…and missed the forest for the trees.
A few days ago, an acquaintance of mine, who cancelled an agreed meeting, wrote to me the following lines:
“…I turned my life around spontaneously in the last few weeks and for now I am monogamous once more. I fell deeply in love and right now we just want to be on our own. He had only normal relationships in the past and I realise that this is beneficial to me as well. Especially after all that constant back and forth I experienced before...”
Maybe it’s a pity concerning our meeting – but if they want to concentrate on their twosome togetherness because of their fresh infatuation, I can understand that.
And yet…– in a sense a “disturbance in the Force“, as actor Alec Guiness stated as the sensitive Yedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi in the movie “Star Wars” (Episode IV).
A far more greater “disturbance in the Force” I felt just last September when LGBT activist, actress and comedian Margaret Cho revealed in a podcast interview¹:
“You know, for me, I get polyamory-fatigue and I get total BDSM-fatigue. It takes so much energy in terms of negotiating and what you want and what you’re doing and I just don’t have the energy for it. Also, the processing that happens, so I did get tired of it. To me, it’s very stuck in the 90s and early 2000s, but I do love it.”
Well, at least she has added the last half-sentence… Because otherwise such a statement from someone who had committed the last 25 years of her life intensively to a lifestyle of ethical non-monogamy appears to me like an earthquake of seismic magnitude. Especially if this person adds in the same interview:
“I have this idea that because I’m now single, my thought is I would like to try to remain unpartnered for the rest of my life and I’m going to really try.”
And when asked why, she answered:
“Well, because I’ve been partnered for so long. For my adult life, I’ve had partners pretty much since I was like 25 or whatever. I feel like now that I’m 50, I should really give a college try to see if I could just be a lady alone.”
These are also understandable reasons for me.
And yet both statements unsettle me. Since I have heard such explanations in polyamorous circles before. However, Mrs. Cho was a very prominent example to me recently which is thought-provoking – and somewhat troubling.
“Polyamory fatigue” – that sounds serious, like a medical trait; to quote Wikipedia »significant tiredness, depleted reserves of strength or increased need for rest disproportionate to recent exertion«.
Concerning someone like Margaret Cho, much of it may be true, especially with a quarter of a century of experience and an active life including major media presence, her support regarding gay and LGBT rights, BDSM, and queer lifestyle altogether.
Especially if you are somehow “different” yourself, then there is often the need to stand one’s ground, to defend the “divergent”, the “deviant” against the prevailing morality and the established lifestyle – thereby making the personal political – and the political personal.
As an explorer of non-monogamous-oligoamorous lands I am nevertheless concerned. For it seems to me that my acquaintance as well as Margaret Cho query two values which are crucial to my view of Oligoamory – crucial to a point that I put those values in the subtitle: Commitment and sustainability.
To be fair, I would like to add that neither my acquaintance nor Mrs. Cho ever declared themselves oligoamorous – and that even I, who am the author of this blog, would by no means want to decree that a once-chosen lifestyle must be retained at any cost.
And yet they exist – a substantial group of people who will confess after some time: “Polyamory? I tried it. It didn’t work…, I’m back being monogamous/single again…” Maybe the more sincere people in this group say somewhat more specific: “It didn’t work for me.”
Everytime I hear those stories, I sigh and think: “Oh, folks...”
For personally, I often experienced that if something does not work, very rarely “the thing” itself is the problem, but much more often our quality management.
“Quality management” is a broad term in this case. However, there is evidence that many people apply ethical non-monogamy (such as Poly- or Oigoamory) in much the same way like that devastated guy who returns a chainsaw back to the hardware store and groans: “I’m totally exhausted, it didn’t work, I drudged all day and barely managed a single tree...” The salesman looks at the chainsaw, pulls the starter, listens to the engine and says: “I can’t find any fault...” While the stunned customer stares at him: “What’s that noise…?!”
