What Is an Egalitarian Relationship?

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So yesterday I was exploring new blogs and I ran across a blog written by a polyamorous, skeptical, atheist family. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. This sounded super interesting, and I’d never heard this particular perspective before. I needed to read all their back entries RIGHT NOW.

But then I got to this article, which was about 3 posts in, and I just couldn’t stomach any more. The basic premise of this article is that “polyamory is not inherently egalitarian, but all egalitarian relationships must be polyamorous, or at least merely de facto monogamous (and open).” Then I got to this article, whose main point was that ”To be monogamous would be to say to Gina “if you develop a sexual or romantic interest in someone other than me, I want you to ignore or suppress those feelings,” because exploring them would hurt me.  Put simpler, it would be saying “If you get what you want, that is bad for me.”  Monogamy, like all rules in a relationship, sets the two partners against each other.  For one to gain, the other must lose.”

I was a little incensed. I happen to be monogamous, and not just an accidental monogamy, but the kind of monogamy that was agreed upon by both partners so that neither one of us would get hurt. According to these people, my partner and I are being selfish and limiting, pitting ourselves against each other, because we ask each other not to engage in behaviors we find hurtful.

The logic here is ridiculous. There ARE some instances in which partners have differing interests and desires. There ARE some instances in which “if you get what you want, that is bad for me”. To take a very clear example, in some instances, that would be rape (if one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t, it would be very bad for them to give their partner what they want).

It is patently absurd to me when poly folks say that rules are bad or say that their relationships don’t have rules. Every human has the right to say to other humans “what you are doing hurts me and I’d rather you don’t do it.” Some people see this as limiting a partner or friend. But in my mind if you care about someone you would want to know if your behavior leads to hurt feelings.

This model of relationships seems to circulate around the idea that we don’t get to express our wants and needs to our partner if it has the potential to limit that partner in any way. This makes no sense.

There are TWO people in a relationship, and when you stop paying attention to your own wants and needs you set yourself up for being abused or manipulated. Both partners have a responsibility to balance their own needs against those of their partner.

You DO get to ask for things in relationships. You DON’T have to be entirely “selfless”, because if you were then your partner would not be getting the happiest version of you possible. Every relationship has these instances of give and take, where one partner might desire something and the other might be hurt by it. If it’s a healthy relationship, they then discuss it and try to decide which course of action leads to the most happiness in the relationship.

For example, in my relationship right now I’ve been struggling with some memories of bad relationships in the past. I’ve asked my boyfriend to stop doing certain things that are a little bit triggering to me. He may really desire those things, but he has stopped doing them because my trauma is a bigger harm to our relationship than his desire. Or a more mundane example, I hate the sound of people chewing, so if he’s eating and I’m not, I ask him to turn on the TV so that I can’t hear it. And he does, even if he may want to converse with me while he’s eating, because it’s really not hard for him and it means something to me.

But there are certain instances where it falls out the other way. I had a boyfriend in the past who told me that he was uncomfortable with me swing dancing because I was with other guys. Swing dancing brought me a GREAT deal of joy though, and I had already made certain compromises about what I would do with certain other people to keep his anxieties more settled, and we talked about it to keep both of us feeling comfortable. In that case, the balance swung the other way.

And sometimes, you can’t figure out the balance. Each individual thinks that their side is more important. For this writer, perhaps the freedom to have sex outside the relationship is HUGELY important in their ability to feel happy and fulfilled in life, and they simply can’t survive without it. Their partner might be incredibly hurt by it, and feel betrayed and alone and unwanted. In those cases, it might simply mean that the individuals are incompatible.

However just because one individual can only imagine a life where everyone would want to give complete untethered freedom to their partner and want that complete freedom for themselves, does not mean that’s the only way to be egalitarian. Letting both partners have a say in what they do is egalitarian. This version of “egalitarian” is just as one sided as a single partner demanding that the other stay locked in the house. It’s simply the other direction. It’s holding your partner a slave to the idea of “freedom” even when that idea hurts them, and saying that if they can’t accept this abstract notion of freedom, they don’t love you. It invalidates your partner’s choices and ability to gauge for themselves what their level of emotional tolerance is for certain things.

Asking your partner to ignore their feelings so that you can pay attention to your own feelings is NOT egalitarian. A relationship that balances the feelings of both partners IS egalitatarian. It might be open, it might not be. That depends on the weight of the feelings of those involved. But the idea that we should ignore when we feel hurt, unwanted, vulnerable, betrayed, alone, jealous, or any other feeling you might get when your partner is with someone else is extremely invalidating, and ignores one half of the relationship. It promotes the idea that freedom is more important than respect for those you love. And that is NOT a healthy idea.

It is NOT inherently selfish to ask your partner to stop doing something that is hurting you. It IS inherently selfish for your partner to expect you to ignore those feelings of hurt if they’re having a good time.