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Kit Q&A: Does Polyamory Work?

Posted in Kit Q&A, and Polyamory

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.

Polyamory works, as long as it brings happiness to those involved. Photo by Beth Rankin.

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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  • Ruvia_rolkov

    This makes me feel so much better. I’m fairly new to all of this (extremely negative experiences in my past), and I’ve been very apprehensive.

    I guess when I’ve said that in the past, my big concern was that I’ve had relationships with people who had such complex feelings and situations, that I felt adding another person would mean I now have to be constantly aware of the complexity of two people, and fully responsible for caring for them, so polyamory is like juggling. After reading some very vanilla christian marriage advice, I realized that this idea may have come to me through my upbringing, where I was taught that spouses must take full responsibility for their spouse, and provide for their every need and want. I now believe that level of dependency is unhealthy and unfair, and that a person should have their needs met also within themselves and with the help of a myriad of different kinds of relationships (even when monogamous, through friends and other family), but the belief lingered in my sub-concious and eventually lead me to the thought that “polyamory doesn’t work”. Do you have any thoughts on this? The amount of responsibility we have for our partners in a poly dynamic?

    I hope that made sense. I’ve only really even been trying to understand this stuff for a few months now.

  • Anonymous

    I was poly when I got married to my former spouse; now I prefer monogamy. Polyamory did not break up our marriage; I discovered that my introversion lent my preference to working with one committed relationship and keeping communication about behaviors and feelings open.

    Ultimately, it seems that polyamory works for the people who work it and it’s whether all consenting participants contribute to the relationship; much like any healthy relationship.

    “After all my erstwhile dear, my no longer cherished;
    Need we say it was not love, just because it perished? ”
    ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

  • Stephanie Taylor

    Kit, you use the terms “open relationship” and “polyamory” interchangeably in this article. It’s my understanding that an “open relationship” is different than a “polyamorous” relationship. Do you view them as different?

    • Kit

      @Anonymous: Thanks for your perspective. It would certainly be unfair to blame poly in your case — you discovered ways that monogamy works better for you, not that polyamory itself is a failure.

      @Stephanie Taylor: There’s no textbook definition of either, and anyone telling you otherwise is only speaking for the subset of people they know. Some people have decided they mean different things, others use them interchangeably. The only way to know what people mean is to ask them yourself.

      @Orange: Great comment!

  • Orange YaGlad

    I think anyone interested in poly or pursuing poly relationships has heard this question. When I started, I asked it too. Now, 20+ months into a V, 11 months into a W, and about 5 years into accepting poly as my chosen relationship structure, I can say without a doubt, that it CAN work. Whether it will for any given group or individual matters on that structure…. just like monogamy does.

  • I think non-monogamy works for some people in some relationships. I’m not even sure it would work for me, if I was in a relationship with someone other than my current partner.

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