Commitment in Polyamorous Relationships
Chapter 3: Method
This thesis was a study of seven long term polyamorous couples, couples who have been together and actively poly (i.e. they have both had other partners rather than simply being open to that possibility) for at least 5 years, and who consider themselves to be in a stable, committed relationship (as is common in the poly community, this will be referred to as their primary relationship).
An email request for participants was sent to poly and poly-friendly groups in Northern California and appropriate friends soliciting participants. The email explicitly stated that the study would focus on commitment, so that the participants could think about that issue before the interview. The seven couples interviewed were selected from among respondents to that email based on a short phone interview or personal knowledge. Preference was given to couples who had been polyamorous for the most years, and in addition, a couple with a child living at home was specifically sought out. While it was clear that there were some issues in some of the couples which might eventually cause a breakup, all the couples seemed relatively stable.
A number of the people who responded to the email requests for participants (directly or indirectly because a friend of theirs had let them know about it) were unqualified or marginally qualified, because they had been in a poly relationship less than or barely five years. Some qualified participants were not interviewed because the original goal of four to six couples had been reached (the seventh couple was included because they are raising a child). As it turns out, four couples were friends or acquaintances. In one other case I had talked with the man but had never met the woman. One couple was totally unknown, and another couple thought I looked familiar; we determined after talking that we had probably been at a workshop together.
My solicitation for participants elicited some vigorous discussion on one email list about polyamory and how I was going to present it. Guy Thomas (who requested that I use his name if I quoted him) expressed concern that focusing on couples would feed into the "assumption that couples are the most important or the only 'real' relationships." Another person wrote, "I don't like the thought that something will be published into the world portraying polyamory as primary/secondary relationships because I think that's only a subset of polyamory, and one closest to monogamy." A third person thought that the poly community should all be "committed to breaking out of the 'couple' model of love and sexuality." These comments make it very clear that there are people who are polyamorous who have a very different concept of poly relationships than is presented in this paper, since it focuses on polyamorous couples.
What are the effects of using personal acquaintances as participants? McCracken (1988) stated that respondents should be complete strangers. However, he also noted that they are influenced by their impression of the interviewer. Just as a complete member of a group is given considerable latitude (Adler and Adler, 1987), a member of the poly community is likely to be given more trust, since the respondent can rest assured that the information gained will not be used to harm the community. I mean by that that it will not be used to attack the community, though it may contain critical observations. While friend respondents may have a tendency to bias their observations to avoid stresses on the friendship, the interviewer has the advantage of understanding the respondent's comments in the context of observed behavioral interactions, thereby reducing the likelihood they will get away with telling a story that is completely inconsistent with actual behavior. It is important in this situation that the interviewer have the reputation of being able to keep confidentiality. The current context is one in which the respondents who are acquaintances are members of groups which agree to confidentiality, and have presumably learned to trust the interviewer. Note that one of the participants told me that he was willing to participate because he already knew me.
In addition, it would not have been practical to find couples to interview who are neither friends nor potential friends, since the group of people who identify as polyamorous in the San Francisco Bay area is limited, and the individuals are likely to attend the same events that my husband and I do. It is likely that I will meet people I do not yet know at a poly oriented event some time in the future, and we will almost undoubtedly have friends in common.
For an interview to go deep, a connection has to be established between the interviewer and the participant. One of my interviewees (who was not previously an acquaintance) commented that people sometimes confuse sexual expression and the resulting emotional connection, and noted, "By us having a dialogue like this, and you asking me questions, there's an emotional connection between us, and it's palpable, I can feel it and I'm sure you can too." Note that I understand this as a comment about the nature of an open conversation between two people, where at least one of the people is revealing personal, intimate information. His point was that we can feel a connection through conversation that is not related to any sexual expression or desire.
As Lofland and Lofland (1995) pointed out, whatever the relationship of the investigator to the setting, whether as a member or an observer, it is simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage. In this study I have been able to take advantage of the greater depth of data available, the greater openness of respondents that comes from their knowledge of my similar experience, and my ability to supplement the data with my own insights (Adler and Adler, 1987).
The participants all lived within a two hour drive of my home north of San Francisco. Most interviews were conducted at the home of the participants, with one exception where the respondent preferred to come to my home.
No same gender couples responded to my solicitation, so all couples were male-female. One woman is only interested in other women at this point, with the exception of her primary partner. Another woman had had an important relationship with another woman, and was clearly interested in both men and women, and another had some sexual relationships with women. I did not specifically ask about sexual orientation. However, many of the participants volunteered that they were comfortable touching someone of the same sex when they were in a three way sexual situation.
The age of the respondents varied from 29 to 72, with an average age of 52 (two were 29, 4 were in their forties, two in their fifties, and the rest over 60). They had been in their current relationships for at least ten years (and as long as 44), and had been polyamorous within that relationship for at least 7 years.
