Jan 2Liked by Yassine Meskhout

This seems reasonable enough. A couple thoughts -

1. I think what motivates a lot of poly people to deal with the constant exhaustion, calendaring etc, that you accurately have detected, is that it’s a very compelling hobby. An acquaintance of mine once remarked that “poly people are the model train enthusiasts of dating” and I’ve found that to be quite true. I am myself a person with a major and profound interest in sex/romance, and the main reason I got involved with poly in the first place was not that I felt inherently called to it, but because it made it easier to find partners who are deeply interested in thinking about and exploring those things.

2. I recently wrote a post about fidelity, and would be very curious about your thoughts. The writing style is much less cut and dry than what you are doing here -- but maybe it will still be interesting: https://open.substack.com/pub/lydialaurenson/p/fidelity

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What a great line! That really puts a new meaning to the phrase "running a train"...

I genuinely appreciate how poly people have forced us to examine what we've fallen into doing by default in relationships. That's a much warranted shake-up, and I also appreciate how much more intentional and thoughtful they are about every aspect.

I agree with you that fidelity can take many forms, and there's nothing about it that makes it the exclusive domain of one relationship type or another. I hope that nothing I wrote above implied otherwise, as I personally know plenty of people in loving polyamorous relationships. Aside from very niche situations (e.g. partner becomes terminally ill) I never understood why people cheat, because if you're not happy with your exclusivity pledge, why not just be honest about your desires? That's why I wrote that I think more people (read: serial cheaters) should try polyamory, but maybe doing it openly won't scratch the same itch.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Yeah, I think the “model trains” thing is clever partially because it helps clarify the time investment question. Why would someone invest hours per week in model trains? -- it’s a similar question to why someone would invest hours per week in sex/relationships. i.e, if the subject isn’t as self-evidently interesting to you as it is to them, then probably you shouldn’t be trying to join their hobby.

Re: cheating, I find that there have been lapses of integrity with some of my poly partners, but not nearly as big as mono cheaters I’ve dated. (Not all my mono partners have cheated, of course) With that said, there are a lot of people in the poly world who will say things like “I was always cheating and then I discovered polyamory!” and I try to never date those people, even when I’m looking for poly partners.

There is clearly a personality profile that likes to cheat. I remember at one point I discovered the Ashley Madison forums and found out a lot about this type. But I’m not sure how much cheating/ infidelity/ lack of integrity can be assigned to that personality profile. It might be similar to serial planner-type criminals vs criminals who don’t do that - there are some who really thrive on the crime, and others who just sometimes commit crimes but seem to feel a lot more confused about it.

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At a baseline, I'm inclined to believe the median polyamorous person to be much more honest than the median monogamous person. That's because I assume a certain degree of introspection is necessary to travel to that camp while under the penumbra of a monogamy-heavy society.

People cheat for a variety of reasons, and I don't deign to know what they all are, but I suspect *some* people do because they have an overriding desire for multiple relationships, while others perhaps just enjoy the thrill and duplicity of it all. I would hope the first camp discovers polyamory, but I would retain the same mistrust you harbor towards the second camp.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

You have very keen insights. It is not a surprise.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Okay, this helps me clarify a few of my recent thoughts.

I generally like the framing of mono/polyamory as an orientation, something that depends on characteristics stable enough to be considered part of your personality, but now I wonder if it's the best approach.

First, I would like to tweak the labels on the graph slightly:

- I see the horizontal one as "preference for having multiple partners", to make it clear that the negative is "not only do I see no interest in dating multiple people, I actively dislike it"

- The vertical one should be "preference for exclusivity", to show that a negative preference for exclusivity is a preference for your partner to have other partners.

Then, we can debate the extent to which these preferences, your position on the graph, are due to genetics and upbringing and similarly immutable individual properties. But insofar as they are stable, they do constitute something like an "orientation".

But I don't think someone's position on the graph determines - or should determine - the choices that they make in their life. It's obviously an important part of it, but one can imagine someone who in many circumstances would be poly, but who gives up polyamory to date a mono person (or to fit in a social group), or someone who is still a bit bothered by their partner's polyamory but is willing to give it a shot.

The neat thing that becomes apparent is that in a mostly egalitarian society, the further you are from the positive diagonal, the more sacrifices you'll likely have to make:

- If you're in the top left, the only way you'll satisfy all your preferences is with a harem (whatever the gender-swapped version would be, I couldn't find a name for it; I doubt there are words for gay and trans-inclusive variants)

- If you're in the bottom right you could... try to force your partner to date other people while not doing it yourself I guess? Seems weird but maybe more achievable.

Of course, to the extent that these preferences can change, you can try to push them in one direction or another, to end up in a more egalitarian-compatible region.

So in the end, your position on the graph might be mostly fixed, but even if it is, preferences are (for better or worse) not destiny, and considering yourself mono or poly is a question of choice.

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I find it better to think of definitions not as a matter of finding the most "true" one, but about what's most helpful in communicating ideas. Your tweaks to the definition are definitely helpful!

Talking about "orientation" gets real confusing because it's not clear where the dividing line is between that and "very strong preference". As you note, there are instances where it makes sense to sacrifice it at the margin.

And you're right about how the chart would not be uniformly populated. The harem scenario is extremely rare, and has significant negative connotations with cults (See e.g. NXIVM). The bottom right scenario is not as rare but still has negative connotations as the best fitting example would be a man that enjoys cuckoldry. So the only quadrants left worth discussing essentially just re-create the monogamy vs free love spectrum.

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I have seen the top left done, and the bottom right as well, in the BDSM community. Where there is an explicit power exchange, if this is agreed to expand to not just during the intimate parts of the relationship. Some category of dominants are fulfilled by owning several submissives who are exclusive with them, while the dominant is poly. The submissives in this kind of relationship get fulfilled by the restriction itself, which is a way to stress their being owned.

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I imagine that very few straight males would object to having that scenario fall on their lap.

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Quite a number of more or less straight Dommes either, for that matter. Being adored is a big draw.

