I remember explaining polyamory to my father when I met him in Utah. He just shrugged and said “I guess I’m too old-fashioned for that sort of thing to make sense.”
I feel blessed to have a father with the rare skill of being able to generate “I am old-fashioned” as a counter-hypothesis to “other people are evil”. But more than that, I sympathize with his response. I sympathize with it because it was exactly my response when Alicorn told me about polyamory two years ago or so (I can’t remember if I got it from IM conversations with her or from reading her essay). For a twenty-eight year old, I am really good at sighing and saying “Kids these days!” in a despairing tone, and that was about my response to the whole polyamory concept.
And now seven months after moving to Berkeley I’m dating three people.
What changed? It just started seeming normal. I was going to make an analogy to desegregation here, how white people thought having black kids in their schools would be a disaster, and then it happened, and the world didn’t collapse into a hell dimension or anything, and after a few years it just seemed like the normal order. But that metaphor is too weak: there’s still racism, a black kid in an all white school district probably feels really out of place, there are still even fights over segregated proms.
So better analogy. Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people! It’s not right for Irish and non-Irish people to mix! Everyone knows that!” And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going forget about the whole Irish thing too. There’s just no way someone seeing how boring and ordinary Irish-Americans are could continue to consider worrying about it a remotely good use of their time.
In fact, this Know-Nothing would have two strikes against him if he tried to hold onto his philosophy. First, there’s the empirical strike. Whatever his predictions of doom – Irish immigration would impoverish the country, Irish immigration would lead to the US being annexed by the Vatican – those predictions have clearly been disconfirmed. Second, there’s the psychological strike. He would be exposed to so many perfectly normal Irish people that his brain would have trouble even maintaining them as a separate category. It’s like the difference between your association for Chinese people being Fu Manchu versus your association being your neighbor John Chang who speaks perfect English and has a job at Google.
This was my experience with poly people upon moving to Berkeley. Alicorn makes a big deal about poly-hacking and having to valiantly overcome some sort of strong natural tendency to switch from monogamous to polyamorous relationships. This wasn’t really my experience at all. It just seemed like once the entire culture was no longer uniting to tell me polyamory was something bizarre and different and special, it wasn’t. And then it started to look like a slightly better idea to take part in it than to not take part in it. So I did.
I didn’t even remember how weird it seemed to everyone else until the last few weeks. First I had to explain it to my father. Then someone commented on a blog post of mine with something about polyamory, spelling it poly-“amor”-y the whole time, as if there couldn’t possibly be any real love involved.
The plural of anecdote is not “data”. But the singular of anecdote is “enough data to disprove a universal negative claim”. So I will just say that Alicorn and Mike are probably the best couple I have ever seen. I have lived with them for seven months now and never once have I seen them get in a fight (I know there is way more to being a couple than not fighting but I’m trying to think of objective numerical evidence I can report here beyond “if you know them, you know what I mean”). They both seem to love and appreciate each other just as much if not more as they did when I first met them. They both go way out of their way to make the other happy, and although part of this is just that they’re both very nice people who go out of their way to make everybody happy, I think there’s got to be some love involved there too. They are engaged, working on the “getting married” thing, and have every intention of having lots of children and staying together for at least one lifetime.
And all this despite Mike having two other girlfriends and Alicorn having three other boyfriends including one who lives with her. I can’t even get angry with people who say polyamory is incompatible with true love. They’re just empirically wrong, like someone who remarks confidently that hippos have six legs. They’re not evil or even deluded. They just obviously haven’t seen any hippos. You don’t really want to argue with them so much as take them to a zoo, after which you are confident they will realize their mistake.
The other thing people always bring up is the jealousy issue. I feel like the correct, responsible thing to say at this point would be “Yes, of course everyone experiences jealousy, and it’s hard for the first few months or years, but eventually you just learn to live with it and the sacrifice is worth it.”
But the responsible answer is wrong, and the incredulous-stare answer is right. At least in my very limited experience, jealousy is a paper tiger, sort of the post-9/11 al-Qaeda of emotional states. You spend all this time worrying about it and preparing for it and thinking it is going to be this dreadfully imposing enemy, and in the end it sends one guy with a bomb in his shoes onto a plane, whom you arrest without incident.
I know this hasn’t been anywhere close to the experience of all polyamorous people, but it’s my experience and that of the people I’ve talked to most about this.
