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Polyamory - What it isn't

Polyamory - What it isn't..

"Current sexual practice can no longer be explained by the old theories and we do not yet understand it in the light of new ones. Racing ahead of history, we now find ourselves in a new territory." June Singer The Energies of Love.

Polyamory as it is defined is frequently misunderstood. Polyamory is not "The Answer". If you are looking for a quick fix for relationship problems, don't look to polyamory. It is a choice, as is monogamy, that needs to be taken responsibly, and brings with it as many, if not more, challenges. It is definitely not a fix for a bad marriage or other relationship problems.

The most widespread misunderstanding is with swinging. Swinging is essentially recreational sex, also known as wife swapping ( though curiously not husband swapping). Research has shown that swingers are largely indistinguishable from the rest of the population except that they are people who would rather have sex than play bridge on Saturday night.

Swinging does share a lot in common with polyamory in that it is nonmonogamous, intentional and responsible. Both lifestyles share the idea that sex is a positive, pleasurable and natural part of being human, and not a synonym for love. The main difference is that swinging focuses on casual sex and tends to prohibit other intimacy, whereas polyamory is more concerned with enduring intimate relationships that include sex. There is however some crossover, with people arriving at one via the other and vice versa. Unfortunately, in our society obsessed with promoting the cultural myth of monogamy, the salacious aspects of swinging are often used to reputationally smear both swingers and polyamorists. Examples include the Wyoming politician who withdrew his candidacy in the 2002 election when his lifestyle was exposed, the attempt in 2002 to disqualify Jack McGeorge as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq because he teaches S&M and espouses sexual freedom, and the effort to blame the parents in the 2001 child killing in San Diego because they were swingers. Many polys wished Bill Clinton had said he loved Hillary and Monica, and that Hillary was supportive of that relationship, but it looked more like cheating than loving.

Swinging and polyamory are not "free love" in the 60's sense of the term. (This seems to be one of the objections of those who survived, or were wounded, in the sixties.) In a lot of cases, free love in the 60's was a response to the enormous freeing up of taboos against sex that occurred at that time, and often was not accompanied by honesty or responsibility, but used as an excuse to have a lot of sex. It was frequently grouped together with drugs, (as in the mantra of "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll") which allowed it to be discounted as "a phase," facilitating a return to the "traditional" values that were reestablished in the 80's and 90's.

The challenges besetting the putative polyamorist are:


"If W.H.Auden is correct when he observes that 'As a rule it was only the pleasure haters who became unjust', then only a civilization that fosters erotic celebration can usher in a new era of justice-making" Matthew Fox Original Blessing.

This is the bit that trips most people up. When you cite the example of infinite love regarding children, people can understand the concept, but somehow sexual love between consenting adults is seen as different. We confuse sex and love too easily, often employing sex to do the work of love and love to do the work of sex. For a long time adultery was the only grounds for divorce, yet in reality, it was the deceit and betrayal that were the problems, not the sex itself.

As the Chinese proverb says "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." Understanding the difference between sex, love and intimacy will go a long way to solving relationship problems.

The more we study sex, which has only been done scientifically in the last century, the more we realize how complex, variable and universal it is. As pointed out earlier, enjoyment of sex was considered evil, particularly in women (witches). Then, after Freud, it was often considered a sickness. For many years, nymphomania was considered a disease of women who liked sex. (See Groneman.)

To top it off, sex has become politically incorrect, attacked from both the left, the radical feminists who equate sex with the degradation of women, and the right - well, we should all know about their attacks on comprehensive sex education and medically correct sexual health information.

Either way, sex is seen as sinful, sleazy and best kept private. And the ACLU help us if we have any visual depictions of sex. Of course, violence is entertaining for the public, only sex is rated X.