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I really like Aella's two-axis model, but agree that only neurotic rationalists & adjacents will really care enough to pivot and radically revise how they view poly people.

This feels a lot like a debate I've had with a friend about sexuality -- you could imagine two axes: attractions and behaviors. You can intuition-pump preferring one axis over another pretty easily:

- We should use attraction as the primary axis because there's many gay men who have always known they were gay but due to societal stigma ended up marrying & living with a woman, and a behavioural axis would say they're straight

- We should use behavior as the primary axis because otherwise you have ~20% of Gen Z self-identifying as bisexual, and then proceeding to enter 100% standard heterosexual partnerships and ultimately never have a homosexual relationship. Someone who identifies as bisexual because they're somewhat attracted to the other sex, but will never bear the costs of that attraction and is functionally straight to everyone in their lives, is basically doing a sort of stolen valour.

(I don't think either argument here is particularly rock-solid, but thinking about them certainly pushes me in one direction or another).

At the end of the day your choice of primary axis (if you must pick one at all), probably says a lot about your prior intuitions and only a bit about what the "true" categories really are

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Both axes are useful in their own right. Categories are useful when they help us make sense of a complicated world, it's counterproductive to try to shoe-horn in the opposite direction.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

"I’m not fucking anyone else not because my wife forbids me, but because I just don’t care to"

This is approximately my position, too. I hated dating. The thought of going out and meeting new people to fuck, to learn their foibles and what makes them tick, makes me want to go home before I've even left. And I found a partner who feels the same way. Dating is a game that neither of us particularly enjoyed, but we already won! We found each other, we don't have to play that game anymore!

And I realize that's not for everyone. Some people *like* going out and meeting new people, and I'm glad those people exist because they can do the bulk the interpersonal stuff (sales, management, doctoring) while I sit at my computer and churn out work on my own. I hope those people meet each other and form as many polycules as they like. I'm very happy with my bicule(?) and I don't think I'd be happier with another person in the mix.


I think it is worth exploring a much more common "soft" form of polyamory: porn (and, to a less-soft extent, strip clubs). My wife knows, and is ok with, me looking at porn, and, while I don't think she does, I would be ok with her doing the same. This is certainly not the same as a secondary relationship (no calendars to work out, no chance of me running off with a PNG), but it is a nudge of the relationship away from strict monogamy and towards poly. This sort of minor loosening of the boundary framing is a way that I've been able to understand poly-inclined people better, even though it's not for me.

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Yes, we shouldn't forget that the world is infinitely more complicated than what our pathetic categories imply. If a category stops being useful, it's ok to throw it in the garbage and find an upgrade.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Come September, I will celebrate my 40th wedding anniversary. I still have no desire to be a vegetarian.

It's not that I have anything against vegetables. I like vegetables. I really do. It's just that I prefer them as a side dish, and they are almost always more delicious when garnished with bacon. I think I've made my point clear.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Ah, Yassine, how beautifully and brightly The Motte shines through you :)

This post of yours is a deep and honest examination and questioning of yourself as well as others.

In order to contribute, you bring me to further disclosures about myself. I have been ployamorous before polyamory became a word (I notice that the adjective is not yet such for the spellchecker): it was then called free love -- and going back many years, the reason why I pride myself in being a legal bastard (aka not the child of the man who was married to my mother, although none of the parties disagreed with my conception). Now I have had the same primary partner for 20 years -- I had many others, and from one I had a son... I managed to remain close friends with most of them even after the end of the relationship, which is something more than I have seen for many of my friends.

The attitude of "mine is a better lifestyle than yours" is very common, and especially frequent in subcultures that get flak from the mainstream (after all, one gets told every day that theirs is better). So one keeps hitting those rocks, whether conscious or subconscious, all the time when navigating an attempt to understand why people do what they do and what they mean by it.

The attempt to reach definitions of whose meaning we are reasonably certain and that make sense to all parties is a completely legitimate pursue. Myself, as a polyamorous person, find very little resonance with a definition of poly as "not placing restrictions on other(s)", except as a very generic element and just one of many, at that.

With more poly than monogamous close friends and a zillion poly acquaintances (as I am also a member of several other intersecting "alternative" subcultures while passing at first glance for very 'normie') I can attest that polyamory is a spectrum far, far wider than gender will ever be. Finding a strict definition that covers all while not being diluted into near meaninglessness is almost impossible.

The problem is that, given any subculture, there come the pundits and gurus of that subculture, who push their vision of it. (Any trend of mainstream does the same, of course, except that some are so old that we become incapable to see them for trends.) And that is great, so far as it allows people to find bearings, motivation and justification for what they are and desire -- but it is less great when it becomes a struggle among categorising definitions that claim universality.

Then we have not just, 'what is poly, how it works and how we can define/explain it', but, 'this is poly, it works this way, and if you do not do it this way you do it wrong.'

As an example, for a period the "egalitarians" polies maintained that anybody with a hierarchy of relationships in their poly structure were doing poly wrong. At times you were dissed if you lived with one but not the others among your poly partners. Still many think that unless you experience compersion your relationships are sort of fake and doomed to fail.

I think, personally, that defining being poly on a theoretical attitude that may or may not stand at the test of fact (You do not place restrictions on your partner -- yes, but what happens when your partner screws someone else? What happens when your partner tells someone else that they love them? -- you cannot define poly on the matter of principle alone).

And if the definition is just simply on restricting or not, even in matters of actual fact... besides the definition being only negative and so telling nothing about what we do and why we are fulfilled by it... uh, poly is full of boundaries and restrictions, because humans are full of needs and wants. If you stop being poly any time you, with acts or reasoning or just the awareness that a certain behaviour will hurt you, restrict the boundless freedom of a partner to engage in whatever they want at the moment -- well then, very few of us remain. And mostly, I feel, those remaining would be those who actually do not care very much about the people they relationship with. That's sort of a swinger attitude applied to all relationships (nothing wrong with swinger attitudes as long as they are conscious: if you do not want to engage in anything more than casual sex, recurrent or not, it is a perfectly legitimate choice). But polyamory is supposed to be about more complex relationships.

