Polyagony: When Polyamory Goes Really Wrong
Five ways that people in polyamorous relationships can be seriously screwed.
Posted May 01, 2018
When polyamory goes well, it can be amazing. When things go wrong, however, polyamory can be absolutely terrible.
Multiplying the number of people involved in romantic relationship can magnify the intensity of their interactions and emotions, which is great when everyone is feeling warm and fuzzy. When difficult or painful emotions are magnified in the same way, it can be exponentially more painful.
In her outstanding book Love’s Refraction, Jillian Deri reported on the findings from her study of jealousy and compersion in queer women’s polyamorous relationships. Deri coined the term polyagony to describe the special jealous pain that can plague some people in polyamorous relationships. Her respondents reported facing jealousy, coming to expect it because of the relationship style they selected (like rain in the rainforest), and playing with the power dynamics that can inflect personal relationships.
My own respondents in my 20+ year study of polyamorous families have expressed some similar thoughts, as well as a range of other excruciating things that they experience. Below I list five of the agonizing elements the people who participated in my study identified in their polyamorous relationships.
1. Difficulty Finding Honest Partners
Seeking such an unconventional relationship style can seriously cut down on the number of appropriate partners polyamorous folks are able to find. Ironically, some people seem to be much more comfortable with cheating than they are with openly conducted non-monogamous relationships. That can make finding someone who is willing to be honest about their relationships far more challenging than finding a clandestine lover who hides the relationship from their partner.
Most people in contemporary U.S. society appear to prefer serial monogamy (where they are with one person at a time until they break up and then re-couple with one other person at a time) and even cheating to polyamory, in part because honesty can be more emotionally challenging—especially at first—than lying and cheating.
2. Mis-Match of Desire for Polyamory
Another source of agony for folks in polyamorous relationships is falling in love with someone who is monogamous by orientation. For some poly folks, this is not a big deal. If they are polyamorous by lifestyle choice, convenience, taste for adventure, or experimentation, then they might have a slight preference for open relationships or attempt to negotiate a monogamish relationship that allows them a little bit of wiggle room in certain situations (for instance, as long as they are more than 300 miles from home). Agreeing to monogamy and living a monogamous lifestyle might be a bit of a bummer sometimes, but no more so than having an occasional bad day or missing the train. Surely not agony, more irritation or nostalgia.
For others, however, a desire or even need for non-monogamy is not a whimsical option but rather a relational or sexual orientation. Although it has not yet been included under the legal umbrella of sexual orientation, some respondents from my 20+ year study of polyamorous families with children report that it is “hard-wired” in them as an innate characteristic. For these folks who are polyamorous by orientation, falling in love with someone who is deeply monogamous can be truly excruciating. This mismatch means that they may recognize wonderful things in each other and love each other deeply, but they can rarely be happy together because they want opposite things.
In some rare cases, a few people are able to establish a mono-poly relationship with one monogamous partner and one polyamorous partner, but those are delicate and require some specific circumstances. In most cases, the non-monogamy mismatch proves difficult at best and explosive at worst.
While many people are attracted to the idea of being able to have multiple lovers and spontaneous sex with new people, extending that same freedom to their partners is often more difficult than partaking in it themselves. A few polyamorous people report little to no experiences of jealousy and a strong experience of compersion, a word people in poly communities use to express the feeling of joy they get at seeing one’s partner happily in love with someone else. The vast majority of people who attempt consensual non-monogamy, however, must at some people deal with jealousy, insecurity, fear, and a host of other potentially challenging emotions.
For some people who are deeply monogamous or have issues around their own or others’ cheating, the idea of consensual non-monogamy can be deeply disturbing. Sometimes this extends to feeling extremely uncomfortable around polyamorous people; it can even grow into polyphobia, which is a fear or even hatred of polyamorous people and their relationships.
People in polyamorous relationships have borne the brunt of stigma when others discover that they are in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. This stigma can come expressed in friendships that grow distant or terminate, or family members who will no longer speak with the people in the CNM relationships. People unfamiliar with CNM often assume it will be damaging for children or that it is a form of sex addiction, even in the absence of any evidence for those beliefs. Some therapists can express this stigma as therapeutic bias against CNM relationships.
Attitudes behind polyphobia can lead to acts of discrimination in a range of settings. This discrimination has been expressed as taking away custody of children, housing issues such as evictions and refusal to rent to groups that contain more than two “unrelated” (by blood or marriage) individuals, firing employees who are in CNM relationships, and in selective enforcement of laws against bigamy and adultery that are not prosecuted against mainstream community members but are deployed against sex and gender minorities.
While there are many wonderful things about polyamory and some poly folks report many advantages, sometimes, it just sucks.
Deri, J. (2015). Love's Refraction: Jealousy and compersion in queer women's polyamorous relationships. University of Toronto Press.
Sheff, E. (2014). The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. Thorntree Press.