joreth: (polyamory)
I've seen this question in several contexts over the years.  The question is to ask if polyamory is "all about sex" or can / do poly people want to eventually "settle down" with someone special?  I've addressed it in a lot of different ways, but all my answers come down to roughly the same thing.

This is a false dichotomy. There are more than two options besides "trying to have casual, emotionless sex with everyone" and "settling down".

I have a life that is rich and nuanced and dynamic and contextual. The number of partners and what our relationships look like is subjective. To a conservative monogamist, a woman who has had only 2 partners ever in her entire life and they have been living together as a family for 40 years with nothing but TV stereotype vanilla, soccer-mom, suburbanite sex is "wild" and "promiscuous".

Focusing on the numbers and ranking emotional connections only encourages the slut-shaming that harms our community as a whole. It's a holdover from the monogamous community, and it's looking at polyamory from the wrong lens.  The problem is the phrase "settle down"and similar phrases like it. Remove that sentence and try to describe the situation without using that phrase at all.

There are several different questions happening when people ask about two binary options like this:

1) Is polyamory all about sex, or is there an emotional connection to it (with the implication that lack of emotional connection in sex is negative).

2) What *structures* "count" as "poly"?

3) Do some people use manipulative tactics to get relationship styles that they want that their partners may not also want?

This is what another commenter meant by "unpack" and "deconstruct" the term "settle down". What are you *really* asking?

Each of these three questions are *separate* questions. The phrase "settle down" carries a lot of baggage with it from a monogamous mindset that ranks relationship structures with some being "better" than others, implicitly judging the people who choose the "lesser" relationship forms, and pretty much completely misses the point of non-monogamy.

The easiest question to answer is #3 - yes, some people use manipulative tactics to get relationship styles that they want. This is true no matter what the relationship style is. People falsely promise monogamy to get casual sex too.

What polyamorists do here is to challenge the monogamous paradigm and all the implicit assumptions that go along with it. Which means that you can't look at what we do through a monogamous lens because then nothing makes any sense. You have to look at it through other lenses.

A person can have lots of casual sex partners with low emotional connection and still lead a life of traditional domesticity. A person can have a life that appears to be "free" and "untethered" and yet still have deep emotional connections to other people.  What a person's daily life looks like, how many sexual partners they have, and what kind of sex they have are all independent variables.

Rather than approaching it from judging the number of partners as a "sign" of all these other, unrelated variables, it's better to look into the implicit assumption of control and restriction that are often being asked about, which we can usually get to if we poke the questioner and they make other comments about not wanting more than 3 people in a family group.

The number of partners is irrelevant. The kind of sex they're having is irrelevant. How respected is each person's agency in the relationship? How much freedom do they have? Are the people in the relationship valued more than the relationship itself? These are the questions you need to ask - both yourself and of others.

"Restricting" other people, whether it's to only 1 partner or to some magic number greater than 1, is a violation of their agency. *That's* the real issue here.

It's OK for an individual to simply not have enough bandwidth to handle emotionally relating on a deep level to more than X number of people, whatever that number is for them. If your bandwidth taps out at only 1 partner (monogamy), that's OK. If it taps out at 3 people, that's OK. If it taps out at 10 people, that's OK too.

If the bandwidth only has room for 1 or 2 emotionally deep connections but there is still a little trickle left over for less-entwined connections, kind of like an internet service that can only handle one device streaming movies at a time but if the other devices only need to check email or use a low-resource network-connected app, that's OK.

But to artificially throttle that bandwidth on other people like a company blocking out certain websites or all streaming activity, that's a problem. That's fine for a company who wants to control the use of its resources, but that's not how individual adult human beings are respected as autonomous agents.

A person who only has enough emotional bandwidth for X number of partners and that's just where they run out of energy can still be in a relationship with someone whose emotional bandwidth accommodates for a higher number than X or for relationships of a different style like kink or casual partners.  Because our own emotional bandwidth is a limitation *on ourselves*, and we can limit ourselves however we want. That's a boundary. But imposing our own bandwidth limitations onto other people - that's an imposition on their agency.

But aside from all this talk of numbers, the more experienced polys discover that there isn't any magic number. Where the limits lie depends on the *people* involved. One of my partners used to believe that he didn't have enough emotional bandwidth to handle more than 2 partners total. ...

Until he moved away and all of his partners became long-distance. And he also started dating solo polys. Suddenly, these relationships, even though they were deeply emotionally connected, were less of a drain on his bandwidth than the live-in, codependent partners he had before and he found he could successfully manage as many as 5 or 6. But it depended on who those 5 were.  If one of his partners required more of his bandwidth, then his total partner limit was reduced in number.

So it's not about the number, and it's not about the "structure". It's way more complicated than that.

It's about *agency*.

At its best, polyamory respects and nurtures every person's agency as a full, individual human being.

What that ends up looking like in terms of numbers of partners, types of sex, or structure of relationship depends on the people in those relationships, and that can change at any given time for any given person.


July 2017

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