Mapping the Territory

Polyamory: Roadmaps for the Clueless & Hopeful

by Anthony Ravenscroft

Reviewed by Cascade Spring Cook

Originally published in Loving More #38 in 2008

Tony Ravenscroft, in Polyamory: Roadmaps for the Clueless & Hopeful, compares practicing polyamory to taking a trip into a deep forest without a map. He was frustrated by the shortage of books on polyamory that he could recommend, so he decided to offer his own log of his exploration into the unknown territory of polyamory over the past two decades. His intention was to point out the pitfalls and problems that he has come across so that other people exploring the same territory could avoid them.

 Roadmaps provides a good counterpoint to books or articles which make polyamory sound easy and exciting. Ravenscroft gives many examples of mistakes people have made in trying to be polyamorous, and advises people to slow down and consider whether they are really up for the hard work it takes, and ready to face the many possible difficulties he describes.

 He has done a lot of research and has an interesting bibliography of books relating to relationships in general, monogamy (including aspects that we don’t want to emulate), living together, building community, critical thinking, and anything else that could conceivably give us some ideas about how to go against our cultural conditioning and create a polyamorous way of living and relating. He also has an interesting history of monogamy, which shows that the concept of marriage as one man and one woman, united in love, is relatively new. It’s a myth that this is a tradition going back thousands of years. Once he has dissected that myth, he examines and contends with other myths that otherwise create stumbling blocks as we create a new road into territories that our culture has warned us to avoid.

There are a number of useful exercises in this book.  For example, before embarking on any poly relationships, you might engage in some thought experiments. What might go wrong? What would you feel if certain things happened? How will you deal with problems? Ravenscroft suggests examining the examples he gives throughout the book and thinking about how the situations might have been handled differently. What problems could they have foreseen?   How could they have communicated more effectively? What were their vulnerabilities and what paths did they overlook? Engaging in these thought experiments could help prepare you for the unforeseen difficulties that will arise when you engage in polyamory.

He makes a number of points that are very worth bearing in mind. For example, he points out that it is the nature of relationships to change. If we try to make a “perfect” relationship stay the same, we doom it. If we try to force a relationship to be what we want it to be, rather than enjoying it for what it is, we destroy it, whereas following the flow of a changing relationship can be very rewarding.

While some of the stories are entertaining or enlightening, I found this book to be slow reading. In a couple of places Ravenscroft mentions slogging through the book. Unfortunately, it’s all too apt a description. I was also turned off by the frequent judgments about the correct way to do polyamory, and occasionally shocked by what he said, as when he writes about his willingness to use a condom in a section about sacrifice (for most of the people I know, using condoms is a fact of life in a new relationship, not a sacrifice).

Ravenscroft admits that he’s highly opinionated, and that there are no “experts” in polyamory, himself included. Unfortunately, his attempts to compensate for that by acknowledging that he’s not speaking for everyone who shares his lifestyle are inadequate in the face of his frequent proclamations about what it means to be polyamorous. For example, he states that by saying you are polyamorous, you are effectively signing a social contract that makes you responsible to the community, that you are agreeing that you will support the growth and healing of people in that community, that you will listen to criticism, take personal responsibility, and speak out when others are acting in reprehensible or destructive ways. Wonderful ideals for creating a good polyamorous community, perhaps, but not a definition of polyamory I’ve seen anywhere else.

Some of Ravenscroft’s experiences are simply different than mine. For example, he writes about finding that people are reluctant to mention sexual variety as one of the benefits of polyamory. However, I’ve talked to many people who mentioned either more sex, the opportunity for more sexual variety, or learning new things sexually when I asked them about the benefits of polyamory.

Ravenscroft seems to have come across an unusually large number of dysfunctional people who are attempting polyamory, though perhaps it just appears that way because he’s warning us about all the problems that he’s seen, with stories to illustrate each problem. The result is a book that feels somewhat heavy handed. More examples of other people who are doing things well would have been useful, rather than simply his opinions of how to do it right.

If you read this book for the nuggets of wisdom it definitely contains, just bear in mind that his opinion about how to do polyamory is not universal. You’ll need to keep your filters in place and determine what makes sense for you.

© 2007 Elaine Cook

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