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A conversation thread recently popped up on the James Randi Educational Foundation forum titled "Is Polyamory Morally Corrupt?"

Now, one might think that self-described skeptics and rationalists might be more open to the notion of unconventional relationship arrangements than the population as a whole; at the very least, they're unlikely to fall back on "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" as an argument.

Surprisingly, though, things like polyamory and BDSM sometimes get a great deal of very angry pushback from self-described rationalists and skeptics, who will argue as passionately as any socially conservative or religious person that heterosexual monogamy is the only "right" way to be.

Of course, to be fair, it sometimes works the other way as well; I've encountered at least one person who believes himself to be a rationalist who nevertheless carries on at great and tedious length about how polyamory is the only right way to have a relationship, that all monogamous relationships are coercive and manipulative, and even that monogamy is an invention of Christianity unknown to societies not influenced by Christian teaching...it is often true that self-described "rationalists" seem more skilled at the art of rationalizing than at analytical, critical reasoning. But I digress.

Anyway, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the JREF thread, which was overall supportive of polyamory. I did make a comment, which in typical Franklin fashion got rather lengthy, addressing some of the specific objections to polyamory that popped up. Most of them pop up in any discussion of polyamory, and seem rooted in social tropes more than they are in religious or social objections to polyamory. My reply:

As a person who's been polyamorous for well over twenty years and also a rationalist, I'm still consistently surprised by the reactions polyamory tends to get from self-identified rationalists.

It seems self-evident to me that the only way one could make a moral case against polyamory is by either looking at systems which offer inequality of opportunity to the folks involved based on sex (eg, systems where men are allowed to have multiple female partners but women are forbidden to have multiple partners) or to invoke some kind of god or gods. Barring that, as long as we're talking about voluntary relationships between consenting adults, no, of course it isn't morally corrupt.

The bits that tend to surprise me, though, are in the assumptions that otherwise rational folks seem to make about polyamory.

Some of these assumptions are deeply woven into our culture, and we're inculcated with them almost from the moment we're born, so I suppose it really shouldn't be surprising that folks do tend to subscribe to them. Tropes like "The only problem is that inevitably people have a desire to be "more" than the other person, have a desire to be the "favorite" and "special"." We're told, from a very young age, that specialness is a unique consequence of exclusion, but it still doesn't make sense to me, and it certainly doesn't match my experience.

I have several partners, many of whom I've been with for a long time (over a decade). All of my partners also have other partners. The fact that they have other partners doesn't make me feel less special; I feel valued by every one of my partners, and I don't need to be in some kind of top-dog position in order to feel valued.

I think that specialness is a slippery concept. It's been my observation that people have two very different approaches to feeling special. One is intrinsic ("I am special because in a world of seven billion people, nobody has or has ever had my exact mix of characteristics, skills, and outlook; when I find partners with whom I am compatible, I value the things about them that make them unique and irreplaceable, and they value the things about me that make me unique and irreplaceable") and one of which is extrinsic ("I am special because someone else tells me I am; exclusivity is what validates my specialness; if that external validation is taken away, I am no longer special"). Folks who need external validation in order to feel special probably aren't as well suited to poly relationships, perhaps.

The idea that plural relationships "tend to be hard to keep together" does not jive with my experience at all. Rather, relationships in general are hard to keep together, if the folks involved lack good relationship skills or aren't compatible with each other; and relationships are easy to keep together if the folks involved have good relationships and are compatible. I would expect it to be far, far more difficult to keep a relationship going with one person who didn't have good communication skills or had a worldview radically different from mine, than to keep five relationships going with folks who were compatible with me!

We do, I think, live in a society that seems to teach us that relationships are something that just kinda happen by random chance rather than something we choose. A lot of relationship problems really do seem to come down to partner selection, but we don't tend to learn good partner selection skills, so we end up with relationships that are hard to keep together because the folks involved aren't really terribly compatible.

