Our society bases notions of love and relationships around a two person model: but is there other ways?
Polyamorous Relationships: Are they really ideal?
I am always a little bit intrigued when I hear about those who are engaged in polyamorous relationships, which are defined as relationships that involve more than two people. There is something so very well, free and breezy, about it all. Not to mention that they have found a pretty watertight way to have their cake and eat it too. At first glance, it appears that they are essentially taking all the good parts about promiscuity, with all its freedom and diversity, and mixing that, apparently seamlessly, with all that is special and loving about long term committed relationships. Indeed, polyamorous folk profess to having the same intense and satisfying romantic relationships experienced by monogamous individuals. The difference being that they are having many of those relationships at once, rather than just one. When examined simply, it looks like a rather pleasant, more innocent way of life.
Polyamory is getting more attention recently. The issue of equality for polyamorous marriages is becoming a much more pressing issue. The Green Party have even recently voiced their support for the prospect of legalizing three person marriages in the United Kingdom. The term “polyamorous” was first coined by Morning Glory Zell Ravenheart in her 1990 article “A Bouquet of Lovers” (I really, really don’t think she gave the combination of her first two names much thought…). Zell Ravenheart was a Neopagan Community Leader and Priestess of The Church of all Worlds. She was also a participant within a five person marriage and a vocal supporter of open relationships. Despite her rather wacky list of titles, her article reads rather sensibly with great sensitivity towards the feelings of those involved within a polyamorous relationship. Zell Ravenheart argued that “the goal of a responsible Open Relationship is to cultivate ongoing, long-term, complex relationships that are rooted in deep mutual friendships”.
Bizarrely, I had a mini feminist awakening as a child after watching the 1960s Western musical “Paint your Wagon”. In this, an outspoken, fiery woman called Elizabeth catches the eye of two men. However, instead of dragging the situation into overly dramatic Hollyoaks territory, Elizabeth actually has a pretty sensible suggestion. She demands of her two lovers, and of course the audience: “If a mormon man can have two wives, then why can’t I have two husbands?” This sentence has always stuck with me, although I can’t really remember all the mormon bits. I didn’t even know what a mormon was at the time of course. The arrangement actually works out quite harmoniously until outside forces start poking their beaks in.
I’d known beforehand about someone having multiple spouses, of course I had. Id seen the worryingly orientalist The King and I enough times to know all the words to “Shall we Dance”. However, in The King and I, all the King’s wives are pretty much interchangeable, apart from the one who openly reviled him, and there didn’t seem to be any balance or mutual interest as such. This was more of an example of patriarchal polygamy that genuine polyamory. After watching Paint a Wagon, I was inspired. Surely Elizabeth’s clever solution would solve all the problems of heartbreak and misery in the world and would cut all soap opera storylines short. Moreover, maybe you didn’t have to choose between smart or hot, funny or nice. Maybe you could pick one of each. Of course, this was all way before the weeping tangle of hormones hit me full in the face at about thirteen along with a sprouting of forehead pimples. Like bras, grown men and husbands were to me back then something I understood to be a peculiar but ultimately necessary concept. Good for catching spiders and mowing the lawn.
To an uninvested outsider, say a child for instance, the polyamorous life makes much more sense than a monogamous one. After all, we do not just pick and choose one friend. A person who only has one close friend is often accused of not having a wide enough range of experience, friend wise. It could be argued that we all carry within us the blueprint for a polyamorous way of life. Many of us hold in our hearts the echoes of unrequited loves and half ended, unforgotten relationships. Maybe the polyamorous way of life is a natural expression of what happens when you explore your own feelings more thoroughly rather than choose and stick to one path. It is even questionable as to what extent human beings are meant to be monogamous in the first place. Many Scientists believe that monogamy is a social rather than a natural state. In fact, some Scientists even believe that monogamy is an evolutionary device meant to step men from slaughtering rival babies. Not exactly the stuff of great love letters. Could it be considered unnatural that we place the burden on one person to fulfill all our needs?
As an adult, it is more difficult to imagine that such a situation would be idyllic. Im sure that I can’t be the only one to find it difficult to imagine what it would be like to love and be loved by a number of individuals, without feeling the Gone with the Wind levels of guilt and anxiety that this sort of scenario would usually entail. Surely jealousies and resentments must simmer over time. Surely it is impossible to truly love all of your lovers the same amount at the same time? Also, the sheer panic at Valentine’s Day must be pretty stressful. Just trying to find one meaningful present for one person that isn’t fluffy, garage bought or a lurid shade of pink is enough of a trial as it is.
However, just like as with monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships are kept in check by various rules and regulations and honesty and trust is still an integral component. For example, Zell Ravenheart argued that you should never take on a new lover who your existing lovers do not get on with as this will cause tension. Moreover, there isn’t always the supposed pressure to love all your lovers the same. In fact, many practitioners of polyamory have what they refer to as “primary” and “secondary” lovers. So in theory, you could be practising many different forms of relationships at once; from the fiery first few months of passion to the closer bonds of a long term relationship. Furthermore, one could argue that the polyamorous way of life may even help to reduce stresses in terms of time and resources, meaning that this could be a more ideal model for parenthood.
The main reason that we find polyamorous relationships so difficult to understand is that notions of exclusivity are so completely tied in with our concepts of love and romance. Pop songs focus around the complementary idea of being “the only one” or “one in a million”. A couple of years ago, Rihanna warbled in ecstasy through the sound speakers of every club in the United KIngdom about being made to feel like the only girl in the world. And we all sang along, from Newcastle to Southampton: completely, completely getting that universal longing to be set apart, singled out. Much of the value of love seemingly relies upon on the notion that it is given as a very precious rarity. I would be very interested in listening to some polyamorous pop music if anyone could recommend any. I would very much like to know what different adjectives and similes are used to convey passionate emotion for their various lovers, without any tension or guilt.
Furthermore, the structure of a relationship is for me always based on the symmetry and balance between two loving people. People often describe themselves and their partner as fitting together perfectly, like jigsaw pieces. Its common for them use phrases such as “two peas in a pod” and buy each other cards where two Flamingoes join beaks to make a heart shape. Rom Coms rely upon the rather slushy notion that there are men and women in the world, or at least in 1990s New York, who are made for each other and who will eventually get together despite the odds being stacked comically against them. I must admit that I am a complete sucker, hook, line and sinker, for this kind of film. There is something so satisfying about the science like predictability of the ending: similar to the feeling of a perfectly fitting shoe or piecing two lego bricks together. Furthermore, we as human beings seemingly never tire of animal stories where two animals appear to be showing exclusive human like love towards each other. So many people have excitedly told me over the years about how penguins mate exclusively for life, as if this is somehow indicative of their overall “niceness”. What is less fondly spoken about is the fact that some seals like to practice sex by humping penguins. I guess that this phenomenon just doesn’t have the same neatness to it.
I am not sure that a polyamorous relationship would suit everyone. Speaking personally, there is nothing quite so wonderful as finding that one other person who truly gets you. So often in life, you are one of many. A face in the crowd, a head and shoulders above a desk, two buttocks on a bus seat. I for one am still head over heels in love with the notion of the monogamous relationship, social construct or not. However, I can completely appreciate polyamory an alternative and perfectly happy way of life. Any relationship that is honest, loving and brings joy to all participants can after all only be a positive thing. Maybe asking if a polyamorous relationship is ideal is the wrong question. Perhaps we should stop examining whether such a union would be ideal; after all, can any relationship ever be completely ideal? If three people or more love each other then it is only right and humane that they should be granted the same rights to express that love in an understanding and equal society, just like everybody else.