Common Myths About Polyamory

By JulietEcho

Editor’s Note: This piece emerged from the discussion of my recent post on the legality of polyamory. Please welcome Daylight Atheism’s newest guest contributor, JulietEcho, who has her B.A. in both Philosophy and Religious Studies and is also the administrator of the Friendly Atheist forum. You can e-mail her at ejsunflowers@gmail.com.

I’ve been in a polyamorous relationship with my two partners for over three years now, and it’s been great. The only downside: the secrecy. Many people in the US don’t even know that plural relationships exist outside of Islamic countries and fundamentalist Mormon compounds. Polyamorous families tend to be very secretive – and with good reason. The religious majority in America considers any romantic relationship that’s not between a straight woman and a straight man (usually in the context of marriage) to be sinful and immoral – and people in polyamorous relationships mostly consider silence the safest option, given the risks of losing jobs, reputations and even custody of children. However, bad reactions to polyamory aren’t limited to reactions rooted in religion. I’m going to outline what I’ve found to be the three most common bad reactions to polyamory from non-religious people, and I plan to demonstrate why they’re bad reactions.

1. “Polyamory? That’s okay, as long as <insert horrible things here> isn’t going on.”

Underage marriages. Forced marriages. Abusive marriages. Polyamory is just swell, as long as it’s not underage, forced, and/or abusive polyamory! While the reaction based on historical connections is understandable, it’s a non-sequitur. When you find out that someone is marrying the woman of their dreams, you don’t say, “That’s great, as long as you don’t plan on beating your new wife!” There’s a long, horrible history of socially-acceptable violence against women, not to mention the centuries during which they were treated as property. This doesn’t, however, mean that we’re obliged to point out that it’s unacceptable every time we find out about a man and a woman in a romantic relationship. No one should have to clarify that their polyamorous relationship is abuse-free, any more than someone in a relationship with a woman should have to clarify that they don’t plan on treating her like property.

Some even argue that we should criminalize polyamory, or never acknowledge poly relationships as a normal part of society, because it would benefit abusers who force underage girls to marry them. This is beyond ridiculous – the fact that pedophiles are out there hasn’t led us to outlaw sex, and the fact that thieves are out there hasn’t led us to outlaw property ownership. There are still abusive relationships, pedophiles, and forced arranged monogamous marriages all over the world – are these things okay as long as they only involve two people? Should we outlaw one-on-one marriages so that we aren’t providing a framework for abusive husbands, forced arranged marriages, marital rape, etc? The solution isn’t to penalize polyamorous relationships – it’s to crack down on the abuse of women, whether they’re being abused singly or in groups.

2. “Those relationships are always about drama/don’t last/are dysfunctional.”

You don’t tend to hear about the relationships that do last, because polyamorous families don’t stand to gain anything from going public. You hear about the failed attempts from people who are upset and bitter about bad relationships (monogamous people don’t have a monopoly on those), and from cases where there was serious fall-out between groups of friends, etc. You don’t hear about the ones that last, because the people involved are generally terrified that they’ll lose their kids and their jobs if people find out.

With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people. There’s one more person who needs to “click” and more personal dynamics involved. It’s hard to find (and sustain) a happy, healthy polyamorous relationship – but once you’ve got one, the people involved tend to be strong communicators, prioritize honesty and not take the relationship for granted. That’s what it takes to make polyamory work.

In the end, to paraphrase Dan Savage, every relationship you have is going to fail – until one doesn’t. That’s true no matter how many people you date at once.

3. “Telling people that you’re polyamorous is over-sharing – it’s like telling them about your sex life.”

Telling someone that you’re dating a man is essentially telling them that you’re interested in sex with men. Telling someone that you’re dating a woman is essentially telling them that you’re interested in sex with women. Telling someone that you’re in a polyamorous relationship is essentially telling them that you don’t see sexual monogamy as a necessary part of a healthy relationship. That’s all. It doesn’t imply (and no one should infer) that poly people have group sex, orgies, or have open relationships. It doesn’t imply that every person in the relationship has sex with every other person in the relationship – in a way, it gives you less information about someone’s sex life than finding out that only two people are dating each other.

It might feel like too much information to hear that someone is in a poly relationship – but that’s about your personal comfort zone, not about the objective amount (or type) of information being shared. Many people are uncomfortable around gay couples or would rather not know that someone is gay – and that’s tough cookies. People in love shouldn’t have to (and aren’t going to) go through a constant, public charade so that other people won’t be grossed out or offended. No one is going to have sex in front of you. No one is going to ask you to join their poly relationship, like it’s a club or something. Admitting the existence of a romantic relationship isn’t inappropriate or over-sharing – it’s normal.

When it comes right down to it, perhaps the biggest unspoken reason people have for objecting to (or being offended by) polyamory is fear. It’s common for monogamous people to fear that a partner might leave them for a polyamorous relationship (or might demand opening up the existing relationship) if polyamory becomes normalized. But if your partner would actually leave you, or demand that you open up your relationship against your wishes, then you obviously aren’t on the same page. There are tons of people out there (I’d wager a large majority of people) who want mostly or completely monogamous relationships – and they should find, date and marry other people who want the same thing.

Being honest about whether or not you’re truly willing to commit to one other person sexually and romantically for life is ethical and healthy. Pretending to want monogamy (or genuinely wanting it, and then changing your mind and keeping it a secret), and then cheating is very, very common. Perhaps divorce and infidelity would become less common if more people were aware that poly relationships are an option, and if people made a greater effort to communicate their needs and desires. In short: polyamorous people aren’t a threat to people who truly want monogamy – any more than relationships with men are a threat to people who are only interested in relationships with women.

Whether polyamorous marriage is ever legalized or not, I’ll be more than happy if it’s someday considered socially acceptable. There’s nothing inherently unethical or offensive about it, and I’ve been surprised to find out how many polyamorous people I know, once they feel safe enough to talk about it. “Coming out” as polyamorous is currently a frightening, risky thing to do. If a friend discloses a polyamorous relationship to you, I hope you won’t react in any of the ways I’ve discussed above, but rather give them the support and friendship that they need.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments if you’re curious about polyamory, and thanks for reading.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    Prior to the discussions here I hadn’t really given polyamory a great deal of thought. Outside of the religious harem type of situation I guess people aren’t that aware of it. Of course this is (I presume) largely for the reasons you give about secrecy to avoid censure, which depending on how liberal a milieu you live in, are pertinent to any non-orthodox relationship.
    Of course not even the the good old xian neocons would give a flying f*ck about your domestic arrangements if it didn’t involve sex. Because it does, it gives them a God given perogative to interfere and criticise. The assumption will always be that there is necessarily an element of homosexuality in the relationship, so that’s bad too, right?
    Outside of the religious minded, I would say that the reactions you cite above from the non-religious are understandable even if not founded on the reality of your particular circumstances. I have a similar issue in my own relationship, which is a little unconventional and meeting people for the first time can be unnerving as certain assumptions on my motives and character are often made. I get used to it and understand why, as not all such relationships are as “healthy” as mine.
    I would be interested to know how friends and family view your circumstances, do they all know? do they accept it or even view it as a non-issue and how long did it take to get to that point?

    Oh! and well done for writing the post and for sharing :)

  • Ritchie

    Brava! Very well said.

    Worringly, it strikes me that sexual jealousy and possessiveness is so widely considered entirely appropriate. How many times have we heard stories of people exacting humiliating and vicious revenge on a cheating partner? How many soap storylines and agony aunt letters obsess about wandering spouses?

    Of course, I am not comparing polyamory to cheating, but it does seem to me that some people might find polyamory distasteful because they think it is fine and proper to be territorially possessive over a partner.

    Such jealousy is probably natural. But then, so is anger in the face of provocation. We have it drilled into ourselves that we need to curb our anger and violent impulses. But are we ever taught to curb our jealous ones?

    Never having been in a polyamorous relationship, I can’t say whether I’d be possessive. I’d like to think not, but I’ve overestimated myself in matters like this before. Either way I take my hat off to people who demonstrably rise above such things. I think it must be a very mature thing to do.

  • keddaw

    Ethnic minorities, for generations downtrodden by a white majority, voted against allowing the minority gay community having equaly rights. Campaigners for equal rights for gays, once that battle has inevitably been won, will mostly vote against equal rights for polyamorous couples. Crazy.

    Whatever living arrangement consenting adults want to have is none of my business, none of the state’s business and should in no way be a social stigma. Don’t see why that is such a difficult concept for people to accept.

  • Jim Baerg

    My 1st exposure to the idea of polyamorous relationships was many years ago when I read Heinlein’s novel _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. So I’ve been vaguely aware of the possibility & slightly curious about how many people actually make such a relationship work.