What happens when a gay man divorces his bisexual husband who is also married to a bisexual woman with a lesbian wife? Um...that relationship ends? As questions go, this one doesn't seem that difficult to me.

The notion that recognizing a marriage between three people would lead inevitably to recognizing a marriage between 35,000 seems...specious to me. Realistically, I just don't see it happening. For one thing, that number of people is outside our monkeysphere. For another, when we look at buisness networks or open polyamorous networks or other sorts of networked interpersonal relationships, we just don't see them extending that far. I don't see 35,000 people signing a marriage contract "for the lulz."

That aside, I'm not sure what the objection to it would be. So what if there are 15 or 27 people involved? As long as mechanisms exist--which they do, just look at corporate law--to manage ownership and responsibilities and assets and so on, what's the problem? Certainly there are examples through history of children reared in group arrangements, and they seem to work pretty well.

Finally, though the part that baffles me the most are the objections like "people are naturally jealous" or "people are naturally possessive." Yes, people are born with the ability to feel a wide range of emotions--happiness, anger, grief, jealousy, elation, possessiveness, and so on, and so on. Often, these emotions say more about the person than about the environment; for example, it has been my experience that a person who feels jealous doesn't necessarily feel jealous because his partner is with someone else (plenty of monogamous people whose partners are not cheating feel jealous), but because that person is feeling a fear of loss, or an insecurity, or a fear of being replaced, something like that. A partner being with someone else might trigger these things, but that doesn't mean it is the "cause" of jealousy, nor that jealousy is inevitable.

More to the point, people seem to give an almost superstitious level of magical powers to emotions. It is possible to feel angry and to choose not to hit someone or to lash out at someone. It is possible to feel jealous and choose not to act out against that person. Emotions do not dictate actions; we still make choices. And we can make choices that tend to reinforce the things we value (trust, love, altruism) rather than the things we don't (hate, anger, fear).

Emotions aren't in the drivers seat unless we put them there; there's nothing magical or supernatural about them, and we can still make choices even if we are feeling things we don't like.



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 15th, 2012 03:10 am (UTC)
You might also point out that when it comes to jealousy, you can be surprised by what doesn't activate it - you just might find that when your partner is sleeping with the football team you don't feel jealous at all. . . but when said partner spends an hour chastely cuddled up to someone else watching a romantic movie you do get jealous. Like any emotion, what causes you in particular to feel jealous is a purely personal matter.
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:40 am (UTC)
Agreed!! Odd things, like pet names (even ones that come fairly naturally, like "beloved"), or sharing a fandom of some kind with one partner but not with another, can be jealousy-triggering, far more so than the knowledge that your partner is being sexually and emotionally intimate with someone else.

The key is to break down the roots of your emotional response into small, manageable chunks, so that you can get a handle on it.

"Wow, I was surprised at the fact that I felt hurt, insecure, and betrayed when I learned that my partner was calling his newer partner 'beloved.' It's a word that's very special to me, and that I had thought of as being something that we only used with each other."

[insert thinking process]

"Since I know that my partner loves his other partner, and I'm okay with that, why am I surprised when he calls her his beloved? It's a word I use to describe him, and I love *him* -- and 'beloved' is a very natural word to use when describing someone you love. So -- yes, it sucks that it hurt for a little while, but I rode out the hurt, figured out what was causing the problem, and stopped feeling jealous and betrayed. Yes, it stings a little, even now, that this word isn't only between the two of us. But that's my issue, and if I felt so strongly about it, I should have asked for it before their relationship became more serious."

And that's all it takes for jealousy not to become a relationship issue -- in fact, it never wound up coming up (this was a real-life situation, and I did my processing internally before I opened my mouth), and both relationships have continued on happily for years afterward.

-- A <3
Jul. 15th, 2012 02:39 pm (UTC)
It makes sense to me to think of jealousy the way we think about anger - it feels bad and can be incredibly destructive, but it can point out problems that need to be addressed and, most of all, is acknowledged as a very poor excuse for controlling people's behavior (while also being acknowledged as a potentially effective means of doing so). If your partner does something that makes you angry, that doesn't mean they need to forever and ever not do that thing or they're a horrible person - it means you need to sit down and figure things out like goddamn adults. The parallels are pretty obvious, I think.

