De-Conversion: A Skeptical Take On Non-Monogamy

In my last post, I described myself as “a pain-in-the-ass skeptic.” I wrote at length about my intentions in exploring an open relationship and the personal history that led me to non-monogamy. But I mostly glossed over the nitty-gritty of getting from point A to point B.

I call myself a skeptic, specifically, an agnostic atheist. Yes, you can be both (ask me how!). I know what you’re thinking, “What does that have to do with polyamory?” As in any intimate, loving relationship, you’re going to find a wondrous blend of people from different cultures, faiths, and spiritual traditions.

Having said that, it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest if the data showed that secularists, agnostics, and atheists were over-represented in non-traditional relationships. In my case, being a skeptic is what opened the door to non-monogamy in the first place.

I had never really experienced a “de-conversion” before. Religion was never a big part of my upbringing. Growing up right outside D.C. as the son of an ex-Catholic Buddhist and an atheist, this wasn’t exactly a surprise. I called myself “Christian” because my family celebrated Christmas, but that was about it. As far as embracing the actual belief system and integrating it into my life, religion barely registered.

Walking away from any religion is often a painful process, with very real emotional, social, and often financial repercussions. It isn’t a painful process for everyone, but even uneventful changes can be disorienting. My own difficulties exploring alternative relationships aren’t comparable to someone experiencing an actual crisis of faith. I just can’t help but notice the parallel of intentional questioning and conscious dismantling of an established belief system.

As a young person that lacked confidence, I doubted myself all the time. Getting older and becoming more secure gradually shifted that self-doubt towards a healthy incredulity. By adulthood, second-guessing things was second nature, so I couldn’t help but question the shit out of everything. It can be frustrating sometimes, but it’s also incredibly useful. It helped me learn from my mistakes and adjust accordingly. This was critical when it came time to unpack the baggage I picked up from the world about relationships, and how I fit into them.

Despite my secular upbringing, the sanctity of monogamy was reinforced everywhere. It transcended all sorts of cultural and religious lines. The only examples of healthy relationships most of us were presented with involved two partners exclusively. So recognizing the degree to which monogamy was ingrained took some time.

In my experience, open relationships weren’t even actively stigmatized. At least, not in the way that I had seen people respond to interracial or same-sex relationships. I understand that isn’t the case for a lot of people, but in my life, the subject just didn’t come up that often. The union of two people in love was the most beautiful thing in the world; it was a goal to aspire to and daydream about. While open relationships were mostly for doomed couples on TV who were desperately trying to salvage their marriage before imploding. That, or they were old-school Mormons.

Even without the overt “marriage is one man and one woman” religious sentiment, monogamy was still ubiquitous. In this context, “monogamy” doesn’t necessarily refer to the primacy of a long-term committed relationship between two people. It is more so the implications of making such a relationship the default: normalizing jealousy, encouraging possessiveness, feeling entitled to your partner’s affection, or the idea of “locking someone down” as a means of self-actualization.

That isn’t to say that monogamy is the source of these problems. It isn’t. There are millions of people in healthy monogamous relationships where these issues aren’t factors at all. Those problems are much more about the people in the relationship than the type of relationship itself. But monogamy can sometimes provide a fertile ground for such problems to go unaddressed.

This seems to be true even among those who would happily raise a middle finger to any other societal expectation. For instance, even if a couple rejects traditional notions of marriage or sex for procreation, the idea of sexual exclusivity and jealousy is just presumed.

Which just so happens to be where my own de-conversion started. As a skeptic, I was no stranger to this thought: 

Am I holding onto this belief because it’s true or because it makes me feel good?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is often the latter. It’s only human to avoid unnecessary suffering; that impulse can just get out of hand. So I took comfort in the awareness that any belief that can’t withstand scrutiny probably wasn’t worth holding onto in the first place. After all, that was the basis of my skepticism. No idea is above questioning, because a good idea will prove itself worthy time and time again, no matter what you throw at it.

