‘Tis the Season to be Poly

I’ve been lately collecting arguments; conflicting opinions on why, what, and how to engage in relationships in which socially constructed concepts for intimacy and sex go unmatched (“Non-monogamy” “Polyamory” “Open”). Polyamory happens to be a topic I’ve come against especially after entering the world of couples therapy. Friends have tried it, friends have wanted to try it, friends’ partners have asked to try it, and colleagues appear bridled in their understanding of it. There has only been more recent literature on modern polyamory as this concept of coupling becomes more progressive in the context of consent. However, sharing partners has been a cultural, religious, and social activity throughout history.

Esther Perel wrote a book titled “Mating in Captivity” followed by her most recent publication, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” in which she explores a spectrum of infidelity – the varying definitions and how to go from reconciling, to opening, to leaving a long-term relationship. Reading Perel challenges me on many levels. I am able to be reflective and curious as to what my own reactions are about, and if, perhaps, there are different perspectives I could see if only I would allow myself. My intention is not to judge anyone who has chosen poly or other forms of non-monogamy but to continue asking questions as a way of understanding. While questions shed light, the underlying elements become more obviously problematic if/when/after a couple decides to open their relationship in any way. 

As an attachment-based relationship therapist, I have a strong reaction to the concept of polyamory (historical and modern) which is both rooted in my values and in science. I personally have never and unlikely will ever engage in polyamory simply because what it results in does not align with my own code of ethics on how to be in relationship. In an effort to sift through some of the more important elements of poly, I am examining a few potential benefits and risks.

Benefits of Poly

  1. Decreased distress in having needs go unmet
  2. Potential for increased trust 
  3. Potential to increase communication 
  4. Potential for increased support 

Disadvantages of Poly

  1. There is almost always a power imbalance 
  2. Triangulation limits growth and fosters avoidance 
  3. Polyamory is hardly ever sustainable 
  4. Polyamory fosters detached sex and decreased intimacy

Power Imbalances
Power exists in all relationship dynamics. In intimate relationships, power is often held by the person who says, “no” – “No” to sex. “No” to commitment. “No” to growth, change, decision-making, family planning, and more. Power can be held by financial access, access to resources, access to information, or through various levels of privilege. 

When asked to open a relationship, commonly one partner resists such a proposal. It may take convincing or persuasion before feeling comfortable with the idea. Regardless of the means (ending a relationship, engaging in affairs, or by opening it up to others), when one partner is threatening to leave, by default, they hold more power. This often results in one person not necessarily wanting an open relationship, but agreeing to it for fear of losing the other person. Their motivation may be rooted in fear or guilt over their partner’s lack of satisfaction with them. 

Opening a relationship as a result of infidelity again draws attention to power. When one person chooses to seek something outside of a committed sphere without consent, it may be experienced as a deep betrayal. To move fully into acceptance would leave me questioning if the person following suit is making an unbiased decision, or if they are going along with something out of fear of the alternative. 

When two people are in agreement about opening a relationship, the next step is to include outsiders. Based on the rules set by the dyad couple, the outsider(s) may be in agreement. But what happens when a third party suddenly wants more, becomes more attached, or a partner from the dyad becomes more attached? Eventually, someone is left on the sidelines wanting more, or something else which creates an imbalance. If the dyad is making all the rules in a collaborative and intimate way, potential partners outside of that become subject to losing power.

A triangle consists when a person within a dyadic relationship experiences anxiety or discomfort around some unmet needs – possibly an internal or interpersonal conflict. They then attempt to cope with or avoid that discomfort by pulling in a third party, creating a triad as a way of decreasing the tension one feels.  

People engage in triangles often as a way of avoiding; avoiding loss, avoiding sadness or rejection, avoiding a sense of loneliness, avoiding unmet expectations around sexual conquest or sexual satisfaction. 

If engaging in a non-monogamous relationship, there might at times be a partner who is forgoing their own self-respect and boundaries in order to please or keep a partner. The question of boundaries, wants, and needs are always worth exploring in a way that fosters a sense of mutuality and fairness. 

It Works Until it Doesn’t: Sustainability  
Several years ago a friend was sharing with me about some mutual friends as I was getting acquainted with a new group of people in a small community. I soon learned some of the friends had in the past engaged in long-term relationships with multiple people within this group. Of course, I became instantly curious about this dynamic. In response to my questions, my friend exclaimed, “It really worked for them!” I remember thinking, “How did it work if no one is still in either relationship?” This brings me to an observation that poly relationships are not sustainable. It would be worth exploring how one might define “working” or “success.” It may work for the situation. It may work in terms of reaching a level of satisfaction. But does it hold the ability to maintain over a long period of time with each member feeling satisfied long-term? When there are kids involved this might change things. But like any relationship, evolution happens and can have an impact on the levels of satisfaction, presenting issues, and desired outcomes, wants, or needs. Ultimately, what does “working” mean? Because it does until it doesn’t. 

Detached Sex and Avoiding Intimacy 
Research points to sexual exploration and satisfaction being reported increasingly within the context of a securely attached relationship in which couples feel safe. Oftentimes, the lack of commitment or wandering eyes decreases a sense of security. Social standards and expectations around sex and sexual performance (specifically in social media, comedy, or pornography) do not represent the complete human connection sexual intimacy can foster. When sex is just about sex, it nurtures an avoidance of opening oneself up in vulnerable ways. The degree to which we are vulnerable is the degree we are connected to others. If having casual sex with strangers is a part of an open relationship dynamic, I might wonder about the ability to compartmentalize vulnerability with the ability to avoid it. To me, that compartmentalization is limiting and harmful. The argument often comes up in which people say they can be vulnerable and love multiple people to the same degree. Again, this creates a triangle, leaving room for someone to be detached to a large degree. 

Dr. Sue Johnson refers to this as “sealed-off sex” in which one is engaged in the act of sexual intimacy without the emotional ability to connect to the other. Of course, within the context of a loving and committed relationship with a secure attachment, there are lots of kinds of sex (quickies just for pleasure, playful and explorative sex, passionate expressions of deeper love and appreciation, etc). Outside of that commitment and the security of trust, Johnson argues that sex can feel emotionally numb or avoidant of the deeper intimacies. 

Questions I Might Wonder
What has led to the decision of opening the relationship? Are there unmet needs? Are there things one is trying to compensate for? Is it an attempt to avoid something else; loss of a relationship, family, or attachment bond? Is this an inability to open up emotionally and attach to others? Is it an attempt to obtain validation of self, performance, or desirability? Are the desires rooted in unrealistic expectations? Is the desire for the relationship going along with someone else’s pressures within an enmeshed dynamic? Is going toward poly an avoidance of personal boundaries? What is this really about? How did the relationship get here?

To me, the ability to move out of my own value system is a fairly easy navigation. Yet, as the deeper questions result in further exploration, conversations start to shed light on the potential harms, especially revealing the modern practices within complex decision-making and vulnerability. Risks seem to outweigh the benefits here.

When I told my brother I was writing about polyamory, he laughingly accused me of being “anti-poly.” I suppose I am, if it must be an Either/Or argument. However, to just come to a stance and miss out on all the deeper complexities, is reactionary and limit the scope of what, when, and how. That seems boring. And let’s be honest, if we are talking about potentially moving toward poly relationships, we probably have a low tolerance for boring.

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