Poly Stories

What is Commitment?

A polyamorous perspective on love, sex, and relationships

By Cascade Spring Cook

(The names used are pseudonyms, the stories based on interviews)
First Published electronically by the National Sexuality Resource Center
January 12, 2007

Lou’s high school class is discussing the continuum of relationships—from uncommitted to committed bonds—and where certain behaviors fall along that line. Everything goes smoothly until the teacher puts monogamy at the extreme commitment end.

“No,” says Lou, “that’s not right. You don’t have to be monogamous in order to be committed.”

The teacher is surprised. “Of course you do.”

“No you don’t,” replies Lou, whose parents are in a committed relationship with another couple.

Finally the teacher is willing to admit that maybe it’s possible that some people could be committed but not be monogamous.

The word polyamory (“many loves”) describes a style of relating in which people are open to multiple, honest, responsible, loving, sexual relationships. These are “design your own” relationships. Not restricted by the traditional mores of marriage and monogamy, the individuals involved try to create the type of intimate connections that work for them and their partners.

What does commitment in a polyamorous relationship look like? The traditional concept of marriage and commitment doesn’t seem to be working in our society, where an estimated 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. People who are polyamorous give a different perspective about commitment, a commitment that does not require being sexually and emotionally exclusive with each other.

Till death do us part

More than forty years after they got together, Trish and Paul still have a vibrant and vital relationship. Their commitment to each other has been unwavering.

They met in a college theater class, and were drawn together by their common sense of humor. On their first date, Trish had what she describes as a very bizarre experience. Suddenly she started shuddering, shivering and crying. It took her many years to understand that she had had a premonition of the enormity of this relationship.

Within two months of that first date they were complete committed to each other. They became involved with each other with an intensity that most people would have a hard time imagining. They are with each other all day most days, and have been for most of their relationship. They work in theater together, writing, acting and producing their own plays, building the sets, and so on.

Trish admits that every seven years or so they hit a gnarly patch, but very early on they recognized that “this was a lifelong commitment, and that neither one of us would ever deviate from that.” For Paul, commitment means being there no matter what. He does not judge other people who do not stay married lifelong. But he says, “…I think I would hold it against myself very powerfully.” One of his strongest memories is of an uncle who had always fought with his wife but became a dedicated caregiver when she developed Alzheimer’s.

A decade and a half ago Trish and Paul came across information about nonmonogamous relationships and discovered that they were both interested in exploring those possibilities. They have since had relationships with other couples as well as separate lovers. Trish says being polyamorous is fun. It is a way of having “a wider community of people with whom you can rejoice and on whom you can count if you need help.”

Paul has learned a lot from the freedom to explore where a relationship may go, and feels that being with other women has helped him become a better lover. He makes sure he stays connected to Trish by spending some time every day focusing on her. They also make special dates with each other twice a month. And they make sure to sleep together every night unless they are separated by too many miles.

Paul and Trish have two children who were almost adults by the time they started exploring alternative relationships. They didn’t tell them about their new relationships until Paul realized that he might run into his son while he was walking arm in arm with another lover. He didn’t want his son to worry that the family was in trouble, so he and Trish revealed and explained the situation. The children didn’t have a lot of reaction, Paul says, other than concern about whether their parents were hurting themselves.

Conventional commitment in an unconventional family

For some people in polyamorous relationships, the commitment to be together for the rest of their lives extends to more than one person. For example, Peter and Lucy are legally married and so are Frank and Tina. However, they all consider themselves to be married to the whole group. Currently, none of them have relationships outside their family, but they have been open to that in the past, and it may happen again, although they are more likely to bring someone else into their family. Right now, however, they’re too busy for that. In addition to their jobs, they volunteer at the school of their nine-year-old daughter. They find it hard enough to find time for each other and to keep track of their complicated schedules without adding in dates with additional people.

All four of them speak of growing old together, or of being committed to their relationship for life. Their living wills and living trusts bind them together financially. Tina comments that she has no reservations about her commitment to the family. Financially, everything goes in the same pot. “We are a committed family and we’re there for each other with all the bumps and bruises and ugly spots as well as the fun stuff.” She says they have a commitment to be together for the long haul and to change together, and a commitment to work toward growing in the same direction.

