The more, the merrier?

Sex on Tuesday

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Love is inherently tough. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.

To add to the innate challenge, we’ve always had social strictures on love: Though we’ve begun to accept queer love, for instance, social prescriptions limit the acceptable forms of love, and among the most difficult norms to defy is monogamy. So if your instincts carry you outside social convention — as mine have — you must work all the more diligently for love to succeed.

Let me tell you a story. (For simplicity, I’ll assign everyone pseudonyms.) When I was 15, I was increasingly falling for the girl with whom I’d first have sex, who I’ll call “Ava,” and I was also involved with an older girl with whom Ava and I were both smitten. Over the course of my relationship with Ava, I would fall again for an ex-girlfriend of mine, “Diana,” but ultimately leave Ava for another girl I loved, “Joan.” Over the course of three and a half years, I would seriously date Ava, Diana and Joan, interspersing those relationships with an assortment of shorter, less significant attachments. I was what is often called a “serial dater.”

Though all of these high school relationships were monogamous, each ruptured when that monogamy became untenable. I face the challenge of seldom loving just one person at a time, a fate our society tends to condemn and otherize. When my feelings took me in different directions simultaneously, I invariably failed the people I loved. Few things still call up greater shame and remorse than recalling how I mishandled the ends of my relationships.

Monogamy is hard, but not universally: Monogamy is hard for people whose feelings defy the prescription. Friends used to ask me whether I thought I was better suited to polyamory, and for some years, I wavered. Like many people, my impression of polyamory was some caricature of 1967’s Summer of Love: hedonist libertinism void of commitment. I had too much pride to think I’d stoop to indiscriminate sexual gratification, and I knew I liked the rhythm of commitment. So my answer was a tentative No.

Now I think polyamory isn’t right for me, but for other reasons. I’ve lost my teenage prejudice against open relationships, but I’m now better versed in the titanic project of polyamory, the considerable work that goes into not just one serious emotional commitment, but many. In some ways, true polyamory is for people who, far from hating it, actually love commitment, for polyamory requires the same effort and attention in each partnership. Imagine, for a moment, the time involved in dating three people simultaneously.

Polyamory also exemplifies how love and relationships lie on continua, a notion we have slowly come to acknowledge for gender and will hopefully soon realize applies to almost every human experience. On that count, perhaps pure monogamy still isn’t perfect for me either: I have a fervent aversion to binaries. But I still think the monogamous end of the spectrum suits me better in lots of respects.

First, I take pride in work I do well, and nowhere am I more self-conscious about doing work poorly than in relationships. If I felt like I was failing a friend — let alone a significant other — I would be furious with myself. I think polyamory simply makes it easier to inadvertently neglect the emotional labor needed in one of your partnerships.

Second, I know I tend toward imbalance: If I had multiple significant others, I shudder to think how badly I might fall short in my friendships. I know I obsess when I’m in love, and as much as I adore my friends, I fear I might give short shrift to platonic relationships, leaving myself with few close bonds if my romances fell through.

Third, I find myself yearning for the simplicity of a single, long-term committed relationship. Of course they’re tough; of course they take work. But focused bonds and relative balance are major selling points for me. Monogamous commitments may sometimes be laborious and exhausting, but they’re the simplest of the complex options.

So high school ultimately taught me a great deal about the pains of social prescription. But happily, in struggling to abide by the norm of monogamy, I had the opportunity to question it. My conclusion has been simple: As with all relationships, honesty, candor and clear expectations are the secret ingredients; all else is frills. My failures at times to achieve each of these have mangled or ended relationships, and I cannot say I am proud of the pitfalls I’ve faced while loving people concurrently. But I maintain the simultaneous loves were not at fault — the real problem was how I negotiated them.

In the end, the simplest version of any story is the least true, and if your vision of polyamory is one of incessant sex, I invite you to think again. Human beings, though resilient, are astoundingly fragile, and our hearts can break with remarkable ease. The roots of the word “polyamory” mean “many loves,” and sure, perhaps the more, the merrier — but only for people who’ve mastered the labor of love.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].