Guest post: Polyamory - 'Other partners have brought so much joy into our lives'
Are polyamorous people really 'less trustworthy' and 'less intelligent' than monogamous people? Recent academic research shows this is something many believe. In this post, the academic who carried out the research, and Polly Oliver - who practises polyamory - address the stigma attached to having more than one lover, and argue that it can be a rewarding and empowering option for women.
Posted on: Tue 01-Jul-14 11:21:37
(38 comments )
OK, first things first, what is polyamory? The word means “many loves”, and is used to describe people who choose to have more than one romantic commitment where everyone involved is aware of the situation. Polyamory isn’t common - it’s hard to get accurate estimates, but probably around 5% of the population are in some kind of consensually non-monogamous relationship (which is an umbrella term that also includes swinging and open relationships).
There is a lot of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding polyamory - which is why we are writing anonymously. In the research I conducted, I collected data from 325 participants on this very issue. Despite reading exactly the same descriptions of couples, with the only variation being their relationship style, people thought that polyamorous people were less trustworthy, less intelligent and were less satisfied with their relationships overall compared to monogamous people.
For people used to the ‘norm’ (in this culture anyway) of monogamy, the concept of having more than one love can seem very strange – but as Polly Oliver (one of my polyamorous participants, and not her real name) explained, it’s like having more than one child - just as you can love multiple children, so you can love more than one romantic partner. She says: I was once asked ‘why isn’t he enough for you?’ For me, that question doesn’t really make sense – it’s like saying ‘you have enough friends, why do you need to talk to anyone else?’ or ‘haven’t you read enough books now?’”
Polly says the biggest negative about her relationship is “other people’s misunderstandings and misconceptions. The saddest reaction I have is when people think I’m harming myself or my partners, because firstly, there’s nothing I work harder to avoid, and secondly it’s very hard to convince someone otherwise when they’ve already made up their mind.”
“Other partners – both current and past – have brought so much joy into our lives - from crucial emotional support; starry-eyed holidays together; dancing all night, to meeting each others’ parents - that from where I stand now I wouldn’t want to change anything. And what’s more, there are unexpected positives. Of course it’s wonderful to have the freedom to fall in love myself, to form close connections with important people, and to know that that’s not only okay but supported – but it’s quite remarkable to have someone you love allow you to watch them fall for someone else, and allow you to share in their joy and ride that high with them. It’s an amazing intimacy, and something I never take for granted.”
Often people assume that consensual non-monogamy is all about satisfying male needs to have sex with lots of women. That is a fairly sexist view of competing male and female sex drives, and it doesn't tally with the experiences of the polyamorous women I've spoken to. They have been, without exception, strong, independent women who are very articulate about what they want from their relationships.
Every polyamorous relationship is different. Polly lives with her husband: “Both he and I have other important and loving relationships with other people as well (none of whom we live with at the moment). Everyone knows about everyone else, and everyone values the other relationships in the constellation.”
I recently conducted a series of interviews with polyamorous people about how they decided what was OK and what wasn’t and what ‘rules’ (if any) they had. About the only thing they had in common (apart from safer sex agreements) was the effort they put into communication. One triad (a group of three people who all lived together) even went so far as to have monthly “state of the relationship” meetings, where they had time explicitly set aside to check in with each other. Polly echoes this: “Successful polyamory takes work – just like a healthy and loving monogamous relationship. It requires the ability to clearly state your own needs and boundaries and lovingly take those of your partner/s into account, compassion and choosing to see people’s best, self-knowledge, and a willingness to recognise parts of yourself you may not be proud of.”
I came away from those interviews impressed with the level of comfort people seemed to feel about negotiating their needs. Polyamorous women frequently claim that they feel empowered in these relationships. It seems as if - because the assumptions about monogamy no longer applied - people feel able to apply the same radical approach to all aspects of their relationships.
Often people assume that consensual non-monogamy is all about satisfying male needs to have sex with lots of women. That is a fairly sexist view of competing male and female sex drives, and it doesn’t tally with the experiences of the polyamorous women I've spoken to. They have been, without exception, strong, independent women who are very articulate about what they want from their relationships. And the communication skills that are developed in negotiating the romantic aspects of their relationships carry over into other areas. If you define a feminist relationship as one where all partners sit down and talk about what they want on equal terms, then these relationships definitely seem a long way along that road. People who lived with their multiple partners divided household tasks up fairly, and definitely not along gender lines. For example, a group of five polyamorous people I interviewed were all about to buy a large house in London together, as their joint buying power significantly increasing what they could afford. The three women and one of the men all had financially rewarding careers that they wanted to continue, and the fifth man was going to be the stay at home 'housekeeper'.
