What Is Your Relational Orientation?

Are you Monogamous or Polyamorous?

In addition to sexual orientation, humans can identify a relational orientation.

The mating and social behavior of animals is of particular interest to humans. In our effort to understand the animal kingdom, we classify and document behaviors and traits, labeling a species as either “this” or “that”. Leaving aside a Western or religious understanding of monogamy as lifelong and exclusive pair bonding, there are animals that tend toward monogamy (3-5% of the animal population) and animals that do not.

At best, these classifications give us approximations. Not every species fits nicely into categories, and individual members of a given species may behave differently than the norm. These qualifications aside, we’re comfortable taking a 30,000 foot view of animal behavior and classifying them accordingly.

We tend to wear blinders, however, when looking at ourselves, the human animal. It is, perhaps, simply bias that prevents us from studying ourselves in the same way we do birds and bees.

Are Humans Monogamous?

When we pull back from the micro view of our lives and take a macro view of humanity, there are certain things that become clear. The first is that few humans practice the ideal of monogamy as defined by Western culture. Ours is more often serial monogamy, wherein we pair off for periods of time and then move on to new partners. Lifelong pair bonding among humans is more rare than we often recognize.

Second, a macro view of humanity would confirm the idea that as a species, we do tend toward monogamy. Many believe that our notions of monogamy are socially constructed, not biologically based. Again, leaving aside our bias to not take the macro view, an overwhelming number of humans either practice long-term pair bonding or express the desire to.

If we don’t allow people to recognize labels that differ from monogamy, we are simply forcing them to choose monogamy.

It seems evident that were an alien race to categorize the inhabitants of earth, humans would be classified with other monogamous species. The expression of the trait of monogamy is strong.

Exceptions Prove The Rule

Humanity is in the process of a radical transformation in our understanding of gendered sexual attraction. Many of us now realize that while humans tend toward opposite-sex pairings, some percentage of the population is oriented toward same-sex pairing. The recognition of heterosexuality as a dominant human trait doesn’t mean that homosexuality is nonexistent.

It used to be common to hear statements such as “I don’t believe in homosexuality.” Or, “I don’t believe in the homosexual lifestyle.” However, as our understanding of it has increased, we no longer speak about homosexuality in terms of belief, but rather, as biological fact. Belief is simply the wrong metric to apply to the phenomenon.

“I Believe In Monogamy”

     monogamy

The practice or state of being married to
or having a sexual relationship with one person at a time.

     polyamory

The practice or state of partipation in multiple
and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships.

Peruse the personal ads of popular dating site OK Cupid and you’ll see questions of human pair-bonding play out in dynamic ways. In a sense, the entirety of the enterprise of online dating tells us that within the human species, we are each defined by our variations from norms; we feel tremendous attachment to our individual traits. We desire partners that fit, complement and/or enhance these traits. We understand that a “match” is unique and specially tailored. Our traits are not simply passing fancies, but inherent to who we are and definitive of who we hope to attract and spend our lives with.

Whether we’re ready to recognize it as a distinction, monogamy is one such characteristic. It is not uncommon to see statements either in support of or against monogamy in dating profiles, either “I believe in monogamy” or “I don’t believe in monogamy.”

The expression of monogamy or polyamory in a population is likely a biologically driven phenomenon, just as we classify it in the rest of the animal kingdom. “Belief” has little to do with it, as we now understand regarding homosexual pair bonding. We don’t classify birds (largely socially monogamous) or Bonobos (largely sexually non-monogamous) according to the “beliefs” of the species. We understand that animals are expressing innate qualities in their actions, even when those actions are different from the norm of the species.

Relational Orientation Spectrum

Gendered sexual orientation exists along a spectrum. We understand there are humans who are exclusively heterosexual and humans who are exclusively homosexual. There are humans who are equally heterosexual & homosexual which we classify as bisexual. And there are humans at every given point along the spectrum.

Similarly, a spectrum exists for our relational orientation. There are humans who are strictly monogamous and humans who are strictly polyamorous. Most humans fall somewhere in between.

Dan Savage and “Monogamish.”

     monogamish

The practice of being mostly monogamous,
with allowance for the reality of desire for others
and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.

     polyish

The practice of being mostly polyamorous,
with allowance for monogamous-like relationships
with one or more partners.

Well-known sex advice columnist Dan Savage recently set off a small firestorm in the polyamory community by claiming that polyamory “is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do.” He claimed that polyamory is not a noun, but an adjective. A choice that is made.

Yet, he also famously coined the term “monogamish” to identify relationships in which the partners are “mostly monogamous, but there’s a little allowance for the reality of desire for others and a variety of experiences and adventure and possibility.”