    BTW when I was at the World SF convention in Montreal in August I saw buttons for sale saying “I ♥♥♥♥ polyamory” :)

  • penn

    I don’t have any problem with polyamorous relationships. I certainly do not think they are inherently immoral. But, I would be against giving legal marriage status to multiple partners. Just one example of problems arising is employer benefits. Should employers have to provide benefits for an indefinite number of spouses who can each bring their own network of spouses to the marriage? I wouldn’t outlaw such arrangements, but giving legal marriage status to an indefinite number of spouses seems like a logistical nightmare.

  • Dan

    As a gay man, I certainly understand the social stigma that goes along with polyamory. And my only personal knowledge of polyamory is a close friend in Australia who’s in a poly relationship that’s certainly had its ups and downs over the years. But “years” is the key thing: love and open communication sustains it.

    I agree with Keddaw: consenting adults should be able to engage in any relationship that’s not abusive or exploitive. It’s time to update our laws with respect to parenthood and property rights issues too.

    But this is a really specious argument: “With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people.” You need to re-think that one.

  • keddaw

    Don’t want to take the comments off at a tangent but polyamorous relationships aren’t the only group unfairly legislated against, there are also incestuous relationships that are not immoral or problematic but are very much against the law.

  • AnonaMiss

    Good article!

    I think something a lot of un-poly-accepting people are afraid of is the “I’m sleeping with a married man” scenario: the idea that someone they may date may be poly without telling them, and the subsequent drama that would entail. Sure it would be a jerkish thing for a poly person to do, to date someone not okay with being in a multiple-partner situation, but it already happens with self-identified monogamous people – to the ignorant, polyamory is just a way to cheat on your partner(s) without having to feel bad.

    The problem is that many relationships aren’t on the same page, and a lot of people know it. In communities where sex before marriage is forbidden, or in which women are groomed for marriage as a career path, people get married without adequately knowing their partners and will often stay married even after it’s obvious they aren’t compatible, whether it be for the children, to avoid the stigma associated with divorce, because their religion teaches that divorce is evil, what have you. These people especially would see poly as a threat, just as they see homosexuality as a threat, because their relationships are *inherently* mutually parasitic, and more options outside the family means more ways for their already tenuous relationships to fall apart.

    (I’m not trying to apologize for the people who would drag out the torches and pitchforks if they knew you had multiple partners, I’m just speculating on their motivations.)

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I considered myself pretty even-handed on the subject coming into this, but point number one was actually an eye-opener for me. Thanks for correcting me! I started off agreeing with you on all the other points, though. Well-said!

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    But this is a really specious argument: “With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people.” You need to re-think that one.

    Really? It’s maybe a little tongue in cheek but not without point. I think JulietEcho is accepting that the more people there are involved in a relationship the more work is needed to keep it working. I think we get that.

    there are also incestuous relationships that are not immoral or problematic but are very much against the law.

    Oooh! To misquote Douglas Adams “I love moral boundaries, I like the crunching sound they make as they fall down”

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This is a great post, JulietEcho. I think I read something similar you wrote for Friendly Atheist. The way that you describe polyamorous people being treated reminds me of the attituide towards LGBT people, with people who are prejudiced using every bad example to make judgements on the whole group. I hope that the future will be better.

    All the best to you and your family.

    keddaw wrote:

    Ethnic minorities, for generations downtrodden by a white majority, voted against allowing the minority gay community having equaly rights. Campaigners for equal rights for gays, once that battle has inevitably been won, will mostly vote against equal rights for polyamorous couples. Crazy.

    Whatever living arrangement consenting adults want to have is none of my business, none of the state’s business and should in no way be a social stigma. Don’t see why that is such a difficult concept for people to accept.

    This reminds me of something I read in Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism about peole who wanted equal rights for African Americans but not for women. I wish people would learn from their own experiences (or from our history) and try to apply that to the future, so that humanity wouldn’t have to fight the same fight for equal rights again and again and again.

    I agree that consenting adults should be able to have whatever kind of relationship they want. I can’t understand some people’s demands that everyone should live life according to some formula that’s supposed to work for everyone but actually doesn’t.

    Steve Bowen wrote:

    Oooh! To misquote Douglas Adams “I love moral boundaries, I like the crunching sound they make as they fall down”

    I like your adaptation of Adams’s quote.

    Jim Baerg wrote:

    My 1st exposure to the idea of polyamorous relationships was many years ago when I read Heinlein’s novel _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. So I’ve been vaguely aware of the possibility & slightly curious about how many people actually make such a relationship work.

    For me, it was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that first made me think about polyamorous relationships. I look forward to reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  • JulietEcho

    Thanks for all the great responses, guys. Feel free to ask any questions you want – I was grateful to Ebon for posting my essay, because I feel strongly the the best step we can take towards acceptance/tolerance of polyamory is by raising awareness, answering questions, and “coming out” to the people we know.

    @ Steve Bowen:

    I would be interested to know how friends and family view your circumstances, do they all know? do they accept it or even view it as a non-issue and how long did it take to get to that point?

    All three of our families know, and they had varying reactions. My boyfriend’s family had sort of already figured it out, and they were just relieved that it was all honest/consensual (i.e. no one was cheating and no one was going to be hurt), and happy for us. They’ve been amazing, and the entire extended family knows (except for the kids), and we’re invited to holidays. My husband’s family mostly reacted the same way, except for his mom. She’s protective of him, and I think she was worried that he couldn’t possibly be happy with the arrangement. When he met with her for dinner and talked to her, she came around – and found out that he’s the most liberal one in the relationship!

    I don’t regret telling my very-religious family, but it still hurt when they took the news poorly. My parents were hysterical, and they were upset that I’d told my (adult) siblings. At one point my mom said that to understand how they felt, I should imagine if they told me that my dad was “having sex with little kids” and that they thought it was just as wrong on a moral level. They sent me a long, harsh e-mail in which they referred to it as adultery and implied that I must be doing it for the sex. We ended up agreeing to stay in touch and avoid the subject – just as we’ve done regarding my atheism. It’s awkward at times, but I don’t want to completely cut them off, and I know that there’s still a possibility that they’ll come around, even if it takes years.

    @ Dan:

    But this is a really specious argument: “With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people.” You need to re-think that one.

    It’s like Steve Bowen said – it’s meant to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek comparison, and I used it as a short-cut to refer to how poly relationships are often orders of magnitude more complicated than one-on-one relationships. It’s hard enough to find one person who you’re compatible with on a long-term basis – finding a third (or a fourth, or a fifth!) depends on compatibility with all partners, not just one.

    @ AnonaMiss:

    I think something a lot of un-poly-accepting people are afraid of is the “I’m sleeping with a married man” scenario: the idea that someone they may date may be poly without telling them, and the subsequent drama that would entail. Sure it would be a jerkish thing for a poly person to do, to date someone not okay with being in a multiple-partner situation, but it already happens with self-identified monogamous people – to the ignorant, polyamory is just a way to cheat on your partner(s) without having to feel bad.

    There are totally plenty of jerks out there who are polyamorous. Being poly doesn’t mean that nothing is cheating – just like in a monogamous relationship, there are boundaries, and people in poly relationships can (and do) “cheat” on their partners. The distinction between cheating/adultery and polyamory is hard for some people to understand, but it’s about honesty and permission/consent, plain and simple.

    @ Jim Baerg: I read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” back in middle school and loved the idea of group marriages the way he presented it. They seemed like a way to have even more loving, supportive family members (not to mention more financial security and help with chores/child-rearing/etc) and those impressions have been justified in my experience.

  • cello

    From cultural conditioning or whatever, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of poly marriages. And yes then I have to ask are there any lines we can draw? The homeless people that allow themselves to get beaten up for money…..okay? Dwarfs that allow themselves to be used as bowling balls…..all okay as consenting adults. Maybe moral relativism is reality but I don’t like all its implications. There is a point where I think people’s minds open up so much that brains fall out.

  • http://theorangesashford.moonfruit.com Steve Bowen

    The homeless people that allow themselves to get beaten up for money…..okay? Dwarfs that allow themselves to be used as bowling balls…..all okay as consenting adults.

    These are not equivelent. Such people are being economically coerced into “consenting”. I seriously doubt it is a free choice made from preference. Entering in to polyamorous relationship because you were similarly economically reliant would also be wrong

  • Dan L.

    From cultural conditioning or whatever, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of poly marriages. And yes then I have to ask are there any lines we can draw? The homeless people that allow themselves to get beaten up for money…..okay? Dwarfs that allow themselves to be used as bowling balls…..all okay as consenting adults. Maybe moral relativism is reality but I don’t like all its implications. There is a point where I think people’s minds open up so much that brains fall out.

