“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
“Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness”
From Desire, Love, and IdentityPhilosophy of Sex and Love, ed. Gary Foster. Oxford University Press, 2017
Chances are good that, if you’ve been in a sexual or romantic relationship, you have had the experience of holding implicit or explicit trust, where you and the people you’re involved with respect certain boundaries. Chances are also quite good that you’ve been in the position of betraying that trust or having your trust betrayed. Usually we call that “cheating,” and this paper assumes that fooling around on people is unethical and possibly evil, in the sense that it is almost certain to produce harm. Even though monogamy is a norm in our society, it is also certainly a failing norm, at least in the sense that it is enormously common for people to fail to respect it. The fact that monogamy seems to so often not work, in one way or another, is one reason that many people think about alternatives.
If you were interested in having ethical, consensual, multiple, sexual, emotional, or romantic relationships, you would find available to you (at least on the internet) a number of self-identified polyamants, swingers, non-monogamists, support groups, close to forty books on nonmonogamy, weekend workshops, and more. Depending on where you lived, the people you ran in to might not gape in horror if they discovered that you were both involved with someone and available to become involved with them. You might even be able to keep your job, your kids, and your apartment without conforming to monogamous models of romantic relationships. So many ifs. But the most important question, would be: “If I want to have the possibility of multiple relationships, is there a non-evil way to do them?”
This short essay will answer this question: Yes.
I examine the philosophical stakes behind core narratives of current polyamory. I begin with some provisional and contested (but common) definitions, and go on to situate these definitions in relation to accounts of how to meaningfully make and keep promises and to respect interpersonal boundaries. I supplement these approaches by drawing on Sue Campbell’s account of relational self-formation and Donna Haraway’s call for an ethics of alterity and “significant otherness”; both Campbell and Haraway offer us useful frameworks for understanding responsibility as a way of being in poly-relation.
Defining our terms
There’s a t-shirt that says:
POLYAMORY IS WRONG!
It is either Multiamory
but mixing Greek and
Latin Roots? WRONG!
Some people love the term “polyamory,” because it names the idea of having multiple loves, while others prefer “nonmonogamy,” because it says what it’s against. I understand both of these terms, which are the most common, to name the practice of consensually and with mutual interest negotiating desire for more than one relationship. Sometimes, polyamory names the fact of having multiple simultaneous relationships, but not always. This nuance is important: I don’t think people stop being polyamorous just because they are not themselves involved at the moment in more than one relationship – or any relationship, for that matter. An important bit here is the “consensual” part of that definition, about which I will say only that consent is going to be complex and negotiated in the context of overlapping power relations. A poly relationship that people are in just because they’re afraid their partner will leave them isn’t going to count as consensual and with mutual interest.
You might, if you got into nonmonogamy explicitly, eventually need to decide how to characterize your poly relationship(s), and you would need a little more negotiation, consent, and perhaps definition. The labels on offer include: “primary relationship,” “secondary relationships,” “polyfidelitous,” “closed group married,” “triad,” “quad,” “puppy pile poly,” and many, many more. These terms, and the clusters of concepts out of which they precipitate, are simultaneously ways to navigate the charges of irresponsible relationality attending non-monogamous practice and efforts to concretize in language heterodox relational practices. Extended, they map presumed practices for responsible polyamory and by extension give an account of the responsibilities involved in intimate relationships altogether.
The relationships these terms describe conform to and at the same time exceed their own bounds. This involves questions of power – who has it, who’s experiencing it, and what it’s doing. These terms are relevant not only to people who identify as polyamorous or non-monogamous. Intimate relationships matter to all of us: too often, it is through our most closely interwoven connections with others, at our moments of deepest vulnerability, that the racist, sexist, beauty-normative, ablest patriarchy hits us hardest. When we are naked and vulnerable with someone who says we are too hairy or too fat, or not hairy enough, or too skinny, precisely because we are naked and vulnerable we might feel that judgement more harshly than in everyday life. Even people who move through straight monogamous relationships with relative ease are shaped by the standards that cause friction to others. Feminist philosophical accounts of the importance of relationality to self-formation calls for fuller accounts of the everyday language of polyamory. The terms matter for what and how we imagine the world of intimate relationships, of intimacy, connection, and care in our lives.
