Analyse this: polyamory
Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.; Times Online
by Darian Leader, psychoanalyst and author

THEY call it polyamory and already my spellcheck has gone berserk. Yet the term has now been honoured by a lecture at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society. With about 2,000 practitioners in Britain, and numbers growing every day, we can no longer ward off this peculiar addition to our lexicon. But what is it?

Polyamory means free love that isn’t entirely free. Dr Meg Barker, a senior lecturer in psychology at London South Bank University and a practitioner of polyamory, explains that it is about “the recognition of multiple important relationships”. It is the belief that it is quite proper to have simultaneous relationships with “more than one loving and sexual partner”. It isn’t just casual sex since the sex comes with relationships.

Barker claims that such unconventional ways of conducting one’s love life require a new vocabulary. As well as polyamory, there is “wibble”, low-grade jealousy; “metamour”, the relationship a polyamoric has with a lover’s partner; and “frubbly”, joy at a partner’s happiness with other lovers. But does the novelty of this language indicate anything new? Isn’t it the old concept of open relationships served up with a new linguistic sauce?

But polyamory is interesting as it reflects current culture. We are for ever urged to reinvent ourselves, at both a mental and a physical level. Surgery allows us to alter our appearance and even our sex. Wouldn’t the next logical step be to free ourselves from the tyranny of traditional monogamous relationships? But this will bring us back to some traditional problems. Polyamory suggests freedom, but cannot fail to be as compulsive as any other form of human sexual activity. For some, having a range of lovers may be a desperate way of asking, “Am I loveable?” Since this is tough to answer, other parties are appealed to, leading to a (poly)amatory merry-go-round.

If having multiple lovers is a way for a woman to ask “What am I to him?”, for a man it may be a way of asking “Am I man enough?” The Casanova who tries to be a man for many women may be unsure of his own manhood. Polyamory involves uncertainty about one’s identity, for both sexes.

Critics of polyamory will argue that multiple partners mean a lack of commitment. Even if practitioners stress the depth of each relationship, no one can be equally committed to several people. But it is more complex than that. It’s not that the person shies away from commitment; it’s that they are already too committed. The person has simultaneous relationships because he or she is unable to give up one crucial relationship in the past.

Inability to give up the unconscious bond to a parent may mean the failure ever to have a relationship. But it can also mean the opposite: endless attachments.