    Is it immoral for Johnny Knoxville and the cast of Jackass to subject themselves to relatively dangerous physical abuse for money and cheap laughs?

    Is it immoral for an alcoholic to drink alcohol (since the person is subjecting himself or herself to harm)? Is it more or less immoral to outlaw alcohol for alcoholics? How about outlawing alcohol for everyone?

    Just because it gives you the “icks” doesn’t mean it’s immoral across the board, and certainly doesn’t mean that there should be laws against it.

  • cello

    “Entering in to polyamorous relationship because you were similarly economically reliant would also be wrong”

    Why? I wouldn’t work at my job unless I was economically reliant on it. What exempts a sexual relationship from economic consideration? This is not a snarky question. Many people advocate for legalizing prostitution under these grounds. I’m sure many mono marriages were entered into with economic considerations in mind.

    I personally don’t care for polyamorous relationships because there is a selfish component in it IMO. An unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire.

  • keddaw

    How do you get round to broaching this subject with a (potential) partner? Is it something you mention on a first date to get it ‘out there’ or do you go monogomous initially and mention it when the relationship is missing whatever another person would bring to it?

    I don’t know how I’d feel if a girl said to me she wanted another man in the relationship, or even another woman. I’d probably give it a go. Intellectually I know there is nothing to be upset or jealous about but some biological instincts are hard to shake.

  • Quath

    Great article. While I identify as polyamorous, I never thought of the first point that much. I guess it is too easy to try to find some agreeing points, that I would overlook the building of a sterotype.

    @Cell0: “I personally don’t care for polyamorous relationships because there is a selfish component in it IMO. An unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire.”

    It seems that marrying for security or love is selfish as well. Where do you draw the line in trying to have your cake and eat it too?

  • cello

    “Is is it immoral…”

    Those questions are never ending. Is it immoral for the Saudi clerics to outlaw cinema? Why? What is so special about that form of communication? What business is it of ours what the Afghanis or Saudis do. Is it immoral to be a national butinsky? Moral relativism is a zero sum game. Everything comes down to “there is no right or wrong”. The only thing we can say is what outcome we would like and choose according to that.

    I could see that in a world of anything goes – akin to the Palestinian territories, I would choose a religious backdrop (even though I would be faking it) because I value some structure.

  • Yahzi

    There are two traditional reasons for enforcing monogamy.

    1) Protecting men. In societies without monogamy, rich old men have multiple wives, and young poor men remain single. Not only is this bad for the men, but it’s bad for society. Bored young men make a lot of mischief – like wars (to gain wives) or crime.

    2) Protecting women. Men traditionally have most of the power in relationships. Allowing them to have multiple wives decreases the power of each individual wife. It is assumed men need sex; by removing the monopoly the wife has on providing sex you reduce her bargaining position. Since she is often economically dependent on the man (or at least her children are), this creates an even worse power imbalance.

    To justify polyamory on personal level, you need merely be fair and honest. But to justify it on a social level, you need to address these traditional concerns.

    (Of course, your version – 2 men 1 woman – is so historically improbable that really no one cares about it. Your parents are only concerned that you will lose your reputation for virtue – and for most of our history, that was all a woman had to defend herself or provide for herself. That or you’re mom’s just jealous. :D )

  • cello

    “Where do you draw the line in trying to have your cake and eat it too?”

    Quath, yes. That is exactly my question.

  • JulietEcho

    I think that the basic requirements for something being ethical/moral are: 1) consenting 2) adults 3) not harming non-consenting children/bystanders/etc.

    Do some people enter relationships (all kinds, really) for reasons other than love? Definitely. People absolutely marry (and stay in bad marriages) for financial security, and may even feel trapped. They face harsh consequences if they go back to being single, especially in the case of many women.

    None of this makes polyamory any more (or less) problematic than monogamous relationships. I also don’t understand the “selfish” claim regarding poly – the important part of such relationships is that everyone is happy with the arrangement. If some partners are unhappy or non-consenting, then it’s a failure/involves cheating. Some poly arrangements involve members who are all sexually active with one another, some incorporate “open relationships” where partners are free to seek sexual satisfaction (usually with some limits) outside the “primary” relationship, and some are “closed”/fidelitous like mine.

    People find different things that make them happy. I don’t think this is selfish – I think it’s a natural part of everything that comes with love and sexual relationships. People who think the benefits of monogamy outweigh the desire they may or may not have for more partners will choose monogamy, and more power to them. Those who choose to be poly aren’t more selfish though – they just want different things.

    @ Yahzi – I think you’re basically using a variation of the argument/reaction I address in #1 of my post. The fact that certain poly relationships are harmful or dangerous is a non-sequitur. There are already similar threats that monogamous relationships can pose – gold-diggers are already free to pursue the elderly rich (look at Hugh Hefner for what many people would consider an example), and there are already many men who feel unable to find women who’ll want them. Likewise, there are women whose husbands cheat on them or leave them. Working further towards sexual equality is the way to address this – not by outlawing everything that represents a potential problem in our existing flawed society.

    @keddaw – I think it’s pretty common for people with similar liberal attitudes about relationships to get together, and that can lead to poly relationships. I know that my husband and I both already considered poly relationships ethical and cool (although I wasn’t sure I wanted one, whereas he was interested in trying it) before I fell in love with my boyfriend. We were already primed for something like that to happen, so we went for it, and it worked out. Our story is unusual in that it was our first poly relationship and has so far worked out for over three years (and we hope it will last the rest of our lives). But I think the way it started is pretty common. Other people might be single and interested in poly, so they seek out like-minded people from the start.

    If you’re in a monogamous relationship and you become interested in poly, there are some important questions to ask yourself (first: how much do I want this? Is it necessary to my happiness, or is it just one option among others that would make me happy?), and above all, it’s important to phrase the topic clearly when you bring it up. Bringing up the idea of opening up your relationship to another member (or just opening up your sexual monogamy) can be terrifying to a partner who (a) doesn’t share that interest/desire and (b) scare them into thinking that they aren’t “enough” for you even if that isn’t true. You should be sure to reassure them that the conversation isn’t a precursor to an ultimatum or a break-up or demands – it’s just a hypothetical, and if they aren’t interested, you aren’t going to cheat or punish them or anything.

  • Leum

    I personally don’t care for polyamorous relationships because there is a selfish component in it IMO. An unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire.

    Speaking as an intensely monogamous person, I disagree completely. It’s no more selfish of Julia to want to have multiple lovers than it is for me to want my partner to only be with me; no more selfish than my refusal to remain in a relationship where my partner is unwilling to have sex with me would be. Ultimately, if our own needs and desires are not satisfied or resolved in a relationship, that relationship is not going to work. If Julia’d be unhappy in a mono relationship, her partner, if (s)he loves her, would be unhappy, too.

  • DSimon

    Do polyamorous relationships tend more often to be clusters (that is, a group of 3 or more people all of whom are in a relationship with everyone else in the group) or node graphs (that is, person A in a relationship with person B, and person B in a relationship with person C, but person A and person C not in a relationship)?

  • JulietEcho

    DSimon: I have no idea – in my personal (limited) experience, it’s more likely to be in node graphs (sometimes a combination of small clusters and nodes), but there just isn’t enough research out there (or, probably, people willing to take the risk of answering such questions) to give us that kind of information.

    I do know of other relationships like mine, where everyone shares a house and considers one another “family” but I think it’s probably less common than the nodes-version. I know a couple who’ve told us that they’ve found they don’t “share well” so they both date separate people, usually at a distance. They both like being poly, but they like keeping their relationships separate rather than clustered.

  • David

    I don’t understand the appeal of polyamorism, nor do I honestly believe there is any sort of virulent societal prejudice against it. But even more to the point, I don’t know why people who are in polyamorous relationships feel the need to be so proactively defensive about it.

    It isn’t some big burning topic of public discussion. Who cares?

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    Penn sez:

    But, I would be against giving legal marriage status to multiple partners. Just one example of problems arising is employer benefits. Should employers have to provide benefits for an indefinite number of spouses who can each bring their own network of spouses to the marriage? I wouldn’t outlaw such arrangements, but giving legal marriage status to an indefinite number of spouses seems like a logistical nightmare.

    I have a relative who is a financial dependent. She isn’t my wife, nor is she my child. Because she doesn’t fall into either of those catagories, there is a whole raft of benefits that we aren’t eligible for. And, perhaps more importantly, she wouldn’t be eligible for any benefits when I die (outside of insurance that I pay for out of pocket).

