BY: Sydney McInnis and Lisa Cumming
All photos are by the authors
A sincere testimony about why we’re writing this.
Relationship constructs were formed a long time ago. They’ve been helping people navigate through interactions since bible-teaching days began – letting folks rest easy with a belief that there’s a formula to get them to the home square if they colour between the lines along the way. People started pledging eternal love to one another before they even understood the gravity of the decision. There wasn’t even time for people to consider other options. There was just one way:
Find a person that you like. Find out if they like you. Like each other forever.
Now, ages later, we have constant information at our disposal. The Internet has taught us that alternative models of relationships exist, but their feasibility still seems to be distant. We acknowledge that monogamy blossoms in many cases. We acknowledge that marriage works well for a lot of people, but it’s also wildly important for us to acknowledge the others: Those who are trying fresh things, and making existent things work in their way. Those who embrace that humans are really just a big sac of bones, flesh and sexual urges. Those who are unapologetically willing to talk about the things that come naturally to most of us. Those who don’t dismiss or shame our raging sexualities.
Our parents are divorced.
I remember denying the thought of my own wedding from the time I was old enough to understand what a wedding really was. All I could imagine was the horror of my own marriage potentially turning out like my parents’ marriage did. When it comes to divorces, the one that ripped through my household was fairly sensible and sound. They respected one another in the presence of my brother and me, and planned to share the dog between households once they split up. Although the divorce process was mellow at an objective standpoint – littered with late night name-calling and “family meetings” – that’s not to say it wasn’t gruelling for my eight-year-old self, or that, for that matter, it isn’t a challenge for me now.
Over time, the divorce spiraled into a time management nightmare for my family that continues to haunt us, with my brother and me trying to designate equal amounts of time to both parents to show them equal amounts of love. Although, I’ve recently found, that isn’t feasible.
Obviously, the complicated nature of the situation has weaseled its way into my brain and made a home there. Legal, monogamous commitment simply does not dazzle me. I’m not sure if this is something that I’m upset about, and I’m also not sure if it’s permanent.
Currently, I’m in a loving, monogamous relationship that does not smother me or cause me great deals of commitment-related stress. However, anytime I’ve tried to foresee the future of any of my monogamous relationships, this one or past, I can’t seem to shy away from the discomfort that this idea of bound-ness brings to me. Perhaps it’s because I want to be sexually free, or because I’ve seen alternative forms of relationships that seem happy and healthy. I just know that, ultimately, I’m curious about exploring options outside of these somewhat archaic relationship models. So here we are.
When my mum and dad separated I was only, what, four or so? I don’t remember much but I do remember the commuting. I remember splitting time between my mum and my dad and the look on my dad’s face at night when we would pack up and get ready to go to mum’s. I also remember how quiet mum would get when she took me down in the elevator to meet dad in the lobby. I think it would be selfish on my part to talk about how their divorce affected me. I owe this to my parents, the two strongest people I know, to speak to just how strong they both are to have gotten through it.
Divorce is a clusterfuck of emotions. Adding shared custody agreements to the whole mess is just an added kick in the face. Because of that, a lot of couples with kids have really messy splits, complete with court battles and screaming matches. My parents were nothing like that. My parents were always civilized in front of me and never let on to any of the personal hell they may have been going through. I was my parents’ number one priority, and I am so thankful to have been raised by such selfless people.
My mum always taught me, “hey kid, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and my only option was to trust her on that, since she made it through a divorce with a child. My dad taught me to always be honest and straightforward with others, and I trust him on that too for the very same reason. These two life lessons are my golden rules. I see both my mum and dad practicing what they preach each and every day. My mum is a goddamn trooper and my dad can never be accused of not speaking his mind.
I love them both so much, and in the end – whether I was affected by it or not – their divorce was a good thing because it gave them both the strength to realize what they want out of life and what kind of partner they need to be with.