Spiritual and emotional growth

Some people feel they are committed, even though they don’t promise to be together forever. For them, spiritual and emotional growth is more important in a relationship than how long it lasts. Rogelio and Shakti, both about 50 years old, have been together for ten years, and they still feel a deep emotional connection with each other. Shakti has also been seeing Zeke for about four years, and Rogelio has an ongoing relationship with a woman who only has time to see him once or twice a month.

Shakti describes herself as an ambivalent polyamorist. She is still dealing with the sense that she should be able to get everything she wants from Rogelio. However her previous relationships never lasted more than three years, and even though she sought monogamy at that time, she still found excuses to have affairs in the longer of those relationships.

She appreciates the very different energies she experiences with Rogelio and Zeke. Rogelio is her life partner. They’re compatible and they’re good friends, she says.

They enjoy sex together, but cuddling is more important. Zeke brings out her more erotic side, and she enjoys the showers of verbal adoration that she receives from him.

Shakti and Rogelio focused on each other for the first three years they were together, though they were always willing to appreciate the beauty of other people, and to point out to each other someone they found particularly attractive.

One of the benefits that Rogelio finds in polyamory is that with several people who know every wart and every freckle, it’s hard to hide out. When you have just one partner you can avoid showing yourself fully, but when more than one person tells you that you’re not being authentic, you have to pay attention.

Authenticity is very important to Rogelio. He believes that commitment 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 from another person as a spiritual exercise. That to me is the ultimate commitment. Commitment to one’s spiritual growth.”

Shakti also views growth and evolution as vital in their commitment. Being honest, she feels, is the most important thing in her relationship to Rogelio. Making the relationship last isn’t as important as making it “as truthful, as deep, as mutually supportive, as evolving for the other person and for ourselves as possible.” She sees openness to change as a requirement for any committed relationship:

“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.”

The individual is more important than the relationship

Jerry and Annie have both experienced the pain of bad marriages. This time, however, they found the right person—they are both convinced that either she will die in his arms, or he will die in hers. They are each over sixty and have been together for fifteen years, so they’ve had time for the initial excitement of a new relationship to wear off. (Polyamorous people call this excitement New Relationship Energy,” or NRE.) However, Annie comments that she has always felt close to Jerry, but they keep getting closer.

Annie has also been involved in a long distance relationship with Forrest for ten years and with Daniel for five years. Daniel, who is married, spends three nights a week at Annie and Jerry’s house. Annie and Daniel have private sexual time, and then spend the night sleeping with Jerry, unless Jerry also has a visitor (since their bed doesn’t hold four people). Jerry is very happy with this arrangement and reports, “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.” Jerry also has other relationships, including one that is long term and long distance.

Annie and Jerry’s commitment is based on their closeness and joy in being together. But their relationship is based on individualism. When asked about advice for a couple considering polyamory, Jerry responds, “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.”

Commitment to work on problems

How long should people stay in a relationship that isn’t working? Evelyn and Scott, who are both in their early forties, observed a friend who had a two year cycle of relationships, with the same problems recurring each time. They decided they would do things differently. They made a commitment to work through any problems. They would get to the root of the issues and resolve them so that they would not have to carry them forward to another relationship. Only then would they consider whether they still wanted to be together or to split up.

This commitment has worked out well. A few years into their eighteen-year relationship, Scott got impatient and had an affair. Their plan had always been to have other partners, but Evelyn had thought they weren’t ready yet. This prompted an intensive process of therapy. They were fortunate to find a therapist who understood when they told him that the problem was not the affair but the lying about it. The therapist worked with them on the underlying issues. A few years later they were ready to try polyamory and be involved with others openly and honestly. Now they have a network of relationships of varying levels of physical and emotional intimacy.

