutions, the ones that have kept them safe for centuries.  After all, the millions of straight people who are protected socially, economically and legally by the institution of marriage wouldn't want to admit that they were doing something that isn't monogamy - the only factor left, as Nelson points out, that distinguishes modern marriage from other types of relationships.  So let's not call it poly, or swinging, or open marriage.

Long-time poly advocate Deborah Anapol takes a different view in Psychology Today; she believes that Nelson's article "heralds the acceptance of non-monogamy as a new norm in the culture. Back in the 1950's serial monogamy was called serial polygamy. It was only when it was renamed serial monogamy that it became accepted as the most common style of marriage. So let's hear it for the new monogamy."  This is all very well, but it is still frustrating when a society that is using heterosexual privilege and  a strict "one man, one woman" definition to keep the rights and advantages of marriage out of the hands of "perverts" decides that they can change the definition of "monogamy" to suit their own desires.

What this stubbornness doesn't take into account is how much having a new model for relationships can free people from the confines of an existing system that so often fails.  In another gem I stumbled across this week in Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams reviews a book called Sugarbabe in which an ex-professional mistress argues for "negotiated infidelity."  It's hard to say which is more annoying: the book itself, which sugggests that since men are so likely to cheat, women should empower themselves by negotiating it and having some control over it and thus saving their marriages, or Williams' review, which insists that because love and lust are so ungovernable that allowing one's true love to be with someone else must perforce be impossible in the real world.  Williams does get at one point that I agreed with: the continual message in mainstream life that men cheat while women, with their puny sex drives, remain faithful is infuriating.  Apparently the author of Sugarbabe's only concession to women potentially having needs as well is to suggest that they also negotiate infidelity: not because they want to, but because doing so will set off the competitve drive in their husbands and make them want to stay.  As Williams points out, it indulges in all the hatefully misogynist relationship advice that women's magazines are guilty of.

Again, in this whole mess there is no mention of the concept of polyamory, except perhaps in the comments, where every reasonable person who mentions it and patiently explains is shot down by a crowd of reactionary trolls who know so much about human nature and every person in the world that they are sure such an agreement never works. 

My chief question is this: in this world where a scandal erupts daily about some politician, preacher or other prominent figure having an affair, where 50% of marriages end in divorce, where the union between a man and woman is enshrined in the public sphere to such an extent that gay couples who have been together for 25 years have to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees just to arrange to be able to visit their dying partners in the this society where the concept of marriage is so much more of a rarely attained ideal than a reality, and so many are living hypocritical lives, why must we fight so hard to protect the idea?  The striving for the ideal of marriage and monogamy is making so many people miserable, and yet they will fight tooth and nail to insist that it is the Only One True Way, no matter how you have to suffer.  And then they have the nerve to take the concepts and ideas of polyamory, concepts that many of us have been beta-testing for years and finding our hearts and happiness in, and try to fold them into their definitions of monogamy.

It's not unlike the gay marriage debate itself, in which many people who are against "gay marriage" are fine with the concept of "civil unions."  They just don't want their precious word adulterated.  But so long as they can control the definition, it's okay to include infidelity and even emotional affairs into the umbrella of "monogamy."

Not only does this strike me as intellectual laziness, but it also smacks horribly of heterosexual privilege.  I myself am married, and as such I reap the benefits.  However, I refused to get married until gay marriage became legal in my state of Massachusetts.  I had already been living a bisexual, polyamorous life for some time, and was deliberate about tossing away some of the privilege I'd been born with as an (ostensibly) straight, white woman by following my own path toward a life that brought me greater fulfillment.  Many people I know have done similarly, and some have even been dignified but dogged advocates for those who choose alternative paths. 

And so it's not surprising that it irks me to see the straight mainstream - whether it is family therapists or writers of titillating memoirs - soaking up the concepts of polyamory and open marriage into their well-established, privileged models of relationship.  I don't resent monogamy or monogamists, truly I don't.  But I do have a respect for language, and the struggles it often represents.

