Breaking down the labels and creating a relationship that works for you.
I’d always had an inkling that traditional monogamy doesn’t work. And yet, after dabbling in polyamory and seeing that it’s not for me, I realize there’s no cut-and-dry model for a satisfying, successful relationship. It’s deeply personal, and it’s not what you call it but how you show up in it that really counts. Here are some important distinctions I’ve discovered that help a relationship thrive, whether it’s mono or poly:
- It’s Not How Many, It’s How
When traditional monogamy fails, most people mistakenly attribute the failure to the one-person model and look to polyamory for the solution. They miss the point. It’s not how many you do it with, it’s how you do it, that makes the difference. After all, what you can do well with one person, you have a higher chance of doing well with more than one.
Proponents of polyamory often rely on out-of-date viewpoints about monogamy: that monogamy tells us what to expect, that monogamy means happily ever after with a perfect prince or princess, that monogamy means one person has to satisfy all of our needs. I call this model traditional or conventional monogamy.
But we’re free to turn traditional monogamy on its head and create our own kind of relationship, sans labels. A monogamous relationship can offer the same opportunity for design, reinvention, creativity, change, growth, rebirth, negotiation, and everything else that polyamory offers. For instance, you can negotiate a monogamous relationship with more room for friends of the opposite sex than is typical. Or a monogamous relationship in which it’s okay to flirt, or express honestly your passing desires for others, without acting on them. There is room within monogamy to experiment and reinvent without necessarily going all the way into polyamory.
- Security and Happiness Don’t Come From Outside
Many people enter relationships for the wrong reasons. We think our partner is the source of our feelings—whether joy, bliss, and safety; or anger, despair, and sadness. But that’s not how it works. Your partner does not have the power to make you feel loved or dejected, safe or abandoned. These feelings the are result of your own thoughts and reactions. Whether you are single, with one partner, or with many partners, your feelings are being generated by your own thoughts, not by what’s going on outside of you.
- Love Isn’t the Same as Sexual Energy
To love someone is one thing. To share sexual energy with someone is another. Don’t mix up the two.
As an affectionate love bug, I’ll jump at any opportunity to share non-sexual love and intimacy with others, in a safe container. Cuddle parties, Tantric eye-gazing hangouts, belly-to-belly breathing pods, I’m all over them. Compassion, playfulness, radiance, tenderness, and affection are what I offer freely to all. I find that, when sharing love and affection with everyone instead of confining it to just one person, it enriches and nourishes my primary relationship. We get to swim in an ocean instead of a little pond!
But sexual energy is not the same as love. While I am happy to love everyone, sexual energy is something I deliberately choose to share with just one person. This is not a better or worse approach than choosing to share this energy with more than one person. The point is, you need to be clear about what you are choosing to share and with whom, not deluding yourself or being fooled by the argument of “free love.” Since love and sex are not the same, “free love” and “free sex” are not either.
- Nor Is It the Same as Attraction
Love is the deep ocean floor: quiet, timeless, unchanging. Attraction is the tidal wave on the surface: fresh, alive, tingling with spindrift and foam. Just like the tide, attraction will surge and subside. Just like the ocean floor, love will always be. We can savor both.
You can love a person forever, whether you are physically together or apart, talking or not talking, alive or dead. Love remains constant. Attraction, on the other hand, comes and goes. There will always be someone new and interesting on the horizon. If you are being honest with yourself, it is almost a guarantee that during the course of your relationship, at least one if not both of you will find someone else, if not a few others, attractive. There is no point putting out the flame of attraction, for another one will flare up in a matter of time. Attraction is a feeling. As with all feelings, it seems as if it’s telling us that we must do something about it immediately. It urges. It gnaws. It tugs. But also, just like any other feeling, it arrives and then it leaves.
If we understand the nature of attraction, we’ll be able to pause and consider: This won’t be the last person I feel attracted to. Another will come along, sooner or later. It may feel intense now, but it will wind down. How do I want to handle this feeling of attraction, then? I won’t have all the time and energy needed to pursue every single desire. What about my relationship with my current partner? What is important to me?
Know that attraction is inevitable. Instead of trying to avoid or kill it, welcome it, and turn the gaze toward the question: What do you choose to do with it? An attitude of non-judgment creates the space for the natural ebb and flow of attraction to run its course, instead of it getting stuck and escalated.
- Open Communication Is Key
Desires can only be expressed and acknowledged in a space of trust. Trust is built between partners through open, honest communication. If we know that anything can be shared between us and be received with love, respect, compassion, and understanding, nothing is off-limits. Knowing that we’re safe and all is welcomed, we are more inclined to reveal the uncomfortable, and in turn we create the space for our partner to do the same.
I remember once expressing to my partner that I felt very drawn to a male friend of his and that I felt like having some one-on-one time with him. My partner understood and gave me his blessings. What happened was that the other guy and I went out for lunch, had a connected conversation, warm hugs and comforting touches, and that was more than satisfying for me. It didn’t go any further than that, because I didn’t feel any desire for more.
This was possible because my partner and I could discuss openly everything without fear of judgment. The space my partner gave me had dissolved any charges of guilt and shame, freeing me to do what felt authentic. Without the guilt and shame—which, let’s face it, can often heighten feelings of sexual attraction—I realized I didn’t need to be sexual with the other guy.
Open, honest communication with emotional awareness is the foundation for any successful relationship, mono or poly.
- Commitment Is Not Necessarily Exclusivity
To be committed to one person does not necessarily mean you are exclusive with them. Commitment means you are dedicated to making the relationship work. You have decided to nurture and cultivate it. It is the promise to give of yourself, to overcome challenges – mentally, emotionally, logistically, physically, spiritually – to be part of each other’s life, contribute to each other’s well-being, support each other’s purpose. You can be committed to more than one person at a time.
On the other hand, being exclusive means you’re not dating or being sexual with anyone else. You can be sexually exclusive but not committed, just as you can be committed but not sexually exclusive.
The more you’re clear about what you want and need, the easier it is to state it up front what kind of relationship works for you, even if your position might change later on. Self-awareness and ongoing open communication are your best bets for navigating the uncharted waters of your own version of relationship, sans labels.
Emily Nature helps smart, successful career women have fun in the game of love and relationships.