Commitment in Polyamorous Relationships
Chapter 4: Results
This chapter presents the findings from the interviews. The first section, "Types of Relationships," is a discussion of the types of relationships that the participants have, both with each other and with other people. This is intended to give a general sense of the ways in which polyamorous couples may organize their relationships, and is therefore organized by topic. The second section, "The Nature of Commitment," contains more description of the nature of the primary relationships as well as the respondents' description of their commitment to each other. It is organized by couple to give a feel for each couple and the way they experience their commitment. The following section, "Maintaining the Primary Bond," is organized by topic to emphasize the different methods used to keep the relationships healthy and primary, and to allow some comments which, for the sake of additional privacy, are not attributed to a specific person. The next section, "Perceived Benefits of Polyamory," explores the reasons the participants have given for being polyamorous. Finally, there is a chapter summary.
Note that this is a very small sample of committed long term polyamorous couples, which comprise a subset of polyamorous people, and therefore it does not necessarily represent typical views.
All of the participants expressed a desire for intimacy, closeness, or an emotional bond with their other sexual partners in addition to their primary partner. This was expected, since this was a study of polyamorous couples rather than of swingers, who sometimes limit their connection with others to sex. However, the participants did not have to have the same level of intimacy with all secondary partners.
Emotional closeness was important to all of the couples. Some of them expressed a sense of absolute commitment to each other; others were facing some current challenges or possible future challenges. All valued honesty and communication, and recognized the need to be adaptable. Several participants specifically mentioned personal growth as something they want and appreciate. They all have active sex lives and close emotional bonds with each other. More detail on the primary relationships is included in the section on commitment, below.
One way in which respondents differed in their style of relating to others has to do with whether this is a joint or separate activity. As Mary expressed it, she and Fred are a "package deal." They include other people into their sexual activities, and, until recently, did not have sex unless the other was in the room. One reason for that is that it reduced the jealousy. As Fred expressed it, "To me that's the kind of the thing that creates safety for us ... we don't exclude each other." In addition, it sparks the eroticism between them: "One thing actually that turns me on is just Mary's sexuality, so having seen her be sexual with other men sort of gets me to have more of a sense of her as a sexual being, which actually makes me more attracted to her."
Carol and Pseud started the same way, including other people in their sexual activities. Pseud coined a term for it, "addogamy," meaning adding on to their monogamy. They have since opened up, but they still almost always spend the night together, without other artners. If a sexual partner is visiting, the partner will spend the night alone in another room, rejoining them for snuggling in the morning.
Jerry and Annie, on the other hand, usually have sex separately (though they occasionally have threesomes), but if only one of them has another lover visiting, the three of them will sleep together. They always sleep together when in the same house unless, as Jerry said, they each have a partner, since their bed does not hold four.
Lizful and Paul also have a habit of spending the night together. Lizful mentioned driving some distance to go home rather than spending the night with a lover. They sometimes have separate lovers and sometimes interact with a couple. As Lizful described, one mode of interaction they sometimes have
when we're involved with another committed couple, is that we spend a lot of time in a lot of intimate interaction without any, without there being any barriers, but when it gets down to actual intercourse, we make love with our own partner, but in each other's presence.
Rogelio and Shakti, on the other hand, tend to interact with their lovers separately. Jackie and John have shared a lover in the past, but currently John sleeps on the living room couch most weekends when Jackie's lover comes to visit.
Some sexual interactions were one time events. Some people had fairly short term secondary relationships. John, for example, said, "My long term relationships have lasted 2, 3, 4 months, but they were really important to me." His partner Jackie's current relationship has lasted a year and a half.
Annie had the longest significant secondary relationships. She has been involved with Forrest for ten years, though she does not see him often since he lives in another state, and with Daniel for five years. She is quite committed to both of them, and sees Daniel 3 nights a week. Jerry is content with that, and reported, "Daniel's like a brother to me. He could move in here, and we could live together seven days a week, I wouldn't have a problem with that. Daniel and I are very, very close."
Shakti has been seeing Zeke on a regular basis for almost four years. Other people have had multi-year relationships that are not as close.
Most of the participants have on occasion attended a sex or play party, though they may have found them less than satisfying. Mary commented,
What I've found for me, is ... it's just too busy, there's too much stuff going on around and I guess I'm not enough of an exhibitionist to get into that aspect of it... The funnest times have been going with a group of people [we already know]. But I wouldn't want to go - I personally can't see going to a play party and meeting somebody there for the first time and getting all sexual... I feel like that's not really what I'm looking for. I'm looking for something where it's a deeper, ongoing relationship of some sort that includes, it's like a friendship and a sexual relationship both, but not just sort of the one night stand, what was your name again kind of thing.
