This is a post about applied luminosity in action: how I hacked myself to become polyamorous over (admittedly weak) natural monogamous inclinations. It is a case history about me and, given the specific topic, my love life, which means gooey self-disclosure ahoy. As with the last time I did that, skip the post if it’s not a thing you desire to read about. Named partners of mine have given permission to be named.
1. In Which Motivation is Acquired
When one is monogamous, one can only date monogamous people. When one is poly, one can only date poly people.1 Therefore, if one should find oneself with one’s top romantic priority being to secure a relationship with a specific individual, it is only practical to adapt to the style of said individual, presuming that’s something one can do. I found myself in such a position when MBlume, then my ex, asked me from three time zones away if I might want to get back together. Since the breakup he had become polyamorous and had a different girlfriend, who herself juggled multiple partners; I’d moved, twice, and on the way dated a handful of people to no satisfactory clicking/sparking/other sound effects associated with successful romances. So the idea was appealing, if only I could get around the annoying fact that I was not, at that time, wired to be poly.
Everything went according to plan: I can now comfortably describe myself and the primary relationship I have with MBlume as poly. <bragging>Since moving back to the Bay Area I’ve been out with four other people too, one of whom he’s also seeing; I’ve been in my primary’s presence while he kissed one girl, and when he asked another for her phone number; I’ve gossiped with a secondary about other persons of romantic interest and accepted his offer to hint to a guy I like that this is the case; I hit on someone at a party right in front of my primary. I haven’t suffered a hiccup of drama or a twinge of jealousy to speak of and all evidence (including verbal confirmation) indicates that I’ve been managing my primary’s feelings satisfactorily too.</bragging> Does this sort of thing appeal to you? Cross your fingers and hope your brain works enough like mine that you can swipe my procedure.
2. In Which I Vivisect a Specimen of Monogamy
It’s easier to get several small things out of the way, or route around them, than to defeat one large thing embedded in several places. Time to ask myself what I wanted. A notable virtue of polyamory is that it’s extremely customizable. (Monogamy could be too, in theory, but comes with a strong cultural template that makes it uncomfortably non-default to implement and maintain nonstandard parameters.) If I could take apart what I liked about monogamy, there seemed a good chance that I could get some of those desiderata in an open relationship too (by asking my cooperative would-be primary). The remaining items—the ones that were actually standing between me and polyamory, not just my cached stereotype thereof—would be a more manageable hacking target. I determined that I could, post-hack, keep and pursue the following desires:
I want to be someone’s top romantic priority, ideally symmetrically. [This is satisfied by me and MBlume having an explicitly primary relationship instead of each having a bunch of undifferentiated ones.]
I eventually want to get married. (This one isn’t in the works as of this time, but isn’t precluded by anything I’m doing now. Open marriages are a thing.) Relatedly, I want to produce spawn within wedlock, and to have reproductive exclusivity (i.e. no generating half-siblings for said spawn on either side of the family). [MBlume was fine with this mattering to me.]
I want to be able to secure attention on demand—even though I didn’t anticipate needing this option routinely. My model of myself indicated that I would feel more comfortable with my primary going off with other girls if I knew that I was entitled to keep him home, for status- and security-related reasons. Actually requiring this of him in practice is rare. [We invented the term “pairbonding” to refer to designated periods of time when we are not to be distracted from one another.]
I want to be suitably paranoid about STIs. [We worked out acceptable standards for this well in advance.]
These things weren’t the sole components of my monogamous inclinations, but what was left was a puny little thing made of ugh fields and aesthetic tastes and the least portions of the above. (For example, the first bullet point, being someone’s top romantic priority, is 95% of the whole wanting to be someone’s exclusive romantic priority. That last 5% is not that huge.)
The vivisection process also revealed that a lot of my monogamous inclinations were composed of the bare fact that monogamy had always been the specified arrangement. Being presumed by the agreed-upon boundaries of my relationships to be monogamous meant that if either party went off and was non-monogamous, this was Breaking A Rule. My brain does not like it when people (including me) Break Rules2 or try to change them too close to the time of the proposed would-be exception, generally speaking, but doesn’t object to rules being different in different contexts. If I entered a relationship where, from the get-go, poly was how it was supposed to work, this entire structure would be silent on the subject of monogamy. Pre-vivisection I would have considered it more closely embedded than that.
3. In Which I Use My Imagination
Humans respond to incentives. We do this even when it comes to major decisions that should be significant enough in themselves to swamp said incentives. Encoding the switch to poly as a grand, dramatic sacrifice I was preparing to make for cinematic reasons (advance the plot, make soulful faces at the camera, establish my character to the rapt audience as some sort of long-suffering altruist giving up a Part Of Who I Am for True Love) was admittedly appealing. But it wasn’t appealing to the bits of my brain that were doing the heavy lifting, just to the part that generates fiction and applies the templates to real life whenever possible. Better to find ways to cater to the selfish, practical crowd in my internal committee.
Polyamory has perks.
So I imagined a model of myself with one modification: the debris of my monogamous inclinations that were still left after I’d pared away the non-intrusive parts were not present in this model. Imaginary Model Alicorn was already finished with her hack and comfortable with plugging into a poly network. Contemplating how she went about her life, I noted the following:
She got to date MBlume. (This one was important.)
When I considered who else besides MBlume I might want to date if I lived in the relevant area and was poly, I found that I had a list. In several cases, the people on the list were folks I couldn’t date if they were going to be 100% of my significant others or if I was going to be 100% of theirs—some had the wrong gametes or other features for hypothetical future spawn-production, some were already thoroughly poly and weren’t about to abandon that (or, where applicable, other partner(s)) for me, some were incompletely satisfactory in other ways that I’d find frustrating if they were my sole partner but could overlook if they were supplemented appropriately. Imaginary Model Alicorn could date these people and wouldn’t have to rely on hypotheticals to learn what it would be like.
