I have been with the same man for a couple of years and he just asked me whether I would want to be in an open relationship with him. He has met another couple through his work that practices polyamory and he is interested in exploring a relationship with them. I am not sure about this but I am trying to be open-minded. Can “open” relationships really work? Is polyamory just another way to have more sexual partners? I know that I can and do get jealous and it seems like tempting fate, but I don’t want to lose him because of this. Is there a way for us both to have what we want in this arrangement?
The idea of polyamory is not new. In fact, the idea of multiple partner relationships is as old as our documented history. There are even Egyptian statues, which celebrate the act and many other religions which have over the years, sanctified the practice of polygamy. It wasn’t until the late-1960s and 1970s when the “free love” movement opened the way to the polyamory practices of today. Books that started the movement, like Open Marriage, have been followed recently by Jenny Block’s Open and Opening Up by sex columnist Tristan Taormino. The most popular polyamory magazine called Loving More has 15,000 regular readers and it has been estimated that there are some 500,000 polyamorous couples/families living in the United States.
Polyamory distinguishes itself from other forms of multiple relationships by its central idea that all relationships, whether they are sexual or emotional exist within the knowledge and consent of all parties. According to the Polyamory society pages, they describe their choices as a “love style,” which is a responsible and ethical form of non-monogamy. Their belief that human beings have the ability to love more than one person intimately in a committed, sustainable, multiple relationships is how they view the future of all relationships. They say that the practice of Polyamory is about maturity and overcoming our jealousies.
One of the primary practices of poly couples is called “comperison”–the learning to find personal fulfillment in the emotional and sexual satisfaction of your partner even if you’re not the one doing the satisfying. Conceptually this is all good, but humans are hardwired for jealousy, so don’t worry, it isn’t just you. Whether this practice goes against human nature is a question that many have asked. I believe that it adds a level of complexity and challenge to intimate relationships, which are already pretty challenging in their most basic coupling for most of us. Asking whether this kind of arrangement can work for both of you is both a healthy and essential question to begin with because based on their philosophy, you being in agreement is critical to its success.
So although polyamory might seem like an ideal solution to combat the familiarity and boredom often associated with monogamy, its practice is no simpler and often much more complicated than monogamous relationships. The problem all comes in how you define what you are doing–which is true in every relationship. What some might call polyamory, might well look and feel like swinging to others. Sexual behavior and the emotional attachments that often go with them are open to wide interpretation. It is not an easy topic to frame in words. Visiting a few of the chat rooms on-line, demonstrates how deeply these confusions can run. High levels of capacity in both communicating and emotional intelligence are necessary so that everyone is on the same page.
I have heard polyamory referred to as “polyagony,” if that gives you a clue as to how far off the multiple relationship arrangements can get. In addition, as the movement has gained more attention, the concern about its morality in conjunction with child raising has grown. There are several cases of parental custody being lost and the religious right has taken up this lifestyle choice as a new political battlefield beside same sex marriage. Ironically this has compromised the openness that is promoted in the lifestyle, as many families with children are forced to keep their choices secret.
I have had many a conversation about “love styles” in my Good Clean Love traveling booth over the years. Many people discuss things there that they might not otherwise because it is so difficult to find non-judgmental spaces to explore our intimate choices. I remember well a conversation with a couple that had come out of 20 years of living in a polyamory community in Hawaii. They told me that although the idea of polyamory is appealing in principle, it often becomes an easy way to avoid the deep issues that arise in our primary relationships. Rather than people getting better at relating, the diffusion and confusion of so many people’s needs doesn’t often translate into more loving.
I have long believed that as difficult as monogamy is for so many of us, learning how to deeply and completely love another person actually opens up the way to understanding what it means to love everyone. But that’s just me.