My roommate Mike dates the same three people I am dating, including Alicorn who also lives with us (this is not normal for polyamory, and all three people started dating Mike and then met me and started dating me too, so I guess the moral of the story is to think very hard before accepting me as a roommate). I cannot think of a single problem I have ever had with Mike, which I guess is also sort of incredulous-stare and which exceeds my normal standards for roommates let alone roommates-whose-three-girlfriends-I-am-dating. None of those three people have had any noticeable-from-the-outside jealousy about any of the others. Two weeks ago, Mike and I took all three of our mutual girlfriends on a group date to Sausalito. It went really well, everyone got along, and it is something we would do more often if not for scheduling and travel issues (also, Sausalito is really expensive).
I once felt a small pang of jealousy when one of my girlfriends was having a very public display of affection with a non-Mike person I didn’t know quite so well. But I get upset with/jealous of public displays of affection in general, even among people I don’t know, and it’s very hard for me to disentangle this feeling from jealousy and it could have just been my imagination.
As opposed to this tiny-to-nonexistant role of jealousy, I think pretty much everyone here has experienced compersion. Compersion is the opposite of jealousy, being really happy for your partner when they meet someone new and they are obviously happy. Mike and Alicorn are really good at compersion (Mike helped set me up with his girlfriend Kenzi and was really glad it worked out) and some of this has rubbed off on me. It is a good feeling and it makes you feel good to have it. If there is a Heaven, I assume compersion will be a big part of its emotional repertoire.
I don’t drink much, not because I’m especially virtuous but because I hate the taste of alcohol and the atmosphere of bars and parties. In the same way, I’m not promiscuous, not because I’m especially virtuous but because I’m sort of borderline asexual. I like cuddling people, kissing people, falling in love with people, petting people’s hair, writing sonnets about people, and a few things less blogaboutable, but having sex isn’t an especially interesting experience for me. I treat it kind of like watching a chick flick – something one might do to get the nice warm feeling of doing romantic things and bonding as a couple, but wait a second why the heck is she kissing him now and that scene made no sense and THIS MOVIE HAS NO PLOT HOW DID IT MAKE $100 MILLION AT THE BOX OFFICE?
And I’m sorry for subjecting random people to details of my sex life, but I’m trying to establish credibility here for what I want to say next. What I want to say next involves the perception – I had it and a lot of other people seem to have it – that polyamory is about having sex with lots of people and monogamy is about having close loving relationships. And once again this is not my experience at all.
If you just want to have lots of sex instead of having a loving relationship, there are many ways to do it that are much more socially acceptable than polyamory. You can be one of those bachelors who “plays the field” and “doesn’t get tied down”. You can be in an “open relationship” or be “swingers”. All of these are way easier than polyamory; if your goal is sex, they’re also more effective.
Polyamory is almost the opposite of this. It’s for people who aren’t just into sex, for people who realize they could get sex without relationships with a lot less deviation from social norms but are really into the relationship part of things.
Here I will say maybe the only note of personal uncertainty or concern you’re likely to get in this essay, which is that I don’t know whether I could have maximally-close relationships with multiple people simultaneously. That is, I don’t know if I could date three people and love all of them as much as my parents love each other, or other social models for very good relationships (the Obamas? Now I’m foundering on who our non-fictional archetypes for very good relationships are) love each other. I’m not sure whether this would satisfy some deep human need for what you might politically-incorrectly call “mutual ownership”. And I’m definitely not sure (though I think it’s likely, certainly more likely than the skeptics would) that this is a great structure for child-rearing.
In practice none of this matters, because driven by some innate urge most polyamorous people I know end up having one “primary” relationship along with whatever others they are involved with. Mike and Alicorn are each other’s primaries, and that is going to develop into being each other’s spouses, and what I said above about them definitely having achieved that level of maximum-closeness remains true. This form of polyamory seems to me to be “monogamy plus”, keeping all of the advantages of monogamous relationships and ending out strictly superior. Sometimes this develops into people being so into each other that they just aren’t interested in other relationships because it takes away time they could be spending with their primary partner, but I haven’t noticed any differences in the quality of relationships where this happens and ones where it doesn’t.
I have heard of polyamorous communities where this is not how things are done, where people don’t have primaries, where they are just this complicated mass of partners without anything that looks like a traditional relationship. I predict I would not like this; something in me recoils from this situation. But that could just be more prejudice that would look as dumb as a Know-Nothing in the 21st century once I saw it up close. I’m pretty willing to take the Biblical tack on this one: “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it”. But I’m pretty sure I’m not of that number.