(Real actual words about their real actual divorces from our real actual moms)
The Death of Marriage
Before I start, one thing needs to be made perfectly clear: I don’t hate the idea of marriage. I don’t look down on people who are married or who want to get married. I’m not even unopposed to the idea of one day getting married myself – maybe I will, maybe I won’t. That’s not what this is about. Marriage scares me, but monogamy does not. I like monogamy. I thrive in monogamous relationships. I am monogamous, and I don’t have the desire to be anything else. What scares me is how marriage, in my experience, always ends in divorce.
Jack Lamon, a co-op member and owner of Come As You Are in Toronto, like me, is careful not to make monogamy and marriage out as the same thing.
“I don’t think that monogamy is a delusion,” he says. “I would like to see more people consciously opt into the relationship that they’re having and be thoughtful; not just doing this because they think it’s something they have to do.”
There is such thing as existing beside someone, and then there is existing with someone. Existing beside another person is not a bad thing, in fact for a lot of couples that is what works best. Existing beside someone means that you two lead separate lives but operate parallel to each other. Existing with someone is when your two separate lives intertwine and you exist on the same coordinates each step of the way.
Marriage is existing with someone. In marriage not only are your finances tied together, but your names are tied together as well. Marriage is a legal contract that says, “Hey, you’re making a promise to this person, and if you break this promise there are going to be consequences.” Big. Goddamn. Consequences.
Lamon believes that we have turned an economic transaction into a romantic one.
“Now I think that we’re dealing with the fact that we’re all going into marriages with different ideas of what marriage is, and marriage is a contract. It’s like having a business partner, but we seem really terrified of acknowledging that,” says Lamon. “I think it’s terribly romantic that people want to legally intertwine themselves for eternity or whatever else, but I really wish that we would start looking at the economic transactions that we make in our relationships and personal lives for what they are. Marriage was based on the, “I own you, you’re my property,” perspective, but it’s a new day, and it’s really peculiar to me that our culture doesn’t look at marriage more honestly.”
That’s not even the scary part to me. The scary part is how two people can go from loving each other so much so that they want to take a rather large risk in entering into this agreement, to divorcing and pretty much never speaking again.
How do humans do that? How do you go from promising another person to be by their side forever “in sickness and in health” to never speaking to them again? Is there some merit to the “nail in the coffin” joke about marriage? Is there something about marrying someone that means you can just stop trying? That shouldn’t exist, but sometimes that is what it looks like from the outside looking in.
“Some people say [marriage] is a symbolic gesture, but when you think about it, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Two people who are mature enough to actually enter a monogamous relationship don’t actually need marriage,” says Jake Kivanc, a student at Ryerson University. “The idea that you need to sign over half your finances to somebody, but in most cases just make a gesture to let people know that you’re not cheating on each other means that you’re not really and truly 100 per cent secure in the fact that you’re sure the other person isn’t going to cheat on you or leave you.”
Marriage scares me because I never want to get divorced. I’ve seen what it does and now I’m seeing what it can do. The root of my issues surrounding marriage stem from my fear of divorce, but in this age where pretty much half of all marriages end in divorce, can you blame a person for making that connection?
Lamon says he wishes more people were redefining marriage for what works for them.
“I don’t know what marriage means anymore, considering the divorce rate is so, so high, yet people still plunge into second and fourth marriages saying that it’s going to be forever,” he says. “There’s lots of things our society is deluded about, and marriage is one of them.”
Because getting married is placed on such a high pedestal in society, it becomes easy for those who do question their commitment to marriage or even monogamous relationships to become silenced. If more people paid attention to their central wants and needs, and were open to exploring different types of relationship trajectories outside of a) meet someone and b) get married, perhaps there would be a much lower divorce rate.
Speaking of alternative relationship paths, relationships of non-monogamous styles have recently started to pop up here and there in my peripherals, in ways that, in many cases, seem healthy, legitimate and responsible. In my brain, alternative relationship styles seem like a valuable consideration when making big decisions with another person about what to be.
The first time I seriously waded in the idea of non-monogamy was after seeing the mostly pornographic, intensely dramatic film by Gaspar Noe called Love. The film revolves around a France-based love affair, where a young couple invites another woman to have sex with them. Things spiral out of hand from here, eventually leaving the couple’s relationship muddled and disastrous.