Polly doesn’t have children at the moment, and people often wonder how polyamory fits with that. She says, “I'm pretty confident that, just like any new mother, any assumptions I have about what my life will look like as a parent might be completely blown out of the water by the actual arrival of an actual baby. I can commit now to prioritising my future children's well-being above all else, but that's easy to say. It's possible that during the first few years of parenthood I might just be too exhausted to want other relationships, and that's okay; what's more, in the face of change I trust that other partners will have the strength to say 'this relationship is no longer working for me and I wish you and your family all the best' if they need to.”
“It's also possible that I will rely on the love and support of other partners more than ever - to have reliable and loving people who'll be willing to come round and enjoy time with me, even if I'm exhausted and breastfeeding and haven't tidied up for a fortnight; who'll be prepared to help out and give my husband and I a break if we need it to focus on each other (or literally sleep together), or to give us both time to go and be adults with other people for a few hours. I can see all of those things might be valuable beyond price.” In my research, when the topic of children came up, a surprising number of people quoted the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Often people talk about their poly ‘tribe’ - and with today’s blended families, the idea of there being more than two important adult figures in children’s lives doesn’t seem so out there.
Polly and I are not arguing that polyamory is a superior relationship style. To quote her, “There are a million different paths to happiness – many, many people find monogamy to be a happy source of security and fulfilment. I’m confident that polyamory is the right choice for me – confident enough to say that I could never be in a monogamous relationship, just as some people reading this just know that they could never be happy if their relationship was anything other than monogamous."
“Of course there are negatives too,” Polly says. “More relationships mean more opportunities for breakups, which are always sad (even when – as is usually the case – those ex-partners become close and beloved friends). But the main negative is other people’s misunderstandings and misconceptions.” We hope that this post has helped to dispel some of those.
By Professor X and Polly Oliver
It all sounds wonderful, all this love and support - I mean it with zero snarkiness. I'd love to have more love in my life - more holidays, more dancing, more support etc.
So I don't judge, quite the opposite. I just don't believe it.
I have barely enough time, energy or headspace to take care of my relationship with one partner (badly, not enough, sometimes with a lot of resentment - and yet I do love him massively), let alone myself.
If I had anytime left, after work, housework, children, admin etc... I'd like a nice hot bath with a good book more than anything. Forget my friends- i barely see them. A lover? Give me a break. Who has the time for that?
I just don't understand how anyone can have lovers, or extra relationships, and still have a life of responsibilities.
So, yeah. Great in theory, but I suspect this lifestyle is only for the very rich, or the childless.
I'm polyamorous, and no I'm neither very rich nor childless! My secondary partner has been in the picture since before my daughter was born, and he's like an uncle to her. He's also close friends with my husband, so we often hang out as a family, rather than it being just me and one of them.
I just don't find my relationships a drain or a time-suck. My partners make my life easier.
One brief paragraph at the end on the negatives.
Hardly a balanced view is it?
Poor essay which lacks breadth and fails to look at the wider aspects of the subject matter.
Interesting. I'd like to see the research in full.
I'm surprised to read that people consider polyamorous to be associated with "less intelligent". I'd have thought that being able to make the mental transition to something countercultural - and to make it work in a culture where it's not very socially supported - would mean quite the opposite.
Waffle, I guess the idea of the bias in the article is to redress some of the negative preconceptions.
People should choose the relationship style that suits them. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. What works beautifully for one will be a disaster for another. While some will be energised by several connections others will be drained by it. What's fabulous about this article is that it offers an insight into polyamory working well for someone and why.
I wonder how many people actively choose monogamy and how much practising it becomes effectively a coerced decision. There is such an overwhelming amount of pressure on people to fit into relationship norms, consciously or otherwise, that I think it becomes not a straightforward choice between one or the other but something more complicated.
I'm full of love and admiration for the people I know in non-monogamous relationships. I've seen those communication dynamics in action and learnt a lot from them.
Of course things go wrong - all relationships carry that risk, and as Polly says above, with more relationships comes more risk. But I do think it's a shame that some posters are saying they straight up 'don't believe' that these relationships work, or that this post lacks breadth. It's designed to counter some popular misconceptions, not offer a pros and cons list - on the back of research that shows that people do judge non-monogamous people negatively.
I've been in a couple of polyamorous relationships and have yet to see an example of one where everyone was equal, happy and on the same page. In all the experiences I've had, there was always an inequality and someone was always having to accede to their partner's demands in some way. I've never known a situation where everyone was truly happy.
I've heard all the theories and I'm still not convinced. Maybe it can work well for some people, but I remain skeptical. I do know it's not something I would entertain again.
Personally it seems FreckledLeopard's reply is the most honest.
Genuinely,how do the people in these relationships deal with jealousy? I was reading this whilst listerally trying to imagine my OH off out having a good time with someone else, and having sex with them... it breaks my heart just to think about it. And i admit it would come down to jealousy. I'd love to hear someones views on this so I can understand it better?
