Commitment in Polyamorous Relationships
Chapter 5: Discussion
This chapter starts with some comments on the ways that the sample may not be representative of people who are polyamorous. It then has a summary of the common factors in these relationships which contributed to their success, followed by some general observations from the study. Next there is a section which discusses the reasons for monogamy which were given in chapter 2 in light of the results. A section on possible conclusions from the research is followed by a section on possible future research.
The people who participated in this study are clearly not a representative sample of the poly community in general, or even of those in long term committed relationships. Some attributes of the sample are examined in this section.
There was a shortage of parents with children at home in this sample - only one such couple was included. Why were there so few? Is this representative of the poly community as a whole?
In this author's opinion, this is likely to have to do with the time factor. For some people, working and raising children does not leave any extra time to consider having additional relationships, especially ones which require a lot of talking and processing, so they are not actively polyamorous while they are raising children. For others, they are simply too busy to be part of a study. They may not have heard about it because they do not have time to be on the email lists which were used to solicit participants, and even if they have time for email, the one to three hour interview for each person may have seemed unmanageable.
Without a carefully designed study, it is not possible to know whether fewer people in the poly community have children at home than in society at large, and if so, whether people currently raising children are less likely to become polyamorous, or people who are polyamorous are less likely to subsequently have children. The effect of the combination of polyamory and raising children on the stability of the primary relationship is also unknown.
The high average age of the sample may also be a factor in the lack of children at home, which leads to a question about why it is so high. This may be because of greater time availability (some of the participants are retired, others are not working full time jobs), or simply because the groups that this interviewer used for recruitment purposes are less appealing to the younger generation of adults.
It is also possible that younger adults do not engage in this type of type of behavior as much, have not yet had time to discover that there is a like-minded community, or simply do not feel a need for a community.
Note that couples who are interested in a polyfidelitous (similar to monogamous but with more than two people in the relationship) relationship are naturally excluded from this study. Either they are part of a larger group, and therefore no longer simply a couple, or they have not yet found other partners for their group, and therefore are not in multiple ongoing relationships.
The study group members appeared to be exclusively white, which was unsurprising given the author's experience that the vast majority of people who participate in organized poly activities are white. Possible reasons for this would need to be addressed in another study.
While there was no specific question about education in the interviews, it was clear from occupations and from comments made that the majority of the people in the sample were at least college educated, and many had further education. This is consistent with the author's impression of the poly community in general, that most people who identify as polyamorous are well educated, whether formally or, in some cases, informally. This researcher speculates that people who are educated are more likely to be able to find a subset of the society that is outside their original social group, and perhaps also more likely to be willing to question the traditional values that would discourage them from becoming members of that community. It is possible that if information about polyamory becomes more widely available, especially on television, that this might change.
There are some common factors in these long term polyamorous relationships that might provides clues as to why they have been successful.
One thing that stands out in the interviews is the level of appreciation expressed by the respondents. They have a great deal of appreciation for each other and for their relationship. They want to be together, they enjoy their relationships. Some of this comes from a sense of shared history. Some appreciate the effort that the other has put into the relationship in difficult times, or the other's willingness at times to relax the agreements they have made. Some of the respondents seem to dwell on what it is that they like about each other and the good things that they have together.
Appreciation can be helpful for any relationship. Gottman and DeClaire remarked that "Our research shows that married couples who regularly express their appreciation for each other have much happier, stronger marriages" (2001, p. 79). They include an exercise on how to "transform a crabby, critical habit of mind to one that praises and appreciates." The relationships examined in this study are in accord with their findings.
Perhaps related to appreciation, the participants expressed a sense of closeness to their primary partner. Several expressed the sense that they just keep getting closer and closer. Some feel an underlying closeness even if they are currently experiencing some tension or are in the midst of reworking their agreements.
Since only committed couples were included in the study, perhaps couples who do not feel close to each other have been weeded out. However, if that is the case, it adds credibility to the idea that nurturing a sense of closeness is one of the ways to help maintain commitment. What is interesting is that for some of these couples, being polyamorous appears to have increased their sense of closeness and their commitment to each other. Some of this closeness appears to be a result of the communication needed to manage a polyamorous relationship.
As Lizful noted, the level of honesty and communication required to be polyamorous is one that all couples should practice, but it is required for polyamory to work. Communication and honesty were mentioned repeatedly as vital to maintaining poly relationships. As Mary mentioned, being polyamorous "is forcing us to communicate, and that's always a good thing." Jackie noted that in a monogamous relationship, "there isn't that constant need to maintain communication."
Good communication was seen by the participants as both a requirement to make their relationships work, and a benefit of being in a poly relationship.