Others found they did not fit in. As Jerry put it, "Annie and I did some swinging club things, but frankly, people don't hit on us. We're not the swing club type." In addition, they are not into anonymous sex, they want to build relationships.
For Lizful and Paul, a swing club was their entry to the world of open and honest nonmonogamous sex, and allowed some valuable exploration. Lizful discovered, "to my intense surprise and pleasure, that I actually, contrary to everything that I would think about myself, was something of an exhibitionist. The kind of thing that we really liked doing there and that was very sweet, was simply making love with each other in public."
When I asked participants about their current relationships, it became clear that the status of some sexual relationships, particularly of long distance relationships, was not clear. There might not be a clear ending point to a relationship, or to the sexual aspect of a friendship, so when people had not seen someone for a while they were sometimes unsure whether to include them as current partners. Mary commented that with some people it was a sporadic thing, "It's one of those things where you have a friend that you haven't seen for several years, and you get together, and ... it's just like you haven't been apart for a long time." This came to mind because one of their friends from the east coast whom they had not seen for a few years had visited shortly before I interviewed them. Otherwise she might not have included him when she was talking about their current relationships
Carol mentioned that they had had several people they saw as a couple in long distance relationships that they would see occasionally, but only two of those were still current. "The others are possibilities, we just haven't gotten together in a long time, and it's kind of like a natural death to the relationship kind of thing, and I'd say there are two that we would still expect to see in the future." However, it sounded as though the possibility for the others was still there, since there had been no formal decision to terminate the relationship.
While all the couples interviewed are committed to their relationship with their current partner, they might not stay in the current configuration. Some would consider (or are considering) including one or more others in their committed primary relationship. Of course, if they had already done so, they would not have been in the current study since it was limited to couples.
What is the nature of the commitment that holds these couples together? How do they conceptualize their commitment and the bond that they share? What do they see as the benefit of being in a couple? This section examines both the nature of the primary bond between the individuals in each couple and their commitment to each other.
All of the couples interviewed are together because they want to be, because they find value in their relationship. Some are facing challenges, others are very solid.
Only one couple, Lizful and Paul, expressed any sort of moral imperative about their commitment as a couple. For Paul, commitment "just means being there no matter what." He would not hold it against someone else if they did not stay married lifelong, "but I think I would hold it against myself very powerfully." He remembers feeling even as a young child that "I won't do that, a man shouldn't do that, that's wrong. And so I think it's extremely ingrained in me that, it would have to be something like Lizful going berserk and murdering our son or something, to make that happen."
Lizful said they had a sense very quickly that "this was a lifelong commitment, and that neither one of us would ever deviate from that." Lizful talked about the "gnarly patches" that occur about every seven years, but Paul could remember only one time that the idea that perhaps they should not stay together was briefly mentioned. But they are dedicated to working it out together, so the moment passed quickly as they realized, "How can we fight if we're apart? We have to stay together to fight this out."
This is part of a living, vital relationship, not just inertia or a difficult constraint. They work on their commitment. Paul observed, "I really think [commitment] has to be more in the present day. It's something that you build. It's very much building equity, and in this case it has to do with building a sense of an open flow, an honesty." With love and trust and commitment, a couple decides together how to make things work.
For Lizful, commitment involves inclusiveness:
Commitment to me means trust, above probably all else, and honesty. And the absolute complete expectation that everything that we do individually is woven into what we are together. That there is no such thing as something that does not belong in a relationship.
It involves faith in one's ability to work things out:
Commitment is possible and it's not a limitation, and you have to know that you have to work at it, and you have to be unbelievably patient and have a complete faith that no matter how shitty something looks at the present time, what commitment means is that there will still be a relationship there when you come out the other side of this particular gnarly part.
She sees commitment as settling for more, not less.
Paul saw both practical and growth advantages in being in a couple (or more than a couple). The practical included things like tax breaks and working together to accomplish tasks. He also expressed a sense that going through life as a couple provided for a much richer experience, because there was always a sounding board.
Lizful commented that being in a couple "expands and deepens all kinds of things. I think it takes you to places, both erotically and in terms of love, agape, that you don't get to experience as completely and as consistently if you're not part of a couple." She thought it helped people become stronger, and their core to become bigger and deeper. She also saw marriage as a business partnership, as well as providing someone with whom to face life's fears.
