Monday, March 4, 2013

Group Love: Looking at Polyamory

Like many people, I’m twice divorced, a fact of my life that I certainly don’t mind sharing. And when I talk with women like me who’ve been married more than once, it’s natural to hear them imply that, at some point anyway, they loved each of their husbands, no matter how many we’re talking about them having - two, three, four, even or more.

In fact, we expect it, don’t we? Even when there are other motives involved in entering into a new relationship such as wanting to have access to financial resources, or wanting someone to help raise the kids, or whatever, we nonetheless expect that there’s some emotion (love?) involved, no matter how many times this occurs in the course of someone’s life.

Of course, we’re expecting something else here, too. No matter whether there are two, three, four or more emotional attachments in a person’s romantic history, we’re expecting that they happened one at a time, as in serial monogamous relationships, right? When people do otherwise, as often they do, it flies in the face of conventionally acceptable relationship behavior. There’s inevitably talk of the “offenders” being sluts or dogs or cheaters and the like… the language does get ugly.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that human beings are possessed of a range of enormous capacities, not the least of which is the capacity to love, and the capacity to express our Universe-driven sexuality. And when you get right down to it, what else  besides the proscribed social order, says that loving has to be monogamous and sequential, serially one at a time?

Polyamory, or the practice of having multiple lovers at once, has long been heady and seductive grist for soap-opera writers and fans of sensational pop-psych talk shows. And no wonder? Poly meaning many, and amor meaning love, the syllables together quite literally mean “many love.” Got your interest?

But as a serious philosophical position adopted by untold numbers of relationship-bonded men and women, polyamory is a topic rarely discussed, at least non-judgmentally. This is unfortunate, since the polyamorous community world-wide is a large one, encompassing millions of decent, principled folk who care deeply for their poly partners and engage in caring, committed, consensual sexual behavior with all of them, sometimes all together and sometimes not.

So what’s the difference between polyamory and good old, garden variety group sex? It should be noted that as a daughter of the 1960s, I well remember the free love movement of that era – the make love not war sensibility that emblazoned a new (old?) notion of sexual freedom into the American consciousness. In some circles, ménage a trios arrangements, threesomes, were the most common, but there were also other, larger configurations. It wasn’t unheard of at the time for people to wind up at casual get-togethers and completely without warning, be invited to join in. And it was often the case that the group might consist of friends, romantic partners and perfect strangers with no particular personal or emotional connection.

Then as now, there’s a great deal of difference between polyamory and group sex, although the two are in no way mutually exclusive.

Polyamory exists when the partners - three, six, ten twenty - or no matter how many, have an emotional bond or love connection between each other simultaneously. Obviously, this emotional bond can and often does include sexual activity, hence the reality that polyamorous relationships can also include group sex. But don’t be confused. Group sex is not said to be polyamorous unless the participants share an emotional bond and care about each other in some sort of personal, loving way.

If you’re interested in learning something more about polyamory, then by all means, I’d urge you to take a peek at Dr. Leanna Wolfe’s essay, On Kittens and the Very Invented Culture of Polyamory.

In actuality, it’s the text of a talk she once delivered at a Poly Pride event in New York City, and it goes a long way in demystifying the nature of sexual relationship attachments, especially as it pertains to the way we humans decide between monogamy or polyamory.

Wolfe believes, as do most people in this culture, that the true default biological setting for humans is pair-bonding. However, she also argues that the physical attraction that characterizes new relationship energy – something she abbreviates as NRE - is brief and dependent upon large amounts of the brain chemical dopamine that is responsible for the new relationship’s feel-good effects that cause us to focus on one love. 

Poly people, argues Wolfe, don’t hold that feeling in such high esteem as does the monogamous community, since it’s relatively short-lived and inevitably levels out to something more sustainable. Once new relationship energy levels out and dopamine subsides, other brain chemicals, vasopressin and oxytocin, take over in the attachment phase of a relationship. 

For that reason, polyamorous people tend not to be afraid to allow their partners to experience new relationships; since they know the initial intensity of those relationships won’t last. Ask around and you’ll find that true devotees of polyamory are people who’re quite comfortable with the prospect of being alone. 

But this is counter-intuitive, right? After all, if the definition of a poly lifestyle includes the willingness to engage in multiple relationships simultaneously, one might argue that these are the folks who are LEAST comfortable with being alone. But in reality, true poly people know that being willing and able to release their lovers from the bindings of pair-bonded relationships to experience and explore the dopamine driven effects of NRE, or “new relationship energy” inevitably means that sometimes, partners don’t return, but rather move on permanently, and that’s okay.

All of this notwithstanding, polyamorous relationships aren’t for everyone. Ours is a culture of possession in more ways than one. The idea of mutually sharing the love, so to speak, throws most folks in the US into a convulsive tailspin. It’s just not something we’re used to, after all. But it pays to be open-minded about most everything in life. Even if only to ratify our existing views, it’s wise to hold them up to the light and see if they withstand a bit of scrutiny now and then. In the process, it pays to try our level best to consider a thing’s benefits and drawbacks free from essentializing bias and mindless prejudice – as much as we’re able.

It’s only with an open mind that critical contemplation inevitably generates the possibility of new perspectives. And in a culture such as ours, wherein love seems so often to be in woefully short supply, who’s to say that  polyamory might not open the door to more varied and more fulfilling possibilities for consenting adults at all stages of our lives? 


Have you ever been a part of a polyamorous relationship? Might you be open to one in the future?


  1. Brava, G'han! I am so pleased to discover you here. The writing is delicious; the points are so well made; the topics are wonderfully varied and important. You're now on my favorites bar, and I intend to visit again and again.

  2. Thank you, Elizabeth! Welcome, and I'm so glad you like the blog. It's wonderful to hear from you and I'm happy you plan to come back. I hope all is well!

    Hugs to you, too!


  3. I have not been part of a polyamory relationship. I'm not sure if I am that secure enough to allow my boyfriend to make love to other women. No way!

  4. I have never been a part of this type of relationship however I am not closed to it either. I have learned that to completely understand what I like and do not like I must allow myself to have the experience in the first place.

  5. I have not been apart of this type of relationship and do not think I would do this well. To each their own.

  6. I have never been in a polyamorus relationship, would I ever try it, don't know, I can see some advantages, but I feel one would have to have a very strong mind and be secure with one's self. I think jealousy would play a big part in this situation, especially if one's partner kept going to a particular well all the time. Don't know, I guess I'm not on that level yet.



  7. I have never been in a polyamorus relationship and probably will never consider it. For me, I don't think I would like it nor enjoy it. The fact of knowing my boyfriend is in a sexual relationship with other women or even him knowing I'm in a relationship with other men will not suit neither one of us. But hey, I'm not knocking this type of relationship, There is something for everyone.

  8. I never had the chance to have a polyamorus relationship yet.. sure hope to see what it has to offer. great stories.

  9. I have never had a polyamorus relationship, I am fairly certain that I wouldn't enjoy it, as I am a selfish lover. I prefer to give and share my love and my body with just one individual at a time. I am not saying that this type of relationship is bad, its just not for me.

  10. I have never had that type of relationship neither. It seems to be interesting to read about. I would never past judgment on any one relationship, but that is not for me. To each its own. I believe in being with one person faithfully. I can barely manage one relationship I go crazy with two.

  11. I have never been in a polyamorus relationship nor could I be in one. I am very selfish when it comes to sharing my partner. I respect the decision of people who choose to either for religious or personal reasons.sgardner

    1. I am selfish when I am in a relationship therefore it would be hard for me to be in a polyamorus relationship. Although, I consider myself to be open minded I don't think this type of relationship would work for me.