Saturday, June 18, 2011

Polyamory - healthy relationship or deviance?

Polyamory is defined as the “the nonpossessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously”. In other words, having more than one relationships at the same time with the consent of all people involved.

We grow up to believe that a monogamous relationship is the right thing to do. Society tells us that there’s no choice when it comes to having a relationship, one must always be faithful to their only partner. But polyamory seems to work fine for those involved even if society blames it. There are some religions that practice polygamy such as Mormon fundamentalism, Christian Plural Marriage, Islamic, etc. However, in western cultures nobody has the legal right to marry more than one person and the traditional family concept is still encouraged.     

There are different types of polyamory:

-         Polyfidelity – all members of the group are equal partners and are only sexually active with the other members of the group.
-         Polyamory with sub relations – there’s a primary partner which comes before the secondary and tertiary partners.
-         Relationship between one couple and another couple
-         Polygamy
-         Group relationships or group marriage

Fidelity and loyalty is seen in polyamorous relationship not as having one sexual partner but more like keeping the promises, committing to the relationship, and being completely honest. Communication plays an important part in this type of relationship and those which are part of a relationship try to work together even if they often make mistakes.
Gender equality is another important part of polyamory as there are no gender rules when choosing those who will be part of a group, except those involving personal needs.

I found a great article in which the view of therapists on this lifestyle is discussed. It seems that it’s difficult for psychologists to understand that polyamory is a personal preference and not something caused by different problems or fears. In the study presented in the article, therapists were asked to imagine the psychological profile of a polyamorous person. They found that:

24% of these therapists imagined that polyamorous individuals feared commitment or intimacy, 15% of these therapists imagined that they were in marriages that were not fulfilling, and 7% hypothesized that they might have identity problems

Another study presented in the paper the results were similar:

Knapp (1975) found that 33% of her sample of therapists believed that people who pursued a polyamorous lifestyle had personality disorders and neurotic tendencies, and 20% suggested that such people might have antisocial personalities. 9-17% of the therapists stated they would use their professional skills to try to influence clients to abandon sexually open marriages

So, is polyamory a way to obtain a healthy relationship? If it is, we need to stop thinking that only people who have certain problems will accept such a lifestyle and psychologists need to think beyond the classic views and embrace a new way of love. On the other hand, if people's desire to be in a polyamorous relationship indeed comes from a problem (fear of commitment, personality disorder, etc.), should they be influenced to have a monogamous relationship even if their polyamorous relationship is fulfilling their needs? 

PS: Thanks for the 7 Facts blog award. :)


  1. Healthy relationship or deviance? I think it's a bit of both, and I'll probably end up posting a ridiculous long comment now but here it goes:

    Firstly, I don't believe that monogamy, excepting very few rare cases, can fulfill one's needs in every aspect that one hopes to when entering in such a relationship. What do we want from a relationship? Well, even though we all basically want the same things - great sex, communication, trust and a general feeling of security, common ground or any other need - these expectations vary in both intensity and number for each partner and of course are subject to personal interpretation. For example what my partner may think is a great sexual experience (quantitatively/qualitatively speaking) may not coincide with my own needs and expectations. But ok, let’s assume you are in a relationship that’s all-fulfilling for both partners. Life changes in time, and, sure enough, you change with it. I’m not talking about major psychological changes, you don’t become a different person overall, just you are constantly recalibrating the same needs, along with maybe new needs. Surely the new set of expectations partners aquire are bound to be different. Consequently, the monogamous couple invented new words to express and justify their rather ilogical decision to continue the relationship: commitment, concession, sacrifice.
    Polyamory, compared to monogamy in that perspective, sounds like a much more “healthy” approach like you put it. Is it deviance? Yes, because it “deviates” from our current social and cultural viewpoint of what a relationship should be (that is, monogamous). It’s healthier because you don’t have to project all your needs and expectation onto a single human being, nobody is perfect (n’or can anyone embody your projection of what “perfect” is). In polyamory, there is no frustration, no need to sacrifice your/his/her needs, it actually sounds too good to be true...maybe because it is.

    Evolutionary speaking, there is a very clear explanation for the existence of monogamy in nature. Offsprings. We as a human species require not only to give birth to healthy children but to nurture them till adulthood. Otherwise, their chances of survival are pretty slim. So we’re talking about 16-20 years of work, single parenting just won’t do. We need monogamy, because it brings much more benefits on the long run than polyamory. Having said that, I think polyamory is a great concept so if you’re young or you’re not planning on starting a family..what the hell, go for it! :))

  2. One thing you don't mention is that several researchers and therapists have discovered that many people who live a polyamorous lifestyle are sex addicts. These sex addicts will use the term "polyamorous" -- a term that is increasingly acceptable in many social circles -- to justify their actions. I have had some personal experience with this, in that I was friends for several years with two people who qualify as sex addicts, and they both eventually became "polyamorous". I would say that both of these individuals have addictive personalities in general, and that this addictive quality seeps into all areas of their life (eating, video games, movies, drugs, drinking, shopping, etc.). This does not mean that all polyamorous people have addictive personalities, but it is something to consider.

