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Friendly Atheist Forums • View topic - Polyamory

Polyamory

Non-religious discussion of serious topics.

Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 30 Apr 2009 9:44 am

I thought, since some of the members here have expressed confusion (and in Aaryk's case, interest) in the practice and philosophy of polyamory, I'd write a bit of a primer/reference for those who'd like to learn more about it. Feel free to ask questions, even quite personal questions, and I'll do my best to answer. If I do consider a question too personal, perhaps I'll PM you, or I'll explain why it's too personal and attempt to give you what information I can.

Polyamory, broadly defined, refers to the philosophy and/or practice of having "many loves" which, in our culture, refers to more than just one. There are numerous forms of polyamory, some of which greatly differ from one another, and I'll try to outline some of the distinctions:

Open relationships are usually referred to by that name, rather than polyamory, because they often simply imply that the partners in a relationship are mutually and consensually permitted to engage in sex outside of the relationship. This ideally includes boundaries set up by the partners - for example, mandatory use of condoms, veto power over any sex partner, full disclosure, etc. Not everyone is emotionally equipped/wired for open relationships, and there's nothing wrong with that. The important thing is that everyone involved is happy with the arrangement, and that involves tons of communication.

Polyfidelity is a bit of a loaded term in the poly community, as "fidelity" is a powerful concept. People who have open relationships often still consider themselves in this category, as they define "fidelity" as simply being "true" or "loyal" to their partner, and don't consider actions for which they have permission as unfaithful in any way. However, I think this is unnecessarily confusing, so in my book, "polyfidelity" means being exclusive in a relationship with more than two partners. All of the partners are only sexually active within the relationship, and any outside sex/emotional affairs are considered to be cheating - just as in a monogamous relationship.

Configurations such as a "V" or an "N" or a "Triangle" refer to the structure of different polyamorous relationships. The intersections represent the sexual relationships involved, although all the partners might be emotionally involved, considering themselves a family. In a triangle, three people are all sexually active with one another. In a V, one person is sexually active with two other people. In an N, there are two couples, and one member of couple A is involved sexually with one member of couple B. I've only really known people in Vs (which is what I myself am a part of), but I know second-hand about plenty of weird configurations. Once again, all these configurations represent people who are consenting to all the intersections - none of them represent secret relationships or cheating.

Primary relationships represent the priority of one "main" relationship over any that arise from it. For example, a married couple might both have lovers, but they consider one another's happiness to be most important, and will therefore break off those relationships if they threaten the health of the primary relationship.

Aside from that, the terms used regarding polyamory are largely familiar ones - "coming out," being "in the closet," wanting to be married, being parents, etc. are all potentially part of any poly relationship. Some people consider polyamory a philosophy, believing that the more love, the better. Polyamorous individuals don't consider it unethical or unnatural to be in love with more than one person - what's "right" for someone constitutes what makes them and their partner(s) happy. Everything must be consensual, and I think communication is the concept most emphasized and encouraged in poly relationships.

There obviously aren't official statistics on polyamory, but I'd bet my right arm that the failure rate for such relationships is much higher than for monogamous relationships. It takes just the right combination of people, and the people involved all have to know their own needs and desires as well as the needs and desires of the other people in the relationship. It can make certain aspects of life simpler and easier (i.e. money problems, chores, even parenting), but it also complicates things quite a bit, which is a risk factor for any relationship.

I'm personally involved in a polyfidelitous V, where I'm the pivot and my husband and boyfriend represent the sides. We all live together in one house, and we've been together for two and a half years. We started out with my husband and myself as the primary relationship, but we've since become completely committed to one another and everyone considers everyone else to be an equal in the relationship. We're tentatively open to adding other people to our relationship, but it would have to be under exceptional circumstances, and all three of us would have to be in love (not sexual love, obviously, but at least love on a friendship level). We've come out to all three of our families and many of our friends. We might get a sort of symbolic marriage someday, but we don't expect it to be state-sanctioned until we're old and grey - if it happens at all in our lifetimes.

