Polyamory

27 August 2017

What is it like to be in love with more than one person at a time? Is monogamy natural, as authors like Helen Fisher have argued, or an outmoded cultural artifact, as claimed by authors like Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá? On this week's philosophy talk, we discuss polyamory with writer and philosophy professor Carrie Jenkins.

Trying to pin down whether something is due to nature or culture strikes me as a fool's errand; surely any human endeavor as complicated as building a romantic relationship will have both natural and cultural components. A better way into understanding polyamory is to turn a critical eye on the default assumption of monogamy.

Although lifelong fidelity to a single partner remains a cultural ideal, few people live up to it; for example, one in five Americans surveyed in a 2015 YouGov poll admit to having cheated on a partner. Even setting aside illicit affairs, the only way some people get away with calling themselves monogamous is by having a whole series of partners, one after the other.

Furthermore, there is widespread disagreement about what the rules of monogamy require. Is it cheating to send flirty text messages to someone other than your partner? What about kissing, going to a strip club, or reaching out to an ex on Facebook? And what about deep emotional connections that don't include physical sexual activity?

Author Amy Gahran sees monogamy as part of a larger set of unspoken expectations that she calls the Relationship Escalator: after an early courtship phase, you and your partner define yourselves as a couple, become sexually and romantically exclusive, commit to being each other's number-one priority, merge your households and finances, marry, have children, and remain together until death do you part. While relationships that fit this model can be wonderful, failing to examine its fundamental assumptions can also lead to a lot of unnecessary suffering. What happens if you decide you'd be happiest with two romantic partners, or none at all? You'll need guidance that the escalator can't provide.

Polyamory is not a panacea. Having multiple partners is not enough to destroy sexism and heteronormativity, as even a cursory glance polygynous cult leaders will show. Intimate partner abuse happens in polyamorous relationships, as well as monogamous ones, and polyamorists can easily recapitulate existing social hierarchies. Some pathologies are specific to polyamory, such as the tendency of some unicorn hunters, or couples who seek out a third party to join in their sexual adventures, to treat their additional partner as disposable.

Luckily, the internet is full useful information and guidance. More Than Two offers advice on topics like communication, jealousy, and time management, as well as a relationship bill of rights. Poly Role Models provides a diverse compendium of useful case studies, updated weekly. The YouTube series Compersion is mostly a what-not-to-do manual, but it lets you learn from others' mistakes, and makes for entertaining TV. Podcasts like Polyamory Weekly discuss real-world problems from a polyamorous perspective.

Relationships are tricky, and monogamy and polyamory both present distinctive challenges. With any style of relationship, communication and critical reflection are key; the unexamined love life is not worth love-living! I'm looking forward to more critical conversations with Carrie and Ken, and hopefully with you, this week when we discuss polyamory.

Comments (4)


Larkrising's picture

Larkrising

Thursday, August 31, 2017 -- 9:53 PM

The person who commented that

The person who commented that security in a mate produces better childbirth outcomes implied that marriage means more security in a mate, which is not necessarily true

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, December 22, 2019 -- 10:20 PM

I don't think we got any more

I don't think we got any more critical than your blog post Ray. Polyamory is still on tender ground, and perhaps it is best to discuss it without criticism. People have enough to think about than what others choose in life.

I, at least, learned more from your thought than the show for now. I'm intrigued enough to read this book. Thanks for writing this up.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, December 24, 2019 -- 11:37 AM

So... I took the time to read

So... I took the time to read Carrie's book - What Love Is. I am changed, but not as much or even as Professor Jenkins would have me.

There's much more going on in this book than polyamory. The scope is broad in practical, ethical and meta-ethical argument. We are living in times of science that force philosophical retreat from matters of humanity and even morality. Overall I heed the need to live and let live. Consensual behavior is between those who do it, as long as, it does not limit potential in others.

Jenkins gets the science wrong in places and takes argument without foundation. I would have her take this up with Bertrand Russell whom she visits, takes and leaves to get to a "progressive" attitude of polyamory. Polyamory is not progressive as much emblematic of the free thought and economy we live – at the moment. That can change, is changing and I’m not sure where to.

Certainly there is no science to vindicate polyamory as there is for the growing awareness and sensitivity in and around gender studies. Neuroscience is not finding difference nor refuge for having multiple romantic or sexual partners. If there is a rise or fall in polyamory it will play out in social, cultural, mimetic and memetic spheres that transcend biology.

There is nothing wrong or evil in polyamory. That is repulsive. We need to be sensitive to polyamorists lives and choice (I don’t want to get side tracked here on choice and consent – I do not believe in free will and have fundamental issues around this with respect to consent.)

There may be wrong in role modeling polyamory for those who don’t attend to it’s value. This includes family, friends and especially children. I am particularly not changed in my thought around special liberty and protection for children. That current culture should needle it’s monogamy into the Lego of childhood is no call for equal rights in marketing, family structures or legal stricture.

Let’s just get along in the spirit of the season. To that, I can sign my name.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 4, 2020 -- 11:15 AM

I am pretty much a

I am pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to this sort of thing, although I deign to criticize a lifestyle simply because I would not subscribe to it. Social practices are different in different societies and many forms of family have been tried.It seems to me, though, that traditional marriage as we have come to know it, is generally appropriate for western economies. If for example we argue that children might benefit more from communal family structure; that they would (and should) learn that they individually are not the center of the family universe, that might be an argument holding some weight: it could either contribute to their self-reliance and independence and/or overall adjustment to family life, or it might breed a race of amoral drones whose primary interest would be looking out for themselves. There is a delicate balance between teaching a child self-reliance and independence, and having helpless, hopeless apron-hangers who cannot make a decision as to what they should have for lunch; whom to befriend; and who means well towards them and who means them irreparable harm. Eugenicists had some grisly ideas and recipes as to how disabled people should be disposed of. We do not, as a normative rule, now think that disposal is the answer, and prefer to view such persons as 'differently abled'. Well, these are only intuition pumps (to mimic Dennett). I have no wish to write an essay about the subject, because it does not hold such an interest for me. Others are better equipped than I. This is, as Smith has intoned, tender ground and bears walking lightly, I think...