What is monogamy, then?
On the way toward my main argument here, let me start with what I think is an uncontentious claim: Monogamy is a form of polyamory. It is “boilerplate,” or like a pre-printed lease agreement, and it seems ubiquitous. We usually think of monogamy as sexual fidelity to one romantic partner, often codified in legal recognition by the state and socially sanctioned, and most people assume that people who identify as married or stably dating someone are this thing called monogamous. But scratch at that assumption a little, and most monogamous relations are themselves built on a set of tacit and explicit agreements that express a more-or-less consensual navigation of possible or actual desire for multiple relationships. Does what happen in Vegas stay in Vegas? Can you gaze with delight on a non-partner’s luscious lips? Is watching porn and masturbating cheating? If you’re thinking about a friend who is not your sexual partner during sex, is that cheating? What if you’re thinking of a popular actor? An anime character? A dog? What about looking up a highschool flame and re-starting an exciting correspondence? Can you go to a strip club and feel turned on? Is it possible to be monogamously attracted to many people at the same time, so long as you never act on that attraction? Some people in monogamous relationships will answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, others would answer “no” to all of them. Sometimes people in monogamous couples talk about these things explicitly, but most don’t – and different expectations about what “counts” as cheating often produce friction.
Monogamous people frequently experience quite profound jealousy, betrayal, neglect, anger, pain, and other difficult feelings when they feel that their partners have not respected their implicit or explicit agreements around these kinds of questions. Sometimes jealousy is sparked not even by one’s partner having desire for others, but simply for being desired or desirable. Sometimes people feel jealous of their partner’s regard and attention toward close friends, pets, work, golf, and many other things. And it’s significant that monogamy arises out of quite troubling histories of the assumed need to control women’s bodies for the purposes of patrilineal (descent through the male line) property relations; the history of monogamy is a history of ownership, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that so many discussions of relational boundaries return to practices of property and control. Marriage and monogamy as we currently know them are not as ancient as many people think, and they’re certainly not as necessary as they’re made out to be.
A key thing to understand, here, is that monogamous and poly relationships alike meet the challenges that accompany being interested in people. People in all sorts of relationships work with the implications of making commitments to one another despite the potential for wanting something more or other than the commitment implies. All sorts of intimate relationships grapple with the question of how to respect loved others, and, in romantic or sexual relationships, how to be responsible in the face of a crush. Poly relationships frequently grapple more explicitly and with a less boilerplate approach, and because of that potentially more expansive mode they have something to teach us about responsibility and respect in relationships more generally.
Three common poly frameworks
There are three very common ways that poly people talk about and practice ethical nonmonogamy: 1) dyadic polyamory, 2) clear multiple roles, and 3) unbounded openness. Right off, it is important to stress this typification flattens the lived experience of poly negotiation; people’s practices overlap and exceed how I typify these styles of poly practice. However, all of us – poly and non – could fruitfully use a fourth, alternative ethical frame in understanding how to have multiple relationships, which I am calling “relational significant otherness.”
Dyadic poly practices often use a language of hierarchy and centrality: There are primary partners, who act more or less like monogamous partners on monogamy steroids – the primary relationship is so steady, so flexible, so strong, that it can accommodate each partner having relationships with people beyond the dyad. But that dyad is, well, primary. It comes first, it’s most important, it trumps all other connections. Then there are secondary relationships, which might open up spaces the primary partnership doesn’t treat. In strong versions of this style, even the spaces opened by the secondary lovers are encompassed and claimed by the primary dyad, because it is the main reference point in terms of which the secondary relationship takes place. Hapless others who enter the matrix of the primary dyad take warning: you are secondary. Your desires are subordinate to the needs and desires of the authentic pair – even if that pair is something less than exactly a “normal” couple.
