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Why Do People Choose Polyamory?

What motivates people to pursue polyamorous relationships?

Just as there are many different forms a polyamorous relationship can take, there are many different reasons people choose polyamory. We're not always conscious of the reasons we do things, and sometimes we even make up reasons which have little to do with our real motivations. I'm not saying that we intentionally lie to ourselves, and to others. Rather, we find ourselves doing something and then make up a story to explain it. We may sincerely believe this story, or we may suspect it's fabricated. Either way, it's not always easy to discover the reasons people choose polyamory. However, if you watch them over time, as I have, you can often determine their motivations by observing the results of their choices. And, of course, you can listen to what they say and what they report in anonymous surveys. I've employed all these methods to compile a fairly comprehensive view of possible motivations for choosing polyamory. Some are predictable, others may surprise you.

Humans are natural problem solvers. We're always looking for ways to solve or avoid problems. So it's probably inevitable that some people will come to polyamory hoping that polyamory will allow them to avoid dealing with problematic personal issues or that it will solve problems in an existing relationship, but if this works at all it's usually a temporary fix. In a few cases, however, polyamory does allow people to create healthy and functional relationships they probably could not have managed otherwise.

More often, one partner reluctantly agrees to polyamory to win the affections of the other, secretly hoping that this unwelcome twist will magically vanish once they are committed to each other. Some are consciously or unconsciously creating a situation in which they can heal childhood wounds or replicate the large extended family they grew up in. Kate speaks for many when she says, "I don't think I've ever engaged in anything that has prompted more self-reflection and intense personal growth than has polyamory."

Some want a stable and nurturing environment in which to raise their children. Some use polyamory to mask or excuse addictions to sex, work, or drama while others seek utopian or spiritual rewards or want to take a stand for cultural change. Others are simply doing what's fun and what comes naturally for them or are rebelling against religious prohibitions or family expectations. Some use polyamory as a weapon in a power struggle or to punish a controlling partner. Some want to keep their erotic life alive and vital while in long term committed relationships or to fulfill sexual or emotional desires they can't meet with only one person or with their existing partner. Some are trying to make up for developmental gaps or to balance unequal sex drives. Some people do not start out consciously choosing polyamory at all, but find that polyamory has chosen them.

Nancy and Darrell are a good example of a couple who deliberately chose polyamory for its opportunities for growth as well as to allow a broader sexual context within their marriage. They were both virgins in their early 20s when they married 40 years ago. After 10 years of being happily monogamous, while attending a relationship seminar they discovered that neither one was invested in sexual exclusivity. It turned out that they had simply defaulted to monogamy, as do so many people, and once they took a look at it they realized that their only reason for continuing to be monogamous was fear of the unknown. Confident of their love, their compatibility, communication skills and their commitment to each other, they decided to open their marriage. It's less common now than in the past for couples to have no sexual experience before marrying, but I know of many such couples who have found in polyamory a way to jointly embark on the adventures they missed out on in their youth.

While Nancy and Darrell consciously chose polyamory as an opportunity to grow together and to deepen their own bond while exploring committed sexual loving relationships with others, they didn't immediately realize that polyamory would become a spiritual practice. When I first met them about 15 years ago, they were seeking help in releasing and transforming jealousy. Nancy appeared the more emotional of the two, but both exuded a sensible, good-humored sincerity. Through cultivating compersion and incorporating the concept of "honoring the divine in each other and in every one of our partners," polyamory became a doorway into spiritual growth for Nancy and Darrell.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the drama of co-dependency and sex addiction. For Thelma, the idea that she was attempting a polyamorous relationship that would involve a potentially painful confrontation with her own jealousy but would be well worth it in the end, allowed her to drawn into an abusive relationship. Thelma first sought my advice on informational resources about polyamory because a year or so into their relationship, her boyfriend had come out to her as polyamorous and she wanted to learn more about it.

"I am not polyamorous," she told me. "I have enough difficulty with one relationship at a time and I would go completely unconscious in a number of simultaneous relationships. But I'm in love with him, and he wants polyamory, so I'm trying to be open-minded about it." I suggested a few books and websites, offered to put her on my mailing list and suggested she let me know if she wanted some coaching in navigating this unfamiliar territory. About two years later, Thelma sought help from a therapist.

Several years after that, Thelma looked me up again, asking what I thought about sex addiction. I responded that I was very disturbed by the presence of sex addiction in the polyamory community, saying that while most polyamorous people are not addicts, it was a significant problem and one which often came up for discussion in my workshops. Although I wish sex addiction was never an issue in polyamory, the truth is that polyamory does provide a convenient cover story for addicts who are generally in denial about having an addiction. It's easy to justify sexual obsession by calling it polyamory. A handful of sex addicts can wreak havoc in a community, especially when people are still operating out of conditioning which forbids the sharing of "family secrets" out of misguided respect for confidentiality. Polyamory offers a venue in which sex addicts can begin at least to tell the truth about what they're doing instead of carrying on secret affairs. I prefer to put a positive spin on it by seeing that bringing their destructive,

Sex and love addiction can traumatize an addict's partners, and to the extent that partners fit the co-dependency profile, polyamory can effectively skirt the need to face an addiction and the painful feelings it covers. However, polyamory can also be utilized as a healthy means of coping with psychological difficulties, pre-existing trauma, differences in sexual desire, and the garden variety erotic boredom so common in long term monogamous marriages.