But I want again to emphasize that we might not feel jealous over things we get told will make us feel jealous. I don't know why people think/act like jealousy is a magical emotion that gets triggered in exactly the same way for everyone who is normal/sane (unlike any other emotion), because it's not.
Jul. 20th, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
Indeed. We live in a society that seems to have embraced a cultural myth--jealousy is what happens when situations X, Y or Z take place, it doesn't happen when A, B, or C occur, and when it does happen, this is what jealous people do.

We don't seem to have quite that level of cultural prescription attached to other emotions.
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:47 am (UTC)
This may not have been mentioned specifically in the post above, but I sometimes get the impression that polygamists view monogamy as being for insecure people. That is, "monogamy is based in insecurity and polygamy is based in security in self". Could you speak to this opinion? (Edited to totally revamp the question.)

Edited at 2012-07-15 04:50 am (UTC)
Jul. 15th, 2012 01:24 pm (UTC)
IANtacit, so I won't answer your question, but I wanted to make a comment: polygamy is both highly illegal and carries a connotation of biblical one-man-many-wives arrangements, so it might get some folk's hackles up if you use it to refer to people who are polyamorous. The most common word I see used is "poly", as in, "Bob just told me he's poly." %The more you know%

(Monogamy is actually also inaccurate, since it specifically refers to dyadic marriage yet is also used for exclusive relationships that do not involve marriage, or even people who are dating more than one person but intend to "settle down" with one person in the future; I sometimes use "mono", but that only makes sense if you know the term "poly".)
Jul. 15th, 2012 02:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
Agreed with benndragon -- while it's technically a neutral term meaning "having multiple spouses", "polygamy" is a really loaded term, because it's associated with restrictive religious traditions that often involve child abuse or marriage without consent. The way it's used in the popular culture today, it specifically means "patriarchal religious polygyny" (polygyny means "multiple wives," polyandry is "multiple husbands"), and the wives are not allowed to have any relationships other than with the husband, even and especially not with each other.

Poly*amory*, on the other question, simply means having (or being open to having) more than one romantic and sexual relationship, with the agreement of all parties, without gender essentialism (I am a woman, and I've had three *male* partners before, which would never be allowed under religious polygyny -- and I am now involved with a woman and two men, because I'm bisexual . . . which would ALSO never be allowed.)

Some polyamorous people consider themselves to be polygamous in that they have more than one person who they consider to be their spouse. Even then, we generally don't use the term, because of the reflexive backlash from our society -- they just say "I'm married to two people, just not legally married to both of them." Some polyamorous people would very much like to be able to have a civil marriage to more than one person. None of this has anything to do with patriarchal religious polygyny, though.

To get back to your original question -- some people say silly things in order to feel validated. If someone has said this to you, they don't represent the majority of polyamorous people. They might have been engaging in a little bit of backlash themselves -- since their relationships are viewed by many monogamous people as less than loving, less than committed, a sign of mental instability or fear of commitment, disrespectful to themselves and their partners, etc., they might have said an unkind thing about monogamous relationships in response.

I think that polyamorous relationships are great for people who want to be poly and can do the emotional work necessary to maintain multiple relationships. Period. Doesn't mean anyone is "more evolved" or "more secure," they're just "happy to be in more than one relationship."

They have as much range and depth as monogamous relationships do -- some are casual, some are deeply committed. Some are healthy and fulfilling, others are dysfunctional or abusive. Since there are *people* involved, there's always going to be a range of personality types and behaviors involved. And there are certainly people who *shouldn't* be poly, because they use it as an excuse to treat their partners like crap. But the same could be said for monogamy. Some people shouldn't be in a relationship with *anyone* because they're abusive, have anger problems, or have serious mental-health/personality issues that are unresolved. This goes for monogamous *and* polyamorous relationships.