This effort to define humans as something other than strictly monogamous seems to contradict his view that our relational orientation is not a fixed characteristic. If we aren’t monogamous, then we must be something else. For Dan, that is “monogamish,” which in his usage seems to be a noun. It would be inconsistent to conclude that a deviation from that noun would not also be considered a noun; a thing that a person is.

Monogamish is a dot along the spectrum of relational orientation. A person who identifies with the term “monogamish” is saying that their preference is monogamy, with some openness to experiences with other partners.

It follows then that a person could identify as “poly-ish.” They would be expressing a desire to structure their relationships following a mostly polyamorous orientation, with a lesser tendency toward long-term single partner pairing.

Born This Way?

We now scoff at the idea that a homosexual chose their “lifestyle.” In my experience, my gay friends and family members often express deep knowledge of their gendered sexual orientation from an early age. They recognize this characteristic as definitive to who they are; a noun.

Likewise, many people in the polyamory community express a similar understanding of themselves. They often feel like polyamory is core to their understanding of self, and that attempts at monogamy feel foreign, leading to difficulty, heartbreak and disruption.

The existence of bi-sexual beings who can freely choose the gender of their sexual partners served to confuse our earlier understanding of homosexuality. Given the extreme pressure in our culture during the 1980’s, coinciding with the rise of AIDS, organizations emerged to “help” homosexuals “repair” this trait, to become “straight.” In the literature of reparative therapy, it is now recognized that those individuals who were able to “change” their orientation are likely bi-sexual, and therefore able to choose to express their sexuality with opposite-sex partners. The existence of bi-sexual individuals, however, does not negate the existence of homosexual individuals for whom gendered sexual attraction is not a choice.

Likewise, it is common for people presented with the concept of polyamory to claim “everybody is attracted to other people.” I’d suggest that many people are “bi-relational” and can therefore choose to express their relational orientation in either monogamy or polyamory, or, as is most often the case, serial monogamy. But the existence of bi-relational individuals does not negate the existence of polyamorous people any more than the existence of bi-sexual people negated the existence of homosexuals.

Do Labels Matter? Wrestling with Angels

The polyamory community, as an organized entity, is relatively young and small. To date, there’s been little in the way of a movement to help define terms and to create legal space for the expression of relationships outside the norm of monogamy. Many in the poly community eschew labels, and want no part of being put into boxes. While this may work for some individuals who identify as polyamorous, it is misguided as a general approach to our understanding of relational orientation.

The ability of individuals to identify with the label of “gay” had benefits not only for those who claimed it, but also for those who didn’t. Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America” chronicled the common occurrence of a gay man marrying a straight woman and the resultant pain and disruption to lives. Joe and Hannah Pitt were young Mormons when they were married, and in the 1980’s, there was no allowance for Joe Pitt to claim the title of “gay.” At that time, he was made to believe being “straight” was a choice he could make; if he were steadfast in his religious belief and practice, he could be a good husband to Hannah.

The failure of that model had long-term implications for Joe Pitt, but also for Hannah, whose life was dramatically affected by marriage to a gay man. Had Joe been allowed to understand and claim “gay” as a label, they could have avoided that pain and disruption.

As stated above, this is beginning to happen in the online dating world. Individual men and women are beginning to express relational orientation as a defining characteristic. Those who do seem to understand that they desire to have partners in their lives who share their relational orientation. If you desire monogamy, you want a partner who desires monogamy as well. Inherent in this is an understanding that some individuals do not desire monogamy.

To fully know whether you desire monogamy, you have to be free to choose a different label. If we don’t allow people to recognize labels that differ from monogamy, we are simply forcing them to choose monogamy. This serves neither the monogamy oriented partners or the polyamory oriented partners. Like Joe and Hannah in Angels in America, the results are broken families and disrupted lives.

If a person is aware of their tendency toward polyamory, it is unethical of them to partner with a monogamy-oriented person without disclosure. Accepting the label of polyamory is not only beneficial for those who claim it, but also for those who seek monogamous partners.

The Axis of Orientation

We must trust people to choose the partnership model that work best for them. Culturally, we are in a period similar to the 1980’s and the question of homosexuality; we do not yet allow people to choose polyamory as a defining characteristic. Because of this, we force people to choose monogamy. A quick glance at statistics of divorce and infidelity should be enough to convince us that our current models are serving us and our families poorly.

It is time for a shift in our understanding. Time to recognize that in addition to sexual orientation, there are likely other orientations as well. One of these is Relational orientation. It is time to recognize polyamory as a legitimate expression of an innate trait in some percentage of the human population.