The alternative just isn’t sustainable. Sure, some problematic beliefs last longer than others. But I know for a fact that it will always be a bad idea to think my self-worth depends on another person. The foundation that edifice is built on is frail and completely out of my control. It will never be wise to hold my partners to a different standard than myself. That will inevitably foster resentment between us. There is no universe in which avoiding taking responsibility for my own actions and feelings ever pushes me to grow as a person. 

So I knew how to proceed. Since I was navigating unfamiliar territory, I couldn’t bullshit myself about where I was. In fact, being painfully honest was the bulk of the work I actually needed to do. I had to dissect and examine my own problematic beliefs before I could move past them.

And yes, this process involved a lot of self-doubt and an obnoxious number of questions:

  • Doesn’t my attractiveness depend on my partner wanting ONLY me?
  • Won’t letting my partner hook up with other people make me less of a man?
  • If my partner dates someone who is more handsome/funny/successful than I am, won’t she leave me?

At first, taking stock of all this was disarming and exhausting. Even though my outlook was flawed, it was still familiar. So pressing the reset button in my brain felt like having a warm blanket suddenly yanked away on a cold morning and being told I needed to do jumping jacks to warm myself up. Like many a pissed-off teenager, my ego often responded with an angry, “What the hell, man?

Thankfully, the more I took the time to approach these questions honestly, the more I realized I actually had decent, sensible answers. It was a slow process, but having a dialogue with myself challenged me to shift my perspective and treat myself more fairly. And it was often as simple as putting myself in my partner’s shoes.

Knowing that my partner dating other men was officially on the table, I often found myself intimidated or comparing myself to them. I had a little extra around the middle, so surely any guy with a six-pack must be objectively more attractive. I am thoroughly bald, so obviously a fellow with great hair is going to run circles around me. I was still frustrated with my career, so clearly a successful chap with a cool job would obviously be more dateable than I was.

I didn’t grasp what a massively flawed assumption this was. First off, I was defining myself by the areas of my life I hadn’t figured out yet. This wasn’t fair to myself, or to my partner. Did a woman need to have her entire life in order for me to be attracted to her or think she would make a good partner? Of course not. On top of that, I was tacitly condoning the idea that my incredible partner would settle for someone they weren’t crazy about. I would never do that myself, so why would she be any different?

I was also grossly mischaracterizing what my partner valued. I was elevating my insecurities and sweeping every positive thing I brought to the table under the rug. By focusing on abs, or hair, or money, I was giving those features far more power than they deserved. Sure, physical attraction matters. But what inspires physical attraction can’t be reduced to one of those features. The women I’ve always been most attracted to possessed an elegant tapestry of intellectual, emotional, and physical beauty. Could a certain body fat percentage compensate for not having a sense of humor? Did cup size really matter more than warmth and empathy? Not for a second.

So I chugged along, slowly figuring this stuff out and feeling good about my progress. But there was still this looming specter of “someone else” in the back of my mind. See, my partner and I wanted to give ourselves time to build trust before we actually dated anyone else. So my progress was entirely theoretical. Even though I felt more secure, the fact that I hadn’t actually had to apply it in the real world scared me. I wanted to know that I could handle it.

I understood intellectually that my partner and I were human, and were always going to want other people. That was one of the first things I loved about being in an open relationship. In the past, I felt like I needed to lie to my partner if I found someone else attractive. Letting all that go and talking openly fostered such a sense of partnership and trust immediately. It was also incredibly liberating.

Letting go didn’t make the first steps any less scary. Grasping an idea intellectually and understanding it emotionally are two different things. But I had done the work. I had built a solid intellectual foundation that I could rely on when I felt shaky. I knew what my fears and insecurities were going to tell me and I knew exactly what to say to make them shut up. I knew that giving my girlfriend space to be attracted to and enjoy time with someone else only made her love and appreciate me more. Because that’s exactly how I felt about her. I only had one thing left to do: lean into the fear. And you know what? It worked.

And it took the one thing that is always hard for a skeptic to do.

I just had to have a little faith.

Walker Davis is still figuring out what the hell he's doing with his life, but he loves writing, feminism, secularism, and cheese.