Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Don't confuse discipline with suffering.

Even when they are otherwise supportive, it is common for monogamous people writing about polyamorous people to frame polyamory as an escape for folks who lack discipline. John Shore, who has a blog at Patheos, provides a textbook example in his recent post, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek?"

Some choice quotes:

I don’t want her love for me to be something she does by way of emotionally multi-tasking...I don’t think there’s time in life to really love—to really get to know—more than one person...You can only know two people half as well as you can know one, because there’s no more time in life than that.

Is it true for every human being...that the overall richest way to spend his or her adult life (or as much of it as possible–and as difficult as doing so can certainly can be) is through exercising whatever discipline it takes to remain emotionally and sexually fidelitous to one other person who is similarly wedded (whether legally or not) to them? I believe that it is the case: I think it’s that truth which informs and sustains the whole marriage/coupling compulsion. 

To me (as obnoxiously suggestive as this metaphor is) you are snacking in several places, but eating well in none. What I hear is that you are (and perhaps purposefully so, which is fine) avoiding full emotional and physical commitment–and that ultimately the reward of such commitment would be better for/to you than anything you’re now doing.

To be fair, Shore puts in plenty of disclaimers about possibly being wrong, speaking from his own experience, etc. But the message is still clear: it's not morally wrong to be polyamorous, but it is a disservice to yourself and any partner(s) you may inflict your undisciplined, intimacy-fearing ways upon.

On the one hand, if this attitude were adopted by the Church as a whole, it would represent a huge step forward. This goes to show that the bar for improvement isn't just set low, it's lying flat on the damn ground. On the other hand, it's maddening. (Especially coming from the man who wrote  "The Radical Immaturity of True Love," which actually manages to go downhill from the horrifying title.)

Absolutely, a monogamous couple can use their relationship as discipline in the sense of a formative practice that nurtures discipleship. Monogamy can offer many opportunities to invite, pray, study, worship, give, encourage and serve. It is not, however, the only path to this kind of individual and spiritual growth. It wasn't even the most favored path for the first 1500 or so years of Christianity, as the Church consistently interpreted "the teachings of Jesus (Matt 19:12, Luke 20:27-40) and Paul (1 Cor 7)" to mean that monogamy was itself an accommodation for those who lacked the discipline to be celibate.

Much more recently, most Christians have come to accept the idea that celibacy is only a proper discipline for those who have a genuine vocation for it. (What to do with unmarried people who lack a vocation for celibacy is one of the questions that leads American Protestant churches to fail miserably at ministering to and with single folks, but that's a topic for another time.) The prevailing view is that discipline without vocation is nothing more than suffering, and redemptive suffering has rightly fallen out of favor in contemporary Protestant thought--especially after the contributions of feminist and liberation theologians to our understanding of how the oppressed are kept in that condition.

To reject the possibility of suffering in compulsory monogamy is a failure of imagination, but it's actually not as maddening as the failure to imagine the way that monogamy hinders the experience of emotional intimacy for many polyamorous folks. Yes, I want to fully know and to be fully known. I learn much about who Amy is by watching her with Dave, and vice versa. I want them to know the parts of who I am that can only be expressed in a family with three adults. They know me so much better as a result of us committing to each other, instead of splintering ourselves into one monogamous couple and one single person. To say nothing of the fact that I don't want to be emotionally intimate with an abstract "someone." I want to be emotionally intimate with my family--which is Amy and Dave.

Avoiding intimacy? Lacking discipline? I don't know whether to laugh or to cry when I hear such pronouncements. (Maybe I should go for laughing until I cry.) I'd like to see the typical monogamous person take a shot at being the "third person to give everyone else a reality check and some calm perspective" during a disagreement between two other partners. Except that I actually wouldn't like to see it, because while the experience might teach them something about intimacy and discipline, they would also find it very unpleasant.

And I wouldn't ever want to confuse discipline with suffering.

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