By Molly Freedenberg
Illustration from Salon.com story on polyamory.
I used to say the word "polyamory" is just shorthand for "really slow break-up." Though I know two couples who manage to have successful, committed, loving partnerships both within and outside of their marriages, most cases I've witnessed have ended in disaster. And even more common, I've noticed, is that the people who discuss or consider polyamory are in unhappy relationships already. For polyamory to work, all partners involved must be good communicators, secure in themselves and each other, and, above all else, compassionate. But unhappy couples tend to be none of these. For them, opening the relationship is a way to get needs met without having to address difficult issues, including the idea of actually breaking up. Instead, opening the relationship intensifies existing problems, introduces new ones, and, usually, ends in a break-up anyway.
I used to be one of the latter. I was in a long-term, exclusive relationship that was satisfying in many ways. But our sex life was dismal. Neither of us wanted to break up, and none of our attempts to remedy our sexual problems seemed to work. So we began to discuss the possibility of finding sexual fulfillment outside our otherwise (mostly) happy home. But the mental gymnastics required to consider such a possibility always led to the same injurious conclusion: our relationship's inevitable demise. Neither of us thought we could manage the jealousy. And even worse, both my boyfriend and I feared that if one of us were to find fulfillment outside each other, we might realize we didn't want each other at all. The final decision? We didn't do it. I decided I'm not cut out for open relationships, and neither are most people. Within a year, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I stayed almost entirely -- and blissfully -- single for the next two years.
Fast forward to the present.
Much to my surprise, I'm finally in what looks a whole hell of a lot like a relationship -- though I'm desperately trying to define it as something different than the soul-crushing, miserable, confusing monster I've come to think of boyfriend/girlfriend-hood to be. At the same time, I'm just finishing Open (Seal Press, 2009), a fascinating book by Jenny Block about her journey from sexually-aware teenager with a Prince/Princess dream to a happily married polyamorous mother. At first, I wasn't too impressed with Block's book. The writing was a bit pedestrian (which I later found compelling and simple), but more importantly, the content made me uncomfortable. After all, the first few chapters are all about making a case that monogamy is counter to our biology, that a majority of people have or will cheat on their partners, and that love isn't all we need. It doesn't take a PhD in psychology to figure out that these particular topics might make me squeamish at exactly the time that I'm considering my own journey into coupledom.
But the further I read, the less I felt fear and the more I felt liberation. As Block detailed every moment of her self-discovery, I began to understand the real points she's making: Every relationship is different. Everyone's needs are different. Both change over time. The traditional idea of the nuclear family is as flawed as it is rare. It is within our power -- in fact, our rights -- to define how we, as humans, come together and share our lives and our bodies, according to our changing needs, desires, and circumstances. With honesty comes empowerment. Block isn't arguing for polyamory over monogamy. Or even her particular brand of polyamory -- which, at this stage of her life, involves a husband and an exclusive girlfriend -- over anyone else's. This book isn't about open marriage as much as it is about sexuality, communication, and the possibility of living both in your own truth and also with other people.
By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book, my feelings about polyamory -- or at least the book itself -- had completely changed. The idea of an open relationship was neither scary nor simply unappealing. In fact, the concept of removing the idea of "cheating" from relationships elated me. As did the idea that I can define what coupledom means to me -- and, as time goes on, I can even change my mind! I still don't think the boyfriend mentioned above and I could've or should've tried polyamory. We didn't have enough of the necessary building blocks - trust, for one - to make that work. And in my newest situation, I'm so happy and satisfied -- and enjoying the beginnings of a new journey -- that it's hard to imagine needing to look outside it. In fact, I'm not sure I'll ever want or need to be in an open relationship, in reality. But I love the idea of its possibility. I love that being attracted to, or even coupling with, someone else doesn't have to be a relationship's deal-breaker. Even more so, I'm enthralled with the sense of personal satisfaction, empowerment, and validation -- and interpersonal intimacy and connection -- that the necessary communication about such a possibility would foster. Mostly, I'm glad that my fear about what a relationship has to be is starting to be lifted. Because I do want a partnership. I just don't want any of the kinds I've already seen. And Jenny Block says I don't have to.
Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage
By Jenny Block
Seal Press, 2009