Non-dyadic practices that maintain clear roles and boundaries use language of practical accommodation to the realities of carving out a new practice of relationality in the context of a hostile, heteronormative imperative to monogamy: everyone has people who, for contingent/natural reasons, are closer and more central to their lives. They are long term partners, co-parents, people living together and otherwise in intentional close proximity. It is responsible and necessary to name these relationships what they are, however that naming is negotiated. Clear boundaries and ethically adhered to agreements are only practical. People new to a given poly configuration must both understand and respect the boundaries and agreements necessary to healthy multiple relationships operating among sometimes many different webs of relationship. When new loves and lovers enter the picture of already existing relationships, they can enter with maximal autonomy when the terms and habits are obvious. By extension, people in ongoing relationships must take responsibility for communicating the terms and conditions on which they might become involved with others – it is deceptive, too utopian, and disingenuous to act as though the power involved in committed relationships, however defined, is not in play. Trying to resist naming something a primary relationship, for example, is politically and ethically irresponsible and sets everyone up – particularly potential new lovers – for painful disillusion.
A final important – though contested – discourse in today’s polyamorous circles unfurls in a language of limitless possibility, opening a radical space for respectful and ethical relationship, unbound by the strictures of orthodox relationships. On this account, in their very being, poly relationships undermine the oppressive framework of normative monogamy. This means that even when poly people appear to function in relationships legible to the straight norm – passing as monogamous – the facts of how they live and love destabilizes utterly that norm. It is more than possible to have responsible multiple relationships without rendering them in terms of rigid hierarchies. People who advocate this kind of understanding of poly relationships might argue that to call these relationships “primary” or “secondary” or many other labels based on rigid agreements degrades and disrespects them. Just as we have multiple friendships, they say, we can have multiple loving or sexual relationships – without labels, fluid, flexible, moving like a flock of birds or a school of dolphins. Axes of responsibility fall organically along lines delineated by contingent circumstance. The main thing standing in our way is habits of naming that recreate hierarchies.
Each of these ways of talking about poly relationships, of contesting or accepting the language of bounded agreements (“primary”, etc) attempts to settle the messy, thick, tangled weave of the actual practice of being in relationship with others. Monogamous couples smooth out this weave by deciding not to act on whatever desires they might have for people outside their relationship, by sublimating sexual energy into heightened friend-crushes, or by cheating on their partner (in which case they’re non-monogamous, but profoundly unethical, and so I think we should be profoundly uninterested in them). Polyamorous people do different versions of these things, but I would suggest that in many cases they are still constrained by a troubling relational continuum.
On one end of this continuum are boundaries so constraining that the agreements made in the context of primary or central relationships take priority over other connections to the extent that secondary or other lovers are categorically shut out – their desires and needs have no weight in decision making, and people within a relationship might have power to end their partner’s or lover’s relationship with someone else. On the other end, any and all desires and relationships are on the table, and no one in a given configuration has ethical standing to make demands or set limits on the timing or type of relationships their lovers take up.
Consider the end of the continuum we might think of as monogamy on steroids. It seems to me that to call something nonmonogamous, or polyamorous, while agreeing to end other relationships at a partner’s whim is to pretend to the throne of liberatory relationality while retaining the forms of monogamy in holographic colour. Granted, there are whims and then there are reasons, and the latter can be ethical. But it is crucial for many poly relationships that take the label “primary” that the central pair has ethical priority in any relational matrix. When something is threatening the dyad, especially if it’s a newer relationship, the primary partnership gets priority. Often this manifests in already set agreements, to which any third or fourth person has to accede. There is also the question of labeling: the primary partnership comes first – usually temporally, but ostensibly also in one’s consideration. The objects of secondary relationships – sometimes happy to evade the responsibility implied by primary-ness – are expected to accept their lot, to not demand too much, to understand when they can’t sleep over, or shower with their lover, or be called a particular endearment, if those things are off limits within the primary relationship. Other considerations are, well, secondary. As are the people who might hold them. And even when the person in question is happy with that status, it troubles me to relate with people as something less than full constituents, with ethical rights, in decisions that involve them.