She acquired a certain level of status (respect for her mind-hacking skills and the approval that comes with having an approved-of “sensible” romantic orientation) within a relevant subculture. She got to write this post to claim said status publicly, and accumulate delicious karma. And she got to make this meta bullet point.
She had a way to live comfortably in the Bay Area within arm’s reach of lots of her friends.
She had a non-destructive outlet for her appetite for social drama3.
She had firsthand information about both ways to orchestrate her love life, and even if she wanted to go back to monogamy eventually for some reason, she’d be making an informed decision.
She had to check fewer impulses and restrain fewer urges to remark on the attributes of people around her, because the consequences for being interpreted incorrectly (or correctly) as expressing romantic or sexual interest in arbitrary people weren’t as big a deal.
So I spent some time thinking about Imaginary Model Alicorn. When her life started seeming like a pleasant fantasy, instead of a far-out alternate universe, that was progress; when it sounded like a viable plan for the near future, instead of an implausible flight of fancy, that was progress too.
4. In Which I Put Some Brainbits in Mothballs
At this point my interest in being poly was thoroughly motivated and I already had a comfortably broken-in new self-model to move into—if and when I managed the hack. It wasn’t done. I still had to get rid of:
My aesthetic keening for a perfect, pretty, self-contained monogamous setup4.
Resentment that I ought to have to self-modify to get some things I wanted, instead of the universe being set up so I could comfortably retain my factory settings.
The difference between “top priority” and “exclusive priority”.
My impulse to retain the right to claim victim status if certain things went wrong (e.g. if I were faithful in a supposedly monogamous relationship, and then I wound up with an STI because my SO slept with someone else, I would be the wronged party and could tremble my lip at my faithless partner and demand the sympathy of my friends, instead of being a casualty of an accident yielded by allowable behaviors and entitled to nothing but a sigh of regret).
Anxiety about the possibility that my primary would be stolen away by some more appealing secondary.
Loss aversion, which wanted to restrain me from giving up the potential to date people who would consider ever having been poly a dealbreaker. (Note: I implemented what I believe to be a reversible hack, so I didn’t have to worry about not being able to enter a monogamous relationship if that ever seemed called for).
Respectively, here’s what I did to get these brainbits to stop struggling long enough that I could box them up and put them into deep storage (forgive the metaphors in which I appear to make faces at myself. I did not actually need a mirror for any of this; those bits are symbols for the attitudes associated with the mental actions):
Replacement. Cultivated a new aesthetic according to which polyamory was the “prettier” style. (Each aesthetic has the weakness of working primarily when the people around me are all doing the same thing, and I don’t know how to fix that yet; but I was going to move into an area and subculture with lots of poly people anyway.)
Rolled my eyes at myself and listed prior self-modifications I’d undertaken, then asking if those goals were less important to me than getting the benefits of being poly or if I regretted those prior hacks.
Raised an eyebrow at myself and asked what, exactly, was the added value of exclusivity. Question dissolved on sufficiently skeptical inspection.
Pointed out that victim status is not actually particularly valuable. I have acquired a better caliber of friends than I had when this brainbit appears to have crystallized, and could reasonably expect sympathy from most of them whether or not I was technically the victim of someone else’s wrongdoing. And I can tremble my lip as much as I want, for all the good that will do.
Weighed the badness of losing an SO to someone vs. just plain losing one due to dissatisfaction; determined difference to be insignificant, at least without more detailed information about the “someone” which I could not generate ex hypothesi. Noted that I would hardly improve my odds of retaining an SO by demanding a relationship style dispreferred by said SO. And the relevant individual had indicated his preference to be polyamory.
“Who exactly are these people? Do I know any of them? Not any who I’d want to date in any recognizable scenario. Okay then, the class as a whole is to be counted a less valuable opportunity than the class of poly people (which notably includes MBlume).”
5. In Which Everything Goes According To Plan And I Am Repeatedly Commended For Having Magical Powers
Field-testing has confirmed that I’m doing something right: I’m happy and comfortable. (Also, spontaneously all kinds of popular. If I’d known I could get this many people interested by hacking poly I might have done it sooner.) I would reverse the hack if my primary decided he wanted to be monogamous with me, but otherwise don’t see a likely reason to want to.
1I’m counting willingness that one’s sole partner have other partners (e.g. being an arm of a V) to be a low-key flavor of being poly oneself, not a variety of tolerant monogamy. I think this is the more reasonable way to divide things up given a two-way division, but if you feel that I mischaracterize the highly simplified taxonomy, do tell.
2The details of what my brain considers to be Rules and how it protests when they are broken or self-servingly altered are mildly interesting but irrelevant to this post.
3I don’t think I’d describe myself as enjoying drama, but it’s interesting and I’m drawn to it, and if I don’t keep track of this carefully enough I go around starting it without realizing what I’m doing until too late. Generating actual drama is a good way to hurt people, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the same appetite appears to be indulged by working out the intricacies of relationship parameters, and keeping track of the structure of a polycule in which I am an atom, even if no drama per se exists.
4If the comments I linked when I first mentioned this aesthetic don’t adequately explain it to you, perhaps listen to the song “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors. The exact details in the lyrics thereof are not what I ever had in mind (it’s designed to highlight and poke fun at the singing character’s extremely modest ambitions) but the emotional context—minus the backstory where the character currently has an abusive boyfriend—is just right.