The Bachelorette and Polyamory? (via Respectful Atheist)

As I have said, I read a bunch of blogs.  Many of them are related to polyamory, but most are atheist-oriented.  And while some have some overlap, most are largely unaware or at least unconcerned with the other issue most of the time.

Somewhat recently, I started following the blog called “Respectful Atheist,” which I discovered via another blogger.  And it seems that the Respectful Atheist may follow this blog as well, because he at least links to us.

So, today a post went up about the Bachelorette.  I have never seen the show (as I have no interest in the majority of “reality” TV shows), but often such shows give us things to talk about, as it did in this case.

Now, I know that today’s post is not about polyamory, at least that was not the primary focus, but I think that it demonstrates how much our species has attributes which are conducive to polyamory and how enlightening a non-monogamous view of relationships can often be in exposing our assumptions.

In the post, Respectful Atheist (RA) says:

The other thing I find interesting is the way in which The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in this case Emily Maynard, goes about making their decision as to who they will pick in the end.  In nearly every season, the given star of the show comments on how they are falling (or have fallen) in love with more than one person at the same time.  This always seems to come as a total shock to their system, the implication being that there must be something terribly unnatural about having feelings of love for several people simultaneously. [emphasis in original]

Isn’t that fascinating? People who actually are falling in love with more than one person, rather than just deal with that as a reality and thinking rationally about the consequences of that reality (I know, perish the thought!), tend to conclude something is wrong, rather than consider that the premise of their quest for “the one” is fundamentally flawed.

I have said on this blog before that part of the problem with our culture is that monogamy is assumed, rather than chosen.  This circumstance from this TV show is one type of example of what I mean.  RA continues, describing their interpretation of the Bachelorette’s circumstance;

In Emily’s case, the cognitive dissonance that results leads her straight into a period of deep confusion, during which time she considers the idea these conflicted feelings may themselves serve as proof that both of her top two guys are in fact wrong for her.  In other words, as the thinking goes, if one candidate is not very clearly better, than each of the others, something just must not be right (because it’s not supposed to feel this way).  Sadly, there are others, close to Emily, who encourage this type of thinking, which only ads to her confusion for a time.  She *should* feel much more strongly for the guy she is *supposed* to choose, because that is the one guy she is *meant* to be with…right?

Ah, social sanctioning of ignoring the truth (how she actually feels) for a cultural ideal which does not fit with the actual facts.  Isn’t our culture grand?

Bizarre scenarios and love as a choice?

Respectful Atheist’s post is about the concept of a “soul mate” and continues a criticism of this idea in light of this reality show.  I have touched on this issue myself in the past, and largely agree with that part of RA’s post.  But later in the post, RA says this;

It IS possible to fall in love with more than one person, at the exact same time, and we should expect nothing less when we engineer such bizarre scenarios.  In our culture, it’s not considered normal to date 30 people at once (in fact, it’s generally frowned upon!), so it’s just that we don’t often see these dynamics in action….

Perhaps RA doesn’t often see such dynamics in action, but I do see similar things play out all the time (and not only in the poly world, but elsewhere; I notice it because I’m sensitive to it).  And I think it is more common than we, as a culture, are always aware of, perhaps because we are distracted by the ideal of monogamy? Who knows….

So, I’m assuming that the set-up of the show allows the bachelorette to interact, date, etc with 30 people, who over time get eliminated until eventually there is just one left? The deliberateness of it and the presence of producers and cameras certainly make it “bizarre,” but is the fundamental set-up really that strange? Perhaps it is more quantitatively exaggerated, but is it qualitatively bizarre?

Many people, even in the monogomously-inclined world, date multiple people simultaneously (not usually 30…), most with the goal of eventually choosing one.  That is the ideal of our culture; we have the freedom to interact with, date, etc a number of people to find “the one” who, while we are not meant (by god, gods, or any cosmic forces) to be with, we choose to be with.

RA’s criticism here falls on the idea of “the one” being fated, not with the concept of there being just one.

…The truth is there is no one person who is *meant* to be with you or I forever.  I know this all sounds terribly unromantic of me to say….

The criticism is of the concept of a “soul mate,” while not taking the next step and being overtly skeptical about the ideal of their being one person we choose.  But like I said, this was a post about the role of deities in finding our one person, not polyamory.

