Much has been published in the last 15 years about polyamory, – or the more familiar “poly”, in the public discourse. Fortunately, very early in my couples practice, I began to work with poly couples clients who had standing (and evolving) agreements about how (or whether )they would practice sexual, emotional, non-exclusive/non-monogamous relationships.
A Brief Definition
These relationships are sometimes known as “open marriages” when a couple is legally married. But polyamory is a more inclusive term. Typically there’s a relationship between or among emotionally committed individuals or a legally married couple. Other adults are invited to form new sexual and/or emotional relationships. Informed consent, transparency, negotiation, clear boundaries, gender equality and non-possessiveness are key values in these arrangements. These may or may not involve living together and may or may not involve sex.
In the post-WWII era, these couples were tabbed “swingers”. The term “swingers” meant a free-wheeling, no-holds-barred sexually-driven lifestyle, with few if any ethics or rules. They were thought to have exciting, but also volatile and brief unions. Open sexuality was assumed to be practiced by ‘outlaws’, amongst whom there was little honor.
Evolution To Poly
It’s my belief that the reality of practiced polyamory has evolved significantly over the last 15 years, toward clearer relational structures. The publication of “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures” in 1997 was a groundbreaker, but there are others: “Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships” in 2008 and then the best-seller “Sex At Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships“. Although this last book was not about polyamory, its treatment of anthropology and sociology gave the movement more academic grounding.
Complex Agreements Won Out
Today, the ethical high road of poly is more commonly defined by the process of open and often subtle, complex agreements between two or more adults. The image of the undisciplined and unscrupulous “swinger” is being pushed into the background by the sexually responsible, and often socially conventional poly “practitioner.”
I noticed while working with my first few clients in open marriages (or poly couples) how typical and routine their concerns and problems were, sometimes unrelated to sexuality. I believed then – and now – that their struggles were neither exotic nor arcane, and similar to the concerns and growth-oriented dilemmas of all committed relationships. They were not “outlaws” in any significant respect, other than the private conduct which varied from the handed-down rules of traditional monogamy. A recent article in Scientific American appears to confirm this picture.
Polyamory Might Help Monogamy
Among other findings (such as poly people’s higher level of safe sex practices), the SA article above suggests that monogamous couples would do well to emulate the high degree of explicit agreement-making that is commonplace to experienced poly individuals and couples.
Closing The Circle
That recommendation closes the historic circle. “Poly people”, as successors to historic sexual/relational outlaws known as “swingers”, now offer useful rules and ethics. Are those who supposedly honor convention, tradition and the old order listening? Meanwhile, polyamorists continuously “edit” and re-define (evolve) the agreements they have. One could believe that this development
Poly Couples Therapy
I’ve treated the subject of agreements recently. It would be accurate to say that a good number of my monogamous clients have had trouble making and keeping agreements. They seek assistance with that skill of relational living. And that test of one’s integrity. That’s a great growth path for the self!
One area of assistance involves coming to an agreement about what monogamy is, what it means to each of them, and what it isn’t. I often ask monogamy-seeking partners if they’ve ever discussed this, or come to a “meeting of the minds”, before they got married. The answer is almost always “no.”
Think And Imagine
Think about that. It’s really a form of relational privilege, fitting within what is still a largely sex-negative culture in the U.S.(“It’s our privilege to avoid uncomfortably intimate issues as a condition of marriage”) Imagine a pre-marital counseling program which focuses on mutual erotic (and not necessarily sexual) exploration and awareness.
So…When Monogamy’s Under Stress…
Often lacking is what should happen when monogamy undergoes some challenge; flirting at a cocktail party, a business trip with an attractive co-worker, and of course the internet. Facebook and numerous other sites link people with past relational partners, and others.
The greatest stress for monogamy usually occurs in the realm of desire (what a surprise, with all of its moving parts). Partners’ commitment level, in its many forms, is of course a necessity, but also a burden to the ‘erotic mind’, per Jack Morin. Our creative, experimental and learning capacities extend directly into erotic (and presumably sexual) life. Otherwise good partners rarely size each other up erotically, early on in the relationship. Or come to vital agreements about that most vulnerable part of their relationship, as a cornerstone of being a family.
A Clear Invitation?
Better developed poly relationships & open marriages usually work out these agreements, sometimes in exacting detail, as a pre-condition of the relationship being formed, or a modification along the way. That way, when someone new is invited, the terms of the invitation are clear and consensual to all concerned.
Poly Relationships & Familiar Ethics
Poly couples come in all structures, shapes and sizes. Some are more diligent or experienced than others. Others are new to non-monogamy, and make up their own values and rules – sometimes poorly and with only self-interest as a guide.
From my practice experience, beginning 14 years ago: the problems presented by poly couples greatly resemble those brought by monogamists: integrity, jealousy, power plays, undefined boundaries, gridlocks over money, and parenting. Polyamory is not some magic shield against poor relational ethics.
A Viable Social Framework?
Does polyamory dilute the viability and meaning of legal & monogamous marriage? Or does it offer a viable framework for one of the largest demographic groups in the U.S.: unmarried heads of households. Per the 2010 Federal census:
Though the U.S. has gained 11 million households since 2000, traditional husband-wife family households now comprise just 48 percent of them. The bulk is family homes with a single head of house, nonrelated households, and people living alone. National Journal via Yahoo News, “Census: More in U.S. Report Nontraditional Households” 5/29/2013
The truth also remains that children can only be produced by two people, and paternity tests can be 100% accurate. So a fundamental social, legal and moral foundation for traditional two-person relationships is permanent.
The Poly Mainstream
Polyamorous couples have moved toward the socio-cultural mainstream, and that’s reflected by the clinical experience that addresses their everyday problems. Tethered to the very same jobs, material commitments and parenting responsibilities, “poly” people are now, far more than ever, in the social mainstream.
Yes, my view of this is through the particular lens of Seattle, which has various ‘engines’ that drive socio-sexual and relational development forward. Yet seen through the lens of my clients’ lives, I stand by my statement: poly is entering the socio-cultural mainstream.