We have become crippled by our fear of sex, allowing it to become a trigger for all kinds of hysteria. Think of the knee-jerk reaction to the term "Internet porn". Several recent books focus on this hysteria born of sexual fear, including Lynley Hood's outstanding book "A City Possessed" and Judith Levine's "Harmful to Minors - The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex", a volume that provoked substantial hysteria of its own when published recently. And yet, despite all the dire warnings, we find that humans continue to explore their sexuality in a rainbow of ways - the sex drive will not be denied. Tom Robbins, in "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates", cites erotic celebration, as opposed to mindless procreation, as one of the six things that make us different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

So sex is not the enemy. When accepted with honesty and responsibility, it could well become part of the solution, as Fox outlines in the quote above.


"The only way out of jealousy is through it. We may have to let jealousy have its way with us and do its job of reorienting fundamental values. Its pain comes, at least in part, from opening up to unexplored territory and letting go of old familiar truths in the face of unknown and threatening possibilities." Thomas Moore Care of the Soul.

This is the other big myth - that jealousy is innate, inevitable and impossible to overcome. Indeed, showing jealousy is even taken as proof of love, and is used a valid excuse for violent and aggressive behavior. Until recently, catching your wife in bed with a lover was a defense for murder in some places. Jealousy, possessiveness and control are also at the core of domestic violence, which thrives in the privacy of monogamy.

Our culture seems addicted to three core beliefs about relationships that are almost guaranteed to create jealousy in even the most well adjusted people. Identifying and dismantling these beliefs is the most effective way of dealing with jealousy.

Core belief #1

If my partner really loved me, there would not be any desire for an intimate or sexual relationship with anyone else.

This is based on the scarcity model of love, in which a partner's emotional or love interest in somebody else means that I will be loved less. It is as absurd as the idea that to have a second child is an indication that you don't love your first child enough. It also presumes that sex and love are the same thing and meet the same needs.

Core belief #2.

If I were a good partner/spouse/lover, my partner would be so satisfied that they wouldn't want to get involved with anybody else.

This belief is even more insidious. With the first belief you can at least blame the problem on your partner. This belief makes it your fault for not being the perfect lover. This is also the basis of the widespread romantic myth of the "one and only person on the planet". This is also guaranteed to cause serious self-esteem problems, which is fertile ground for jealousy.

Core belief #3.

It is just not possible to love more than one person at a time.

This again is based on the scarcity theory of love, that I only have a finite amount to give.

All of these beliefs are connected to a primal fear of loss and abandonment, however unfounded. Neale Donald Walsche, in his series "Conversations with God" described fear as "False Evidence Appearing Real". I prefer "Fantasy Existing As Reality", in other words, we imagine the worst possible outcomes and then believe that these are our "real" feelings.

Polyamorists replace these core beliefs with three new core beliefs.

New Core Belief #1

My partner loves me and trusts me so much that we can allow our relationship to expand and be enriched by experiencing even more love from others. There is an abundance of love in the world and there is plenty for everyone. Loving more than one person is a choice that can exponentially expand the potential for giving and receiving love.

New Core Belief #2.

My partner is so confident in me and our relationship that having other partners will not create jealousy that will destroy our love.

New Core Belief #3

Whatever socially unusual arrangements we have set up in our love lives, they have been agreed to consciously and responsibly by everyone involved. We insist on integrity in our relationships.

Once you can get away from the "either/or" polarity, and accept an "and/both" approach, or as some Polys say, having your Kate and Edith too, many of the accompanying demons associated with jealousy will disappear.


"Eccentricity has always abounded where and when strength of character has abounded: and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and moral courage it contained. That so few dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time" John Stuart Mill

We live in a culturally monogamous society, so to espouse polyamory certainly puts you in the eccentric category, "the lunatic fringe" so to speak. In the current political climate, this also brings with it dangers. This is illustrated in cases where children have been removed from their parents because they were not living in the mandated norm of mum, dad and the kids. To come out as poly is a vulnerable thing to do, given all the misunderstandings and all the sleazy, sinful innuendo. It is also the reason why poly people relate to the gay and lesbian community, who have been through, and in many cases still are going through, the same process. Polyamorists are certainly viewed by the societal majority with the utmost suspicion.

