Polyamory, the relationship escalator, and Dear Abby

I read the Eugene Register Guard newspaper most mornings. This, of course, includes the comics. On the page facing the comics is the Dear Abby column (no longer written by Abby). I didn’t really pay attention to it, maybe reading it once in a great while. But, when BdiJ stays over, she sometimes looks at it and points things out. For the most part, Abby’s advice seems pretty good, but we’ve come to realize that Abby has a problem with nontraditional relationships. I don’t know if it will do any good or not, but I’ve sent her the letters below. They cover the basic issues, but first I’ll provide a little background about what triggered my writing to Abby.

One of the letters to Abby was about a woman that has been having sex with a friend. She wants a more serious relation with someone else, but doesn’t want to give up the sex with her friend. The friend is okay with that. In other words, she and her friend are polyamorous even though she didn’t use the word. Abby’s response was that the writer wouldn’t be having any problems if she hadn’t been having sex with her friend, and that she will have to choose (even using all caps for emphasis). Evidently Abby isn’t aware of people that successfully and happily engage in ethical non-monogamy.

For anyone that doesn’t know, polyamory, aka ethical non-monogamy, is the idea that it is possible to love more than one person at a time. Most often, this is discussed in the context of multiple sexual partners, but I find it interesting that, depending on who you ask, sex may or may not be part of the definition. Loving relationships don’t have to include sex and, since some people get jealous over even nonsexual relationships, it is worth including these relationships in polyamory discussions. On the other hand, there are people that do not include casual sexual partners in their definition of polyamory – emphasizing the “amory”. I’ve found this to lead to some interesting (and I think unnecessary) conflicts between polyamory groups, swingers and fetish communities. A classic book on polyamory is The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy but there is a great deal of discussion to be found online. I especially like The Relationship Autonomy Index as a basis of discussion. One of the things I like about polyamorous people is the level of communication they promote. This includes online forums such as the Polyamory Discussion Group and Pacific Northwest Polyamory.

Abby also tends to push the relationship escalator. This concept captures the societal pressure said in the classic kissing song “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” Note that kissing comes first and the rhyme should probably include something about living together in order to fit societal expectations. And, of course, the baby comes after marriage. Unfortunately, many people fall into the trap of thinking relationships have to move up this escalator. But let’s be clear that this sequence does not have to happen. In fact, many people get off the escalator at a comfortable spot and are very happy. Of course, there are also many people that happily follow this path. The point is it should be your choice, not societies. An example is my relationship with BdiJ. It was nice to realize there is a name for one aspect of our relationship. It’s called “living apart together.” We are in a committed relationship but see no reason to live together or get married. Our relationship is also roughly an RAI Level 4 form of polyamory.

First letter to Abby as sent:

I’ve struggled with how to get your attention on your advice regarding some relationships. Hopefully this will work: You are giving advice that promotes a society where some people have to lie about who they love, encourages people to give up loving relationships, and is not based on evidence.

A specific example is your response to Complicated in Tennessee (published in the Eugene Register Guard, Jan 27, 2021).  Without using the word polyamorous, Complicated told you that she is. Studies have found that over 20% of the U.S. has engaged in ethical non-monogamy with 4-5% actively engaged. There is even some legal recognition being given to polyamorous relationships with Massachusetts courts allowing three men to have all their names put on their child’s birth certificate. In other words, tens of millions of people engage in an activity you not only said cannot happen, but that you shouted cannot happen. The question Complicated asked is a Polyamory 101 question that is discussed extensively in online forums. You might be surprised at how much sophisticated thought has gone into these relationships. For example, See https://www.facebook.com/groups/polyamorydiscussiongroup/?ref=share.

How is rejection of these relationships different from rejecting gay marriage (which you fully support)? The situation described by Outspoken Nanny (RG March 11) could easily have been about polyamory (instead of gay marriage) and your response could have been exactly the same. Complicated DOES NOT have to make a choice. Rather than reject this person’s approach to love, you could have pointed them towards resources that could help them. An example of when you did this for another emotional issue was your response to Grandma in Pain where you reference PFLAG. One place to start researching this is the BBC article “Ethical non-monogamy: the rise of multi-partner relationships” https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210326-ethical-non-monogamy-the-rise-of-multi-partner-relationships

A related situation is your attitude towards marriage. In your response to Wants the Piece of Paper (RG Jan 26) you suggest that her boyfriend is “marriage-phobic” when, in fact, he has provided valid reasons for not wanting to get married. Considering the divorce rates (45-50%), the evidence indicates marriage is not always the best solution. You could have asked (both the writer and yourself) what’s more important, a loving relationship or marriage. You quite regularly promote the relationship escalator where monogamous marriage, living together, and children are considered the only directions a relationship can go. This is harmful prejudice.

Much of your advice seems very sound to me. But this is an area where you should open your views to the reality of non-traditional relationships and stop promoting a society where people can’t love each other in any way they choose.

(End of first letter as sent)

The second letter I sent was related to Abby’s response to a woman who discovered (through snooping) that her husband had created an account on an escort service site. Abby’s response included that if the husband’s only reason for being interested in escorts was variety then the relationship was over.

Second letter as sent:

Once again you have given relationship advice that is harmful and not based on evidence. One of the things that can lead to toxic monogamy is the belief that a single person can provide all the emotional and sexual needs another person has. (It is possible for one person to provide enough of these needs, but not always.) Think about what an unrealistic onus this is to put on another person. In your response to Nervous in New Jersey (published May 5, 2021 in the Eugene Register Guard) you basically say that sexual monogamy is more important than a loving relationship. The reality that someone might want more sexual variety than their partner doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship.

You tell Nervous to tell her husband about her snooping. Telling her to be honest and engage in communication is good advice that is stressed in discussions of ethical nonmonogamy (and should be in any type of relationship). But in addition to her telling her husband why she felt the need to snoop, she should ask why he felt the need to lie to her. Part of the answer is probably that society and advice columnists promote mono-normativity – the idea that relationships have to be sexually monogamous. Whether you want to believe it or not, there are people that don’t have a problem with their partners engaging with escorts.

Your advice should include Nervous discussing the lack of trust in both directions rather than focusing on sex and putting the entire blame on her husband. If the husband feels a need to lie and she feels the need to snoop then there are deeper issues in the relationship than just sex. Why not tell Nervous to research ethical nonmonogamy and ask herself if sexual monogamy is so important that it nullifies the rest of the relationship? You don’t seem to understand that lust is not love. Please stop promoting these harmful societal norms.

(end of second letter)

(The cover image is from wikiquote. I especially like that the middle figure is gender ambiguous.)

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