The Upside of Polyamory
Does polyamory have social and emotional value?
Posted Dec 22, 2010 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
At the start of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, many people thought that creating honest nonmonogamous relationships would be easy. Instead, half a century of false starts and painful discoveries has taught us that polyamory exacts a price.
The fact is that most 21st-century humans have many contradictory impulses that pull them in the direction of inclusive love and simultaneously push them in the direction of jealousy and possessiveness.
These opposing forces must be reconciled before we are truly free to love, and therein lies one of the biggest gifts polyamory has to offer. Polyamory places people in the center of the cyclone, with an abundance of opportunities to confront these opposing forces and to learn from their mistakes along the way. Learning theorists have found that the more mistakes you make, the faster you learn. In polyamory, it's possible to get the benefit of several lifetimes worth of mistakes in a relatively short time because you are engaging in more than one intimate relationship at a time.
Polyamorous relationships offer many means of accelerating personal growth. All intimate relationships at their best are a path to higher consciousness and greater self-knowledge, largely because of the valuable feedback—or mirroring effect—one receives from a beloved. Having more than one partner at a time not only increases the available quantity of feedback but also makes it harder to blame your partner for the problems you might be creating in the relationship.
Of course, serial monogamy also offers the opportunity to see the same issues arise in one relationship after another, but not only does it take longer to get the lesson, but, if you're a fast talker, you may be able to convince one person at a time that it's not your fault, whereas two are less likely to be fooled.
Bill is an attractive man in his late forties who has never been married. Over the years, he'd had a series of monogamous relationships, each lasting about four years. "I'm not sure why none of these relationships lasted," he told me. "I always assumed it just wasn't a match and moved on to the next woman, but I'm getting older, and I really want to settle down." Bill decided he wanted to try polyamory and took my advice to start by dating women who weren't seeking a monogamous commitment. Soon he was dating three different women and was thrilled when it turned out that two of them knew and liked each other.
After a few months, however, he found himself struggling. "Liz, Helen, and Angie are all mad at me," he complained. "They started comparing notes and found out I'd told some white lies. Now they're accusing me of manipulating them. I really don't understand what their problem is, but I'd like to find out. Can you help me?" Bill was reaping the benefits of polyamory in a different way than he'd expected, but his openness to taking a look at himself—once three women instead of one were insisting on it—was promising.
Because multiple-partner relationships are inherently more complex and demanding than monogamous ones and because they challenge the norms of our culture, they offer other valuable learning opportunities. Lessons about loving yourself, about tolerance for diversity, about speaking from the heart and communicating clearly, and about learning to trust an internal sense of rightness and to think for yourself rather than blindly relying on outside opinion are only a sampling of the lessons. These qualities are earmarks of an emotionally and spiritually mature person—the kind of person who makes a good parent and who can contribute to his or her community.
One of the most common concerns about polyamory is that it's harmful to children, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Multiple-adult families and committed intimate networks have the potential of providing dependent children with additional nurturing adults who can meet their material, intellectual, and emotional needs. While parents may end up focusing less attention on their children, children may gain new aunts, uncles, and adopted parents.
More adults sharing parenting can mean less stress and less burnout without losing any of the rewards. In a larger group of men and women, it's more likely that one or two adults will be willing and able to stay home and care for the family or that each could be available one or two days a week. If one parent dies or becomes disabled, other family members can fill the gap. It's possible for children to have more role models, more playmates, and more love in a group environment. Of course, these advantages can be found in any community setting, but people sometimes avoid intimacy with other adults in a conscious or unconscious effort to safeguard a monogamous commitment.
Polyamory has the potential to create stable and nurturing families where children develop in an atmosphere of love and security. With the traditional nuclear family well on its way to extinction, we are faced with a question of critical importance: who will mind the children? Neither two-career nor single-parent families offer children full-time, loving caretakers, and quality daycare is both scarce and expensive.
Even at its best, full-time institutional care (including public schooling) cannot provide the individual attention, intimacy, flexibility, and opportunity for solitude that children need to realize their potential. Serial monogamy presents children as well as parents with stressfully discontinuous family life. Meanwhile, an entire generation is at risk, as divorce is an increasingly common fact of life.
We don't yet know how polyamory impacts the rate of divorce; the little data we have suggest that it doesn't. That is, divorce rates appear to be about the same in monogamous and non-monogamous marriages. Some people have begun to joke about "serial polyamory," and it may turn out that any kind of lasting relationship is simply less likely in the 21st century. We do know that practicing polyamory can help prepare parents to maintain family ties after a divorce because the issue of becoming jealous when confronted with a former mate's new partner has usually been dealt with already.
Polyamory can mean a higher standard of living while consuming fewer resources. Sexual and loving partners are more likely than friends or neighbors to feel comfortable sharing housing, transportation, appliances, and other resources. Even if partners don't live communally, they frequently share meals, help each other with household repairs and projects, and vacation together. This kind of cooperation helps provide a higher quality of life while reducing individual consumption as well as keeping people too busy to overconsume. Multiple partners also help in the renewal of our devastated human ecology by creating a sense of bonded community.