I know that I am a staunch supporter of promiscuity (yes, it can be vain and shallow: so can be almost everything else; the question is not how many you rub against, but whether you use them as dolls to project your fantasies on, or you are interested in them as persons). I happen to desire to know many in a deeper way, and sexual knowledge is part of that. At times, it resolves in a pleasant encounter that leads no further. At times it leads to longer and growing relationships.

The problem people have with promiscuity is just about sex, for sex is a resource that our evolutionary history has led us to restrict (our line of ancestry is clearly closer to chimps than bonobos). But evolution and biology are not a destiny, neither for ethics nor for societal mores, like good old Jerry Coyne never ceases to repeat.

Your considerations about cheating and about the desire to fuck other people as opposed to the exclusive interest for one are less convincing to me.

I shall talk of sex, of course, because sex is the true differentiating matter here. For nobody ever objects to the fact that people in a sexual relationship with someone can also have and want multiple non sexual relationships with others, either superficial or very deep and intense -- it is called having friends. One's beloved sexual partner does not even need to share all one's friends.

In my experience, beyond the honeymoon period of a relationship, a larger number of men than women innately desire new and different and frequently but not exclusively transient sexual relationships (this does not in any way exclude that a large number of women are also promiscuous, just statistically this is a fact, also due to evolutionary traits which in no manner determine how things "should" be). -- It is bloody hard to speak of these concepts, as the needed caveats take almost as many words as the main argument itself.

However, a large number of people do, in general, desire sex with a variety of others despite having a steady sexual partner, after the nascent state period (and that was to me a clue from your own words, when you spoke of the absence of desire to look at Tinder in the past when falling in love, whatever that means for you). A large number of people have these desires beyond the nascent state. Some do not ever, not necessarily because of self repression; some do all the time; and some do not or do by periods and chance (I fall in the last category).

Re: trust, and the breaking thereof that is cheating. I fail to see how the "trust shortcuts" you mention engender actual trust. For in my experience they do not. Yes, they are powerful social or symbolic bonds which, witnessed and sanctioned by the surrounding society, enforce fidelity against social reproach. But they do not make you trust the person, really: you trust that the contract, symbol, moral obligation, whatever, will hold back the person from breaking trust. In love and passion, most people promise the 'forevers' and the 'nevers', and they do believe every bit of it. But the curse of time and change is upon us, and often dissolves our promises against our ability to do anything about it. As a remedy, the symbols and social bonds have only a moderate effect, as the entire history of humanity shows, while possibly increasing the number of cheaters where the desire for others becomes too strong, the status quo is too comfortable to shatter, and talking of such desires would become a deal breaker.

You have a very clear-cut way of choosing, in your case. That girlfriend of yours expressed interest for sleeping with others, and you broke up with her. You did not negotiate, because you had a very clear idea of your boundaries. And your boundaries require that the other wants you and only you.

She could have felt afterwards, I guess, that you did not want her enough, if just the expression of a desire pushed you away; else you would have discussed, and tried to keep her.

Many people who cheat, I have learned, do not speak up upfront because they cannot bear the difficulty that being honest about their desires would imply, since many people would react like you did; either they cannot bear the loss of a loved one or they cannot bear the loss of the life and habits they are used to. If they reveal their desires and are told no, on the other hand, at times those desires are too strong nevertheless. And so they cheat. It is a painful weakness of those who become unable to clearly decide what is more important to them, and who hope by subterfuge to have their cake and eat it too.

Then there are those who enjoy cheating, but that is a pathology.

I believe that there are personalities that are right for monogamy, because of what they want in a relationship and how their internal balance works. And there are personalities that are right for polyamory, for the same reason. There is no size that fits all. And there are people who do monogamy horribly and get hurt, and people who do polyamory horribly and get hurt, and at times, even with the best intentions and the highest self awareness, shit happens beyond one's control and one gets hurt.

We get hurt a lot.

Oh look, I exceeded comment length. It is your fault, Yassine.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

I will tell you, to end, how poly works for me.

I believe that great romantic love, a twinning of souls, does exist: but it is an extremely rare occurrence that only happens by chance. I found it later in life -- and for me it does not exclude others, nor does it diminish any of the brightness of previous loves I had, or of any that I shall have in the future. When I speak of love I always speak of an emotion that includes explicit sexual desire, to be clear. Those previous loves have just been less lasting than this one, and the present others and the future ones likely will be as well, although it is not wise to say for certain.

I practise polyamory because I am drawn, sexually and emotionally, to more than one person. Even when I have one person that occupies most of my time (although more rarely in the nascent state) I am drawn to others and like to entertain the idea of engaging.

And I want to be wanted, for sure... but it does not matter for me to be wanted exclusively. If I feel wanted, that is enough, and for me, feeling wanted is a matter of intensity when we relate to each other.

If I were Doug in your example, I would, after proper testing and a bit of mourning, leave Cindy. After all this is how monogamous relationships also end, and polyamory is not the recipe of successful lasting relationships. For me, the matter of being wanted resolves like this: if I do not feel wanted, I stop wanting the other... it is not a strategy or reasoning, just a thing that happens.

It certainly helps, in my case, that I do not suffer from sexual jealousy, because the idea of my partner(s) fucking others actually arouses me (I am bisexual), and seeing my partner(s) being desired by others makes me want them more.

But that's me, my strokes, my personal balance. Not a recipe for anybody else.

And jealousy, like you rightly pointed out, is also (mostly I would say, for the emotion that wants to take things away from another has more to do with envy and control) a question of lack of security and assurance. But internal, not external. Most people inclined to jealousy doubt and need reassurance, because a lot of the time they do not believe themselves truly worthy. But most people need the reflection of the self that others, and especially loved ones, send back to them, so this kind of jealousy is very normal and ordinary. Self awareness is essential. And people who have a strong jealous streak of this kind should in no way strive to do poly for a mistaken belief that it is more enlightened, but should instead find a monogamous partner and pursue happiness.

