With apologies for this week’s more relaxed posting schedule. I’ll get back to work sometime soon!
Several of my close friends — coincidentally, all extremely intelligent, math/science oriented, and leaders in the freethought/rationality/atheist communities — find themselves practicing and promoting an arrangement they term “polyamory.” Essentially, this describes a post-jealousy, highly rationalized state where participants date each other, and several others simultaneously. Polyamory distinguishes itself from pre-monogamous dating in that “dating,” for most, is an interregnum occupying the time between serious monogamous relationships; and distinguishes itself from, say, Barney Stinson’s approach to romance in that polyamorous partners form serious emotional bonds with each other, know of and build friendships with their “competitors,” and find emotional as well as physical fulfillment from the relationship. Real, non-exclusive romance is the goal.
Without presuming to tell my friends how to live their lives, and truly without judgment — I think the world of each of them — I also think this is no way to live, and feel myself brought to comment because it’s (1) interesting, (2) a growing phenomenon that’s not peculiar to them, (3) an increasingly acceptable way of life in some circles, (4) debated in those circles as a serious society-wide alternative to monogamy and (5) because the issue presents a useful proxy theater for my well-known position (war?) against polygamy.
First, some background on polyamory, which I consider here only in its heterosexual formulation (only because I’m not qualified to comment on gay polyamory, if such a thing exists). In the ideal polyamorous relationship, one man is seriously “dating” several women, each of whom is in turn dating several men. Each partner may or may not have a favorite — a “primary,” in the words of one — who occupies the most of their time, emotional attention, and whose opinion and happiness factor into life-altering changes (such as, whether to move to a new city). In all cases, partners are aware of the others’ participation: polyamory without the informed consent of all parties is just cheating. In the ideal case, partners all know each other, too, become close friends, and can “schedule” time with with their mutual boy- or girlfriend as needed, à lá Big Love. Here then, my counterargument.
Simply, monogamy works (except where it doesn’t). Further, it’s the only “rational” way to build a stable society. Although some can inhabit the polyamorous world without fear of hurting themselves or others, those are both few and far between, and in all likelihood, unable to maintain their comfort with polyamory for the duration of their lives. If polyamory represents an equilibrium position where people can be happy, and remain so for some time, it’s nonetheless an unstable one. Though flawed, marriage and monogamy are still the worst ways to manage human relationships, after all the others that’ve been tried.
Procreation: As a society-wide solution balancing of the human emotions of love, lust, and jealousy, polyamory fails because it does not account for children. None of my polyamorous friends (and none of their fellow practitioners, I believe) contemplate raising children in this arrangement. Instead, they foresee either slipping into monogamy, or simply never raising children at all. That’s for the best. Children need stability in their lives; but polyamory entails no long-term commitments. Partners come and go, seduced by a monogamous attraction to some non-participant, or as interest wanes, generally. This distinguishes polyamory from polygamy, and makes it still that much less suitable for raising children.
Polyamory fails to solve for jealousy: most polyamorous participants will tell you that the arrangement works because there’s simply no jealousy: each partner has their own thing going on. That’s lovely in theory, but from my observations, false in fact. Of the polyamorous participants I’ve met, few have never described themselves experiencing anything like jealousy while in the relationship. Those that have, I suspect of lying. Some describe different types of jealousy — fear of losing a partner to monogamy, for example — but the distinction between that and traditional romantic jealousy is razor-thin. Moreover, some find themselves involved in a polyamorous relationship only as a way to “win” one partner entirely to themselves. This seems to be a losing and painful proposition, if not for one, then for the other. But probably for all.
Polyamory cannot provide the support of healthy monogamy: this is a revelation that’s no more profound than the meanest Dido song, but one virtue of monogamy is being able to come home to someone whom you know will support you after a difficult day, or week. Because, ideally, your successes are theirs and your failures too, monogamy fosters an entwining of destinies that’s mutually beneficial, profound, and impossible if lives must be shared six or more ways. I can imagine it’s difficult to come home, for example, looking for comfort, and find one’s “primary” on a first date with someone else.
Polyamory has no endgame: in the words of one of my like-minded friends, polyamory might make sense when everyone is young and pretty, but it seems ill-adapted to the biological challenges of later adulthood. What is a “family,” in this context? What happens when partners have demanding jobs, less time for multiple relationships, and need one dependable partner to deal with life’s challenges? Monogamous relationships account for changes in human sexuality by cultivating a deep love that remains when mid-twenties lust fades; can polyamory account for that?
I acknowledge that, as a monogamist myself, who’s had the experience of happy and healthy relationships, I cannot divorce my impression of polyamory from my own biases. And I further acknowledge that I cannot presume to tell anyone how to live their lives; if polyamory works for some, for some of the time, I am happy for them. Consequently, though I’ll leave this post on the site, I won’t be sharing this post directly with my friends, for fear that they’ll feel judged. That is absolutely not my intent, as I care for each of them very deeply. Should they find it, I hope they’ll take this as an honest attempt at social commentary, simply building on discussions we’ve privately had on the subject, and respond in kind.