Suppose you’re in a serious, long-term monogamous relationship. One day, your partner comes to you and says: “I have been finding myself irresistibly attracted to other people. I’ve tried just getting over it but it hasn’t worked. This has left me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. I still love you and remain committed to our relationship. Can we discuss options for alleviating my situation while still staying together? I am open to anything, and let’s talk, but I hope you will at least consider an option that involves my seeing other people in some form because I doubt that anything less will make me feel okay. In turn, I will consider anything that you might need to make that workable for you.”
How do you respond? As I see it, you have two broad options:
A: say ‘absolutely not, no chance in hell, if you require this to even be an option, then I’m out’; or
B: say ‘let’s look at our options’.
B can have a number of different flavors. It can be something like, ‘yes, of course, if you really feel that way, let’s consider our options’. Or it can be something more like ‘I really don’t like this and doubt that it can work; what’s more, I have some non-negotiables; but, okay, let’s talk and see what we can work out’. One is more open than another, but both fall into category B.
If you can honestly say that your answer would be of form B, you’re already in a polyamorous relationship.
Polyamory doesn’t require that you consistently see many people. There is a common form of polyamory in which you have a primary partner (maybe even a spouse), and you’re open to the possibility of seeing other people, though you don’t often do. Most self-identified monogomers know this. What they miss is that, if they’d answer B to the scenario above, they’re already implicitly in this kind of relationship (admittedly, all the way to the ‘monogamy-like’ end of the poly spectrum). This is because knowing that you’d answer B implies that you are, in at least some minimal sense, open to the possibility of your partner seeing other people.
You can, of course, consider a version of the scenario in which you’re the one who is suddenly irresistibly attracted to other people. Would you suffer through it, end your relationship, or try to talk to your partner about options? The latter is this scenario’s analogue for ‘B’.
This may sound like a clever semantic argument that has no real significance. But I think it does matter. There’s a big difference between perceiving an option as an either-or vs. a matter of degree. By showing us that we’re already on the polyamory spectrum, this argument takes away some of the radical appearance of polyamory. It feels like a big jump to go from monogamy to polyamory; it doesn’t feel like such a big jump from being at this minimal end of the spectrum to just slightly further over on the same spectrum. It’s easy to imagine someone moved by this argument to feel that it is ‘safe’ to go a tiny step further and say: ‘well, neither of us seems to want another partner now, but if either of us ever did, I guess it would at least be on the table’. This is really only a repeat of B, just slightly more explicit and more comfortable.
This isn’t just significant because it might cause couples to slip into polyamory little-by-little. Much of the value of polyamory is that it proliferates the kinds of relationships we can have, be that with casual lovers or with lifelong partners. By bringing out the ‘degree’ perspective on polyamory, this argument exhibits a major part of what makes polyamory valuable.
Of course, there are those who would answer A. But that means accepting the level of closed-ness implied by A. It means being unwilling to even discuss the possibility of some version of polyamory even when the alternative is either the end of your longterm relationship or the unhappiness of your partner.
For some—maybe the deeply religious or the dispositionally very conservative—that level of closed-ness is appropriate. For most, at least under a certain age, I suspect that it is not and that it would be motivated almost entirely by jealousy. This brings up one of the other great reasons to pursue polyamory: it is incredibly effective at helping us to confront the insecurity that invariably lies underneath jealousy. But here I am getting ahead of myself. There are many pragmatic reasons to pursue polyamory—dealing with jealousy, improved communication with a primary, diversity of experience, and avoiding the incredibly complicated landmine of hurt emotions and logistical difficulty that comes with the expectation of monogamy, among others. I won’t go into those now. My aim here has been only to show that, good or bad, unless you’re an unusually closed person, you’re already polyamorous.