Polyamorists also fully support the right of anyone to select monogamy as a life choice, and believe it is the right choice for many people. The key here is choice.

"It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong."

Given all the hassle, why bother to be polyamorous? It is certainly not to be able to have more sex. If that is what you are after, you will probably have much more success operating under the widely accepted model of "It is OK if nobody knows." To be open is to be too weird for most people.

But to realize that you are polyamorous in a monogamous world can often mean going through life with the sense that you are harboring a dirty little secret. It can cause isolation, alienation and an inability to be intimate with people - you are hiding a core part of yourself.

For Polyamorists, the rewards are simple. One of the best gifts you can give yourself is the permission to be yourself. By loving yourself unconditionally, and respecting all your qualities and inclinations, you allow yourself to be at peace. This becomes part of a larger process of self-differentiation - of determining who you are and what is important to you. To live as a poly requires the same value base as living morally, ethically, honestly and responsibly.

Questions for you to answer.

"A free and responsible search for truth and meaning" Unitarian Universalist affirmation.

If my partners' happiness is important to me, why should I get upset if others can make them happy? What is more important, my partners' happiness or who gets the credit?

If I find my partner attractive, sexy, and lovely and desirable, why should I feel surprised and threatened when someone else does? In fact, should it not give us something more in common - a shared interest? (In the same way that we like the teachers who like our children.)

If monogamy is so natural and hardwired, why is there such a large relationship industry - the "How to make it right" of magazines, books, TV shows, marriage guidance, etc.?

This started as a Sunday message by Derek McCullough, a UU from NZ. It evolved into a presentation to other UU folks, and finally to this article. Thanks to the Journal editors who carefully reviewed and edited this work.

Revised 2/23/05


Anapol, D. "Polyamory: The new love without limits"
Available through Loving More, POB 4358, Boulder, CO 80306

Beckerman, S. and Valentine, P. (Eds.) "Cultures with Multiple Fathers" U. Florida Press, 2002

Foster, B., Foster, M., and Hadady, L. "Three in Love" Harper Collins, 1997

Francoeur, R., Cornog, M., and Pepper, T. (Eds.) "Sex, Love and Marriage in the 21st Century: The next sexual revolution" To Excell Press, 1999

Graff, E. J. "What is Marriage For?" Beacon Press, 1999

Groneman, C. "Nymphomania" W. W. Norton, 2000

Hood, L. "A City Possessed - The Christchurch Civic Creche Case" Longacre Press, 2001

Lano & Parry (Eds.) "Breaking the Barriers to Desire: New approaches to multiple relationships" Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham, 1995

Levine, J. "Harmful to Minors - The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex" U. Minn. Press, 2002

Lizst, C. and Easton, D. "The Ethical Slut: A guide to infinite sexual possibilities" Greenery Press, 1997

"Loving More" magazine, a quarterly publication for the polyamory community.
Available through Loving More, POB 4358, Boulder, CO 80306

Mazur, R. "The New Intimacy" To Excell Press, 1973, 2000

Murdock, G. P. "Ethnographic Atlas" World Culture, Vol. 2-4, 1986

Nearing, R. "The New Faithful: A Polyfidelity Primer" Polyfidelity Educational Productions
Available through Loving More, POB 4358, Boulder, CO 80306

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
Thoughts on Jealousy February 5, 2012 1:42 AM anonymous
The Benefits of a Polyamorous Relationship February 5, 2012 1:40 AM anonymous
My lover just told me he or she wants other lovers February 5, 2012 1:36 AM anonymous
Polyamory - What it isn't February 5, 2012 1:32 AM anonymous
Polyamory - What it is February 5, 2012 1:30 AM anonymous
About Inland Empire Polyamory Meetup Group January 26, 2012 10:21 AM anonymous

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