One of the easiest accusations to level against a nonmonogamist is that they are a commitment-phobe. It happens over and over again. In casual conversation or in comment threads, it’s there. A couple of choice examples from the comments on an article on polyamory that the Guardian ran earlier this year: ‘It’s like all these people have given up on the idea of fidelity and intimacy, and they have just settled for screwing around‘ , ‘Emotional unavailability, nothing more less‘ (I assume there are some missing words in that comment but whatever). I’ll politely let rude and antagonistic people air their views about the way I’m doing stuff until they pull that one. If you try to tell me I do this because I’m incapable of real emotion then I will stamp on your toes and poke you in the eyes. Maybe some nonmonogamists are emotionally unavailable, but so are a lot of single monogamous people. Nonmonogamy is not characterised wholesale by an aversion to commitment and emotional availability. I am more than capable of committing, and I do it.
One of the reasons I do this whole thing is because my cup runneth over. I don’t date multiple people because I don’t have enough feelings, but because I can’t make my brain restrict those feelings to one person. I’m not incapable of affection, I’m too capable of affection. To me there’s nothing worse than ring-fencing myself into one romantic relationship when I know that I’ll always be inclined towards sharing my affection with others.
The argument that nonmonogamists are emotionally unavailable is a hollow one. It quite clearly implies that the only thing motivating us is sex (and that in turn implies that sex isn’t a good enough reason to do anything) when most of us know that isn’t the case. It’s really fucking difficult to avoid attachment if you feel it. Dating 10 people wouldn’t make your instinctive response to them any less clear. Going over to your FWB’s house for an afternoon doesn’t make you suppress the warm, fuzzy, stomach-flipping feeling you get when you think about that nice guy you’ve had a few dates with. You don’t avoid it by diluting the numbers. You don’t avoid it at all.
Why have we taken it for granted that commitment and monogamy are synonyms? Why is it such a surprise that you can be emotionally available to more than one person? When I commit to a partner it is implicit that this means they can trust me with their feelings. That I’ll be cautious and not try to hurt them. That I want to dedicate time to them. That I find them attractive on their terms (not more attractive than someone I’m already seeing). That I want to engage with them and know about them. And this is just as true for the way I treat a casual sex partner as the way I treat someone I ‘date’ in more traditional terms.
The structure may suggest avoidance and unavailability but really it’s about knowing your emotional resources aren’t finite. That you’re an adult and you’re capable of figuring out if you have enough warm feeling towards a potential partner to be kind to them and treat them in the way they deserve, even if ‘all’ you do with them is have sex. That commitment does not mean exclusivity, and you can build something fun and special and remarkable with more than one person while always looking after their feelings.