Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's Hard Being More Enlightened Than Everyone Else

A few weeks ago I had a visit from my partner Annabelle and her husband. They are a polyamorous, kinky, sex-positive, politically liberal and totally awesome couple and they have a habit of saying, "It's hard being more enlightened than everyone else."

Ninety percent of the time that's a joke but there's also some truth to it. Of course, they aren't the type who would just come out and say that their sexual choices (kinky, poly, open-minded) make them somehow more enlightened than someone who makes different choices. Nor am I. But, speaking only for myself now, sometimes it's difficult not to think it. It sounds unbelievably smug, superior and condescending to think that one is more enlightened than other people, but on the rare occasions that I start to feel that was it's usually accompanied not by smugness but by despair.

To point out a (not very personal) example, I want to mention a recent This American Life show -- the title and topic of the episode was "Infidelity" (listen here). The episode begins by talking about the Mark Sanford scandal and spins off from there into several tales about people cheating on their partners.

You might think that, as a nonmonogamous person, I'm probably a smug bastard about the fact that I've never cheated, not because I'm so high and mighty but because I've never really had to -- and you'd be right. I can be very obnoxious. I made a regrettable inappropriate joke at a party recently that drew some sharp glances. For the most part, however, I'm out of the stage that comes early in a person's polygamous life where they feel the need to proselytize for nonmonogamy. But the one time that I honestly do start to think, "It's hard being more enlightened than everyone else," is when I hear stories infidelity in supposedly monogamous relationships create such misery in so many lives. This American Life came out back in October and I decided to listen to it for this blog but it took me a month and four tries to finish it because it was so difficult to listen to stories about that kind of pain.

It depresses me so much to hear about John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods, not to mention This American Life or a friend of mine who just went through a break-up full of unfounded jealous accusations, that at my lowest moments I do sort of wonder why people put themselves through it again and again and never start to question the idea of monogamy. I mean, I assume it's because of that comforting feeling that your partner loves only you, that you fulfill their every need, that you complete them in every way and therefore have total control over their sexual and emotional desires. I can see how that would be attractive but isn't it totally impossible? Shouldn't people get comfortable with the fact that it's totally impossible and go from there?

I don't know, but when I hear about the wreckage infidelity leaves in so many lives I get depressed enough that I'm tempted to say yes. And I don't want to be that guy who actually thinks he's more enlightened, who actually thinks he knows what's best for everybody else. Those people are almost invariably so far behind they think they're first, and I don't want that to be me. Sometimes it's just kind of depressing...


  1. I often get curious questions from my monogamous friends, who quickly become defensive when I answer honestly. Yet, if the conversation goes on, they tend to share their inner doubts about conventional relationships, their pessimism, and the bitterness they thought only they felt.

  2. I think it's interesting that your question is automatically "Why don't people question monogamy?" as opposed to "Why don't people question hurting each other or being dishonest?" Cheating isn't a product of a relationship paradigm - if it were, students would never cheat on tests, friends would never lie to friends, etc. Cheating happens when people don't value each other enough to be honest, and can happen in polyamorous relationships, too. Unless you're going to try and convince me that no member of a polyamorous relationship has ever lied to one or more partners about anything ever.

    Polyamory does make it easier for people not to lie to each other by eliminating the things that one would have to lie about and making them permissible...but that seems a bit like playing Monopoly, and then when you're losing, making the point of the game to end up with the LEAST money. Then you get to say "Yay! I won!" Wouldn't it be great if people didn't need to adapt a whole other relationship style just to make that easier? Wouldn't it be great if people just communicated with each other and didn't lie to each other on their own no matter what kind of relationship they were in? THAT would be REALLY enlightened.

    I think people get defensive about the idea that polyamory would solve all their problems not because of any particular feeling about polyamory, but because by saying that you're missing the point. The point is that a person's trust in another person was shaken by a hurtful, dishonest action. What kind of relationship you're in when that happens to you is irrelevant.

  3. Man, I totally relate to your sentiments on this topic. I can't even watch a traditional romantic comedy film anymore, because the inevitable central conflict, 9 times out of 10, involves an infidelity and the heartache that ensues. And the whole concept of that is so alien to me. I mean, why would anyone live like that?! It baffles.

  4. Yeah, I know what you mean. I saw Reality Bites for the first time about a year ago and about fifteen minutes from the end the people I was watching it with did a poll to see who though Winona should end up with Ben and who thought she should end up with Ethan. When they asked me who I thought she should go with, I said, "Um, both." Which got a big laugh.

    Pop songs can also be a challenge to get through...