MonoPoly Restricted Trust
Two months ago (an eternity in podcasting, I know) I was on the Bayesian Conspiracy podcast to discuss polyamory with Aella and Eneasz, both of whom are hella fucking poly.1 I favor monogamy without moral objection to polyamory, yet its appeal eludes me. Given the caliber of my interlocutors, I walked away feeling uncharacteristically frustrated with our conversation, largely because I think we lack a shared understanding of each other’s vocabulary.
This post is a belated attempt to remedy the miscommunication, and not one that necessarily requires listening to the episode first (though it helps of course). I address the definition of polyamory, how we talk about ‘restrictions’ in relationships, and where trust comes from.
Return of the Antipodes
We started by rehashing my ongoing disagreement with Aella and her idiosyncratic definition of ‘polyamory’. While this definition offers a new perspective, it's important to consider how it aligns with the broader understanding of polyamory and its impact on communication:
The definition of ‘polyamorous’ that I find cleanest, for me, is not forbidding your partner from having extra-relationship intimacy. It doesn’t matter if they’re acting on it or not, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like banging anybody else, as long as your partner could go have sex/love someone else if they wanted, then to me, that’s polyamory.
I previously addressed why I really don’t like this ‘antipodal’ re-definition, in contrast to the straightforward and commonly-accepted “the practice of or desire for multiple concurrent romantic/sexual relationships” understanding.2 Aella has subsequently stated that her position is best expressed as a 2D chart:
…which nullifies a lot of my criticism. If you had to compress the spectrum down to just one, Aella favors the ‘restriction’ axis as more fitting while also acknowledging that some information is lost in the process. I agree that a chart allows for more nuance, but disagree with re-defining polyamory to focus away from the ‘interested in many’ axis for multiple reasons:
The risk of confusion by the re-definition is very high
The information conveyed by the re-definition is very low
The ‘restrictions-on-partner’ framing can get incoherent
It’s totally fine to use words with semantic ambiguity (e.g. light, right, match) when their meaning is clear enough in context (e.g. “You made the right choice by striking a match in the dim light”); and it’s totally fine for Aella to want to express a perspective that doesn’t align with mainstream understanding of polyamory. But it’s really confusing to use a word with an obscure interpretation that forks away from its pre-existing common understanding. Consider the outrage if a politician ran on a platform of “green infrastructure” only to deliver oil refineries painted green. Sure, the election promise wasn’t technically false, but the confusion is significant and foreseeable enough to deem it intentional.
The re-definition could be justified if it had compelling benefits, yet it ends up conveying less information. If someone said “I’m a vegetarian” everyone would interpret this as describing their personal abstention from eating meat. But if this person privately redefined ‘vegetarian’ to mean they’re okay with others not eating meat, it shifts the emphasis from a direct expression of one’s own attributes to an indirect reactive stance regarding others’ choices, leading to a conversation that feels needlessly convoluted. It certainly can be relevant to know what the vegetarian will tolerate, but that’s rarely ever the most relevant information. Similarly, if someone hitting on me tells me they’re poly, my first thought would be “they have a desire for multiple relationships” and definitely not “if we were in a relationship, and if I had a desire for multiple relationships, this person is willing to tolerate me pursuing these relationships”. What purpose could this circuitousness possibly serve?
It’s trivial to conjure examples of how the ‘restrictions-on-partner’ framing devolves into incoherency. One man has a harem relationship with 50 women who he forbids them from seeing anyone else, while they’re fine with him sleeping with whomever (If you’re following along on the chart, he would be on the top left while they would be on the bottom right). The women are all considered “poly” according to Aella’s ‘restrictions’ re-definition, but the man is not. If he wanted to expand the harem, seeking out “poly” women to add to the roster would be unnecessarily frustrating for everyone involved, because it’s just not how people use the term.