All of the respondents have had to make changes in their relationships, changes which are not part of the standard expected experience of marriage. They have had to listen to their partner's expressed needs and desires, and work with their partner to figure out what works for both of them. They have had to be adaptable. We might speculate that someone with fairly rigid ideas of how things should be done might have a difficult time in a polyamorous relationship, or in any long term relationship.
While a few of the participants did not experience any jealousy, most of them have had to find ways to avoid letting it control them. They have been willing to face it and let it pass. They have actively worked on finding ways to reduce its hold on them, and on helping their partners manage it as well.
The issues that Carol and Pseud were trying to work through related to veto power and their agreement to spend nights together have some very interesting implications for what enables a couple to stay together happily.
Carol had the wisdom to recognize that acquiescing to Pseud's desire to spend all their nights together when she very much wanted to spend the night with Joanie would not be healthy. She saw only two good choices. One was surrender, "meaning let go of my want, honor his want, and do it in a way of love so that I don't resent it." Since she was not able to do that, she had to take the other option, namely to keep talking about what she wanted and needed, even though that involved a lot of crying. She had to stand up for her needs and desires.
Pseud was able to recognize that Carol's desire for a night with Joanie was more important than his desire for her to come home. As he said, it was not a deal breaker. He did not want her to feel resentment towards him, so he was willing to let go of their agreement, or at least to loosen it.
This incident points to the limitation of agreements.
Agreements can be helpful, but they also need to be flexible. What one person agrees to at one point in a relationship is not necessarily what will work twenty, ten, five or even one year later. There can come a point when one person says, enough, I can't do this any more. The partner can try to hold him or her to the agreement, but at that point that will likely lead either to resentment and a deterioration of the relationship, or to a breakup. If both partners can be flexible, and do as Carol mentioned (which is look for a win-win resolution) then the relationship, with modified agreements, is more likely to survive.
A corollary to this is that, as Schnarch (1998) pointed out, when your partner's happiness is as important to you as your own happiness (as happens when people love each other), it is in your self interest to find a way to do the things that will make your partner happy.
In a healthy relationship this could lead a couple to assess the relative importance of their desires in a particular situation, and give priority to the person with the stronger need or desire. As long as both partners are doing this with a willingness to be flexible, they are more likely to create the kind of relationship that will work for both of them.
Agreements are also limited by the willingness of the people involved to stretch and push their boundaries. Moving at the pace of the slowest person worked for Mary and Fred, because there was movement. They moved forward at a pace they both felt comfortable with. In poly groups an agreement to move at the pace of the slowest is often promoted; however, there is also discussion of the problem that occurs when the slowest person stops moving. In principle he or she may be willing to allow his or her partner to have other relationships, but in practice there is always some reason the particular one in question is unacceptable. At some point such agreements are likely to break down.
Couples sometimes have opposing desires which they both feel very strongly about. For couples in the study, it could have to do with polyamory, but it could just as easily have to do with whether or not to have children, or where to live, or many other types of choices that have to be made. How can these be resolved? Lizful mentioned a process which had been extremely helpful for her and Paul, called the heartshare, which she said they learned from an article by the UV Family (the UV Family is a group of people dedicated to exploring new territory in relationships. For information about them, see http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC10/UVFamily.htm). She described it as follows:
You sit down and one person is the initiator, you sit down and the initiator simply talks for as long as it's necessary to do it. Basically it's coming from, this is what I'm feeling, this is what's going on, this is - I'm opening to you, trusting you to not get hurt personally, to be able to take it. It's not venting... This isn't trying to punch somebody out. It's basically a no-holds-barred opening. And the business of the person who's listening is to totally refrain from not only saying anything, because you must remain completely silent, but you don't start building your rebuttal in your mind. You don't do anything other than hear. You just fucking listen. And then, when it's run its course, the listener can say, Can you talk to me more about this? I'm not sure that I got that. Or, if I tried to express something back to you like this, would I be saying it right? And then that's it.
There's no rebuttal. Now you can turn around the other way, and the other person does their own, but it's not on the basis of what you just said. It's not a response. It's what the other person would have said if they went first. And then that's it. That's it. And you'd think, by god, there's no communication, oh yes there is... It's absolutely mutually agreed that ... the only thing that's going to flow from it is an embrace, and if there's something that wants further clarification, then you do. And that has been - oh, it's made such a difference.
Here are some general observations from the study.
A common comment used to justify polyamory is that one person should not have to (or cannot) meet all of another person's needs. This type of comment showed up during the interviews, and the author has heard it many times elsewhere. However, this did not really seem to be a prime motivator in the study sample.
For two women, being polyamorous allowed them to have emotional and sexual relationships with both women and men, although in one of those cases, the woman identifies as a lesbian, and her male primary partner is "grandfathered" in. (None of the men indicated a romantic or sexual interest in other men, though there are many men in the poly community in general who are bisexual). In some cases, one person enjoys some particular types of sexual activities with his or her secondary partner that the primary partner is not interested in, but that seemed to be a benefit rather than the motivating force behind the secondary relationship.