Their commitment has worked for them. Lizful commented, "I just feel like we are the most blessed, luckiest, people I know."
Other couples are simply so happy in their relationship with each other that they cannot imagine breaking up. Jerry and Annie have both been married before. They have been with each other for 15 years. This time they have found lasting happiness together. Jerry commented, "We both know that we're the best thing that ever happened to each other." He feels closer to her "than I've ever been to anybody else."
In spite of their closeness, he sees the individual as more important than the relationship. When asked about advice for a couple considering polyamory, he responded, "I'm not ever going to be committed to their relationship. I don't think that their relationship as a couple is as important as their individual understanding of who they are and what they want and what they're doing." He also commented on the number of couples who split up after attending a particular series of workshops. At first he thought the workshops were bad for relationships, but "then it occurred to me that the reason those relationships ended was cause they weren't good relationships, and they went to [the workshops] because they were having trouble. And so [the workshops] gave them permission to end that relationship and begin another one."
Annie noted that Jerry had told her, "'All I know is that I fully expect to die in your arms, or for you to die in mine,' and that will happen." She has "always felt close to Jerry, but it's like it just gets closer." Her statements show a consistent high degree of connection: "I just can't imagine not being so bonded to Jerry, he's been so good to me," and "I can't imagine life apart from Jerry."
This couple clearly stays together because they want to, because their relationship gives them joy. Both consider the state of being coupled to be natural. Jerry commented, "I think as human beings we're couple bonded, we're couple programmed." Furthermore, "The benefit of being a couple is that you have somebody you can share your life with, which I think is pretty inate." Annie expressed similar sentiments, including her own desire to be with another person. In addition, she noted, "I think most of us need security from another person validating, interacting, and supporting us."
Fred and Mary are another couple who are together because their relationship is very satisfying to them. Mary likes having someone else to share the world with and to communicate with. Fred commented, "We're always there for each other. Whatever else happens with other relationships, we've always got each other, and that's really important."
They feel a growing closeness to each other. Fred stated, "I think I feel closer to Mary than I have to anybody else I've ever known in my life." Far from the alienation that some couples feel after a decade or more together (they have been together 13 years), their love keeps growing. Fred commented, "I feel really loved by her and I really love her and I'm really attracted to her, and I trust her. I really have deep trust for her. I feel like my attraction and feeling of closeness has grown over the years." Mary has the same sense, and several times expressed variations on, "We're growing together, becoming closer as time goes on." For Fred, some of that is the shared experience that they have, which he really would not want to lose.
It is not that they do not fight - they just recognize when it does not serve them. Fred mentioned, "One thing that's really different about my relationship with Mary than any other relationship I've been in, is that when we fight, we get to a certain point and we just stop fighting, because it's just, we love each other, what are we doing this for, let's not fight. And it's like that takes priority."
Mary found that a series of workshops helped her become more open to the idea of being sexual with others, because they helped her to start looking at things in a different way. The first of the workshops "probably had the most impact of sort of shifting my - or opening my view of thinking more that relationships and sex can mean more and different things than [our current] society would typically value."
Mary pointed out that they moved at the pace of the slowest person, what she referred to as the "slowest common denominator." She felt that this has been extremely important for them in evolving comfortable relationships with others.
Fred makes a conscious choice to put Mary and the needs of their relationship over his own desires. He commented on commitment, "It just means that I sort of hold myself back from following my impulses and that I put her first and I make a conscious choice to have this relationship be primary and I just don't let anything else get started unless it's okay with both of us."
Communication and trust are very important for them. For Mary, commitment is "like a foundation of trust and communication and an intention of being in something for the long haul so that if bumps arise along the way, or issues come up, there is the intention to work things through instead of walking away from them." It is "kind of like this foundation of trust and respect and promise to work on things together and grow together." She said they had been able to continue to grow together because she feels that Fred is totally open. Fred said he does not "really worry about us growing apart without knowing it because I think we're pretty good about communicating what's going on."
Evelyn and Scott are another couple who emphasize communication skills. They have a written relationship agreement (for themselves and for all people who are sexually or romantically involved with them) which includes a stipulation that "All relationship partners agree to use good communications skills to the best of their ability, and to continue to better those skills within themselves." In addition, personal growth is a primary value.
They both commented on observing someone who had a two year cycle of relationships, with the same problems recurring each time. They agreed to a commitment to work through any problems that came up. They would only split up if it still made sense to do so once the issue had been resolved as well as it could be. This is clearly a challenging process. As Evelyn expressed it, "Polyamory tends to be a crucible in which you either figure out how to do relationships or the relationships are transformed into something else. And so we've been smelted down and remade a number of times in this process."
They have faced some major challenges in their relationship, but as Evelyn said, "We were both committed to staying with each other and to supporting each other in our growth and it was clear to us that [polyamory] was our path." Scott noted that, "I'm committed to doing everything that's humanly possible to try to make our relationship be one that we're both happy with."
Evelyn observed that being in a couple "provides a lot of sense of center, a sense of stability."
Currently they are experiencing some tensions about the direction of their business and a difference in approach to life. They still feel close. Evelyn stated, "We're close, but we're having some disagreements about business." Scott noted that their current fighting "dampens my sense of closeness in an immediate sense. But it also is the case that there's another sense of closeness which is about the relationship in the longer term which isn't really impacted by it."
John and Jackie also recognize the importance of good communication. John noted that "To be truly committed to a person, you need to have real open, honest communication with that person." Jackie's advice to people who are interested in polyamory was, "You need to be honest, you need to communicate, you need to let somebody know how important they are to you, and how much they mean to you." She said she feels that polyamory has made her a better communicator, it has helped her be more open about what she wants. Another advantage of polyamory is that it also allows them to talk openly and honestly about their attractions to other people. Jackie appreciates having the "consistent, loving support" that comes from being in a couple, and loves "having somebody to come home to, to be happy with, or to talk about."
To John, "Commitment really is just another word for loyalty, just honesty, respect, and the desire to do anything for another person... Commitment is about having a strong bond based on those things, the desire to see the person that you love happy." Openness and trust are also important elements of a strong commitment, a strong bond. He said he does not know of anyone who has a stronger commitment than he has to Jackie, and he has never felt closer to anyone than he has to Jackie.
The challenge they are facing is that Jackie has become deeply involved with another woman, Jenny, who is not yet comfortable with polyamory, and with sharing Jackie. Jackie had some questions about her relationship with John when she was first head over heels in love with Jenny, but has realized that she does want to be in a romantic relationship with him. She explained that, "When I try to picture my life without him, I don't like it. When I picture my future together, I picture me and him having kids together, things like that." John has been clear that he needs more time with Jackie, who has been devoting her weekends to Jenny; given that she is not home most evenings until 9, that leaves little time for John.
Carol and Pseud have also had to face a challenge to their commitment because of her relationship with another woman, Joanie. They had made an agreement to spend the nights with each other, but as Carol and Joanie became deeply involved, the two women wanted to spend some nights together. Furthermore, Carol and Pseud had agreed to give each other veto power over their other relationships. Carol explained, "We had veto power either way, that if we felt the other person was hurting our relationship that we would veto that and it would have to end."
Carol was in a quandary. If she ignored Pseud's desire for her to come home for the night, it could risk the end of her relationship with Pseud (or with Joanie). She did not want to risk that. So they kept talking; she was unwilling to surrender to his desire when she knew that she would continue to resent him for that.
When Pseud was willing to relinquish his veto power, she recognized that she needed to make the boundaries. She found that "There was a definite shift in me, I actually started being more conscious of his needs and wants."
One thing that helped Carol maintain her commitment to Pseud while she was very much in love with Joanie was looking at the meaning of sex. She asked, "What do you make sex mean, what do you make it mean that this person wants to be with somebody else, what do you make it mean when you want to be with somebody else?" She created her own meaning: "I made it mean, this is New Relationship Energy, this is very exciting, this is not the kind of love that I have with Pseud. I put certain meanings on that, which is probably what made it a little more easy to deal with." Having concepts such as New Relationship Energy was a help: "Because I know that NRE is NRE, it helped a lot. I had the concept that yes, this is normal, this doesn't mean I love her and not love him."
In discussing commitment, Carol observed,
On one level, commitment means that I will be present with you, I will be truthful and honest with you, you are my primary partner in life, I intend to keep you as my primary partner in life but I am not promising that I will do that, that my commitment to you is that I will do my very, very, very best to work out the very, very best solution that I can.
She explained that she is deeply in love with Pseud and cannot imagine what would separate them, but, in my words, she values herself above her relationship:
The commitment part is that I will do my very best, in spite of NRE, in spite of whatever, that you are my partner and I will work out whatever I can work out to stay with you, and I'm clear that if it turned into a bad toxic situation that I couldn't work things out, that I'm out of here. That word is not above my life energy value.
Later she commented, "It's about a commitment to growth and relating rather than keeping the relationship together."