That poly can be extremely exhausting is also true. I completely agree with Lydia below, a lot of people who take it on in what seems an excess, do so because it becomes a compelling hobby. In my experience, in the long run, exhaustion has the better of them.

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Jan 4·edited Jan 4Author

Thanks for such an interesting deep dive into the subculture! The dynamic you describe about every guru fighting for the steering wheel is a common occurrence, I didn't focus too much on these issues because they're largely tangential to my overall point. I was always puzzled by relationship anarchists advertising their lack of hierarchy because that stance is plainly refuted by the fact that time is limited, and spending more time with one is probably the most meaningful of hierarchies.

Similar with talking about which "restrictions" are ok and which aren't. I hinted at it with my joke about fucking your partner's dad but it's perfectly valid asking why poly people are ok with some restrictions but not others! The aversion against your partner getting railed by others is derided as unenlightened, but why are seemingly "arbitrary" rules against dating exes or family members not met with the same derision? I know I'm an outsider so I'm not privy to all the details, but I can't identify a working principle here besides "the line should be here instead of there".

I'm mystified that my point about trust shortcuts isn't as clear cut as it is to me, and maybe the crux is assuming that trust shortcuts are all intentionally crafted, which is definitely not what I meant. Maybe a helpful exercise is to consider scenarios where your trust of someone shot up dramatically and to examine why. I told my wife straight up that a big reason I'm marrying her is to demonstrate how committed I am to our relationship, because if I secretly wanted to break up with her or jump ship in the near future (not unreasonable given my dating history), that would've been much easier to do if I had remained unencumbered.

The girlfriend example I mentioned is a lot more complicated than I alluded to. She had a history of severe and destructive manic episodes, and I was stuck in a lurch when the woman I knew as sexually conservative suddenly expressed an unyielding desire for polyamory. I couldn't figure out if this was her mania or what she actually wanted, and the natural consequence is that I couldn't trust her anymore when such significant questions bounced around my head for every other choice she made.

I fully concede that having an expressed desire get rejected can encourage someone to repress that desire, but I don't know what the solution to such a widespread problem can be.

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Jan 4·edited Jan 4Liked by Yassine Meskhout

And thank you for making such interesting points and clarifying them. I am truly grateful to have you in my mailbox. (To be honest, I am at a stage in which I need some spaces of more lightness without shallowness and the distraction of interesting conversations not besieged by death).

Totally, the dynamic of gurus is inherent to the very existence of every cultural behaviour: every time one looks for a definition, three of four will come up with a definition to further understanding, and the fifth will come up with a definition that is normative, even without truly intending to do so, and half the definitions that had been intended at tools of explanation will be interpreted as normative in any case. We are humans.

And the question about time is valid, which is why a lot of poly relationships end up with primaries and secondaries and even tertiaries, which is mostly about a distribution of time expenditure -- besides the occasional flings that belong more to what I called 'swinger mentality' but fall into poly because the possibility of developing a relationship from a fling is implied.

Oh, which made a small light flare in my brain. Perhaps, a better definition of poly is "a relationship that, reciprocally, at the same time includes the possibility of having sex with others and of having meaningful relationships with others." Because I realise that in my personal experience, there have been times in which I was technically monogamous for months and even an year, but that did not make me less poly. Because the declaration of intents and desires remained, even if temporarily not exercised for lack of time and opportunities.

The rules against dating exes or family are not so arbitrary... in general people balk at mixing family and sexuality, for instinctual reasons that are I believe related to evolution -- for most, although not all, it is creepy to think about one's parents' or children's sexuality, let aside seeing it enacted even by proxy. Moreover most people do not want parents' noses (=control) in their sex life, even with the most liberal of parents.

(Nevertheless it is not a universal rule. But the risks are very big and real. Better to avoid)

And incidentally. Lots of poly people have different and very arbitrary restrictions in their poly "statements", restrictions that mostly protect an individual from something that said individual knows or believes to be potentially harmful to themselves or their engagement in a relationship. Because we are all different.

And nevertheless, a large number of these restrictions are in fact met not only with derision, but with offence by many other poly people who do not entertain them. It is hard to accept the right of others to do the same thing in different ways than you. It is not just a desire to make others conform to one's ideas. It is that for many, the existence of difference threatens their security.

So, the restrictions and rules are seldom, for what I have seen, arbitrary: but they respond to necessities that are not always easily seen from without. (That they are effective or not in preserving the relationship, is a different matter altogether and better decided case by case.

I am not sure that the point about truth shortcuts is not clear... I think that we are looking at it with a different perspective on trust, which probably comes from different experiences of life.

For me, trust in someone never shot up dramatically unless I believed them somewhat un-trustworthy and they proved to be trustworthy against my expectations (for example, telling the truth against their interest when I expected them to lie, or keeping something private to themselves when I expected them to gossip, etc). Trust in relationships to me has always been exclusively built over time -- but I tend to think that most people, in the moment, are sincere about wanting me and wanting to be with me. Or at least, those who are not are so blatantly insincere to my eyes that I lose interest.

But I am constantly aware that our present self cannot truly promise our future self -- only time will prove or disprove a pledge. It is likely a rather unromantic view of things, and yet, I have been called a romantic countless times. Perhaps it is just my skeptic outlook that hovers in the background.

I understand the symbols we use to reassure ourselves and others that we are sincere. I have used the same a thousand times -- given and received rings, promises, contracts. They all have been absolutely true in the moment they have been given or received. They never prevented the end of what was destined to end, the changing of my self, the changing of the self of the other. What prevented cheating, I believe -- I have never cheated nor been cheated against, although my trust has been broken in many other instances unrelated to sexual fidelity, and I am sure I have broken trust myself in the same way, at other times -- what prevented cheating has only been that I explicitly and honestly do not care about the sexual fidelity of my partners.

