When the Sum Is Greater Than Two
I lived in a collective household in Durham during my mid-twenties. A female friend moved into our abode of three or four. She was beautiful, smart and full of energy that she applied to intellectual reasoning, activism, gardening, cooking and art. We had worked on some projects together and I considered her to be a good friend.
One evening, she appeared in my bedroom doorway with her boyfriend. She asked if I would mind her sleeping with me some nights. I was stunned. Without hesitation, I said yes, but I looked to her boyfriend for assurance. He smiled in a way that seemed secure and solid.
That’s how I got pulled into the web of non-monogamy.
It was easy being the lover on the side because I was already marked as being worthy of attention, my emotional commitments were minimal and I was spared the burden of jealousy. At the same time I had been nurturing a mutual crush with a woman who worked in the same building. The two of us came out about our feelings shortly after I fell into bed with my amorous housemate. In keeping with the operating mode of non-monogamy, I resolved this dilemma by being scrupulously honest. Both of them were okay with me being involved with the other.
This configuration played itself out within the span of a couple months. When the two women first met, I perceived that my housemate treated my friend from work with condescension. I felt bad about it. Worse, I felt my passion growing for my housemate and leveling off for the other woman. Without intending to do so, I had placed their personal worth within a hierarchy. Looking back, the way I acted towards this decent and kind woman seems sloppy and somewhat treacherous.
The less important relationship fell away and the primary relationship continued. I cherished my housemate/part-time lover and gave myself all the more permission to fall for her because I was soon to depart on a journey to Israel and Palestine, and then to graduate school in New York. We saw each other several times after that, but the spell was broken. I felt hurt; I don’t think ever I meant as much to her as she did to me. We don’t talk much anymore.
So what was all that about? In hindsight, it seems that I made an arrangement of convenience because a loyal, long-term relationship was so out of reach. To the extent that I took any emotional risks, none of the problems associated with monogamy – jealousy, insecurity and cruelty come to mind – were solved; they seemed to be multiplied – by two, in my case.
For a variety of reasons – at the core of which is my religious faith journey – I no longer subscribe to a non-monogamous lifestyle. I am aware of some of my acquaintances in Greensboro’s anarchist circles pursuing non-monogamy. I admit that I feel vaguely threatened by it. Mostly though I’m curious about what attracts them to it, and why it works for them.
I have a good friend who lives in my neighborhood. He’s a tinkerer in both the artistic and scientific realms, and someone whose sense of self worth is as divorced from social status and material possession as that of anyone I know. I say a good friend, but we’re not so close that he didn’t mistakenly perceive me to be gay. I guess that just goes to show that you can never know the constellation of another person’s desires without communication.
I had a hunch, however, that this friend considered himself non-monogamous and I proved to be correct. My friend is candid and honest; he values the practice of illuminating the human condition. I think it’s fair to say we’ve established some trust. I grant him anonymity because he’s not the kind of person who will abuse it with exaggeration, and I believe we will explore the territory more thoroughly as a result.
At the outset, he wants to put across this aphorism: “Non-monogamy is wasted on sex.”
It would be easy to mistake non-monogamy for sexual infidelity. Take away sex, and what do you have? A rich variety of liberated human experience, my friend suggests. While some people obviously enjoy multiple sexual relationships, my friend says he needs only one. What non-monogamy gives him is the freedom to spend time with other people, to become close to other people, and to not worry about what his partner is doing when they’re not together. Rather than mourn or avoid the recognition that no one person can meet all our needs, my friend embraces it. Still, jealousy remains a persistent hurdle.
“One thing that really works on jealousy is working on my own self esteem,” my friend says, “because then I believe someone could love me and therefore I’m not threatened by the idea that they could share a conversation, a sandwich, or a bed with someone else.”
The matron saint of non-monogamy would have to be Emma Goldman.
“Marriage and Love,” from Goldman’s Anarchism and Other Essays, the second revised edition of which was published in 1911, gives no quarter to defenders of monogamy.