Polyamory can help parents and children alike adapt to an ever more complex and quickly changing world. One of the greatest challenges facing humans at the dawn of the 21st century is coping with the increasingly fast pace of life. We're constantly being inundated with more information than we can absorb and more choices than we can evaluate. New technologies are becoming obsolete almost before we can implement them. Trying to keep up can be stressful if not impossible for a single person or a couple. But a small group of loving and well-coordinated partners can divide up tasks that would overwhelm one or two people. Multiple-partner relationships can be an antidote to future shock.
One of the most difficult challenges confronting men and women in the 21st century is making the transition from the rigid and well-defined gender identities prevalent in the 20th century to the more fluid and androgynous roles preferred by many individuals. Diverse opinions as to the healthiest, most natural, and most functional approach to gender roles are still being debated by social scientists, psychotherapists, and spiritual teachers.
Many people would agree, however, that both John Wayne-style masculinity and the classic 1950s housewife version of femininity, as well as any identity based solely on gender, are prescriptions for unhappiness. While the extreme versions of these old stereotypes are increasingly rare, many people are still struggling with the more subtle effects of gender stereotypes.
Marriage, as we know it today, is based on patterns established in biblical times governing men's ownership of women. Polyamory can help men and women break out of dysfunctional sex roles and achieve more equal, sexually gratifying, and respectful relationships simply because of its novelty. Most of us have unconsciously absorbed our culture's messages about proper demeanor for husbands and wives.
We may think our modern society has left this legacy behind, but remember that women in the United States have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. Polyamory leads us to confront the sex-role conditioning of our ancestors and demands that we transcend it. It requires that men and women alike overcome our competitive programming and that we invent new ways of relating since we can no longer fall back on simply doing it the way Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa did it.
Deep ecologists suggest that the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples may offer some important clues to our survival as a species. Deep-ecology advocate Dolores LaChapelle was one of the first 20th-century writers to discuss sex and intimate relationships in an ecological context. She views the breakdowns in so many modern relationships as a direct result of placing too much emphasis on the romance between two people and losing sight of the larger whole in which we are all embedded.
In her encyclopedic Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, she draws on indigenous wisdom the world over to paint a vivid picture of the ways in which multi-partner sex has traditionally served to bond the group, diffuse potential conflict, and strengthen the connection to the land. She cites many examples of both ancient and modern native peoples whose customs and rituals incorporate sex as "natural, inevitable, and sacred because it's part of the whole inter-relationship of humans and nature in that place."
One account is from a woman anthropologist who was traveling through the jungle with a woman friend from the tribe and the woman's husband. When they stopped to camp for the night, her friend was making love with her husband and asked if she wanted to join in. She describes the experience as natural, playful, tender, and bonding for the two women.
In many of these cultures, as in polyamory, pair bonding is one option among many, and couples expect to include others in their intimacy or relax their boundaries when the situation arises. Couples, as well as other grouping and singles, all participate in seasonal festivals involving ritual sex to "increase the energy not only between man and woman but within the group as a whole and between the humans and their land."
Dr. James Prescott's research revealed that cultures like these are significantly less violent than those that disallow extramarital sex. While modern Western thinking generally regards fertility rites as merely superstitious, if not immoral, LaChapelle describes a biological basis for their positive effects.
LaChapelle explains it this way: "In ritualized sex, which is not confined to the genital area, the entire body and the brain receive repetitive stimuli over a considerable period of time. This leads to ‘central nervous system tuning.' To briefly summarize, if either the parasympathetic nervous system or the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the other system is inhibited. Tuning occurs ... when there is such strong, prolonged activation of one system that it becomes supersaturated and spills over into the other system so that it, in turn, becomes activated. If stimulated long enough the next stage of tuning is reached where the simultaneous strong discharge of both autonomic systems creates a state of stimulation of the median forebrain bundle, generating not only pleasurable sensations but ... a sense of union or oneness with all.
"This stage of tuning permits right hemisphere dominance; thus solving problems deemed insoluble by the rational hemisphere. Furthermore, the strong rhythm of repetitive action as done in sexual rituals produces positive limbic discharge, resulting in increased social cohesion; thus contributing to the success of such rituals as bonding mechanisms."
Of course, polyamory does not necessarily involve such exotic activities, but as a philosophy of love, it provides a context in which erotic ritual is possible without prohibitions based on a belief in entitlement to sexual exclusivity as proof of commitment or fidelity. What polyamory does require is a more altruistic, unconditional type of love than is common in monogamous unions and that naturally arises from a felt sense of oneness. While monogamy, of course, also thrives on unselfish love, monogamy can survive more easily than polyamory in its absence.
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.