If people try to handle multiple relationships in this way, it’s no surprise that they actually experience them as “back and forth” and are threatened by “Polyamory fatigue” in the end.
At the same time, I absolutely do not want to deny the strenuous ramifications while practising ethical non-monogamy: Time management with multiple partners, constant (self-)justifications comcerning the own way of life, a lack of legal foundations and the difficulties of finding like-minded people – these are all real hardships and therefore potential sources of conflict. A single bLog-Entry on an obscure Oligoamory website can not even list the numerous challenges, or offer in a few lines adequate practical solutions to the various living conditions in which people can get in contexts regarding multiple relationships.
What I want to offer is some calming for the waves of exhaustion before those affected believe that the only way out is to pull the plug entirely and to be “monogamous once more” or “would like to try to remain unpartnered for the rest of their life“.
do not know either my acquaintance or Mrs. Cho well enough to be able
to tell anything for sure about their inner motivation. And as I
wrote, the road to ethical non-monogamy is truly not exactly adorned
with a red carpet.
Aside from the many inner and outer pitfalls which we seekers of multiple relationships have to deal with, I nevertheless believe that we create a certain amount of pressure all by ourselves. And this pressure has an effect on our mentioned “quality management” – particularly because we want to become proud “chainsaw owners” as soon as possible so that we may live it up at the next tree straight away. Next, you will find yourself visiting chainsaw workshops, the local chain sawing regulars’ table, browsing through chainsaw forums on the internet – all the while the stress is mounting: When you realise how many logs the other people seem to be finishing off – and your knees are trembling just because of only one tiny tree trunk…
Because analogously, “the other polyamorists” can very quickly appear as seasoned jack-of-all-trades, who happily manage several intense relationships with a multitude of interesting lovers. Whereas oneself e.g. is stuck in an unpleasantly tough dating-swamp, finding not a single soul who shares the own preferences regarding multiple relationships even approximately halfway. At the same time you will still get more and more confused, because at the side of the road you will spot exciting monogamous people or solitary singles, who unfortunately do not share your own view now. Oh, everything was much easier back then, when you were still monogamous or leastwise solitary yourself… On top of it all, the pressure even increases, if you are possibly in an already existing relationship, joined with a slightly dusted (marriage) partner, – you have perhaps mutually agreed on opening your relationship – but in a strange way nothing substantial happens… Or when you get into a multiple relationship with people who said “poly-/ oligoamorous”, but meant realistically “promiscuous”. In addition all that constant processing (which often fluctuates somewhere between sore soul-searching and self-defiant justification): That’s more Polyamory-fatigue than anyone can bear. Put that chainsaw back right where it came from or – so help me…!
It is said that especially men always want to try out new devices immediately, without wasting even a thought regarding its manual. In the case of ethical multiple relationships, this applies in fair equality to all participants – independent of gender. Otherwise, we all would rather notice that we could achieve a better result if we first of all would be paying attention to the performing engine. And even a running engine does not “guarantee” any yield – but it makes it in any case more likely.
Perhaps it is important to reassure us by what it does not mean to be a chainsaw owner – I beg your pardon – a human being in the context of ethical non-monogamy:
It does not automatically mean that you have immediately many exciting parallel relationships – or rather, that they are instantly available to you. In general, “availability” seems to me the key word here: A change of our choice, how we want to lead relationships doesn’t change the status quo spontaneously. And then? Am I a “failed polyamorist” because I do not have any other relationships right now? Or just one? Would my conviction or my activism concerning matters of ethical non-monogamy be less credible in such cases?
Does being “non-monogamous” mean that you (or other participants) are always available, always potentially accessible – or, what’s more, that you (or they) have to be it?
If we actually begin to think about ourselves like this, then we would summon up a considerable amount of stress and polyamory fatigue on ourselves.
