On Saturdays, I answer reader questions or respond to frequent web searches. This came up in conversation with a friend, but it’s a question I hear often in one form or another.
Does polyamory work?
I asked my monogamous friend what she meant by this, and she said:
I’ve not seen any poly groupings where everyone is happy with the way things are. I’ve seen lots of groupings where some of the members are happy and at least one person is unhappy, but I’ve seen very few monogamous couples happy either.
I know that I’m only finding what I’m looking for, I know that I want polyamory to not work so that’s what I find. If I was more open to possibility, I’d find more amazing people.
Not surprisingly, my friend is freshly out of a relationship with someone who wanted polyamory in contrast with her own wishes. It is sad when one member of a relationship feels forced to be polyamorous or loses a loved one because of his choice to pursue another sexual lifestyle. On the other hand, some people reluctantly explore open relationships at the urging of their partner and unexpectedly discover how well it does work. This kind of scenario occurs frequently, and the results are as diverse as the people involved.
Here are some other things that I think other people mean when they question whether polyamory “works:”
- Jealousy is impossible to overcome. Jealousy is a complex emotion usually made up of other contributing emotions like fear, insecurity, and anxiety. By unpacking our jealousy into its components, we can often overcome them. And different people feel this emotion to differing degrees; for many it fades as they become more experienced at polyamory. The Ethical Slut offers good advice on overcoming jealousy.
- Poly relationships are unstable and break up easily. I know polyamorous people who have been together for decades and monogamous couples who break up quickly. I also see unstable polyamorous relationships and stable monogamous ones. The difference is that people are quick to blame polyamory instead of the countless other factors — financial, intimate, and emotional — which cause relationships of all kinds to fracture. Very often what causes a relationship to end is private to outsiders except their closest confidantes, so we can only point to the obvious differences.
- What about the children? People in open relationships can raise healthy, happy, well-adjusted children. We’ve addressed this before in this blog: Complexity & Simplicity and Polyamory & My Kids.
- We tried that and it failed in the 60’s. Many books, including Counterculture Through the Ages, criticize the sexual and gender ethics of the sixties’ radicals. While it was a time of liberation and sexual exploration, it was also a time of continued repression of women and queers. Now, almost half a century later, we’re forming new sexual countercultures where people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are free to seek out new forms of relationships. Isn’t it possible we might have different results? Isn’t it also possible the people who say this are blind to the ways the efforts of the 60’s actually succeeded at bringing about the world we freaks live in today?
- It’s not natural. But if monogamy were naturally the way of our species, we wouldn’t have cheating — at all. Very few animals on earth are monogamous and, if Sex At Dawn is correct, it is certainly not humanity’s natural state. Both polyamory and monogamy are systems humans have invented, among hundreds of others throughout history, to guide intimate relationships. To put it simply, each chooses different ways to handle the promiscuous urges of all genders.
In the end, I look at the happiness which polyamory has brought me and so many I know, and I can say it does work — for me, and others, but not everyone. What else do you think people mean when they ask this question?
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