The people who participated in this study are clearly not a representative sample of the poly community in general, or even of those in long term committed relationships. Only one couple were raising a child, and the average age (52) is quite high.
Polyfidelity vs. Polyamory
Note that couples who are interested in a polyfidelitous (similar to monogamous but with more than two people in the relationship) relationship are naturally excluded from this study. Either they are part of a larger group, and therefore no longer simply a couple, or they have not yet found other partners for their group, and therefore are not in multiple ongoing relationships.
The study group members appeared to be exclusively white, which was unsurprising given the author's experience that the vast majority of people who participate in organized poly activities are white.
While there was no specific question about education in the interviews, it was clear from occupations and from comments made that the majority of the people in the sample were at least college educated, and many had further education. This is consistent with the author's impression of the poly community in general, that most people who identify as polyamorous are well educated, whether formally or, in some cases, informally.
There are some common factors in these long term polyamorous relationships that might provides clues as to why they have been successful.
One thing that stands out in the interviews is the level of appreciation expressed by the respondents. They have a great deal of appreciation for each other and for their relationship. They want to be together, they enjoy their relationships. Some of this comes from a sense of shared history. Some appreciate the effort that the other has put into the relationship in difficult times, or the other's willingness at times to relax the agreements they have made. Some of the respondents seem to dwell on what it is that they like about each other and the good things that they have together.
Appreciation can be helpful for any relationship. Gottman and DeClaire remarked that "Our research shows that married couples who regularly express their appreciation for each other have much happier, stronger marriages" (2001, p. 79). They include an exercise on how to "transform a crabby, critical habit of mind to one that praises and appreciates." The relationships examined in this study are in accord with their findings.
Perhaps related to appreciation, the participants expressed a sense of closeness to their primary partner. Several expressed the sense that they just keep getting closer and closer. Some feel an underlying closeness even if they are currently experiencing some tension or are in the midst of reworking their agreements.
Since only committed couples were included in the study, perhaps couples who do not feel close to each other have been weeded out. However, if that is the case, it adds credibility to the idea that nurturing a sense of closeness is one of the ways to help maintain commitment. What is interesting is that for some of these couples, being polyamorous appears to have increased their sense of closeness and their commitment to each other. Some of this closeness appears to be a result of the communication needed to manage a polyamorous relationship.
As Lizful noted, the level of honesty and communication required to be polyamorous is one that all couples should practice, but it is required for polyamory to work. Communication and honesty were mentioned repeatedly as vital to maintaining poly relationships. As Mary mentioned, being polyamorous "is forcing us to communicate, and that's always a good thing." Jackie noted that in a monogamous relationship, "there isn't that constant need to maintain communication."
Good communication was seen by the participants as both a requirement to make their relationships work, and a benefit of being in a poly relationship.
Willingness to Change
All of the respondents have had to make changes in their relationships, changes which are not part of the standard expected experience of marriage. They have had to listen to their partner's expressed needs and desires, and work with their partner to figure out what works for both of them. They have had to be adaptable. We might speculate that someone with fairly rigid ideas of how things should be done might have a difficult time in a polyamorous relationship, or in any long term relationship.
Willingness to Deal with Jealousy
While a few of the participants did not experience any jealousy, most of them have had to find ways to avoid letting it control them. They have been willing to face it and let it pass. They have actively worked on finding ways to reduce its hold on them, and on helping their partners manage it as well.
Flexibility and the Relative Importance of Desires
The issues that Carol and Pseud were trying to work through related to veto power and their agreement to spend nights together have some very interesting implications for what enables a couple to stay together happily.
Carol had the wisdom to recognize that acquiescing to Pseud's desire to spend all their nights together when she very much wanted to spend the night with Joanie would not be healthy. She saw only two good choices. One was surrender, "meaning let go of my want, honor his want, and do it in a way of love so that I don't resent it." Since she was not able to do that, she had to take the other option, namely to keep talking about what she wanted and needed, even though that involved a lot of crying. She had to stand up for her needs and desires.