One of Aella’s objections to focusing on the traditional ‘wanting multiple relationships’ axis is that it isn’t distinctive enough, since almost everyone has some semblance of that desire. This is true but flattens far too much. Her survey data is the gold standard here, and it does show mild interest in banging others among the monogamous.
There’s a meaningful difference between an errant desire to bend the barista over the counter, and playing calendar tetris with a dozen of your secondaries, such that it doesn’t make sense to cleave “want to pursue extracurricular intimacy” into a neat yes/no binary. There’s no dividing line under the classic mono/poly definition, it’s a gradient spectrum ranging from “fleeting thought” to “overriding purpose in life”. Aella has written about how the ‘restrictions’ axis also falls along a spectrum (poly couples often have rules on condom use, emotional boundaries, or not fucking your partner’s dad) which means it’s not immune from her own criticism.
Overall I have a very high opinion of Aella’s integrity and have no reason to believe she’s intentionally duplicitous, but the re-definition appears motivated by propaganda purposes. She’s very transparent about believing polyamory to be the more virtuous path in contrast to monogamy (as is her right!), and it’s often useful to use language to influence social dictate, but no one has to agree with accepting terminology with baked-in beliefs. Remember how protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline insisted they be referred to as ‘water protectors’? Given the negative connotations attached to promiscuity (which, as a former slut myself, I neither share nor endorse) there appears to be an aversion to advertising ‘polyamory’ too much under the “wanting multiple partners” framing. Instead, it’s marketed under the much more palatable “not wanting to restrict others” framing.
However, the same accusations of wielding definitions as an ideological cudgel could be fairly levied against me. She rightly pointed out that our primary concern should be the accuracy of the definition, rather than focusing excessively on avoiding ideologically charged framing.3 When I was asked if polyamory did indeed place fewer “restrictions” on people, I said yes but as I’ll expand upon in the next section, I’m retracting my answer because I don’t believe we have the same understanding of the term “restriction”. Otherwise I agree with prioritizing accuracy; I don’t care what specific words we use so long as they’re useful at conveying information to others.
The ultimate question for vocabulary choices should always be “Am I reasonably certain that my listener has the same understanding of this word that I do?” Based on the multiple reasons I outlined, the focus on ‘restrictions’ is too confusing and too ambiguous to pass this test.
I Want You to Want Me
Let’s marinate into whether ‘restrictions’ is the best way to cleave the mono/poly dichotomy. Consider two scenarios:
You are cordially invited to contribute to a vegetarian-only potluck.
You are subject to criminal penalties under the Peter Singer world regime if you consume any sustenance of animal progeny.
The two pictures are not the same. Both, technically, describe ‘restrictions’, but this again flattens far too much under a single banner. The aforementioned “don’t fuck my dad” rule used by poly couples is also a ‘restriction’, but it would be absurd if that’s enough to void their polyamorous certification.
When Jonah Hill asked his then-girlfriend surfer Sarah Brady not to post bathing suit photos, he framed it as expressing his relationship “boundaries”. Oh but isn’t that just what a controlling abuser would say to whitewash his yoke? There’s no bright line rule here, you can’t delineate between “boundaries” and “abusive control” without having to conjure up an array of debatable and interpretative factors.
I was once in a monogamous relationship where my partner then expressed a strong desire to date other people. I had no desire to get in her way or otherwise be a hindrance, so I said “Ok!” and promptly broke up with her. I didn’t tell her what she wasn’t allowed to do, instead I unambiguously expressed my own interest in not wanting to be in a relationship with someone who has an active desire to fuck other people. Would skipping out on a vegetarian-only potluck because you’re tired of quinoa count as a ‘restriction’ imposed upon the host? Under a very strict literal reading, sort-of-yes, but it’s an incoherent use of the term that confuses more than clarifies.
The poly brigade’s retort about how everyone wants to fuck other people doesn’t fly. Granting that this desire widely exists, it does so on a spectrum of intensity. I’ve often found myself swept up by the nascent intoxication of a new situationship where the thought of pausing for a define-the-relationship talk seemed almost alien. My Tinder matches would be left fallow and rotting on the vine, because why bother? I want my partner to have the same overriding desire for me; not for them to reluctantly forgo others because of my say so. If I had to utter that kind of proclamation, it’s probably too coercive.
