Polyamory is exhilarating and rewarding, but the jealousy can often be crippling.
Internetland seems to be chock-full these days of Perky Poly People, and Roc Morin’s Atlantic article “Up for Polyamory? Creating Alternatives to Marriage” from last week was no exception.
I spend a lot of time reading polyamory blogs, almost always looking for advice on poly problems. And what I’ve found is that it’s rare to come upon a post by a poly blogger that doesn’t extol the genuine benefits of this challenging type of relationship.
I have been polyamorously loving a man for roundabout a year and a half now. We agreed from the very first day of our relationship to be “open” due to our mutual disillusion with long-term monogamy. For my part, as your standard kid-from-a-broken-home, I may have thought I had no illusions about Happily Ever After solving all my problems, filling all my holes. Nevertheless, it still took two failed marriages prior to this relationship for me to realize that it is a very bad idea to start thinking that any single person in the world can be everything you need.
Becoming poly has opened my world. But it’s been hard, and getting here was a in-tandem swing alongside the pendulum of my biological clock. Despite monogamy’s rosy mythology of soul mates and everlasting love, as a social and economic institution, it is premised on the very practical need to hold a partner down long enough to raise a kid or two. People who, like me, have always wanted kids tend to be monogamy’s biggest cheerleaders.
But that means we often approach monogamy with a very quid pro quo attitude, with the logic being something like: I give up my freedom, you give up yours, now lets get down to the business of starting a family, then. But we often quickly find ourselves—or at least I found myself—wondering if it really was such a good idea to have swapped the license to connect with other people in exchange for the promise of a traditional nuclear family. And by “connect with other people” I mean not just sexually, but also emotionally, intellectually, professionally, on the dance floor, on the Tube, across the bar from the barista at Starbucks every day on the way to work.
As a rule in monogamy, we are very aware of those external human connections, fearing where they will lead us. (Because, yes, connection often leads to sex—or love.) Instead, we turn every ounce of our energy toward wringing support and intimacy out of our partners at all costs.
In my case at least, shutting down that connection to protect my relationship led to codependency and resentment toward my partner, and a blank sense of emotional starvation that stretched out before me until death did us part. It was a terrifying vision of the rest of my life.
Having arrived at this rather lonely crossroads before I actually had any babies (thank God for 10-year IUDs), it made it very hard for me to see the point of developing the long-suffering outlook needed for a successful marriage, or even see the point of silencing the need for connection in order to listen my biological clock.
So what happens when you decide to allow yourself to follow human connection where it takes you, to make your life stop circling around your biological clock, but you still want a family anyway?
Well, you become poly, as I did when I fell in love with Migs. I insisted, in fact, that we become poly parents, with the parenting part happening as soon as possible. (I quickly got nervous about parenting when I got down to the poly nitty-gritty and we put the pregnancy off. Again, thank God for 10-year IUDs.)
This is where I will now beg to differ with the perky poly bloggers: Polyamory is Very Very Hard.
It pushes every button in your brain and on your body. It puts an enormous beating on your ego. I have at various times been crippled by jealousy, turned into the most vicious and terrifying version of myself, and suffered a literal ringing in my ears when I heard my partner’s voice, saw his glow, when he fell for another person. When you start to understand that your partner loves somebody else, your lizard brain sends you a physiological jolt, a fight-or-flight response. (You eventually learn to soothe yourself through this fear, but it takes a lot of time and self-awareness.)
My partner has, in turn, hated me for loving other people, and I’ve sometimes had to docilely accept passive aggression from him for weeks on end. At this moment, we both love and detest each other, but most of all we respect each other. Which in many ways makes ours like any other long-term relationship.
Polyamory is, of course, exhilarating and rewarding (itself probably something like the terror and joy of becoming a parent). Every day requires exploration, discovering new ways of relating and new kinds of connections with people. Having so much love in my life has changed me—it’s softened, sexually transformed me. And I haven’t written off my biological clock; I’m just trying to listen to it more conscientiously and sync it with the rest of myself.
Today, being a bit of a pessimist, I’m steeling myself for the day when all this wonderful human connection might be disfigured into neediness and tear my life apart. But now I’ve come to believe these risks of the heart are worth taking.
I no longer think about my future with my partner as an unavoidable desert of emotional vacuity. Maybe it’s right to try to create the life I want instead of simply following the plan that’s been laid out for me. And why did I never dare to believe before that this was possible?
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.