Monday, October 31, 2005

nonmonogamy musings

full source here courtesey of mae bee, published on godhaven ink
"COMMUNITIES NOT COUPLES rule relationships, and the acceptance of them, betrays an internalised hierarchy. the relationship of a couple is of greater value and worth than others in the community. it would be equally unrealistic and undesirable to hope for everyone to feel as much love and connection with every single one of their community - down that path lies formalised and institutionalised groups or other coercive ways of relating which are just as damaging as rule relationships and coupledom.

community is more than one and it is more than two also. to create self-governing, self-sufficient small communities there cannot be the tyranny of individualism or of coupledom. to create wild and anarchistic communities we must also forsake the idea of sacrificing individual desires for the sake of the community. we have been so programmed by the megamachine that it is hard to imagine such a world where cooperation rather than competition does not elicit us as without. even harder to imagine is a world where we are free to take our pleasures and our desires openly. but if these are the communities we are in the process of creating then we must be honest and open and challenging. these communities will not prosper by shying from conflict but rather by not fearing it.

an argument often given by those who do not necessarily preach coercive relationships but are restricted by the ideology is this:
it is reasonable for A to not kiss B in front of C.
it is reasonable because A cares for C as much as she does for B.
A does not want to upset C.

nobody wants to upset those we care for. but if we restrict or inhibit our own desires for the false peace of not upsetting others, then we are left in a passionately deficit world. what then if C was upset because A and B were both female and C’s masculinity was threatened by queer sex? or if C was upset because A was black and B was white and C’s security as a black man was upset by mixed race love?

as radicals we would inevitably say the lovers should challenge homophobia and racism, that the onus is on C to deal with his feelings. and rightly so. homophobia and racism are internalised and damaging dynamics of control and power that must be challenged. so are rule relationships.

would you kiss B in front of C if C would be upset?!"

what a right moral maze i'm creating for myself...


Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Hmmm... I've had this discussion on a few occasions with Merrick, and even wrote an essay entitled "In Defence of Monogamy" as a response to one of those discussions.

It emerged as I was writing the essay, however, that what I actually found objectionable was the fundamentalism, militancy and polarisation generated by the monogamy / polyamory debate. I certainly have no objections to people choosing non-monogamy if that is where they find fulfillment.

And I accept that monogamy clearly does not work for some people. Perhaps even the majority. But attacking it on principle (which is often how advocates of non-monogamy aproach the issue) is - in my view - a seriously flawed perspective. It's understandable of course. Monogamy has been so engrained within our culture for so long that a militant approach is the inevitable response from those who seek to challenge it. Just as militant feminism is ultimately an inevitable response to repressive patriarchy.

But being an inevitable response doesn't necessarily equate with being a particularly productive one. And without wishing to sound like a wishy-washy liberal, it seems almost self-evident to me that a "one size fits all" approach is never going to work with human relationships (surely one of the central arguments of those who champion non-monogamy?). It's just as clear to me that monogamy works for some people as it is that it doesn't work for others.

But what really inspired me to respond to your post was the A kissing B and upsetting C bit of propositional logic you slipped in at the end. You used a debate-technique that - I confess - really winds me up. "What if the reason C objects to A and B kissing is because C is homophobic?" you ask. "Or what if it's a race thing? Are those not unjustifiable reasons for C to have a problem with A and B kissing?" And the obvious answer is "of course they're unjustifiable". But you then simply extend that to all monogamous relationships (or "rule relationships"... emotive language alert! All relationships - even non-monogamous ones - have 'rules'; either spoken or implied; so I'm unsure why one should be called "rule relationships" and the other not) with the lines:

homophobia and racism are internalised and damaging dynamics of control and power that must be challenged. so are rule relationships.

I really don't see how you can justify the claim that every argument in favour of monogamy is analogous in some way to racism and/or homophobia. I mean, how about the following example...? (and I hasten to point out that this is a hypothetical example... monogamy is indeed my preferred option, but when I decide to do a spot of self-analysis I'll make it clear)

So anyways, let's say the reason that C has a problem with seeing A kissing B has nothing to do with homophobia or racism, but is because C witnessed their father kissing a stranger as a child and saw the painful disintegration of their family follow swiftly afterwards. This created extreme hardship for the young C and the trauma resulted in a serious long-term abandoment complex. C has no conscious desire to control the actions of A, but due to childhood trauma, the sight of A kissing B causes a massive amount of anxiety to C which may well result in a slide into depression.

Of course, we'd all like to live in a world where everyone had a well-adjusted childhood and where C didn't suffer involuntary anxiety seeing A kiss B. But we don't live in that world. And while C may themself be consciously aware - and indeed openly admit - that their problem with A kissing B is the result of an unhealthy neurosis, I would find it unacceptable to label C's feelings as "wrong" in the same way racist or homophobic objections are "wrong". And I would also consider it unacceptable for A and B to place their own passions above the feelings of C in this case. I am not suggesting that C shouldn't try to overcome their neurosis. Nor am I saying that A should remain strictly faithful to C until death do them part. But any blogger who posts until we all start putting the needs of others first.... must surely see the problem with A and B simply ignoring C's anxiety in order to pursue their own desires.

The fact is, lots of us are pretty screwed up. And while we might (and doubtlessly should) balk at modifying our behaviour to accommodate someone's racism or homophobia, it's surely plain uncompassionate to refuse, as a matter of principle, to modify our behaviour to accommodate the feelings of others. Particularly those we care about.

Now to get more directly personal (just to demonstrate that C's abandonment complex does not represent the limits of this argument).