RA continues;

Please understand that I say it as a guy who is very happily married, and plans to remain so until the day that he dies.  But isn’t this more romantic anyway?  I’d much rather marry someone who promises to stick with me, through thick and thin, even when their feelings wax and wane. [emphasis original]

RA does not say so explicitly, and I would like to hear his thoughts on this later, but this sounds like “stick with me, through thick and thin” means that they will remain monogamous, committed, etc.  Well, I’m married as well and I am committed to both Ginny (my wife) and Gina (my beloved girlfriend).  I chose to be with both of them (and I may meet another person I wish to commit to as well, but perhaps not), and I love both of them and will remain with them through thick and thin.

The juxtaposition of this with RA’s comments about the bachelorette’s position of being in love with two people seems to indicate that I’m not particularly romantic.

What I mean is that RA’s commentary seems to assume that the monogamous circumstance RA has chosen is “more romantic,” and possibly more legitimate, than being in love with more than one person as Emily found herself in the show.  I don’t think that he would have meant to imply that my choice (if it is a choice…we’ll get to that…) is somehow not romantic or meaningful, but that seems to be the logical implication.  I think this may be a blind spot for monogamous people.  A privilege, if you would.

RA finishes that last paragraph with the following.

You can’t “fall out of love”, because love is not a feeling to begin with…it’s a choice.  I realize that choice is driven by feelings, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s still a choice at the end of the day.

This is probably a semantic disagreement, but I do disagree.  As I use the terms, one chooses (insofar as choice is meaningful in a deterministic universe) to commit to another person, but we don’t choose to love them.  I think this may be what RA means, so I will not quibble about this more than I already have.

But in the context of the criticism of the concept of a “soul mate” in the context of actually having feelings for more than one person, I find it very interesting that an intelligent, thoughtful, and aware person, as RA seems to be, misses the implication here.  It is possible that he is quite aware of it and is setting it aside because the post is about something else, but the language used seems to imply a view consistent with monogamy being somehow more romantic, meaningful, etc.

While the point about there not being a person “meant” for you is spot on, how does RA miss the fact that circumstances, such as the bachelorette’s having love-feelings for multiple people, are examples of how we truly can love more than one person and that perhaps this tells us something about the choices we should and could make?

Why monogamy (reprise)

Why should we choose one person? Why do so many people tend to (perhaps unconsciously) associate commitment with monogamy (or at least monoamory)? Why is one special person more “romantic” than two, three, or possibly more? The fact is that we don’t choose who we love, but we (as a culture) do choose to ignore or set aside some other loves in order to compromise to have another.  We choose to direct our feelings towards one person, even though we do, or potentially do, love other people.


I have no reason to doubt that RA is happy being married and (as is implied) monogamous.  And if they are in fact monogamous, I have no doubt that their relationship is potentially healthy, happy, and worth the effort for both of them.

That isn’t the point.

The point is why did they choose that path? Why do we, as a culture, choose to be monogamous so often?  If we recognize that we can love more than one person (whether or not the circumstances are bizarre or not), why would we not? Why would we artificially limit ourselves to one person?

It’s not necessarily more romantic, meaningful, or intimate to be monogamous.  These are myths about relationships in our culture, and our actual feelings and experience with actually loving and committing to multiple people (either serially or in parallel) attests to that.  And when we are faced with that reality, as the bachelorette apparently was, it is fascinating that many people assume something is wrong rather than step back and apply that experience to our assumptions like a good skeptic should.

So not only is there not one “soul mate” out there for you, there may not only be one person.  RA adds some thoughts that are encouraging to this polyamorous, atheist, skeptic;

We tend not to give ourselves enough credit; Maynard included.  She need not deny, or be in any way embarrassed, about the fact that she fell for more than one guy on the show.  Sometimes there is no *one* right way to go, even in cases where there is a choice that clearly needs to be made.  This is my larger point.  I think we all hope that she will make her choice (as spoilers would indicate that she does) and live happily ever after.  And those people who would have had Emily doubt herself, simply because her love has not been directed at one man exclusively, are clearly well meaning but misguided.  What Emily needs to do instead is make a rational choice….based on her feelings, yes, but also based on her head.

