Objections to polyamory

I have had a number of conversations about relationships, sexuality, and exclusivity over the years.  I’ve heard many proposed reasons why polyamory cannot work for people in general or for specific individuals.  But what are most interesting are the objections which are intended as critiques of polyamory, but if analyzed they turn out to be apologies for remaining jealous or possessive.  

Now, I’m not quite an evangelical for polyamory, although I believe that it would be the inevitable outcome of people being honest with what they wanted, assuming they are willing to do the necessary work to mature and be capable of maintaing healthy relationships.

But what many people who argue that polyamory is not for them or is not ideal (or sinful or some other equivalent to it being wrong) seem to be doing is romanticizing poor relationship attributes.  That is, there is a difference between saying that you are happy in your exclusive relationship and saying that you could not be polyamorous because you are jealous or possessive.

Further, many arguments against polyamory could be viewed as arguments against relationships in general.  This is true especially when people ask me why I’m getting married if I’m polyamorous.  The assumption seems to be that to marry is to sacrifice through exclusive commitment, which somehow makes it more meaningful.  Perhaps it is a reminder that marriage’s origins (as a cultural institution) are ultimately derived from a property relationship.

Essentially, much of our modern concepts about relationships are based upon the model of marriage, or at least engagement, which are ultimately derived from property relationships.  And so when people argue for the conservative idea of monogamy, they are stuck in a cultural tradition forged in the fires of seeing our romantic partners as our possessions, rather than true equal partners.

Yes, I think that’s it.  Much of the romanticization of exclusivity are essentially about thinking about other people as property.  How many “love songs” talk about belonging to each other, being mine, etc?  The myth is that the closeness of that special exclusive bond creates something which is unattainable or at least cheapened by non-exclusivity.

And being in two serious, intimate, and loving relationships, I can safely say bullshit.  Much like there are many myths about the worthiness of faith, love of god, etc there are myths about relationships.  And much like faith being irrational and unhealthy, assumed exclusivity in relationships, which is ultimately derived from property relationships historically, is unhealthy.

Your lovers and romantic partners are not your property.  You are not sharing what is yours in being polyamorous, you are just recognizing the reality that they will love other people and are grown up enough to not demand that they ignore this fact.


13 thoughts on “Objections to polyamory

  1. I have absolutely no problem with any relationship that is entered into by consenting adults. My only reservation with openly polyamorous relationships is that jealousy is a very natural human emotion. Agreed-upon rules and boundaries may help mitigate its effects, but it’d be naive to think that it’ll never enter the equation. It could well be that your partners form a sexual and/or emotional bond that makes you feel excluded, and vice versa.

    Reminds me a bit of a buddy I had in college who dated around a lot. He’d be really intimate with a woman, then just start dating someone new at the same time. When the first girl got jealous, he’d say, “Hey, we never agreed that this was an exclusive relationship.” Well yeah, he was right on a technicality, but that doesn’t change how his actions affected the emotions of the first girl.

    But in any case, I wouldn’t use that as a wedge to keep consenting adults from doing whatever they want, but I’d put it out there as a “Hey, this is what you’re getting into.”

  2. Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I will say at the outset that I hear these issues raised frequently. As an atheist blogger, I’m sure its a phenomenon you are used to, and I want you to keep that perspective in mind.

    You said:

    “My only reservation with openly polyamorous relationships is that jealousy is a very natural human emotion. ”

    Sure. And any polyamorous person is well aware of this. We recognize that there are many attributes we as humans have that make being actively polyamorous hard.

    “Agreed-upon rules and boundaries may help mitigate its effects, but it’d be naive to think that it’ll never enter the equation. It could well be that your partners form a sexual and/or emotional bond that makes you feel excluded, and vice versa. ”

    That might help, but I think you are overlooking the precise location of effort which should be targeted; oneself. Let’s look at it this way. Imagine that you were having a conversation with a Christian about their beliefs. Imagine them saying that cognitive biases, irrational thinking, and compartmentalization were natural human attributes, and that perhaps agreed upon rules of conversation might mitigate their effects, but it would be naive to think that they won’t occur in the conversation.

