Broadly speaking, there seem to be two paths that lead people to polyamory. Some people come at it either right off the bat or early on in their romantic escapades, whereas others seem to arrive at it after a change in trajectory. I envy those who are part of the former group. Like anything that falls into the category of non-normative; a supportive community of family or friends and/or early exposure ends up exacting a huge influence on whether or not we have the confidence to explore certain options later in life.
If you’ve grown up in a culture of heteronormativity and monogamy, the idea that there are different avenues for you to explore may not even occur to you. Or if it does, you might feel intimidated and unsupported, whether explicitly or implicitly: If your community isn’t well versed on these concepts, they aren’t likely to be equipped with the tools to educate or support you.
When I look at young 20-something poly experts, confident in their queer identities and adept at juggling relationship anarchy, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been for me if I had either been raised in a less normative household, or if I had sought out queer friends in high school and university. Ultimately it was a combination of not knowing what I didn’t know, and not having the confidence to challenge myself to seek out situations that might push me outside my comfort zone.
Monogamy and heterosexuality surrounded me with a lot of hard lines and rules. That wasn’t inherently a bad thing: I like rules (as long as I agree with them). I like clarity and knowing where I stand. The problem with monogamy was that I wasn’t always clear where the lines were.
It wasn’t that I had a hard time being monogamous – I understood clearly what constituted sexual cheating and I believed in fidelity. It was that every other relationship, friendships included, felt like cheating (or at least held the potential for cheating).
It is hard for me to approach a relationship with the notion that it should be categorized with rules for how far it should go, and in what fashion my feelings are allowed to evolve. I don’t, as a general habit, go out of my way to make casual acquaintances. If I choose to develop a friendship with someone, I want the freedom to take it in whatever direction it naturally evolves.
That model didn’t really fit in with what I thought monogamy was. Rather than reject monogamy, I would avoid making friends when I was in committed relationships. Again, this was more about living in a sheltered environment and not feeling brave enough to break the rules (after all, I didn’t really have anyone to break the rules with). It wasn’t until my late 30s (and the internet, and Facebook, and OKCupid) that it became clear that like my sexuality, my relationship style didn’t have to be something that conformed to what society said was ‘normal.’
Coming to poly later in life affects how you approach concepts of non-monogamy. If you’ve been raised in the poly community or as queer spawn, the odds are that your outlook on pretty much everything is tempered by the attitude of “it’s ok to challenge the status quo.” You’re less likely to compare things to the ‘norm’ – or if you do, it’s probably to celebrate that you are breaking the mold rather than reaffirming it.
It’s a bad habit of latecomers to the poly game that we are prone to comparing the poly styles of ourselves and others to what we know about monogamy, rather than acknowledging that polyamory is less about breaking the rules of monogamy as much as it is embracing the freedom to create a relationship style that reflects the wants and needs of the people involved. The existence of polyamory doesn’t mean that monogamy is invalid. They’re just different.
I think it’s natural, when monogamy is the only thing you’ve experienced (whether positively or not) to use that as your frame of reference. I also think it’s natural to approach your first experiences with poly in a piece-meal fashion. Baby steps.
As such, what inevitably happens is that a huge number of latecomers fit a certain profile: married couples that have decided to open up their marriage. They start by dating other people together and establishing a laundry list of rules to keep their primary relationship ‘safe.’
This tends to earn them a lot of scorn from the early adopters.
So what do you do if you are late to the game, but rather than being married and opening up your relationship to poly, you start out single and your first poly relationship results in marriage?
Here I am, finally comfortable in a relationship and relationship style that frees me to fully explore whatever developments might occur in my friendships, no longer internally regulated out of a false sense of obligation, and yet on the outside, I appear to be in a hetero-monogamous marriage. I’ve gone from being a bisexual woman pursued by unicorn hunters, to being in a poly marriage where everyone assumes we’re unicorn hunters.
I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to their own style and approach to polyamory. To me, that’s the whole point, that you define your own relationship style. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also suck to be lumped in with an entire group of people whose beliefs and approach to poly doesn’t match your own.
I don’t regret marrying my husband, but doing so has made so many aspects of my identity invisible. No one sees my bisexuality. No one sees my gender non-conformity. No one knows I’m poly.
I’m finally at a time of my life where I can (and do try to) express myself and be who I really am on the inside. But if no one sees it on the outside, does it really count?