For several years I'd been behaving monogamously and these conversations didn't come up very much. Now that I'm behaving polyamorously again, the conversations are happening. As I regale my friends with my adventures in dating. I often get asked, "When did you know you were poly?" The same happens with my dates, actually.
I've settled on a simple answer. I didn't have these words then, but when I was 17 or 18 I knew I didn't want to get married; I knew I didn't want to be tied down to one man. In truth, though, the answer isn't so simple.
I had some very specific reasons I didn't want to get married. I wanted to date, and I wanted to experience sex with more than one person. That sure sounds like a polyamorous mind. I also didn't want to marry because the example I had was my mom's marriage to my stepfather. She cooked his meals (or us kids did) and waited on him, bringing him everything he needed while he stood at the bar or sat on the couch. He never seemed to do something for her, and he was abusive towards us kids, me especially. My mom was a good mom, but this man had her blinded. I was never going to put myself in that position.
Now as an adult, and having witnessed some of the dynamics of dominant/ submissive relationships, and having experienced some submissive tendencies in my own self, I can understand the appeal this relationship had for my mom. It actually gives her more culpability in the abuse than I used to assign to her in the past. As enticing as those dom/sub dynamics might be, I can also see how there can be a dangerously fuzzy line between abuse and sexual preference. Just as an example, I witnessed a conversation on facebook in which a friend had been defriended because a dom told the sub to do so. From my crisis line days, I know limiting contact with friends is a yellow flag indicating possible abuse. To the dom/ sub people, this is something doms might do.
I wanted to avoid the unequal dynamic of marriage, but life intervened. My college boyfriend became my boyfriend because that's how things happened. Theoretically an open relationship, people still saw us as boyfriend and girlfriend, and most weren't inclined to come between at my small college. Our default understanding of relationship was also monogamous, and while I had a few other encounters then, the longer we were together, the more this became the expected thing. When it came closer to a time to part, his graduation, I tried to find ways to end it, poorly, as can be expected I suppose of the early twenties.
Habit, fear, and some bit of love kept us together and we got married, moved to Portland. Theoretically still open, I behaved monogamously, and encouraged him to seek sex with others. He did, a little, but felt guilt-ridden after, even though I had no qualms about it, even found it intriguing. He was the monogamous-minded one.
Those were the years of intensive spiritual practice for me. I've always been adventurous sexually, but I wasn't as interested in it as often as he was. I thought it was because my spiritual energy was taking front seat. I even got that notion from a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. Now I have to wonder at taking advice from a celibate on sexual matters. Perhaps it should at least be balanced out by advice from a sex therapist.
It turned out because of that spiritual practice I opened to the possibility of my being bisexual. I was 27 by this time. For my husband, the possibility of my having a female lover was acceptable. (Anyone surprised by that?) Cultivating this notion, I opened up to looking at women in a new way. Who was I attracted to? That opened the gates, and I didn't just start noticing the women, I started noticing the men. In hindsight, I now know it wasn't that spiritual energy was my focus, it was that I had shut down a good portion of my sexual energy subconsciously to protect the monogamous relationship.
What a blessing it was when I met my sweetie and we confessed we both wanted to try an open relationship. We still didn't know much. We discovered it might be best to behave monogamously for a while, while still in the throes of new love. Later we, or I, rather, gained confidence when we met others who were making a go of this (new word) polyamory. I learned that while my original 18 year old impulse not to be monogamous was about not being tied down, that in my thirties I could really love more than one person, and it would not harm my love, only expand it.
It seems as though I uncovered a natural predilection. Once I love, I will always love, even when other loves come along. On the other hand, I have become the person I am through my experiences, and through a steadfast life of reflection and mindfulness. I have found I shape who I am through my choices. Dan Savage says non-monogamy is not a sexual orientation. Many poly folks say it is. (Found via the facebook feed of Modern Poly.)
I think I say it is both-and. I may push some buttons, but I'm going to say it, even the usual notions sexual orientation may be both something we're born with and a choice. For some people, it is clearly something they're born to. I myself, if I had never left Wisconsin, might still be totally straight. My experiences in Santa Fe and in Portland allowed me to turn on the switch so now I am consciously bisexual. I now am consciously polyamorous. Even while behaving monogamously these past few years, I still identified as polyamorous, and I know I could never revert. I have too many loves in my heart, whether active or inactive, that if I were to revert, would be killed. I am still more straight than gay, but I know if I cultivated more female lovers, I would find more women attractive and I would slide over on the spectrum closer to gay. Thoughts and behaviors change the mind.
I have friends who, while single, have been very friendly to the notion of polyamory, even considered themselves polyamorous. Then they meet someone, fall in love, and choose the monogamous route. They shrug, and are happy to love the one they're with. Dan Savage is right, this is something we can choose. Franklin Veaux is also right, that some of us could never be content with a monogamous life, could never be who we feel we are meant to be. Internally I shake my head at these friends. New love settles, and then, if you are normally inclined to be not-monogamous, you might find yourself unhappy and not knowing why. On the other hand, you might be wise enough in the ways of self to steer yourself always toward happiness with this one, or perhaps you really are more of a monogamous bent.
So when did I know? When I had the words and the notion that it was possible, which was really only about a dozen or fifteen years ago. But also when I had the predilection, which was perhaps as soon as I became sexually aware.