So that's about it. Like I said, I'm completely open for questions.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Aaryk on 30 Apr 2009 10:37 am

Since this seems largely pointed at me, it only seems appropriate that I be the first to respond. :)

I'm someone who's never felt fully satisfied in a one-on-one relationship. I've been in sexless relationships (long-term - 2 years), relationships where I've wanted more sex than she has and relationships where she's wanted more than I have. I mention that because most people seem to feel that this has something to do with "typical male infidelity issues," and it's possible it does. Maybe. Society seems to expect that anyone who isn't completely interested in monogamy is an awful, awful person, but I don't feel that way. I said in another post that I just feel like I'm not completely satisfied--emotionally, intellectually, sexually--with one person.

To expound on my current circumstances, I broke-up with my ex about four years ago and promised to stay single and date around for awhile, but I met my current and was deeply enamoured with her. I paired off with someone before I probably should've and we got pregnant after only about a month and a half. My son is now almost three years old and I'm feeling like I'll eventually have to explore that part of me that had committed to dating around and exploring myself, so if not now when? I'm afraid to leave and she's not a bad girl, but I feel I'm not being true to myself about this. :cry:

The questions I keep asking myself and the reason I can't claim to be in an open/polyamorous relationship are as follows: 1) How does one propose this to a girl that probably has no interest, but may (unlikely) be GGG; 2) Am I really just a commitmentphobe who can't tie myself to one person. I mean, I haven't dated enough in my life, but I'm in a relationship with the mother of my son. It's not like I can just break-up, date as I need to (not just fuck), then get back together so I can be with her and my son, so an open relationship seems to be the only way I can come to resolving my frustrations and exploring myself/my sexuality.

Ugh. I always hate this because I always end up hating myself and feeling like I'm somehow deficient as a man/human.

P.S. This is one of the reasons that the abstinence only education thing is such an issue for me. I was a victim of that and I never really used condoms because I was never educated on use as I should've been; I just relied on birth control, but my current wasn't on the pill when we started dating and, well, y'all know the rest. Teach your kids about safe sex! :mrgreen:
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Huxley on 30 Apr 2009 10:59 am

Hey if no one is emotionally hurt by this then knock yourself out. But humanity being what it is, jealousy sets in and/or resentment. We seem to be built for serial monogamy so I can fully understand how you can devote your feelings of love to more then one person at any given time.

Imagine, however, meeting your soul mate - on your own wedding day?
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Re: Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 30 Apr 2009 11:03 am

I'm no Dan Savage, but I'll try my hand at giving you some advice:

Be open with your "current" - the mother of your son - once you've figured out how you feel about all of this. It sounds like you're afraid to admit some things because you think that the desires make you a bad person. You have to start by admitting to yourself exactly what it is that you want. You also need to figure out whether this is a *want* or a *need* and prioritize it accordingly. I mean, most partners aren't okay with open relationships, and if this is just a want and not a sexual need, then you should be willing to evaluate a relationship and determine whether you're happy and fulfilled enough to give up this particular fantasy/desire in order to ensure the happiness of your partner.

If it's too important for you to go without, then you're doing a disservice to your partner by hiding it from her. She might be GGG (good, giving and game, for those who don't read Dan Savage), or she might dump you like a load of bricks, but at least she'll know that the open relationship is a package deal that comes with you - it's not optional. This isn't something that's easy or terribly common, and it's something you need to be fairly upfront about if you do think it's an emotional/sexual need that you have. It's not fair to your partners to spring it on them after you've already built a good relationship and they think they know what to expect.

Be prepared to be shot down and perhaps told that you are a bad person - because that's how much of society views non-monogamy. It's something that's scary to consider, it's something taboo, and it's something most people confuse with cheating. You might date around a lot before you find someone else who wants what you want, and it might not be what you expected if you do end up in an open relationship. You might find out it's not what you want after all. The only way to know is to try though, and if you don't think you can handle going the rest of your life without knowing what it's like, then you need to start thinking about how to tell your girlfriend - carefully.

I think it's very, very easy to give the impression that she's somehow not enough for you, that she's deficient in some way, which would be terribly hurtful. You need to emphasize that this is about your personality and needs - not about her ability to be a fulfilling, wonderful partner. If you do break up over it, I think you could still have a fantastic friendship and stay bonded over your son - but if this is a need for you and she doesn't want an open relationship, then you're just not compatible and you're doing both of you a disservice by staying in the relationship.