    That situation is ridiculous. Consider situations where siblings live together for extended periods of time, adult children live with parents, long term room mates, etc. Most of those relationships, although stable and supportive. But they don’t get any financial benefits from employers or the government.

    I’d love to see a situation where employers/government got out of the marriage business altogether. Instead, everyone would get a package of benefits that could be split arbitrarily, and given to anyone the holder sees fit. There would need to be some allocation mechanism (to ensure the pie wasn’t sliced too thinly) and mechanisms to prevent abuse, but it seems sensible.

    We all agree that dependents deserve support. So why are some left out in the cold? Why is male/female relationship given higher status than parent/child, sibling/sibling, or a male/male/female relationship?

  • Sarah Braasch

    I struggle with this one. It is one of those theory / practice dichotomies. In theory, I 100% concur with JulietEcho. Then, I look around the world at what is going down everywhere where polyamory is recognized legally (or condoned by the authorities), and I look at what is being practiced. And, I struggle.

    Family Law in most states in the US is laughably out of date.

    I would actually suggest a complete revamp. Something that makes sense for all of the ways that people actually live their lives.

    I actually find it ridiculous to define families based on romantic / sexual connections.

    Why not go even further — friends / siblings / extended family members who make a commitment to live together / share expenses / raise kids together / buy property / etc. / etc..

    Pre nuptial contracts for everyone. Contract everything.

  • cello

    “It’s no more selfish of Julia to want to have multiple lovers than it is for me to want my partner to only be with me;”

    The only poly relationship that I see as not selfish is one where all partners are committed to each other, are having sexual relations with each other, and are finding enjoyment in each other. Where there is a bargain among all parties to each other. Otherwise, I believe the situation is inherently unequal. IMO, there is a value to be found for both the individual and societal level in commitment and sacrificing some personal desires and as such I would not support poly marriage.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I personally don’t care for polyamorous relationships because there is a selfish component in it IMO. An unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire.

    ???

    Would you say that a non-celibate relationship is selfish, because it shows an unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire?

    How is it selfish to pursue a desire that your partner(s) also want to pursue — and to put effort and care into making that work for all of you?

    Polyamory isn’t about the selfish desire to have all the sex you want. It’s about the desire for you and your partners to have a kind of relationship that works for you. And people do have to make sacrifices in poly relationships — they’re not a free-for-all.

    What’s more, polyamory takes a huge amount of work; and as Juliet pointed out, “the people involved tend to be strong communicators, prioritize honesty and not take the relationship for granted.” This isn’t something people do lightly — and it isn’t something they do just so they can get laid a lot. It takes much more work than that. (A lot more than I could handle. I’m non-monogamous, but I’m not polyamorous — I have great respect for people who do it, but I just don’t have it in me.)

    If you’re squicked by poly relationships, that’s a good argument for you not getting into one. But it’s not a good argument for why other people shouldn’t.

    But even more to the point, I don’t know why people who are in polyamorous relationships feel the need to be so proactively defensive about it.

    Sigh. The “how dare you marginalized minority take up my valuable time explaining who you are” argument. Did you read the “given the risks of losing jobs, reputations and even custody of children” part? There is real bigotry against poly people and poly relationships. It may not be a burning topic for you — but it sure is for the people involved. And it’s a topic that’s come up more than once in this blog.

    Oh, and re the “poly relationships are unstable” argument, I also want to point this out: I hate the idea that the only test of a successful relationship is how long it lasts. Some great relationships run their course and eventually end, and that doesn’t negate their value. And some truly horrible relationships last until death do us part.

  • Wednesday

    Cello – do you honestly think someone could be in a long-term committed functional relationship with two different people, and _not_ be sacrificing some personal desires? Poly does not mean “magically everyone is happy” – all relationships take work and involve some degree of sacrifice and compromise, whether they’re monogamous or not. Responsibly adding a second (or third, or fourth…) relationship will make things harder, not easier.

    Just because a poly relationship isn’t a complete graph doesn’t mean there’s no commitment, or compromise, or sacrifice.

  • cello

    “Would you say that a non-celibate relationship is selfish, because it shows an unwillingness to sacrifice a personal desire?”

    I have a higher opinion of open relationships/marriages than the standard poly arrangement. There is a commitment to each other *except for* sex – but then each partner is on the same terms.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    I can’t understand some people’s demands that everyone should live life according to some formula that’s supposed to work for everyone but actually doesn’t.
    – Sharmin, #11

    QFT. I think the degree to which we are permissive is the degree to which we are civilized – the more options you have, the better. Different strokes and all of that, and the more we can accommodate, the better.

    I concur with JulietEcho that informed, consenting adults are what’s key here: so long as you are informed of the risks and consent to them, then who cares what adults decide to do with their lives? So what if there’s harm, if you’re comfortable with it, whether it’s polyamory or skydiving? So what if it’s exploitative, if you’re comfortable being exploited that way? And if you don’t like that sort of thing, then for crying out loud, don’t do it – but don’t ever tell people they can’t do things to themselves just because you don’t want to.

    Consider the TOTALLY NSFW kink.com – these fine, upstanding citizens engage in all sorts of dangerous activities for fun and profit. They get health insurance, vision and dental plans, 401(k), and a lot of the regulars participate in multiple sites (so, for a lot of these people, everything goes all ways). But without the informed consent of these adults, these activities would be categorized as rape, torture, battery, unlawful imprisonment, all sorts of evil things! The informed consent of adults is so key here – with it, anything can be awesome.

    Getting back to the homeless persons getting beaten up for money – nobody should be “forced” into that, but “force” is what makes it wrong. If I had the choice between taking a few blows or going a night without food, well… I might go one or two nights without food (I’ve had to do that before), but after a while, I’d rather get beaten up for money than starve to death. And I’d do my best to be grateful that I had that option after all the others fell through, and I wasn’t forced to “starve with dignity” or however you’d feel like putting it.

    @ Sarah Braasch (#28): I’m totally with you on making contracts available for everything. It’s just more civilized (or good, however you want to put it). One of my roommates has back issues – he has no job, but rather lives off a very wise investment from his youth to put him through school, but during an off-semester he fell off his father’s insurance due to age alone and he has had back problems since high school. Now he has no way to get the insurance coverage he needs for when his back acts up. I get insurance through my job, but I can’t extend it to him because we’re not married and he can’t be my dependent. It’s so stupid!

    But then again, I guess this is what happens when insurance companies act like they’re trying to protect people but really try to protect their assets because they’re businesses (then again, they need to protect their assets to have assets with which to protect people). It’s complicated. Argh.

  • Ritchie

    cello -

    …as such I would not support poly marriage.

    Do you mean just5 that you would not want to enter into such a relationship yourself, or that you would not support other people’s right to chose to enter into one?

    The difference is huge.

    I don’t expect straight people to enter gay relationships themselves. That’s their choice. But in that name of freedom, I do think they should support my right to enter into one.

  • cello

    “Do you mean just5 that you would not want to enter into such a relationship yourself, or that you would not support other people’s right to chose to enter into one?”

    Well I guess I’d have to break it down….

    1. As a nonlegal / non-contractual arrangement, I don’t care about poly relationships in the sense that I wouldn’t go butting into people’s business unless they asked me about it (by posting on a blog or something ;-) ).

    2. For me personally, I could possibly see doing the two options I noted above – open relationship, or three people equally committed to each other. (The later is unlikely, it would take some kind of kismet I don’t know exists.)

    3. As a legal arrangement, no I wouldn’t support poly marriages. But if we are changing the contractual terms as suggested above for everyone, then maybe my opinion would change. As it stands now, I like the one-to-one marriage definition (I support gay marriage). I think it works for a variety of reasons based on the system we have now.

    4. As I said above (which I realize caused y’all much consternation), I think the standard poly set up is inherently unequal and selfish. Relationships take time, energy and creativity. Sex takes time, energy and creativity. To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment. You can all hate on me if you like, but that’s how I see it.

  • http://daisiesandshit.com Tanya

    @DSimon

    Do polyamorous relationships tend more often to be clusters (that is, a group of 3 or more people all of whom are in a relationship with everyone else in the group) or node graphs (that is, person A in a relationship with person B, and person B in a relationship with person C, but person A and person C not in a relationship)?

    While there are poly relationships where everyone is sexually involved with everyone else, such “clusters” aren’t very common in my experience. (In fact, there’s a bit of an inside joke among poly-people where couples actively seeking a bisexual individual to join their relationship as a lover for both are referred to as “unicorn hunters”.) Most of the poly relationships I’ve encountered, including my own, operate according to the “node graph” model you mentioned – configurations within this model are often further defined by the “primary” and “secondary” relationship structure. For example, a poly family with three primary members might be defined as a “triad” regardless of any secondary relationships each of the three primary members might have. Four primary members might be defined as a “quad”, and so on.

