I had an interesting conversation with a straight female friend of mine yesterday. She happens to have a bunch of polyamorous friends, though she and her (amazingly wonderful) boyfriend happen to be monogamous.
Anyway, this friend recently attended a polyamorous commitment ceremony. Here's the situation, as I understand it: The ceremony centered around (A) a man and (B) a woman (already married to each other), plus (C) a second woman who has a relationship with both of them. The point of the ceremony was for the woman to affirm her commitment to this married couple, and vice versa. Their parents were there (as if coming out to your folks as LGBT isn't hard enough, right?). A, B, and C live together. Two of them also have at least one relationship outside of the trio (to D and E, who are unconnected). The husband and wife (A and B) used to have a relationship with another husband-and-wife couple (F and G), but A broke up with G. B and F are still together.
Before we go any further, a working definition: Polyamory is when you have a relationship (usually emotional and physical, but certainly emotional) with more than one person simultaneously. Often, polyamorous people have a primary partner with whom they have their "main" relationship, and one or two other people with whom they also have enduring emotional and sexual relationships. Polyamory is sometimes referred to as "responsible non-monogamy," because a central tenet is that there aren't any secrets--everyone knows whom everyone else is dating.
This is different from an open relationship because (typically) in open relationships, both people in the relationship agree that they can sleep with other people, but are emotionally monogamous. Often, these couples have an agreement that they can't have "repeat" partners (in order to avoid becoming emotionally connected to anyone besides their partner), and/or an agreement that if they do start to have feelings for another person, that they will no longer sleep with that person, and/or an agreement that they will not sleep with mutual acquaintances.
As you might imagine, there are practically unlimited configurations. I know one gay male couple who has a list of 5-10 people with whom they are each allowed to sleep. They have to get sexual partners pre-approved by one another, their lists can't overlap, and they aren't allowed to have sexual escapades with any of these people in their own house, or spend the night with them. They can get emotionally attached to these other people, as long as these attachments don't rival or interfere with their attachments to each other. (I don't know if they consider their relationship "open" or "poly.")
Some polyamorous folks live together in groups of three or more, and may even raise children together. Others keep calendars; they might spend Tuesdays and Wednesdays with their second lover and the other with their primary partner.
These arrangements make my head spin. I don't think they're wrong in an objective sense, but I don't think they'd work for me. The main reasons:
Successful practitioners of polyamory manage to overcome these challenges, so I know it can be done. But I think I'm wired for monogamy, the same way I'm wired to be a butchy lesbian.
This got me to thinking: if I'm "wired" for monogamy, then probably some people are wired for polyamory. Does this mean that polyamory is a sexual orientation? Or is it a sexual preference? I've heard both from polyamorous people, and maybe different things are true for different people.
If polyamory is a sexual orientation, this has major implications. For one, I believe that a person's sexual orientation should be protected by law. Does this mean that poly marriages should be legal? And if so, what does this mean for things like tax breaks and health insurance? (For more on the legal implications of polyamory, check out this article I just found.)
As I've written about before, I'm not entirely sure that the government should be in the business of endorsing marriage relationships at all, aside from allowing people to form contracts about issues like child-rearing, inheritance, etc. Getting the government out of the business of regulating these relationships would be a step towards poly equality, I suppose.
In theory, I totally support poly equality. In practice, I have a gut reaction against it. I flinch at the idea of polyamorous households adopting kids. And I can't articulate a concrete reason why, except that it goes against my idea of what relationships "should" be. Which, when you think about it, makes me no better than gay marriage opponents who want their moral inclinations to prevent people like me from getting married.
Would I vote for governmental recognition of polyamorous marriage? I'd like to say, of course! And in the voting booth, I believe my answer would be yes. But it would be an uncomfortable yes. And this discomfort makes me feel guilty and hypocritical.
What do you think about this, dear readers? Have any of you monogamous types felt the kinds of things I'm describing?
And I know I have some poly readers, too: I claim no real knowledge about polyamory, so feel free to jump in, correct me, enlighten me, etc!