Pseud was able to recognize that Carol's desire for a night with Joanie was more important than his desire for her to come home. As he said, it was not a deal breaker. He did not want her to feel resentment towards him, so he was willing to let go of their agreement, or at least to loosen it.
This incident points to the limitation of agreements.
Limitation of Agreements
Agreements can be helpful, but they also need to be flexible. What one person agrees to at one point in a relationship is not necessarily what will work twenty, ten, five or even one year later. There can come a point when one person says, enough, I can't do this any more. The partner can try to hold him or her to the agreement, but at that point that will likely lead either to resentment and a deterioration of the relationship, or to a breakup. If both partners can be flexible, and do as Carol mentioned (which is look for a win-win resolution) then the relationship, with modified agreements, is more likely to survive.
A corollary to this is that, as Schnarch (1998) pointed out, when your partner's happiness is as important to you as your own happiness (as happens when people love each other), it is in your self interest to find a way to do the things that will make your partner happy.
In a healthy relationship this could lead a couple to assess the relative importance of their desires in a particular situation, and give priority to the person with the stronger need or desire. As long as both partners are doing this with a willingness to be flexible, they are more likely to create the kind of relationship that will work for both of them.
Agreements are also limited by the willingness of the people involved to stretch and push their boundaries. Moving at the pace of the slowest person worked for Mary and Fred, because there was movement. They moved forward at a pace they both felt comfortable with. In poly groups an agreement to move at the pace of the slowest is often promoted; however, there is also discussion of the problem that occurs when the slowest person stops moving. In principle he or she may be willing to allow his or her partner to have other relationships, but in practice there is always some reason the particular one in question is unacceptable. At some point such agreements are likely to break down.
Couples sometimes have opposing desires which they both feel very strongly about. For couples in the study, it could have to do with polyamory, but it could just as easily have to do with whether or not to have children, or where to live, or many other types of choices that have to be made. How can these be resolved? Lizful mentioned a process which had been extremely helpful for her and Paul, called the heartshare, which she said they learned from an article by the UV Family (the UV Family is a group of people dedicated to exploring new territory in relationships. For information about them, see www.context.org/ICLIB/IC10/UVFamily.htm). She described it as follows:
You sit down and one person is the initiator, you sit down and the initiator simply talks for as long as it's necessary to do it. Basically it's coming from, this is what I'm feeling, this is what's going on, this is - I'm opening to you, trusting you to not get hurt personally, to be able to take it. It's not venting… This isn't trying to punch somebody out. It's basically a no-holds-barred opening. And the business of the person who's listening is to totally refrain from not only saying anything, because you must remain completely silent, but you don't start building your rebuttal in your mind. You don't do anything other than hear. You just fucking listen. And then, when it's run its course, the listener can say, Can you talk to me more about this? I'm not sure that I got that. Or, if I tried to express something back to you like this, would I be saying it right? And then that's it.
There's no rebuttal. Now you can turn around the other way, and the other person does their own, but it's not on the basis of what you just said. It's not a response. It's what the other person would have said if they went first. And then that's it. That's it. And you'd think, by god, there's no communication, oh yes there is… It's absolutely mutually agreed that … the only thing that's going to flow from it is an embrace, and if there's something that wants further clarification, then you do. And that has been - oh, it's made such a difference.
A common comment used to justify polyamory is that one person should not have to (or cannot) meet all of another person's needs. This type of comment showed up during the interviews, and the author has heard it many times elsewhere. However, this did not really seem to be a prime motivator in the study sample.
For two women, being polyamorous allowed them to have emotional and sexual relationships with both women and men, although in one of those cases, the woman identifies as a lesbian, and her male primary partner is "grandfathered" in. (None of the men indicated a romantic or sexual interest in other men, though there are many men in the poly community in general who are bisexual). In some cases, one person enjoys some particular types of sexual activities with his or her secondary partner that the primary partner is not interested in, but that seemed to be a benefit rather than the motivating force behind the secondary relationship.