In contrast to the highly bounded and negotiated agreements that delimit some poly relationships, there are models that reject boundaries and agreements because they are seen to endorse ownership models of relationality. Many proponents of these approaches imply or take it that proper polyamory admits of no boundaries at all, that negotiated agreements are concessions to an oppressive and hierarchical model that poly relationships ought to categorically reject. Practitioners of polyamory on this end of the continuum might or might not tell their lovers about new partners, and might have agreements about safer sex, for example, but current connections are given no first pass priority over new relationships. While it might resist certain forms of oppression associated with ownership models of relationships, particularly as such models are predicated on men’s sexual access and dominion over women’s bodies, labour, and affective availability, this form of poly relationship – call it “no holds barred” – is troubling for different reasons than the “all holds negotiated” form above. Its refusal to consider ethical claims arising from relationality puts commitments to treat others with dignity and respect on the butcher’s block of self-righteous political purity.
As I mentioned above, and as many feminist/anarchist theorists have pointed out (think of Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre, or Simone de Beauvoir) the Western system of coupledom and marriage is rooted in patriarchal ownership models, in which women moved from one man’s house (her father’s) to another’s (her husband’s), holding the status of property. In North America, female monogamy also references purity of parentage – knowing who the father of children is – and since race is always involved in parentage monogamy has also been intertwined with a racist imperative to keep the white race pure. Perhaps surprisingly, anxieties about polyamory are not only racialized: they also relate to keeping structures of capitalism stable. This is because current economic arrangements are based on a model of a two-parent family; taxes, health insurance, mortgage and rental agreements, and much more assume a monogamous couple as their base unit. These things combine to make many poly people feel that simply not being monogamous is enough to make a person a revolutionary. However, if polyamory ends up replicating other unethical tendencies along the continuum I outlined above (ranging from too much control to too little respect), it cannot be genuinely interesting as a relational practice. I aspire for a revolutionary, loving practice of relationships that is: about rebellion against bad norms and also accountability to others; about violating boundaries that support a racist capitalist patriarchy and also being kind to others and respecting their boundaries; about challenging our deepest fears and also keeping ourselves and others safe enough to flourish.
Relational selves and significant otherness
And so I turn to Donna Haraway’s conception of significant otherness and Sue Campbell’s conception of relational co-constitution. Together, I think of these theorists as offering us the idea of relational significant otherness. Haraway might herself resist the torquing back toward the human I am about to do. She is attempting to think seriously about contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species. She riffs on the term “significant other,: writing: “Except in a party invitation or a philosophical discussion, ‘significant other’ won’t do for human sexual partners; and the term performs little better to house the daily meanings of cobbled together kin relations in dogland.”[i] In contrast, she suggests the idea of “significant otherness” as a way to talk about valuing difference. This term points us beyond one single significant other, into an envisioning of what an “ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness might look like.”[ii] Polyamory might, very imperfectly, be one move toward this kind of flourishing.
“Significant otherness” points toward partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other. This is “vulnerable, on-the-ground work that cobbles together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures.”[iii] The significant otherness I imagine as a guiding aspiration for responsible polyamory is both a dilution and an ardent affirmation of this statement. Clearly, the success or failure of people cobbling together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living – something we do with everyone we are committed to working with – is not productive of absolutely necessary futures between those two or more folks. There are forms of significant otherness, which might involve seeing the disparate histories we bring and the futures we might cobble together with them. When we perceive the on-the-ground work involved in attempting polyamory, it frequently looks like this revolution is too messy, tiring, grinding, and boring to be worth it. Disparate inherited histories are individual – our stories written deep in us, the relationships we come along with – but they are also much broader. There is indubitably something wrong with a politics tied to heteronormative monogamy. And there seems to be something also wrong with a polyamory tied to rigid classifications of “primary” and “secondary” relationships; in the context of thinking significant otherness, these classificatory schemas show up as ways to tame non-harmonious agencies into something smaller.