You might want to seek counseling (one-on-one, not couples counseling) to help evaluate exactly how you feel and what you want, because you sound unsure.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Woody on 30 Apr 2009 11:36 am

Aaryk and I have had this conversation many times, and I have never been able to offer the advice you did, Juliet. So, from a friend's point of view, thank you. I think I agree with what you have said for the most part. I don't want to divulge to much information on a subject that involves his personal life, so I'll just have to leave it at that. I think what you covered makes perfect sense and I only wish there were more sensible people out there that understood it like you.

In response to the 'jealousy' thing that my friend Hux was talking about, I don't think that HAS to be the case. You didn't say that it HAD to, but it seemed to imply that it would settle in eventually. I think that as humans, we can overcome emotions and, more importantly, overcome our negative reaction to them.

Anger is my favorite example of this. A husband that gets angry and yells at his wife would probably not have the same reaction as his boss. Now, he may, but there would be consequences to follow so he forces himself to refrain from screaming in order to keep his job. We are perfectly capable of enacting the same restraint with any of our emotions. I for one, don't do jealousy. Now, that's not to say I don't feel it. I just know when I'm feeling it and refuse to let it have an effect on my life or my actions. I truly believe that everyone is capable of this with every emotion, even fear.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Aaryk on 30 Apr 2009 11:38 am

JulietEcho wrote:You might want to seek counseling (one-on-one, not couples counseling) to help evaluate exactly how you feel and what you want, because you sound unsure.
I've tried some counseling, but in Utah... We'll just say it's hard if not impossible to find a therapist that isn't religious and, by consequence, doesn't bring Jesus deep into the conversation (I know this is sort-of the non-religions forum, but this really does apply here).

Other than that, I appreciate the openness. It's tough feeling like a sociopath, so it's good to find other sociopaths ( :P ) who can offer some worthwhile perspective.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Chal on 30 Apr 2009 12:02 pm

Huxley wrote:But humanity being what it is, jealousy sets in and/or resentment. We seem to be built for serial monogamy so I can fully understand how you can devote your feelings of love to more then one person at any given time.
I don't think we're really built for serial monogamy, it seems to me that most people will pursue as many relationships/sexual encounters as possible while still expecting monogamy of their partners. But maybe I've just been supersaturated in pop culture.

In any case, go with what works. I don't think I could deal with polyamoury all that well, though.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby hoverFrog on 01 May 2009 10:10 am

I've never been in a stable relationship involving more than one partner and I don't think that I ever will be. I have been in casual relationships and I've both cheated and been cheated on in previous relationships. Friends with benefits. All good fun. Nowadays I'm just grateful that one woman seems to be able to put up with me and my numerous foibles. I think it unlikely that I'd be lucky enough to find another.

I do think that it is important to discuss and understand the needs of your partner(s). Hil, my unwife, is particularly possessive and views infidelity as a ball crushing offence. I'm not particularly bothered either way but I am concerned with her happiness. As her happiness makes me happy and, above all, I wish to be happy in my pirate hat I ensure that I do not deliberately do anything to upset her...thereby preserving my balls. As she has placed this restriction on our relationship she also abides by it. Which is decent of her I feel. Sometimes I feel that my libido has to be held in check but I have a good relationship with the one eyed trouser titan so there's no falling out.

My advice is to talk it over, perhaps as a hypothetical situation rather than a plan that you are actively pursuing and see where things go. You can't proceed honourably without this first step. if you do then you are simply cheating in her. I strongly believe that cheating is considered so bad by many, not because of the sex you have with someone else but because of the breaking of a trust. In a typical monogamous relationship they trust one another to be exclusive and you break this trust when you cheat. If there is permission then there is no betrayal of trust.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 01 May 2009 10:23 am

hoverFrog wrote:I strongly believe that cheating is considered so bad by many, not because of the sex you have with someone else but because of the breaking of a trust. In a typical monogamous relationship they trust one another to be exclusive and you break this trust when you cheat. If there is permission then there is no betrayal of trust.
I couldn't have put it better. I'd also like to add that you don't have to have partners with identical needs to make a relationship work - like hoverFrog said, he doesn't have the degree of jealousy his unwife has, so if she ever wanted to experiment, perhaps he would give permission (and maybe even be turned on) - but it's a different story for hover to do anything outside the relationship, because it falls outside the bounds of what both partners are comfortable with.