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  • Isaac

    Just wanted to offer a critique of your piece… I agree that relationship orientation should be a part of of the spectrum of sexual attraction. What I don’t agree with here in the visual methodology is making gay/straight a spectral dichotomy. While the traditional approach has reinforced such an oversimplification, it could be offered that a better approach is to treat heterosexual and homosexual orientations as being their own separate axis. The idea being this: On a scale of 0 to 9 each is weighed independently. This allows for conditions such as asexuality to be a naturally occurring aspect of sexual expression.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Thanks for the comment, Isaac.

    I think all of these efforts to label and categorize should be understood as approximations of ideas, and not definitive of something concrete. They are tools that aid our communication. I understand that I’ve simplified the spectrum here. That is done on purpose. All language, all communication is a simplification of concepts that allow us to convey meaning.

    While I understand your distinction, I’d propose getting at the idea in a slightly different way. Rather than trying to fit asexuality into the homosexual/heterosexual spectrum, I’d create a different line with asexuality on one end and hyper-sexuality on the other. “Frequency” of sexual expression with partners is certainly a characteristic that matters to people when choosing mates.

  • Jake

    @isaac

    That’s interesting, and i hadn’t really considered that. I tend to find that it looks more like a sort of “sexual attraction to traits” thing and could be arranged in such a way that each trait had its own measure of how attracted a person is to it. I know at least a few nominally straight women who are attracted to the idea of other women or the physical presence of breasts but not at all to vaginas. I also know at least two women who are severely turned on by hip bones regardless of gender. Personally I like a bunch of traits, but nice hips and good huggability/cuddling are high on those, while stuff like acne has absolutely no effect.

    Just stuff to think about.

  • http://lincoln.metacannon.net Lincoln Cannon

    Yep. Good post. Of course, both non-heterosexual and non-monogamous relationships can be practiced in oppressive ways, either directly harming the persons involved or indirectly harming the community more generally, so simple deconstruction of present norms is insufficient in itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Of course. This post makes no attempt to argue that one form of relationship is inherently more ethical than the other. The dynamic is the same. Bad actors exist along all spectrums.

    But, that recognition is actually progress. I was raised in a community that taught me that you could not be an ethical homosexual, for example. That community is currently teaching that you cannot practice non-monogamy ethically. I disagree, obviously, with both positions, but recognize that such thinking is common in our culture.

  • Mara

    I fully agree with you that relational orientation is for many, many people (including me) an orientation and not a choice. However, I disagree with polyamory being offered as the opposite practice from monogamy. The opposite of monogamy is non-monogamy. Poly is just one expression of that. There are many, many ways to practice non-monogamy, and poly (which tends toward multiple relationships, and an emphasis on love rather than just sex) is not the only one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/timothyk Timothy

    Thanks for the feedback. From the perspective of people familiar with the poly world , I agree with you that these categories can be quite nuanced. We can parse language ad infinitum, and it’s an important thing to do. This post was written primarily for a lay audience who has only cursory exposure to polyamory, and in that world, I think the distinction holds. My experience tells me that most people see monogamy and polyamory as contained on a spectrum of relationship choices.

    That said, I do think the spectrum allows for some level of the differentiation you refer to. I think the dividing line between polyamory and monogamy on the Y axis separates two different kinds of practices. For example, I’ve come to think of “monogamish” as something other than poly. So, in that sense, I agree with you that non-monogamy doesn’t imply polyamory, and I don’t think you need to read the spectrum that way.

  • Kurt Boyer

    I think you’re doing a great job of scratching the surface. The obvious concepts are the hardest to miss. Why do people focus on “self discovery” instead of conscious self creation? I have this nasty feeling that most people with a “monogamous” orientation are just living out their conditioning, manifesting a relationship system out of jealousy and fear. Of course, the mere mention of anything like that immediately causes fire and brimstone to rain down from the “special snowflakes” crowd, so I’d better find shelter.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    I consider myself, with 50 years experience, well understanding attraction to others, and able to justify my wants regardless of religious upbringing and belief, has found in practice, that my orientation is monogamy–it just cuts across the grain, trying to mix oil and water, etc. Your not having that experience or understanding it, does not negate its existence in others, and I am not so egocentric to deny poly orientation exists in others…

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    And, those that identify this way, don’t appreciate your cynical denial, and condescending dismissal “special snowflake’ slur, perhaps done to justify your own behavior. We also don’t like being manipulated to conform to your identity or risk isolation and exclusion, which is becoming more common…

  • Timothy

    disqus_Px… that was my point in the article as well. I’ve moved past assuming that we’re all wired the same way, and accept that for others, I have to trust they know what’s best for them.