Commitment to Pseud "means a promise that you try real hard to go with. In the case of Carol, we're committed to each other." When asked to elaborate, he continued, "It means that we have a very strong bond, we care about each other very, very much."
Pseud explained that commitment to honesty is paramount. "We talk things over and push for 100% honesty, and that is the bedrock, one of the major keys of our successful relationship." Carol clearly agrees: "One thing that Pseud and I have always been extremely clear about is being honest with each other. We made an agreement the first long date that we would push for 100% honesty." Later she explained, "The thing that creates the bond most I think is the honesty and the ability to work through conflict and the ability to, when we're upset with each other, find out what it is about us that - what's the button, what's the hook." So she can get annoyed at him, but together they figure out the problem and come back to a loving space.
Communication and emotional connection is important for Rogelio. He explained that "My desire with Shakti is a deeper need for emotional connection and acknowledging that need." Furthermore, "We communicate, we talk about our emotions, we explore what we feel like today is not allowing us to connect, but it's more on a feeling level, on an emotional level than whether we have really great sex and now we feel really close to each other." There is more to emotional connection than sex: "My sense is that people mistake sexual expression and the connection that gets created emotionally by having sex with emotional connection." If we conflate the meaning of sex with emotional connection, we restrict ourselves unnecessarily: "Seeing that aspect of the physical pleasure as meeting your emotional needs is really limiting, it's like only seeing one aspect of what is this vast, bounteous potential."
Commitment for Rogelio is
Saying I'm going to do something and doing it. It's being willing to set my needs aside to meet someone else's needs or expectations in the hope that I'm building a relationship that has a sense of stability. Commitment is pretty serious. It means getting in there and digging in the trenches with someone... It's like a commitment to grow old together.
He is committed to Shakti as his life partner in a primary relationship. Commitment also involves
being willing to show up and confront other people on the parts of them that aren't real... And saying, I think you're fucking up here. And welcoming that in another person as a spiritual exercise. That to me is the ultimate commitment. Commitment to one's spiritual growth.
Shakti described Rogelio as her lifemate. She said, "I think the biggest commitment I have with Rogelio is to show up and tell the truth." This is not a commitment to make the relationship last, but rather, "It's a commitment to make the relationship as truthful, as deep, as mutually supportive, as evolving for the other person and for ourselves as possible." Allowing for change is important. What she would tell others, whether polyamorous or monogamous, about commitment is,
Commitment that is something set in stone is a faulty commitment, because it means that you've somehow gone to sleep on what is true and real and if you really want to be committed for the rest of your life to this person, you're going to need to keep showing up and finding out what's true in that moment so that you can keep evolving together, because if you're committed to some ideal or some pretense, it's going to backfire.
Although Shakti is "awed that we're so close after 10 years, and there's a part of me that would love to keep evolving together, till we die," she recognizes that "there might be some time when it's really clear to me that this, that I can't keep living this way" (referring to an issue that is not related to polyamory). She recognizes that being part of a couple is something that is ingrained in us: "The air we breathe is coupleness... One of the biggest advantages is fitting in to the society." However, there's a personal aspect as well: "I just love having a witness that's a day to day witness to my life." She has tried communal living situations, but they are difficult: "Every additional person is exponentially more processing."
What is clear in talking with all of these couples is that they are together because they want to be, because their relationship gives them pleasure and joy and enhances their life, even if it presents difficult challenges at times. Their relationships add value to their lives. None of them are in the kind of relationship that seems dead or that hangs on solely because of inertia or obligation. Their primary partners are very important to them, and they are willing to work hard to maintain those relationships.
Couples who wish to maintain a primary bond with each other while also having other intimate partners have often put considerable thought into how to avoid threatening their relationship, and how to keep it strong and vital. There are different aspects to this. One is to have agreements or ground rules, of which a prominent one is veto power. Some activities may be reserved for the primary couple, although that did not show up in any absolute sense in this sample. In addition, couples may do specific things together to keep their love alive. They also have to learn to deal with jealousy.
There was a universal concern about safer sex. Some couples may reserve unprotected sex for each other, others may not. In three cases the couples mentioned being part of a larger fluid-bonded group (meaning they are not using barriers to prevent the exchange of fluids during sex). In one case, the couple are fluid-bonded with the other-gender member of another couple, and also with another woman, but use safer sex with other sexual partners. The other fluid-bonded groups are involved in what is sometimes called a line, because there are two people (on either end of the line) who only have sex with one person in the group, and the others each have sex with two other people in the group. For example, in one case the couple is at one end of a five person line consisting of the man, his wife, her lover, her lover's wife, and the lover's wife's lover. The other case appeared to involve a seven person line. Again, some members of these fluid-bonded groups have other sexual partners with whom they use safer sex.
