Modern Romance: The Missing Polyamory

This is my second post on Aziz Ansari’s new book, Modern Romance. Check out my previous one on dating profile images.

I finished the book recently, and I enjoyed the experience of reading it. Ansari mixes surprising jokes with a fascinating investigation into the changing behaviors and technology of dating and relationships. It does only dive as deeply as you’d expect a book by a comedian would do, though. Erring on the side of “fun and light” was probably a wise choice.

In the second half of the book, Ansari starts building a case for the dilemma of modern romance: in the age of emerging adulthood, young people have a choice to either enjoy the single life and the highs of romantic love in dating, or to appreciate the slow build of companionate love that comes from settling down into a long-term relationship. He focuses significantly on the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) when marrying one person.

In one of the final chapters, Ansari begins a small discussion on open relationships, which could be one solution to this dilemma. Unfortunately, the scope of the section was small, and the attitude towards it not nearly as welcoming as other developments in modern romance. I found it pretty disappointing.

Ansari interviews Dan Savage to introduce the idea of open relationships with Savage’s coining of “monogamish”. This is an agreement Savage has with his partner that sex outside of their relationship is allowed, but not necessarily the development of romantic feelings. I appreciated hearing a known voice in the world of open relationships be included, but Ansari spends significant time expressing how he wouldn’t be able to do this, and how his interviewees in focus groups didn’t like it. Savage gets in a solid point that only open relationships are blamed when a couple breaks up, rather than ever monogamy.

In my view, monogamy is a structured institution that attempts to prevent either partner from leaving the relationship by disallowing the pursuit of other romantic interests. Polyamory, in contrast, acknowledges that feelings aren’t so easily contained and that jealousy isn’t something to be avoided at all costs with structure but instead engaged with like any other emotion.

The imagined horror scenario that always comes up with regards to open relationships is that a new partner “steals away” your partner and leaves you broken up with. The open relationship is blamed for allowing the freedom for this to happen. I don’t buy it.

In that particular scenario, it might be the case that the new partner is an overall better match for your partner. (I’d say more frequently, different people complement and fulfill different parts of you.) If it were monogamy, would it really be better for your partner to not be fulfilled and never be allowed to find that fulfillment without reaching a breaking point and ending the relationship?

Furthermore, how realistic is it that the artificial walls of monogamy will prevent your partner from seeking out that fulfillment anyway? Through simply meeting new people and forming friendships, they could find that someone else gives them more joy.

I get uncomfortable with the idea that monogamy is so important that it should trump otherwise normal, acceptable feelings. It feels weird to me to be expected to smash down warm fuzzies or avoid people because of the potential of becoming romantically interested. That’s why I view the walls of monogamy as “artificial”, or at least porous. I’m honestly not sure if people can really do that, to shut down their emotions. If two people are dedicated to this system, they are free to do it, but I’d guess it would require being willing to cut off friendships and activities for the monogamous relationship.

I find polyamory to be accepting of what already naturally occurs within us. It does not prevent a partner from leaving you, but it allows the space to maintain a relationship through change and normal circumstance. I wonder how many people have meaningfully engaged with the idea of open relationships, though. Given how Modern Romance treats the subject, I don’t think Ansari has.

What’s good about the treatment of open relationships in the book is that consent and mutual agreement, if not enthusiasm, are highlighted as necessities to making them work. What’s bad is the amount of fixation on specific “permitted” sex acts or the social distance the outside dating must take place in. There’s a lot of emphasis on where and how to restrict this outside sexual activity.

And that’s another problem.

In this entire conversation, including with Savage, open relationships are universally relegated as a primary/secondary system where the secondaries are only sexual. No mention of romantic feelings are even attempted for people or partners outside of the “main” relationship.

Even though I’ve been using it in this post, the word “polyamory” is never mentioned in the book, which feels like an oversight. The word includes the forming of romantic relationships; everything I’ve been talking about with this post applies beyond sex and into romance, caring for one another, and loving each other.

As implied from the previous section, I find that the more rules that are established to restrict the types of relationships and how they may form, the closer to monogamy the open relationship becomes, and the more obviously the problems I see with that structure arise.

Beyond that problem, it’s a huge disservice to the idea of and community around open relationships to treat is universally as for sex. It certainly can be, and that’s fine! But in a book titled Modern Romance, I’d expect acknowledgement that non-monogamy is frequently more than just sexual novelty. Way more.

With regards to what is included in the book about open relationships: it’s always the response when polyamory is brought up that people say they “couldn’t do that”, as the polled interviewees did. It’s a shame that a book so focused on and open to the changing world of dating and the new ways we are approaching selection, communication, and intimacy simply lets this dismissive attitude end what is one of the most revelatory changes in modern romance in my life.

No one says they “couldn’t do monogamy” because we were brought up and raised in a culture that universally orients itself that way. Just like we used to be in a culture that thought online dating was weird, or that texting a break-up was unthinkable, or that staying unwed into your thirties was a sign of failure. It’s unfortunate that Ansari breaks the mold on so many of these ideas but remains attached to this one.

When sharing the massive growth of texting as the new norm in maintaining relationships among young people, Ansari encourages acceptance of this new norm while highlighting the good and bad of this development. When looking at the rise of online dating, he touts our newfound ability to date outside of our local area but notes the potential downsides. Graceful nuance guides the chapters. When mentioning polyamory, though, I can’t help but feel Ansari leans against it without giving it a real chance.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Ansari caveats the book early on with what is not in it, like LGBT* dating. And that’s okay. One informative comedy book can’t cover everything, and he specifically says that the subject is important and worthy of its own volume (as is polyamory). The absence of poly is different, though, because it not only goes unmentioned, it not only is misconstrued, but it legitimately serves as a possible solution to the big problem Ansari posits! This feels like a mistake.

To be fair, though, surely a big reason why Ansari didn’t pursue LGBT* dating is because he doesn’t identify as a member of that group. Similarly, he didn’t go deeply into polyamory for a likely similar reason: he says himself that the idea of an open relationship doesn’t feel like it would work for him. The difference, to me, is that while a good space can be carved out to discuss modern romance solely within heterosexual relationships, the conversation is lacking if people with multiple, equal partners are not represented. No book can be perfect, of course, but I bet this subject could have been done better.

I’ll admit my ignorance, though: I haven’t read up extensively on open relationships and polyamory, so the number of people approaching romance in the way I am may be much smaller than I realize. Still, the writing I’ve read on the subject and the number of books and research on non-monogamy is significant and convincing to me.

I’m satisfied with my purchase of Modern Romance and my time with it. It gave me good information, made me laugh, and definitely made me think. Something that spurs two blog posts out of me was definitely worth my time. Aziz Ansari remains one of my favorite comedians, and I love that he took a new turn on the “comedy book” by educating people.

He even showed examples of his best sexts.

Hah, not really, but wouldn’t that be wild?

…If you had read the book, you’d get it.

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