When the county clerk stamped my marriage license recently, my touch neurons did not suddenly get cryptographically locked to only respond to my wife’s DNA. I’m not pursuing hot people not because I somehow lost the ability to notice them, and I’m not fucking anyone else not because my wife forbids me, but because I just don’t care to. My wife certainly could double-explicitly prohibit me from doing so, but that would be the equivalent of her forbidding me from taking up fly-fishing.
I wonder if there’s a lack of imagination from both camps. I’ve had several casual dating periods, so I have some insight into the thrill and excitement of rotating through flings like a flipbook. But when I see my poly friends juggling a stable cadre of full-blown secondary relationships in addition to their primary, I feel vicarious exhaustion. I admit it, the energy devoted seems so excessive that I wonder how much of it is performative, motivated by the desire to showcase their apparent enlightenment,4 or maybe it’s to ensure they have enough board game partners. On the flip side, I wonder if they believe my assertions that I’m not interested in pursuing others to be genuine, or whether they assume I’ve been browbeaten by the dominating cultural narrative into accepting my imaginary handcuffs.
To be fair, the prevalence of cheating is very strong evidence that monos (especially men) are indeed dishonest about their desires for extra-relationship fucking, either because they’re lying to themselves, or because they’re willing to abandon this desire as a practical concession to finding a partner in a monogamy-dominated landscape. Honesty is good, and so I would heartily recommend polyamory to anyone who (for whatever reason) is irresistibly drawn towards breaking their exclusivity pledges. All this is also a strong indicator that polyamory is socially disfavored, so this potentially justifies using deliberate vocabulary re-framing as a balancing counter-force.
What is Trust? Baby Don’t Hurt Me
Moving from the semantics of polyamory to its practical implications, let’s delve into the pivotal roles of trust and jealousy in these relationships. The foundational problem we have to deal with here is humans’ persistent proclivity towards lying, which remains because of how often it’s personally advantageous to do so. Naturally, humans also developed a countervailing proclivity for detecting and dissuading dishonesty as a safeguard. It’s impractical to live ensconced within an intractable and perpetual barrier of suspicion, so we have measures to let our guard down selectively.
Ideally we build trust over time through shared experiences and history, but there’s also potential “trust shortcuts” such as costly signals and commitment rituals.5 Basically, any actions that someone is unlikely to undertake unless they were genuinely committed count. In the context of romantic relationships, these can range from the extravagant (atrociously expensive weddings) to the mundane (introducing a new girlfriend to your friends). Though far from infallible, shortcuts retain some usefulness because the traditional method of building trust can be unreasonably and agonizingly slow.6
This nicely segues into the role of jealousy. It’s considered a negative and disdainful emotion, and fair to say that the polyamorous are particularly proud of the cultural technology they’ve developed for dealing with it, but I want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing here. If Alice sees her boyfriend Bob talking to Cindy and feels [negative emotion] in response, it could be a result of pure resentment (Alice hates seeing Bob receive attention from other women) or it could be a reasonable response to a lack of security and assurance (read: lack of trust). The problem is both variants (call them resentful vs rational) get shoved into the same “jealousy” laundry hamper without efforts to distinguish the two, and what would otherwise be a reasonable emotional response gets dirtied by proximity.
Consider another example with polyamorous couple Doug and Emma. They’ve been each other’s primary partners for years and have mutually disclosed social security numbers. One day Emma jets off to Europe with a new fling without telling Doug, who only finds out about this through her LinkedIn updates. Upon her return she continues exhibiting increasingly detached behavior, spending less time with Doug and cancelling plans at the last minute with irreverent excuses, all while reassuring him he remains her top priority in life. Doug is no spring chicken and deploys an arsenal of polyamory tools as remedy (open communication, compersion seances, and even a meticulous line chart of their decreasing time together) but nothing works. Emma continues to reaffirm how important he is to her via garbled late-night texts, and Doug continues to feel [negative emotion].