I'm not comfortable with the idea of either my husband or my boyfriend being with another woman, and they know this and abide by it. We don't view it as a double-standard - the three of us just have different personalities, and they aren't jealous types, while I certainly am. If we were ever to add a woman to our poly relationship (which I don't completely rule out), it would have to be someone I loved and trusted completely - an outside relationship or open relationship would absolutely crush me, emotionally (and perhaps result in some ball crushing as well, lol).
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Huxley on 01 May 2009 10:56 am

Oh the images.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Neon Genesis on 04 May 2009 5:09 pm

Chal wrote:I don't think we're really built for serial monogamy, it seems to me that most people will pursue as many relationships/sexual encounters as possible while still expecting monogamy of their partners. But maybe I've just been supersaturated in pop culture.

In any case, go with what works. I don't think I could deal with polyamoury all that well, though.
I actually read an article awhile back that I currently don't have a link to that showed some animals were actually more wired to engage in polygamy than others, so perhaps it's a biological thing? The study was only done on non-human animals, but perhaps some people are born with more of an inclination to polyamory than others like how some people are born gay and some people are born straight?
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Huxley on 04 May 2009 5:16 pm

We have big brains, big imaginations and profound sex drives. The combination means most of us would shag whover we wanted as long as it did not cause upset to another person. But conscience gets in the way. Such is life. 8-)
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Woody on 05 May 2009 3:03 pm

That's why I'm honest about my one-night-stands and don't have a conscience.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby hoverFrog on 05 May 2009 5:26 pm

Woody wrote:That's why I'm honest about my one-night-stands and don't have a conscience.
Where would you say your conscience comes from? Why would your conscience make you dishonest about your one night stands?
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Huxley on 06 May 2009 5:48 am

Unless you have a 'significant other', why would you have a conscience about a one night stand anyway?
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Woody on 06 May 2009 9:35 am

Sorry. It should have read:

That's why I'm honest about my one night stands. Also, I don't have a conscience.

The last sentence being more of a joke. I don't feel I should have a guilty conscience about my one night stands, so long as I have not lied in any way to get myself into them. It's one of my two rules about sex. Never lie for it. Never pay for it. Not that I'm saying these rules should apply to everyone (because God knows I would love to have a girl lie to use me in bed) but just for me.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 08 Aug 2009 10:43 am

For those who don't read the blog regularly (if there's anyone out there who doesn't), I currently have an article up that I wrote about polyamory. Check it out if you're interested :-)
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Milena on 08 Aug 2009 1:00 pm

The blog article was excellent. I think as sceptics, we should question all kinds of taken-for-granted norms, including those pertaining to interpersonal relationships. I've never been in a long-term realtionship, although I have enjoyed a couple of short-lived, passionate flings, and after thinking about it for a bit, I came to the conclusion that that's what makes me happy right now. I feel too young to tie myself down to one person for a long amount of time, and I don't think "alternative" relationships are necessarily less important, or worth less than long-term, monogamous relationships, which have been painted as the ideal everyone should strive for. I think we should all be able to take stock of where we are in life and what we want, and seek relationships based on that, instead of trying to fit into a mould that may not be right (right now, or ever).

The bigger problem would be, as some commenters have pointed out in the blog thread, how the legal system would respond to and incorporate polyamorous relationships in the existing system.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Veritas on 08 Aug 2009 2:08 pm

As one of those posters, it's very true.

It was truly an excellent read, JE. I really found myself nodding in a lot of places.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 12 Aug 2009 10:28 pm

I honestly don't care whether polyamory is ever given "marriage" status - what I care about is equal tolerance. I want to be seen by society as, if not "normal," then at least "tolerable" or "acceptable." I want equal respect. I agree with the many others who've voiced their complaints that our current legal marriages are problematic, and I'd love better access to rights without having to fit into a certain box.

For instance, if we ever have kids, I want to make sure that, should my husband and I both die in a horrible car crash, our kids wouldn't be handed over to my parents - that they'd go to our boyfriend's custody, where they'd belong - with their other dad.

I'd like polyamory to be seen as normal/ethical to the extent that websites would accommodate our configuration (like facebook allowing multiple partners listed, for example) and that people could understand that all three of us are "together" without assuming that it's because we're sexually kinky or religious fundamentalists.

