Tropes to Avoid When Writing Polyamory

Tropes to Avoid When Writing Polyamory

Welcome back to Queering the Narrative!

I’ve taken a bit of an impromptu break from this blog over the last few weeks, as I’ve been on vacation visiting family for the first time since the start of the pandemic. However, this week I wanted to round out my series on writing polyamory with a Tropes to Avoid post!

Note that many of these tropes focus on throuples or open relationships, because that’s what a lot of polyamorous media tends to portray. However, these tropes can still worm their way into depictions of other relationship models, so bear them in mind when writing polyamory of any sort!

The Bigamist

Many cultures throughout the world place men in arbitrary positions of power, treating women as objects to be collected and traded. This, in turn, leads to home situations in which one man has multiple wives, and in many ways has absolute power over all of their actions.

This is not polyamory — it is an extension of the cisheteropatriarchy, the oppressive system present throughout much of our world which seeks to consolidate power in the hands of straight, cis, men. Polyamory is built on mutual trust and equitable communication. If one member of the household has unilateral power to bring in another without consulting their partner(s), that’s an oppressive power dynamic, not a healthy polyamorous relationship.

Sometimes, media will try to toe the line with this one by utilizing a culture that has a history of plural marriages, such as Mormonism or some sects of Islam, and tell the story from the point of view of one of the wives. These storyline, when executed in a nuanced way, can show an equitable relationship within the confines of the culture in question, and therefore could be considered reasonable polyamory representation. However, often these storylines end up including another trope from this article, and the narrative collapses in on the oppressive or controlling nature of the culture which spawned the circumstance.

If you’re thinking about writing polyamory using one of these models, make sure that you’re also researching the culture you’re portraying and speaking to those involved in it, so that you don’t perpetuate any harmful stereotypes in how you portray that culture.

Betrayal

This is a common thread in a lot of media which features pluralized romantic or sexual relationships. 

an image of the characters Svetlana, Kev, and V from Showtime's "Shameless." From left to right are Svetlana, a white brunette woman; Kev, a white brunette man; and V, a black woman with black hair. They are standing behind a bar.
Kev, V, and Svetlana from Shameless

Three people get involved — perhaps a couple takes on a third, or three friends begin exploring their feelings for each other, or a love triangle collapses into a big cuddle pile. Then, one of those three does something outright heinous to ruin it.

Maybe they scam their partners out of a bunch of money, as happened in Shameless. Or, they might grow jealous of another partner and seek to do away with them, either through emotional manipulation or outright violence. They may even hurt the others by being flippantly sexual outside the defined relationship or doing something coded as immoral (such as hard drugs).

Usually, this betrayal causes the relationship in question to collapse down into good, old-fashioned monogamy. The reason this sucks is because it positions polyamorous relationships as inherently unstable, unsustainable, or even morally wrong.

If you’re writing polyamory, I encourage you to approach these sorts of narratives with more care than that. People don’t tend to cease being polyamourous just because one partner goes awry, and the partnerships in such relationships are not any more fraught than in other relationship models.

All About Sex

For a lot of folx, casual sex is the only way they can conceptualize having multiple partners. Therefore, many monogamous people reason that polyamory — especially the sort that results in open relationships or sprawling polycules — is motivated entirely by a desire for more and more sex.

Monogamous people tend to reason that polycules and open relationships occur out of a simple desire by one or more partners for more sex. Media written from an uncritical perspective also often depicts polyamorous partners as being less deeply involved in their partners than monogamous individuals might be.

This is an extremely reductive view of polyamory. Though some people in polyamorous relationships might want to have more latitude for casual encounters, most are deeper than just that.

Open relationships can be expressions of trust and safety between partners, a way for people to forge new intimate connections with the safe touchstone of a loving primary near at hand. Polycules are diverse networks of loving care, which can give an individual the opportunity to interact with relationships at many different stages at once.

When writing polyamory, bear in mind that though sex with new people certainly can be fun and exciting, it is rarely the actual driving force behind a true polyamorous experience. And, even if it is the driving force, there’s usually an emotional undercurrent to that which makes for a far deeper narrative than the puritanical “likes sex a bit too much” trope.

Complications

Even when polyamory is portrayed in the best of light, it can’t seem to get away from an overarching idea that polyamrous relationships are too complicated.

The thing is, polyamorous relationships are more complicated. They require a lot more work to keep up, far more open communication and coordination, and a solid foundation of trust. This, however, is not a dig at polyamorous relationships — rather, I think monogamous relationships could stand to be more complicated, especially in fiction.

We tend to lean so heavily on tropes, clichés, and assumptions about character relationships — especially straight relationships — that we take all the teeth and nuance out of our fictional pairings, reducing them to stock-standard romantics with one or two endearing or troubling quirks. Because monogamy is normalized in our society to the point of ubiquity, narratives often try to get away with throwaway relationships for the simple purpose of tying off an arc, regardless of any actual chemistry or compelling complications between the characters.

If polyamory is complicated, that’s something to be celebrated and learned from, not something to disparage and joke about!

Conclusion

That’s it for this week! I’ll try to update the blog again on Friday, though the next few weeks are a bit hectic, so we’ll see how that goes! And until next time stay safe, stay healthy, and keep writing!

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