A friend I respect and admire recently said to me, “Poly people don’t need to experience loss.” We talked about this hypothesis for a bit. I think what he meant is that, in a monogamous relationship, both parties explicitly promise not to have sex with anyone else. This promise represents an almost infinite loss: the loss of every other person in the world as a potential sexual or romantic partner. In his construction, poly people – by virtue of their polyamory – avoid this loss.
My friend is not poly.
This assertion feels, well, just, wrong to me. My own experience of polyamory, of being poly (which, in this post, I’ll use as a stand-in for what my wife and I and some friends of ours refer to as “this thing we do”) is precisely the opposite: I need to (get to? <– see below) experience loss in a way that none of my “monogamous” friends do. Frequently. I have only, so far, had one romantic/sexual relationship in my life that hasn’t come to an end. I mean – there’s Charlotte. And maybe Shelby. But none of us expect our relationships to be unending. We all know they will come to an end. And likely, sooner, rather than later. Shelby may already be gone; Charlotte and I are… figuring shit out – but I’ve already lost a lot. Literally every relationship other than those I’ve ever had has come to an end. I’ve experienced more loss – not the theoretical loss of possibility contained in my friend’s assertion; the actual loss of real-life relationships – in the last ten years than I did in my entire life previous to that.
And…. when I Googled (I can’t Neeva in incognito mode) “polyamory and loss,” I stumbled on a Reddit post about the “loss of being somebody’s only.” This seems, at least, interesting to me. Though it, too, is a theoretical loss most often, I suspect.
Never mind that, for most of us who are poly, it’s not like the whole world remains available to us as prospective partners: the universe of partners open to dating/sex with a married person in a relationship which permits honest engagement with others is, shall we say, quite small. I often feel – notwithstanding being in a large city with one of the world’s largest concentrations of poly people – a bit like (I imagine) a lesbian in Omaha (might feel). Or maybe not Omaha. Maybe Teheran. Or at least Jerusalem. Attitudes toward non-monogamy are pretty… well, hostile in pretty much all of our society. Not quite all. But pretty much all. Certainly among those of us who remember 9/11. The brilliant (if somewhat… performative???) psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, writes, “Not everyone believes in monogamy, but everyone lives as though they do.” True enough. And I would add, “Not everyone imagines that everyone else is monogamous, but everyone lives as though they do.”
I have written before – inspired by Phillips’s book, Monogamy, which is great – that those of us who are openly (or somewhat openly) non-monogamous represent a threat to the faith of those who profess a belief in monogamy. Regardless of whether they actually live monogamously. Which so few “monogamous” people really do.
So my friend’s assertion feels to me a bit like it depends on an idealized – and mistaken, incomplete, naïve – view of polyamory.
One could, however, riff on the hypothesis in a variety of ways. Maybe it’s not that a poly person doesn’t need to experience loss, but…
- A poly person needs not to experience (a particular) loss.
- A poly person gets to experience less loss (of a particular sort).
- A poly person gets (has?) to experience more loss (as I’ve indicated above).
I’m going with that last bullet point.