Anyway -- that was the long version ;)

The short version is -- I'm poly, and my relationships are happy and healthy . . . and I don't think that I'm by definition more emotionally secure than someone in a happy, healthy monogamous relationship.

-- A <3
Jul. 15th, 2012 09:42 pm (UTC)
I <3 this response.:)

Jul. 16th, 2012 02:25 am (UTC)
Thanks! Nice response.
Jul. 16th, 2012 02:27 am (UTC)
My pleasure! Thanks for asking an interesting (and politely-worded) question! :)

-- A <3
Jul. 20th, 2012 09:15 pm (UTC)
I do see that notion from time to time in the poly community. Most recently, I saw it on a "sceptical polyamory" forum on Facebook, whose founder insisted with great energy and great heat that all monogamy is inherently both insecure and abusive. His opinion was that monogamy is what happens when two insecure people can't grow up enough to deal with their emotions, so they control each other to prevent one another from stepping out of line. (He also maintained that thee has never been an example of a monogamous culture that was not 'infected' with monogamy by the arrival of Christianity; I was banned from the group for saying that wasn't so, and presenting a list of cultures that adopted legal restrictions on polygamy independent of being influenced by Christian tradition.)

I don't see polyamory and insecurity as being related at all. I've met many monogamous people who are not insecure, and more than a few polyamorous people who are. I think polyamory as a relationship structure tends to be harder on polyamorous folks than on monogamous folks; monogamy provides a structural solution to some of the common triggers of insecurity. But that's a very different thing than saying "monogamy is based on insecurity and polyamory is based on security."
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:51 am (UTC)
As always, a fantastic post. I had a partner tell me recently that since he's actively looking to find new partners I would have to try my hardest to make sure that I was still his favorite (specifically in a sexual context). This rubbed me completely the wrong way, but I haven't had a chance to talk with him about it yet, and this will help me be more logical and organized in my response.
Jul. 15th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
Ouch. I would definitely have a word with him about how saying something that is *designed* to put you in competition with his other partners (even if you'd have been fine with them otherwise) is really counterproductive and destructive, even if it was "just a joke."

If he wants you guys to be happily poly, you can't be viewing other partners as "the competition," measuring yourself up against them, and often winding up feeling insecure as a result.

I *hope* he was joking and that the joke fell really flat . . . because, otherwise, that was a really cruel thing to say to you, and it doesn't give me a high opinion of his character :/

-- A <3
Jul. 20th, 2012 09:16 pm (UTC)
Wow. Even in a joking context, that's a bizarre thing to say.
Jul. 15th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
There are three (at least) "masking" emotions.

There is (definition depending) no such thing as 'anger'. Anger is a mask we wear, to hide when someone hurts us. That's one of the best relationship skills I ever learned. "I am hurt by what you said" is way way better to express than "I'm pissed and angry and enraged at you".

Jealousy is insecurity. Hate is fear. I don't know where the social programming comes from, that we learn these masking emotions or why we do. But...learning to get past them, to deal with the root, underlying emotion is so much more helpful.

Jul. 16th, 2012 03:14 am (UTC)
Eh. This is popular psycho-babble and a useful metaphor. It does often help people to probe out the depth of their emotional response to point out that what they are experiencing may just be a cover for the things that they fear and that their "self talk" is what focuses and changes the weight and measure of their fears, but there is a limit to how far that metaphor can go.

We ARE made of meat. The endocrine system responds to unacceptable changes in our environment before we are cognitively aware that the environment has even changed. Sometimes the anger IS a physical rage of other ilk than just "I am afraid."

I do want to encourage people to responsible manage their emotional responses, but some things cannot be over-thought.. some situations might be too toxic (at least for the parameters of that individual at their current meat-managemtn skills and hormone response settings) and this propensity we (as a community?) are moving towards to deny the emotional responses as merely negative constructs of your hindbrain is disingenuous.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )