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Woodstock 09 | 2009 | Loving Kindness

03.30.09 5:28 p.m.

Real love is not based on attachment, but on altruism. In this case, your compassion will remain as a humane response to suffering as long as beings continue to suffer.  

-The Dalai Lama


Poly Wants a Crack-Up

I was never a fan of the concept of polyamory. I understood that people did it, spent time around those who did (and those who considered it a sacrament), and didn't hold it against them because it really wasn't any of my business what they did behind closed bedroom doors with consenting adults. Seriously, I don't want details. If I started taking disapproving stances about the unconventional relationships I see around me, I should find I had time to do little else; my issues with the polyamorous lifestyle have nothing to do with the protestations of conventional morality. People love who they love and that can be a beautiful thing.

I regard polyamory as being a great deal like Communism: some people practice it, swear it is a more enlightened way of doing things, usually wish to proselytize their point of view to anyone who will listen so they can count you among their ranks, and even go on how it is the obvious solution to current economic woes. I also note that I have never seen it work especially well, and certainly never in its unadulterated state, because people are essentially greedy. They want what is theirs and they certainly would prefer not to share with you. Though, I feel that the Cold War had nothing on some of the post-relationship poly battles I have witnessed, more Bay of Hogs than of Pigs. Polyamory has an uncanny ability to draw out any latent issues and neurosis that may have been laying fallow all this time, thrusting them forward to be dealt with immediately. Poly relationships would work better with mandatory group and individual therapy twice a week. The amount of effort required to be whole in yourself is rarely undertaken and that is crucial to any success in even on-on-one relationships. You certainly can't be codependent when you are trying to include other people in your bedroom and you cannot have any insidious agenda about loving one person more. In a world where you cannot even know if what I mean by love matches your definition, it is statistically impossible that you could ever love two people the same amount or the same way. Even if you say it is just sex, it is never just sex for everyone concerned.

It is not an easy lifestyle, almost be its very conception. With each additional person added to the mix, the number of relationships increases exponentially. Consider how much time you spend managing your relationship with your significant other (even if you enjoy it, and you should). Now, in all likelihood, double that for each additional person you think you can add to your relationship and then calculate how many hours are in each week (168, by the way). I can barely stand to like all my friends all the time, I shudder to think what would happen if they were all required to have stated and agreed upon roles with everyone else in the group.

For a poly relationship to work - if it can work - all parties concerned need to sit down and virtually draw up a contract, detailing what is acceptable behavior, if there can be pairings-off, how exclusive they wish to be, what should happen with any resulting children, if there is fluid fidelity, and so on, in minor hope of forestalling future blow-ups. This planning is not generally done that I've seen, because it is so legalistically unromantic and the rutting polyamorists are in loooove and you wouldn't understand because you restrict your romantic affection to one person, you damned Puritan... Or, you know, something to that effect. I'm certainly not quoting. It should be noted that, whenever such rules are actually set down, it seems to be largely for the guilty pleasure of shattering them to bits the moment on member of the relationship has his or her back turned for five minutes (because you are so eager to cheat on your spouse, with whom you have such a perfect relationship that you can muse adding people to it). Nor is it remotely fair to hand the other people your requirements and insist they are so without consent and compromise. (I heard of a couple wherein the wife insisted she could have sex with women and the husband could have sex with men, only he wasn't at all bisexual; she told him this, in essence, because she intended to cheat on him with women and wanted to let him know that he had no say in the matter. Last I heard, they were divorcing.)

It seems unfortunately easy to lose sight of the fact that you are dealing with actual people and not fellow bonobos; rubbing genitals won't be enough to justify the pain you are putting them through because your wife promised you threeways to lure you into marriage and you will be damned if you let something like basic compassion get in the way of having two women at the same time. In the best of relationships, sex can complicate matters. I hate to pull an argument out of the Born Again Virgin bag of tricks - especially considering how they use that bag in the absence of sex partners - but most of us are genuinely not programmed to distance sex from love. Neurochemicals that signal pair bonding are released during orgasm (much, much more during orgasms that aren't self-induced, because your body knows) owing to genetic prerogative; the genes want to get passed on. We may see love as divine, but our bodies see it as a way to remain with one person long enough to take care of any potential progeny and carry on lineage. Yes, polyamorists, you are technically built for monogamy, no matter if you choose to go against that. (And no, your anacho-lesbian sex commune probably won't last long enough to raise children, as lovely as the thought is. Even if it takes a village to raise one, it does not take a village to conceive a child.)

