Non-monogamy: Principle or Practice?


This is painfully incomplete, but I don’t see myself finishing anytime soon. I realize I also confuse non-monogamy and polyamory in the theses; I do not provide a strong definition for either, perhaps on purpose. It might be intellectual bullshit, a conservative friend reminded me. But this just fuels me to discuss the merits and pitfalls of traditional forms of romance. Lacking clarity and precision, and probably careful thought, I post nevertheless.



Without having read much literature on non-monogamy or polyamory (update: Blogs have been helpful!), I have given both extensive thought and to a certain degree, some practice. I prefer the term non-monogamy for the below notes. Polyamory perhaps asks too much of individuals and/or we have lost respect for the term – or my assumption and research interest is in non-monogamy as the more common practice for individuals whose lives lack the stability that seems necessary for polyamory, i.e., a stable income, home, and place of residence. Multiple loves, as I have come across in personal communication, is rare if we take love quite seriously, something I want to do. I want to do justice to polyamory and those who are courageous and ethical enough to practice it by, for the most part, theoretically avoiding the practice altogether. I want to instate non-monogamy as the more common and assert the significance of the category: it is the stepping stone to the ethical goal we should hope to one day achieve. In other words, the facade of polyamory exchanged for the truth of non-monogamy, simply put, the practice of not being monogamous. This could be the single person, casual dater, promiscuous individual, or what I think is unfortunately labeled the primary partner relationship (a hierarchy of romantic and sexual interests). It is this latter practice that I want the below notes to be mostly directed toward so that 1) individuals appropriately identify themselves without the bad faith of falsely labeling their relationship polyamorous and further, 2) to make a claim that even within non-normative romance (cf. Thesis Four), there is still much work to do. If the aim of polyamory is an ethics – care for the self and respect for the other – this is a pursuit that is in constant renewal and innovation as sexual partners appear and disappear.

I approach these possible trajectories of study from cultural studies and continental ethics, without name-dropping. Quantitative sociological studies are underway but do not seem to make a strong enough distinction between non-monogamy and polyamory, nor make any substantial arguments for non-normative romances. Whatever interest quantitative sociologists have in sexuality, my interest is much more theoretical and concerned with ethics; I do not want to demythologize polyamory or, to restate, set the record straight on its practice. The approaches to study are direct critiques  of monogamy, which are themselves lacking in argument and rigor, in favor of what I believe to be a common practice that has so far lacked a critical engagement (in conversation and practice) in terms of its potential for more ethical sexual and romantic encounters. The below therefore takes the form of theses and could be developed in a number of different ways.

Thesis One: Monogamy is bad for your (mental) health.

This is a popular topic for film, literature, poetry, and art. Wouldn’t many of the tragedies be solved by accepting some alternative form of relationship besides monogamy? On the other hand we would be without great art and literature.

This thesis is on the issue of fantasy and projection. Your partner(s) is/are not only objects for you and will always evade your possession of them whole. And that is just fine. Dealing with this becomes part of the problem, the main problem perhaps is that a part which escapes our epistemological and perspectival grasp is cause for anxiety. The former is the foundation of marriage, namely the performative vows which remain unbroken until broken, and the latter is reason behind harems, to give an extreme case – we can keep an eye on our objects of affection and attraction if they are safely locked up, and even without our direct sight these objects, are nevertheless in our sight so long as they remain in their quarters. (Perhaps there is some overlap between the two here…) Knowing that you cannot find the truth of nor keep a constant eye on your partner(s) is the first step to overcoming the fear that these two features of the romantic relationship produces in us. If we fail, maintain our grip on monogamy, we become tyrants in the sense that Badiou has Socrates describe in The Republic. It is a desire which will stop at nothing until it gets its way, because for some odd reason, total (complete) gratification seems possible. Perhaps this has much to do with the organization and functioning of desire. See Thesis Five.

Thesis Two: (Non-)Monogamy/Polyamory is not an identity.

I used the word identify in the introduction. I want to differentiate it from identity, which in this case, I take to be counterproductive to the goal of polyamory (= ethics). In my personal communication and in my (internet) research I have discovered that individuals like to say their identity is (to be) poly. I want to stress the impossibility of this claim to stable identity; you can’t have this identity because by definition it is a goal which is unachievable, or better, a practice which is always in process.

