Bonding, commitment, and exclusivity

Sometimes the blogging stars are aligned… you have a text message conversation with your best friend about something, then you read a blog touching on the same subject, then you read another blog where someone’s asking for advice on the exact same thing. And you think to yourself, “I guess that’s what I’m writing about today.”

When I first started dating Shaun, and was explaining polyamory to my friend, many of them had a similar reaction: “How can you be happy with someone who will never commit to you?” One friend asked if he would ever consider getting married, to which my response was, “Why not?” To their minds, the idea of a nonexclusive sexual relationship was incompatible with the idea of long-term love and commitment. Marriage, in our culture, is usually understood as a commitment to a) love and care for one another for the rest of our lives and b) not be romantically or sexually involved with anybody else.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The first blog I read this morning, a nice overview of the biology of love, mentions that prairie voles, who bond for life, are not sexually exclusive with their mates. As I understand it, this is not rare in the animal kingdom. Many species are sexually promiscuous and non-committal. Many species are sexually exclusive and inclined to pair-bonds. Many species are sexually promiscuous and inclined to pair-bonds. Homo sapiens seems to be capable of all three, depending on cultural pressures, but we are certainly strongly inclined to pair-bond, and we do seem to have a hard time with sexual exclusivity. But so much writing on the subject of love, relationships, and mating behavior in humans seems to imply that it’s an either/or question. “Pair-bonding,” “attachment,” and “monogamy” are taken as practically synonymous.

In the second blog I read, someone writes for advice to the always-delightful Svutlana because she wants to have romance and lifelong love, but can’t stop sleeping around. These two things are viewed by her (and possibly by the always-delightful Svutlana, although it may just be that she interpreted the writer’s question differently than I did) as mutually exclusive. They’re so not.

The text conversation with my best friend was about my relationship with my beloved Shaun, and how my new crush affects that. The short answer is “not much.” The longer, more nuanced answer is: New Crush is exciting and fun to play with, and I get jazzed-up crushy feelings when I think about seeing him again. (In the poly world we call this New Relationship Energy.) Shaun is a cornerstone of my life: from the honest, clear-headed way he thinks about the world to the goofy voices he does to the way his skin feels, he’s a much-loved part of my world, and I can’t imagine parting with him or even wanting to. The depth of my love for Shaun doesn’t take away from the excitement of the NRE, though, any more than the NRE takes away from my feelings for him. I would be terribly sad if I had to choose between getting to plan my life with the man I love, and getting to experience a heady crush every now and again.

Like all rewarding things, nonmonogamy takes a proportionate amount of work. It is not for people who just want to get their love life settled and then concentrate on other things. It requires diligent self-examination, trust, and communication, and it requires a willingness to continually experience the pains of new love as well as the joys. A gentleman of my acquaintance, for whom my heart has throbbed for many a year, recently made it clear once again that nothing is ever going to happen between us. Having another lover at home did not ease the pain of that one bit (except preventing that pain from being mingled with a fear that I’ll never be loved, as it usually is when I’m single and rejected.) I guess I can understand why some people would rather just settle down with one person and turn off that part of their brain. For me, though? It’s more than worth it.

One thought on “Bonding, commitment, and exclusivity

  1. Thanks for the link love 🙂

    Part of the problem with talking about animal sexuality is that animals don’t have the same kinds of concepts we do. We can only guess by their behavior whether they’re feeling the same kinds of emotions. As a rather disturbing example, we can’t really equate “rape” between animals and humans. Sure, animals are sometimes seen forcing themselves upon one another, but it’s very difficult to tell whether the “victim” is experiencing genuine trauma similar to a human rape victim, or whether it’s a relatively functional part of that animal’s mating strategy. Animals don’t have the concepts of “inviolate personal property.” That is, they don’t think “It’s my body and he can’t have it.”

    Similarly, when a prairie vole male goes out and has sex with a “random stranger,” then returns to the bonded nest, we can’t really discuss the “feelings” of the female. Not in any meaningful human way, anyway. And in human relationships, that’s what gets hurt by infidelity. Feelings. Similarly, we can’t discuss the male’s “cheating” on his mate, since cheating requires the concepts of property and proprietary rights.

    I think one of the worst things about this whole subject is that we equate words between animals and humans which don’t belong. Animals don’t cheat on their mates. They don’t break trust. They aren’t promiscuous. These are all human terms with uniquely human meanings, since we are (apparently) the only animal with the idea of private property rights.


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