This has been a rather rocky process. As Evelyn comments, “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 had to deal with major jealousy issues. When Evelyn got involved with Hugh, a former boyfriend, Scott had a very difficult time watching them together. He wasn’t getting the physical affection that he wanted with Evelyn, and so it hurt him to see Hugh touching her so easily.

Evelyn’s relationship with Hugh did bring some benefits. Hugh discovered Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, which helped Evelyn and Scott understand that although touch isn’t very important to Evelyn, Scott needs touch to feel loved. Since acts of service are her way of giving and receiving love, she has learned to make touch an act of service, helping both of them feel the love between them.

Stating intentions explicitly

Some people draw up relationship agreements as a way of focusing their intentions. Ginger, Kay, and Marie, who are all in their forties, have had a very intense two years coming together as a triad and also adopting a baby. Ginger and Kay had been together in an open, fifteen-year relationship. They had also been trying to have a baby for some time, and the opportunity to adopt came up shortly after Marie joined them. Marie also had wanted to be a mother. Less than a year into the process of shifting the dynamics of a dyad into a triad, and of cleaning up some trust issues, they brought home their new-born son.

The three women believe in the power of intention and of living their lives with intention, so they have created a document they call the Triad Intentions. Ginger explains that it’s “about how we wanted to communicate and how we wanted to fight, and how we wanted to deal with conflict and deal with issues of equity and those sorts of things.”

Ginger acknowledges that even though “we want our relationship to be forever, we know that it’s also important for it to be healthy and growing and maybe at some point it will be important for us not to be together … [What we] really want is for us to always have an emotional commitment to one another, to always be supportive and uplifting and promoting of each other and all of those positive things.”

They also have a Parenting Intentions document that makes it clear how the three of them intend to raise their fourteen-month-old child together. One purpose of this is to make their relationship to each other and to the child clear to their parents, in case something happens to one of them.

Single yet committed

Steve describes himself as a single polyamorous man in a strong primary relationship with other peripheral relationships. (In polyamory, primary is often used to describe a marriage-like relationship.) His partner Maxine feels they “are in a committed relationship in that we’re primary partners, and the relationship would not change without us discussing it and agreeing to it.”

Maxine feels secure in this relationship since they are both very happy and both like to live alone. If he doesn’t say he’s committed to the relationship, she thinks it’s because he has a different definition of what that means than she does.

Steve’s commitment is to honesty. He says that if Maxine left him, he’d feel upset but not at her because she never promised anything different. He doesn’t want to give or receive that type of promise. He doesn’t ever want to stay with someone because of an agreement. At the same time, he says, “I’m satisfied that our attraction on many levels is strong enough to keep us together. I have no desire to go elsewhere. I think it’s our mutual satisfaction with what we have that’s keeping us together rather than some idea that we’d be together because we’d agreed upon it.”

They’ve managed to create a very satisfying relationship in spite of her initial desire for monogamy. When the issue of monogamy came up, Steve had the wisdom to ask Maxine what she wanted. She said she wanted to feel special. Since then, Steve has been successfully attentive to that desire, and she feels that her needs are being met.

Letting relationships grow to their natural level

Lori, who is 40, also lives alone, although she has two partners that she feels committed to. She thinks her concept of commitment is, in general, fairly conventional in “that the person is in it for the long haul and you can count on each other for a certain level, which is quite high, of trust, emotional availability, physical availability, communication.” The only areas in which she thinks she differs from the generic concept of commitment is that to her it doesn’t involve having to live together and it doesn’t involve sexual exclusivity.

Lori believes in letting relationships grow to whatever level feels right for those involved, but she recognizes that time and energy create natural limits. She’s still open to the occasional fling. Her two lovers get along socially, but don’t have much in common with each other.

She would like people to have an open mind towards polyamory, for it to be seen as different than monogamy, just involving more than one person.

Creating your own relationship

These are just a few of the relationship configurations created in the polyamorous world. These are some of the people who have created long term, satisfying, committed relationships that don’t look like conventional marriages. These people and many others have shown that a deep and meaningful commitment is possible without sexual exclusivity, and can take many different forms.

© Elaine Cook 2007

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