I spend a lot of time talking to people and reading social media boards by both polyamorous and monogamous folks. Universally, people are not as monogamous or as polyamorous as they claim they are.
Over the years, I have begun to see the labels of “poly” and “mono” like the political systems of capitalism and communism. There is a big difference between the theory of capitalism and its manifestation. The same goes for communism. In poli sci we talk about the difference between a political theory and its manifestation. There is a big gap between an ideal type and the reality of any system.
Theory vs. Reality
The same is true with poly and mono relationship styles. Monogamy, in its “ideal” form involves two people staying together and being emotionally and sexually committed and bonded with each other and only each other. Polyamory does not have as clean of definition. It is three or more people being emotionally bonded and sexually bonded with one another, loving and respecting one another, and honoring boundaries and being okay with this.
The reality for both relationship types is that people have some aspects of the “ideal” but most partnerships that work long term bend the definitions to fit the relationship style of the couple instead of the other way around. As a monogamous couple once told me, “In a twenty year monogamous marriage, we are mostly monogamous, but you know, things happen.” The reality is, most of the time the “things” that happen were the bench of the local NBA team… but I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity either.
The same type of hedging can be seen in poly couples. The couple claims they are poly, extols the virtue of poly, socializes with other poly couples and works to be poly. However, it doesn’t take too long to see the cracks. One partner gets jealous. Or a partner breaks the rules, or crosses a boundary, or cheats, or demands that the other person be loyal to them.
Stop Holding Up Ideal Types
Not being “true” to the idealized version of a relationship style isn’t really an issue. The issues I see are two different ones. First, people who fail to meet an idealized relationship style are made to fee like they have failed at a relationship. Second, people on both sides of this preach about how great their chosen relationship style is and how bad the other versions happen to be.
People who have experience in good relationships learn that the couple needs to define what type of relationship works for them. They often begin with an idealized version of a relationship. But, as they grow together over years and decades, they learn to communicate and choose what works for the couple. Living up to some model does not make a good relationship. Its communication and willingness to grow together.
The other problem is that people become preachy about their chosen relationship style. Monogamous people will tell you how their relationships are honorable and sacred and how poly means you are just sleeping around. Poly people will tell monogamous folks how they are open and sharing their vast amounts of love and that they are more evolved.
The thing is, each relationship is unique. What will work for each couple is unique to them. It is important to present people with many options for relationships. We need to move away from the ideal types and start talking about the grey areas. We are all monogam-ish or polyamor-ish. We need to give people the space to grow and explore.
We are not doing that now. We demand that people live up to ideas. We never will. We never have. Until we allow people to carve out their own space, relationships will continue to fail because people are pressured into living to a definition and not to a relationship.