1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

I think that pro-poly arguments often sound as though they should be correct, but their models tend to fail when confronted with actual humans.

As a very central example – it seems like poly people sometimes talk about jealousy as something of a brain bug, an irrationality, an unfortunate limitation to be worked around or fixed. But actually it follows pretty straightforwardly from the preferences that people tend to have about their relationships – in particular, the fact that people’s preferences about relationships tend to be positional: it’s not just that you want your partner to have a certain set of feelings about you and spend a certain number of hours with you each week and do some activities with them, you also want to be as important to them as they are to you; to speak crudely, you want to have as high a rank in their priority hierarchy as they have in yours. Usually you want to be the most important person in their life.

It’s not that poly people never have Most Important People – primaries are a thing – but when additional relationships are possible, it’s harder to maintain an equilibrium where both partners tend to put approximately the same amount of energy into the relationship. And in any case it seems that in practice people tend to have the specific positional preference that their partner should do romance and sex things ONLY with them. This isn’t a bug to be worked around, it’s a perfectly valid preference, the utility function isn’t up for grabs, and it’s generally unhealthy to try to make oneself be okay with things one is not actually okay with.

You could make the argument that having secondary relationships is no different than having friends, and abstractly it seems like that makes sense, but – in practice, romance and sex seem to be special? We see this in a lot of aspects of our society – humans have built up a lot of customs and norms around these things specifically. Sex actually isn’t just like everything else, it plays a particular role in our minds that can’t be abstracted away into “well it’s just like deciding to watch a particular TV show with just one person”. This is for evolutionary reasons which… don’t fully apply anymore given modern medicine and birth control and such, but (a) our brains are still profoundly shaped by those reasons, and (b) those reasons aren’t actually down to zero? We do in fact still get very messy scenarios around STIs and reproduction when multiple people are involved; I’ve definitely seen some which would have been much less bad or wouldn’t have happened at all without the polyamory.

I worry some about people deciding to be poly because it SEEMS like it should work, and then ending up in emotionally painful situations, trying to fight their natural inclinations, because it seems like they SHOULD be okay with their partner sleeping with someone else – there’s no law of physics or ethics they can derive that says it’s bad, so it should be okay, right? But this is a limitation of our knowledge of physics and ethics, not a true indication that it will in practice be okay – it usually isn’t, and fighting those instincts can be damaging to one’s self-trust and self-respect.

On a broader scale, I worry some about a world in which polyamory grows more popular and begins to impose its norms – not everywhere, not even in all of e.g. the US, that seems too remote a possibility to really worry about, but it seems not implausible that in coastal yuppy circles it will keep gaining popularity and normative force. Specifically I worry that – just as now it is (rightly) considered abusive to forbid one’s partner to have friends, in poly-normative circles it could conceivably become considered abusive to forbid one’s partner to have other partners. (Not that “forbidding one’s partner to have other partners” is really the right framing here, it’s a mutual agreement, but the analogous “I will only date you if you agree not to have friends other than me” is still bad.) I don’t think we’re anywhere near having such norms, but I don’t think this is outlandish to worry about; I do encounter people opining that polyamory is ethically better, and the arguments they make do seem to lend themselves well to being extended into a “monogamy is abuse” stance.

What would change my mind: hm, for one thing we need better research on this topic. But also, I guess, if polyamory stood the test of time and seemed to generally work for people? Inconveniently, to really evaluate it better we’d need broader social acceptance of polyamory, since otherwise this is hopelessly confounded (in both directions – on the one hand maybe if poly people are less happy this is because of societal stigma, on the other hand people doing a stigmatized thing tend to be pretty defensive about it and might not be fully open about its flaws), and also I’d want to see how things work out if a lot of people are poly for a long time. I personally don’t expect that this would work very well, and as such I don’t actually want this test to happen. But perhaps it will happen anyway, and then perhaps we’ll know more.

2a. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

Generally you take steps to lessen the crush. Which notably does not mean that you should be ashamed of the crush or try to violently squash it down; trying to fight one’s emotions tends to make them worse. If having a crush feels shameful, you’ll avoid acknowledging it and taking steps about it until it’s grown to a point where you can’t possibly deny it but it’s also harder to deal with. Also, if you seize on any thought that might indicate a crush and worry that it means you’re being unfaithful, you are then dedicating MORE of your brainspace to those thoughts and training yourself to spend more time thinking about it! Whereas if your reaction is a quieter “oh, a thought”, it doesn’t have that effect.

You do want to avoid actively feeding the crush, though. This may mean spending less time around the person, depending on the situation; maybe if you usually hug them you might want to stop; if you notice yourself daydreaming about the person, maybe distract yourself with something?

I will note that I think crushes of a magnitude that is likely to be a problem are generally less likely to happen when you’re observing monogamy boundaries and generally happy with your relationship. Physical affection can feed crushes a lot; so can wishing/hoping/fantasizing, which you’re more likely to do if you don’t already have a relationship you’re happy with. If you’re not doing those things much or at all, you’ll be generally less susceptible to major unwanted crushes.

2b A polyamorous person has a date scheduled with their primary partner, but their secondary partner is in the hospital with an emergency and needs support. What typically happens next?

You go to the hospital, which is reasonable in itself; you’d also go if it was a good friend.

