Reflections on “Little White Lies” and Consensual Non-Monogamy

In my post last week exploring some ideas about how to bring up the topic of consensual non-monogamy with a partner, I used the question “Do these pants make my butt look big?” as an example of how many of us have been socialized to tell “little white lies” in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. I started this post with the intention of elaborating on that and looking at why that matters within a framework of consensual non-monogamy. I guess that’s still sort of what this post is. But it also ended up going in a direction I wasn’t quite anticipating, but is probably more important. Maybe some other time I’ll come back to write the post I was expecting to write, which is basically “You can ask your partner what they actually need and want to hear from you instead of assuming that lying to them is the ‘right’ solution to difficult questions.” 

I also just want to take a moment to reflect on the process of writing this particular post, recognizing that it not only took an unexpected direction, but also an unexpected amount of time, and an unexpected amount of emotional energy and frustration. This post talks about alternatives to “little white lies,” recognizing that sometimes lies that spare someone’s feelings just serve to keep harmful systems in place. So does the silence or avoidance of people who hold positions of privilege within harmful systems. However, I also want to explicitly acknowledge, before we go further, that in the context of some of the fucked up systems I reference in this post, that “little white lies”—when used by people who are marginalized—aren’t just a matter of sparing someone’s feelings; they’re a matter of emotional or physical safety… they’re a critical survival skill. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Trans and gender non-conforming people. Cisgendered women. LGBQ people. Survivors of any gender of domestic/intimate partner violence/sexual assault. All of these groups—albeit in different ways and to different degrees—have learned the critical importance of being able to quickly read a situation and tell a person what they want to hear. 

I want to offer this post—and the ideal of not needing to use lies as a method of protecting ourselves from psychological or physical harm—in hopes that it’s a step toward a vision of a society where people can come to these interactions as complete equals… and I want to offer it with the explicit acknowledgment that we’re not there yet. 

Social Constructs

I’m going to get teachy here for a moment. Stick with me… we’ll get through this together. 

You might be familiar with the idea of social constructs already, in which case this might be a quick review. However, if you haven’t heard of a social construct before, this may help set the stage for you to start thinking differently about some of the challenges in consensual non-monogamy… or monogamy for that matter. 

Social Construct (noun) – an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) 

Our lives are built around social constructs. Some of them are explicitly taught, and others we just sort of learn because that’s what we observe around us and so we assume that that’s just how things are or have to be. And sometimes, a social construct is implicit (unspoken) until it’s violated, and then it’s reinforced explicitly. 

Here’s a really simple example of how this works. In preschool, children are specifically taught to sit quietly and listen when a teacher is reading a book, and to raise their hand if they have a question. Those children have now learned a social construct around what is “polite” to their teacher and their classmates. This group of preschoolers graduate to kindergarten and are now in a classroom with some of their previous classmates who also sit quietly and raise their hand to speak during storytime, as well as some classmates who are attending school for the first time after spending their preschool years at home. Some of the children in this second group—the first-timers—will be able to simply watch the experienced children and learn the social construct that it’s polite to raise a hand if we want to say something in a group, and they might start doing this without anyone needing to tell them. However, other first-timers (and probably a fair number of children who did attend preschool) will undoubtedly not understand or not follow this social construct. Children who interrupt, fail to wait their turn, or make noise will quickly be told in numerous ways—not only by teachers, but also by their peers—that their behavior is unwelcome or disruptive or “inappropriate.” And in many cases, the consequences of violating that social construct will continue to escalate if the violations continue. 

So what does this have to do with the question “Do these pants make my butt look big?” Well, that question reflects some of the social constructs that we’ve built much of our culture around. And to be honest, some of those constructs are pretty fucking harmful. That question isn’t just a request for fashion advice. It’s a question loaded with additional meaning about beauty, desirability, acceptability, or even goodness within a White-/Euro-centric, fat-phobic, misogynistic, heteronormative society that has a very specific idea of what bodies (particularly female bodies) should look like. I would be really surprised if someone living in this society hadn’t heard that the “right” answer to the question “Do these pants make my butt look big?” is always “no.” But we can only see that as the “right” answer if we accept the fucked up hierarchies of body, beauty, gender, sexuality, power, etc. that the question is (indirectly) asking about.  

