Loving More Than One

Polyamory is alive and well. But is it just groovy, bohemian love?

By Moses Ma, published on April 3, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

If you google the term "polyamory," you'll get more than a million hits, indicating that unconventional approaches to love and sex are a hot topic. And certainly, it's a way of living that sparks controversy and even disbelief. Polyamory—a term than means "loving many"—is a serious approach to relationships for some people. Marriage and family therapist Dossie Easton has written the book, The Ethical Slut—known as the bible of polyamory. Here, she tells us what it's all about.

What is polyamory?

We live in a culture that works very hard to enforce a "one size fits all" definition of how intimate relationships should be conducted. But there are many ways to love, and many formats for creating wonderful and fulfilling relationships—from having more than one sexual partner to group marriage. The title, The Ethical Slut (co-written by Catherine Liszt), says it all. A slut is a person who celebrates an adventurous sexual lifestyle, but while honoring the feelings and boundaries of all persons involved, even those who may not be in the room at the time you're being adventurous.

Do you need rules to ensure fairness—such as who sleeps with whom on which nights?

I don't believe that there are really any fixed rules except to respect and honor the feelings and boundaries of every individual involved in poly relationships. Having too many rules is like trying to squish round pegs into square holes, and I believe that people are infinitely creative. So why not let that creativity flow into how we configure relationships?

Many therapists say polyamory can't possibly work in terms of setting up stable bonding that defends against abandonment and provides a long-term environment for childrearing. So isn't engaging in polyamory a little like playing with fire?

What is interesting about polyamorous lifestyles is that when people live out in the open, they can welcome lovers into their families, so that these threats—which are usually kept secret and can fester—are openly discussed and integrated. They can generate extended families that reproduce the values of that well-known village that is so good at raising children. Children benefit from having more adults, more care, more support, and a larger population of role models to choose from.

How do you deal with jealousy? Is it possible to unlearn such a deeply ingrained response?

If you watch infants, you'll find that they don't really notice competitors as long as their needs are being met. In fact, the way polyamorous networks raise children is at the heart of poly lifestyles. It's really all about encouraging brotherly love, dissolving sibling rivalry, and sharing laps. Jealousy is not that deeply ingrained.

We think that jealousy is an unmanageable and intolerable emotion that no one should be asked to deal with. This is a myth. In fact, we are quite capable of learning to take care of ourselves when we feel jealous, much in the same way we take care of ourselves around any difficult feeling, such as grief or resentment. We really don't need to fear that it will overwhelm us.

If we delve deeper into jealousy, we can unravel it. Jealousy is a sort of umbrella word that covers a huge range of difficult emotions that might arise at the thought of our partner being intimate with someone else. How do people experience jealousy? Territorial rage, fear of abandonment, insecurity, negative body image, loss, self-loathing in the form of imagining that the other person must be sexier—the list is endless.

Jealousy is manifested as insecurity, and this led me to realize that I had never had any true sense of internal security that wasn't dependent on my partner loving me more than someone else. So I built a foundation of security that I totally owned and operated.

Jealousy is a sort of code word for whatever emotion or experience that is inside. One such thought: I am scared that I can't survive. We then project it onto the partner and ask him to prevent us from experiencing that deep fear. Jealousy shows us what our deepest conflicts are. Unlearning jealousy provides a possibility for healing and growth.