    An important thing to remember, however, is that even though the structure of a poly family might be easy to define you’re unlikely to encounter two poly families that operate in exactly the same way.

    @cello

    The only poly relationship that I see as not selfish is one where all partners are committed to each other, are having sexual relations with each other, and are finding enjoyment in each other. Where there is a bargain among all parties to each other. Otherwise, I believe the situation is inherently unequal. IMO, there is a value to be found for both the individual and societal level in commitment and sacrificing some personal desires and as such I would not support poly marriage.

    While you’re certainly entitled to your opinions, you’ve just labeled my husband and I as selfish, and condemned our very happy marriage as “inherently unequal.” My husband and I consider ourselves to be “primary” partners. Each of us have “secondary” partners as well – I’ve decided to take a break from dating for a bit, and he’s currently involved with one woman, and exploring the possibility of a more serious relationship with another. He’s straight, and while I am bisexual I seem to get along better with men, so it’s highly unlikely that my husband and I will ever be involved in a relationship with the same person.

    How, exactly, does this make us selfish? Where are either of us hurt by the other’s desire for a relationship with another person? What is it, exactly, that makes our relationship “inherently unequal”? Lastly, what gives you the impression that we’re automatically so irresponsible as to negate the “sacrifice” of “some personal desires”?

    It seems as though your opinions are based on a number of unfounded assumptions…

  • http://daisiesandshit.com Tanya

    @cello

    As I said above (which I realize caused y’all much consternation), I think the standard poly set up is inherently unequal and selfish. Relationships take time, energy and creativity. Sex takes time, energy and creativity. To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment. You can all hate on me if you like, but that’s how I see it.

    I don’t think anyone is hating on you, though you must understand why your opinion might be a bit hurtful to someone who’s currently in a relationship you define so negatively.

    You’re right, relationships do take time, energy, and creativity. Sex also takes time, energy, and creativity. I don’t, however, know of any poly relationships in which only ONE partner divides their energies to multiple other partners where the OTHER partner is not also allowed to do so. I’m not sure where you got the impression that was the “standard poly set up”.

  • Polly

    My only strong opinion is about Polly-marriage. :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment.

    You seem to think that this doesn’t apply to all involved.

  • Argentum

    A little background: my wife and I have been a couple for over 16 years, married for 12. About a year before we got married, we discovered it was possible to have romantic and sexual feelings for other people, and act on those feelings without diminishing our feelings for each other. We didn’t know there was a term for it like “polyamory” at the time. Since then we’ve had multiple experiences with it.

    keddaw said:
    I don’t know how I’d feel if a girl said to me she wanted another man in the relationship, or even another woman. I’d probably give it a go. Intellectually I know there is nothing to be upset or jealous about but some biological instincts are hard to shake.

    I really don’t think that type of fear or jealousy is biological in nature, if by biological you mean you mean an evolved or instinctive reaction. I think they are psychological reactions to sociological conditioning. My ability to get beyond them was in large part the result of a serious internal battle against them while my wife and I were still dating, before the concept of opening our relationship ever entered either of our minds. In the everyday life and art of most cultures we’re shown countless examples of situations where involvement by an outside party in a romantic/married relationship results in heartbreak/anger/jealousy, but we’re almost never exposed to situations of that kind that have positive overtones. Hence, we’re predisposed to believe that they can only end badly for one or more of the people involved.

    I have a friend who is part of a polyamorous family along with her husband and at least three other adults (not all necessarily intimate with each other… I don’t know them well enough to know all the details). They all share a home together, raise her two children (from a prevous marriage) together, and have all been a family for over 10 years. Her kids are brilliant and well-adjusted, and they’re one of the most responsible, loving families I know. So it CAN work in the long term, though their case is pretty exceptional, especially in terms of the number of people involved.

    cello said:
    To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment.

    That is something the partner in the middle has to consider before entering into that kind of releationship. And if their partners really care about them, they will do their best to understand the position the person they are sharing is in, and work to make it as easy as possible for them. As has been stated numerous times, the most important element of any relationship founded on love and fairness is open, honest and frequent communication between ALL parties involved.

    I’ve seen the point made by anthropologists that for the greater part of human history (and probably pre-history) worldwide, the “traditional” one man/one-woman marriage + kids family format is fairly new and uncommon. And in most cultures where that has been the dominant format (such as the West), it was largely a matter of convenience and security, and quite often it was expected or assumed that at least one of the partners (usually the husband) would engage in discreet (preferably) extramarital relations for real physical/emotional satisfaction. The “Ozzie & Harriet Family Paradigm” is an idealistic abstraction whose time has long passed. Sure, families like that exist, and there’s no reason why they can’t work, but they’re a round hole, and human pegs come in all shapes.

  • Dan L.

    Those questions are never ending. Is it immoral for the Saudi clerics to outlaw cinema? Why? What is so special about that form of communication? What business is it of ours what the Afghanis or Saudis do. Is it immoral to be a national butinsky? Moral relativism is a zero sum game. Everything comes down to “there is no right or wrong”. The only thing we can say is what outcome we would like and choose according to that.

    The reason I chose the questions I did is because the individuals involved in the moral dilemmas were hurting themselves rather than anyone else, and where preventing the dilemmas through legislation would involve denying everyone freedom to prevent some small group from hurting themselves.

    I disagree with your assertion above, and you’ve done nothing to support it. First of all, whether or not moral relativism is a desirable outcome, it is already true. Some people (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) believe it is immoral to celebrate Christmas. Some believe it is immoral not to believe in a divine Jesus Christ as the savior of mankind. Do you agree with both those positions? No? Well, other people do, so morals must be relative.

    But that doesn’t mean we can’t draw lines. It just means that we need to be willing to reach consensus — especially consensus with minority positions — on whether any particular moral precept should be ensconced in law.

    The question for me is this: if I am in a polyamorous relationship, does that negatively impact you at all? If so, how? If not, why should I be forbidden from (or penalized for or stigmatized for) being in such a relationship? Basically, what is it about polyamorous relationships that is immoral? Or is it not that they’re immoral, but that you simply personally find the idea repellant?

    Note that this question wraps up your objections pretty handily: is it immoral for the Saudi clerics to outlaw cinema? Well, if I make a film, does that hurt people? Certainly not unless they are forced to watch it. In this case, legislating against cinema is immoral because it prevents individuals from doing something that will not hurt anyone else. Is it immoral to be a “national butinsky,” by which I assume you mean the sort of pious loudmouth that started the temperance movement? Yes — by working to deprive others of freedom to engage in activities that do not harm others (except possibly by their consent) you are acting immorally.

    Mine as well: you have a problem with Christmas, don’t celebrate it. It’s more moral for Christmas to be legal and allow those that don’t like it not to celebrate it. It’s more moral to allow both dissent from and faith in Christianity than to require one or the other by law.

    You want a standard? “An’ it harm no one,” is an old and thoroughly vetted standard for morality. You want to convince me something is immoral? Show me how how it causes harm.

  • cello

    “Basically, what is it about polyamorous relationships that is immoral? Or is it not that they’re immoral, but that you simply personally find the idea repellant?”

    Perhaps you didn’t read my subsequent posts. Repellant would be a mischaracterization of my position especially considering I said I would be part of an “open” relationship but not a standard poly one. I stand by all four points of my four pointed post above.

  • Dan L.

    1. As a nonlegal / non-contractual arrangement, I don’t care about poly relationships in the sense that I wouldn’t go butting into people’s business unless they asked me about it (by posting on a blog or something ;-) ).

    To me, this is equivalent to saying, “It’s not for me, but I don’t find it immoral.”

    2. For me personally, I could possibly see doing the two options I noted above – open relationship, or three people equally committed to each other. (The later is unlikely, it would take some kind of kismet I don’t know exists.)

    “Three people equally committed to each other,” is, I think, a red herring at best. In a typical monogamous relationship, are the two people equally committed to each other? Always? Without exception? Can you demonstrate that even ONE particular couple is equally committed to each other? I don’t see how you could without being able to read minds.

    At any rate, I’m pretty sure that the sentiment behind “equally committed to each other” is exactly the sort of relationship that JulietEcho and the rest of us are talking about. I don’t see how an open relationship is any more or less moral than this.

    3. As a legal arrangement, no I wouldn’t support poly marriages. But if we are changing the contractual terms as suggested above for everyone, then maybe my opinion would change. As it stands now, I like the one-to-one marriage definition (I support gay marriage). I think it works for a variety of reasons based on the system we have now.