    Do you see? You seem to be apologizing for jealousy the same way manu people apologize for faith. You seem to be saying that because it will happen, we should accommodate to it rather than challenge it.

    Jealousy is a personal weakness, derived from fear and insecurity. It is something to be outgrown, and if it isn’t it endangers relationships of all kinds, polyamorous or not. It is an attribute that makes relationships weaker because it looks at your partners as possessions rather than real people with complex desires and needs, and should not be merely accepted as inevitable (even if it really is inevitable).

    “Reminds me a bit of a buddy I had in college who dated around a lot. He’d be really intimate with a woman, then just start dating someone new at the same time. When the first girl got jealous, he’d say, “Hey, we never agreed that this was an exclusive relationship.” Well yeah, he was right on a technicality, but that doesn’t change how his actions affected the emotions of the first girl. ”

    The affects on those girls are part of what is wrong with our sexual culture. The issue is that there is an assumption, an expectation even, of exclusivity. This is slowly dissipating, but it will persist for some time. People are responsible not only for their own emotions, but for the negotiated relationships they have. And if they don’t have the discussions or negotiations, then they have no right to assume anything, whether exclusivity or not. Those women were given no reason (I assume; unless he promised things he didn’t mean) to expect exclusivity. The fault was not with him (Again, assuming he was always honest and never gave insincere promises), but with the women who got hurt. It is a problem with our culture that more people need to be educated about, and it’s unfortunate that people get hurt from unwarranted expectations.

    But they are unwarranted expectations.

    Tanks for your thoughts.

  3. I agree with you to an extent, but I think it would be naive to assume that jealousy can be eradicated from the human experience. It’s an irrational process that’s ingrained by millions of years of evolution that favors strong pair bonding. I could be wrong, but I’d venture a guess that in your relationships, there’s one partner to whom you have a more intimate physical and emotional connection. In swinging communities for example, a new partner may be intimate with a husband or wife to an extent, but the new partner enters the relationship conditionally and doesn’t usurp the role of either.

    So if I’m right (and accepting that I may totally be wrong on that one), if your primary partner began to develop a bond with someone else to the exclusion of you, I think it’d be crazy to think that you wouldn’t feel jealous. How you manage that is another issue, but I think it’d be foolish to think that you could somehow eradicate jealousy altogether. It’s not a rational process that acquiesces to conscious boundaries like, “We are not exclusive, so I will not be jealous if you sleep with someone else”.

    I don’t see polyamory as being at a dis/advantage compared to monogamy, and I say to each their own. But I think that any relationship, whether monogamous or not, requires the managing of emotions through spoken or implied rules and boundaries. Even in your relationship I’m going to guess that you have many such rules. Are you free to sleep with whomever, whenever, with or without the consent or knowledge of your other partner(s), and are they free to do the same? If not, then the existence of the various boundaries you’ve agreed upon would suggest that you’ve acknowledged those jealous tendencies and have taken steps to mediate them.

  4. Mike,

    I think there are a few things about polyamory you don’t understand which are getting in the way of understanding this. Jealousy is not something that all people experience. I used to be more jealous than I am, but I worked to lessen its affect on me, and now it is an occasional minor problem at worst. It is something that you can change about yourself.

    But even if a person could not, it does not mean that feeling has to have an influence on how we behave any more than our other emotions to force us to act irrational or immature.

    I am in two serious relationships. Yes, one of them will be my wife soon, but that is immaterial because the other one is already married. I have known my fiance longer and know her better, but whether I love one more than another is neither relevant nor necessarily obvious from that information. Polyamory is primarily the maintenance of meaningful relationships, and does not necessarily involve sex with all our partners, although it usually does. So I would not mind if my fiance had a deeply meaningful and emotionally intimate relationship with other people, because that no more threatens my relationship with her than does her great sex with other people damages our sex life. That’s simply irrational thinking, and is once again based on the idea of property in relationships.

    As for whether evolution has made up prone to monogamy, there is a lot of literature on that out there. It seems to me that real monogamy (one partner for life) is extremely rare in the animal kingdom, including the higher prinates (such as us). I’m hoping Ginny will chime in because she knows more about that question than I do.