I often think it would be great to have two men in my life, a mix and match whereby I would get most of my needs met- one single person can't possibly have every attribute we desire but more than one would fulfil so many needs/wants/desires.
Maybe for some this can and does work but for most of us we are overwhelmed by jealousy, resentment and insecurity. I could never, ever, ever accept my partner having close relationships with another woman. It's good to get an insight into an alternative lifestyle. I truly believe it must get much more difficult and complex once children arrive.
I am truly envious of those who do not feel jealous, I wish it didn't blight my life the way that it does but I guess we all journey on a different path and end up as unique individuals with a diverse range of emotions and needs.
I would say that these sort of relationships are a million times better because they are honest rather than people having secret, sneaky affairs that partners know nothing about.
Oooh I do love a good argument about polyamory. I've done monogamy and polyamory and both have their ups and downs. Someone once said, you can choose monogamy and boredom or polyamory and jealousy, but I'm not sure I agree with either.
I'm currently in a polyamorous relationship. I have a boyfriend that I live with and a girlfriend who lives with us at weekends and during holidays. We have all been together for over 2 years. I have two children from a previous monogamous relationship, who spend half their time with their dad and half with us. We are definitely not rich, but three incomes definitely go further than two.
I'd like to address a couple of the comments.
Softcookie. I sympathise entirely with your view that when all responsibilities are done with, some alone time is a priority. But having an extra partner doesn't mean you suddenly have to use that time to have sex! When I go have my bath, there are two adults available to watch the children or cook dinner. In fact I have more free time and more opportunity to see friends because I have more adult support. When one of us is busy, the other two don't have to be alone. There is a lot of comfort in this.
FreckledLeopard. I agree that it is unlikely that all parties in a poly relationship would have equal status with each other. Yes we all have to make compromises to make it work, but surely that is that same with a mono relationship too? The relationship I have with my bf is entirely different to that which I have with my gf. There are some aspects I don't particularly like. But compared with the option of losing one of them, the price is very small.
Dottydandan. Jealousy is absolutely an issue that we have to deal with openly. Not just sexual jealousy, but regarding differences in time and affections. I know things can be hard for my gf as I spend more time with my bf than she does. We try to make up for this in other ways. I did struggle with sexual jealousy a lot when we first got together, but I have to say that now it is really not an issue. I love the fact that when I am busy, my two beloveds are not lonely and having fun together. The reality is that we mostly spend time all three of us together, and that is when we are happiest.
My parents and my gfs parents have been fantastic and very accepting. My bf has chosen not to tell his. My children are too young to explain things to at the moment - my gf is seen as "mummy's best friend". But it could be a problem when we do have to talk to them about it - their dad will not be happy I am sure.
There are downsides. It's hard for us to go out as a three. Hotels rooms are tricky to arrange. People judge. I can't comment on the "less intelligent" point of view. I have a university degree, a professional career and a senior management position, but that doesn't always mean anything!
DouweEgberts, I appreciate your comments. I never considered polyamory as an option until it happened to me, and it's something I've had to work at, but I can't imagine going back to monogamy now.
I'm happy to answer any questions.
Shewhocannotbeshamed. I am interested in whether you are the lynchpin. It sounds like you have 2 lovers and they have only 1 each. Are they also each other's lovers? Are you the most 'in charge'? It sounds like it.
I guess what I am saying is that it is difficult enough to negotiate and work at equality when there are 2 people involved. With 3 or more, I can't imagine how hard that is.
Hi MerryMarigold. You are possibly right that I am the glue holding the three of us together. However they do have an independent relationship with each other, and yes they are lovers. My position as "in charge" is partly by default - we live in my house with my children so I have a lot of say in how we do things.
I know of other polyamorous relationships where there is very little interaction between certain members of the group. It is more common for one person to have several lovers but for those lovers not to interrelate other than basic tolerance of each others existence. Our situation is therefore unusual as we all love each other very much.
Rather than trying to make each of the three "couple" relationships equal, we are more interested in making the one "triple" relationship work. That means sometimes we treat each other differently, according to different needs and wants.
Hi, I'm SWCBS GF.... Oddly we actually met on MN, so for this conversation to be on here is fairly apt!
We are not all equal, and we do all treat other differently. But that is because we are different people and have different needs. I think it shows how well we know and love one another - that we give each other what we need and have solid relationships with open and honest communication
Which is absolutely the most important thing, without it we would be a mess by now! Sometimes the honesty hurts but ultimately makes our relationship stronger. I'm also very good at making the other two talk to each other when they forget!
I love two highly intelligent people and we have some fantastic conversations as a result..... Though after a long day at work I'm not always coherent - so apologies if the post doesn't completely make sense!!