In her Netflix special “Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby talks about the ways that comedy is the process of creating tension for the audience with the set-up for a joke, then relieving that tension with the punchline. And she highlights beautifully how relieving that tension with a joke saves the audience from really needing to wrestle with that tension and doing something about it. The punchline lets the audience off the hook. And maybe it shouldn’t. 

I want to extend that same concept here. When we feel like we are—or even like we might be—violating a social construct, it creates tension. I would argue that a “little white lie” can be used to relieve the tension in a way that leaves a toxic set of social constructs intact… social constructs that perpetuate body-based bullying, body-based shame, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, White supremacy. 

What the hell does this have to do with Consensual Non-Monogamy?

Monogamy is a social construct. (So is consensual non-monogamy, for the record.) Like we talked about earlier, our understanding of how to structure our relationships is shaped by what we see, what we’re taught, and the social consequences that happen when someone violates those expectations. Consensual non-monogamy is going to create a lot of tension because it violates a widely-held social construct—the notion that we should only have sex with one person. But the process of exploring the consensual non-monogamy will also bring someone up against a lot of other social constructs. Some that I think are really helpful (like consent, and respect for autonomy), and some that I would argue are toxic, and should be violated/dismantled/replaced. However, every time we come up against a social construct, there’s the possibility of resolving the tension in a way that leaves the social construct intact.

I tend to use the term “consensual non-monogamy” rather than “ethical non-monogamy,” in part because I think on a practical level it’s a little simpler to determine whether someone’s consent is being violated rather than whether an ethical principle is being violated. However, if I were going to try to define “ethical non-monogamy” so that I would feel comfortable using it, that definition would be something along the lines of:

“A commitment within relationships to examining the complex interactions between an individual’s beliefs, actions, and interactions with others within the social context where those interactions are taking place, and a commitment to changing beliefs, actions, interactions with others, and social contexts that contribute to psychological, emotional, or physical harm.” 

If “consensual non-monogamy” represents a framework for how to relate to partners and partners’ partners, “ethical non-monogamy” would represent a framework for how to use consensual non-monogamy to relate to the world and disrupt the social constructs that negatively impact everyone—non-monogamous and monogamous alike. So, ethical non-monogamy would mean being intentional about resolving the internal and relational tension that comes up within consensual non-monogamy in a way that doesn’t reinforce or contribute to harmful social constructs, like homophobia, bi-phobia, transphobia, misogyny, White supremacy, fat-phobia, body shaming, ableism, classism, sexual double-standards. 

To end, I want to offer just a few examples of situations where people exploring non-monogamy may be forced to confront various social constructs, and the tension that this can cause within a relationship (or relationships). They’re also about personal boundaries and consent—and whose consent is required, in which situations—and some of the ways that personal boundaries are shaped by the social constructs that we’ve learned, and what happens when we’ve internalized social constructs that might be harmful. As you read through them, I want to encourage you to reflect on how it might not always be easy to separate personal boundaries from socialization, or clear what to do about those differences within a relationship. I’ve also left the gender/race/sexual orientation largely ambiguous (although not completely). I’d encourage you as you read through the scenarios to reimagine the scenarios with different configurations of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, etc. within the relationships being described; does a situation seem different when the person described is a cis-gendered male compared to a trans woman? 

  • My partner is OK with the idea of me dating women but gets angry when I talk about wanting to date men. 
  • The dating app I’m looking at allows me to search for partners by gender, race, ethnicity, and body type. 
  • My partner and I like exploring sex together with a third person, but my partner and I argue over whether I’m being selfish and prejudiced when I say no to potential partners of a gender that they’re attracted to. 
  • I found out that—even though my partner and I have agreed that it’s OK for us to have sex with other people under certain conditions—my partner has had sex with new partners without telling me about it, but insists that I’m being unreasonable and manipulative when I confronted them about it and that it’s not cheating because cheating is impossible in an open relationship.
  • My spouse and I agreed that we could have sex with other people but no emotional connections, but they just told me that they have feelings for someone they’ve been seeing and they won’t break it off with that person even though they told me before that they would.
  • I’ve told my partner several times that I’m not OK with anyone else knowing about our relationship structure, but I just found out that they told one of their friends about one of the other people they’ve been dating. 

I don’t have a tidy way to wrap this up, to relieve the tension you might be feeling—and that I definitely am feeling—except to say that there’s value in being able to hold the tension without trying to make it go away.

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