October 18th, 2006


Polyamory: A Bogus Consensus?

So what was the conversation that had me so fascinated that I lost track of how long I'd been in the hot tub, that I risked injuring myself rather than cutting short? A gorgeous and fun-loving friend of mine was complaining, now that she was back in St. Louis, about how hard it was to get some of the local polyamory discussion groups and social groups to do so much as give her the time of day. She figured that as a young woman with a long history of successful open relationships, it wouldn't be this hard. And fortunately for her (or unfortunately for her and for me and for everybody, depending on how you want to look at it), I've had a long time to think about this since the more-or-less meltdown of the poly social group I tried to found years ago, Bi-State Polyamory.

You see, I probably know personally at least a hundred local polyfolk, and probably know of another hundred or so. And as someone who was looking for more social venues where I could engage in ordinary socializing, whether bowling or going out for coffee or discussing movies or whatever, without having to self-censor any references to my own or my friends' polyamorous lives, I assumed that there must be others who wanted a similar opportunity. But I had almost every even vaguely successful open relationship and/or poly relationship tell me in no uncertain terms that there was no way in hell they were going to attend any such thing. And their reason for turning down a chance to meet and socialize with other polyfolk is, I strongly suspect, the reason why local poly groups like PoDGe, and to a lesser extent whatever is left of Bi-State Poly and STLpoly and St. Louis Regional Polyamorists, are so damned nervous about new people.

Those old-timers all told me that nearly all new polyfolk bring way, way too much drama with them. I've had a long time to think about why this is true in the intervening years since so many people pointed this out to me, and I think I'm ready to point the finger of blame for this. I want to put the blame directly on Morning Glory Ravenheart, Dossie Easton, and to a lesser extent many of the big names who helped to forge the current consensus on what polyamory is and what it means to society. I've felt for a long time that the polyamory movement was moving in the wrong direction. The more time I have to think about it, the more evidence I can come up with for this. Which is, admittedly, something that would be true whether I was right or wrong, I realize. So let me make the same case to the rest of you that I made to her.

Please examine the following statements and, in the light of your own experience (as opposed to what you wish was true), tell me which one you think more accurately describes reality as you have perceived it:

Poll #847544 What is Polyamory, Really?

Which of the following sentences most accurately describes polyamory to you?

Polyamory is a set of relationship management and emotional centering techniques that anyone can learn, and once they learn it, anyone can have room in their life for more love.
Polyamory is a deep-rooted personality trait, as unlikely to successfully change as sexual orientation, that makes some people able to love more than one person at a time and free of jealousy when those they love also love other people.
Polyamory is a lie that people tell themselves and others so they can cheat on their own relationship partner or with other people's.
I've heard all those arguments, and I honestly can't make up my mind which one seems more true.
I honestly know so little about what you're talking about that I can't formulate an opinion.

To me, personally, polyamory means ...

I'm incapable of loving only one person at a time to the exclusion of any possibility of also being attracted to and/or loving someone else, too; it happens even though I still love the first person just as much as before.
I may envy someone else's luck, or be insecure about my attractiveness sometimes, or resent of bad management of priorities, or wish there were more hours in the day, but there's no actual jealousy when those who love me love other people too.
I feel intense jealousy when I have to share my partners, but that's natural and something that I'm hoping to overcome so that I can earn the privilege of loving more than one person.
Nothing, not to me personally, I can't relate to any of these.

Right now, the self-proclaimed leaders of polyamory community, the published authors and other media darlings, have been pushing that first definition really hard for a long time. From their point of view, jealousy is something that is entirely natural for everyone, and people differ from each other only in what regard they have taught themselves not to give in to it. Just over a week from now, there's even an advertised two-day educational seminar and professional conference on "Jealousy Management" out in Berkeley, California; I got an invite myself, via one of the local poly email mailing lists. Well, this rather strongly conflicts with my experience. Nor, at the risk of being an inveterate passer on of old gossip, do I think it unrelated that one of the people I blame for spreading this lie is the person who falsely claims to have invented the term polyamory, and who prefers not to discuss the fact that she broke up her now-husband's first polyamorous "marriage" because at the time she believed that such things are sick, or that she and he burn through secondaries like a brush fire which hardly qualifies them to be advising other people on how to manage a successful polyamorous lifestyle. No, in my experience people who try to "manage" their jealousy have about the same success rate as college freshmen who decide to "become" lesbians do, which is to say, next to none. So as long as this myth of "jealousy management" is the dominant consensus in the poly community, those of us who've been around the block a few times mostly know to view "new poly's" as suspiciously as most GLBT groups treat "baby lesbians" -- as lightning rods just waiting for a strike, as being like a wood-shingled house in southern California surrounded by eucalyptus, as equivalent to someone asleep in their truck on a railroad crossing: as a life-wrecking disaster just waiting to happen.

Nor does it increase anybody's comfort level that "new poly" relationships almost never fail gracefully. OK, sometimes, but no more often than any other divorce does; let's say not more than one in 50 times. Instead, nearly all of them fail because one or both partners in a marriage blame not just the partner who still believes in polyamory, but every polyamorous person they ever met, for the destruction of their marriage. And since divorces start out psycho, and only get psycho more quickly and more intensely if there are children of the marriage, the resulting melt-down involves some combination of stalkerish harassment at work and at home to anonymous and usually dishonest denunciations to everything from landlords to the IRS to building inspectors to the Division of Child and Family Services, to subpoenas for on-the-record depositions flying in every which way. To most of my poly friends, no opportunity to make new friends and relax is worth that kind of risk, I've had it made clear to me. So around here, first meetings with poly groups are negotiated with the kind of wariness verging on paranoia that you'd expect of a spy exchange in a Cold War thriller.
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