Some people recognized that they were not successful at monogamy. Annie mentioned that she and Jerry agreed that since they had both failed at monogamy, they would not attempt it again. Perhaps this could be construed as polyamory helping them meet their need or desire for multiple partners.
In the monogamous paradigm, as discussed in the review of literature, sexual intimacy needs to be reserved for one person. The participants in this study have created a different meaning for sex and intimacy, one that allows them to maintain a strong primary bond with one other person while also allowing them to experience closeness, connection, intimacy and sexuality with other people as well. As described above, Mary and Carol both explicitly commented on the meaning of sex. Mary noted that experiencing a shift in the meaning of sex had allowed her to become open to polyamory, and Carol described how she consciously created a meaning that allowed her to keep her relationship with Joanie from becoming threatening to her primary relationship.
Mint (2004) noted that the enforcement of monogamous behavior extends well beyond actual sexual behavior and includes restrictions on "Spending time alone with someone..., holding hands, and of course flirting, touching, or smiling too much. All of these actions are signifiers of a possible sexual relationship in our culture, and this is what makes them socially dangerous" (p. 60). Some people who are polyamorous have redefined the meaning of touch as well as of sex so that it is no longer necessarily dangerous. This is shown in Carol's observation that in her experience polyamorous people were more open to sensuality and touch.
Redefining the meaning of sex, intimacy, and touch allows people greater opportunities for having those experiences. It gives them a greater choice in how they relate with other people and allows them to explore what types of activities are most satisfying for them.
Schnarch (1991, 1998) proposed that the monogamy provides a crucible for growth. He suggested that the purpose of monogamous marriage was to produce differentiation: integrity, the ability to stand up for what you believe in, the ability to maintain a clear sense of self in close proximity to a partner. This requires the willingness to risk your partner's displeasure rather than letting the relationship deteriorate because talking about what you really want seems too risky. He stated that other relationships detract from this.
This might be true for clandestine affairs, which allow people to meet their sexual needs without having to confront their partner. However, when people are open and honest about their relationships, it appears that they have to grow and engage in the type of communication and confrontation which encourages differentiation. As Evelyn commented, polyamory tends to be a crucible. It forces growth - or the couple may split up.
Making conscious choices may be a greater factor in differentiation than the particular choice (such as whether or not to be monogamous).
While some people in the poly community are adamantly against the open couple model, as was evident in some of the responses to the solicitation for participants in this study, the respondents appreciated having the daily connection with another person and the ongoing support they found in their relationship. However, some of them could imagine the same benefits in a triad or larger configuration of committed partners. Some appreciated the ease of fitting into society as part of a couple, as well as the practical benefits that come from marriage (such as tax or health insurance benefits). Some also noted the growth opportunities that come with a long term relationship.
Chapter 2 examined some reasons given in the literature for monogamy. This section responds to those reasons based on the observations of the participants.
As we have seen, people who are not monogamous can still be very committed to each other. For some, the pleasure bond that Masters and Johnson (1974) discussed can even be enhanced by sharing with others sexually.
While the respondents did not specifically talk about healing, and certainly not the type of physical healing discussed by Pearsall (1994), they did talk about growth. Some of them mentioned that polyamory is one of the growth paths that people can take. There were even some comments that people who are not interested in and willing to work on growth should not choose polyamory. This emphasis on growth may provide the opportunity to heal childhood wounds, which Hendrix (1990) emphasized as the purpose of monogamous marriage.
While not many people specifically mentioned spirituality in the context of polyamory, for those that did, it was a positive element. One example is Rogelio's comment that welcoming being confronted when one is not fully authentic is a commitment to spiritual growth. Similarly, Carol, who said that "a lot of being in a relationship is about emotional and spiritual growth," commented that for her personally polyamory is more spiritual than monogamy.
While they would probably agree with Moschetta and Moschetta (1998) about the presence of a spiritual element in strong and vibrant marriages, they clearly disagree that that necessarily leads to choosing monogamy.
This paper has presented the observations of seven long term committed polyamorous couples about their relationships. It has portrayed some ways two people can be in a committed relationship with each other without using sexual exclusivity to protect their connection; in other words, some of the ways that people who are not monogamous have organized their emotional lives to maintain a strong couple bond over the long term while at the same time they develop emotional and sexual bonds with others. It has described the ways the participants handle multiple relationships, the ways they view their commitment to each other and nurture it, the ways they handle jealousy, and the benefits they perceive in polyamory. These relationships are custom made, created by each couple to meet their own needs.
The cohesive factors which have been discussed by the participants are mutual appreciation, emotional closeness, good communication, and flexibility. They have embraced honesty and personal growth.