And while I think RA is talking about the fact that with the options given perhaps neither is right, I think that it can be read to mean that perhaps the choice could be both.  If we make a rational choice using both our hearts and our heads, we will find that we are capable of sharing ourselves and our beloveds, and recognizing that not all choices are exclusive, but some are inclusive.

And while the bachelorette will almost certainly choose to exclude one or more people in order to choose one, as RA may have also done, this is not the only option.  We can choose to love and commit to each person as we actually desire to and allow those we love to do the same.

That’s using our hearts and heads rationally.


7 thoughts on “The Bachelorette and Polyamory? (via Respectful Atheist)

  1. First off, I want to thank you for this response. As I mentioned, over on my blog, I do not take it as personal criticism in any way whatsoever. Further to that, I appreciate the engagement.

    In short, we agree on a whole lot more than I think you realize. Let me see if I can take it piece by piece…

    You say that my post “demonstrates how much of our species has attributes which are conducive to polyamory”. I actually completely agree with this. It seems clear to me that most people choose monogamy not because it is natural, per se, but mostly because it is the societal norm (I realize that “norm” is somewhat relative, but I am speaking here of only my perception of the norm, perhaps due to the circles that I travel in).

    It’s important to understand that I wrote the post about a specific woman (in this case, Emily Maynard) so, in that sense, I was not trying to make a larger statement about society’s feelings on monogamy or polyamory generally. In Emily case, it seems quite clear that she is looking for one man, to spend the rest of her life with, so I figured it was safe to assume that fact at the outset. If she had, for example, indicated an interest in being with more than one man in the end analysis (which certainly would have been an interesting twist on the show!) than I would have commented on that (but she didn’t).

    When I say the situation is “bizarre”, I am not referring to any one thing. You’re correct, in that sometimes even people who intend to (ultimately) be monogamous date more than one person simultaneously. This is a great point. But do they date 30 people, sometimes even several of them on the exact same date, with the intention of picking their favorites right then and there (and sending the others home, often right on the spot and in front of the others)? I was also thinking about the fact that, on the show, the cast flies all over the world, so the dates themselves are a little surreal (since most people would not be able to afford to “date” in this way). The whole thing just feels unusual and artificial, as a package deal, and that’s all I was really trying to imply with the word “bizarre”.

    In terms of my “stick with me through thick and thin” comments…you seem to have misunderstood me here. When I said this was “more romantic”, I meant the idea of choosing someone (or, in your case, more than one), and sticking it out with them, is more romantic than simply locating the “soul mate” that god has supposedly already pre-ordained for you to be with. The choice itself (to be with the person(s)) is more romantic than assuming you have simply found and recognized your “soul mate”. So, for the record, no I do NOT think that I am more “romantic” than you simply because I am monogamous. There is nothing inherently more romantic about monogamy at all, in my personal view.

    You say, “how does RA miss the fact that circumstances…are examples of how we can truly love more than one person and that perhaps this tells us something about the choices we should and could make?”. I did not “miss” this fact, I just chose not to go there with the discussion (since, as you say, the post was about something else). But, even still, I’m not sure if I completely agree with your use of the word “should” here. Are you implying that Emily “should” have chosen to be with more than one guy (because of her conflicted feelings)? If so, than where does her personal choice come into play? What if she personally desires to maintain (what she perceives to be) the status quo, for example, and be with only one guy forever? Or maybe she just feels that she personally would be happier this way. Isn’t that o.k. too? Perhaps I just misunderstood you here.

    I think this covers most of your points. If I have missed anything important, please draw it to my attention. And I would gladly clarify, and/or answer any direct questions you might have about my views or personal situation. But that should be enough to further the discussion, from this point, and thanks again!

  2. On my blog I also changed the original sentence “But isn’t this more romantic anyway?” to read “But isn’t this more romantic (than believing in soul mates) anyway?”…just to further clarify my intended meaning.

  3. @RA – I read your post that Shaun linked to, and I’ve added your blog to my RSS reader. Great stuff.

    In terms of Emily’s choice to be with just one of her suitors, I doubt she really has much of one. I don’t watch the show, but I imagine that the rules of the game, so to speak, require her to pick one. She could revolt, of course, but she’d be inviting a firestorm of public criticism.

