Poly Means Many: Relationship ethics

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

I’m delighted to be returning to the Poly Means Many project this month, and with such a huge and interesting topic – relationship ethics.

Behaving ethically in relationships can mean two different but related things – it can mean the absence of harm (‘not being bad’) and also actively improving your partner’s life (‘being good’).

Sometimes, when other people are concerned about poly, it’s because they fear it’s doing harm to one or more of the people involved. They might be wrong in that, so I’m going to look at some of the theoretical harms of polyamory and work out whether they’re really harms or not. If they really are harms, though, what then? Can we reliably consent to something which harms us, or can we agree to harm a fully consenting and informed partner? Or must we be stopped for our own good?

I’m not going to look at the ‘actively doing good’ side of relationship ethics, not today, as this post is already long – I’ll stick to looking at potential harms.

Isn’t it just a fancy name for cheating?

Well, no. Cheating is the name we’ve come up with, as a society, for breaking the implicit or explicit agreements of a relationship regarding romantic/sexual connections with other people. Cheating doesn’t mean ‘sleeping with more than one person’ – otherwise, all those single people who are dating around would also be referred to as cheaters. If everyone involved in the situation has given full and informed consent, who is being ‘cheated’? There’s also a very interesting implication in the word itself – ‘cheating’ implies getting away with something, cheating the rules. If the rules are that relationships with other people are totally fine, how is that breaking the rules?

One of the things I suspect is going on here relates to the fact that, in my experience, monogamous friends who are most indifferent/supportive of polyamory are those who are settled and content with their own monogamous set-ups. If you’re happy and you know your own relationship is working well, then other people’s unconventional choices are entirely unthreatening, and relatively dull. But if you’re unhappy, if you fear your partner is lying to you, if it’s a real challenge for you to remain faithful and monogamous, if you think your relationship isn’t quite working but you’re not sure why… suddenly someone doing things completely differently can be scary, because you thought everyone had to play by the same set of rules, the same rules that are making *you* unhappy, but we’re all in this together, right? Personally, I suspect that on some level ‘isn’t it just a fancy word for cheating?’ doesn’t mean cheating on *your partner*, but cheating on what the questioner feels are restrictive society-wide relationship rules. They feel like you’re cheating on *them* – they’re abiding by rules they dislike because they thought everyone had to, and polyamory just proved them wrong. Ouch.

This doesn’t highlight a harm to anyone involved in the relationship; it may be hard to understand for some, but polyamory and non-monogamy more broadly are absolutely not cheating – they abide precisely and carefully by the rules of that relationship, even if the rules are in some ways outside the norm.

What about STIs and HIV?

The assumption is that all polyamorous people are super-slutty promiscuous high-risk types – and, perhaps more to the point, are also putting their partners at risk. Some polyamorous people have a very high number of partners, yes, but some can count their lifetime sexual partners on the fingers of one hand. (If this comes as a surprise to you, then yay, learning!)

Having more sex doesn’t actually mean you’re at higher risk of STI transmission: if in your life you have sex with one or more people, then yes, you are more at risk of STIs than someone who has never had any kind of sexual activity. That’s about it, though. There are more factors involved – it’s not that every theoretical sex partner out there has an STI they’re just waiting to pass on; it’s not like rolling a dice where after rolling it a certain number of times you’re practically certain to roll a 6. Someone who has a new sexual partner every week but is scrupulous about safer sex precautions and hygiene, and insists on seeing recent STI screen test results every time, is going to be at considerably lower risk than someone who goes out a couple of times a year, gets drunk, and has unprotected sex without any discussion of risk factors or other partners.

Yes, STIs are a risk of having sex, just as getting in a car accident is a risk of getting in a car – but you drive safely, you take sensible precautions, and you assume other drivers aren’t always as sensible as you. It’s an informed choice. And if you knew of someone who was regularly driving at 100 mph down winding lanes, with no seatbelt and a couple of beers, who claimed they’d just got ‘caught up in the moment’ or they and their passenger were ‘having fun but too embarrassed to bring it up’, you’d think they were kind of a twit. And you probably wouldn’t get in their car.

You’re just going along with it for them/they’re just going along with it for you

I’m not going to say this never happens – I’m certain it does on occasion; whatever poor relationship choices you can imagine, someone somewhere has made them. But a very common criticism of polyamory seems to be ‘there’s always one partner who’s totally gung ho about it and the other one has to either go along with it or lose them’ and truthfully, this doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve met lots of people identifying as one form or another of non-monogamous, and I genuinely can’t think of *any* where the power balance was so obviously and upsettingly uneven.

Perhaps the confusion arises from different styles of dating? After all, I know quite a lot of people in couples where one person is a pretty active dater and the other doesn’t really pursue anyone unless a relationship drops into their lap. If your perspective on relationships is one of game-playing and one-upmanship, then that must look as if one person is ‘winning’ and the other is ‘losing’. But that’s not really how loving relationships work. It doesn’t take account of different desires (I, for example, am not much interested in pursuing new connections at the moment, I have too many exciting projects to be getting on with to find much time for new people) and nor does it take account of change over time (there have been times when I have been busy with lots of dates and The Rake has been focusing on other things).

