When Three Is Not a Crowd: Polyamory as a Responsible Lifestyle
Copyright © 1999, 2005 c.e., Elizabeth Barrette

People have interesting ideas when it comes to love, life, and the socially acceptable arrangements thereof. One thing I hear a lot is people complaining about polyamory — a long-term romantic/sexual relationship between more than two people — on the grounds that it doesn’t work. They say they’ve seen too many disasters because of polyamory to believe it can ever succeed. So I’d like to take a look at the ups and downs of human relationships in this regard.

First of all, I think the problem isn’t so much the practices as it is the people. The modern American culture just doesn’t do a good job of teaching most people how to communicate, resolve conflicts, manage emotions, or other crucial social skills. For haven’s sake, the standard male/female marriage institution has a failure rate well over 50% in some areas, with much associated human wreckage. If people who know what they’re doing want to frolic, let them.

Those who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t realize the problem and work on it will run into trouble whether they’re living a poly lifestyle, a theoretically monogamous one, or even a celibate one. Mature, well-rounded folks with a good grasp of themselves can handle just about anything they can dream up. People who already lack a solid foundation and necessary skills aren’t going to have much luck juggling a dozen eggs or even just a few. I’ve seen people thrive in fascinatingly complex situations; I’ve seen them flounder in a simple one-on-one relationship. Heck, some don’t even get that far. It’s sad, really. I also know folks who are painstakingly working their way up from a rather patchy past to develop skills they’re missing.

So how does this polyamory thing work, anyway? People usually make their own arrangements through negotiation. They talk about what they want and need, and why, and how they’d like to go about getting it. Then they settle on agreements that everyone feels content with. Open communication lets them deal with issues of jealousy, health and safety, time management, favorite and unfavorite activities, trust, and so forth. Polyamory includes a wide range of options from open relationships where both partners occasionally have one-night stands with other people, to closed marriages of three or six or however many individuals, to couples who sometimes like to swap partners with other couples, and much more. Whatever you can imagine, somewhere out there is probably a family that’s figured out how to make it work for them.

A healthy society should be able to accommodate diversity. This includes diversity in family life. People may choose to be celibate, monogamous, or polyamorous according to their nature. Number and configuration of partners should, I believe, fall under the aegis of sexual orientation just as preference for a partner’s biological sex does. It is painfully obvious that social pressure produces no better effect on the former than it does on the latter.

This brings us to the issue of idolizing monogamy. Contrary to popular opinion, monogamy is not the only or necessarily best sexual arrangement for primates, mammals, or lifeforms in general. It works for some, not for others. The same is true of humans. When you try to force people into a situation that is not right for them, it tends to propagate disasters; you wind up with monogamous relationships in which one or both partners are miserable, or with “serial monogamy” where people have only one partner at a time but many sequentially, or with the ever-popular adultery — in which people do irresponsibly and secretly the kind of things that should be handled in a more mature, responsible, and open manner. It takes only a quick glimpse at the news to show how monogamy is not the answer to everything and, in its modern form, not particularly successful.

Now, I don’t feel that it’s fair to single out a particular lifestyle and say that it’s wrong or unworkable, just because people are currently having trouble making it work; this goes for both monogamy and polyamory. Start turning out better-equipped people, a more relaxed atmosphere, and improved living conditions … and relationships of all types will tend to work better. I worry more about the lack of relational skills than about which type of relation people are botching. And yes, I do what I can to move the world in a positive direction so that people have the strength and flexibility to express their creativity in relationships instead of struggling just to keep them afloat. Expression should be a matter of taste.

Polyamory is not for everyone. It requires a great deal of honesty, patience, and work. Monogamy is not for everyone either. It too requires a lot of honesty, patience, and work. This is why celibacy is a nice option for people who find the whole sexual question boring or too much trouble or the like. One size does not fit all. Historical cultures have explored pretty much the whole gamut, with varying degrees of success and sanity. Responsible persons and societies should look at their own needs and interests, and come up with an arrangement that works for them. Bugging someone else for living a life that you yourself wouldn’t enjoy is pointless and rude, both for individuals and societies. As long as the people involved are happy with their arrangement, and not actively making other folks miserable, we should be content to keep our noses out of their business. This is equally true whether they enjoy “missionary sex,” or threesomes, or orgies that go through a carton of condoms in an hour, or good old solitary sex in which the fingers do the walking.

It helps to know what you’re talking about. Reading is an excellent way to learn more about polyamory, and that includes everything from nonfiction guides to novels with polyamorous characters. There are newsgroups, websites, mailing lists, and many other online resources on this topic. I once participated in a fascinating panel on the subject of polyamory, for which I drafted a recommended reading list (see below), and we had a lot of fun debating the “what ifs” of complex sexual dynamics. Meeting and talking with people living a polyamorous lifestyle is the best way to learn about it, though. As long as you’re polite, a good number of them will be happy to talk with you; sometimes you can find parties or “munches” specializing in this kind of interaction. So before you run around calling the lifestyle immoral, or conversely decide it must be for you, do everybody a favor and research first. You are entitled to your informed opinion.