The Geek Social Fallacies of Polyamory

In the unlikely event that you may not be aware of them, the Geek Social Fallacies are a list of flaws in reasoning about relationships which are altogether depressingly common in geek social groups.

It’s not surprising that they exist; though it’s less true now than it was, say, twenty years ago, it’s still a fact that many self-identified “geeks” grow up as social outcasts, and create communities that express their own quirks and dysfunctions because of that.

I’ve been pondering some pondering thoughts about how the same idea might apply to polyamorous people, and I think there is a loose correlation between the Geek Social Fallacies and the Poly Social Fallacies. Don’t get me wrong; the poly community, by and large, is awesome, and I scarcely form close friendships with anyone outside of it any more. But we are prone to our own social quirks and dysfunctions. So, here’s a first stab at drafting the Poly Social Fallacies:

Poly Social Fallacy #1: Polyamorous People Don’t Get Jealous

If we were to meet someone who claims immunity to an emotion like, say, disappointment, or sadness, or frustration, or doubt, we’d probably look at her like she’d just sprouted an extra head or two. Yet when people in the poly community claim an “immunity” to jealousy, often we’ll just nod and say “Yes, that’s awesome, you’re a Good Poly Person.”

Even when they feel jealousy but refuse to acknowledge it for what it is. Which is, I have to admit, something I’ve been guilty of myself when I started doing the non-monogamy thing.

Jealousy is merely a feeling, nothing more. Like all emotions, it’s part of the normal and varied landscape of the human condition. Some people may feel it more easily than others, and some people may go through long periods of time without ever encountering a situation that triggers it, but that’s not the same thing.

As with all emotions, it’s a way for the parts of our brain that don’t have language to communicate with us. Sometimes, what those bits of our brains are communicating might be “Hey, there’s an inconsistency here; there’s something hinkey that might mean my needs aren’t being met” and other times it’s “RAAAARGH! PROTECT TERRITORY! MUST SMASH INTERLOPER TRYING TO TAKE MY PROPERTY!”…but it’s not something that being polyamorous somehow confers an immunity to, any more than being into motor sports magically makes one immune to disappointment.

Carriers of this fallacy can do all sorts of destructive things, from acting out in passive-aggressive ways while refusing to confront the reality of what they’re feeling, to attempting to impose all sorts of micromanaging controls on their partner’s behavior in the name of “setting boundaries.” A better solution is honesty: “Hey, tI’m feeling jealous. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, or that you have done anything wrong, but it does mean I’d like to talk about this.”

Poly Social Fallacy #2: Polyamory Is More Evolved

This particular fallacy isn’t unique to polyamory; members of any sexual or relationship subculture often feel like they Have It Figured Out, and that if only their particular thing could be recognized for how brilliant it was by the MainStream Culture, everyone’s lives would be better off.

This is often a reaction to being marginalized by mainstream culture. When you’ve grown up not fitting in with the people around you, finding a community where you DO fit is such an overwhelming relief that you want to spread the joy you feel far and wide.

And, to be fair, the poly community does espouse many values–communication, honesty, communication, problem-solving, communication, negotiation, and communication–that would benefit anyone in any sort of relationship. (Just imagine how much better off the characters in any romantic comedy would be if they would only talk to each other!)

But carriers of this fallacy run off the rails in two directions: first, by assuming that just because someone is monogamous, it must mean they don’t have these skills; and second, by assuming that just because they are polyamorous, it means they do.

It’d be marvelous if membership in the poly community came with these relationship skills. And some folks do seem to feel that that’s how things work–woohoo! Im polyamorous, and poly people are good communicators! That means I’m a good communicator! Go me!–but even a casual look around the poly landscape will show that it doesn’t quiiiiite work that way.

More to the point, there is no single relationship model that works for everyone. Just like monogamy doesn’t work for all of us, polyamory doesn’t work for all of us either. There are monogamous people who are monogamous because monogamy is the most natural fit for them, not because they’re knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who are merely accepting cultural defaults because they have not yet received the blessings of polyamorous Enlightenment.

Poly Social Fallacy #3: The Core Relationship Before All

Valuing relationships is a reasonable thing. Wanting to protect a relationship is a valid measure of respect for the value it brings. Believing that it’s OK to do anything, commit any act, or hurt any person so long as the core relationship remains is unhealthy.

I recently encountered a great example of this fallacy in action. A woman declared that, because she had once been in a situation where her partner didn’t take care to meet her needs when he started a relationship, she realized that the only ethical way to have relationships was to abandon any new partner the moment her husband expressed the slightest discomfort. Her reasoning, you see, was that it is unethical to hurt people, and therefore the only right thing to do was to end any relationship that she was involved in the instant it looked like her husband might have any problem with it at all–because she would never be so cruel as to hurt someone else.

Carriers of this social fallacy venerate their existing relationship to the point where they either don’t acknowledge or simply don’t care about anyone else’s pain. Any new partner is an expendable commodity; any amount of hurt or heartbreak inflicted on any number of people is justified if it “protects” the “primary” relationship.

Sometimes, learning new skills and adapting to new situations is uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s necessary to accept that a bit of discomfort is OK; it doesn’t mean the End Of Everything. And ethical behavior always recognizes that callously inflicting pain on others–any others–is something to be avoided wherever possible.

Poly Social Fallacy #4: Relationships Are Transitive

This particular social fallacy can take two forms, each pernicious in its own way.

The less common form it takes is the notion that if my partner is sexually or romantically involved with someone, that means I have a right to be involved with that same person, too. It’s sometimes seen by established couples, especially couples new to polyamory, as the perfect solution to jealousy; if I am having sex with the same person my partner is having sex with, then there’s no reason to be jealous, right? (We should all live in a world where emotions like jealousy are so rational…but then they wouldn’t be emotions, would they?)

The more common form is “My partners should all be friends with each other.” While it’s nice when that happens, and it’s definitely true that the members of a poly group should be able to be in the same room with each other and to interact pleasantly without bloodshed, it’s not necessary that everyone be best friends merely because they fancy the same person.

Both forms of this fallacy, taken to their (il)logical conclusion, lead to a creepy place that denies people their own autonomy: If you are to be involved with person X, you are now obligated to like/be intimate with/be friends with/have sex with person Y.” Eww! People make their own choices in friends and lovers for their own reasons; it’s rare indeed that someone will be okay with being told how they must relate to someone merely because they fancy someone else. Trying to dictate how people relate to one another is inappropriate social behavior, regardless of whether we’re talking about friends or metamours or lovers.

Poly Social Fallacy #5: Partners Do Everything Together

Relationships almost always need a certain amount of alone time if they are to grow and thrive. When we first start out in polyamorous relationships, having a partner go off and spend time alone with someone else can feel threatening; it can feel like an exclusion. So why not simply do everything together, all the time?

Unfortunately, this can constrain a relationship. It can also create Drama, when someone feels that his or her needs for intimate, one-on-one time aren’t being respected.

It is rare in the extreme that two different relationships develop in the same way and the same direction at the same rate at the same time, even in situations where three people are all romantically involved with each other. It’s reasonable that there will be times that two of the three will do something on their own, whether it’s have sex or take a walk in the garden, and this is not a reflection on, or an exclusion of, the third person.

Taken to its extreme, this social fallacy can lead to some pretty bizarre places, like “I know I get home from work an hour later than you two do in the evening; I don’t want you doing anything interesting at all (or even “I don’t want you spending time together”) until I get home.”