We live in a culture of loneliness. As career patterns and housing patterns have shifted towards greater mobility and increasing distance, more people than ever are living alone, marrying later, and participating in fewer community activities. In a study in which researchers asked a sample of Americans how many friends do you talk to on a regular basis that you consider confidantes, meaning someone you can tell anything to, in the 1970s the most common answer was three; in 2005 the most common answer was zero. Instead of having a community of friends and family, people are increasingly relying on their significant other, a single individual on whom they depend for all their social, sexual, and emotional needs. As many couples come to find that that’s a lot to ask of one person, polyamory emerges as one solution for creating the community that is increasingly difficult to find in the modern world.
One of the loneliest times in my life was the two years I lived in Salt Lake City right after graduating from college. I was enrolled in a master’s program in creative writing at the University of Utah. My relationship with my ex Edgar had ended a few months before, and I was still mourning that loss as I adjusted to living in a place where I had no friends or family, no car, where getting groceries and making food for myself was every day an ordeal.
After a very trying first year, Edgar and I got back together over the summer. He was attending law school in New York, and I was at the time dating an ex-Mormon from Utah. I broke up with the Utah boyfriend, believing that was the right thing to do, and found that I was more alone than ever. I had a boyfriend on the other side of the country who I saw only a couple days in a month. I still did not have a car or friends who would come see me in the evenings. I was still living in Salt Lake City, a place with no bars or late night hangouts. And even if they existed, my lack of transportation and stipend of $1200 a month kept me at home. I resisted the urge to call my Utah lover, but endured nights of loneliness so crushing it was as though I was buried beneath a mountain. I had repeat migraines with vomiting that lasted for days, and daylight, so brilliant in Utah it felt like one had died and gone to heaven, became as oppressive to me as darkness was before. I had difficulty eating and my weight dropped to 105 pounds. I called on my Utah lover, whose physical presence comforted me, except now our relationship was troubled with guilt and pain. If I had known about polyamory back then I would have talked to my boyfriend and said, “I don’t want to leave you but I need someone here,” but I was certain that I would lose the one I loved with such a request, the one I had already lost once and could not risk losing again. Instead I endured my feelings of guilt and shame and despair, in exchange for emotional survival.
As a species we are not meant to live in isolated units, with nobody or one partner as our sole companion. For most of human history we lived in tribes, and until very recently most of us lived in households with multiple generations and villages with extended family close by. If we all lived in a culture where we were all immersed in friendships, family and community, being a second to your significant other would probably not be a big deal, but in our couple-centric society, being a second means that you not only have half a significant other, but you also probably don’t have a community that satisfies the basic human urge for connection.
A second therefore has to find ways to either satisfy his craving for connection on his own when his significant other is not available (which could be a lot of the time), or find it in other relationships. A friend of mine who was undergoing a divorce had no primary relationship, but as he was just coming out of a difficult marriage, he found relief in not being in a primary relationship but being a second to several. Through them he found diverse people to spend time with, a way to try several relationships simultaneously without committing to any of them, and time to figure out his own life for a while. He also found community in his housemates (he had four), his friends, and membership in several community groups. He spent much of his time going to festivals, volunteering, and meeting people online.
My friend is very lucky. He is self-employed and enjoys many social activities. But for those who work jobs and don’t have families of their own, it may be harder to find that community. The significant other to whom we are second to may be the only relationship that we take solace in. Feelings of loneliness and longing for one’s partner is complicated when one also imagines that her partner is cuddling with his spouse or otherwise not feeling alone.
Scheduling time to connect with one’s partner is very important when both partners have many priorities. It’s hard to know if my partner is busy with his spouse or children when he’s not working, therefore it’s very reassuring to know that there are times carved out just for me when I am not taking time away from them. To that end my partner and I set times to have phone calls. We usually call in the afternoon after a majority of the day’s work has been done, or if we cannot talk in the afternoon we talk before going to bed. Because he lives in Ontario and I live in Pennsylvania, we also plan for a virtual “date” once a week where we can skype uninterrupted for an hour or more. Farther ahead on the calendar are dates when we plan to get together in person. Knowing when we get to connect gives me something to look forward and helps me feel that I am important in his life.
The reality is that even in monogamous relationships, one does not have constant access to one’s partner, and there are times when we want to interact with our partner but he/she isn’t available. If one’s partner has a demanding work schedule, children, lives in a different time zone, or is more introverted, he/she will have has less time to interact. There are days when I long to feel my lover’s embrace, when I am reluctant to end a phone call, and sorrowful when he does not respond to a text. I remember how great it felt to be close to him and feel empty until I am refilled by a visit. I want to cuddle, or make dinner with him, and he’s doing it with someone else. I feel intense envy for that person who has what I want, who I imagine doesn’t even appreciate what she has.
To dwell in these feelings though would be to dwell in separation, the idea that we are incomplete human beings waiting for someone else to complete us. Yet what is the beloved except for qualities that we love in ourselves? It might be his energy, his curiosity, his equanimity, his humor or his generosity. Rumi said, “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.” In Plato’s famous dialogue on love, The Symposium, the Greek philosopher teaches that the love of a beautiful body is a step on the ladder to the love of beautiful bodies in general, and then to a love of beautiful ideas, so that we come at last to love the essence of beauty, unpolluted by its manifestation as form. The essence of the beloved is love, and we are not separated from that love by flesh or distance, because the beloved resides in us all the time.
The beloved is a signpost towards the divine. He is both the path and the destination of my searching. If I can touch that divine love, then my beloved is with me and I am complete. I sit in a cross legged position and put my hands on my knees. I concentrate on the feelings in my body–the warmth in my chest, the rhythm of my breathing. I become aware of the longings, anxieties, and distractions of my mind and start to disengage with them. They appear as twinges and floating images, like turbulent waves on the surface of the ocean, but a deep calm reigns in the depth. Sinking into this depth I become aware of its expansiveness, that my spirit encompasses everything and is as abundant as the whole of the universe. Resting in this depth I begin to feel the abundance and completion of the self, that underneath all that grasping is the love I seek.
In this state I imagine my beloved before me. I am lying on his chest and he is loving me exactly the way I want to be loved, with tenderness and compassion. He looks into my eyes and tells me, “I love you.” I also hear him say, “I am with you at every moment, even if you don’t see me.” Then a subtle yet miraculous thing happens. I am my beloved. And the essence of him is love. There is no intimacy greater than feeling that you are one and the same person. To enter myself at the core is to encounter him at his core. Unmediated by flesh or words, my spirit is a direct experience of his spirit. I open my eyes and feel the peace of being filled with love, until the business of my day pulls me again into a state of separation.
I am no longer that lonely student out in the desert of Salt Lake City. I have a loving partner at home. I am second to a loving partner. I have a dog, and friends near and not so near. Some of my loneliness is mediated by improvements in my material situation–a car that can give me a change of scene, a TV, time to do work that I love, a smart phone for keeping in touch with the outside world. Monogamy was a lonely path for me, and polyamory is much better suited for my need for intimacy. But in order for polyamory to work, I believe all partners must come to the relationship from a position of abundance and generosity. This means a life that is rich in intellectual and creative pursuits, community engagement, spirituality, and other intimate relationships. If partners come to the relationship as a way to assuage their insecurities and their fear of being alone, then the metamour can only be competition that deepens existing fears and insecurities. But if we are secure, active, and feeling loved by ourselves, then loving will be easy and sharing will be a joy.
*Photo: Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Rob Marshall