I'm a heterosexual male. I am, however, not homophobic in any way. My closest friend for many years was a gay man. Indeed we were so close that most people who knew me at the time assumed I was bisexual... a misconception I did nothing to dispel. If people want to make ludicrous assumptions ("his best friend is queer so they must be shagging, right?") then that's up to them. The sort of people who make that assumption are also the sort of people who would assume that my denying I was gay or bi was equivalent to being ashamed of, or embarrassed by, the idea... rather than merely getting the facts right.

I am also as non-racist as I can be... which is not to say "I'm not racist in any way". I recall reading the transcription of a conversation between two of my heroes (a word I use sparingly) David Byrne and Tim Leary. Something Byrne said really stuck with me; "racism is the water through which we all swim". It's not something that we can really escape completely, but it's something I guard against and I would describe myself as less racist than most.

Which is a long way around saying that if I was in a relationship and saw the person I was with kissing a black woman... neither the skin colour nor the sex of that person would be upsetting. Nonetheless, I would be upset. And the reason for this is because one of the things that is important to me in a relationship; and it's something without which the relationship would not be fulfilling; is exclusivity. And I have been completely up-front about that with every woman I've been involved with. It's not something I spring on someone "later"; simply because it's important to me that they are seeking roughly the same things from the relationship. So if I see my lover kissing someone else, I am upset because it is a betrayal... we have both made it clear that exclusivity is more important to us than the desire to be with others, and I am justified in being upset by the realisation that someone I trusted has lied to me about something they knew was very important to me.

If A and C have made it clear that they both desire monogamy, then A is obliged (just plain common decency) to inform C that the situation has changed and that they no longer want monogamy. In that case, C is totally justified in (i) feeling upset, and (ii) ending the relationship. Just as it's unacceptable to insist that someone remain monogamous against their will, so it is unacceptable to insist that someone accept a radically new role within a relationship against their will.

And just to clarify... "exclusivity" does not have to involve possessiveness. It can (and indeed, must, if it is to be genuinely fulfilling) be the free choice of both individuals. I have analysed my own desire for exclusivity... actually, I've perhaps "over"-analysed it; one of the great "what if"s in my life has to do with a female friend who I have a thing for, and with whom something was very clearly starting to happen, but whose non-monogamy was incompatible with my feelings. However I've concluded that my need for exclusivity does not fall under the banner of "damaging dynamics of control and power that must be challenged".

I can point to a whole array of psychological and emotional factors which inform that need for exclusivity, and while you may argue that some or all of them are "unhealthy" or "neurotic", I would take issue with that allegation. I disagree with the notion of "one healthy emotional landscape that we all must aspire to". There is a particular kind of relationship within which I can find (and have found) fulfillment. So long as the other person feels the same, then I reject the notion that anything about that relationship 'must be challenged'. Just as I would not dream of challenging non-exclusive relationships that were fulfilling for all individuals involved.

Sheesh... I've ended up regurgitating much of my "In Defence of Monogamy" essay from memory. I could go on, but it's probably an idea to rein it in. I hope I've provoked a little thought and not too much tedium.

5:38 am  
Blogger zoe said...

thank you, mr bliss, for some incredibly good points there.

shit. i'm rubbish at referencing, a relative beginner at blogging and even worse at pointing out that i didn't write the article that i was quoting from, it was on the godhaven site (link at the beginning). my contribution was the messyheaded aarghy bit at the end. i kind of chose to post it to provoke comment if anyone ever read this blog, and my, what a comment :)

i had issue with the whole a - b - c scenario too.
not least because it initially reminded me of one of those logic puzzles (if a lives in a green house, and c lives next to d etc) and relegating ppl to letters doesn't sit comfortably with me...

the reasoning behind that whole thing irked too, much for the same reasons as it did you.

sure, snog your life away if you're challenging homophobia or racism while you're doing it. but if there's no prejudice involved over the upset that you cause, if it's just a case of upsetting someone for the sake of it (sorry, to challenge their internalised rules) then i don't really see how that makes it a Good Thing. i would be upset by sticking my hand in a box of tarantulas and i certainly am not going to start doing that just to challenge my own internal rules about what makes me happy...
"If A and C have made it clear that they both desire monogamy, then A is obliged (just plain common decency) to inform C that the situation has changed and that they no longer want monogamy. In that case, C is totally justified in (i) feeling upset, and (ii) ending the relationship. Just as it's unacceptable to insist that someone remain monogamous against their will, so it is unacceptable to insist that someone accept a radically new role within a relationship against their will."
yup yup yup.

i'm sure that at some point i'll be able to come up with a rational and clear explanation of my views on the whole thang, but they seem to shift from day to day in different ways.. (but when i do i hope it's as well thought out and expressed!).

i shall think about this more.

10:55 am  
Blogger zoe said...

and it's just occured to me..

if you're into the whole queer thing, surely there's a whole issue with getting together with a homophobic partner?

and i can't imagine someone in a mixed race relationship getting together with someone racist.

maybe i'm being naive, and don't have enough life experience on this one. however, my personal 2p worth - i used to go out with a girl from bradford (my home town). she seemed really nice and sorted and fairly right-on. one night we got a taxi home and she was fuming when we got out.. when i asked why, she replied that she'd rung an all-white taxi firm to take us home, and that they hadn't stuck to their all-white part of the deal.
i was speechless. i also wondered how on earth i'd missed that particular quality in her.
we didn't go out for very much longer at all.

so that whole argument goes out the window for me.

11:31 am  
Blogger zoe said...

interesting article
here too.

4:24 pm  

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