Commitment in Polyamorous Relationships
Chapter 1: Introduction
Monogamy is the assumed standard for relationships in our culture. A married person who has sex outside the marriage is assumed to be cheating, to be unfaithful. The same standard is applied to anyone in a committed relationship. Yet there are people who have agreed that they will not be sexually exclusive, and who have sex with others with the full consent of their partner. One way of doing this has been called "polyamory" (often shortened within the polyamorous community to "poly").
Polyamory has been defined by White (2004, p. 17) as "Living by the principle that it is possible to love more than one person at a time without deception or betrayal". Furthermore, she pointed out that most of the definitions of polyamory found on the Internet "utilize words like ethical, responsible, honorable, open, honest, intentional, and principled" (p 20). This is in contrast to the concept generally held in our culture that having a sexual partner in addition to your spouse is a betrayal. Couples who are polyamorous have made a conscious decision to have other partners while maintaining their connection and commitment to their original partner. This is a mutual agreement, not a betrayal.
The topic of polyamory or open relationships has received very little formal academic investigation. This is in spite of the fact that it is a subject of great interest to many Americans as shown by the number of web sites that speak about it and the number of yahoo groups which pertain to it: a search on http://www.google.com on January 22, 2005 yielded 179,000 entries for polyamory, compared with 353,000 entries for monogamy. On the same day, a search on Yahoo (http://groups.yahoo.com) for groups which mention polyamory yielded 252 groups, a number of which had more than a thousand members. Many were intended for people in specific locations, which included 32 states, many Canadian provinces, and several countries. In addition, there are an unknown number of others which are "hidden," do not have the word "polyamory" in their description, or are hosted at other sites. Some of these are listed at http://www.polyamory.org/SF/groups.html, which shows groups in an additional 5 states.
Why has there been little research on this topic? Rubin (2001) hypothesized that "Swinging, group marriages, and communes [and polyamory] may remain on the periphery of study and tolerance because they threaten the cultural image of what marriage is supposed to be" (p. 724). Elisabeth Sheff, who started research for her Ph.D. in sociology in the late 1990s, received some encouragement "because it was an area that had not been developed yet and it is good to be a groundbreaker," but also discouragement, because it is a "freaky" topic and she could be marginalized because of the topic (personal communication, January 19, 2005). The Institute for 21st Century Relationships has been attempting to start an academic journal that would be a "forum for the publication of interdisciplinary research findings bearing on the broad topic of alternative and nontraditional relationships" (http://lovethatworks.org/journal.html, January 22, 2005). However, they have had little success because of the lack of research. According to Jim Fleckenstein (personal communication, January 14, 2005), "There have been a couple of published articles on swingers, but virtually nothing on polyamory or the more generic 'open relationships.' There have been some theses written, but not published."
Many social scientists support the "questioning mindset," the idea that "there is nothing that should not be doubted. Everything must be unceasingly examined" (Lofland and Lofland, 1995, p. 154). In spite of this, even an eminent psychologist like Albert Ellis (2003), who was writing about sex even before Kinsey, has had his writings that question our society's attitudes towards sexuality censored, modified without his permission, and omitted from compilations of symposia at which he presented.
Who therefore will take the risk of researching some part of this topic of polyamory which questions the cultural standard for sexual behavior? People who have a personal interest in the subject (e.g. Barker, 2005; Sheff, 2004; Wolfe, 2003). Following their example, and Berg's (2004) comment that the first person singular allows a researcher to "take both ownership and responsibility for what is being stated" (p. 156), this thesis also uses the first person singular.
Most people do not think about monogamy. It is simply a given. The main issue for therapists around monogamy is dealing with its failure, i.e. infidelity. The question of whether or not monogamy is a choice that people want to make is not generally discussed. Some people, however, have thought about it, they have questioned it, they have discussed it with their partner, and have chosen to live life a different way. My husband and I are among those who have consciously chosen to violate the norms of society, and are very involved in the polyamorous subculture. As someone who has been in a nonmonogamous committed relationship for almost 30 years, I am very interested in what helps other couples maintain their primary partnership even while becoming sexually and emotionally intimate with other lovers. What we, and others like us, do flies in the face of conventional wisdom and most of the writings on marriage, which emphasize monogamy.
Our society has used laws and social pressure to encourage married couples to stay together in spite of their differences, but this clearly has not been working very well in recent years. What else besides legal sanctions provides the glue that keeps marriages together? In a discussion of cohesion in multilateral (group) marriages, Constantine and Constantine (1974) noted the need for a mechanism to encourage internal problem-solving rather than allowing needs to be satisfied externally. They commented, "The fidelity ethic in a monogamous marriage serves as such a mechanism to keep the husband and wife solving problems in their relationship. Compartmentalization of sex as an isolated modality [as in swinging] is another such mechanism" (p. 286).
The focus of this study was on what provides this cohesion for long term polyamorous couples. What is the nature of the commitment (as they conceptualize it) that keeps them together, when they have the opportunity to follow what could seem to be an easier path of moving on to someone else with whom they have not yet developed serious problems? Interviews were used to uncover what the respondents consider to be helpful to them in maintaining their commitment to their partner. The interview questions were designed to elicit the nature of the relationships between the primary partners as well as their other lovers, and the perceived benefits of polyamory. There was a focus on the respondents' thoughts about how they maintain a strong bond with their primary partner. It was hypothesized that this research could provide some ideas about the nature of commitment that are commonly overlooked because of the general assumption that monogamy is a requirement for sustainable relationship.