Definitions of safer sex vary, and the interviewer did not ask what exactly the participants meant by safer sex (e.g. just condom use or also barriers for oral sex, the use of latex gloves, etc.), though in some cases an interviewee brought it up. Some of the couples have levels of safer sex, the level of barrier required depending on how much is known about the person, how safe their behavior is, and their STD testing status.
While this may not seem to have to do with maintaining the primary bond, it definitely has to do with creating safety. In addition, as Evelyn pointed out, some people confuse the emotional issue of safer sex (or sex with another partner at all) with the epidemiological (disease) issue. She suggested that these issues should be addressed separately.
Veto power, or the agreement that one person can veto the other's relationship with an outside partner, is widely discussed in poly groups and email lists. The fact that there is little agreement on this was reflected in this study, though in discussion groups there is often a much stronger voice in favor of veto power.
In only one case did both members of the couple mention veto power, and that was the case where, although they had agreed upon it at one time, they are again negotiating about it because one person is recognizing that it is not good for her to have it hanging over her head, and her husband still wants it. In one case neither of the couple mentioned veto power. In two cases one person did not mention it, and the person who did was clearly opposed to the concept. In the other three cases one member mentioned that veto power was in their agreements, but the other did not. Each of these is a different situation. In one, both partners are present when they are sexual, so it might seem obvious that they will be in agreement about their sexual partners. In another, the person who mentioned it said she would not be willing to use it for fear of appearing controlling. Her partner has not used it or indicated any desire for it, so it seems like a moot point. In the final case, the veto was ultimately used once, by the person who mentioned it, but in a situation where it might not be an issue currently because of the other agreements which they now have.
Note, however, that what people mean by veto power varies. One woman who said that she and her husband do not have veto power, that they do not in principle believe in it, also stated that, "If he got involved with somebody I thought was actively trying to harm our relationship, I wouldn't tolerate that, and I wouldn't expect him to." Some people would consider this having veto power; the issue is under what conditions someone would use it.
All of the participants stressed honesty and communication. Scott noted the lack of models for people who are polyamorous, but suggested that the thing that most poly people would agree on is the importance of "Open, honest communication." His observation was accurate for the study group.
Rogelio's emphasis was on being authentic. Communicating is important in maintaining their relationship. Fred does not worry about growing apart because his communication with Mary is good. John and Jackie both stressed the need for open, honest communication. Carol and Pseud committed to pushing for 100% honesty. Shakti emphasized that their main agreement was to "to show up and tell the truth."
There are some poly people who have a "Don't ask, don't tell" agreement. No members of this study group acknowledged having such an agreement, and some respondents specifically commented that they did not like that model and did not see how it could work.
There were a number of other agreements that were mentioned. Some people try to let each other know before they are sexual with someone new. Others, if they are traveling, agree to tell each other as soon as they can thereafter. Some noted the importance of being careful to be sensitive to each other's needs, which may be different from their own. For example, Shakti needs reassurance when Rogelio is going off on a date, but he needs to have some connection with her partners.
As mentioned above, some people have agreements about spending the night with each other even if they have spent the evening with a lover. Some agree not to use their bed with a secondary partner, or only under special circumstances. In most cases the respondents said they want to get to know someone their primary partner is going to see on a regular basis. Paul mentioned that they do not discuss their couple-related issues with others. Jerry and Annie commented that they never shut each other out, so they can walk in on each other even in a sexual situation if they need to. Also, they never refuse sex with the other, although they can negotiate the timing. Evelyn and Scott have a written list of agreements.
Most people talked about making sure to spend enough time together, and sometimes going away together. Communication was acknowledged as very important in keeping their bond alive. For those who had a common business, working on that together was a bonding experience (though it also created tensions). A number of people mentioned working on personal growth and self-awareness together, and attending workshops together. Shakti commented that the intention to stay together helps, and also that sleeping in the same bed together may create a psychic bond. Carol said they work hard for a win-win solution rather than a compromise, and she stands up for what she wants. For some, being sexual together with a third person or another couple is part of what energizes their relationship.
Two couples mentioned a daily practice that involved some time spent focusing on each other. Paul and Lizful described their full moon and horned moon celebrations, which are times for deep connection, special sexual exploration, and a focus on pleasuring one of them.
All of the participants have had to deal with jealousy, whether their own or their partner's, and usually both. Some people mentioned that how they handle their jealousy is a common question that other people ask them when they discuss polyamory.
