flexibeast.space - gemlog - 2024-02-07

“We tried polyamory in the 60s, it didn't work”

A while ago i read a comment expressing the sentiment expressed in the title. As someone who's been doing consensual nonmonogamy (cnm) in various forms - swinging, polyamory, ‘relationship anarchy’, etc. - for well over two decades, this made me bristle.

Regardless of whether or not there were people in the 60s explicitly trying ‘polyamory’, per se - the Online Etymological Dictionary says it was being used “by 1972”[a] - there were certainly a number of experiments in ‘consensual nonmonogamy’ / ‘free love’ during that time. They were also certainly not the first; numerous such experiments have taken place over the centuries, in various communities, for various reasons.

The impression i've got about most of these experiments, however, is that they often seem to have gone something like this: “Let's do nonmonogamy. Oh, there are all these intense issues around things like jealousy, envy, time management, etc. Well, everyone inevitably experiences jealousy and envy, so there's nothing much that can be done about that. Maybe there are some things that could be done, on these issues and others, but they would involve multiple people engaging in good faith with each other in an ongoing way, learning communication and negotiation skills, and doing a lot of personal work. And no-one wants to do that. So the experiment has failed.”

One can't expect to be able to “just do” cnm without any significant issues, for at least a couple of reasons:

So not only are cnm people usually trying to swim against the tide - we've also usually not been taught the skills we need to facilitate doing so.

In fact, the issue of communication / discussion / negotiation skills comes up in another claim i've encountered over the years: “We tried consensus-based politics, it didn't work.” Well, if by ‘consensus politics’ is meant “getting a non-trivial amount of people to all agree to exactly the same thing, on every point of detail”, then sure, that's only going to work in a very limited set of circumstances (assuming that the people involved are actually taking the notion of ‘consensus’ seriously[c]).

But, as with consensual nonmonogamy, there's been a lot of work on the practice of consensus-based politics over the years. Various people have kept trying to learn what things are more likely and less likely to work, and in what contexts, moving the overall approach forward. For example, one thing i've seen expressed is: “‘Consensus’ isn't about everyone agreeing with something, it's about whether everyone can live with something, even if in a number of cases it's not exactly what they want.”

It's a huge leap to go from “This thing did / didn't work for me, or for a number of us” to “... and therefore it must / mustn't work for anyone, irrespective of any efforts they might make.” And in the case of consensual nonmonogamy in particular, there can be also be a bias along the lines of: “If a monogamous relationship fails, the issue was the relationship. If a consensual nonmonogamous relationship fails, the issue was cnm.” The reality however, is that there are increasing numbers of people successfully doing consensual nonmonogamy - and even if it's not what's best for many people, it is working for a number of others.

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[a] Online Etymological Dictionary: ‘polyamory’

[b] One group of people particularly affected by this are those of us who are neurodivergent. The notion that This Is Obviously How Things Work / How Things Must Be Done means that neurodivergent people are considered to have ‘deficits’ when we think or feel that this is not necessarily the case. It's analogous to someone claiming that English Is Obviously The Language To Speak, and that anyone who doesn't do so (or do so adequately) has some sort of ‘deficit’ in need of ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’.

[c] i know someone who used to be on a supposedly consensus-based committee; at one point, when she disagreed with the committee dismissing a serious safety issue, she was basically told “Sit down, shut up, then we'll have consensus.”