This study on commitment was not intended to be representative of typical involvement in polyamory, simply an examination of what has worked to allow these couples to stay together in fulfilling relationships while following a path that is considered deviant in our culture. The study was about what the participants said works for them. It did not address the issue of deviance directly, nor look at the problems faced by people who have not been successful in this lifestyle.
The value for the reader is similar to that of other ethnographic studies, namely a glimpse into a different way of life, a different way of organizing our emotional realities. It allows the reader to see how some people have questioned the value of monogamy in their lives without rejecting the desire for a primary pair-bond, and in the process have created a different style of relationship which works for them. This research paper attempts to describe some of the meanings poly people associate with sex and relationships, and to expand human agency (Marecek, 2003) by showing people who have successfully followed a nonstandard cultural path. The meanings about sex and relationships that have been constructed (Reinharz, 1983) by the participants are clearly different than the meanings constructed by the larger culture (Miller, Hengst and Wang, 2003).
The incentive for the respondents to participate was a chance to talk at length about their relationship, a hope that this will be beneficial to the poly community (since greater knowledge and understanding of the community is likely to create greater tolerance for it), and the opportunity to clarify their own sense of commitment with their primary partner.
As an opportunistic complete member (Adler and Adler, 1987) of the poly subculture (this means that I studied a group of which I was already fully a member), along with my husband, Zhahai Stewart, I not only take part in the community but also work to help shape it. We have taken part in discussion groups and led workshops on polyamory. We have given presentations at the University of Colorado, at the Counseling Center in Boulder, and have been interviewed on KGNU. We have both written articles for Loving More, a magazine for people who are exploring the option of loving more than one person ([I write as Spring Cascade] Cascade, 1996, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002; Cascade and Stewart, 1998; Stewart, 1995, 2000, 2001a, 2001b), and presented at their conferences. Therefore it is of considerable interest to me personally to understand the dynamics of long term poly relationships so I can share the information with others.
Is it appropriate for someone who is involved in a community to study it? Lofland and Lofland have "counseled involvement and enmeshment rather than objectivity and distance - a counsel that is very much in keeping with the fieldwork tradition" and noted, "So-called objectivity and distance vis-a-vis the field setting will usually result in a failure to collect any data worth analyzing." (Lofland and Lofland, 1995, p. 17). Adler and Adler stated their belief that "the native experience does not destroy but, rather, enhances the data-gathering process. Data gathering does not occur only through the detached observational role, but through the subjectively immersed role as well" (Adler and Adler, 1987, p. 84). Berg acknowledged that "The use of personal biography or deep familiarity with a subject has become more common and accepted by ethnographers" (Berg, 2004, p. 156), and that some researchers now encourage self-reflective or auto-ethnographies.
Adler and Adler (1987) noted that Chicago School field researchers take the view that researchers should attempt to avoid influencing their subjects. However, they also pointed out that existential sociologists and ethnomethodologists find that such influence is almost inevitable with researchers who are members of a community. Daniels observed that "a researcher is not a remote and neutral agent in a study but rather one who is interactive with and is affected by the data collected so that what is collected inevitably bears the mark of this interaction" (Daniels, 1999, p. 169). In addition, I would expect opportunistic researchers to have a stake in the community they are studying, and therefore they may have a desire to influence it. In fact, the goal of the research may be to help the community by creating greater understanding and insight of its dynamics.
What effect does being a member have on research involving a community? Riemer (1977) noted both advantages and disadvantages of such opportunistic research. It facilitates entry into the research setting; it facilitates rapport between the researcher and the people being studied; and it improves the accuracy of the interpretation. However, there is also the possibility of objectivity being compromised by emotional involvement, and the difficulty of replicating the research. This issue is addressed in greater detail in the chapter on methodology.
There is definitely a potential danger to people who are polyamorous if this fact should become known to the wrong people. There is a danger of losing one's job or having Child Protective Services take one's child away, at least temporarily. Confidentiality is therefore particularly important, and has been strictly maintained. Pseudonyms have obviously been used in writing about the participants.
One reason for having separate interviews was to allow someone to reveal information that could potentially be too sensitive to discuss in front of the partner, because it would cause the partner pain or embarrassment, such as a sexual preference for a different lover. Care has been taken to avoid writing about such information in a way that could be identified, in case some participants or other members of the community choose to read the thesis. This means that potentially sensitive information was not linked to a name that the partner (or anyone else) may be able to identify because of other characteristics such as age or profession.
This study of the way in which some polyamorous couples maintain their commitment to their primary partner is an exploratory study which, as Bamberg (2003) noted about qualitative inquiries, is not seeking to affirm or falsify previously established hypotheses, but rather to observe, describe and understand. The inquiry is open-ended, with a goal of exploratory discovery (Sela-Smith, 2002). As Douglass and Moustakas (1985) pointed out, "It is the focused attentiveness and internal alertness, rather than predetermined methods and procedures, that guides the researcher into revelations of meaning" (p. 49).
Polyamory involves openness to multiple loving, sexual relationships while being honest with all involved. In spite of interest in this topic in the general public, there has been little research on it. This study examined commitment in long term polyamorous relationships.
(c) 2005 by Elaine Cook