John's comment exemplifies the most common response: "If I'm jealous or upset about something, then we'll talk about it and I'll get over it." Later he observed, "Everyone goes through that, jealousy's natural, you just have to learn how to get through that." On the rare occasions that it occurs, Jerry talks himself out of it. Several others also talk their way through jealousy.
Several people worked to identify the roots of the problem. Pseud recognized his jealousy as a fear of abandonment. Annie noted that
Jealousy for me is around my anxiety issues... this is change, what is this going to mean. Is it going to mess things up? Is it going to hurt me? Is it going to hurt us? ... And it's not about sex. It's about how is this going to change our relationship.
Lizful found that the normal ways of dealing with jealousy did not work for her, and with much exploration discovered that "the closest I could come to saying what hurts has to do with my being literally non-existent." She felt like she did not exist when Paul was with someone else.
Some respondents said it was helpful simply to recognize that jealousy is a feeling like other feelings, and let it pass. Scott, who had struggled a lot with jealousy, discovered some research that gave him a model for how jealousy works in the brain. This allowed him to notice jealousy as a reaction and not let it run him.
There were some specific suggestions. A friend of Jackie's encouraged her to make plans for nights when John was on a date. She found that it was very helpful to go out and do something she enjoyed so she would not be home thinking about how much fun he was having.
Some people found that having sex together (as a threesome or foursome) reduced the likelihood of jealousy. Some do this as a general practice. Others, like Annie, do it on occasion:
I advise people because a lot of people who are exploring polyamory talk to us about jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy. Our response is go to bed together. All of you. Because I learned with Jerry early that if I watched him make love with someone else or I was part of that, that's much better for me. Not all the time, but once or twice. Because I think people, they're speculating, wondering, is it better with this partner, what are they doing - well, go see. Really, I think it takes away one major cause of jealousy. It's just sex.
Our culture assumes that monogamy is better than nonmonogamy. Many sing the praises of monogamy and write about its benefits (see the literature review in chapter 2). People who are polyamorous clearly find enough value in polyamory to go against the societal norms and expand their relationships to include additional intimate partners. What inspires them to do this? How do the people in this study conceptualize the benefits of polyamory?
While everyone recognized some challenges in being polyamorous, the foremost of which was time, they all were enthusiastic about their own participation. The benefits fell into a number of different categories.
As mentioned above, Evelyn commented on polyamory as a crucible. Scott suggested that "You need to take on poly as a path for long term personal growth, because if you don't, you'll be taking it on as a path for long term personal suffering." He liked the personal growth path. In discussing the challenges inherent in polyamory, Carol remarked, "Challenges can be disruptive, but I see basically challenges are growth-promoting, and that's a big value for me." Annie observed, "I also think [polyamory] facilitates your growth, your maturity, it's just so much more interesting because you are confronted with things that are difficult sometimes." There were many other comments indicating that the speaker had learned a great deal about communication in the process of working on the issues that were brought up by polyamory. It is clear that personal growth is highly valued by this group of people. As Shakti noted, "It's kind of hard to stay asleep when you're poly."
Closely related to personal growth is the value placed on truth and honesty. All of the participants mentioned honesty. As described above, some of them included honesty in their core agreements about their relationship and about dealing with polyamory. Paul listed having to be more honest as a benefit of polyamory. Fred explained that it allows him to be honest about his feelings: "I used to have this secret that I was really attracted to all my friends. Now it doesn't have to be secret." For Lizful, the concept of being in complete honesty has been a great asset. Polyamory required it: "I think it makes a huge difference, the level of openness and communication and honesty that you have to do if you're being poly, that you ought to do anyway." Rogelio expressed a sense that being intimate with more than one person is "going to demand that you show up more honestly, where you can kind of hide out with one person and not be authentic." Since he values authenticity, this is clearly a benefit. In a previous relationship, Carol felt she had to cheat or be frustrated sexually. She much prefers to be both honest and satisfied.
In polyamory, some of the participants found a greater connection with others and a community that was supportive. They felt they had more love in the lives than they would have had otherwise.
As Lizful expressed it, "It's one way of having a wider community of people with whom you can rejoice and on whom you can count if you need help. Some people do it through their church, but the same kind of thing, you can do it through your poly." Rogelio finds it helpful to get support from a lover who has intimate knowledge of him. His heart opens in polyamory, and he feels more compassion. Scott believes that "poly benefits people by making a stronger community." For him, polyamory is about building an extended family. John remarked that "Polyamory is about soaking up as much love as possible, from every source." Carol noted that it allows her to "experience others more deeply and more intimately," especially emotionally.
