Polyamory and the Dominant Narrative: How Much Love is Too Much?
For American children born between 1975 and 1985, the odds were roughly 50/50 that their parents would separate, part of an upward trend in divorce that had sustained for over a century (Cherlin, 1992). Rates have stabilized somewhat since the mid-80s, but the fact remains that divorce is, statistically speaking, by no means an unusual way for a marriage to end (Pinsof, 2002). But still, the language of marriage, and of serial monogamy, persists, in a rapidly changing world that is rapidly leaving binary paradigms behind (Richie and Barker, 2006). The tightening spiral of technological change is reshaping human behavior at all levels (McLuhan, 1964:2), and new social forms are emerging to challenge the old models, including marriage and monogamy.
It has been more than a decade now since President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress signed into law the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act”, which restricted homosexuals from legal unions by defining marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word `spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” The bill’s very title implies no small amount of anxiety over the shaky future of marriage. The idea that allowing homosexual couples to gain a legal status (and the very real financial and constitutional protections that some with it) would threaten marriage, is dubious at best, unless one supposes homosexuals were desperately craving married heterosexuals to whisk away.
But if marriage is so palpably threatened, at least as likely to fail as succeed, then why should we expect the same dutiful crap shoot from the generation that grew up with custody battles, MTV and step-parents? Why, as well, if marriage is so prone to failure, does it persist as the default social grouping, the only one permissible to speak of in mixed company? Are there no alternatives to “one man and one woman as husband and wife”?
One possible strategy, gaining popularity and visibility in recent years, is the practice of open non-monogamy, more properly referred to as polyamory. Occurring in a dizzying array of possible formations, polyamory is the practice of openly maintaining multiple romantic or sexual relationships (Barker & Richie, 2007). It differs from monogamous infidelity in its insistence on openness and honesty, and is distinct from Mormon-style polygamy for its egalitarian and often feminist sensibilities (Barker & Richie, 2006). Far from being a purely sexual practice, polyamory puts emphasis upon maintaining meaningful relationships that respect the needs of all parties involved, and as such often requires new identity relations that challenge traditional constructs of gender, power, and sexuality (Strassberg, 2003).
This project attempted to examine polyamory as a source of individual and social identity, and to what extent polyamorists use this lifestyle to critique traditional family structures. Online postings on craigslist.org and tribe.net invited polyamorists to answer a 15-question survey. The survey was also later posted as a bulletin on MySpace.com. In areas where the survey’s data was inconclusive, recent scholarly literature was made available to me, for which I am grateful.
One is immediately struck by the respondents’ attitudes toward, or more properly against, traditional marriage. In response to the question “Describe how polyamory fits into your political or spiritual worldview.”, one third of survey participants answered with comments about marriage. The following response, from a 25-year-old bisexual female, was typical:
“Well, I think that marriage is a farce. I think it is an outdated ceremony. Don’t people understand that the father gives away the bride because he is symbolically transferring property to another man the new husband)? It’s horseshit, really.”
A 36-year-old heterosexual male echoed these sentiments:
“Marriage is (an) ancient business contract. It simply has no place in this world anymore.”
It should be noted that both these respondents described themselves as children of divorce, and both described traumatic situations related to the subsequent upheaval. Others seemed less passionate, but neither were they interested in marriage or children.
When asked “Do you have any children? If not, do you want any?”, 83% responded negatively to both questions. One is less inclined to interpret this as an incompatibility between child-rearing and polyamory than to the small sample size. If one views monogamous marriage solely as a contract whose purpose is to create an environment conducive to child-rearing (Pinsof, 2002), this finding is not particularly surprising.
In any case, the state frowns upon polyamorous households with children, which do indeed exist; indeed, it can be grounds for loss of custody (Strassberg, 2003). By this measure, at least, polyamorists are subject to harsher penalties than homosexuals. But while an examination of the seeming ambivalence toward reproducing in the Western world is beyond the scope of this paper, it bears mentioning that several survey participants elaborated on the question of children, citing financial reasons, fears of being a “terrible mother”, and concern about the ballooning global population.
One common (but by no means constant) feature of polyamory is the tendency to have a ‘primary’ partner, with secondary and even tertiary levels of commitment below that (Strassberg, 2003). In many cases, primary partner dyads seem much like traditional heterosexual or homosexual couples, with no small amount of couples with “open marriages” in which each partner is free to seek out other relationships. All respondents reported having a primary partner, but with wide variation in terms of how the relationship was organized. One 29-year-old female reported having a primary male partner “mostly because we don’t have any other partners right now. If we met other people, we are open to changing from the primary/secondary model.” The fluidity of this situation strains the vocabulary of monogamy, and in this, the growing polyamory community, accelerated and increasingly connected by the Internet, has been hard at work cobbling together a new lexicon, and with it, new identities (Barker & Richie, 2006).
Any alternative to the dominant narrative is a threat, because once it can be articulated, it can be put into practice (Richie & Barker, 2006). In this sense, polyamory is in many ways entwined with other so-called ‘alternative lifestyles’ in being somewhat marginalized in society’s eyes; in fact, gay-marriage advocates have taken great pains to distance themselves from polyamory, regardless of the sexual orientation (Barker & Richie, 2007). One female respondent, who self-identified as “queer” as opposed to “bisexual” (because of a perceived “biphobia in the queer community”), said:
“Being queer and being polyamorous carry similar negative connotations because both challenge firmly set cultural norms. Both challenge prevailing religion, prevailing morality, prevailing concepts of what a relationship should be, prevailing concepts of love and personal trust… queerness and polyamory question prevailing culture almost across the board… generally, if I am having the conversation about polyamory, I feel that I can disclose my queerness.”
