Make Yourself! – The Choice vs Identity Question in Polyamory

My mama told me when I was young, “We are all born superstars”
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on in the glass of her boudoir
“There’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”
She said, “‘Cause He made you perfect, babe
So hold your head up, girl, and you’ll go far”
Listen to me when I say

–Lady Gaga, “Born This Way”

Hey, my Kinky, Polyam Peeps! Boy, am I excited about this week’s article! Before we talk about why, let me provide a little background:

In late August, I was approached by the AMAZING Andrea of InfinitePolyam. If you’re not following her on TikTok, Facebook, Threads, and all the socials, stop reading this article RIGHT NOW and go do that.

Go on, I’ll wait…

Did you do the thing? Good. Anyway, one topic in the polyam community that we both believe VERY strongly in is the concept of “Polyamory as an identity”. Often polyamory can be viewed as a choice (feel free to check-out my numerous rants about the use of the word “lifestyle”), and frankly, we’re two people who believe we were born this way. While it may have taken us a while to understand (We didn’t crawl out of the closet the same time we crawled out of our cribs), we both nonetheless view it as integral to our persona and a fundamental piece of who we are.

For that reason, Andrea described to me this passion she has about getting the word out that there are other people out there like us who could no more be monogamous than someone could change their sexuality or gender. We are who we are, even if some people may not agree with that notion. We brainstormed some ways to create, for lack of a better word, a “campaign” for this idea: Something that would be enduring and not let this concept fade away. We wanted a way to make sure that this issue was kept at the forefront of the minds of the polyam community. While admittedly we’re still workshopping some ideas, we thought a blog article would be a fantastic first step to raise awareness while we look for a more permanent solution.

Allow me to say that the impetus of this article is not to definitively answer the question of whether polyamory is an identity or a choice. Andrea and I both fully believe that it can be either depending on the person. Rather, we wanted to understand WHY it was an identity to some and a choice for others. We wanted for those in the community to “tell their story”, so we could gleam from it any common threads or anything unique that may cause someone to identify one way or another. I will say, as I go through our findings, there were some interesting revelations that led me to believe there is a correlation between those who treat polyamory as their identity and the experiences they have had along their poly journey.

The other question that I have been asked numerous times is “Why does it matter? Why is it so important if someone considers polyamory as part of their identity or something they choose to do?” It’s a valid question. Part of the fight to label polyamory as an identity, similar to queerness (I’m not saying poly people are queer, I’m saying poly can be an immutable trait LIKE queerness. Let’s get that clear RIGHT off the bat) is that it’s a “rights” argument. We live in a society and a legal framework in which it is much harder to justify discrimination if something is inherent, rather than if it is a choice. Hence, if polyamory is an identity, similar to age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, one would argue that poly people deserve the same rights as everyone else: The right to marry who they choose, the right to claim partners as dependents on their financial benefits, the right to have access to medical information in the case of an emergency.

The flip side of this argument can be problematic. If polyamory can be both an identity and a choice, what about those that choose to be polyamorous. Does their lack of identity hence preclude them from certain rights their “identity brethren” should be allowed to have. Those in favor of not having this conversation have valid concerns that if the community is split, it places one group at an advantage, from which the other group thus carries a direct disadvantage.

While I appreciate these concerns, I still think the distinction should be made for two reasons. First, we need to move away from this argument that discrimination is okay as long as it’s based upon choice. While I will be the first to advocate that it’s perfectly fine to judge people for their actions, we can’t continue to fall back on this premise in which the only thing that maintains rights is lack of choice. Just because we can discriminate doesn’t mean we should, and we as a society need to get better at enforcing the “Don’t be a douchebag” rule. Just because someone chooses polyamory and just because you disagree with it shouldn’t give you license to not treat them with the same respect you would every other individual.

Second, from an overall community perspective, I would agree that it doesn’t really matter if polyamory is an identity or a choice. As stated above, all people should be treated equitably, and “Poly as a choice” is just as valid and deserves the same respect as “Poly as an identity”. However, when I hear people say “There’s no need to make a distinction”, it sounds suspiciously like the “I don’t see color” argument. As you’ll see through this post, the two groups share some common traits, and there are also unique experiences which segregate them. While I don’t care what society at large thinks, it is important to me as an individual, and important that my partners know that polyamory is part of my identity, because I believe it helps me better relate my story and where I am coming from.

Because the “Polyamory as an identity” discussion is such a personal one and unique to each individual, I put out a request to my local poly community and got five participants, including Andrea, who would be willing to share their story with me. While I obviously wanted to know if they felt poly was part of their identity, more importantly, I wanted to know how they arrived at that conclusion: Had they always known? Was it a process? If so, how long did it take? Did they ever have doubts? While surprisingly all five participants stated that polyamory was part of their identity (although one participant was reluctant to claim it as such only because he believed their needed to be more academic and medical research on the topic) their answers shed some light on not just their identities, but the thought process behind those who view polyamory as a choice.

