October - November 2001

Polyamory, Part Two

We might well ask whether polyamory is actually possible. Polyamorous people ask all the time. Can nonmonogamous committed relationships be sustained?

I have a better question: can monogamous committed relationships be sustained, and are they monogamous? Okay that was two questions. Most people love more than one person. As I deduced in Polyamory part one, one's definition of polyamory depends entirely upon one's definition of monogamy. But it would, to many, seem to defy common sense that passionate involvement with more than one partner could work in the context of relationships outside the region of getting together for dinner and sex. Which, of course, would be nice in itself. But that ain't everybody's idea of romance, and some people like to get deeper.

In my own life, I have seen how fears, insecurities and past hurts make any relationship challenging. Relating to a person seems like more work than, well, maintaining a daily web page -- to keep attention focused enough to live in a clear, reasonably safe environment where trust exists and agendas are on the table is a real project.

But I also know that I can, and do, love more than one person at one time. I have sexual needs and desires that can involve more than one person. I know that many people do, they just don't admit it openly. So be it. A friend wrote to me a couple of months ago and said, "I tried polyamory, but it was too hard. I've gone back to the traditional model of a girlfriend and a mistress." The girlfriend, who was to be a fiancee, dumped him upon learning of the mistress.

Monogamy needs no advocates. Every cultural institution we can name, from Christianity to USA Today, runs this same agenda, to the point where we are pushed to feel that this is the only acceptable or pure mode of intimate exchange, and that none other is possible. Largely, I have seen, this is more about a marketing program than it is about advocating a natural way of life. Anyone who wants or needs a choice is entitled to know that there are options. I ask you this: if monogamy is such a perfect way to organize society, then why are so many people on this planet so damned lonely right now?

I've been contemplating what kinds of inner conditions might lead to successful, honest nonmonogamous relationships, and what kinds of personal resources are probably necessary. Here are some thoughts about what you need, or what you have to be willing to attain: and tell me the world wouldn't be a better place in any case.

First, you have to like -- no really, really like -- talking honestly about relationships, feelings and sex, and like working through the material of relationships and emotions in a direct way. This eliminates 86% of those who would have sex beyond a primary partnership, who are better off sticking to monogamy with an affair if they need additional human contact, or to love dolls. For each person you add to your intimate family, the total communication commitment increases substantially -- particularly starting with the second partner, where the energy outlay more than doubles. We might ask: where do people acquire the resources to communicate effectively? Therapy, reading, Loving More workshops, supportive friends and practice, practice practice, that's where. We have just eliminated 86% of the 14% who originally qualified as potentially polyamorous -- but resources can be learned.

Can you admit that you love someone in front of someone else? Or, more to the point, can you admit to all your feelings of love in front of all the people you say you love? This is a big one, and it's healthy no matter what you call yourself. If you cannot, then your idea of love is very likely based on competition. Can you be loving with both people in the same room? Often a married person involved in an affair can tell the affair partner everything, but, obviously, not the marriage partner. This is why the affair is more exciting -- because the truth is told. In my experience, and after listening to the stories of many people, I assure you that it is lying and withholding that hurt people more than the fact they experienced sex or love outside their primary relationship. In successful polyamory you need to be able to tell Jake that you love Allan and Allan that you love Jake, and be prepared for these people to accept and love you for your feelings. The way I view this, it's a question of integrity, meaning integration. If we must hide, deny or obscure love, it's like loving each person with only part of the self. Eventually, the parts fall apart, and it's messy.

Here's a gigantic one. Is your notion of love and commitment based on freedom or control? Most of our conventional ideas of love are control-based, and there's a reason for it. We typically call this commitment, without remembering that commitment is also when somebody (usually a spouse of parent) sends you to the locked ward. Commitment based on belief in human autonomy is a rare trait. This is another way of saying that you need to believe that people will love you and remain true to you if they have a choice in the situation. Of course, everyone always has a choice, unless you have them chained to the furnace; most of the time we play a game with ourselves, thinking they don't. In a nonmonogamous situation, that game is a lot harder to play.

You need to believe in cooperation, and practice cooperation. No easy trick in our culture, where the name of the game is usually dog-eat-dog (canine's will not eat the flesh of their own species, by the way, so sorry for the insult, pups). You not only need to like to cooperate, you need to like to be cooperated with, and dislike competing. That is the hard one, but it's an asset down here on the lonely planet. Along with this comes needing to be able to harmonize with people of your own sex -- another asset here. You don't need to be bisexual (though it helps a lot). Rather, if you're a woman and you hate woman, for example, it's gonna be tricky getting along with your boyfriend's girlfriend, or energetically allowing her into his life.

You need to like yourself. Also, you need to love yourself. Both count. Most people are rather iffy in this department, and compensate with their relationships, bolstering their low self-esteem with the energy coming from others. This does not work so well in poly situations because if you hate yourself, the first time your partner goes to visit a new friend, you're likely to go into a frenzy of self-loathing, blame and freaking out. But if you don't like yourself, even your monogamous relationships are probably going to be stressed, so get busy. Loving relationships are based on you loving you. If you can love yourself without shame in the presence of others, then you're well on the way to any kind of relationship you want.

Do you tend to stay friends with your former lovers? If not, kinda sorta forget it.

What is your relationship to guilt? Do you have a guilty conscience? If so, it means you were pruned, controlled and manipulated as a child (even if you don't think you were) and the guilt is the remaining apparatus of those early control trips that were laid on you by your care givers. These torture devices also hurt other people, and you need to cut them off with the Jaws of Life if you want to survive for long on this planet, particularly if you want to be happy. Or polyamorous. To hell with guilt!

You need to be secure in life. Good fucking luck. But it's possible, if you're either very self-sufficient or have great karma and people always help you out, and you're willing to accept that help graciously. Secure means reasonably confident dealing with people, and reasonably confident that you belong on the planet, which is a function of community more than anything else. We learn these things by participating in a diverse community of people.

You need to be turned on by the whole idea of the people you love relating to others lovingly. What a concept! You also need to believe that to love someone does not take away from the love of anyone else. Love is not money! This attitude can take many forms, but it's the core idea that counts. The particular style of the relationships is usually a matter of preference, whether it be something that happens with sex or without, in the same room, at the same dinner table, on the same bed, in the same town, or across the country. If it makes you mad, jealous, resentful, greedy, envious, etc., that someone you love relates to another person kindly, then you're probably not headed for anything resembling gentle polyamory. But if you understand that love multiplies when it's given away, you're well on the way there.

You need to be able and willing to endure the learning processes of people who are not as good as these things as you are. You need to have a certain tolerance for the hypocrises of the world and the people around us, including your partner's, including your own.

Last, I'll leave it at this: You need to be willing to be responsible for your own jealousy. We all get jealous. You need to be able to admit it, and stick with your feelings for long enough to move through them, in the presence of others. Jealousy is a potent, rich and fertile emotion, and it contains the seeds of growth and freedom beyond what you probably believed was possible. (Jealousy is tomorrow's subject).

Okay, raise your hand if you're still left! Or rather, email me and let's get together for sushi.