This study suggests that the desire to be together and finding value in the relationship can be a major factor in the success of relationships. These couples stay together because they want to be together. What this suggests for relationships in general is that attention needs to be focused on what is working well in a relationship, not just on what needs to be changed. To encourage marriages to last, it may be more important to help couples stay in touch with the qualities they appreciate in each other than to stress the obligation they incurred in marrying.
The couples in this study manage to keep a focus on each other, even though their attention is also on others. They pay attention to and nourish their relationships. This suggests that one of the factors for a successful relationship may be to avoid taking each other for granted, to pay attention to each other and nurture each other.
The respondents do not get trapped by their concept of what they should be doing, but talk with each other about what they want and how to create it. They keep a perspective that helps them avoid getting too caught up in NRE, in new love, by recognizing that this is a stage and the current excitement does not mean that the new relationship is better than the existing one. So flexibility and the willingness to be creative in finding the ways of relating that work for both partners are other factors in commitment.
Since there has been little research on polyamory, future research could take many directions. Here are some questions that could provide a focus for future research on polyamory.
Future research on commitment in polyamorous relationships could be expanded to include triads (3 people), quads (4 people) and even larger groups. Some of these groups are polyfidelitous (meaning they are sexual only with others within the group) and others are open. How does this affect the dynamic? How do polyfidelitous groups gain new members?
A longitudinal study of people in committed poly relationships could study the differences between the couples or groups which remain together after five or ten years and those that split up. Are there some factors that are good predictors of the longevity of the relationship?
Some people prefer not to have a primary, marriage-like relationship with anybody. What types of relationships do they want? Do they create (or want to create) long term committed relationships?
Our society tends to assume that a nonmonogamous situation is bad for children, and a court may remove a child from the mother's custody simply because the mother is in a polyamorous situation (see discussion of the Divilbiss case in Emens, 2004 and Cloud, 1999).
What effect does living with parents who have open, honest, loving relationships with multiple partners really have on children? Children who are currently in that situation could be interviewed, along with adults who grew up with polyamorous parents. Does it make a difference whether the extra adult(s) live with the family or not?
What effect does having children have on people who are polyamorous? Parents who were poly before they had children as well as parents who became poly while their children were growing up could be interviewed in order to look at the effect that the children have on their connections with other adults.
Is there a correlation between polyamory and being childless? Do people who do not have children or whose children are grown up more often choose polyamory, or does being polyamorous discourage some people from having children?
What is the relative frequency of various types of poly relationships? This should include both actual situations and the ideal that people have. In addition to committed couples and groups, and people who prefer to remain single, there are people who have more than one relationship that they would consider to be primary, even though those relationships are separate.
How many people have had an affair (a clandestine relationship) even while in a polyamorous relationship? What are the factors that caused that (the relationship and the lack of communication about the relationship)? How many people who are now polyamorous had affairs in the past?
Some couples manage to maintain a relationship where one person is polyamorous and the other is monogamous by choice. In our culture, many people are more concerned about the monogamy of their partner than their own. This is an observation based on numerous discussions over the years, and is also noted by Schnarch (1991, 1998). This can make being in relationship with someone who is polyamorous particularly hard on the monogamous partner. How do these couples make their relationship work? Are there techniques that they have used which other couples in a similar situation could use?
What attitudes towards marriage do polyamorous people have? How many would like to have group marriage legalized? How many would like to abolish marriage altogether? How many would abolish marriage if some practical matters were handled, such as universal health care and an easy way to include multiple partners as members of the immediate family (for example for hospital visits)?
How do the psychological and sociological profiles of poly people compare with the general population? Do they have a different Myers-Briggs distribution, for example? Do they have a greater interest in sex than average? Do they have a greater focus on emotional intimacy than others? What was their religious upbringing and what is their current religious affiliation/identification? Do they differ from societal norms in other ways? Where are they on the political spectrum? Is there any reason polyamory would be less appealing to people of color?
The participants in this study have some noticeable differences from the general population. Among these differences are the number who have children at home, the average age, and the racial composition. The factors contributing to the success of these relationships, as mentioned by the respondents, are their appreciation of each other, their ongoing and often increasing emotional closeness, a high degree of honesty and good communication, and flexibility in meeting the desires of both people. Finding a way to meet unmet needs (other than for variety) did not seem to be a major factor in the choice of polyamory. The participants have created a different meaning for sex and intimacy than is common in the culture, and have found polyamory to be a crucible for growth. Some of the reasons given for monogamy seem to be met by polyamory. This study suggests that some of the factors for successful relationships include paying attention to each other, caring about the partner's needs and desires, finding ways to enjoy each other, focusing on what is working well, honesty, and flexibility in finding ways to relate that works for both partners. Some possible directions for future research involving polyamory were presented.
(c) 2005 by Elaine Cook