I am a guy, thus I do understand the objective appeal of having sex with two women at the same time (though I am also a realist, so I consider the logical puzzles and the limitations both of male anatomy and the fabric of space-time; I can only be in so many places doing so many things at the time before I bump into a version of me from five seconds ago and then have to ponder if this now counts as a fourway). It is synergistic, far more than the energy of having sex with two women individually or even in succession. Plus - despite the general lack of appeal when confronted with Rosie O'Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, or KD Lang - most men harbor lesbian fetishes and so think it would be thrilling to see their partners with other women. (As a quick digression and to play devil's advocate a bit, this actually makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; lesbians can't knock up your girlfriend and can still bring her to climax, quite possibly better than you could hope to.) However, having found one woman who truly and improbably satisfies me on all levels, I can't imagine that we would have the slightest interest in any interloper for anything more than a clothed group cuddle with no osculation or inappropriate petting. Snuggling with a friend on a coffee house couch it hardly what the polyamorists seek.

My ex Emily once encouraged me toward a polyamorous relationship with our then friend Dives Dives. While Emily had been attracted to Dives Dives (not her real name, but she requested I not use her name) for a few months and I certainly appreciated a woman who could sing as well as D.D., I was quite hesitant. During a trip down to Free Spirit Gathering, I gently quizzed D.D. as to her interests and experiences, finally deciding that she would make a good friend but that I couldn't imagine much more than that. Her sexual history and attitudes gave me pause and I knew then I never wanted to be added to her tally. In true sitcom fashion, the freedom of that festival tipped the scales for Emily and she told D.D. that we would (and I am quoting) "sex her up" to make her feel better about a breakup, a sentiment she affirmed in my stead when D.D.'s asked me if she was serious. Establishing that I wouldn't be interested in doing more than cuddling and possibly kissing, D.D. and I spent the trip back cobbling out exactly was allowed and discouraged, a list I was content to abide and would loudly enforce if it came to that. When D.D. made clear she regarded my relationship with Emily as the most important and wouldn't interfere, I was slightly more amenable. We were closer to being on the same page. Fortunately, Emily lost her courage for the proposition before she returned to her daylight life and thus I never did more than kiss D.D.'s hand a few times on that ride back. All in all, I'm grateful to have come out of this experiment with polyamory so unscathed, though it fixed my resolve that I wouldn't be trying again.

Though I wouldn't have any need to partake, I sincerely would love if polyamory reliably worked as something other than a way to transmit STDs and heartbreak, because the world shouldn't be simplistic. Dyadic monogamy doesn't have to be the only way (though it isn't wrong simply because it is traditional). However, our society is built toward the couple and not the cloud. The few cultures where polygamy is allowed still are seen as more primitive and abusive (it is always that one man can have a harem and I'm fairly sure the wives are not permitted to fondle one another if they wish to keep their marriage and/or head). Property cannot easily be divided up among all the people you were sleeping with when you die (hopefully not literally the moment you died) without some liberal lawyering that likely won't stand up in court and custody rights must be handled quietly for fear Child Protective Services decides that the household is a poisonous environment for your child. The girlfriend you and your wife share will never get a legal wedding and that is a lot for a woman to give up for very little to gain, no matter how you try to rush her into being your live in concubine. I've seen the rare poly relationship detailed on television or in a magazine that is successful through a great deal of work for all concerned, but it wouldn't be worthy of the attention if it were any more commonplace.

Humans are social animals; we want a group of people to care for who will love us in return. While polyamory seems like an elegant solution on paper - sating our need for companionship, sex, and more - actual relationships are three-dimensional and the elegance crumples too often at the first sign of trouble.

Soon in Xenology: Things. Oh such things, you cannot believe!

last watched: Heroes
reading: The Embrace by Aphrodite Jones
listening: The Kinks

Woodstock 09 | 2009 | Loving Kindness

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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