    I think Shaun’s larger point, though (and I may be incorrect), was that it’s generally assumed that a relationship, and especially a marriage, is monogamous. The vast majority of Americans (I’m not sure about other countries/cultures) never even consider ethical non-monogamy as an option. Your post, like most narratives in our society, seemed to presuppose monogamy as a characteristic of the relationship that Emily would eventually choose.

    If you’re as sensitive to the idea as Shaun and I (because we are polyamorous), you start to notice this sort of thing very often: a conflict is presented where some sort of nonmonogamy is the obvious solution, but nobody mentions it. I think Shaun was just pointing out that where a woman has romantic feelings for two men, any discussion of her dilemma really ought to include nonmonogamy as one option.

  4. You’re right, I am pre-supposing monogamy as a characteristic of the relationship that Emily will eventually choose. It seems that this is what she personally desires, that’s all, and as you say it’s also built into the premise of the show (which goes back to your larger point about monogamy simply being assumed by many in society). I think you’re absolutely right about that. But are you implying that I am required (“ought”) to suggest Emily try nonmonogamy (even though it’s not something she seems to want)? This just doesn’t feel like my place, plus it wasn’t the point of my post, so I guess that’s why I chose not to “go there” with the discussion.

  5. @Respectful Atheist,

    I’m glad that we are closer in opinion then I interpreted. I know you were not addressing polyamory in your post, so I was not really surprised you didn’t deal with it, although I would have at least mentioned it, because I have poly-on-the-brain-syndrome….

    Concerning this:

    But are you implying that I am required (“ought”) to suggest Emily try nonmonogamy (even though it’s not something she seems to want)? This just doesn’t feel like my place, plus it wasn’t the point of my post, so I guess that’s why I chose not to “go there” with the discussion.

    Perhaps not required, but perhaps it should be a thing to point out to people in her situation because it’s true that it should be a consideration. You say it isn’t something she seems to want, but I would point out that obviously, at some level at least, she does want some sort of non-monogamy. She actually does have desires for two different people simultaneously. This is a critical fact here that is too easily overlooked.

    We have to distinguish between what we viscerally and deep-down want (in a primal way) and what we think we should do or even what we are obligated to do. The latter we sometimes call “what we want,” but in reality it is a compromise of wants weighed against other wants, obligations, etc. But there are many ways to weigh wants against wants and obligations; one of which is to deal honestly with what we really want and find ways to do so ethically and transparently. That latter option sometimes (and perhaps should) leads to polyamory.

    In keeping that distinction in mind, is it actually true that many people really WANT to spend the rest of their life with one romantic/sexual partner? Or is that a social compromise, possibly made for good reasons, due to pressures and considerations which we view as largely immobile? Does another option really just seem too hard?

    I admit polyamory is often difficult, but what makes it difficult are things we should try to improve whether we are monogamous or polyamorous; skills with communication, improving how we think about our fears and insecurities (primarily jealousy, in this case), and wanting/creating possibility for our loved ones to be fulfilled and happy people. That list is not exhaustive, of course.

    It is clear that Emily wanted at least two men, but felt compelled to decide between them. The rules of the show (and of society, in some way) do not permit her to choose both (I’m assuming). So yes, if she were to revolt, she would be met with public sanctions and may also void her contract with the network if she did so. Of course, she could choose both, and they could both accept this choice (and perhaps flip a coin which one becomes the husband and which waits around until the media spotlight goes away to be the boyfriend. Or other husband non-legally). I really doubt that would happen.

    We poly people are quite aware of the sanctions of the choice to not be monogamous. It is worth it, and people like me work to educate people about the rationality, rewards, etc of such a choice. Hopefully, those arguments will one day be more mainstream, as we hope concerning atheist arguments.

    Thanks for stopping by today, and I will continue to read your posts.

  6. @RA – Like I said, I don’t watch the show, so I wasn’t aware that she’d make it clear that she definitely wants a monogamous relationships.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Emily ought to try polyamory. My comment was that a discussion of her dilemma ought to include nonmonogamy as one possible option that she can choose from. It seemed especially relevant because you were criticizing Emily’s own assumption that there is a “soul mate” out there for her, but overlooking (and making yourself) the equally problematic assumption that she needs to choose just one person.
    This is not to say that every discussion needs to be about polyamory, but like I said, we tend to be sensitive to the assumption of monogamy, and I wish it weren’t so prevalent.

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