I interviewed each person individually, using what has variously been called a qualitative interview (Babbie, 2004), an unstructured interview (Lofland and Lofland, 1995), an open mode interview (Kvale, 2003), or a long interview (McCracken, 1988). The essence is that there were some general questions, but unlike a survey interview, the questions were not phrased in a particular way, or asked in a particular order (Babbie) (though usually they were asked in the same order). Additional questions were asked when it seemed appropriate. The point was to elicit rich descriptions of the respondents' experience (Lofland and Lofland) of their relationships and how they experience and practice commitment in those relationships by allowing them to talk freely (Kvale). The respondents were told that each interview would likely take between one and three hours and would be taped. In practice, the interviews took from one and a half hours to three hours and twenty minutes, with an average of two hours and twelve minutes. The interviews were subsequently transcribed. The respondents were asked if they wished to select their own pseudonym. Eight of the fourteen did so.
The participants were interviewed separately rather than as a couple, since there were some delicate questions about their sexuality with their primary partner (the other member of the couple) and their other partners. In addition, I wanted to see whether the answers of both members of the couple are consistent with each other. On occasion I said something about my own experience, especially when asked, or made a reference to a common experience, following the concept of Clements, Ettling, Jenett and Shields (1999), that "The story of the researcher can act as a catalyst for the story of the participant" (p. 78).
For a list of the intended questions, please see Appendix A. As noted above, the questions were not necessarily be phrased the same way for everyone, or asked in the same order, but followed the flow of the conversation.
The interview included some demographic questions: age, occupation, the length of the relationship, whether or not married. There are also questions about how long they have been polyamorous, and how they approached polyamory (how they became polyamorous).
There were questions to give the flavor of their relationships with other people, and with each other's lovers. What types of other sexual relationships do they have? What types of things do they do with their other lovers and with their partner's lovers, and what type of connection do they have with them? Do they share interests with their lovers that they don't share with their primary partners? These questions were intended to provide ideas about ways in which polyamory enriches or detracts from their life as a couple.
Questions about the emotional connection with the primary partner allowed a comparison with the other lovers. There were also questions about sexual satisfaction with both the primary partner and other lovers. These were intended to give us an idea of whether the additional relationships are intended to satisfy an unmet need in the primary relationship, or are seen as an expansion of a satisfying relationship.
People who are polyamorous often have some ground rules or agreements about what is acceptable and what is not. These may involve particular sexual activities (restricting some to the primary couple), they may involve the ability to "veto" an involvement with a particular person, how often they get together, etc. The questions about ground rules were intended to give us some idea about the way the couple has structured their other relationships to allow them to keep the primacy of their own bond.
The questions about children were general questions which were not necessarily expected to shed light on the commitment of the couple, but to reveal some of the dynamics involved in their relationship.
I expected that couples who have been polyamorous for several years and consider themselves committed to each other would find that polyamory has been beneficial to them. However, it seemed possible that one member of the couple would have a stronger feeling in that direction, or that one member would think that polyamory has created more problems than benefits. I thought that the question about how polyamory has affected their lives might also reveal more about what keeps them together as a couple.
The issue of jealousy is one that has to be faced on an ongoing basis by people who are polyamorous. It was defined in the interviews as any feelings of discomfort that come up when one's partner is involved with another person emotionally or sexually. This includes envy, issues around time, comparison, competitiveness, specialness, fear of loss and any other discomfort. How a couple handles these feelings has an impact on their relationship.
The questions about fears or concerns about growing apart led naturally to the question about how they maintain their primary bond. One way some people do this is to reserve certain activities for each other. There was less time taken on this question than originally expected, probably because many of the ideas had already come up earlier in the interview.
Finally, since polyamory is not a lifestyle that is condoned or supported by the culture at large, it was helpful for the purpose of this study to get an idea of the perceived benefits of polyamory from the perspective of the participants, as well as the challenges and drawbacks. Asking them what else they would like the interviewer to know about their relationship allowed some people to add some extra comments, such as a desire for the shadow side of polyamory to be expressed as well the benefits; for people to understand that the ways polyamory can be lived are infinite; that it can be a spiritual path; that polyamory "has a lot to offer as a path and should be allowed and celebrated as a choice;" and a suggestion that people talk about their most delightful poly experience.
The interviews were analyzed from an activist perspective of human agency (Lofland and Lofland, 1995), looking for the strategies that the respondents use to maintain their commitment to their primary partner, and the stories that they tell (Murray, 2003) to reinforce their commitment. As in heuristic inquiry, the object was to discover the nature of the phenomenon (commitment to a primary partner in polyamorous relationships), not to prove or disprove any particular influence (Douglass and Moustakas, 1985). The analysis remained open-ended at the start of the research, to allow the information gathered during the interviews to influence the focusing decisions and to allow new perceptions to emerge (Lofland and Lofland). As Rogers (1965) stated, "it is the dedicated personal search of a disciplined, open-minded individual which discovers and creates new knowledge. No refinement of laboratory or statistical method can do this" (as quoted in Moustakas, 1990, p. 98)
Long term polyamorous couples, some of whom are personal acquaintances, were interviewed about the nature of their relationships, possible ground rules, the effect of polyamory on their lives, jealousy, their techniques for maintaining their bond, and the benefits of polyamory. The interviews were analyzed to discover the nature of the commitment they have and how they maintain it.
(c) 2005 by Elaine Cook