    Marriage as a contract mediated through a church or state is completely beside the point from my perspective, but I can appreciate the practical concerns in allowing spouse benefits for an arbitrary number of people.

    4. As I said above (which I realize caused y’all much consternation), I think the standard poly set up is inherently unequal and selfish. Relationships take time, energy and creativity. Sex takes time, energy and creativity. To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment. You can all hate on me if you like, but that’s how I see it.

    What is the “standard poly set up”? How much direct experience with polyamorous couples are you drawing on in establishing this standard? You seem to assume this standard is a many-to-one relationship, but I see no reason to jump to that conclusion. Even so, some people have greater or lesser libidos than others — I can easily imagine a relationship in which two people with relatively low libidos are more than happy to split the work of satisfying the other partner, assumed to have a relatively high libido for this thought experiment.

    Anyway, so what if it is selfish (more or less selfish than wanting one person all to myself, I wonder)? Selfish is not the same as immoral (unless that’s how you define immoral), and if everyone involved is being selfish and getting what they want, that’s what we call a “win-win situation”.

  • Dan L.

    So in other words: yes, I read your other posts. They did not answer the question of what harm is caused by consensual polyamorous relationships (for me, directly causing harm is a necessary condition for immorality).

    Also, corrections on the last post: should be “polymaorous relationships” instead of “polyamorous couples” and should be “win-win-win… situation” instead of “win-win”.

  • Staceyjw

    Just my 2 centavos :)

    People just can’t stand relationships that are outside of their narrow little box of whats “acceptable”, and it IS irritating. I’m not poly, but as soon as anyone hears that I work and HE stays home, all hell breaks loose (really, almost EVERYONE has something to say). If it were the other way around, I would be lauded as “lucky” and he would be “a great catch”- instead I’m called “desperate and stupid” and he’s a “worthless user”. We couldn’t just love each other, and have found a good working situation for BOTH of us- that’s beyond people’s comprehension.
    I can’t believe how nasty people are about this, and how often they (near strangers AND close friends) feel totally OPEN in criticizing us!

    I support ALL consenting relationships- for ANY reason- and can’t wait for society to catch up. I am sure poly relationships get even more flack, which is sad and silly. I would like a poly relationship, I am just way to lazy for this type of thing. Too much work :)

    Cello-
    Whats wrong with being selfish anyway? I think the term is unfairly demonized.

    D-
    Thanks for commenting on homeless being beat up for $, I couldn’t agree more. I hear this attitude about sex for money too, but as with many economic choices, it can be a winner, for certain people. Not every economic choice gets to be made in good situations, sometimes you choose just the lesser of two evils- but this doesn’t mean the person isn’t consenting.

    Staceyjw

  • cello

    “That is something the partner in the middle has to consider before entering into that kind of relationship. And if their partners really care about them, they will do their best to understand the position the person they are sharing is in, and work to make it as easy as possible for them.”

    Argentum, I appreciate your thoughtful post and I appreciate that you are honest about it not being a level commitment. I do take pause at your comment “if their partners really care about them”. It sounds like a threat. Perhaps luem has a point and asking for a second spouse is no more selfish than asking for monogamy. Which type of selfishness trumps the other? “If they really care about them…” is rife with problems.

  • cello

    “Whats wrong with being selfish anyway?”

    Staceyjw, you are obviously free to be all the selfish you want.

  • JulietEcho

    I guess I’ll comment on the whole “level/equal” thing.

    I think the healthiest, most sensible thing for people in relationships to do is to be honest and see if their desires/needs match up well. In a lot of fictional and idealized relationships, everyone’s will match up perfectly, and this is what’s usually naively assumed about marriages – i.e. that both partners have the same needs, the same libido, the same kinks (or lack of kinks), and will continue to have matching needs/desires until death does them part. This might actually happen – but I’ll bet it’s freaking rare.

    In reality, even a monogamous couple has differences. Maybe partner A is insecure about partner B hugging other people, whereas partner B doesn’t mind if partner A even goes so far as to kiss other people. Partner A might want sex every night of the week, and Partner B might only want it once a week. People compromise and find ways of getting their needs met that (hopefully) also fit into an honest agreement (i.e. Partner B agrees to have sex more often, despite not being super into it, and Partner A has permission to view porn and masturbate). Even such simple arrangements though, are often unspoken arrangements – Partners A and B never have an honest conversation about it, but perhaps Partner B has sex more often because they fear Partner A will cheat; and Partner A probably hides their pornography and knows there will be a big fight if B finds it.

    So I think it’s frankly unrealistic to talk about “level” or “equal” demands in a relationship, because people aren’t cookie-cutter-products. Everybody’s different, and desires and needs change as we get older.

    In my current relationship, yes, I have the most sex. I certainly don’t think that I lack energy or creativity when it comes to sex with either of my partners (it’s different with both, because one is vanilla and one is kinky), and they are both honest about the fact that they have porn collections (one of them actually likes kink.com a lot, D). There’s also a standing option to discuss having sex outside the relationship, but it’s not so wide-open that it could be with anyone. My husband, for example, has permission to have sex with a certain friend of mine, and her boyfriend is okay with it too.

    My boyfriend and husband are good friends – they’ve known each other since before either of them met me. If they didn’t get along, I don’t think our family arrangement would work. Perhaps we’d all still be poly, but we’d be in nodes instead of in a cluster.

    Anyway, all this is meant to convey that in healthy poly relationships – just like in healthy monogamous relationships – people are honest about having different needs, kinks, libidos, etc. Expecting to have identical standards and identical needs is unrealistic and unhealthy, unless you just happen to naturally have identical needs.

  • http://daisiesandshit.com Tanya

    @cello

    Repellant would be a mischaracterization of my position especially considering I said I would be part of an “open” relationship but not a standard poly one.

    The issue is that you seem to be ignorant as to what constitutes a “standard” poly relationship.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    The “Ozzie & Harriet Family Paradigm” is an idealistic abstraction whose time has long passed. Sure, families like that exist, and there’s no reason why they can’t work, but they’re a round hole, and human pegs come in all shapes.
    – Argentum, #38

    So I think it’s frankly unrealistic to talk about “level” or “equal” demands in a relationship, because people aren’t cookie-cutter-products. Everybody’s different, and desires and needs change as we get older.
    – JulietEcho, #46

    QFT, on both counts.

    I again want to point out Sarah Braasch’s suggestion to allow contracts for everything. Really, if people are willing to take the time to fill out their damn paperwork, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do what they like. Sure, hospitals might need to adapt their policies, people might get a little squeamish about others going beyond their “traditional values,” and some folks might be alienated at the institution of things they don’t want to bother wrapping their heads around. Holy fuckin’ shit, you mean that people might need to learn something new?! Hide the chilluns, lock up the barn! Change is a-comin’!

    But seriously, I grew up seeing my monogamous parents go through the second-longest divorce proceedings in state history. It was awful. My father had two additional kids with his second wife (she is his third husband), and after doing a lot of soul-searching, she came to the conclusion that she’s gay a few years ago. They’re also paying mortgages on houses in two different states, since they couldn’t sell the house they moved out of, and she got a much more lucrative job offer back in the old house while he’s stuck in the new one due to his new job. So my father pretty much does what he likes now (for a while, he was sleeping with a travelling nurse who was renting a room from him), while his wife lives with the kids and her girlfriend, and the kids get to stay in the town they grew up in (with the occasional visit to see my father and the dogs), and we’re all One Big Happy. Seriously, we take family vacations together and everything, it’s awesome. Totally non-traditional, but who cares? Nobody’s fucking fighting with each other in court, and people talk about their goddamned feelings now and try to help each other get whatever it is that they need. I think that’s a damn sight healthier and all-around better than the failed monogamy I saw as a child.

    Everything’s different. Monogamy is no guarantor of anything, it’s an arbitrary convention and insisting on it or privileging it is just stupid. It’s just that most people are already comfortable with it because that’s what they see most often, so they don’t bother to think outside what they’re used to. The Hell is up with that? Oh, right, getting outside your own head is alienating and uncomfortable. I sometimes forget that… :)

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    …dammit, he is her third husband. I always get that whole “sex” thing confused. LRN 2 PRONOUN, NOOB!

  • Sarah Braasch

    Freedom of Contract. Even the Republicans will be able to get behind it.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    4. As I said above (which I realize caused y’all much consternation), I think the standard poly set up is inherently unequal and selfish. Relationships take time, energy and creativity. Sex takes time, energy and creativity. To have one partner divvy up their energies to multiple other partners is NOT a level commitment. You can all hate on me if you like, but that’s how I see it.

    You’re making a whole lot of unwarranted assumptions here, cello.