Because it would accordingly mean that we pay more attention to the (chain)saw – regarding the “if ” – instead of its quality and performance – regarding the “how “. Which could mean in consequence that we would be willing to make concessions concerning the “how” to ensure the “if”. Transferred to the relationship-level, this could mean that we end up sooner or later in relationships which don’t match our needs (being a “constant back and forth”) or in circumstances where we feel restricted and dependent (and you crave to “try to see if I could just be a lady alone”). Even from an oligoamorous perspective such conditions wouldn’t be either sustainable or committed.
In the best case, it would be up to us to decide for ourselves what kind of concessions we would agree to in order to finally get involved in multiple relationships.
Wether pragmatist or idealist – this time your being determines consciousness at any rate. Since we convince ourselves that chainsaws are unsuitable and unreliable in the long run, which means: That ethical non-monogamy can not provide fulfilling relationships. Because it’s always such an abnormal back-and-forth with tedious processing, which in the end fatigues us “disproportionately to the previous efforts”.
Who wouldn’t return the chainsaw now?
Who wouldn’t be tempted to think that monogamy was “normal” and “beneficial” – and that being “unpartnered” finally meant to “be a lady alone”?
But that is somewhat flawed reasoning, since that way we didn’t prove whether ethical non-monogamy, Poly- or Oligoamory wouldn’t have been capable. We did prove that our expectations eloped our neediness – because, when we first heard of a chainsaw, we grasped the story as though this miracle saw was doing our job all on its own. Referring to multiple relationships: that choosing this particular lifestyle would ensure need fulfilment [And here’s a bitter blow for those poly-preachers who still believe in the argument that polyamorous people are better off than monogamous people because “one single lover/partner can neeeever fulfil all the needs of another lover/partner”. Fiddlesticks. Non-monogamy, even with 100 lovers/partners, doesn’t achieve this either].
That way, in the worst case, we will create “converted polys” who will report (more weird than the usual opponents of multiple relationships) back their (bad) experiences: “Never again multiple relationships, they did not only fail to make me happy, but exhausted me and left me burned-out…”
Just as the possession of a chainsaw calls for a great deal of due diligence, I would like to invite you, with regard to ethical non-monogamy, to exercise this carefulness, which should primarily benefit your own self. In the context of Oligoamory, I desire precisely for that very reason a distinct honesty, which is first and foremost a combination of self-sincerity and self-responsibility.
And in fact, we would not get around those values in any kind of relationship, even if being solitary or monogamous seem to ensnare us as “social default mode”: Just because something seems familiar it does not mean that all our questions had already been solved by our predecessors (parents, teachers, social philosophers, politicians) – and without our further contribution. The ubiquitous “default mode” conveys this illusion only by its dictate of musty-familiar normativity.
To continue my metaphor: In this respect, any relationship-philosophy would be some kind of saw – a jig saw, a folding saw, a hacksaw… – and the risk in case of incompetent use will inevitably lead to self-injury or collateral damage.
In that respect, no one can provide us with finished answers, as Confucius said: »Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.«
We ourselves have to fill our relationships with our own lives – thereby learning to apprehend ourselves, the relationship(s) and the other people involved. “Processing”, which Margaret Cho perceived as tiresome, is an important part of it. But if I’m tired of it and no longer dare to face my own intentions and motivations, how am I supposed to be credible and authentic anywhere – or believe I “could just be a lady alone” (red-incoherency-alert)?
If I wish in Oligoamory “Have good relationships!” I mean that you shall have appropriate relationships – but most of all, conscious and honest relationships. Usually we are not used to such an high degree of honesty – neither towards ourselves nor towards other people – even less in an early stage of a relationship. We may improve – I agree with Confucius – but only by practising, by involvement – not by abandoning or resetting the strategy.
I wish that regarding the renunciation of ethical non-monogamy in those affected applies, what Charlie’s mother explains to her son in the book by Roald Dahl “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory“: »Ah yes, well, sometimes when grown-ups say “forever” they mean “a very long time.«