Ester Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, wisely advises that "The presence of the third is a fact of life; how we deal with it is up to us. We can approach it with fear, avoidance, and moral outrage; or we can bring to it a robust curiosity and a sense of intrigue ... Acknowledging the third has to do with validating the erotic separateness of your partner. It follows that our partner's sexuality does not belong to us. It isn't just for and about us, and we should not assume that it rightfully falls within our jurisdiction. It doesn't."

Perel suggests that "we view monogamy not as a given but as a choice. As such it becomes a negotiated decision. More to the point, if we're planning to spend fifty years with one soul—and we want a happy jubilee—it may be wise to review our contract at various junctures. Just how accommodating each couple may be to the third varies. But at least a nod is more apt to sustain desire with our one and only over the long haul—perhaps even to create a new ‘art of loving' for the 21st-century couple."

Robert Masters is a Canadian therapist who formerly headed an intentional community which utilized many radical measures to help people awaken to their divinity, including non-monogamy. From what I've heard from friends who spent time there, polyamory was a very effective means of penetrating the personality, similarly to its use in earlier spiritual groups.

Since this community disbanded some years ago, Masters has changed his views. He now believes that, "If we were to put monogamy up against polyamory, with regard to depth, awakening potential, and capacity for real intimacy, which would come out on top? Monogamy, by a landslide, so long as we're talking about mature monogamy, as opposed to conventional (or growth-stunting and passion-dulling) monogamy, referred to from now on as immature monogamy. Immature monogamy is, especially in men, frequently infected with promiscuous desire and fantasy, however much that might be repressed or camouflaged with upstanding virtues. Airbrush this, infuse it with talk of integrity and unconditional love and jealousy-transcending ethics, consider bringing in another partner or two, and you're closer than near to polyamorous or multiple-partnering territory."

Masters came to his appreciation for monogamy relatively late in life, after fully immersing himself in multiple-partner relating. While he does not emphasize stability as a criterion for preferring monogamy, I get the feeling that this is part of its current appeal for him. Instead, Masters uses the language of attachment, and critiques multi-partner relating as a way to avoid attachment. In my experience, it doesn't. True, plenty of people use multi-partner relating as a strategy to avoid attachment, some even recommend this, but in my experience attachment is a powerful force that can override any mental argument or situational defense. Many people hope to find greater stability, depth, and personal growth in their intimate relating by choosing polyamory, while others seek the same qualities in monogamy. The bottom line is that whether we like it or not, all relationships are dynamic by nature and any effort to avoid this reality is doomed to failure.

While there is no data to support the common assumption that polyamory impairs attachment or is risky to the longevity of a pair bond, and, in fact, Perel and others acknowledge that it may be just the opposite, I suspect that whether polyamory or monogamy does more to stabilize a relationship depends upon the individuals involved and their life experience. When two or more people are well matched, opening their relationship usually makes it stronger. When they're not, opening up can be destabilizing. Neither monogamy nor polyamory has a corner on immaturity, and people can gravitate towards both from a position of maturity or its opposite.

The blessing and the curse of polyamory is that love which includes more than one tends to illuminate those dark shadows many would prefer to ignore. While some people deliberately seek out polyamorous relationships for the purpose of freeing themselves and their children from the neuroses arising from typical nuclear family dynamics, most inadvertently discover that polyamory provides a very fertile environment for replicating any dysfunctional patterns carried over from the parental triangle experienced in their family of origin.

Men may find childhood competition with Dad for the attention of Mom rekindled when they relate with a woman who has another lover. If they unconsciously begin to act out the old childhood script of competition with the man for the heart of the woman, an unpleasant and painful drama is likely to unfold. If instead, they can consciously find ways to support each other in basking in the richness of loving of both each other (which need not include sexuality) and the woman, and to creatively manage the only truly limited resource, that is, time, not love, a more enjoyable outcome is possible. Many men have strong competitive instincts which they have been socialized to express very directly. Women frequently have the same strong competitive urge, but women's socialization has driven competition underground and it often comes out sideways, making it even more challenging to overcome. Unresolved sibling rivalries can also be rekindled in polyamorous relating. These are situations in which an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so it behooves people who are contemplating polyamory to heal their family of origin issues first.

Abundant love can bring out our shadow in ways that have little to do with jealousy and competition. I once spent a week vacationing with a man I was newly in love with and another couple who we were both attracted to and who I'd been very close to for several years. I eagerly anticipated our time together, imagining how wonderful it would be to enjoy the company of three people I loved and who loved me. After a few days, I found myself feeling more and more uncomfortable. Feelings of unworthiness I never knew I had begun overwhelming me. My usual calm and self-confident self had disappeared and in its place was an anxious and insecure stranger. At first, I didn't understand what was happening and tried to push these troubling feelings away, but they only got stronger. I found myself wondering whether I deserved this much love. Was I really good enough for him and him and her? Finally, I tearfully confessed that my self-esteem had hit an all-time low. Held in three pairs of loving arms, I took the invitation to dive into my shadow and experienced firsthand the legendary power of love to light up the dark corners of the psyche, shedding healing light on that which has been hidden.

Excerpted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, published by Rowman & Littlefield, July 2010, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.