So, you see, for me, marrying a person to pledge more strongly my desire to be with them and build something with them, means clearly a different thing that it means for you. I have done it, or similar pledges equally significant, because of my love for symbols, because it is aesthetically and emotionally right and beautiful. But in my brain, despite the passion, is constantly hovering that awareness that we are pledging the present. We are sincere in the present and we can trust our hearts in the present.

But the future is unknown. The future must be built. And it may not turn out as we want.

So the pledge, for me, is just the statement that I very very much want this to last forever.

You may call it something that makes me trustworthy. I have my doubts, because to me the future cannot be a matter of trust.

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I'm fine with a definition that is based on the "possibility of reciprocal openness", as that would take into account. You're right that the rule against exes and family is not totally arbitrary, but if you're going to label those restrictions as legitimate because they're grounded on evolutionary instincts...then wouldn't that also legitimize aversions to your partner fucking others? My point is that there is no bright line.

I don't disagree with pledging the present, the future is indeed unknown.

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Jan 5·edited Jan 6Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Oh, absolutely. Monogamous tendencies are also based in evolution, as an instinct: and the aversion to your partner fucking others is not just a social construct. And it is perfectly legitimate, in my opinion. There is no difference of value in my eyes between not wanting your partner to fuck your dad and not wanting your partner to fuck any other, or some category of others: restrictions depend on personal comfort and it is absurd to demand that relationships adhere to a strict typology (personally, for example, poly though I be, if my partner wanted to fuck Steve Bannon or Robin DiAngelo, that would be a hard limit).

The problem comes, as usual, when a widespread behaviour is taken as the 'natural norm' that because natural must be embraced by everybody, therefore those who hold on to it can look down on those that do differently. And it is the some problem from the other side too: when a not very widespread behaviour is touted by its practitioners as a 'hidden natural' that is just socially repressed, therefore we who do not repress it can look down on those who do.

Over the history of the species, it is reasonable to think that the tendency toward polygamy and the tendency towards monogamy have competed and each granted evolutionary advantages depending on circumstances. But, just to paraphrase Jerry Coyne again, what comes natural is not a replacement for what is ethical; through natural evolution we can find out and explain how we got here, but where we go from here is another matter altogether: the more we know, the more actual choice we have.

So for me it is great that people strive to understand why others do what they do and how. For example I spent quite some time in my youth rebelling against monogamy while taking for granted that I knew what drove people to be monogamous -- well, I did not. And it has been through talking to my monogamous friends, comparing experiences and digging into the emotional and mental and organisational rationale of it all, that I have learned a lot more about both monogamy and polyamory.

And have stopped telling others what they should do. We may, observing and examining, determine what may be better to do in a specific given situation to maximise happiness. Discussing definitions is great because it helps us speak the same language about the same things. But definitions are a tool and for me, should never be intended as prescriptive.

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Very interesting stuff, thanks for writing.

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May 30Liked by Yassine Meskhout

You definitely are not polyamorous and seem to find it incomprehensible. However, instead of stating the obvious, and something you surely know, let me be helpful by illustrating why this contributes to the problem.

For example:

”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?”

This is actually funny! Of course polyamorous person would be more interested in Aella definition and find it more useful to know if their potential partner find their preference acceptable! Instead you, a monogamous person, are more interested in definition that makes clear if they do not have this serious compatibility with you which is multiple partner desire. The converse also applies, you are uninterested in Aella's definitional aspect, and why would she be in yours - neither affects very much your and her positions and lives, respectively.

Since you are smart guy (i just read plenty of your other articles to be confident in that), i'll not elaborate further. I could give you more examples of how your perspective affect it, if you want just comment, i'll check it later.

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This is a good point. It's certainly possible that I find the focus of the definition incomprehensible partly because I'm blinded by my own biases in terms of what I would find relevant. But I'm not convinced this is the case because Aella acknowledges polyamory has two potential axes (desire for multiple relationships for oneself AND tolerance for multiple relationships for one's partner) and I already presented my argument against focusing on only one axis.

The part you're quoting above isn't me challenging what SHOULD be the "right" definition (and I don't find those arguments interesting at all) but rather about the colloquial meaning the vocabulary conveys. I acknowledge the fact that the word could have different interpretations depending on whether the listener is mono or poly, which indicates that maybe we should be more precise about the words we use.

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Oh, the 'blindness' wasmutual. I mean, Aella was also looking at it through her own lens when she comes up with that single axis definition. It's cool that you guys settled on two dimensional, and it's indeed much more complete.

My point was it is natural to focus different axis depending on being poly or mono - it is more practically relevant.

And to add to it - not sure if it was Aella, you or some commenter saying Aella's discovery was, well, discovery (would have to reread), but this is not new. Not only this is almost two decades old concept, i personally saw people coming up with it, numerous times, on their own, in poly discussions. I do not critique here - it's cool Aella got to the same conclusion, and you got to think about it (and hopefully got some insight out of it?). It's just that it's natural 'discovery' of what is essence of polyamory. But! Internal, emotional, psychological essence, not social definitional one.

And that's why i think, socially, the 'official' one is better (though axis one is more full, in fact the official one implicitly assumes you are okay with the second axis, and if you check elaborations, it's spelled out).

Let me add unrelated remark about the harem example - i would argue, that while it would be indeed frustrating in practice (and so i think it's better to use full definition), the women in this scenario are indeed much more poly than the man! So the Aella's axis correctly captures 'internal' essence of poly. (I am assuming here the women would like to date out, otherwise it's just traditional polygamy)

Another remark, about the graph. Are you aware how women answer the number of sexual partners depending on whether 1) asked in person 2) asked anonymously 3) anonymously and told they are on lie detector? My point is obviously, the monos lie here (though i expect them to be lower, but much less).

If i am allowed a question of my own, i do not fully get the self-serving objection. Superiority of poly aside (i do not believe it at all, spiritual mumbo jumbo). If you mean it is more acceptable, well, i agree, but i think it's a side effect. I can only appeal to you, since you are not poly, believe me, it's the struggle with exclusivity, with your partner being out, that brings insight, psychological, that brings understending, that's harder, that raises question and in the end, it's the moment when you feel good with that that's enlightening.

