I reluctantly became polyamorous 25 years ago when my wife, Guin, asked to open our marriage. Over time, however, poly has shifted my worldview and identity to the point where it’s hard to imagine living any other way (you can read more about my shift into poly here).
Many friends expected our marriage to end decades ago with one of us running off with another lover, but I was convinced we lasted so long because we allowed space for other lovers. I was proud of what we achieved together and thought our marriage was bulletproof.
After losing a deeply significant relationship a few months ago, Guin decided she now wants to be monogamous. This would be fine except she has also demanded that I become monogamous too and drop my longstanding relationship with Morgaine. I felt it was unethical and even cruel to make such a demand and, after some hemming and hawing, refused. Guin is now debating whether she wants to stay married to me and is considering leaving to “create space” to attract a monogamous partner. It has been a deeply painful and confusing time in my life, but also a period of deep learning and insights. I hope to write about it when I have more distance and clarity.
In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting what I experience as some of the pros and cons of polyamory to keep my bearings in the storm. I hope they prove useful to others exploring whether or how to be in loving, consensual relationships with multiple partners.
In another blog post I shared how polyamory has repeatedly compelled me to let go of old ways of being and expand into larger and better versions of myself. After I got married, but before becoming poly, I actually felt relief that I never had to “date” again, but this also meant a part of me was going to sleep. Whether it is being open to flirting or contact improv or staying fit, polyamory keeps me more on my toes, introduces me to new ideas and ways of being, and reminds me to not take any of my relationships for granted.
FREEDOM AND ACCEPTANCE
MLK Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I would add that it also bends towards liberation and tolerance. Over generations, marriage has become less about property and politics, and bi-racial and gay marriages have expanded its definition. Polyamory is further pushing this envelope by releasing the concept of ownership in relationships (unless, of course, if you’re into that sort of thing ;-). While often difficult at first, there’s no feeling like compersion, which comes from offering our partners an unrestricted ability to share love with others and delighting in the joy they find.
When it comes to love, our society suffers from a scarcity mentality. Love is often seen as a zero-sum resource and we often feel we have to prevent our partners from loving others for fear that it will deplete the love they have for us. Similar to switching from fossil fuels to solar energy, polyamory reminds us that, like the sun, love is abundant and can be shared with multiple people in non-threatening ways. And really, on our deathbeds, will any of us regret trying to have loved more deeply and more often?
People often think of monogamy as something black-and-white — you either are or you aren’t. But to me, it is all gray areas. Is it okay to have close friends of the attractive gender(s)? Is it okay to share secrets with them? Difficult emotions? A massage? A kiss? Monogamous couples generally think they are on the same page without having to discuss boundaries, but discrepancies will arise over time, which can be painful to process, especially when they are discovered “after the (f)act.” With polyamory, there’s no illusion of “one way” to do things so we are forced to talk about what works and doesn’t work for each of us. This requires a lot of communication, but hopefully results in greater clarity around our relationship dynamics, comfort levels, and boundaries.
With monogamy, most or all of our needs are expected to be met within the relationship. This can be a challenge when only one partner enjoys spooning all night or PDAs or winter camping or strip poker or BDSM or … well, you get the idea. With polyamory, it is more likely we will find relationships that fulfill us without needing to pressure our other partners to do things they don’t enjoy. On the downside, this can also raise the bar for our original partners, which I will discuss below.
Life is hard sometimes. You’re home with the flu. Work sucks! A family member is in trouble or passes away. Having multiple partners to bring chicken soup or vent about your boss with or cry on their shoulders can offer incredible emotional and physical support. And when living together, combining incomes and extra help with household chores and raising kids can make life much easier for everyone.
Lest we become pollyannaish about polyamory, here are some of the downsides of loving multiple partners:
While also a problem in monogamous relationships, opportunities to experience jealousy and FOMO are more common when there are multiple partners. Those new to poly may even feel disgust or repulsion towards metamours, particularly if they are icked out by coming into secondhand contact with others’ bodily fluids. Feeling jealous is a very natural emotion and doesn’t mean you’re bad or not cut out for polyamory. However, it can be very unpleasant to experience (on both ends!) and suffering can also become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Exploring what is beneath these feelings and how we often unconsciously play out cultural narratives can often help sort them out.
