Coming to the realization that there is an option to have openly conducted non-monogamous relationships is what I call the polyamorous possibility. Once people become aware that there is middle-ground between monogamy and cheating they have grasped the polyamorous possibility, and can never unthink it again. They may reject the idea or decide to explore it further, but the potential for themselves or their partner to initiate discussion of a polyamorous relationship exists in a way it had not before they became aware that polyamory is a social option. In my research, I have found that three common reactions follow realization of the polyamorous possibility.
The polyamorous possibility is not a big deal for some people -- they become aware of it and it simply rolls off of them. These folks often shelve it as an "oddity" they would not consider, like getting a facial tattoo or joining a cult. Others are already practicing polyamory and glad to have a name for it, but the realization is not earth shattering because they have already been doing it. In some cases, however, the polyamorous possibility is mind-blowing, and the freak-out usually expresses in one of two ways.
For some people, realizing the polyamorous possibility is like taking a deep breath for the first time in their lives. These folks get excited and want to dive right in, giddy with freedom and relief. Finally free of what some have called compulsory monogamy, the possibility of truthfully having multiple lovers can feel extremely liberating. Becoming openly poly can also be a huge relief from the burdens of lying and cheating, and offers people who have caused suffering and suffered themselves as failed monogamists/cheaters the opportunity to find a different way.
For other people, realizing the polyamorous possibility can feel extremely threatening, especially if their partner has ever given any indication that they might want to have an open relationship. Several personal and social issues can contribute to a fearful response.
Monogamous by Orientation
In the same way that some people say polyamory is a sexual or relational orientation for them, others report that they are innately or inherently monogamous. Those who are monogamous by orientation say that they do not feel attraction for others when they are in love with someone. For those folks, the possibility that their partner might love someone else can feel like their partner does not love them any more.
Unresolved Infidelity Issues
This fear can be especially potent for those who have been cheated on in the past, worry that their partner may cheat on them now or in the future, or feel guilt for their own past cheating. Others have parents who cheated on each other and are wary of nonmonogamy because of the mistrust the lying they observed in their families of origin. Hearing about the potential for open relationships and knowing they might spread to your social circle can make some people with unresolved issues around infidelity profoundly uncomfortable.
In addition to these personal issues, two larger social factors also shape negative reactions to the polyamorous possibility.
Sex negativity is the general attitude of fear and suspicion that surrounds anything to do with sexuality and those who relish it. It is the disdain that gives words like slut or whore their punch, and ensures that sexuality is always seen as dirty, marginal, or offensive. In larger society the impacts of sex negativity are evident in many ways, from the lack of sex education to the sluggish governmental response to HIV/AIDS during the 1980s. In a polyamorous context, sex negativity often comes across as disdain for those nasty horny people who like sex so much that they have it with multiple people – who knows what kinds of disgusting things they get up to!
Among forms of sexual nonconformity, polyamory is unusual in that it could potentially be appealing to everyone who desires intimate relationships with other people. Most people are heterosexual, and it is readily apparent that not every one experiences same-sex sexual attraction or desire. In other words, not everyone has the capacity or desire to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Unless they are monogamous by orientation, however, most people in long-term relationships -- regardless of sexual orientation -- have had the experience of being attracted to someone else besides their partner. Almost everyone has the potential to be polyamorous in a way that many people do not have that same potential to be gay. This near-universality can make polyamory seem especially menacing.
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