As part of the interview process, I asked each of the participants four questions:

  1. Tell me about your “Poly Journey”
  2. Do you consider Polyamory part of your identity, or a choice?
  3. Could you be monogamous for the right person?
  4. What is something you want the monogamous community to know about polyam people?

As I mentioned above, all five participants shared the same answer for question #2 (They saw polyamory as part of their identity). In regard to question #3, four of the five participants stated they could never go back to monogamy, with one participant stating they could, but only if they were able to find someone who could meet all their needs. As a core tenant of the polyam community is the general belief that such a person doesn’t exist in the real world, this response could academically be seen as a “yes”, and for practical purposes viewed as a “no”.

What proved to be the most bountiful source of information was question #1: “Tell me about your polyam journey”. While I expected to be some similarities in their stories, I was not prepared for the numerous common threads that weaved their way in and out of each participant’s experience, threads that provided insight into not just the thought process of polyamorous individuals, but the rest of the non-monogamous community as well.

Among the participants were three members of the LGBTQ+ community, two women, two men, and one non-binary individual. While my intent was not to gather such a diverse group of individuals, but rather a random sampling of the community, I was none-the less quite pleased in the diversity of the respondents which I received.

I mentioned that the first question I posed the participants, “Tell me about your polyam journey”, was the most fruitful in gaining insight. “Pepper”, a millennial non-binary AFAB individual, shared with me a story that struck many similarities with my own. They mentioned engaging in monogamous relationships in their teens and early twenties, yet felt “trapped” and uncomfortable, but not sure why. To quote the great Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy, it was like “A splinter in your mind”, a feeling that something was off, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it.

“Bruce”, an “Elder Millennial” cishet man echoed Pepper’s feelings. Despite never wanting a serious relationship (in Pepper’s words: “settling down”), he continued to engage in a series of monogamous relationships that he described as “miserable”. He stated another common theme which is that of ignorance of non-monogamy as an option, and mentioned that had he discovered it sooner, he probably would have been happier.

Although, I would argue, incidental to the “identity” question, it was interesting to note that all five participants were already in a monogamous relationship when they first explored non-monogamy. In addition to Pepper and Bruce, both “Janet”, a millennial queer woman, and Andrea, an “Elder Millennial” cishet woman were all partnered when they first discovered non-monogamy (In place of Elder Millennial, Andrea prefers the term “Xennial”, which is kind of cool, because it sounds a lot like Xenomorph)

The late 90’s were WILD!!! You just had to be there…

Amongst the group “Natasha”, another millennial queer woman, was a bit of a special case. She mentions ending a previously monogamous relationship, which she states failed in part to the “opening up process” and then deciding, while unpartnered, that she would never constrain herself to monogamy again. While one could argue that the fact that all these participants were in a previously monogamous relationship makes polyamory a choice, I say the way they came to non-monogamy is incidental because, again, living in a mononormative society, one would expect polyamorous people to at least initially engage in monogamous relationships. Much like a queer person may not full embrace their queerness well into adulthood, the pressures we feel from those around us can create very strong barriers to embracing our inner selves, and given that only 20% of Americans have tried non-monogamy, it stands to reason few people would start with that option right out of the gate.

So what about the journey to polyamory can we learn about the identity question? As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of similarity in the journey amongst the participants, including myself. If you remember the article I wrote on the Relationship Autonomy Index (shout-out to Project Phylum for their contribution to that piece), there tends to be a “formula” on how individuals move from monogamy to non-monogamy. Now obviously, the process isn’t always linear and not every person goes through the same steps, but there are noticeable trends that can be easily identified.

For example, Panda and I, like many polyamorous individuals, started our poly journey as a couple. We first tried swinging (RAI 1), moved on to what we would call a “monogamish” relationship (RAI 2), then hierarchical (RAI 3) and finally non-hierarchical polyamory (RAI 4). Andrea skipped RAI 1 and her and her husband jumped straight into RAI 2, before moving through RAI 3 and RAI 4. Janet, like Panda and I, took a longer journey, also passing through RAI 1, while Bruce and Pepper took bigger leaps and started at RAI 3 before moving to RAI 4. While the specific path isn’t what is important, I believe it is the thought and, for lack of a better word, maturation process that each person goes through on their journey that is important to highlight.