    So no, jealousy never completely goes away, but that is no more to the point that cognitive biases never fully go away. Would you be willing to accept irrational conclusions in any other question (like the question of god) based on the argument that our biases will never go away ( and therefore faith is good, for example?). In other words, you are compartmentalizing rational thinking just like many theists do, but in the area of love and sexuality, because you have an emotional bias.

    And relationships are intimate in different ways, but not necessarily in hierarchical ways. We are not like swingers. We are, in many ways, advanced relationship people who have recognized that monogamy might be fine, if someone were actually happy in that arrangement, but it is usually an artificial expectation which goes against many of our natural inclinations.

  5. And this is why I became a Nazi because stupid people over think everything even love. Now we have this polyamoury shit… So confusing!!! at least hate is simple.

  6. Surely anyone who defines themselves as a polyamorist is narcissistic. And I would add that anyone who cannot prioritise or make decisions is best avoided in any field of life.

  7. I’m not sure you know what “polyamory” or “narcissist” mean. Also, ado you assume that polyamorous people cannot prioritize or make decisions? I would think that time-management, which is central to being polyamorous, includes both of those skills.

    I’m not sure you really read anything effectively, here.

  8. An incredible expression of love I have witnessed is a long-time and very close friend who, while remaining exclusive to his wife, does not ask for the same exclusivity from her in return. He is an attractive, successful guy who women fawn over, but he still maintains one-way exclusivity while his wife doesn’t. He does not seem to be jealous or possessive of his wife. When I’ve tried to introduce/hook him up with other women, he’s politely turned down the offers, eventually explaining that, while it could be fun and as much as he enjoys lots of sex, not maintaining sexual exclusivity would diminish his relationship if he were to be sharing himself in this way with anyone other than his wife. In his words: “Without the distraction of other romantic relationships, I am able to be fully engaged in this one” He doesn’t ask for reciprocity: “She doesn’t need to do this because, for her, it doesn’t add to our relationship, so she is free to have sex with whoever she chooses.”

    How does this fit into the notion that exclusivity adding value to a relationship is a myth? For this man, it clearly does add value, but there are none of the jealousy, property, possession issues. He freely gives without expecting in return. That seems like a very profound expression of love. If two people were able to freely give what this man gives without expecting it in return, then exclusivity would incidentally occur, not stemming from possessive, jealousy, nor antiquated notions of marriage for financial or property reasons, butrather just from free will.

    I do not disagree that polyamory can work, but I think the author is too quick to dismiss that there is value in exclusivity, as well.

    *and no, this is not a cuckold or dom/sub relationship. I wondered that myself until I asked.

  9. This sounds more like an expression of preference than love per se. I personally do not understand the connection between exclusivity and these feelings, but that’s irrelevant. If this man genuinely does not want to have sex with other women, for whatever reason, that is his preference. If he changed his mind, he’d still love his wife, so this is mere preference, in my opinion.

  10. I’m pretty certain that he would like having sex with other women, but he doesn’t because, according to him, it is distraction from his relationship that would diminish the time and energy he has available for that relationship. If he had sex with other women, I imagine he would still love his wife, but he would feel that he wasn’t giving his love fully due to directing his time and energy to “distractions”. This, again, from our conversations. I’ll ask him the next time I see him.

  11. I’ve been in polyamorous relationships, I’ve been in monogamous relationships. For me, monogamy is the only way for long term happiness. I felt dirty in the poly relationships and couldn’t fully devote myself to anybody. Also, it felt like constant cheating.
    However, I have been cheated on in most of my monogamous relationships, where they promised exclusivity, then slept with other people. Even got girlfriends that they took to family events. But my conscience was clean because my heart was all in and I was faithful, and that’s where I got my meaning in that particular relationship.
    I could never do poly again because in my mind, its giving them licence to cheat on me, which is not okay. I deserve the amount of faithfulness and love that I put into my relationship in return.

  12. Polyamory is great for women due to gynocentrism and female privilege, but not so great for the average man.

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