    You’re assuming that the “standard poly set up” is the harem model: one in which one person has multiple partners who don’t engage with each other. It’s not. There is no “standard poly set up.” There are many, many models: models in which all partners are involved with each other; models in which some partners are involved emotionally but not sexually; models in which the people in the poly relationship (the triad or whatever) also have sex outside that relationship, with free-floating single people; etc., etc., etc. It’s actually one of the best things about polyamory and non-monogamy, IMO — there isn’t a default setup that everyone falls into without thinking, the way there is with monogamy. You have to really think about what works for all of you — and you have to keep re-thinking it as the relationship changes.

    You’re also assuming that every human being has the same level of sexual desire. They don’t. There are poly arrangements where one person has more sex than the other(s)… but that isn’t necessarily a problem. In fact, it can be the exact opposite — the solution to a problem. Differing levels of sexual desire is one of the most common problems in monogamous relationships — one person wants it four times a week, the other wants it once a month — and polyamory or non-monogamy can be a really good response to that problem.

    And you’re assuming that every human being has the same level of emotional and relationship desire. They don’t. I’ve been the “secondary” or “outside partner” with one member of a non-monogamous couple… and it suited me really well. I was happily single at the time and not interested in a long-term romantic relationship — but I also wanted occasional sex with someone I cared about. It worked really well for me. And it worked really well for my fuckbuddy and his primary partner. Our one sex date a month didn’t take anything away from my fuckbuddy’s relationship with his primary partner — any more than if he and I had gone off to a basketball game together once a month.

    Suggested reading: Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino. She’s not the best writer on Loki’s green earth, but the information is sound. You might check it out if you’re interested in actually learning what polyamory is like for the people who practice it, instead of leaping to judgmental conclusions based largely on your own imagination.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Oh, I forgot: You’re also assuming that poly arrangements are static. More often than not, they’re anything but. They can and do shift over time to meet the changing needs, desires, and feelings of the people involve.

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  • Valhar2000

    JulietEcho, were these really the most common objections you heard? Maybe I ignored them due to their manifest stupidity, but the ones I remember were much better, if not necessarily winners. In particular, concerns about marital benefits, health and end-of-life arrangements, divorce, etc.

    Penn, while I do agree with you that the logistical problems posed by poly-amorous marriages are a nightmare compared to normal marriages, we should at least make a good effort to solve them before throwing our hands in the air and declaring the problem unsolvable. Erigami’s idea is interesting.

  • Chris

    It’s common for monogamous people to fear that a partner might leave them for a polyamorous relationship (or might demand opening up the existing relationship) if polyamory becomes normalized. But if your partner would actually leave you, or demand that you open up your relationship against your wishes, then you obviously aren’t on the same page.

    First of all, I think “normalized” is misleading. Rather, there would be no standard of normality — the fact that people have different desires would be accepted. Nobody (that I know of) wants to force everyone to become poly, any more than they want to force anyone to be gay. Heck, they don’t even want to outlaw jealousy, they just want people to be less self-righteous about it.

    The whole idea of a “normal relationship” is based on Platonism — which is just plain wrong. Different relationships are different, which is fine, because different people are different and want different things from their relationships. A Procrustean desire to enforce uniformity just hurts people.

    Anyway, going back to the fear issue, I think some people fear (without necessarily putting it explicitly in these terms) that their partners are closet poly — that they would be in a poly relationship if they could, and are only feigning interest in monogamy because of the social norm. And I think some of the people who fear that are probably right. Without the pressure of society, their partners might actually look for other people (plural).

    Those people either don’t understand how their desire for one particular kind of relationship is making their partner suffer, or are in denial about it, or just don’t care as long as their relationship stays in a pattern that satisfies *them*. Of course their partners can’t *admit* that they have a problem with monogamy, because then they wouldn’t be passing as monogamous. (Monogamy-oriented? We need different words for the behavior and the desire, in this context.) They don’t dare come out even (perhaps especially) to their own partners. (There’s a strong parallel to kink here, I think.) And some even internalize the social norm that there’s something wrong with the way they feel and develop self-hate as a result.

    Come to think of it, there may be a similar dynamic underlying some people’s fear of homosexuality. “My husband already likes to hang out with other men, if he could have sex with them too I’d never see him again!” Of course, if that’s true, your marriage is already a shambles, or a sham (even if your husband has no interest in gay sex whatsoever), but who wants to confront that when they can blame a scapegoat?

  • JulietEcho

    @ Valhar: I wasn’t addressing arguments against finding a way to legalize polyamorous marriage. I was addressing objections that people make to polyamory happening at all – objections that even atheists make. They’re bad reactions based on guilty-by-association thinking, ignorance and fear, respectively. And even the atheists who don’t necessarily make those objections can still be afraid/reluctant to voice their support for polyamorous tolerance because it’s treated as something dirty and immoral. I’m addressing the morality/ethics angle, not the legal angle.

    As far as I’m concerned, the legalization discussion can wait until the general public is (a) aware that modern, non-religious, non-abusive polyamory exists and (b) accepts it as something ethical and somewhat “normal” as a part of society. That alone could take several decades, so I’m not holding my breath for anyone to extend us marriage rights. The reason I’ve written about polyamory for atheist sites (on Friendly Atheist and now here) is because atheists have fewer inhibitions/prohibitions regarding unorthodox relationships, since they don’t have any religious teachings telling them about the “right” and “wrong” contexts for sex.

    @ Chris: I shouldn’t have used “normalize” in that context – I usually have a better vocabulary than that! I simply meant “is treated as an expected variation on romantic relationships” as opposed to its current status (which, regarding the vast majority of Americans, falls into either the “OMG, that’s horrible/sinful/disgusting” category or the “What’s that?” category).

  • Danikajaye

    Chris,

    Those people either don’t understand how their desire for one particular kind of relationship is making their partner suffer, or are in denial about it, or just don’t care as long as their relationship stays in a pattern that satisfies *them*. Of course their partners can’t *admit* that they have a problem with monogamy, because then they wouldn’t be passing as monogamous. (Monogamy-oriented? We need different words for the behavior and the desire, in this context.) They don’t dare come out even (perhaps especially) to their own partners. (There’s a strong parallel to kink here, I think.) And some even internalize the social norm that there’s something wrong with the way they feel and develop self-hate as a result.

    You have just perfectly summarised what I am experiencing at the moment. I am engaged and have extremely strong feelings for somebody who is not my fiance. The popular opinion seems to be that there must be something wrong with the relationship with my fiance- but there isn’t. The thought of leaving him isn’t one I want to entertain but at the same time I think if I deny my other feelings I may end up resenting him. Many people seem to believe that if you have feelings for another person it must automatically reduce your feelings for the other person- like love is oil, some type of valuable finite resource. After much consideration it has occured to me that I may have trouble committing to just one person for my entire life. Where did this idea come from that we can only love one person “in that way” at one time? Whenever I admit this to anybody they seem to think I am some type of sexual deviant. I’m worried that by trying to conform to this norm of 1+1 I may end up bitter and twisted but I don’t think this is something I can admit to my fiance.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I’d love to see a situation where employers/government got out of the marriage business altogether.

    A bit of a tangent… but what I would like is a situation where health benefits aren’t connected with employment at all. There’s no good reason for them to be. It’s an outdated relic of a quirk in employment laws from decades ago: it makes no sense, and it does great harm. I would like a situation in which everyone gets health care, regardless of either their employment or their marital status.

    This wouldn’t completely solve the legal problems associated with legalizing poly marriage. There’d still be complications associated with inheritance, court testimony, etc. But it would solve one of the big ones.

  • keddaw

    Argentum, believe me I have long passed my social conditioning but biology is harder to break. It is a biological thing for a guy to want to ‘possess’ a women, or group of. The desire to be alpha male even in modern human society is strong and when it comes to relationships that goes into overdrive. It is a battle between old, evolved (no longer useful) brain functions and more modern intellectual brain functions. Most morality comes from ancient brain processes which is why we are so bad at it. Only the intellect can have a dispassionate view of morality, and even then only after a difficult struggle with more base brain processes, and come to the ‘right’ conclusion.

    @Cello: “I think the standard poly set up is inherently unequal and selfish.”
    I am currently in a relationship where I am the pretty one ;), more experienced sexually and in relationships, and earn multiple times her salary. The difference in emotional distress from a breakup would be massive. The chances of me cheating are an order of magnitude higher than the chances of her doing it. It is a monogamous relationship but in no sense could it be called equal. Now compare that to the realtionship Juliet is in. Which one is more equitable and emotionally honest.

  • cello

    keddaw, I disagree. It only becomes unequal if you use that leverage against her in some way. The fact that you *can* do that does not make the situation unequal, only if you *do*.