Being with others yourself is easy by comparison and brings little reflection. And since Aella seems quite self-analyzing gal, i think she is absolutely sincere there. But not only her, a lot of poly people got that road. If that's more noble sounding, well, that's side effect, and tbh, poly is surprisingly well accepted since it's beginnings twentysome years ago.

I do agree that it's subjective, what is restrictive, and what not, what restrictions are okay. I saw plenty of these discussions among polys and they invariably are pointless, hopeless attempts to make new normative structures in absence of traditional monogamy. Being anarchistically inclined i despised these, but of course they kind of won, as polyamory enlarged, it became more and more normative.

Sadly, but inevitably i guess.

I would add something here about jealousy but: 1) i don't want to overwhelm you 2) i am only interested in talking to people that find what i say interesting, so even more reason not to write too much at once/first.

(And here follows a paragraph than got lost in editing?)

I not sure about your second paragraph goal/point. I mean, the definition should obviously serve people, not the other way - i just tried to point that for some (that is, for polys), the Aella definition serves very important purpose. But i think it's a matter of importance - in practice most polyfolk are both nonexclusive and interested in others, so it's like debating whether it's more important to have legs or arms mentioned in definition of human. Well, entirely depends on context.

(Though quite a few polys either do get jealous a lot and resort to exclusiviteish, or are too busy/uninterested to pursue more people)

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Long ago, I described a related 4 quandrant perspective:


| I can, you won't | I can, you can |


| I can't, you won't | I won't, you can |


Monogamy is in the lower left, poly is in the upper right.

Quite a few monogamists would gladly migrate to the upper left quadrant if they had the option, but so would more than a few polyamorists. The lower right quadrant is pretty sparce, tho.

It's phrased as "you won't" rather than "you can't", because in this fantasy, they would imagine their partner is not resenting unwanted restrictions, but just not desiring multiple intimate relations while being fine with themselves having that freedom.

The bottom left to upper right diagonal is well populated because of a sense that fairness means accepting the same rules one wishes others to follow.

I don't have any moral objection to the other quadrants, so long as it's freely negotiated and meets the needs of both partners. That just doesn't happen as often. I knew one couple like that.

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(Responding to some of the conversations within the comments, not just in the article itself)

I have long been wary of present self's wisdom in trying to make pledges for future self, after observing how present self wanted the freedom to change beyond what past self had expected.

So when my partner and I got serious, we made two agreements:

First, we committed to break up if we could not have a healthy relationship

Second, we committed to work hard to have a healthy relationship

We did NOT commit to being together forever.

This has worked for nearly 50 years now, and we are very happy together. (We did indeed need to work hard to keep the relationship healthy, and we continue to reap the intimacy and support benefits of that work).

In our case, this has been done in a polyamorous context (although we were in practice behaving monogamously for perhaps 15-20 years of that time, our relationship even then did not orbit around any promise of permanent sexual exclusivity). This has worked very well for us, and today we are in a stable long term network of heartful lovers and friends.

We have not had or needed a big trust shortcut, instead building trust over time and with experience. Given how important our relationship is to each of us, early poly experiences (before the term was coined) involved some serious anxiety, but over time we have built a lot of trust that our partner is very unlikely to go away (physically or emotionally) with a new relationship. We did eventually get married for pragmatic reasons, but did so as low key as possible so it would not change our relationship, rather than in hopes that it would.

We see jealous feelings as similar to a the "check engine" light in a car - a fallible indication that something might be going wrong, worth paying attention to. This particular car may have a number of false alarms, but sometimes it's a valid warning that should be taken seriously. That's a time to be as conscious as possible, not a time to fall into autopilot reactions! However, jealous feelings are not treated as a new age sin, but as a voice at our table trying to warn us of something, wisely or misguidedly. It seldom comes up today, but we have no ideal that being free of jealousy is more evolved.

Long ago we observed that love is very expandable, but the timeclock is not, so yes there is an economy of time and attention to manage. Partly for that reason, we are not allergic to "heirarchy" in relationships, but it's a soft and caring prioritization where everybody matters even if some relationships have priority when conflicts cannot be avoided. To be honest, the scheduling has not been exhausting, but it does take time to keep other relationships healthy, and a lot of growth. So we can easily understand why monogamy works better for most people.

It's a matter of different tradeoffs working better for different people, rather than one or the other being superior overall. I have no brook with poly supremacists, and no beef with those who consciously choose monogamy for themselves. And actually, the different tradeoffs framing applies to the very different ways of being poly too. The way that some people "do" polyamory would not work at all for us - and that's OK, poly is about creating customized relationships that fit the particular individuals.

In our case the communication skills we needed to keep our own relationship healthy have been pretty much the same as what we needed for polyamory and vice versa. So I think that polyamory has helped our own relationship overall.

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Feb 25·edited Feb 25Author

>So when my partner and I got serious, we made two agreements:

> First, we committed to break up if we could not have a healthy relationship

> Second, we committed to work hard to have a healthy relationship

> We did NOT commit to being together forever.

Yes! My wife & I said exactly the same thing in response to watching a mutual friend suffer through a terrible marriage that should've ended ages ago.

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Feb 25·edited Feb 25Liked by Yassine Meskhout

I love the way you think, Yassine. I agree with your take on many things, including in this article. I will quickly note my agreement with your take on definitions whose merit come from facilitating communication, on a good definition for polyamory, etc.

Here's the point I wanted to comment upon though:

> "I want my partner to have the same overriding desire for me; not for them to reluctantly forgo others because of my say so."

Let's pick that apart a bit. It sounds somewhat like "let's not have any ground rules, and instead assume idealistically that what each of us feels like doing will always be the right thing to do".

What's actually wrong with a partner forgoing an intimate relationship with a third party (even if such felt very tempting at the time), in order to support an existing monogamous relationship? That could be a healthy and wise recognition of one's enlightened self interest in the big picture, versus impulsively following the temptations of the moment.