    In this day and age, I have NO IDEA how anyone could have time for nurturing true intimacy with more than one person. Intimacy requires quality time, trust, sharing, communication, and so much more. I could never imagine having that with more than one person.

  3. There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

  4. Alina - I agree with everything you say; I'm not against polyamory it's just not my thing. I don't think it is the perfect type of relationship for everybody, it always depends on your needs. Open relationship, perhaps, but being in a relationship with 3 other people is pretty weird for me. But I think is great if other people can do this and find happiness.

    Kristen - You are probably right, there are people who use polyamory for their sex addiction but, as you said yourself, it is wrong to judge them all and consider them sex addicts. It is true that having a polyamorous relationship is hard work, because there will be jealousy involved if one doesn't give the same amount of love to the other people in that relationship. I guess it's harder to maintain balance than in a monogamous relationship.

    adult dating - it's normal to feel that way, some people just can't find polyamory as a fulfilling as others find monogamy lifestyle and vice versa. thanks for your kind words

  5. I realize this is an old posting, but...

    @Alina - Not quite. Although it is true that child rearing is important from evolutionary pov, who does the rearing seems pretty irrelevant to the health (physical and mental) of human lives.

    Deviance? Hmm. Is this being used as a scientific term or social commentary?

    It is actually shocking that the study of this subject (polyamory v monogamy) is left mostly to anthropologists while it seems pretty clear that the subject has a significant influence on the psychological/sociological components of the human existence - at least a significant overlap. I think this happens because we tend to treat psychologist as counselor or psychiatrist - equivalent to asking biologists to suggest cure for stomach-ache. It is the job of psychologists to go out in the field to study unfamiliar societies to understand the human brain with minimal cultural bias.

    Articles/postings like these tend to be very monogamy-centric with more "Dear Abbey" feel because they are written to address the concerns of the Western culture with predominantly traditional monotheistic values. Furthermore, our society endorses the idea that the individual’s partner is suppose to fulfill all kind of inadequacies we bring to the relationship. We view our inability to achieve this goal as a problem, resulting in further anxiety and conflict. But this is only a narrow perspective on the matter of human nature.

    There are societies where polyamory or serial monogamy is the rule. Their existences seem to span centuries. Some no longer exist (at least in the original form) because of the missionaries and Western influences. Although they appear to be in the minority, due to various circumstances, their existence seem to indicate that the human evolution does not favor a particular arrangement.

    The influential factor seems to be more about the social structure to support a particular coupling arrangement and the offspring care to go with it. For example, in the Western societies where 1-man and 1-woman is "the rule", the government creates laws to recognize the arrangement without significant bureaucracy (e.g. medical decisions) and provides tax structure to go with child care. When the couple's arrangement breaks down, it creates a problem for the children because there is no healthy structure (consistent home environment and adult models) to raise them.

    On the other hand, in societies where polyamory is the norm, the extended family (grandparents, uncles, aunts) is involved in the child rearing. It’s not clear what type of psychological issues this setup presents to the children. At least, it probably wasn’t a rampant pandemic or the society would not have lasted so long considering the size of their population. The risk of abandonment seems low since there are more than 2 people responsible for the rearing. In some of these societies, the lineage is carried through the mother's side. I believe some Native American tribes supported this arrangement. This also affects the gender roles and how women are viewed. Domestic conflict and rape seem to be almost a non-issue (although the size of the society might be a factor).

  6. (cont)

    Read them for yourself. Here are some key words to type in your favorite search engine. "marrying tribe zoe", "polynesian sexuality" and "mosuo matriarchy" - along with some links.

    In the case of Mosuo, Michael Palin Himalaya Ep 5 presents Palin's conversation with a well known woman within their community.

    It would be fascinating to see how the psychological make-up of people in these cultures differs with ours - which will also provide the status of mental health of the children.

    I just don't think any one of us can clearly state which arrangement is the "right one for me" without factoring the concern for social judgment and practical consideration of going against the supported structure. So then, it seems that there is a question of how a social norm concerning sexual practice affects the human psychology. Also in Musuo and some French Polynesian societies, there is no "In-laws" as we know it. This may sound like a beginning of a joke, but consider the potential influence on the couple's relationship which often ends up as an added pressure.

    I am sure that there are tradeoffs of these structures, but studies that articulate these factors seem hard to find. So who really has a hint what the right answer is?