  • http://polysoutheast.org/ Mark

    I run a polyamory mailing list and wanted to contribute observations from my experience. There are many configurations for relationships and I don’t want to say anything is “typical” but I can say what seems most common among people I have met.

    It is quite common for people to be in a committed couple, living together, often married, sometimes with kids. It sometimes happens that this commitment includes three or four, but it is more common to date someone(s) who do(es) not move in.

    Polyamorous people, like any people, vary in how interested they are in starting a new relationship. Some are actively seeking someone new, others are an a closed relationship, others are satisfied with how things are at the moment without any particular “seeking” or “closed” status.

    Relationship agreements are something I see missing from the discussion here so far. People unaware of polyamory tend to enter a new relationship with a set of monogamous expectations which are often never actually discussed. This can prove disastrous if it turns out that the people have different assumptions about what is acceptable in terms of hugging, kissing, kink, raising children, etc. Polyamorous people are not immune to this kind of lack of communication, but they tend to be more aware that you have to actually discuss things rather than just assume the other person is expecting exactly the same things in a relationship. Some people discuss what they find important and come up with very simple agreements. Ours is “neither of us will bring something alive home without talking about it first.” (No surprises about new pets or lovers or STD risks.) Other people have drafted lengthy agreements that attempt to anticipate every future possibility. Your agreement should be tailored to what y’all find important.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    My friend once said that he wasn’t afraid to to tell me about his polyamourous relationship because I’m “about as judgemental as a bowling ball.” I thought that was a wonderful compliment, but I had so many questions that I didn’t ask because I wasn’t sure what was appropriate/taboo. This comment thread has been somewhat informative.

    It does sound like a logistical nightmare to have poly-marriages, but it would also be only fair, (and not to be facetious, but the law is fairly complicated anyway).

  • Alex Weaver

    Argentum, believe me I have long passed my social conditioning but biology is harder to break. It is a biological thing for a guy to want to ‘possess’ a women, or group of. The desire to be alpha male even in modern human society is strong and when it comes to relationships that goes into overdrive. It is a battle between old, evolved (no longer useful) brain functions and more modern intellectual brain functions. Most morality comes from ancient brain processes which is why we are so bad at it.

    If that’s true, why do I keep blinking quizzically when I read this paragraph?

  • Alex Weaver

    But this is a really specious argument: “With more factors involved, poly relationships have a higher probability of failing – just like single people are much less likely to get divorced than married people.” You need to re-think that one.

    The “single people” thing is kind of flippant, but the argument is sound: assuming that a person has an given probability of wanting to cease being in a given relationship at a given time, and that these probabilities are on average roughly equal from person to person, having more people in the relationship increases the odds that someone’s going to want out within a given time interval. An analogy might be drawn with radioactivity: individual atoms don’t become more unstable when a mass of them are put together (simply speaking) but the odds of one atom in a mass decaying over any particular time interval increase the more atoms there are in the mass.

    Differing levels of sexual desire is one of the most common problems in monogamous relationships — one person wants it four times a week, the other wants it once a month

    …and gets tired of being repeatedly checked for a pulse… (Couldn’t resist ^.^)

  • Incy

    Hi! I am one part of a foursome (two couples). We just passed our one year mark of being together. I simply wanted to thank you for taking the time to write the article. Keep it up!

  • Vene

    From comment #20
    “To justify polyamory on personal level, you need merely be fair and honest. But to justify it on a social level, you need to address these traditional concerns.”

    That’s actually very easy to do. And it’s very, very simple, equality of the sexes, places that practice traditional polygamy have it where a man has multiple lives, this is not modern polyamory. In modern polyamory, sure you can have a man with multiple female lovers, but you can also have a woman with multiple male lovers, there’s also the possibility of love triangles or squares instead of everybody diverging on one individual. Basically, poly isn’t the problem in those societies, it’s sexism, if we take care of the sexism, those problems disappear as well. Although what you said holds a certain amount of sexism by assuming that it is typically a man with multiple wives. What you said also doesn’t really apply to homosexuals and only somewhat applies to bisexuals.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    One of my conservative co-workers, also gay, has said he’s against these sorts of relationships because it means all the rich men out there would have several wives and the poor men would end up with none. It was an argument so beyond stupid I wasn’t even sure how to refute it, so I didn’t bother to try. I just gave him A Look. I wish I’d come up with something better.

  • JulietEcho

    One of my conservative co-workers, also gay, has said he’s against these sorts of relationships because it means all the rich men out there would have several wives and the poor men would end up with none. It was an argument so beyond stupid I wasn’t even sure how to refute it, so I didn’t bother to try. I just gave him A Look. I wish I’d come up with something better.

    Well, essentially he’s being a sexist asshole, so maybe it was better that you didn’t verbalize that. To characterize women as simply leeches who’ll bite wherever the most money’s at is disgusting and without merit.

  • David

    “To characterize women as simply leeches who’ll bite wherever the most money’s at is disgusting and without merit.”

    That is pretty judgmental of women who do marry for money. It is not as though it is uncommon of women to search for a rich man.

    Maybe it is not realistic that ALL women are like that, or even a majority, but there is the money aspect of male-female relations and there ALWAYS has been. To imply that because many women marry for security and money they are leeches is really just as bad as the implication that ALL women are money hungry golddiggers.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    Some women are golddiggers, but so are some men. I think most people marry because they think they’re in love.

  • Leum

    People marry for all sorts of reasons. Frankly, if the only reason someone’s willing to marry me as that all the rich guys are taken, that doesn’t strike me as a marriage I’d want to enter.

  • Caiphen

    “To characterize women as simply leeches who’ll bite wherever the most money’s at is disgusting and without merit.”

    My wife married me when I had nothing. Now I’m not rich but well off and it’s largely because of her. It’s not that she provided swarms of money, just her love and support. David, you hit the nail right on the head.

    Largely because of her I still believe in 1 person for 1 person, but that’s just a matter of opinion. Polyamory has worked in other cultures so I’m opened minded about it. It just isn’t for me.

  • keddaw

    JulietEcho

    Well, essentially he’s being a sexist asshole, so maybe it was better that you didn’t verbalize that. To characterize women as simply leeches who’ll bite wherever the most money’s at is disgusting and without merit.

    Agreed 100%. However, this line of argument does not wash with the person in question. It’s like going back to the 1800′s and trying to explain to someone why white and black people are the same. Saying that they’re a racist idiot is entirely correct but in no way changes their mind.

    in this case you have to realise that they’re probably thinking that the only fair way for society to operate is one person each otherwise you get people hoarding and some people with no-one. This will lead to inequality which leads to social breakdown. Wrong, but that’s what they think.

    Sometimes, however difficult it may be, you have to think like an idiot to convince an idiot.

  • Caiphen

    Sometimes, however difficult it may be, you have to think like an idiot to convince an idiot.

    Keddaw, that has to be the comment of the week. It’s quite hilarious actually.

  • D-train

    Me and my girlfriend have been in a poly relationship for about a year now. I’m not sure if it’s a Canada/America thing or just the people I tend to know, but it’s been essentially a walk in the park (from a discrimination point, the relationship is a little more complex). The biggest part is reminding myself that when I say “I love you.” The period is just as important as any of the constituent words.

  • joanna

    off thread a bit, but I’ve been thinking about this one for a couple of days. I doubt the reason most people look down on polyamory is because they’re scared of losing their spouse, but probably more that they don’t take it seriously and think it’s kooky (or perverse). Kind of like bisexuality, polyamory seems to have a acquired a certain trendiness amongst the extra-different college age types that enjoy thinking of themselves as victims of society. They don’t really elicit a lot of sympathy from me (maybe because I sorta used to be one..)
    So I’d say that a lot of people see polyamory, if they’re aware of it at all, as perverse, kooky, or attention-baiting before they see it as a threat. The first step seems to be increasing awareness that polyamory is an option that mature, responsible adults are taking for themselves. And that’s exactly what this post does, so thanks!

  • JulietEcho

    In case anyone stumbles across this in the archives, I thought I’d add an update. My relationship is stronger than ever, and we’ll have our sixth anniversary as a “triad” this fall. We have also recently opened the relationship for the purposes of casually dating outside partners. We’re not auditioning for a fourth member, but we’ve built a strong enough foundation that we’re all comfortable with the idea of the others (safely) pursuing people outside the relationship. So far, the results have been strengthened communication and trust. It’s nice.

    It was really interesting reading through the comments again, after two and a half years. Although I’m an active contributor in the online atheist community anymore, it was a reminder of how many thoughtful, intelligent people contribute on sites like DA.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Thanks for the update, Juliet! Very glad to hear things are still going well for you and your partners.


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