Polyamory in Twenty-Five Words or Less

It's funny what an afterthought this seems like to me, these days; maybe that's the effect of living in the big city for a few years. Until quite recently, of all the assorted philosophical stances in my head at a given time, polyamory was invariably the one people most often argued about and rebuked me for. Maybe that will be the case again when I live in a smaller city. Or maybe something is changing in the culture at large. We'll see.

For folks who haven't heard the word before (or who aren't quite sure what it means exactly), click here for more explanation. Fair warning: I've been noodling about this stuff for half my life, and I'm always ready to chatter on about it at some length.

These days, I'm in the interesting position of living a glaringly visible poly lifestyle for the first time in my life, and of having that matter less to the people around me than my comparatively tame behaviors used to. Presumably the biggest factor in both those changes is the difference between Bloomington, Indiana, and New York City.

I've been talking poly since I was fifteen. Well, thinking it. I didn't start talking about it until my senior year in high school, and it was mostly a mistake to talk about it then. But there you go. Then came two monogamous relationships, the first becoming monogamous after a false start wherein I first learned that a hesitant and uninformed "okay" means precisely nothing; after those, I repudiated monogamy with ever-increasing determination, and so passed my many undergraduate years.

Nobody thinks anything about a twenty-some-year-old dating more than one woman, though. It's practically an institution in its own way. And people aren't afraid to presume they know the reasons: young men fear commitment, they are driven solely by the overriding imperative of getting laid, and they are under the sway of a sort of uncontrollable amorality, and there's no reasoning with them: they will do whatever they think they can get away with. This stereotype--rampantly accurate, too, I can tell you--makes it very hard, if you do happen to be a young man, to convince anyone that you're actually making a principled stand against the oppressive institution of monogamy.

Monogamy runs too deep in the culture, anyway, and is too harshly enforced, for people even to spare a moment considering such an assertion. Even in the very buckle of the Bible Belt (so I sometimes heard southern Indiana characterized by some bitter young Hoosiers, though I suspect it's far from true) people have heard of atheists, and will not doubt you if you claim to be one. But nobody has heard of any opposition to monogamy; the practice seems like an unquestionable, self-evident fact of nature, not a choice somebody made, and if you say you choose otherwise, the words just won't register half the time. If they do believe you, they do so piecemeal, concluding not only that you are personally reprehensible but that you know you are, and for unfathomable reasons are choosing to be so. They are much quicker to believe that you get involved with multiple people than to believe that you do so honestly, and quicker to believe you are honest than to believe that you have any relationships with any emotional value, or indeed that you have the slightest clue what love is at all--because if you did understand what love is, you see, you'd have to understand that it works the way their parents and their televisions have taught them it does.

Oh well. I suppose I digress. Anyway, that was living poly in Indiana--and endless series of explanations, recriminations and foggy disbelief. Here and there some monogamous good sport would give me a shot, whether genuinely experimenting, bored and waiting for something better, or scheming to bring me around in the end. Out of these, for the most part, I made a love life.

With one dramatic exception: Jenny, a woman I met in the spring of 1992, who decided--mostly working through the problem on her own, to my frustration--that polyamory made more sense to her than monogamy. We were together for six years, as other relationships came and went, and in those years she knew me better than anyone. I miss her fiercely, and it's saddening that we weren't together to come finally into the warm atmosphere of a poly community. I hope she has met good people wherever she is now. I know she had a good start.

In the summer of 1998 I came to New York. For a while I steered wide of contacting the local poly people I knew about, partly for fear of being disappointed by them. Discovering in college that any others existed, and learning the term, was both a watershed event and a bit of a disappointment--the people on the listservs were just people, and apart from their similar departure from the monogamous norm, I didn't seem to have much in common with most of them. Many were old hippies, many were neo-pagans, many were into BDSM--not things I objected to, just things I didn't identify with, and I hadn't thought of that.

At last, though, I did venture out to one of the monthly poly dinners (called "munches," for whatever reason) here, met a couple of people whose names I'd know for some years, and settled in to see what the real practitioners were like. I attended diffidently at first, but after a while decided to show up regularly and soon enough the poly folks had become a circle of friends (something that was slow to appear here otherwise). Only after some months did anybody particularly flirt, or did I. That wasn't the point--oddly enough, after all that time, and during the first time since age seventeen when I was absolutely single.

Eventually, though, I did start dating a bit, and after some enjoyably complex months wound up in my current situation, more or less: quite seriously entangled with two women, Miriam and Rebecca, with commitment and long-term plans and a spiffy apartment and everything.

So, it's interesting what comes up when you actually have a group of real people practicing poly. I'd been bandying poly theory around for ten years or more, and I knew what larger legal and societal challenges polyamory faces as a social movement, but I knew no more about the particular interpersonal issues that arise from poly relationships than a kangaroo knows about pearl diving.

There are obstacles I wouldn't have thought of--refusing an advance, for example, is a bit tricky when everyone knows you're poly, since the reason can only be personal. You've no ironclad excuse to fall back on no matter how many girlfriends you might already have. Scheduling gets to be an oft-cited bugaboo, and in most cases, a certain amount of negotiation is quietly added to that--picking up a new involvement requires some attention to your established ones, at least if you're being at all careful about it.

But more interesting than that, there are advantages to poly I would never have thought of before. For a mild example, I have always been regrettably slow to make friends with other men; our society has no mechanism for adults to approach a friendship, no ritualized flirtation process. A poly woman, though, is as likely as not to come with a good man or two already attached--and if she and I get along, it's really not unlikely that her other boyfriends and I will have some common ground.

There are all sorts of broader social advantages as well, some of them subtle. A family of multiple adults (not the only goal among polyamorous folks, mind you, but not an uncommon one either) can in many ways replace the security and simple warmth of the extended family which our society has so ruthlessly pared down to nothing for most people. And as poly sets in over generations, as it looks well set to do now, it has what I regard as some powerfully positive implications for childrearing. Instead of a simple and arbitrary dichotomy of one male role model and one female, a child growing up among polyamorists could have a big handful of role models to choose from--not to mention much better odds of getting somebody's more or less undivided attention at any given time, something our society lets slide with appalling ease. And for the parents' part, it's a great deal harder for a multiple-adult household to be devastatingly empty-nested when the kids go, simply by virtue of the greater population still remaining. And while those kids--all-consuming creatures that they are--are around, they cannot so easily dominate larger populations singlehandedly. As they always could in the co-resident extended families of most of human history, they just find a place for themselves in the crowd: always safe and always outnumbered.

More personally, depending on the particular geometry you fall into (and every arrangement is being practiced somewhere) there's a payoff hidden within multiple relationships that I'd never thought about at all from the outside: watching two lovers in love. I can't think of any privilege sweeter, more reassuring, more arousing, more encouraging or more adorable than to openly watch two lovers looking at each other (even if only passing in the hall), seeing the emotion in both directions and wholeheartedly agreeing with each. We are most generous when we are fearless.