Consider the alternative. One person, after 20 years of relationship, finds themselves in a situation like a business trip, where they feel a lot of attraction to a third party. Since they know their partner doesn't want them to forgo a tryst just on that partner's say so, why not go for it?

It's my experience that in a long term relationship, sometimes we do (or avoid doing) something just because it's what our partner needs or wants, rather than because it's our own inclination at the moment.

I'm not talking about slavish adherence to whatever a partner wants. If so doing (or not doing) becomes a sacrifice too far, then we can with integrity ask to renegotiate agreements (or even break up if it's that important).

Of course it would be ideal if our partner always felt exactly as we want them to feel, so they never had to choose between their inclination and their care for us and our relationship, because their own inclinations always matched our own desires - but is that realistic in the long run, with most of us humans?

The willingness to give significant weight to our partner's wants and needs even when they differ from our own "if I were not in this relationship" inclinations, is part of a committed relationship, as I have experienced it.

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Thanks! I don't think acquiescing to a partner's demands/preferences is "wrong" per se, but I question if it's necessarily a good idea. I wrote about a related issue here: https://ymeskhout.substack.com/p/cuckoldry-as-status-jockeying

I find it helpful to detach this away from sex and intimacy to understand it better, and so a parallel situation would be asking a partner to adopt dietary restrictions as a condition of a relationship (let's say go vegan). Some people wouldn't care at all, while others care a lot, and so acquiescence/breaking up would be the respective ideal scenario. The grey area in between is where it gets messy, with the biggest problem being someone reluctantly agreeing to restrictions but building resentment over it, or seeing the restriction as something arbitrarily demanded. Does this answer your question?

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Yes. I accidentally replied twice to this point (thinking the first had been lost to a reboot), and in the other reply (now deleted), I did conclude that it may depend on HOW reluctantly the partner agreed. In the retained reply above, this sentiment came out as:

> "If so doing (or not doing) becomes a sacrifice too far, then we can with integrity ask to renegotiate agreements (or even break up if it's that important)."

So I think we are in agreement that there is a gray area.

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Jan 3Liked by Yassine Meskhout

Big agree on the exhaustion aspect. Hell, I can barely manage a handful of friendships, so the mere notion of an overpopulated romantic agenda is the closest thing to a waking nightmare I can imagine.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

I think the definition of poly as "okay with a lack of fidelity from partner" is more technically correct, despite "wanting to fuck others" often being primary motivation. It's one I'd arrived at independently after several relationships with people who are actually monogamous, but willing to be flexible because I'm cute. I found they were largely willing to fuck around, but if I pursued any thing on my end suddenly there were issues.

It's an operational requirement to do poly correctly, not the base motivation. Since people who lack that requirement often cause all sorts of drama in poly circles, and since poly circles being so interconnected at the hip are more vulnerable to interpersonal drama like that, it's valuable to make the definition one which politely excludes them.

(Also, literally no group uses an external definition for itself. Native Americans didn't become Hindi just because Columbus was a putz.)

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Jan 4·edited Jan 5

Good points, but...

It's an operational requirement to do poly correctly -- if you mean by that knowing what you are doing, why you are doing it and what the cost to yourself and others may be. Which is the same for every other relationship and not exclusive to poly. Further definitions of what is correct poly immediately fall into one-twue-wayism.

So, well, yes, the operational motivation not to end up suffering in a lake of poo is a valid drive that should override the base or immediate motivation (which I will agree with you is often "what I like, how I like it, and NOW! -- not the best attitude to relationships, although very ingrained).

But I doubt that the incestuous nature of the poly community at large (being fewer -- although exponentially increased in number of late -- poly people tend to frequently engage with others of their circle, past and present) and the establishing of a definition is likely to much reduce drama. I have seen scores of definitions being adopted. Never seen drama diminish much. For oneself and one's choice of partners, that may work. But we are talking of desire and love and relationships... among the messiest parts of human nature. The road to self awareness is arduous and all uphill.

In conclusion, as a population of beings in the clutches of desire, we get hurt and will continue to get hurt a lot.

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That you, a monogamous man, spent most of this essay disputing how a polyamorous woman defined polyamory feels like an instance of mansplaining to me. An experienced polyamorous person who has swapped stories with a lot of other experienced polyamorous people would realize that the most essential part of polyamory, and the most difficult part, is allowing your partner(s) the freedom to have sex & romance with other people. Imagining yourself having sex & romance with other people is easy. The feelings you get when your partner(s) actually have sex & romance with other people -- that's when the "rubber hits the road".

I think your examination of different kinds of jealousy is useful, and I'd like to try pulling it apart myself. There's prospective jealousy, in which people worry that their needs won't be met; and there's retrospective jealousy, in which people find that their needs are not being met. Trust issues can play a role in both kinds, but even when you trust somebody you might still worry about future needs not being met, or experience current needs not being met. Trust is important, but isn't enough; the crucial point is getting your needs met, and jealousy comes from believing that your partner should be assisting you in meeting your needs, but either will not or is not.

Experienced polyamorous people will often deal with feeling jealous by taking responsibility for meeting their own needs, instead of thinking this responsibility belongs to their partner(s). For example, if I'm not getting enough sex from my partner(s) I can pursue it with other people, or if I'm feeling lonely I can reach out to another partner or anybody else.

There's definitely a risk in polyamory that if you allow your partner to roam that she'll find somebody she likes better than you, and will decide to upgrade. But this risk exists in monogamy also if you allow your partner to leave the house, or allow visitors in the house. To pursue a polyamorous lifestyle you probably will want to assess the trustworthiness of a potential new partner early on. I use a variety of personality aspects to assess trustworthiness. I'm probably lucky, but I've never once had the scenario where an established partner starts lying to me because they've met some new hot fling. But of course this scenario is not limited to polyamory.

I appreciated reading your essay about this and I'm glad you continue trying to understand the polyamorous point of view, despite not sharing it.