For days after seeing the film, I wondered about what sorts of flips my emotions would do if a competing feature entered my relationship. I wondered about all of the people who have tried these things and gotten hurt, and also about all of the people who have found peace in what others see as strange, or silly, or experimental.
With all of the new terms to learn and political correctness to catch onto, it can get a little confusing. Polyamory, simply, is a form of ethical non-monogamy. It doesn’t mean the relationship is an experiment or that it’s just a game filled with play. It means that all parties involved in the relationship, however many there may be, are in agreement and consent to the concept of loving and having sex with multiple people, according to the Huffington Post.
Even still, with relationships like this drifting into conversation in our so-called progressive, accepting society, we fall at our knees to constructs of nuclear narratives on relationships. Even though there’s an option to be open and honest about unrest with a lifetime of monogamy, we still fear the discrimination we’ll face if we do so. Stepping out of the box is scary. I always say, “whatever works”, but it isn’t that easy.
Tales of Non-Monogamy
(Real actual anecdotes from real actual relationships from real actual lovers)
R, an adventurous, non-possessive lover, told me about his trials and tribulations with polyamory. Driven by the belief that dating someone is not the same as owning them, he started to drift out of his previous monogamous ways. “I’ve cheated on like every person I’ve dated, so when I started learning about polyamorous relationships, I just thought it made sense,” he says. “Then, I sort of just made that a thing that I would say at the beginning when I started to see people, just telling them that I wouldn’t be in an exclusive relationship with them.”
Eventually, R ended up dating two girls simultaneously. Both were aware and consented. “I can say honestly, since this was the first time I’ve ever dated two people at the same time, logistically the hardest part is the logistics, and making time. You have to have a lot of time.”
Having sexual experiences with new people is fun and exciting, which is one of the many reasons why people are interested in opening their relationships up. “People should be sluts,” R says. “It’s lots of fun and there’s really not a lot of good reasons not to. I think, too, when we talk about sexual liberation, people are prudes.”
R has no intention of returning to his monogamous ways, and certainly no intention of putting a ring on any of his women and therefore limiting his self-exploration by condensing his sexual partners. Having parents with a less than flowery relationship has tainted his perspective on marriage.
T tried out polyamory on account of discovering that promiscuity is a part of his identity that he wasn’t ready to let go of. When he found someone that he could bond with through identifying as being promiscuous by nature, he was willing to make the transition between “complete freedom to controlled freedom.” They fell in love and their relationship bent and molded in a lot of ways, both challenging and beautiful.
“It took on various forms, different stages, and we had different rules that we had tried out. At times, it would be that we could hook up with other people and didn’t have to tell the other person. Sometimes we would tell each other after, or sometimes we would have to tell each other before we would hook up with other people,” he says. “Sometimes we would have more consistent “side” people, as opposed to a random thing. It just kind of evolved that way. It wasn’t premeditated.”
That relationship has come to an end, and T feels exhausted and more attracted to a monogamous lifestyle. “My dad was raised catholic and I feel that that permeates the psyche. It even trickles down through generations,” he says. “But that’s also our society – the social norms and constructs. As modern as we like to think we are, it’s all very much still the standard by which we were living in contrast to.”
Although T is not necessarily afraid of marrying and divorcing, and is slowly but surely inching his way back to monogamy, he is transparent about how he has been affected by marriage and monogamy pressures.
J has been in a relationship with his partner for about three years, and they recently started to consider incorporating some openness into their relationship, in a purely sexual sense. They started with an “open bed” policy, where they opened up their bedroom space to new sexual interactions with new people.
“Neither of us are looking for somebody else to love. It’s more like exploring, and enjoying people, but not wanting to have a relationship with multiple people at once,” he says. “That’s the difference between the two for us, we had to make that distinction.”
J wants to challenge social norms. “I feel like we kind of shove relationships into a box, and obviously we’ve evolved to a point where people do that on [a] mass [scale] around the world, but, like gender, like sexuality, it’s not really real. It’s kind of something we just made up, which is fine, but to challenge that idea and actually think about it is really important, and not just get married because we feel we have to.”