But perhaps there really is an imbalance sometimes? Well, maybe… maybe that’s normal, too. After all, *all* relationships require compromise. Everyone has things they would consider to be deal-breakers, but everyone draws their line in a different place. Perhaps over at the ‘easy’ compromise end there are things like ‘what colour teapot shall we buy? Red or green?’ and over at the ‘hard’ compromise end there are questions like ‘shall we have children?’ or ‘can we cut that family member out of our lives?’ or ‘shall we live in this country or that country?’. For some people, ‘will our relationship be non-monogamous?’ is one of those uncompromisable questions that they will not budge on (whether the answer is yes or no); for others, no doubt, it might feel closer to something like ‘shall we live in the city or somewhere rural?’ – a big question, yes, and one on which they have a preference, but one that they’re willing to be convinced about, willing to stretch themselves a little to accommodate a partner they love dearly, and perhaps one to revisit in a few years and come to another compromise in turn.

At its root, this comes down to the truth that you can never fully understand someone else’s relationship from the outside. If you look at someone and think they’re making poor choices, they’re compromising on what makes them who they are, they’re settling for someone who’s not good enough for them and doesn’t treat them well enough… you might be right. But if they tell you they’re happy, and they seem genuinely to be so even if it’s in ways that mystify you, then trust them.

Unless someone is in a genuinely abusive and damaging relationship (which looks immensely different from a difficult, complicated or even somewhat shitty and miserable relationship) this is, at worst, a minor harm.

It’s too risky; it’ll dilute your existing relationships; it means you’ll break up

This comes from an assumption of love as a zero-sum game, and fundamentally it assumes that poly, in the sense of truly loving more than one person at once, isn’t possible. The assumption is that, given the opportunity, one or other partner will meet someone they like better, and end the original relationship as a result. And yes, from that perspective, consenting to such an alarming risk is a weird and inexplicable thing to do.

But! Given that the entire point of polyamory is maintaining multiple relationships, this logically is just nonsense. I’m in a relationship with person A. I meet person B, who is *amazing*. If I were in a monogamous relationship, I would be obliged to break up with person A in order to pursue the connection with person B, or alternatively I might conduct an illicit affair with person B until I get up the nerve to tell person A that I’ve met someone else and I’m leaving them. But if everyone is polyamorous, then what’s considerably more likely to happen is: I tell person A and person B about each other, everyone makes allowances and compromises and we have a little reshuffle to make more space, and then I have two amazing people in my life when before there was one! Why on earth would I choose breaking up and heartbreak and misery and guilt over that outcome?

That said, let me tell you a secret. There’s some truth in this, and polyamorous people don’t like to admit it, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, having the freedom to pursue new relationships really can jeopardise existing relationships. Sometimes, your big fears come true, and a long-established cohabiting primary relationship breaks up because of a new relationship. Let’s be honest, a full-blown relationship with someone *is* more threatening than a crush on a co-worker that you never pursue – because sometimes, you don’t find out that New Shiny Person is boring or annoying; sometimes you find out they’re just as amazing as you hoped. Sometimes a new relationship can show up problems in an existing one, or you realise an older partner is holding you back in ways you hadn’t recognised, or a new love changes your outlook on life, or sometimes people just make some very stupid decisions in the throes of NRE. It happens.

So I’m willing to accept this one as a potential harm. And maybe it’s stupid and risky, but it’s about as stupid and risky as falling in love with anyone, ever – the more you love someone and the more you show your vulnerability, the more at risk you are of pain, and the more it will hurt when it ends. I’ve already written about how there is no magic ‘never get hurt’ life choice. All defined relationships end, whether they end in breaking up or death. That sounds morbid or miserable, but it doesn’t have to be – the desperate pain of loss is the price we pay for loving deeply, whether one or many. And if you accept that you only have a limited time to love someone (whether that time is a few weeks or many decades) then you must love as truly and as fully as possible in that time. These connections are what make us human; to shut off love because of the risk of pain is inconceivably miserable.

There are plenty of other objections made regularly, but those are enough to be going on with for now – this post is already getting long!

Can we consent to being harmed? Is this ethical?

Let’s imagine that, unlike some of my conclusions, all of the objections above are real and genuine harms. Or, alternatively, let’s imagine we’re talking to someone who is completely unconvinced by my comments, thinks we’re wrong and that these are real and serious threats of harm that we’re lying/delusional in not accepting.

Our society believes that – up to a point – people *can* choose to act in ways which are personally harmful. By law, we restrict some harmful behaviours to people we believe are generally likely to be able to give meaningful consent (smoking is a good example) – in practice this usually means adults of above a certain age. Adults can choose to do things that are fatally harmful and the state doesn’t step in to stop them – and what’s more, we don’t have an expectation that in the absence of action by the state, other individuals will jump in to stop the harmful behaviour (eg there is no social norm that says if you light up a cigarette, your friends and family will leap in to stop it as they would if you were about to cross a road in front of a lorry). So it looks like we have (if not an absolute agreement) an in-practice agreement that people *can* choose to do harmful things and shouldn’t necessarily be stopped – it’s now about where the line is drawn.