Sue Campbell’s understanding of relational self-construction is useful here. Campbell argues that it is profoundly inaccurate to imagine that we as selves are separable, stably-bounded individuals. Rather, she attends to the many ways we are formed in and through mattering relations with others – from the earliest childhood throughout our lives. I am interested here in her account of how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are. For Campbell, being relationally shaped means that we are dynamic and contingent beings shaped in part by what commitments or responsibilities we take up. Campbell writes: “Taking responsibility is part of the expressive behavior that constitutes our emotional attachments to others …One does not form emotional attachments with others and then find oneself assigned responsibility on this basis. Taking responsibility brings us into relation with others.”[iv] I am thinking of “taking responsibility” in this sense as connected in lively ways to Haraway’s claim that “entities with fully secured boundaries called possessive individuals (imagined as human or otherwise) are the wrong units for considering what is going on. That means not that a particular animal does not matter but that mattering is always inside connections that demand and enable response, not bare calculation or ranking. Response, of course, grows with the capacity to respond, that is, responsibility.”[v] Campbell’s conception of responsibility also refused any idea of a bounded self, which she argues “obscures the generative role of taking responsibility in commitments and relationships.”[vi] The generative role Campbell envisages here, one I endorse, is the idea that through practices of open-ended being-in-response, holding response-ability, we become different kinds of beings. Understanding this in the context of work on memory and relationality, she writes, “requires a shift in focus from a self-sovereign individual who is secure in her or his identity to a self who lives with the tensions, instabilities, and possibilities of time consciousness and a concomitant uncertainty about boundaries and responsibilities.”[vii] Perhaps one reason that people aim for monogamy, or –equally – take up any of the pre-set forms of nonmonogamy on offer, is to try to manage the felt threat of their lovers being in relation to others. Perhaps it is most frightening to us to think of ourselves as constituted in unbounded and uncertain relations of significant otherness toward which we have relations of responsibility-in-the-making.
Starting from a view that we are selves shaped in relations of responsibility toward non-reductive otherness, I want something far more nuanced and far more risky than the labels “primary” and “secondary” touch. I want everyone – monogamous and polyamorous and other – to understand relationality itself as a deep, life-changing risk. What poly relationships have revealed to me is the utter contingency of relationships altogether. The fact that we will all lose people we love is really, really obvious and really, really hard to hold in our mind. We are going to die, or they are, or they’ll split up with us, or we’ll split up with them. In the everyday course of life, when our lovers fall for other people we suddenly see the ways they are strange to us: they have whole realms of experience we cannot access, and ways of flourishing we can’t encompass. Understanding every relationship in terms of significant otherness brings these facts into nervous light. In addition to refusing the shorthand of “primaryness”, we might explode the categories of monogamy and polyamory themselves. Beyond the dichotomy of “being poly” only when you’re actually having multiple simultaneous sexual relationships, we could begin to see relationality altogether as a commitment to the flourishing of significant others and significant otherness.
Significant otherness, always relational, in ardent affirmative mode, signals the possibility of joint futures that extend beyond the framework of the two or three or several relationships any one of us can reasonably maintain. This significant otherness yearns to flourish, it delights when others toward whom we are in relations of response-ability flourish, and it may recognize that humans are not the most significant actors in that flourishing. The kind of absolutely necessary futures I find here relate to liberatory politics broadly construed, in which human and nonhuman actors might seriously and playfully act with respect toward mutual flourishing. Power is here, of course, but it’s complicated. There are, then, bonsai versions of relational significant otherness that we manage to carve out of serious flourishing – sites of respect for our lovers and partners where we can take seriously their disparate histories, our partial connections, the ways that overlapping networks of relationality tug at us and free us, alternately and simultaneously. These small, halting, often-failing attempts might prefigure a pattern we hope will ripple out, roots and branches untrimmed and tangled.
Campbell, Sue, Our Faithfulness to the Past: The Ethics and Politics of Memory (Oxford University Press, 2014)
Haraway, Donna J., The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, Ill.: Prickly Paradigm, 2003)
—-. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)
[i] Haraway, 2003, 96.
[ii] Haraway, 2003, 3.
[iii] Haraway, 2003, 7.
[iv] Campbell, 2014, 123.
[v] Haraway, 2008, 70–71.
[vi] Campbell, 2014, 125.
[vii] Campbell, 2014, 126.