Poly-Science 101: New Age Non-Monogamy
Is monogamy the natural order of our species?
More and more people don't think it is, and the paradigm of couple-hood is under the cultural microscope like never before. But do non-monogamous unions represent the relationships of the future?
"Polyamory," as popularized in best-sellers like The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, is probably the best organized approach to consensual non-monogamy. Geri D. Weitzman defined polyamory in a paper aimed at psychologists as "a lifestyle in which a person may have more than one romantic relationship, with consent and enthusiasm expressed for this choice by each of the people concerned." In one sense, polyamory is to love what swinging is to sex. In a broader sense, "poly" relationships look as different as the people in them. They can be open or closed. They aren't always sexual. But one idea that poly-identified individuals do tend to share is the belief that a single partner can't necessarily meet all of a person's needs, and probably shouldn't try.
While not attempting to catalogue every pattern, Weitzman elaborates three main configurations of polyamorous relationships:
1. One primary romantic relationship takes priority over one or more secondary romantic relationships.
2. An individual maintains two or more romantic relationships of equal priority, but an individual's romantic partners do not have a strong relationship with each other.
3. Poly-family: a romantic inter-relationship of three or more people, in which there is a strong relational commitment between all members.
Confusing? Wait until you sift through a glossary of poly terminology. This is relationship science.
The rise of the internet has allowed the sub-culture of polyamory to flourish, with forums and user groups providing much needed emotional support and information for newbies, and connectivity for the existing poly community. The poly boards on tribe.net overflow with an endless parade of how-to lists and helpful hints, opinions and warnings, starry-eyed chronicles and tragic rants. If poly people are anything, they are communicative. It would seem that thousands of people around the world are architecting pluralistic relationships, undeterred by the fact that this lifestyle is more closeted, and arguably more scandalous, than homosexuality.
Many who are in or have experimented with polyamorous relationships claim a lifelong discomfort with the perceived restrictions of monogamy. Others stumble across polyamory having had no prior concept of romance beyond the norms of serial-dating or marriage. I fall into the latter group.
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My own experience with poly began as a need to explore the wider world, but from within the container of marriage. My wife and I married young, neither of us brining prior sexual experience to the table. Unsurprisingly, we hit a wall, and found ourselves in sex therapy. One of the recommendations was that we begin sharing fantasies.
Our sex heated up the night we started talking about one particular fantasy: adding other people into the mix. And it really blew my wife's mind when I confided being turned-on at the thought of seeing her with another man. I began campaigning that this might be something to try in real life; we needed a change and this represented an exciting dash off the edge of our known universe.
Enter "Obi Wan" – a man responsible for hiring me on a recent job and whom we had gotten to know that year at Burning Man. My wife thought he represented the only person we could realistically invite into our private world. Obi Wan was unattached, level-headed and honest, and my wife was excited by the idea of approaching him. I thought the choice made sense, so one night after inviting him over to watch a movie (ironically enough, Closer), I purposefully dozed off on the couch in order to give my wife the opportunity to tell Obi Wan that she'd life to fuck him, and that I had suggested it. He was a little thrown, but asked for some time to think about it. A few weeks later he interrogated both of us, and after being reasonably satisfied that our marriage could tolerate such an adventure, accepted the invitation. We agreed on a policy that any one of us could halt the proceedings at any point.
Our first encounter didn't happen until later that weekend after a big night out with my wife's girlfriends from nursing school. A group of us ended up drunk at our apartment, and eventually everyone had left but for one girl passed out in our bathroom. Despite the distinct possibility that a groggy, intoxicated nursing student might stumble out of our bathroom at any time, Obi Wan, my wife and I proceeded to engage in a very steamy menage-a-trois on the living-room couch. It was the first of many steamy nights.
A few months later we stumbled across a discussion on relationship models hosted by a group called PolyParadise, and within the year we were preparing to move in together as a threesome. The intervening time represented a crash course for all of us in what it means to be members of a triad, or more correctly a V (vee) relationship. In this three-person model my wife was the pivot, while we men cultivated a non-romantic, fraternal bond. What had begun as a couple opening up a marriage transitioned into an open structure with my wife having one primary romantic partner and one secondary romantic partner, which eventually became a three-person unit with my wife having two primary romantic partners: an openly dating spouse and a fidelitous boyfriend.
As a poly family, we learned to juggle the unique emotional and practical needs of three people, including processing frequent flushes of jealousy and democratically resolving disagreements. It became clear at some point that each of us had "the most challenging role." I was a husband stretching his identity to make room for another man. Obi Wan was the interloper, cautiously finding and defining his place within a long-standing married partnership. My wife was the exhausted focal point, heart always pointing in two directions and responsible for satisfying and meeting the needs of two men. The amount and depth of communication required to keep this experiment afloat was enormous. But despite the trials, it was an amazing time for all of us. For me it represented the most emotionally exciting, enriching period of my life up to that point. My wife found herself utterly swept away by the experience of feeling deep love for two people at once. Obi Wan was experiencing the profound nourishment of loving trust with a woman for the first time in his life. We were an intentional family, one that loved journeying together and taking care of each other. We absolutely felt like we were waving at the world from great heights...
* * *
Ultimately, our little trio encountered overwhelmingly rocky territory. We didn't quite reach 18 months, the average lifespan of the notoriously volatile triad configuration (a quad made up of two couples is well-known to be more stable). My wife had found a powerful sexual intimacy with Obi Wan, but she and I had fallen back into our stale sexual groove. Unable to reconcile these problems, and realizing we needed freedom to grow individually, my wife and I separated. Our threesome ended in a maelstrom of heartbreak.
Do I think polyamory ruined my marriage? Absolutely not. But major transformation was accelerated as long-dormant issues were forced to the surface. For me, it was wonderfully liberating to evaluate my personal boundaries and value my own worth. It's potent to realize that every relationship is unique and irreplaceable, and that your partner is not with you because he is your property, but because he loves you. Polyamory requires something akin to an advanced degree in truth-telling, communication and introspection - invaluable skills in any relationship. My wife and Obi Wan are still together over a year later, and I am exploring new frontiers of love with a woman who brings more to my life than a dozen relationships could.
I believe polyamory will become more and more commonplace, eventually sharing social legitimacy alongside monogamy. Romantic love may be seen at some point as the glue that holds entire tribes together as humanity discovers its meta-conscious destiny. On the other hand, polyamory may never be a fit for a majority of people. Even in the best circumstances it can easily become a full-time job managing pluralistic relationships – in our current culture the intense challenges of partnership increase exponentially when extra personalities are added.
Beyond the fact that I am happy in a monogamous partnership, perhaps the biggest reason I am not endeavoring to make polyamory a part of my life right now is that while love may not be a "zero-sum" game in theory, some degree of intimacy is sacrificed as one gains lovers. This isn't necessarily a problem for everyone, but my wife practically had a breakdown trying to maintain intimacy between just two partners. My soul is clearly capable of boundless love, but on this plane I'm forced to limit the extent to which I share my most intimate moments, dreams and fears.
When the lightning of Love strikes, it's miraculous. To be sure, it is possible for Love to strike repeatedly.
Just be wary of electrical storms.
Image by the-G-Man, used under a Creative Commons license.