The Downside of Polyamory
Polyamory is not a good choice for everyone.
Posted Nov 27, 2010
I've sometimes been accused unfairly of having a bias in favor of polyamory, or even being anti-monogamy, because I feel it's important that people realize they can make conscious choices about how they relate with others. In truth, there are many ways to structure relationships and many options when it comes to the quality, clarity and communication of agreements on which intimate, loving relationships can be based. I know this because I've explored so many different ways of relating myself. In addition, I've helped thousands of people resolve relationship issues within and outside of the marital container. I'm the first to acknowledge that polyamory is not a good choice for every one. In the interest of full disclosure to those who rightly suspect that polyamory can exact a price from those who practice it, I offer the following survey of potential difficulties.
While polyamory sometimes offers advantages over enforced monogamy, polyamory can present numerous problems of its own. Some of these, such as social disapproval and discrimination, are artifacts of old structures and institutions that may well diminish in coming years. Others, such as a dearth of positive role models and perhaps even the prevalence of jealousy, are also likely to be temporary. But other difficulties with polyamory, such as the time demands and the emotional complexity of interacting intimately with more people, appear to be inherent to this lovestyle. I realize that the following examples may seem surreal to those who would never dream of trying a polyamorous lifestyle, but let's consider each of these potential costs and detrimental impacts in with open minds.
For many people, the risk of rejection by family, neighbors, friends, and coworkers is a major drawback to polyamory. For those who are strongly motivated to be seen in a positive light by others, this consideration alone is a deal breaker. I was once married to a man whose personality was a near-perfect fit for polyamory. He had no particular desire for sexual exclusivity, he had strong interpersonal skills, and he was generally adventurous, but because being respected and admired in his community was of primary importance to him, polyamory was not at all attractive to him. Polyamory was very attractive to Jonathan, a man with similarly appropriate personality traits who consulted me about his concern that if he were inadvertently "outed," it would reflect badly on his wife, Victoria, who was beginning a new career as a pastor. Jonathan and Victoria had successfully opened their marriage over a decade ago, and now he was conflicted about her request that he return to monogamy. I had to advise him that her fears were realistic: monogamy would be a far safer choice at this juncture in their lives.
Social sanctions serve to keep couples such as Jonathan and Victoria, who would be potentially excellent role models, safely out of sight. I know of several group marriages and open marriages whose highly functional partners have chosen to keep their intimate lives private because they did not want to jeopardize other important work they were doing in the world by exposing themselves to criticism of their preferred lovestyle.
Politics is one field in which polyamory presents an ever-present danger, particularly in an era where strategists desperate to win an election will publicize personal information that was once off limits to journalists. For example, former presidential candidate John Edwards was forced to withdraw from his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008 after his extramarital affair made headlines, as was front-runner Senator Gary Hart in 1987. Impeachment proceedings were brought against President Bill Clinton. In European countries, nonmonogamy is less of a political liability, but the prudent politician is still unlikely to announce that he or she is a supporter of polyamory. With so many politicians being exposed as nonmonogamous, those whose extramarital activities are consensual are easily lumped together with those who are cheating. Some have speculated that it might even be less politically damaging to apologetically admit an affair than to come out as polyamorous.
Nonmonogamous relationships have a reputation for creating emotional chaos and drama that is only partly a result of broken agreements and dishonesty, which are no more characteristic of polyamory than of monogamy. If partners are able to relate with self-responsibility and integrity, drama need not be part of polyamorous relating. Ethical polyamory is certainly possible. But as long as our culture endorses monogamy and socializes our young people to expect sexual exclusivity, we can expect jealousy to be a major challenge for those daring to confront it head on.
While polyamory has the potential to reduce stress, it also has the potential to increase stress. When a tense moment in a polyamorous relationship coincides with other stressors, an emotional meltdown may result and is often attributed to polyamory even though the relationship issues are only one factor. Nevertheless, if you are living a difficult and complicated life, you may not want to risk exposure to another possible source of worry.
If emotional upheaval goes with the territory of intimate relating, the chances of emotional upheaval increase exponentially when multiple partners are involved, at least until our brains have been rewired. Even when people think they have grown beyond jealousy and fear of abandonment, they can be surprised by a new situation that reactivates old issues. Some might see this as a wonderful opportunity to clear up emotional baggage they didn't know they had, but others would prefer to avoid these painful reminders. For example, Cheryl was relieved to have found a sense of peace and stability in her triadic relationship with Paul and Leslie after the year of emotional ups and downs that ensued when Leslie told Cheryl she wanted a sexual relationship with their friend Paul. When Paul asked if his former partner Harry could join them for dinner, Cheryl found herself enraged for reasons she couldn't understand but soon realized she was afraid this dinner might be the start of another roller-coaster ride. She wasn't sure if she was more afraid that Paul might leave her and Leslie to go back to Harry or that Harry might end up expanding their threesome to a foursome. She liked her life just as it was and didn't want any more changes. Living in the moment was a challenge for Cheryl, who found it hard to trust that change might make a good thing even better.
Challenges with time management and coordination are probably an inevitable part of polyamorous relating. One polyamorous woman complained that invitations to social events always presented a challenge as she never knew which partner she might end up being with at the time and what preferences he might have about attending. As one member of an eight-person intimate network put it, "Have you ever tried to get eight people to agree on where to go for dinner and then get them all out the door at the same time?" This kind of dilemma is common but, while relatively trivial, can take its toll over time. Nevertheless, it is likely to be less emotionally loaded than a conflict over who is going to sleep with whom when everyone's preferences are different and time options are scarce.
Sally was leaving town the next day on an extended business trip. Oscar and Frank each wanted her to spend her last night alone with them. "I honestly didn't have any preference," Sally moaned, "and maybe that was the problem because they both wanted me to decide, and I didn't want to. I would have been happy for all of us to stay together, but that wasn't what they wanted. We ended up spending most of the night talking about what to do and why." Even when decisions about how much time to spend with different partners are not an issue, simply fitting several relationships into a busy life can send some people racing back to monogamy.
With all these difficulties, is polyamory worth the struggle? Why would anyone want to swim upstream when they don't have to? We'll take a look at this in my next blog. Or get a preview at www.lovewithoutlimits.com.
Adapted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, Ph.D., published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. This material is protected by copyright and appears by permission of the publisher.. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.