  • Kurt Boyer

    But isn’t the term “wired” pretty vague and potentially misleading itself? Why should people be helpless to traits they acquired subconsciously before age 7? I’m not advocating for self-denial, I’m advocating reason.

  • Kurt Boyer

    Possessive relationships (as a general concept) are either morally okay, or morally flawed. If monogamy is morally flawed, then everything you’re saying amounts to a sophistic defense of a failed model. There are “hardcore kink” practitioners who keep their partner in a cage & make her use a litter box, or who keep female “slaves” in a pseudo-spiritual model based on chauvinist literature. Their explanation is “we identify this way” or “this works for me.” I am equally skeptical of both monogamists & polyamorists if they continue to have no philosophical or reasoned basis for what they do, apart from empty bromides.

    “Special snowflakes” was not a slur against anyone, it was a criticism of the idea that we’re all perfect as long as we “discover ourselves” and “follow our heart” and a dozen other slogans of passive acceptance you can buy at the Dollar Tree. But, you’re so busy being offended that I suppose you didn’t notice.

  • Kurt Boyer

    It’s interesting. The 1950s are a period which we associate w/ either-or thinking, i.e. classicism, the idea of true vs. false. And in the late 60s, most of the “hippies” who were born or raised in the 50s were willing to say that sex in love, as opposed to hedonistic “swinging” or anonymous bathhouses etc, was the *better* spiritual path. Not a different path, but a better one. We make fun of them now, and yes the hippie movement was often ridiculous, but they did not attempt to equalize all choices. They actively campaigned for group love relationships as an enlightened model.

    Now in the 21st century, hardcore relativism/hyper-tolerance is the philosophical “gold standard” that everyone is expected to adhere to or be branded intolerant, so most of us are willing to say that sex-as-physical-sensation-only (or sex as self-gratification) is just another morally equal choice compared to polyamorous love, i.e. sex as empathy/spiritual metaphor. I know it makes me a black sheep of black sheep, but I’m not sure 1 of the 2 ideas isn’t objectively better than the other.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    People who are wired that way, often also WANT or prefer it that way. They are not helpless, they are not conflicted, that is who they ARE and WANT to be. People who advocate for reason also want to have some kind of scientific data to justify who they are or want to be. I have seen another study that attempted to find a genetic predisposition to infidelity that showed some may have more than others (and explored the potential for creating a med to cure it!), so if that makes you happy, relax and be happy.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    Timothy, thank God, Allah, Brahma, Re or nothing, that you’ve gotten to where you are!

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    Morally flawed? Good luck with that. Anytime someone suggests a moral spin on this, we get no consensus agreement. Occasionally we get periods of time of either forced by law or peer/social pressure on what is morally okay, but even that is not static. There are some countries who have the gall in my opinion to suggest that pedophilia is morally okay, even though the child has no say/power over what others deem okay for them. From the beginning of time, mankind has had to decide what is okay behavior for all versus what is personal choice. They used to do all kinds of atrocious things to each other…feed to lions for sport, for example. Today, that is out of fashion…1000 years from now, all bets are off.
    Regarding this topic, whether its sexual, relational orientation, or the existence of God, etc is that some people really need to have a finite absolute answer, and they cannot handle ambiguity. Others don’t have a problem living in a world of ambiguity, answers we may never have (or until the end) and don’t have a problem if someone else chooses to behave differently in a way that does not harm others….

  • Timothy

    Sure…if you think in terms of it being static. For me, however, nothing is static, and according to our desires, we can re-wire ourselves. But, there is a core nature to who I am, that is influenced by things currently outside of my control. The work of my life is bringing into balance the tension between my desire and my nature.

  • Timothy

    It seems to me that you’re both saying similar things, just tripping up on the choice of language.

    As I see you both saying it, these issues become problematic when they become coercive, both for individuals and for society at large.

    I can conceive of monogamous relationships that are coercive and those that are not, just as I can conceive of polyamorous relationships that are coercive or not. The difference is consent.

