Polyamory - What It Is and What It Isn't
By Derek McCullough and David S. Hall, Ph.D.
How often have you read in some advice column a story like this? Dear Answer Lady, I really love my husband, but I have fallen in love with this guy at work, too. What do I do? The answer is usually some variation of the following: Get over it, you will ruin your life.
Well, the real answer is that there are a lot of people out there who are making such arrangements work in their lives. They are learning to love more than one person at a time with honesty and intergity. It is called Polyamory.
Polyamory - What it is..
There have been various polyamorous communities and communes, perhaps the most famous being the Onieda Community in New York State in the mid-1800's, but generally they are isolated and keep their heads down, given the prevailing moral climate.
What do Polyamorists, in general, say they believe?
Polyamorists say that their philosophy is nothing more than a straightforward acceptance and celebration of the realities of human nature.
Polyamorists say that sex is not the enemy, that the real enemy is the deceit and betrayal of trust that results from trying to shoehorn our natural selves into a rigid, unnatural social system.
Polyamorists say that sex is a positive force if applied with honesty, responsibility and trust.
Polyamorists do not have to individually meet every need of each partner; they have help. If your wife loves opera and you dislike it, maybe one of her lovers will enjoy taking her to hear it. If he is also a computer whiz, and helps fix your computers when they don't behave, you are a very lucky person.
Polyamorists say that love is an infinite, not a finite commodity. No one doubts you can love more than one child. This also applies to friends - when you meet someone new, you don't have to think about who you are going to drop off to make them fit.
Polyamorists say that jealousy is not innate, inevitable and impossible to overcome. But they deal with jealousy often, usually successfully. There is a new term for the opposite of jealousy. "Compersion" is the feeling of joy that comes from knowing that the one you love is well loved by someone else.
Polyamorists say that love should be unconditional, rather than the monogamous proposition that "I will love you on the condition that you will not love anyone else" - "forsaking all others" is how it usually is put. And as shown by history, monogamy and marriage are no safeguards against falling in love with someone else.
Polyamorists believe in long term emotional investment in relationships, and while the goal is not always achieved in poly, it is also not always achieved in monogamy.
Polyamorists believe they represent true "family values". They have the courage to live an alternative lifestyle that, while condemned by society, is satisfying and rewarding. Children having multiple parents are more likely to be better cared for, and less likely to feel abandoned if someone leaves the family.
The Contrast with Monogamy
The reasons given for monogamous marriage being the only acceptable form of couple relating, and the only place where sex is allowed, generally fall into two categories.
1. It is our natural state (i.e., hard-wired)
2. It is the only moral state, the one approved by God - all other options are inherently sinful.
It is interesting to note that these are essentially the same reasons given by the fundamentalist right for their condemnation of homosexuality, namely that it is unnatural and immoral, and explains the affinity of polyamorists to the GLBT community. If intelligent life is about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning then it is apparent that unquestioned answers are more dangerous than unanswered questions. Therefore, questioning monogamous marriage might be thought of as obligatory. Are we hard wired for it? Is it the only "moral" way of relating sexually to others?
It's only Natural
The evolutionary biologists posit that there are many good reasons for nonmonogamy, but their theories are difficult, if not impossible, to test. The anthropology argument for monogamy, that a man would only protect his children if he was sure of their paternity, is being questioned, most recently in a book called Cultures of Multiple Fathers. In this study, the authors found evidence that showed that the children of women who had sexual relationships with many men had better survival rates - because of "potential" paternity, they were less vulnerable.
Of the 1270 human societies catalogued in Murdoch's Ethnographic Atlas, about 85% indicate some form of multi-spouse relationships. Even the few societies that theoretically espouse monogamy, like ours, have trouble showing any evidence that it works. On the contrary, there seems to be a lot of evidence that Western humans don't do monogamy well in the high divorce rates, high rates of infidelity, the highest teen pregnancy rate in the western world, high single parent family numbers, and other indicators. We often see people leave an otherwise good marriage because they fell in love with someone new, in what might be called serial monogamy. In short, the argument that the human animal is "hard wired" for monogamy is difficult to support.
In any case, since we humans are so bad at monogamy, other freely chosen relationship structures should also be supported.
It is sinful - God doesn't like it
Somehow this shameful, sinful act is transformed into sacred overnight if accompanied by the right words by someone with the appropriate qualifications to marry people. It does not seem to matter how the marriage was arranged, for what reasons the people are marrying, or even if they want to be married. The only requirement is that they go through the legal process.
It is also worth noting that no matter how strict the moral teachings, or how severe the punishments, be it from the Taliban, the Bible belt, Rome or Washington, human beings persist in trying to satisfy their sexual desires.
Serial monogamy is perhaps an unconscious compromise between the cultural ideal of monogamy and the facts of human nature - in other words, we acknowledge that you can love more than one person, but only one at a time. The destructive effects of serial monogamy on children are well documented, with 8 million single parent families in the US, infidelity-fueled acrimonious divorces, through to the spate of spouse murdering lately. Much of the evidence seems to indicate that human attainment of the cultural ideal of monogamy is a myth.
The moral argument for monogamy is a weak position. A better moral argument can be made regarding what is best for each individual and for society, that is, do we make life better for each and all by insisting on sex only in monogamous marriage of heterosexual couples, or on letting individuals find responsible ways of relating that, in Pagan terms, "it harm none."