I recognize that much of this can be helped through awareness, which is why we've been coming out to everyone we feel fairly safe with, and encouraging our friends and family to bring up the topic with others. Spreading the word that normal, ethical, secular polyamory exists (in droves!) is what the article was really all about, for me. That, and convincing readers to help continue to spread that word.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Sackbut on 13 Aug 2009 6:56 am

JulietEcho wrote:I honestly don't care whether polyamory is ever given "marriage" status - what I care about is equal tolerance. I want to be seen by society as, if not "normal," then at least "tolerable" or "acceptable." I want equal respect. ...

For instance, if we ever have kids, I want to make sure that, should my husband and I both die in a horrible car crash, our kids wouldn't be handed over to my parents - that they'd go to our boyfriend's custody, where they'd belong - with their other dad.


This seems contradictory. On the one hand, you are not interested in "marriage" status, but on the other hand you want rights associated with marriage. In other words, you appear start off saying you want social acceptance more than legal rights, but then finish up saying you want the legal rights.

Ideally, social acceptance and legal rights would coincide. If one were to exist, it's possible the other would follow, but not necessarily. If I were in that situation, I'd be more concerned about the legal rights.

I suspect the legal issues are more complicated than those for gay marriage, simply because there are more people involved. Marriage rights often enough involve one spouse being granted authority in the case of the unavailability or incapacity of the other. When there are two or more other spouses, there needs to be a mechanism to resolve disagreements between the spouses.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby hoverFrog on 13 Aug 2009 7:17 am

Perhaps working towards equal rights in marriage might lead to greater social acceptance. I think things are going that way with gay marriage and homosexuality. The efforts to bring equality to gay relationships are parallel with efforts to bring equality to any other nonstandard relationship.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Kaylya on 13 Aug 2009 9:24 am

Can't you specify in a will who you'd like to take care of your children?

I don't want to claim to know what a court would decide in that situation in the absence of a will in the event that custody was contested; in any event it would undoubtedly depend on many variables. And perhaps there's cases of grandparents or something successfully appealing and overturning what's specified in the will, but that probably happens in cases not involving polyamory as well.

Basically what I'm saying here is I don't think there's "discrimination" against poly groups in these cases above and beyond the fact that the non-biological/adoptive parent(s) aren't viewed as a "default" custody option like a biological/adoptive parent would be, and there's probably parallels to that in cases of serial monogamy.

Serial monogamy example:
Alice has a kid, James, with Bob. Let's say it's an unintended pregnancy outside of marriage and they decide that staying together isn't the right thing to do but they remain friends.
A couple years later, Alice marries Charlie and has another kid, Fred. Alice has primary custody of James, but both kids know Bob pretty well - in addition to time spent with James, perhaps Bob sometimes takes care of Fred as well.
Alice and Charlie are killed in a horrible car crash, but they don't have a will.

James, being Bob's biological kid, would almost certainly go back to living with Bob full time assuming Bob wanted it. But what about Fred? That's really not going to be a clear cut situation, and could get messy unless the various people are in agreement about who should take care of Fred.
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Re: Polyamory

Postby JulietEcho on 13 Aug 2009 10:31 am

What I'm saying is that I don't care if it's called "marriage" or if there's any legally defined relationship-contract like civil unions - I'd happily settle for better access *some* of the most important rights that married couples get without the recognition that "marriage" gives. I don't think this is an issue that would just benefit poly couples either - people who live together but don't want to get married, long-time friends who live as roommates, and people in other arrangements could benefit as well.

The tricky thing about custody is that biological relatives tend to shove themselves into the equation whether the deceased wanted that or not, and if the other option is a non-biological relative, the courts will often rule for the bio-grandparents/whoever. Poly people have lost custody of children after a judge hears testimony from the opposition about the relationship. It's viewed as a perversion and a major negative factor in most cases, and that's what keeps so many divorced poly people with kids quiet about their new family arrangement.
"...with like-minded people one cannot discuss. With like-minded people one can only participate in a church service, and, as is widely known, I do not like church services." -Ayaan Hirsi Ali
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Re: Polyamory

Postby Sackbut on 13 Aug 2009 2:34 pm

JE, I assume you saw this, but in case you haven't, and for the benefit of others:

Newsweek article: Polyamory: The Next Sexual Revolution?
You know what common sense is, don't you? It's the human faculty that tells us the world is flat.
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