The quick claim that I am capable of loving many is self-congratulating, as if the task of being a good and ethical person has been accomplished. But as we know romance is in flux, so you can’t be an unchanging good and polyamorous person until the situation calls for it. In the terms I have defined above non-monogamists do this too. Since they’ve defeated patriarchy and monogamy and oppression and have a primary partner relationship (my primary partner is so much better than my other partners!), individuals seem prone to pat themselves on the back, identify as polyamorous instead, and note (often via Facebook relationship status or in a blog) the job well done.

Thesis Three: Non-monogamy is the more ethical practice for romantic relationships.

Sex is pretty fun, everyone knows it. Sharing your emotional side with others is extremely rewarding too. The latter monogamists seem to begrudgingly accept, while the former, for the most part, puts a quick end to that form of relationship. Allowing yourself, and more importantly your partner, to pursue desires and dreams that have nothing to do with you is what ethics is all about. Partnerships are about encouragement, not hindrance. These desires may or may not include sexual and emotional attachments you don’t like. Just as you would be expected to be encouraged in your projects, so will your partner(s) with respect to theirs. See Thesis One.

This would be something like a sacrifice. Despite the anxiety over loss (is it not much easier to lose a partner if we foster their desires?) we sacrifice what is personal, possessive, and problematic (jealousy for instance) and aid our loves in their pursuit of pleasure, happiness, whatever. Sacrifice is not the sacrifice of the desire to have multiple sexual partners; tradition, because of its ease, is not sacrifice. I reserve this term, sacrifice, for the most difficult of behaviors and practices because that act should be in the interest of your partner(s) and not your own; monogamy is the desire to possess, make the complex simple, take ownership over an individual, deny the truth of flux, and therefore not a sacrifice. Sacrifice should hurt a little, or a lot.

On the other side then is recognizing your own desires and dreams. You too may want sexual and emotional attachments apart from strictly enclosed relationships. I stressed the importance of being good to others, but equally important is being good to yourself (this idea of care for the self). This means not faking a lack of desire for others, other experiences, other goals besides what can be invented and accomplished with one person. This also solves the problem of lying to and cheating on your monogamous partner to a certain degree. Reciprocity is at work here, a recognition between two or more individuals that each person’s projects and goals should be taken seriously by all those involved.

However, an ethics of non-monogamy is not the imperative to be revealing or confessing. Your partner is not a cop, your father, or a priest. You do not have to confess each sexual or emotional encounter to your partner(s) the morning after; leave that for the station or church. You should develop a comfortableness or honesty with your partner(s) which makes sharing your experiences possible. Neither confessor nor sound board then – this may be the most difficult terrain to navigate.

Thesis Four: Non-monogamy is ethical progress.

At one time non-monogamy was what men did to their wives, i.e., have secretive affairs. We’re moving beyond it. One day we’ll stop seeing non-monogamy as taboo (we all do it, all single people are initially non-monogamous, even if that non-monogamy then turns into monogamy). I think this progression moves in tandem with the debates and discussion around other themes in the study of sexualities. Bringing non-monogamy into popular discussion and debate is simultaneously to call for gender equality and ending the claims that non-normative sexualities are transgressive. Nothing is transgressive with sex or god forbid multiple emotional connections; it’s all sex and emotion no matter the evident form it takes. Individuals with different sexualities and emotional engagements are not Others, despite the insistence to Other them from popular culture, popular opinion, and even sociological studies which researches the degree to which non-normative sexualities are practiced amongst the general public and thus, through these studies, reinforces a so-called normal form for sex and romance. See Thesis Three.

Thesis Five: Instating non-monogamy as a principle, not merely a practice.

Non-monogamy is a reminder for those who wish to think critically about it. This reminder, or principle, suggests individuals are not in possession of, nor a possession of, other persons. Partner(s) will elude, fail, do things the other partner(s) rather they not. It’s not merely running around with your pants down, so to speak. This is less a statement on demythologizing the practice than setting in writing an imperative. While sex is the evident practice, there’s enough ethical and social reasons to partake as well. See Theses One and Three.

There is no such identity or practice as poly single (, but we all are, or can be, non-monogamous if we’re willing to sacrifice a bit of our desire for total gratification and hold up a principle that doesn’t reinforce traditional ways of taking up the world.