Would anyone dispute Doug has valid reasons for trusting Emma less? Yes, she says he’s a priority, but her actions indicate otherwise. He has ample reasons to believe Emma is *gasp* lying. Maybe she’s not, perhaps this is all just a misunderstanding with an imminent denouement. But if Emma was indeed lying, what can be done to maintain the relationship? After such a grievous betrayal, it wouldn’t be tenable for Doug to carry on as usual, nor would it be practical to proactively commit to the uncertainty of rebuilding trust via the traditional slow-burn accumulation. Only trust shortcuts — within the grand lineage of romantic serenades perhaps — are likely to be viable options here, if anything.
I never expected any of the above to be a point of contention, but it was! Again, humans routinely lie, especially about sex and relationships. Emma could have been lying to Doug about her commitment to their relationship just to stall for time until she meets an upgraded Doug replacement. Poly relationships commonly organize around having a primary partner, and even relationship anarchists necessarily express a hierarchy through the inescapable constraints of the attention economy, all of which are potential opportunities for trust to erode. Around ~25 mins mark, I asked my poly interlocutors how to ensure someone isn’t lying to you, their responses were a variant of “just trust them bro”. Ok, but how? The point here is that trust cannot appear out of thin air, it has to come from somewhere, and this is true regardless if it’s a polyamorous or monogamous relationship!
This is another area in particular where I worry that a polyamorous framing saturated with righteousness could lead one astray. If you’ve inculcated your lifestyle as inherently virtuous because “jealousy” is either non-existent or adequately contained, there’s a risk of aligning all suspicion (not matter how reasonable) as inherently sinful or indicative of moral failing. Sometimes it’s good to distrust.
We should use words that other people know the meaning of. We should avoid creating unnecessary ambiguity by flattening distinct phenomena under the same banner. Prioritizing clarity is particular important when dealing with something as complex as human relationships, whether polyamorous or monogamous.
Now, let’s play some board games.
If you only trust our future robot overlord, here’s also what chatGPT said: “It’s fair to say that the definition of polyamory you provided is not widely accepted in its entirety. Polyamory, as commonly understood, involves more than just not forbidding extra-relationship intimacy. It typically includes aspects of ethical, open, and consensual engagement in romantic or sexual relationships with multiple partners. The definition you've provided focuses primarily on the aspect of non-restriction, which is a part of polyamory but doesn't encompass its full scope.”
At the ~16mins mark, Aella said “I think the question should not be ‘Are we trying to avoid virtuous framing?’ but rather ‘Is this accurate? Are poly people in fact placing fewer restrictions on their partners?’”
I’ve also previously written in Cuckoldry as Status Jockeying about concerns with the way polyamory is framed socially, and how that might discourage transparency about one’s desires.
I take responsibility for contributing to the confusion with how I discussed ‘costly signals’ in relationships. The classic example of a costly signal is the peacock’s extravagant tail, a reliable indicator of overall fitness precisely because it’s so gratuitously expensive to maintain. When I described ‘commitment rituals’ as ‘costly’ on the podcast, I meant it in the sense that they impose social costs. Public declarations like pledge ceremonies and weddings “work” not because they physically prevent the oath-takers from subsequently breaking their commitments, rather the aspiration here is the pomp and circumstance of the ritual comes laden with sufficient social pressure to encourage ongoing compliance.
The galaxy-brain take here is to tally up all the “trust shortcuts” we grudgingly rely upon on a daily basis and imagine how you’d cope without them: online product reviews, uniformed police officers, food safety inspection grades on restaurant windows, bank logos on ATMs, and on and on. The point is not that these shortcuts are infallible, they can and are indeed frequently exploited, but that’s not enough to throw them all away.