    And, at the point that either practitioner lands on the idea that their way is THE way, and attempts to set that way as a moral law for others, that becomes oppression.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    That is the human condition. All is not necessarily a matter of wiring in the terms of genetics, but in human knowledge and understanding and making higher order intelligent decisions and choices. I don’t think people curb their violent, selfish natures to murder via weeding it out of themselves via genetics…that is something else. That is making a conscious judgment and rule about murder, including weighing the consequences. Where sex fits into that is a good question. Weighing the risks and benefits and consequences of maintaining relationships, families and venereal disease prevention may be some ways that we rewire ourselves and balance the tension. Asking hard, objective questions to prevent denial seems prudent. Many want to deny the emotions we are hard wired for..fear and fight or flight, maternal bonding, territorialism to protect the family unit (love, jealousy if you will). I have known swinger couples who each, consensually vow to “not get emotionally attached,” who, indeed being human, do, and end in divorce. Many are hiding and avoiding dealing with their conflicts, lack of communication and conflict resolution skills, boredom, etc. Or allowing the addiction of thrill seeking. People claim their is a genetic wiring for alcoholism and addiction, yet because the consequences can be devastating, will make the CHOICE to “rewire” and cease chemical use. People can choose celibacy, etc.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    Agree, similar to forcing religious beliefs. Adultery already is not considered a crime, so have it if you will, and stop caring about what others think to the point one has to persecute or deny the monogamous to justify it. I’ve even heard some claim that heterosexually is not natural either. Give me a break. Objectively examine yourself, weigh the consequences, and do who you are or want, consensually, and let it go. It will not surprise me if we do not see a movement to legalize polygamy again, though that may be tipped by not being legally, contractually acceptable to society versus moral.

  • Timothy

    Yes.

  • Timothy

    Did you not see where a Federal Judge struck down sections of Utah’s anti-polygamy laws a couple of weeks ago? http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/56894145-78/utah-polygamy-waddoups-ruling.html.csp

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    No, believe it or not, its not an issue at the top of my issues to pay notice to, lol! Once in awhile, when I get the special snowflake slur/shun, and I am looking for information I’ll surf it, and found you! Hahaha…See there you go. It might not be the end for Utah in the rewiring process…I think it could be a family law nightmare from Hell…or not Hell, as you will. :^) Nice chatting

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    imagine the tax scenarios, dependents, deductions galore! lol

  • Timothy

    Actually, I have no concerns over this. We have built a tax system to accommodate a multitude of business relationships, from sole-proprietors to complex corporations with millions of shareholders. I think we can figure out how to manage the occasional multi-partner family. ;-)

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    I know couples, men in particular, who after a divorce, vowed to never marry again after the settlement fallout…why buy the cow/pig when can get the milk/sausage for free?! We’ll see how it all ‘plays’ out when the ‘rubber’ meets the road. If you play, you will pay?! Good luck w/it! :)

  • Timothy

    Those men have a lot of growth to achieve before I’d think they were READY to form a partnership again. ;-)

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    While being objective, it also doesn’t hurt to look at how much ego, image and status play a role…I know some, men in particular, who get off on the ego boost it gives them to show off how many women they can add to their stable. I hope they practice some ethics, because I have seen the emotional and physical tactics used to con, brainwash and manipulate women into thinking this is the way to be. Not to say that some women aren’t into this too, yet I suspect its more male “driven.”

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    they do form relationships again, but they do not go the marriage contract route…

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    I imagine then, it will/could also be reciprocal; not just a man with many (unlimited?) wives, but the wives also having many husbands…that will be ok right? :)

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    Btw, many do not view monogamous relationships as “possessive;” they view them as a commitment to each other, and as they are oriented and prefer monogamy, it isn’t a possessive, jealous arrangement…it just is. When it is jealous or possessive, there is more growth needed in trust of mutual committment. Some of the religious also consider it a covenant between them and God and a sacrament…What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. True faith and living a life in God’s service leaves no need for others. Similarly, many monogamous nonbelievers who have attained a higher self fulfillment and live lives of service and fulfillment, there is no need for others. Many in polys are unable to God/self fulfillment and are seeking externally, often futilely…

  • Kurt Boyer

    The fact that people don’t consider what they’re doing to be flawed doesn’t mean that it’s not flawed. Possessive is probably not the most accurate word. but its closer than the nonsense usually spouted. The fact is we’re still trying to converse without actually defining what the principal issues even are. Why do relationships happen? What are they? What does/should our sexuality mean? From the amount of times you just used the word “God” I would imagine that you’re not coming from a completely unbiased & intransigent position yourself.

    Religion, however, does add a layer of complexity to the issue.

  • disqus_PxMGbpLOCq

    Like most things, “flawed” is in the eyes and perspective of the beholder. Having a religious background doesn’t bias one any more than not having a religious background. I’ve been around enough and done enough to examine, experience, abandon and try out various viewpoints to get where I am. And remain open to development…that is the fun in life! Happy New Year and be happy, live and let live is my philosophy :^)