Monday, November 26, 2012

From the Empirical Archives: The Value of Polyamory by Adrienne Parker

The Value of Polyamory
Adrienne Parker
Originally Published in Empirical magazine in may 2012

The value of a polyamorous lovestyle is difficult for many to comprehend, and they are sincerely bemused as to why anyone would want to run a relationship in this manner. “It seems much too complicated,” they say, “One intimate loving relationship is difficult enough to maintain; who in their right mind would want the added burden of two or more partners? Besides, who has the time?” I agree—polyamory is complicated. It takes a significant amount of devoted time and energy to create and maintain just one healthy relationship. Two relationships take even more. Are there really benefits to loving more than one person? And are those benefits worth it? These are good questions to ponder.

Obviously, polyamory is not for everyone. Monogamy is the cultural norm, the tried and true way to structure our relationships. But should it be? It does seem to work well for many people, but not for all. I do think it is important to note that our concept of monogamy has evolved from what it once meant, in the strictest sense, of having only one spouse/sexual partner for life.

When people speak of monogamy nowadays, they are usually referring to having only one sexual partner at a time, what is commonly called “serial monogamy.” Currently, the majority of people practice serial monogamy as their relationship style of choice. And many of these “monogamous” relationships are affected by cheating.

My experience is that many people are more comfortable with the idea of cheating than they are with polyamory. Not that they condone cheating—most abhor it—but it confuses them less than polyamory
does. People are aware that temptations abound, that it is natural to be attracted to someone other than one’s spouse, and sometimes we succumb to these natural urges. These things happen. People cheat. We have all seen it time and time again. It makes us angry, jealous, and sad. But, we are all aware that it is common place.

Within this cultural norm of monogamy, once the cheating is disclosed or somehow discovered, there are choices to be made. If the cheated-on partner is willing to continue on with the relationship, one option is for the cheating partner to give up the new partner and recommit to monogamy. Or perhaps the cheating partner has fallen in love with the new partner, and thus makes the choice to leave the old partner for the new one, with whom they will now commit to monogamy. This scenario can play out in several ways, but the promise of monogamy is most likely a part of the new arrangement. One interesting aspect for these serial monogamists is that they often find themselves loving more than one person and having to choose one relationship over the other. There is no mental construct, no societal support that allows for the consideration of sustaining both relationships. So even monogamists sometimes experience themselves as polyamorous at heart, if not openly and honestly practicing it as their lovestyle of choice.

But for many, polyamory is still scarier than cheating. Giving your partner permission to cheat is downright nuts. Right? Well, that is really not what is going on with polyamory. Cheating is not a good thing. Cheating is about lies and deception. It is the breaking of vows and betraying the trust of the one to whom you have committed your love and life to. But engaging in a sexual, loving relationship with a person who is not your spouse or committed other is not cheating when you are being open and honest, and have a mutual agreement to be non-monogamous.

The fact is monogamy is complicated too. It restricts certain aspects of personal freedom and individual choice. It limits the potential of sexual expression and how we love. I am not saying that monogamy is a bad choice. But it is not a good choice for everyone. I have already mentioned how, monogamously committed or not, people have the tendency to stray. In both happy and not-so-happy relationships, people get sexually involved with others who are not their spouse. But as common as cheating is, not all people cheat. Many,\ even if they secretly (or openly) like the idea of having a sexually loving affair with another, would never cheat. Some are comfortable with this decision and some maintain resentment.

There seems to be a movement of sorts where committed couples are more and more openly communicating their desire to be sexually involved with another or others. They discuss the pros and cons of taking their relationship down the polyamorous path. Some simply decide it is not for them. Others remain open to the idea, but leave it at that. Some gingerly put their toes in the water and others jump right into the deep end. Some try it out and let it go. Others stay with it for life.

Most people are fortunate enough to love more than one person. We love our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends. It is in the sexual love category that we close ourselves off to loving more than one. A polyamorous person keeps his or her heart open to the possibility of having more than one sexual, loving relationship. But the sex is not a given. What is a given is the love. A key point is that polyamory is not just about the sex. I am not saying it is not about the sex because that certainly is a part of it. Sex is an option in polyamorous relationships, not a requirement (Sex should never be a requirement for anyone at any time whether in a monogamous or polyamorous relationship). Just because polyamorous people are non-monogamous doesn’t mean they are having sex with more than one person.

They leave the option open to have sex with more than one person. There are non-monogamous relationship styles that differ from polyamory, where opening yourself to love and emotional intimacy with someone other than your spouse is not an option. In these relationships, the non-monogamous aspect of the relational agreement is centered on having more than one sexual partner, or “swinging.” There is nothing wrong with this type of relationship if that is what you want, but it is not polyamory.

