Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't. Up now, from our comment section from last week's column, a question about how to make yourself "get" non-monogamy:
Dear Ms. Opinionated:.
I don't know if what I ask in relationships is realistic, but I did find myself wishing someone could explain in detail what it is that an experienced non-monogamous person understands that people like me without that experience don't get. I really like the idea of it but my emotions don't get it.
The biggest, and most important, thing that a successfully non-monogamous person understands is him or herself.
I know that isn't exactly the answer you were looking for, but it's the most truthful. And, you'll notice, it involves a big qualifier -- "successfully." So, let's define what I mean by all of that.
By "successfully," I don't mean someone who manages to have sexual and/or emotional relationships with multiple people. Fucking people is the easy part. Not fucking them -- or yourself -- up is the hard part. The definition of a successfully non-monogamous person, as I'm using it here, means someone who has multiple sexual and/or emotional relationships that fulfill their sexual and/or emotional needs and -- insofar as it's possible, through a combination of self-awareness, honesty and willingness to end dysfunctional situations -- aren't damaging (or are only minimally damaging) to themselves and their partners.
In other words, if you are non-monogamous and loving life, but every single relationship you have ends in screaming, tears, recriminations and/or lifelong hatred for you, then you're not really being successfully (or ethically) non-monogamous. It's not them... it's you.
So, having established an ethical definition for success in this context, how do you get there? First off, it's about understanding why you want non-monogamy, both intellectually and emotionally. I've run into a lot of people who can blather on and on about the relative human lifespan and how emotionally evolved they are and how humans weren't meant to be partnered for 60 years and the evo-psych arguments for spreading your seed to the point that I can't even hear it without rolling my eyes. Real talk? Those are a bunch of arguments intended to justify their decisions after the fact (or, in some cases, convince monogamous to become non-monogamous or involved with a non-monogamous situation).
Most people come to non-monogamy because they can't get down with monogamy (which is still the default in our society): either they want more sex than one (or their one serious) relationship provides, or with more partners; or they desire more romantic emotional attachments than monogamy offers. And, unlike profligate cheaters -- who are essentially just not being monogamous without disclosure -- they are at least attempting to fulfill those needs with the blessing and permission of their partner(s), which is both more ethical than cheating and allows them to often have and maintain emotional intimacy with a partner or partners. But the broad categories of why people choose non-monogamy break down into a series of individual decisions and experiences that led each person to make their own decision and learn why and how that works. Maybe it was at first for a partner who was, or because a partner was; or because they had a great relationship but a longing for intimacy with another person; maybe the twinge of socialized jealousy turns them on. But knowing why you came to it and why you want it and what you want out of it -- intellectually, emotionally, physically -- is key to even starting to be ethical about it.
The next is to really speak to your partner about why they want to be non-monogamous -- and the more you do this, the more you'll understand yourself, the people you're with and non-monogamous people's reasons for engaging in non-monogamy in general. There really is a range of options and methods under the umbrella of successful non-monogamy, from committed partners who have non-committed sex with third parties, to polyamorous people who have ongoing relationships (emotional and physical) with multiple people, to situational non-monogamy in which two people agree to outside physical relationships within certain constraints, to even people simply opposed to emotional or physical commitments of any variety. What they have in common is that they are well-thought-out, discussed, negotiated, re-negotiated and talked through some more, and none of that is as easy or as thoughtless as boinking someone because you're supposedly evolutionarily inclined to spread your seed.
There is a tendency among all of us to avoid tough conversations, to put them off or hope that something works itself out, to not speak up for one's needs in a given situation until one can't not-speak any longer, to assume that everyone is working off of the same relationship playbook and there's no need to really talk about it until there's a need to talk about something. What successfully non-monogamous people really understand is that they are throwing out the playbook, and engaging with other people who have (or are willing to) throw out the playbook -- so you have to huddle, and talk, and negotiate every step of the way (which, frankly, is a good idea in monogamous partnerships, too) and not wait or let things slide or hope things work out. And if it becomes violative of any partner's boundaries or agreements, or it is clearly telegraphed that it's becoming damaging, it's time to huddle, talk, renegotiate... and maybe walk away as unshittily as possible to prevent (more) damage.
But, to address the issue at the heart of your question, you need to figure out whether non-monogamy works for you. There is nothing that other people just "get" that you are missing, or some magic potion that will make it all come together in your head. Speaking really honestly -- and with a generous helping of my own experiences with people who weren't very ethical in their execution of non-monogamy -- it sounds like you got wrapped up with someone who tried to "convert" you to non-monogamy and then shamed you for your completely valid emotional reactions and your inexperience with the relationship format. That's not cool, it's not ethical and it's not particularly equitable. You get to have feelings, and any experienced non-monogamous person knows for damn sure that taking on a previously-entirely-monogamous partner is probably going to be an emotional rollercoaster where a lot of empathy and understanding and talking is necessary -- not because experienced non-monogamous people are more evolved or something, but because someone new to the format is doing something totally new that's unlike every relationship model she or he has ever seen up close or practiced.
But, if this is a path you want to follow for your own reasons, the questions you need to ask yourself are: why your head and your heart are in opposition; what you get emotionally from monogamy (either the sexual or emotional exclusivity) that you didn't or fear you won't get from non-monogamy; and why you want to engage in non-monogamy in your own personal life. And then until you have satisfactory answers -- preferably ones in which another specific person or persons don't feature prominently -- look for situations that make you happy, not ones in which your head keeps telling your heart to be quiet. You have both for a reason.