While I haven’t been active in the swing community in many years (RAI 1), I still have friends who are and I try to keep those lines of communication open so I can continue to understand the culture and keep my finger on the pulse of the community. From my experience in the swing community, I can say, with a high degree of confidence, two things. First, I’ve never met anyone (to the best of my knowledge) who claimed swinging as part of their identity. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m just saying I’ve never encountered it, and frankly, I would be surprised if I did, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Every swinger I’ve ever met has described swinging as something they do, not who they are. Even some of the folks I know who would identify themselves as having “open relationships” or being “monogamish” (RAI 2) still see it as a choice, something they could stop doing if their partner asked them to, because that primary relationship is too important to them.

Second, when one partner tries to “move along the road” from RAI 1 to RAI 2, or RAI 2 to RAI 3, massive amounts of friction can result, to the point where the relationship between the two partners can end. While Swingers would argue Enthusiastic Positive Consent is their number one rule, I would argue it’s “Don’t Fall in Love”. While certainly there are poly people who also swing (“Swolly” is the term I’ve heard used) those that strictly reside in the RAI 1 camp see the primary relationship as tantamount, and falling in love with another swinger is considered cheating, no different than falling in love with someone from yoga class or falling in love with someone with which you regularly play tennis. Swinging is a recreational activity, no more, no less.

I bring these two points up because of something each of the participants, including myself, said in their questionnaires. It was this concept that, in one form or another, they saw monogamy as “restrictive” and non-monogamy as “freeing”. To them, polyamory wasn’t just something fun to do, it was something they needed to be comfortable, something, that, if denied, would have made them deeply unhappy.

I’m not saying that every polyamorous person sees it as their identity (I don’t know every polyamorous person, so logically, there’s no way I could make that statement). At the same time, again, in my personal experience, those individuals who claim polyamory is a choice, those who use the term “The Poly Lifestyle”, tend to be non-monogamous individuals who are still residing in the RAI 1 or RAI 2 phase of their poly journey. I want to point out that there’s nothing wrong with embracing that level of autonomy in your relationship. I will add though that I’ve seen a strong correlation between those that claim poly as an identity, and those that, at some point, push through RAI 1 and 2 and eventually settle in RAI 3, 4 or 5, and I believe that is the key takeaway.

I would also like to point out, again, that there is nothing wrong with being a swinger or monogamish. Everyone is entitled to a feeling of safety and comfort, and if that is where you “land”, so be it. Individuals in the RAI 1 and 2 range don’t need to prove their validity to anyone else. Rather, the point that I’m trying to make is not that being a swinger means it’s your choice and that being poly means it’s your identity, but rather, if it’s your identity, you are more likely to be poly, and if you’re a swinger, it’s more likely to be a choice. There are exceptions to every rule and I would be very cautious to speak in absolutes.

When something is a part of you, when it lies in your bones, very little will stop you from achieving it. True, there may be barriers along the way, and extended periods of time where you may be “stuck” before getting to that place that ultimate feel you need to be. Regardless, for those who have a truth deep inside their heart, they will never be satisfied until they arrive at that place where they can be honest and authentic to themselves.

The best argument I ever heard as to why being queer is not a choice is that, given the intense backlash that has existed for most of modern history, and still continues today, why would ANYONE choose to endure that struggle. Who in their right mind wakes up one day and says “Life is great, but you know what would make it better? Subjecting myself to societal ridicule, ostracizing myself from friends and family, possibly losing my employment, and placing a giant scarlet letter on my forehead that says to the world ‘I am different!’” To fathom that someone would voluntarily do that when they didn’t have to is nothing short of bananas.

While I do not identify as queer, nor do I equate the struggles of the polyamorous community with that of my queer friends and family, I see a lot of parallels in that argument and my personal life. For six years I had to hide my relationships from friends and family, and even almost two years after coming out, I’m still feeling the aftershocks of the friction it caused. I get annoyed by the confusion I see in the eyes of those that don’t understand, and then angry at the look of disdain I get once they do. I am the quintessential “Stranger in a Strange Land”, a traveler who has been tasked to live in a world that, in certain ways, was not structurally designed to suit their needs.

I mention all this not because I want pity (in fact, my therapist tells me I do a REALLY bad job of asking for compassion from others. Chalk it up to growing up with parents who demanded perfection). Rather, if we as humans only engage in an action if the benefits outweigh the costs, then how big the benefit must be to endure a cost this large. I could have spent the rest of my life as a swinger, never developing those emotional connections that my heart craved. Moving down the path towards polyamory was a tremendous risk that could have jeopardized, if not ended my relationship with Panda. However, that drive, that voice inside of me said “You have to keep going”, and if that isn’t the definition of “identity”, then I don’t know what is.

Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…

–The Bratty Cat

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