You Don't Hate Polyamory, You Hate People Who Write Books
Yesterday I criticized The Atlantic’s recent invective against polyamory (subscriber-only post, sorry). Today I want to zoom away from the specific bad arguments and examine the overall form of the article.
The overall form was: “I read a memoir about polyamory, everyone involved seemed awful and unhappy, and now I hate polyamorous people.” This is a common pattern. Sometimes, if someone’s very careful, they read three or four books about polyamory. Everyone in all the books is awful and unhappy. Then they conclude they hate polyamorous people.
But this is an unfair generalization. They should hate people who write books.
Advice is disproportionately written by defective people. Healthy people perform naturally and effortlessly. You walk so gracefully that a million man-hours into bipedal robots fail to match your skill. But if some stroke patient or precocious one-year-old asked your secret, you would just say “I put one foot in front of the other.”
If you want good advice about how to walk, ask someone with cerebral palsy. They experience walking as a constant battle to overcome their natural constitution, and so accumulate tips and tricks throughout their lives. Or ask a physical therapist who works with these people and studies them. Just don’t ask someone you see walking especially briskly down the street.
Relationships work the same way. Go to an elderly couple who have been happily married for fifty years, and they’ll give you vapid old-person advice like “Treat every day as a gift from God.” But go to someone who’s struggled with every one of their last thirty-seven relationships, and they’ll be full of suggestions! They’ll tell you all sorts of fascinating things about boundaries and gaslighting and the four-hundred-and-ninety-four principles of nonviolent communication.
This isn’t just because good relationship partners are born and not made. I mean, I think that’s true to some degree. But also, people who start off as normal bad relationship partners improve piecemeal, through gradient descent on a thousand little interactions too small to notice or generalize over. It’s only after this process fails that people seek legible principles.
And I’m not mocking the legible-principle-seekers. These are people who have honestly tried their hardest at relationships and still feel like they need to do better, maybe because they have limited social skills and have to deliberately study what other people absorb naturally. Probably some of the legible principles people have come up with genuinely help these people. If you’re in this situation, reading the legible principles might help you too.
But if you’re not in this situation, taking their advice will probably go much the same as taking an ataxic’s advice on walking. You’ll overthink it and trip over your own feet. If you persist, you’ll settle into a stilted and unnatural walking style that was worse than what you did before.
I know many people in happy, successful, polyamorous relationships. None of them write advice books. If they did, they would say something vapid, like “Treat every day as a gift from God.”
The actual best-known polyamory advice book is More Than Two, by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert. A few years after it was written, Eve and three of Franklin’s other partners accused him of abuse, which he vehemently denied and turned back on her. Every so often I check to see how things are going, and one of them has come up with some new volley against the other.
In retrospect, I think it’s not surprising that the best-known relationship advice book was written by people in a terrible relationship. Terrible relationships have a way of making you overanalyze your relationship dynamics. They encourage you to come up with lots of strategies for dealing with conflict, given all the conflict you’re constantly getting into. They happen when you’re the sort of person who over-promises and under-delivers, which is also the kind of person who can write an exciting-sounding book shilling something.
My concern is that people read books like this, correctly intuit that there’s something wrong with the author, and then apply that to polyamorous people in general.
This is a bit unfair; The Atlantic article was about a memoir, not a book of advice. Memoirs aren’t necessarily written by people in terrible relationships. Just narcissists.
Maybe not all of them. But The Atlantic’s complaint was that the book seemed kind of navel-gazey. It was the work of someone who had fallen too deep into the self-help ethos of examining every one of their experiences to see if it was maximally resonant with their True Self.
…and from this, the author concluded that this must be what polyamorous people are like.
No! Obviously it’s selecting on memoir-writing! There are probably some acceptable times to write a memoir, like when you’ve just conquered Gaul. But usually memoir-writing means you think your True Self is absolutely fascinating and your experiences are worth recording and analyzing at book length.
Freddie de Boer recently wrote a harsh review of a memoir, which included quotes like this:
In the mornings, I sunbathed and walked to Whole Foods and FaceTimed my new boyfriend, feeling the gap between England and California close. In the afternoons, I went to the comedy festival, where I felt more me than I had in months, indulging the person I was and the things I liked. One night, I watched comedy band The Lonely Island, laughing in a crowd alone as they brought out Michael Bolton and T-Pain.
I find this paragraph interesting because - there’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things. There’s nothing wrong with walking to Whole Foods. There’s nothing wrong with FaceTiming your boyfriend.
There’s not even anything wrong with writing it in your memoir. Probably there are other parts of the memoir that are deeper and more central to the core of human experience. And in between doing the deep and important things, this person went to Whole Foods, and included that detail to specify that this one day was ordinary and happy. On a rational level, I can’t fault this person at all.
But I still notice a totally unfounded feeling of contempt (just to emphasize, I’m not endorsing this contempt, and for all I know the writer might be great). If you write this kind of thing in a memoir, and it claims (even as subtext) that you’re a deep and interesting person, then readers are going to make fun of you.
If you’re a particular type of bad person (which I am) then you will interpret a popular memoir as a claim to status. Such a claim needs to be backed up - either by conquering Gaul, or at least by being so good at writing that you can elevate the humdrum existence of Whole Foods shopping trips and FaceTime sessions into transcendent poetry. And if you’re a particular type of bad person (which I am), your bar will be so high that nobody meets it. Then you’ll be left feeling vaguely offended by this person and their dumb annoying Whole-Foods-shopping, FaceTime-session-having ways. And if you’re bad at attributing your emotions, you might think you hate FaceTime as a communication protocol.
This is also what I think The Atlantic is doing with polyamory.
Not all memoirs are written by narcissists. Some are written by activists. This is not an improvement.
Many people are activists for good reasons. And relationships can be inherently political; in a country where gay marriage was still an active political issue, marrying as a gay person would clearly be choosing a side. Still, there’s a range of how much people want to treat their romantic relationships as making political statements. And without condemning it on a philosophical level, on a psychological level the people at the far end of this range can be pretty weird.
Imagine, if you will, a monogamy influencer. Someone who writes a bunch of books about how great monogamous relationships are. Someone who holds up their relationship to the world as an example, who blogs about all the different times they could have cheated but didn’t, who explains how they felt about each of them. Someone who tours the country, telling young people that monogamy is right for them, and answering their questions on the right way to be monogamous. Someone with a monogamy-themed TV show. Would you want to marry this person?
(have I just accidentally re-invented televangelists? Fine, I’ve just re-invented televangelists; I recommend against marrying one.)
Imagine that the only time you ever heard of monogamy was through monogamy influencers - how would you know if your next-door neighbor was exclusive with his wife? You would end up thinking it was a weird idea practiced by weird people who couldn’t keep their mouth shut about it. It would sound kind of like a preachy cult.
You live in a world choked with ideas, where anything that rises to your consideration has necessarily won a Darwinian battle among hyper-specialized memetic replicators competing for your attention. By definition most of what you come across through semi-formal channels will be preachy, pushy, and associated with the kind of people who are obsessed with talking about themselves. If you learn about some lifestyles through informal channels (eg your family and friends), and others through semiformal channels (eg media and books), the latter will look obviously inferior.
I think this goes beyond polyamory. The people I know from various oft-discussed groups - transgender, super-religious, autistic, rich, etc - are all nicer and more normal than their public representatives would lead you to believe.