Lizful's first response to the question about the benefits of polyamory was, "Well, it's fun. Let us not neglect the fact that it's fun."
The fun is not all about sex. Carol appreciated having "a lot more people I can laugh and play with on a more fun level." In addition, "We're more playful when we're with a 3rd person than we were when we're just by ourselves." Carol also expressed enjoyment of the ease of touch she found in the poly community: "For me it provides a lot of sensual nonsexual [touch] - polyamorous people are more likely to be open to being sensual and touching and giving nurturing touch than non-polyamorous people, in my experience."
The participants enjoyed the ability to experience a greater variety in their sexuality. Some felt they learned more about sex by experiencing different people; they learned more about their own sexual responses as well as how to be a better lover. One woman specifically mentioned finding that some sexual positions worked well with one person but not another. Having sex with a lover who had a small penis allowed her to see that intercourse did not have to be painful; subsequently her physical problem was diagnosed and corrected surgically.
For some people this is a natural way to express their sexuality. As Fred explained, "I really love the feeling of being sexual in a group. I just love the feeling of connection with everybody. I just love it. I had dreams about it when I was about 12 years old."
A number of people observed that polyamory had improved their primary relationship. One of the ways this happened was that some people felt an extra sexual juiciness. Some of this was from New Relationship Energy. One woman said she had more and better sex when she had an outside relationship. Part of this may have come from the energy of her partner reclaiming her when she returned home from seeing a lover: "He never says it, but there's an energetic, You are mine, and that is played out sexually. It's great and delicious."
Another way to bring the NRE home for Scott was to notice what he was doing for his new lover, think about what he would tend to do for Evelyn under similar circumstances, and do it.
One woman said, " I get more turned on in my life... [there are] more hues to the pleasure spectrum." She remarked, "The best part of the benefits is the variety of loving attention and experiences of pleasure in a responsible way."
Clearly growth and honesty are also factors in improving the primary relationship.
The people who commented on kids included the parents with a child currently at home, people who have not yet had children but plan to do so, and parents of adult children who either came to polyamory after their children were adults, or whose children did not know about the parents' involvement in nonmonogamy while they were still at home.
All of those who commented on children thought that polyamory was beneficial for the children. Other adults can help raise the kids. If the other adults are local, "The kids are never on the shorts for somebody who can pay attention to them." The kids have more role models. The parents suggested I interview both the child and her older stepsister, but I told them that that would have to wait for a different study.
Polyamory gives people more choice. For two of the women it gave them an opportunity to explore serious emotional and sexual relationships with women as well as with men. For some people, it gave them more freedom to explore sexually. They could partake in activities (whether sexual or nonsexual) that their primary partners were not interested in with their lovers. One man said it allows him to explore what relationships are, and gives him the freedom to explore where a relationship naturally wants to go. As one woman stated, " I have a sense of that wonderful combination of freedom and commitment." Another commented, "One of my big challenges in life has been being able to make choices, to feel that I am at choice, and by choosing polyamory I am choosing a path of choice... I equally believe that monogamy needs to be a choice too."
Polyamory is natural for Annie: "Finally I get to be who I am. I'm an open, honest, loving person who's not risking creaming somebody by having another relationship." Some others also felt they had had a natural tendency towards polyamory since they were very young.
Some people specifically appreciated not conforming to society's norms. One commented, "I know that there are some subset of people who like being poly or pagan or queer or whatever because they like tweaking the noses of the societal structure that hurt them when they were kids, whether that's Christianity or whatever. I know for me that was much more important when I was younger." Another appreciated not being "like the mainstream, out of integrity, world." However, when the desire for nonconformity was present, it seemed to be a side benefit, not the main attraction.
The people who were interviewed all found their participation in polyamory satisfying. They have different ways of relating to others sexually. Some relationships are separate, some are joint. Some secondary relationships are long term, others more casual.
Their commitment varied from absolute to a commitment to work out their issues to recognizing that there could be deal breakers. Their appreciation and enjoyment of each other were primary factors in keeping them together.
Honesty and communication are important tools in maintaining the primary bond. The couples all have some type of safer sex agreement. They have different attitudes towards veto power. They have found a way to deal with jealousy.
For these participants, the benefits of polyamory include personal growth, a need for truth and honesty, greater love, connection and community, more enjoyable sex and more fun. They find it improves their primary relationship. Those who mention children think polyamory is beneficial for them. They like having a choice about their relationships.
(c) 2005 by Elaine Cook