I really struggle with the idea of this. Intellectually I do get it, it's just on an emotional level. Doesn't this just mean that each individual hasn't met 'the one' and are therefore settling for something which works for now but is less than ideal?
Maybe I'm programmed into the idea that love is enough but the very idea that my partner or myself would need someone else would feel like the failure of our relationship, or that we hadn't chosen correctly: for me certainly the ability to have a second simultaneous relationship would feel like I had given up or not expected enough of the first one. In fact I'd go further: the very thought of being touched intimately by anyone but him gives me an unpleasant physical reaction.
Does this in fact suggest that people who can cope with the emotional and social demands of true polyamory are on fact more intelligent, or at least more emotionally flexible than most of us?
The fact that so many people have affairs show that humans aren't really designed to be monogamous in my opinion. When we only used to live until our 30s then it wouldn't have been such a problem but spending 50+ years with the same person...
I would love for polygamy to become more mainstream and not seen as just for weirdo car key swapping swingers
Edit: Not polygamy - just multiple partners is what I meant, not necessarily to be married to them all.
Imagine all the threads about MIL1 and MIL2...
(Sorry - clearly no reason for these threads not to already exist - just imagine all the extra threads if it were more mainstream)
It is nice to see this guest post though beyond me why the researcher herself/himself wants to be anonymous.
I'm in one of these less balanced/ less involved polyamorous relationships. I met my partner fairly early in life and didn't want to limit myself to never having sex with other women again. Both of us being women, sex usually comes with, and is nicer with, feelings for the other person. So my partner of 13+ years has been in another relationship for 7+ years, with someone who also has a partner. In our case, that other relationship is kept secret from all but close friends and gets much less time than the 'primary' relationships.
I think a lot of it has to do with feelings, and while I can get very jealous and upset about some things, I don't get upset about my partner having sex with someone else; I actually think it's sexy. This is probably only possible because I love and trust her. Other people seem to feel differently even if they love and trust their partner, and I think it is moot to argue about this difference in feelings.
My partner also has received a lot of support through the other relationship (and I assume vice versa).
I've recently become more active in looking for at least some casual sex and can say that it is both wonderful and has the potential for hurt when it ends, but I'd rather have these feelings than not.
It's interesting to see the prejudice found in the research. Indeed, we have been as secret about this as possible since we made up our agreement without ever having heard the term 'polyamory'. We have recently started telling more friends. For one, we want to avoid assumptions of secret affairs when someone sees interactions with other partners. Yet it is also understandably an important part in our lives, so it seems odd if friends we care about don't know about it.
It's of course nonsense to believe that polyamorous arrangements have only advantages. But to me, at the moment, this is what I want. I often wonder whether it is because I am in fact more long-term committed to my partner than some peers who are 'serially monogamous'. I do think it's really a personal choice where neither is inherently 'better'.
I have come to the conclusion that I am just far too lazy to be polyamourous.
Relationships of any kind take work; the good ones especially so. Trying to make another person happy, while still being happy yourself, can really take a lot out of a person. For myself, I struggle with depression and anxiety, and even though I have a loving partner, there are some days where it's clear he's doing more of "the work" than I am. I have told him in the past that if he ever felt unhappy to say so, and we'd work through it. During our darkest times, I've told him to leave and find someone else. He's refused. But I can't help but wonder, if he only says it because he would feel badly if he did go.
In this instance, I could totally see the benefit of having another positive relationships where his needs are met. But not everyone would win; I'd still have depression, he'd still have a depressed wife, and then there'd be another person in the mix.
Like I say, just too much work. Everyone would need to be happy all the time, and having to achieve that would be mind-numbingly difficult.
I don't think everyone would need to be happy all the time, just as two people are not happy all the time.
I think with monogamy vs polyamory, it is fine to just choose based on instinct -- what feels right for you -- but people sometimes think there ought to be objective reasons for their choice, so they look for them to justify their instinctive choice. I think it's more like being straight or gay: no point in looking for (individual) reasons for your preference. I used to think the opposite: that an open relationship of some sort -- sleeping with more partners -- is something everyone would like to have, but you get to have it or you don't based on negotiation and how much jealousy you are willing to put up with. Then I realized my feelings themselves were not necessarily going against my partner having sex with others.
For the same reason, I think it is nonsense to suggest that people having affairs means they have 'failed' at monogamy and they ought to have open relationships of some sort. I do think some people genuinely want to be monogamous and they try, but sometimes fail. It is up to their feelings whether the damage from failing is worse, or the open thought of the partner having sex with others. Trying again after having failed for example can be associated with positive feelings, such as willing to put in the effort to resist temptation.
I would really like to have more than one relationship, but I have not found a second partner so far. You could say I have 'failed' at polyamory, but I like having the option.
i think that Polyamory is like Communism. It works well in theory but not in practice. Sexual jealousy is a very real primal emotion that cannot be ignored.
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