People are generally uncomfortable with relationship arrangements that go against the cultural norms of the society they live in. Marriage, in particular, is an institutionalized way of organizing relationships based on rigidly defined social norms. Deviating from these well-defined social norms tends to scare people because having a rigid understanding of any concept is easier than recognizing nuance and complexity. It's easier than allow more flexibility and personal freedom. It's easier than allowing for deviations that might produce uncertainty or stimulate critical thinking. A rigid construction allows for a very clear roadmap for life-- a wash, rinse, and repeat lifestyle.
And that's where polyamory comes in. Polyamory is a philosophy toward love, intimacy, and relationships that differs greatly from the rigidly defined norms of traditional marriage. It is defined as, "the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time."
People who learn about polyamory often react strongly against it and are quick to immediately reject it. It's difficult for many people to understand how you can have more than one fully-committed, emotionally intimate relationship. It does not fit our rigid social norms about relationships. It's different and to the mainstream, different is scary...it's perceived to be uncertain...it's perceived to be unstable. It's that "otherness" that makes so many people uncomfortable. It produces a fight or flight response. People attack difference or run from it.
But despite these rigid social norms, you can pave your own way. You can have both. You can have fully committed intimate relationships with more than one person. You can fully commit yourself to multiple people. You don’t need to be exclusive to have commitment. You can have multiple commitments, love multiple people, and maintain multiple relationships. You can value them all and be secure in them all. The existence of one commitment doesn’t invalidate or deprecate the other. All commitments can be strong, fully committed ones. As one gets stronger, the others do not get weaker.
So, why do people react so strongly against non-exclusive love? Our society conditions us to believe that exclusivity and commitment go hand in hand. We are told that love is a limited resource and that exclusive love is the ideal and most romantic love of all. You see it in movies, songs, books…but to quote Robert Heinlein:
“Jealousy is a disease, love is a healthy condition. The immature mind often mistakes one for the other, or assumes that the greater the love, the greater the jealousy — in fact, they are almost incompatible; one emotion hardly leaves room for the other.”
While it’s true that you can multiple commitments that you are “fully committed’ to, the one thing that is limited is a person’s time. And that is sometimes an issue with poly people. Poly people don’t have an issue with loving many, but they don’t have all the time in the world to love as many people as they could potentially love. As such, they have to be careful about how they delegate their time and resources. They must nourish and nurture each relationship and make sure they have enough time to foster them all.
The book “The Ethical Slut” talks extensively about poly relationships. It talks about navigating one's time and making sure to appreciate all your partners and relationships. That’s why it’s important for “poly” people to recognize that they cannot spread themselves too thin. There are many, many people in the world that you could find to “love” if you opened yourself up to loving those people. At the same time, it would be impossible to give a large number of people the time they would want and deserve to nurture a truly loving relationship. Heinlein talks about time in regard to poly relationships, and he says that:
“The more you love, the more you can love — and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.”
So, for poly to work, people must be open and honest in their communication. They must express their wants and needs and establish what their goals and expectations are in their relationship(s). They must be honest with one another and treat each other with dignity and respect. In fact, poly people typically view themselves as committed and fidelitous with their various partners, but they just have a different definition of that compared with monogamists. For poly people to be “faithful,” means that they are abiding by the promises and agreements they made about their individual relationships.
Like plants, it’s also important to note that people and relationships need different levels of nurturance. Some require more “sun” than others to maintain. Some you water once a week. Some you water less frequently. What’s important is that you consider the needs of each individual relationship and you provide the right level of nurturance for that relationship.
Like some plants need more sun and some need more water, some relationships will require more time and resources—that may vary too, throughout the relationship, depending on each individual’s needs at the time. What’s important is that you are sensitive to the needs of the relationship. What’s important is that you delegate enough time and energy to the needs of each relationship and that you’re sensitive to changes in those needs.
One of the best things about polyamory is that you can offer different things to different people that you love. Different people will appreciate different things about you. Different people will be nurtured by different qualities in your personality. Different people can also offer you different things from their own personalities and experiences.
Why limit yourself to only having one person that you are intimately close to in your life when opening yourself up to more committed relationships can enhance your life and provide you with a larger human family? Why limit the amount of support and love? Why limit your sense of family? Why limit your sense of community?
Why shrink our worlds so small and limit what we can draw from when there is so much out there? We can learn so much from different people, and we can teach different people different things. Why rely only on the families that we were given by accidents of birth when we can create our own? It's about making the life you want. It's about not limiting your life based on arbitrary, rigid social rules.
Scholars have also discussed how polyamory allows people to enhance their sense of community and expand their support system. One of the best quotes is from Echlin who writes that:
“It is a hankering for community ... we have become increasingly alienated, partly because of the 20th century's replacement of the extended family with the nuclear family. As a result, many of us are striving to create complex and deep relationships through extended networks of multiple lovers and extended families ... Polys agree that some people are monogamous by nature. But some of us are not, and more and more are refusing to be shoehorned into monogamy."
While strict monogamy and traditional marriage works for some people, monogamy as a dogma is problematic, because it limits peoples’ viewpoints and perceptions about the types of relationships they may want or can have. It’s as if you walked around looking at life through a paper towel tube and only saw what you could see through that hole.
There’s no reason to limit, but our society encourages these limits because they are “safe” and “known.” They provide for (on the face of it) a more “stable” social order that is more predictable and efficient for our capitalist, consumerist economic system. But, why serve that system when you can serve yourself? Why serve that system when you can serve a community that you make with others? One that is localized and that serves you in return.
Polyamory is also about not being bound by binary thinking and allowing yourself to live life in the shades of grey. It acknowledges that you can be both fully committed and open to loving others at the same time—these two are not mutually exclusive concepts merely because they sound, on the face of it, like opposites.
It can be said, again and again. And it should be said, again and again.
The answer is both.