“Marriage and love have nothing in common,” rings the first salvo. “They are as far apart as the poles; are in fact, antagonistic to each other….”
Goldman is relentless in her assault against what she considers an oppressive convention.
“Marriage is primarily an economic arrangement, an insurance pact,” she says. “It differs from the ordinary life insurance agreement only in that it is more binding, more exacting. Its returns are insignificantly small compared with the investments. In taking out an insurance policy one pays for it in dollars and cents, always at liberty to discontinue payments. If, however, woman’s premium is a husband, she pays for it with her name, her privacy, her self-respect, her very life, ‘until death doth part.'”
Within the wider culture of non-monogamy, there are those who, unlike my friend, prioritize sex. It annoys him, and yet he is obliged to acknowledge how pervasive rampant hooking-up is to the discussion if not the reality of the culture. The more sexualized practice of non-monogamy might be called “polyamory.”
He lends me a copy of a ‘zine called Heart String: Yarns About Polyamory, a prized possession that was compiled by a friend, Pittsburgh artist Etta Cetera, in 2003.
The essays have a messy texture, and keeping up with the players can be a challenge. Reading them feels invasive. The details seem like they should be held in a sanctified place known only to the two people involved and God. As one who has uttered the word in plenty of contexts, “fuck” seems coarsened in its profligacy in these pages. The descriptions of trysts can sometimes come off as cavalier, smug and tribal.
“I currently have four lovers, and we all travel in similar circles, such as gatherings, festivals, protests, and cities,” an essayist identified as Simon Strikeback writes. “In a few weeks, we’ll all be together again and we’ll have to spend much time debating which night is spent in which tent and how to split up the gloves and lube.” He recommends against scheduling a sex date back-to-back with a serious-conversation date.
A journal entry by a writer named Kai reads: “I get confused. Do I do polyamory for me? Or for you? The wife who lets her husband have fun with other women so he won’t leave her. I do feel like that a bit right now. I know there are times in the past when I hooked up with people. But now I want a level playing field. And that is wrong.”
Another essay by a writer identified as tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE, makes a touching conclusion.
“I’ll probably always try to stay close to someone (etttar seeming like the best contender of my life) & I’ll probably always pursue sex w/ new people,” he writes. “& it’ll probably always be complicated & painful & exhilarating too. I don’t have any answers or solutions. Unless you’re numb, there’s probably going to be jealousy & insecurity. Try to be sensitive… try not to be arrogant.”
The casualties of his “biological overdrive” and nihilism: five abortions with four women, not including a baby who died shortly after his premature birth, likely because of his mother’s anorexia.
“The people who I know that are polyamorous, meaning that they have sex with a lot of people, they spend a whole lot of time taking care of those relationships and themselves,” my friend says. “I’d rather be making music. I’d rather be doing community organizing. I’d rather be in my garden. Just having one relationship, I’d rather be able to say, ‘I want to sleep alone tonight,’ or, ‘I want to sleep alone for a week.’ That’s an example of a desire that’s not illicit; it’s just a desire to be alone for a week. I haven’t known that many marriages where dropping a hint like that wouldn’t be seen as threatening. Not saying they’re not out there.”
The grand social ideal of non-monogamy – a utopia notably absent of God – comes in the finale of Goldman’s essay: “Some day men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love. What fancy, what imagination, what poetic genius can foresee even approximately the potentialities of such a force in the life of men and women? If the world is ever to give birth to true companionship and oneness, not marriage, but love will be the parent.”
I judge my friend to have a healthy attitude towards sexuality. I tell him that what he describes in his relationship with his partner sound like the qualities of a good monogamous relationship: openness, honesty, permission and value.
“The partnership I have right now is really special in that I feel I can tell her anything and I can hear anything from her,” he says. “We’re not always together. And the cool thing about that is that makes me value her so much more. I’m not frivolous. When I’m with her, I’m really with her.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.