On the other hand, she said, many of her companions in the queer community were less accepting of the polyamorous aspect of her identity:
“There were openly queer women who I could talk to on that level who had problems understanding or accepting my polyamory. It certainly chased away more than one woman I had been interested in. I started bring it up less because it seemed to upset people… Sometimes, it even gives our relationship an awkwardness from that point forward in their perception to the effect of damaging the relationship.”
Those who come to polyamory do so against the currents of mainstream peer pressure, and thus are forced in many ways to forge their own path in identity construction (Barker & Ritchie, 2006). When asked to provide words describing themselves by their activities, a majority used words such as “poet”, “artist”, and “designer”, making sure to mark out a creative identity apart from their lives as students and professionals. While polyamorous aesthetics receive little play outside of the occasional newspaper article or within self-selecting online forums (Barker, 2004), it is perhaps because it is for the moment overshadowed by the increased visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) umbrella, whose coming of age as a political force is several years ahead of the polyamorous community (Strassberg, 2003).
Regardless of when mainstream society begins a dialogue about polyamory, it still poses sticky challenges to many assumptions about modern society (Barker, 2004), assumptions that, like so many monolithic social facts, begin to unravel under close scrutiny. For those that believe monogamous marriage is the basic unit upon which the nation-state is built, polyamory’s fluid disregard for labels is an understandably troubling puzzle (Strassberg,, 2003).
Although the wide variety of mating strategies witnessed in the primate world makes discerning the natural human strategy somewhat elusive, some sociobiologists point to an evolutionary basis for monogamy mixed with copious adultery among many mammals and birds. (Diamond, 1992:87) But the threat posed by polyamory is not limited to the breeding community; polyamory upsets the delicate binaries underlying gay and lesbian relations as well, built as they are for survival in an overwhelmingly monogamous world (Barker, 2004). Homosexual monogamy, even secretive infidelity, seems more acceptable to the world at large than any flavor of polyamory, which fits poorly into dominant narratives about gender, property laws, and romantic relations. One polyamorous female described the difficulty in being ‘out’ as a polyamorist:
We’ve even had some trouble being polyamorous in the past, because people couldn’t handle the truth… as soon as they found out they were not helping me or my partner cheat on the other, they ran away! Being allowed to breach monogamy freaked them out to the point that they could no longer participate. My partner and I decided when we moved to Texas that it would be easier to pretend we were cheating on one another! It certainly got more results.
Monogamy has been the official line for hundreds of years in the west, though society has long winked at infidelity, at least among husbands. Polyamory proposes not just a different set of sexual behaviors, but philosophical ramifications that are nothing short of revolutionary. Far from being just a rebirth of patriarchal polygamy, it proposes a liberated, egalitarian approach to love; one open to both stable relationships between any number of consensual partners, and shifting alliances and affiliations based on trust and emotional transparency. That this seems somewhat more ‘feminine’ than monogamy is no coincidence; polyamory hardly works without a feminist post-patriarchal perspective.
My own brief experience with polyamory introduced me to a hidden world of personal invention and radical self-expression. Many of my preconceptions had to be adjusted to fit the range of new possibilities non-monogamy offered. Although the response to my survey was lackluster (I misjudged the best places to contact the polyamorous community on the Internet), I feel that my initial results were roughly in line with my predictions: namely, that polyamorists, forced to create their own terms and identities, are in many ways creating tomorrow’s labels, in much the same way that the nascent gay rights movement did a generation ago. The old models of interpersonal relationships seem stale and inadequate for a world of instant communication and decaying nation-states. Bonds of affection, however, and acts of love, will continue to be a central theme in the human story; whether openly or in secret, officially sanctioned or forbidden, and in combinations and variations whose only limit is the human imagination.
I am deeply indebted to Dr. Meg Barker for the use of several scholarly articles on polyamory, written by her and with Dr. Ani Ritchie, which she made available on short notice. Dr. Rachel Robbins lent me both vital criticism and eloquent advice that helped keep this project afloat. Any and all mistakes, of course, belong solely to me. I owe you ladies big-time.
- Barker (2004). This is my partner, and this is my… partner’s partner: Constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18 , 75 – 88. ISBN/ISSN: 1072-0537
- Barker and A. Ritchie (2007). Hot bi babes and feminist families: Polyamorous women speak out. Lesbian & Gay Psychology Review, 8 (2), 141 – 151. ISBN/ISSN: 1467-2472
- Ritchie and M. Barker (2006)
There Aren’t Words for What We Do or How We Feel So We Have To Make Them Up’: Constructing Polyamorous Languages in a Culture of Compulsory Monogamy
Cherlin, A.J. (1992) Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. (In Pinsof, William M. The Death of ‘Til Death Us Due Part’:The Transformation of Pair-Bonding in the 20th Century)
Diamond, Jared (1992)
The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.
HarperCollins Publishers New York, NY.
McLuhan, Marshall (1964)
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
McGraw-Hill New York, NY
- Ritchie and M. Barker (2006). ‘There aren’t words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make them up’: Constructing polyamorous languages in a culture of compulsory monogamy. Sexualities, 9 (5), 584 – 601. ISBN/ISSN: 1363-4607
Strassberg, Maura I. (2003) The Challenge of Post-modern Polygamy: Considering Polyamory. Capital University Law Review 31; 439-563