This is based on a master's thesis written for Regis University. The complete thesis may be read at www.aphroweb.net.
Monogamy is the assumed standard for relationships in our culture. A married person who has sex outside the marriage is assumed to be cheating, to be unfaithful. The same standard is applied to anyone in a committed relationship. Yet there are people who have agreed that they will not be sexually exclusive, and who have sex with others with the full consent of their partner. One way of doing this has been called "polyamory" (often shortened within the polyamorous community to "poly").
Polyamory has been defined by White (2004, p. 17) as "Living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal". Furthermore, she pointed out that most of the definitions of polyamory found on the Internet "utilize words like ethical, responsible, honorable, open, honest, intentional, and principled" (p 20). This is in contrast to the concept generally held in our culture that having a sexual partner in addition to your spouse is a betrayal. Couples who are polyamorous have made a conscious decision to have other partners while maintaining their connection and commitment to their original partner. This is a mutual agreement, not a betrayal.
Note that definitions for various words and phrases related to polyamory can be found at www.polyamorysociety.org/language.html.
Lack of Research on Polyamory
There has been very little academic research on polyamory. Why is this so? Rubin (2001) hypothesized that "Swinging, group marriages, and communes [and polyamory] may remain on the periphery of study and tolerance because they threaten the cultural image of what marriage is supposed to be" (p. 724). Elisabeth Sheff, who started research for her Ph.D. in sociology in the late 1990s, received some encouragement "because it was an area that had not been developed yet and it is good to be a groundbreaker," but also discouragement, because it is a "freaky" topic and she could be marginalized because of the topic (personal communication, January 19, 2005).
Many social scientists support the "questioning mindset," the idea that "there is nothing that should not be doubted. Everything must be unceasingly examined" (Lofland and Lofland, 1995, p. 154). In spite of this, even an eminent psychologist like Albert Ellis (2003), who was writing about sex even before Kinsey, has had his writings that question our society's attitudes towards sexuality censored, modified without his permission, and omitted from compilations of symposia at which he presented.
Who therefore will take the risk of researching some part of this topic of polyamory which questions the cultural standard for sexual behavior? People who have a personal interest in the subject (e.g. Barker, 2005; Sheff, 2004; Wolfe, 2003).
Most people do not think about monogamy. It is simply a given. The main issue for therapists around monogamy is dealing with its failure, i.e. infidelity. The question of whether or not monogamy is a choice that people want to make is not generally discussed. Some people, however, have thought about it, they have questioned it, they have discussed it with their partner, and have chosen to live life a different way.
Our society has used laws and social pressure to encourage married couples to stay together in spite of their differences, but this clearly has not been working very well in recent years. What else besides legal sanctions provides the glue that keeps marriages together? In a discussion of cohesion in multilateral (group) marriages, Constantine and Constantine (1974) noted the need for a mechanism to encourage internal problem-solving rather than allowing needs to be satisfied externally. They commented, "The fidelity ethic in a monogamous marriage serves as such a mechanism to keep the husband and wife solving problems in their relationship. Compartmentalization of sex as an isolated modality [as in swinging] is another such mechanism" (p. 286).
The focus of this study was on what provides this cohesion for long term polyamorous couples. What is the nature of the commitment (as they conceptualize it) that keeps them together, when they have the opportunity to follow what could seem to be an easier path of moving on to someone else with whom they have not yet developed serious problems? Interviews were used to uncover what the respondents consider to be helpful to them in maintaining their commitment to their partner. The interview questions were designed to elicit the nature of the relationships between the primary partners as well as their other lovers, and the perceived benefits of polyamory. There was a focus on the respondents' thoughts about how they maintain a strong bond with their primary partner.
Study of Successful Relationships
This study on commitment was not intended to be representative of typical involvement in polyamory, simply an examination of what has worked to allow these couples to stay together in fulfilling relationships while following a path that is considered deviant in our culture. The study was about what the participants said works for them. It did not address the issue of deviance directly, nor look at the problems faced by people who have not been successful in this lifestyle.
As an opportunistic complete member (Adler and Adler, 1987) of the poly subculture (this means that I studied a group of which I was already fully a member), along with my husband, Zhahai Stewart, I not only take part in the community but also work to help shape it. Among other things, we have both written articles for Loving More, a magazine for people who are exploring the option of loving more than one person ([I write as Spring Cascade] Cascade, 1996, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002; Cascade and Stewart, 1998; Stewart, 1995, 2000, 2001a, 2001b), and presented at their conferences.
Appropriateness of Opportunistic Studies
Is it appropriate for someone who is involved in a community to study it? Lofland and Lofland have "counseled involvement and enmeshment rather than objectivity and distance - a counsel that is very much in keeping with the fieldwork tradition" and noted, "So-called objectivity and distance vis-à-vis the field setting will usually result in a failure to collect any data worth analyzing." (Lofland and Lofland, 1995, p. 17). Adler and Adler stated their belief that "the native experience does not destroy but, rather, enhances the data-gathering process. Data gathering does not occur only through the detached observational role, but through the subjectively immersed role as well" (Adler and Adler, 1987, p. 84). Berg acknowledged that "The use of personal biography or deep familiarity with a subject has become more common and accepted by ethnographers" (Berg, 2004, p. 156), and that some researchers now encourage self-reflective or auto-ethnographies.
There is definitely a potential danger to people who are polyamorous if this fact should become known to the wrong people. There is a danger of losing one's job or having Child Protective Services take one's child away, at least temporarily. Confidentiality is therefore particularly important, and has been strictly maintained. Pseudonyms have obviously been used in writing about the participants.
One reason for having separate interviews was to allow someone to reveal information that could potentially be too sensitive to discuss in front of the partner, because it would cause the partner pain or embarrassment, such as a sexual preference for a different lover. Care has been taken to avoid writing about such information in a way that could be identified, in case some participants or other members of the community choose to read the thesis. This means that potentially sensitive information was not linked to a name that the partner (or anyone else) may be able to identify because of other characteristics such as age or profession.
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