Finally, I'd hate to see a world emerge where everyone has to keep reinventing the wheel.  As Alan points out, it is frustrating that nowhere in the many-page Psychotherapy Networker article does Nelson point out the resources already available to therapists treating polyamorous couples and groups, nor the enormous support available from online and in-person groups.  Polyamory is not uncharted territory, and yet to the mainstream media, any kind of open relationships are still viewed through the lens of exoticism and titillation.  It is my sincere hope that as ideas about open relationships gain more traction in the mainstream, that those who have been quietly dwelling ahead of the curve can offer advice, support, and education.


  • Alan M. 4 years ago

    Hi Kamela, and thanks for the compliments!

    Nelson says she is working on a book that will be titled "The New Monogamy." I suspect this is why she's promoting the term to the exclusion of others.

  • David 4 years ago

    Agreed that this sort of appropriation is annoying, for precisely the reasons you describe. That said, if the easiest way for various sorts of queer to gain mainstream acceptance is for the mainstream to redefine itself to co-opt it... I'm actually kind of OK with that.

  • Pepper 4 years ago

    You've kind of already said this, and I'm sure you understand it, but I want to restate it anyways.

    The reason phrases like "the new monogamy" or "managed monogamy" pop up frequently is because people want to be nonmonogamous, but don't want to suffer the stigma associated with being promiscuous. Even "negotiated infidelity" sounds better to the mainstream than being slutty or a swinger, as infidelity is comparatively better accepted. Poly people know this stigma well - we are accused of being sluts, people assume we cannot commit, poly people lose jobs and family, etc.

    I agree that trying this sort of end run around being labeled as promiscuous is intellectually lazy and smacks of cowardice, though I would not begrudge people their personal strategies, given the stigma involved. But at the same time, I don't think it will work, or at least requires closeting. The stigma only stays away until one's coworkers and friends figure out what a "new monogamous" person is actually do

  • Draxar 4 years ago

    Interesting and telling article. I remember getting quite annoyed with my friends at one of their's wedding, when they were calmly stating that it was self evident that poly couldn't work.

    One statistic you've used that I would question though, is the divorce rate. That, as I understand it, is based on divorces this year versus marriages this year. Which tells you very little, as the marriages could've been from last year or from thirty years ago.

  • anon 4 years ago

    Sounds like the poly community needs to suck it up and finally face up to their heavy overlap with the swinging community. The reason the term polyamory isn't used is because it doesn't apply -- unless you're willing to accept that very short-term, enjoyment-only "infidelity" is part of the community as well, in which case poly folks can quit howling so loudly when they're confused with swingers already. Their own holier-than-thou attitude is what causes the "problem" addressed in this article.

  • Kamela 4 years ago

    @Anon: I'm not as concerned that people practicing swinging or other extra-marital adventures call themselves polyamorous as that they not call themselves monogamous; the term is disingenuous. Also, what exactly is holier-than-thou about wanting to offer a home or platform for those who wish to buck the monogamous mainstream, however they choose to do it?

  • Kamela 4 years ago

    @Draxar: Sorry; you've probably caught *me* in some intellectual laziness there. :) That statistic is one that people tend to throw around pretty casually, and I did the same here to make a quick point, and perhaps a cheap one.

    However, if the statistic is measured as you say, and it has been fairly consistent over a number of years, it doesn't seem to me to matter when within the marriages the divorces are taking place - there are still, if my calculations are correct, half as many marriages ending in any given year as marriages starting?

    Still, it'd be neat to see the breakdown.

  • Jim Catano 4 years ago

    I love it when someone coins a snappy new term that perfectly describes a new (or even old) situation. I detest it when people dink around with perfectly good words attempting to manipulate them to mean something they don't. I think that's the case here and that this linguistic stretch won't get any traction. A few months ago some evangelical bigot used the word "polyamory" in a article to mean any form of non-monogamous perversion. A few of us went after him in big way ridiculing his misuse of the term. I haven't seen anything that would indicate that the Christian Right followed him down the path of linguistic perversion. Same situation here. With perfectly good words like polyamory, open relationship or marriage and polyfidelity, the world doesn't need this writer's offering...especially where it's confusing and a misuse of terms. She needs a tough editor. I'm available. She can find me on Facebook.

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