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I don't know what definition of 'mansplaining' you are using, but I assume you're describing aspects of my behavior in a negative light. Because the term has been diluted by some into uselessness ("man explains something to a woman") it might be more helpful to specify what *exactly* in your opinion I did to earn that label. Was I condescending to Aella? Did I imply she was ignorant of a topic? Did I erroneously assume I knew something she did not? Etc. If I did not conduct myself properly, I would love to know how so that I can remedy that behavior, but ambiguous accusations provide me no guidance.

Regarding your substantive feedback, I can certainly appreciate that the most difficult aspect of polyamory is how you react to your partner getting railed. However, there are ways of discussing that challenge without resorting to obfuscation with terminology. I would be fine with a definition of polyamory that said "desire for multiple relationships AND tolerance of your partner engaging in the same", but hiding the first part is dodgy.

Re: jealousy, the prospective/retrospective framing is a useful way to look at it. "Rational" jealousy can be either as long as it's based on fact, and retrospective jealousy obviously can fuel the prospective kind. Which is why I don't think "taking responsibility for needs" is the best response here, because none of that would solve the underlying trust issues (assuming they are valid) but serves only to bury/delay the sting. Also, I did not intend to imply nor do I believe that the risk of your partner finding a replacement is a risk somehow unique to polyamory. I think that's a dumb argument against polyamory.

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One thing I find a bit misleading in this discussion between the two of you is using trust almost as if it was binary: you either trust somebody or you do not. In my experience, trust is both analog and multidimensional. For example, one may from experience have high trust another to be sincere and not intentionally deceptive, but not so high trust that they know themselves well and will do as they sincerely promise.

My partner would trust me with their life, but might not trust me to remember to turn off the sprinkler at 1pm. For good reasons either way.

Yassine - you seem to frequently use the phrase "your partner getting railed", which has a certain negative connotation to my ear, especially with repetition. This contrasts with your frequent and laudable ability to find a relatively neutral description of something. Or at minimum, it seems to strongly emphasize sexual intercourse versus emotional attachment, which is also a huge aspect of polyamory (versus, say, swinging).

This dialogue opens up the question of "to what degree should people expect help from a committed partner in getting their needs met, versus taking care of their own needs without help from their partner". That is obviously an individual choice and people can handle it however they wish, if they can find and keep partners for whom their style works. I don't think there is one morally "correct" way.

However, I want to note that I don't see any problem with having expectations in a (romantic or friendship) relationship per se; that's pretty much what we mean when saying "here's how I can count on them". For example, my partner and I expect each other to be honest; we can count on that. The problem is having unnegotiated expectations, and considering it a grievance when the other person doesn't meet expectation they never agreed to.

What I'm getting to is that I believe it's reasonable to have a *negotiated* degree of expectation of meeting each other's needs in a committed relationship. For many people, that's one of the key purposes of having a relationship, one of the pluses in the balance of advantages and disadvantages. If it works all around to get a given need met by somebody else, great. But it's also OK to want to get it met by a committed partner; if that isn't happening, one might negotiate some compromise with the partner, shift to getting it met elsewhere, do without, or break up. Getting it from elsewhere is one option that might work for some people at some times, but not a universal solution.

And remember my expectation of honesty from my partner? That's pretty hard to get met by being honest with somebody else. Likewise, I need to trust some other things about my partner - and building trust on those things with somebody else is not a substitute.

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I don't at all believe trust to be binary and I'm curious what gave off that impression. I fully agree on the analog and multidimensional aspect of it.

"partner getting railed" is definitely explicit but it was intended to be cheeky and not necessarily with a negative connotation (It's how I talk to my wife!). I think at the time I wrote this it was probably an over-correction to what I identified as overly euphemistic language when discussing sexual relationships ("connecting with others"), which is thematically consistent with my argument against speaking about the subject obliquely. Still, I'm glad you pointed this out because it's an oversight on my part not to have realized the potential negative connotation.

Regarding grievances based on "unnegotiated expectations" I agree there is a serious failure point of that model worth considering. Let's say my relationship requirement is for my partner to never say the word 'purple', but I don't want to state this out loud on the off-chance that my partner *really* loves saying that word but would nevertheless reluctantly acquiesce to my demand to stay in the relationship. If I had a machine that could detect precisely how much my partner loves saying 'purple', or if had full trust that my partner could be honest with me, there wouldn't be a problem. But since I do not, the next best thing (from the standpoint of precision) would be to watch and wait and see my partner's preferences revealed through their actions. If they never say the word 'purple', then I can be reasonably satisfied they have no desire for it.

There are obvious flaws to this approach that I readily concede, namely that it comes off as arbitrarily restrictive. The optimal solution here is honesty, but the circumstances don't always allow for that until trust has been established. I admit that I've personally leaned more on the "watch for revealed preferences" approach but I know I'm in the minority. It depends on relative priorities.

I appreciate your thought-provoking comments!

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I understand the over-correction and why.

As I wrote, I was aware of the fact that many of what I'm calling negotiations, in my relationships, were not explicitly done with words. There are many minor things which we do not make prior agreements about, trusting that the other will tell us if they don't like it, so we can assume that it's agreed upon after a while (subject to change). For a major thing, we do talk in advance; after nearly 50 years together, I have a fair idea of what needs prior discussion. I think this is your "revealed preferences".

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I would agree that redefining monogamy as "restricts partner" and polyamory as "doesn't restrict partner" to be motivated in part by propaganda. It seems that the assumption built in by doing so is that the default is polyamory. This seems a little silly in a Western society where the default is monogamy.

Also there seems to me to be a bit of irony to this. Polyamorous people I imagine must have more complex restrictions than monogamous people, who have more or less one easily understood rule: to not cheat. Polyamorous people need to discuss their boundaries more and establish a more elaborate set of rules, functionally creating more complex restrictions than those found in monogamous relationships.

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These people are fucking exhausting. They’re exhausting to talk to, listen to, and be around, and they’re nowhere near as interesting as they like to believe.

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