Some people recognized that they were not successful at monogamy. Annie mentioned that she and Jerry agreed that since they had both failed at monogamy, they would not attempt it again. Perhaps this could be construed as polyamory helping them meet their need or desire for multiple partners.
The Meaning of Sex and Intimacy
In the monogamous paradigm, as discussed in the review of literature, sexual intimacy needs to be reserved for one person. The participants in this study have created a different meaning for sex and intimacy, one that allows them to maintain a strong primary bond with one other person while also allowing them to experience closeness, connection, intimacy and sexuality with other people as well. As described above, Mary and Carol both explicitly commented on the meaning of sex. Mary noted that experiencing a shift in the meaning of sex had allowed her to become open to polyamory, and Carol described how she consciously created a meaning that allowed her to keep her relationship with Joanie from becoming threatening to her primary relationship.
Mint (2004) noted that the enforcement of monogamous behavior extends well beyond actual sexual behavior and includes restrictions on "Spending time alone with someone…, holding hands, and of course flirting, touching, or smiling too much. All of these actions are signifiers of a possible sexual relationship in our culture, and this is what makes them socially dangerous" (p. 60). Some people who are polyamorous have redefined the meaning of touch as well as of sex so that it is no longer necessarily dangerous. This is shown in Carol's observation that in her experience polyamorous people were more open to sensuality and touch.
Redefining the meaning of sex, intimacy, and touch allows people greater opportunities for having those experiences. It gives them a greater choice in how they relate with other people and allows them to explore what types of activities are most satisfying for them.
A Crucible for Growth
Schnarch (1991, 1998) proposed that the monogamy provides a crucible for growth. He suggested that the purpose of monogamous marriage was to produce differentiation: integrity, the ability to stand up for what you believe in, the ability to maintain a clear sense of self in close proximity to a partner. This requires the willingness to risk your partner's displeasure rather than letting the relationship deteriorate because talking about what you really want seems too risky. He stated that other relationships detract from this.
This might be true for clandestine affairs, which allow people to meet their sexual needs without having to confront their partner. However, when people are open and honest about their relationships, it appears that they have to grow and engage in the type of communication and confrontation which encourages differentiation. As Evelyn commented, polyamory tends to be a crucible. It forces growth - or the couple may split up.
Making conscious choices may be a greater factor in differentiation than the particular choice (such as whether or not to be monogamous).
On Being a Couple
The respondents appreciated having the daily connection with another person and the ongoing support they found in their relationship. However, some of them could imagine the same benefits in a triad or larger configuration of committed partners. Some appreciated the ease of fitting into society as part of a couple, as well as the practical benefits that come from marriage (such as tax or health insurance benefits). Some also noted the growth opportunities that come with a long term relationship.
Chapter 2 examined some reasons given in the literature for monogamy. This section responds to those reasons based on the observations of the participants.
As we have seen, people who are not monogamous can still be very committed to each other. For some, the pleasure bond that Masters and Johnson (1974) discussed can even be enhanced by sharing with others sexually.
While the respondents did not specifically talk about healing, and certainly not the type of physical healing discussed by Pearsall (1994), they did talk about growth. Some of them mentioned that polyamory is one of the growth paths that people can take. There were even some comments that people who are not interested in and willing to work on growth should not choose polyamory. This emphasis on growth may provide the opportunity to heal childhood wounds, which Hendrix (1990) emphasized as the purpose of monogamous marriage.
While not many people specifically mentioned spirituality in the context of polyamory, for those that did, it was a positive element. One example is Rogelio's comment that welcoming being confronted when one is not fully authentic is a commitment to spiritual growth. Similarly, Carol, who said that "a lot of being in a relationship is about emotional and spiritual growth," commented that for her personally polyamory is more spiritual than monogamy.
While they would probably agree with Moschetta and Moschetta (1998) about the presence of a spiritual element in strong and vibrant marriages, they clearly disagree that that necessarily leads to choosing monogamy.
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