J’s future with non-monogamy is up in the air, both in his current relationship and for the rest of his romantic life, and a fear of a failing long-term relationship, perhaps even marriage, contributes to his flip-flopping between relationship style pursuits.
So, no, these people didn’t necessarily choose non-monogamous, open relationships because monogamy is completely out of the question for them. After all, there are plenty of reasons why monogamy rocks and why it is the most widely practiced form of relationship. However, these folks have had experiences that have turned them off monogamy in some way, whether it be that their parents demonstrated to them the ugly side of monogamy, as it was for R, or that monogamous pressure seems to be a perpetual pull, as it is for T.
On the other side, Sebastian Back, a Ryerson University student, thinks that committing yourself to one person is especially appealing. “I think there’s a certain value to compromising your own pleasure. I’m really not a huge fan of hedonism. It’s like, you’re in a loving relationship with someone, and you’re having purely sexual relationships with others, that’s for you and only you,” he said. ”I guess that’s cool, but it’s unnecessarily selfish. There’s a certain value in understanding that perhaps, when you’re in that relationship with someone, it’s not a time for only your pleasure.”
Tying the knot, but not (if you don’t want)
When I visited Come As You Are (a cool co-op sex shop in Toronto), I talked to Lamon about monogamy, sex, love, and all sorts of things. Upon entering, I felt an immediate sense of relief. There was no glitz or glam, no photos of women’s butts on the wall. It was just a straight up sex store, with goodies, from books to workshops to toys, for anyone in any relationship style. He had some really interesting things to say when I asked him about the shop’s stance on alternative relationships.
For Lamon, non-monogamy is on the come-up. More and more people in alternative relationships are making trips to CAYA and spilling the beans. “I think in the last 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of people become more interested in non-monogamy because it’s being seen as an option in our culture when it really wasn’t before. I think people have always been non-monogamous, but there are these layers of patriarchy and capitalism that have made sure that people’s affairs are guarded and secretive,” he says. “There was this period from the ’60s and ’70s, the beginnings of this more current wave of feminism, where cheating was no longer acceptable but there was no alternative presented, but we’ve now come full circle. We realize people can have all sorts of relationships but we need to be open and honest about them.”
As non-monogamy is a fairly new frontier for most, this is the first time there is open conversation about it circling around, and Lamon believes that people should “embrace the phase” when it comes to experimenting with alternative styles of relationships, and stop viewing life as so eternal.
Lamon believes in being as conscious as possible in relationships, which is why he’s decided to keep his relationship non-monogamous and avoid the eternal – marriage. “Things like marriage really make people stop choosing. You’re just like, “oh, well, we’re married until we choose not to be.” Well, no, everyday you have to keep constantly choosing to be in that relationship. That’s what makes good relationships,” he says. “With poly relationships and non-monogamous relationships, it really makes you intentional about the relationships you’re having and how you treat those people, which is such a refreshing thing.”
For those that are interested in exploring ideas of non-monogamy, but don’t know how, Come As You Are hosts a workshop called The 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy about every six months, led by Andrea Zanin, a local sex educator. “Andrea is someone who has lived poly for years and years and years, and absolutely is one of the few people who is publicly known to practice extraordinarily responsibly,” Lamon says. “For her, it really comes down to respecting other people’s person-hoods, and even though the workshop is called the 10 Rules For Happy Non-Monogamy, it goes a lot deeper, so you can apply the lessons to polyamorous relationships as well.”
Lamon’s perspective taught me to be reasonable, and realize that society is experimenting with this new territory, after all. We are all searching for the same thing – to love and be loved, but of course, we need not be strapped to a paradigm. Though monogamy might work for some, it also scares the shit out of others. In the case of Lisa and me, that stems from a deep-rooted, long-time fear of divorce.
We are bigger than just a single format of a relationship, and have access to resources that can guide us on how to play with different arrangements in a healthy way. The key is to remember not to shame others, and not to trivialize anyone else’s sexual, love, or relationship experience.
*Single letter names in this story have been minimized for safety purposes*