Remember, we’re still assuming that polyamory is seen as definitely harmful. But many of the criticisms and fears of polyamory rest not on informed consent but on uninformed consent – the criticism is not that we are fully informed of all the scary dangerous possibilities and choosing them anyway, but that we are fooling ourselves, that we are unaware of the risks, that we are being thoughtless. Therefore, the logic seems to go, if a well-meaning friend could just explain properly how dangerous this all is, we’d think better of our actions and choose monogamy after all.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding, and not an issue of consent at all.

No matter how clearly you explain your understanding, your heart, your way of thinking, if someone is determined to see you as misguided and foolish and not understanding what you’re getting yourself into, nothing you say can convince them otherwise – there is no objective proof you can offer. Objectors think ‘I wouldn’t make that choice; the risks are too great and the payoff not appealing enough’. So instead of assuming that polyamorous people have evaluated the situation differently and decided that the risks are less important and the payoff more appealing, critics instead assume that it’s a failure of logic and reason on our part – we haven’t made an informed choice, we have misunderstood what we’re choosing, and if we understood it we’d think like them. I suspect that if the majority of critics of polyamory could understand fully, from the inside and from the heart, what polyamorous people are trying to tell them, their apparently ‘practical’ objections would melt away.

These objections are not based in the fear of harm – we can absolutely consent to being harmed, whether emotionally or physically. Otherwise we’d ban falling in love (because of breakups), we’d ban having children (because of childbirth and also teenagers), we’d ban marathons (because seriously, look at a marathon-runner’s feet)… These objections to polyamory are based on the assumption of ignorance or a failure of reasoning.

The only solution is for non-monogamous people of all stripes to keep talking, keep acknowledging anything you think is a genuine risk (polyamory is not, actually, the super-special magical solution to all relationship troubles ever), keep being visible where possible, keep just living your life, and over time it will slowly become clear that maybe, just maybe, we know what we’re talking about after all.

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11 responses to “Poly Means Many: Relationship ethics

  1. Perfect perfect perfect. ❤

  2. Devil's avocado

    “Otherwise we’d ban falling in love (because of breakups), we’d ban having children (because of childbirth and also teenagers), we’d ban marathons (because seriously, look at a marathon-runner’s feet)…” I love that sentence! This is a clear light shining on polyamory. Not many who read this will need convincing but, should they need to convince others (parents?), it does set out very clearly how it is not a Bad Thing but just a thing.

    • “not a Bad Thing but just a thing”

      Yes! Exactly. This also is I think where visibility comes into it – at the moment, most people don’t have *any* examples (either in the public eye or in their personal life) of non-monogamous relationships that aren’t scandalous/unhealthy/deceitful/etc. Most of my monogamous friends now know of at least one example of a polyamorous relationship that isn’t any of those things; the day might come when someone feels able to respond to someone else ‘you know, I don’t think it’s that weird, some friends of mine do that and they seem happy’.

  3. Pingback: » Relationship ethics Poly Means Many

  4. Oh wow. This is such a thorough exploration of some really thorny topics, and gets to the root of things beautifully.

  5. And now for the rest of my comment… oops!

    Still ‘new’ to the poly thing and even though we’ve talked it all through, probably too much ‘what if’ing to be honest, the impact of NRE is the one thing we are still waiting to see.

    But as you say, we only get one life, why not fill it with love (there is plenty of misery to spread around already!).

    • I suppose my feeling is: yes, new relationships can sometimes jeopardise existing ones, but monogamy is certainly no guarantee against being left for someone else. A relationship ending is always a risk, no matter what shape of relationship you choose.

      One of the things that I wish I’d seen written clearly, when The Rake and I were moving into non-monogamy, was: how do you and your partner resolve problems between the two of you now? If you resolve them with shouting, with unwilling backing down, with anger and not-speaking and brushing it under the carpet and never quite resolving it, then you’re the same people and you’ll continue to do that in non-monogamy (and, with more people involved, that will blow up more quickly and with bigger impact). But if you now resolve problems with talking, compassion, love, understanding, empathy, more talking, and ending up on the same page, then you’ll continue to do that. And it won’t turn into a horror story.

      You can’t ever know the outcome of things, and it would be disingenuous for anyone to pretend that opening up a previously monogamous relationship (or any kind of major choice) is totally risk-free, but… the risks, I’d say, are rarely as scary as people think from the ‘outside’. NRE doesn’t have to send you insane – if you’re sensible, you can enjoy it for what it is, but remember that you’re not seeing clearly and don’t have all the information. People do make mistakes – I’ve made *many*, and so have those I love – but the world doesn’t end. And the joys (in my opinion) are more than worth it.

  6. Great post. You addressed many of the most common concerns in a calm, thoughtful, balanced manner that showed both the potential liabilities of the polyamorous lifestyle at the same time as it debunked some of the larger fears.

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