While the feeling of love is abundant, time and energy are often scarce resources and polyamory demands a lot of both. Balancing schedules and parenting duties (when kids are involved), processing emotions and relationship dynamics, and striving to meet diverse expectations can sometimes make poly feel like a Cirque du Soleil act. More relationships can also mean more heartbreaks and “growth opportunities.” Sometimes it can all just feel like too much to handle and make one yearn for the simplicity and sense of control (at least imagined) within monogamous relationships.
Obviously, being with multiple partners, who themselves may have multiple partners, increases the chance of becoming infected with an STD. Yes, safer sex reduces these risks, but the key word is “safer”, not “safe.” and no technique is 100% guaranteed. And there’s perhaps no easier way to strain the relationship between metamours than by introducing an STD into the equation.
While being openly poly generally does not carry the legal, professional, and even physical threats that being openly gay did (and still does in some places), polyamory is generally considered unacceptable behavior and “coming out of the poly closet” can risk prejudice and ostracism from parents, family, and friends. As a result, secondaries often pay a heavy toll when their partners do not acknowledge them publicly. They may not be invited to family functions; they may be invisible on social media; and they may not be allowed to engage in PDA in public or in front of their partner’s children.
SMALL DATING POOL
It is hard enough to find one partner who is within an acceptable age range, geographically available, physically attractive, and emotionally compatible. Adding polyamory as a dating criteria reduces this pool of potential partners considerably, especially in less populated areas and locations where there is widespread intolerance of alternative lifestyles. And men tend to have an even harder time finding poly partners than women, which often leads to imbalance and frustration within open couples.
All relationships evolve over time and change is difficult enough to negotiate between two people. In poly relationships, there is both more change and more people to negotiate with, which makes boundaries and expectations an ever moving target. New partners might fall deeply in love and want more than was originally agreed to… A primary partner might decide to become monogamous and demand that you do likewise (it happens!)… When only one partner wants to change (or not to change), the result is often heartache.
RAISING THE BAR
With polyamory, it is common to get certain needs met in new relationships to an extent you did not expect or even think was possible. You may develop a deep intellectual connection with someone that makes your old partner seem dull in comparison. Or a new partner takes your sex life to a whole new level and you are no longer interested in the vanilla sex (or lack of sex) you had before. This can be scary for the original partner, especially when it seems their worst fear is being realized by their partner being lured away by a [younger or more beautiful, intelligent, compatible, etc.] lover. OR, it can be an opportunity to appreciate and accept our differences and perhaps even to explore new ways of relating to those we love.
It is often said that couples should not have a child in order to “fix” their relationship and this is also true for bringing new people into poly relationships. While full of growth opportunities and NRE, new relationships can also make it easy to avoid the hard and often painful work of resolving problems and maintaining passion within existing relationships.
Finally, secondaries in relationship with a member of a couple can often feel the needs of their metamour come before their own. Boundaries may be set around when, where, and how much time a secondary can spend together with their primary partner; there may be constraints around what kinds of activities, emotional or sexual involvement are permitted; their relationship is often put in the closet, and they have limited access to the partner’s everyday life. Check out Morgaine’s post on The Challenges of Being a Secondary for more.
Polyamory is clearly not for everyone, but then again neither is monogamy. Like any style of relationship it comes with pros and cons that we each need to weigh for ourselves. Hopefully, polyamory will eventually become just another choice that is available without social stigma or judgement. Until then, I appreciate those who are openly loving multiple partners as it is making it easier for those who follow and it is also challenging some antiquated cultural narratives in order to allow more love in our lives.
Please add your thoughts about the pros and cons listed here, and perhaps new ones we should add, in the comments. Thanks!