That being said, sexual variety is an important aspect of polyamory. For some, sex really isn’t that big of a deal. But it is for many, and they get bored with the limited experiences available with just one sexual partner. That doesn’t mean they do not enjoy sex with their long-term partner of five, ten, or twenty years (but it is possible that they do not). It simply means that they enjoy more variety to spice things up. Every lover is different and unique in his body shape and size, voice, words he uses, the way he smells and tastes, moves, and makes love.

Every lover ignites a different aspect of ourselves.

Having more than one lover does not necessarily mean you prefer or enjoy one over another (although you may), or that you love one more than another (although you may). It simply means that you are attracted to more than one person, that you love more than one person, that you appreciate the variety of their differences and the way you weave your energies together. Another lover can be a breath of fresh air for you individually, and she can also breathe new life into your existing relationships. New friends offer new energy and perspectives that permeate every aspect of our lives. Making a new friend doesn’t mean we don’t love and enjoy our old friends.

Back to the question: is polyamory worth it? Why, with all the admitted complications, time and energy constraints, does polyamory seem to be the lovestyle du jour? Human beings are complicated creatures, even those of us who like to keep things simple.

Jealousy is an issue in many relationships, including monogamous ones. We have been culturally indoctrinated to view our partner’s other relationships as a threat. And in a monogamously minded culture where
having relationships with two people simultaneously is not an option, another person is a threat. So whether the threat is real or imagined, jealousy is often a big issue to contend with; many are not up to the challenge of inviting it into their relationship.

Fair enough. But for those who are interested in looking jealousy square in the face (or the mirror, as the case may be), it can be an amazing journey into personal and spiritual enlightenment. Jealousy is often rooted in, and fueled by, our insecurities of self-worth and fear of abandonment. And although it is a natural human emotion, such as anger, sadness, and fear, it has the potential to grow like a cancer until it holds great power over a person and is a force to be reckoned with. Some people intentionally choose polyamory as a means to consciously deal with their jealousy. If you are a relatively emotionally mature person (or desire to develop more emotional maturity) and have developed a fair amount of self-responsibility in both your intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, polyamory can work well for you in this regard. You’ll get lots of practice behaving in a loving, responsible manner when you experience your beloved engaging in a sexually loving
relationship with someone else!

Availability (or lack thereof ) of enough time is another issue. A well-known adage in polyamorous circles is, “Love may be unlimited but time is not.” With so many of us are already feeling a crunch for our time, how is it possible to make room for another intimate loving relationship? Building intimacy takes a lot of time, and once created, it must be maintained. Polyamory is not about giving your partner a free pass on Friday nights to go out to the bar and find someone for a one-night stand. That is fine and dandy if that is what you are looking for, but it is not polyamory. Polyamory is about loving more than one person. The key word here is love. When we enter into love-relationships, they take time and commitment. Polyamory starts with sustaining the relationships you already have. So if you are already pressed for time and your current partner is clamoring for more attention, it probably is not a wise decision to get involved with another person who will require more than your ability to give.

Then again, another lover can equate to more helping hands, collective energy, and resources to throw into the pot. Many people prefer family-style polyamory where everyone is good friends, and the new lover becomes part of one big extended family. Everyone is probably not sleeping together (they could be), but the friendships are the most cherished aspects of the polyamorous arrangement. When children are involved, it is a godsend to have another adult in the carpool or to call on in emergencies. Children feel safer with more loving, cooperative adults in their lives to depend on. It is also handy to have an extra someone to call for a dinner or movie date, to lend a shoulder to cry on, or to offer a different perspective. Of course, if they are fortunate, families already create these types of relationships, whether they are polyamorous or not. You don’t have to be polyamorous to set yourself up in a loving, extended family, but polyamory does tend to arise naturally with those engaged in this lovestyle.

One of the things I enjoy the most about polyamory is the opportunity to focus on the friendship. Opening our hearts to honest communication and emotional intimacy is what grows love. What could be better than growing more love and friendship in our lives? Love and friendship make us happy, peaceful people; and happy, peaceful people make for an overall happier, more peaceful world. For people who resonate with the value of leading a polyamorous life and choose to move in this direction, I encourage them to take it one small step at a time. Start by opening your heart to loving yourself along with the family and friends you already have in bigger and better ways. Intend to keep your heart open to making interesting new friends who are open-hearted, open-minded people. If you have a partner, communicate openly and honestly to her or him about your thoughts and desires before you do anything. Keep your heart and mind open to your partner’s emotional reactions and thoughts. Find new and exciting ways to spice up and grow the love you already have in your life as you open to creating more.

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