But it does matter, actually that it’s a partner rather than a friend. Your primary partner probably agrees that going to the hospital is the right move, but it doesn’t mean they can’t have feelings about it. Monogamy gives you a sense of security that of course this person is and will continue to be the most important person in your life; when you already lack that, even otherwise totally reasonable actions like “go support this person in the hospital” can ping an existing sense of jealousy/insecurity/unease. And then you may be having feelings about your secondary partner being in pain or in danger, which means you’re emotionally focused on them, which is also the kind of thing your primary partner might notice and be hurt by on some level even though it’s not at all unreasonable to have feelings about someone important to you being in the hospital. If it was just a friend, this would not matter nearly as much.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

This is pretty hard to imagine because I think that the vast vast vast majority of people do better with monogamy, so it’s hard to imagine polyamory taking hold at the scale of an entire society.

I can imagine… oppressive setups that aren’t trying to satisfy most people? Like, men taking multiple wives in very patriarchal cultures – this makes sense if powerful men are in charge, the people hurt by this are primarily women and less powerful men. (Though I would argue that the powerful men with multiple wives are hurt too – they may be in charge, but they’re deprived of the chance to build an actually meaningful, equal, trusting partnership.) I don’t think this really counts as “polyamory” in the relevant sense, though.

I can also imagine certain pockets of society moving in that direction (hence my concern above that in social-justicey poly-heavy spaces it could come to be considered unacceptable to restrict one’s partner’s sexual and romantic choices). I don’t think this will sweep the world or even e.g. the entire US – I do think that monogamy generally works better by a wide enough margin that most of society would push back against any such pressures – but I could see this becoming normative in some circles.

What consequences can we expect in such circles?

There would be pressure for people to be more sexually available than they want to be. (We already see this effect for attractive young women in some spaces with poly or poly-like norms.)

There would be pressure for people to accept relationship terms they’re not actually happy with, because it’s considered unacceptable to want monogamy.

There’d be lots of complicated emotionally painful situations. For one – it definitely happens sometimes that – A (who is single) starts a relationship with B (who has a primary partner, C), because why not; the relationship wouldn’t have happened if they were monogamous, because B would already be taken, but it happening at all opens the door for A to develop strong feelings for B and then want them to themself, which is a recipe for lots of emotional pain – either they break off a relationship they really care about or they accept the indignity of being a less important person to B than B is to A, and they deal with jealousy on a regular basis, and all this is pretty bad for their self-respect. Or maybe B falls in love with A, too, and since that’s where their attention is going this causes them to grow more distant from C, and C suffers a slow-motion heartbreak that nobody can quite acknowledge because B is still dating them, right?

In the same way that people sometimes pay lip service to other unreasonable-as-stated ethical principles while in practice conducting their lives in a more reasonable way, I suspect that in such a culture there’d be couples that end up being monogamous in all but name. They’d be like, oh yeah we can love whoever we want, and maybe occasionally they’d make out with someone at a party or something, but on some level they’d realize that it would not actually be good for their relationship if they branched out more than that.

(And then one day one of them would get drunk while hanging out with someone they’re very attracted to, and think, well, I have the freedom to do whatever I want, right? and they’d sleep with them – and you’d think that without monogamy rules “cheating” wouldn’t be a thing, but emotionally it would be just as much a betrayal, except maybe worse because they don’t have the language for it or a known framework to understand it in, and the one who “cheated” would also feel betrayed because their partner is so unreasonably and unexpectedly upset with them, and it would be SUCH a mess.)

It’s not that there would be zero positive aspects to such a world. It’s true that people would get to explore their sexuality more and have some good experiences they otherwise wouldn’t. But this would be accompanied by lots of emotional pain, and for the vast majority of people I think it would also limit the maximum depth and trust that relationships could reach.

It’s like – if you really love microbiology, and also you really love ballet dancing, and also you really love astrophysics… you can try spending significant amounts of time on all of them, but that will severely limit how much you’ll accomplish in any given field. Whereas if you specialize, you will lose access to some of the things you enjoy, but you may be able to get really good at your specialty and become a respected professional in that field.

This analogy is imperfect in a few ways. For one thing, some people prefer not to specialize; they’ll do whatever for their day job, and in their off hours they’ll dabble in a bunch of different hobbies, and they won’t be an expert at anything but they’ll enjoy themselves and that’s valid. But while people do tend to value being good at something, the kind of depth of mastery that you get when something is your life’s passion is…. important to some people, but not anything like a universal need. Whereas the need for a deeply committed loving partnership where you fully trust each other and make each other your top priority and make a major effort to avoid hurting each other is – nothing is truly universal given human psychological diversity but this is pretty damn close. So norms that make that harder to achieve are pretty bad.

Also – you could be an astrophysicist and do ballet on the side, and this will limit how good you are at ballet but you probably won’t hurt your astrophysics work this way and you probably won’t accidentally fall in love with ballet so much you abandon astrophysics. But if you have a committed long-term partner, and you have a hookup buddy on the side, you may well hurt your partner, and you might fall in love with your hookup buddy and mess up your relationship that way.

My point here is – yes, you lose something when you decide to be monogamous, but you also gain something, and the thing you gain is in general way more important to human psychological health than the thing you lose.