It is a reality that there are many people now relating sexually in groups greater than two. The reason I keep referring to "relating sexually" is that this seems to be the stumbling block for many. If polyamorists were to keep it platonic, not be sexually involved with people they love in numbers greater than one, most would applaud their loving behavior. But when they admit that they not only love more than one, but have sexual relationships with more than one, all the red flags come flying out.
If you watch TV at all, you will know that polyamory is getting a lot of play, from episodes on Ally McBeal, talk shows like Montel Williams, John Walsh, Geraldo, and HBO's Real Sex. There are many poly friendly films available from Hollywood, and of course the Really Rich and Famous can do what they please about relationships and get lots of favorable press. What has brought polys out of the closet is the Internet, where people who thought they were the "only ones" find lots of company.
Polyamory - What it isn't..
The most widespread misunderstanding is with swinging. Swinging is essentially recreational sex, also known as wife swapping ( though curiously not husband swapping). Research has shown that swingers are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the population except that they are people who would rather have sex than play bridge on Saturday night.
Swinging does share a lot in common with polyamory in that it is nonmonogamous, intentional and responsible. Both lifestyles share the idea that sex is a positive, pleasurable and natural part of being human, and not a synonym for love. The main difference is that swinging focuses on casual sex and tends to prohibit other intimacy, whereas polyamory is more concerned with enduring intimate relationships that include sex. There is however some crossover, with people arriving at one via the other and vice versa. Unfortunately, in our society obsessed with promoting the cultural myth of monogamy, the salacious aspects of swinging are often used to reputationally smear both swingers and polyamorists. Examples include the Wyoming politician who withdrew his candidacy in the 2002 election when his lifestyle was exposed, the attempt in 2002 to disqualify Jack McGeorge as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq because he teaches S&M and espouses sexual freedom, and the effort to blame the parents in the 2001 child killing in San Diego because they were swingers. Many polys wished Bill Clinton had said he loved Hillary and Monica, and that Hillary was supportive of that relationship, but it looked more like cheating than loving.
Swinging and polyamory are not "free love" in the 60's sense of the term. (This seems to be one of the objections of those who survived, or were wounded, in the sixties.) In a lot of cases, free love in the 60's was a response to the enormous freeing up of taboos against sex that occurred at that time, and often was not accompanied by honesty or responsibility, but used as an excuse to have a lot of sex. It was frequently grouped together with drugs, (as in the mantra of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll") which allowed it to be discounted as "a phase," facilitating a return to the "traditional" values that were reestablished in the 80's and 90's.
The challenges besetting the putative polyamorist are:
As the Chinese proverb says " The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." Understanding the difference between sex, love and intimacy will go a long way to solving relationship problems.
The more we study sex, which has only been done scientifically in the last century, the more we realize how complex, variable and universal it is. As pointed out earlier, enjoyment of sex was considered evil, particularly in women (witches). Then, after Freud, it was often considered a sickness. For many years, nymphomania was considered a disease of women who liked sex.
To top it off, sex has become politically incorrect, attacked from both the left, the radical feminists who equate sex with the degradation of women, and the right - well, we should all know about their attacks on comprehensive sex education and medically correct sexual health information.
Either way, sex is seen as sinful, sleazy and best kept private. And the ACLU help us if we have any visual depictions of sex. Of course, violence is entertaining for the public, only sex is rated X.
So sex is not the enemy. When accepted with honesty and responsibility, it could well become part of the solution.
Our culture seems addicted to three core beliefs about relationships that are almost guaranteed to create jealousy in even the most well adjusted people. Identifying and dismantling these beliefs is the most effective way of dealing with jealousy.
Core belief #1
This is based on the scarcity model of love, in which a partner's emotional or love interest in somebody else means that I will be loved less. It is as absurd as the idea that to have a second child is an indication that you don't love your first child enough. It also presumes that sex and love are the same thing and meet the same needs.
Core belief #2
This belief is even more insidious. With the first belief you can at least blame the problem on your partner. This belief makes it your fault for not being the perfect lover. This is also the basis of the widespread romantic myth of the "one and only person on the planet". This is also guaranteed to cause serious self-esteem problems, which is fertile ground for jealousy.
Core belief #3
All of these beliefs are connected to a primal fear of loss and abandonment, however unfounded.
Polyamorists replace these core beliefs with three new core beliefs.
New Core Belief #1
New Core Belief #2
New Core Belief #3
Once you can get away from the "either/or" polarity, and accept an "and/both" approach, or as some Polys say, having your Kate and Edith too, many of the accompanying demons associated with jealousy will disappear.
Polyamorists also fully support the right of anyone to select monogamy as a life choice, and believe it is the right choice for many people. The key here is choice.
Given all the hassle, why bother to be polyamorous? It is certainly not to be able to have more sex. If that is what you are after, you will probably have much more success operating under the widely accepted model of "It is OK if nobody knows." To be open is to be too weird for most people.
But to realize that you are polyamorous in a monogamous world can often mean going through life with the sense that you are harboring a dirty little secret. It can cause isolation, alienation and an inability to be intimate with people - you are hiding a core part of yourself.
For Polyamorists, the rewards are simple. One of the best gifts you can give yourself is the permission to be yourself. By loving yourself unconditionally, and respecting all your qualities and inclinations, you allow yourself to be at peace. This becomes part of a larger process of self-differentiation - of determining who you are and what is important to you. To live as a poly requires the same value base as living morally, ethically, honestly and responsibly.