When last we visited Polyland, I was congratuutf8g myself for doing a necessary public service: warning would-be polyamorists they would fail unless they happened to belong to that select group born with not only the desire but the ability to share. If I gave short shrift to the fact that polyamory takes hard work on top of natural inclination, plus the luck to find similarly inclined partners, I apologize. I’m continually amused, however, by the way the poly partisans who’ve been writing me (very eloquently, I must say) insist hard work is the one secret to successful multiple relationships, or, for that matter, any relationship. " How would I say it?" Happypoly asked in "PSA" (12/21/05). "Poly works for those committed to the hard personal work needed to make it work…. Of course, the same could be said of all other forms of relationships."
Seeing this attitude espoused everywhere has not managed to convince me that it’s true, merely that it is, apparently, what people want to hear. Of course a good relationship requires attention and occasional maintenance what living creature does not? but the constant harping on work, work, work makes me tired and suspicious. I may be lazy (OK, I am lazy), but I maintain that you can tell you have a good relationship when it pretty much runs itself. "Oh, we work on our relationship constantly!" does not make me think, "Oh, good for you guys!" It makes me think, "Oh, bro-ther."
It seems everything you say about those trying to be polyamorous can also be said about those trying to be monogamous. How many people do you know who got that right the first time? How many people do you know who really know how to do relationships at all? The poly people I know seem to be good at it because, well, they had to get good at doing relationships. I’ve personally seen more problems with expectations based on the monogamous template we’ve picked up from social cues around us than with jealousy. Part of getting good at this is learning to undo all we’ve learned and finding out what’s really in our hearts. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, we could all benefit from finding an unselfish love.
Poly up North
All nicely put. I guess we part company where we successfully undo all our lifelong social programming. Even if I believed that those templates were acquired, as opposed to inborn (I actually believe it’s some and some, of course), I don’t know what it would take to convince me that such programming could be successfully unlearned by more than a talented and lucky few. I’m glad you brought up selfish and unselfish monogamy, though. That’s a distinction that needed to be made.
I come down somewhere between your position and that of Happypoly on the question of who is well-suited to a poly life. I agree that the majority of poly people experience significant challenges in their relationships, especially at first. Of course, this doesn’t mean that their relationships ultimately fail. In my experience and observation, the following factors most positively influence the odds for success:
1. General attitude of goodwill and a generosity of spirit
2. Willingness to be honest, especially when the news is likely to hurt
3. Independent spirit
4. Strong personal desire for a poly life
5. Reasonably good emotional intelligence and self-esteem
6. Reading poly literature and discussing it with partners
Likely the poly relationships that you’ve seen crash and burn were insufficiently supplied with one or more of these components.
Poly out East
It all sounds so nice. I have no doubt, actually, that these factors do indeed play a role in the success or failure of people’s poly endeavors. I can’t help but be reminded, though, of a friend’s research into what actually motivates people to have high-risk, unprotected sex. It was assumed for the first 20 years or so of safer-sex education that people weren’t using condoms because A) they didn’t know how HIV spreads or B) they didn’t have access to condoms. It turned out, of course, that some 99 to 100 percent of the people having high-risk unprotected sex know how to avoid contracting HIV and have access to supplies. They have their own reasons (denial, peer pressure, desire, and so on) for choosing not to use condoms, and there is no chance of affecting their behavior without taking these very real concerns into account. This may seem a far-fetched and unfair comparison, I know, but I like to keep in mind that we shouldn’t assume what makes people tick is what ought to make them tick. People is weird.
This column originally ran Jan. 11, 2006. Alt.sex will return with new installments March 28.