Polyamory is in many ways the opposite of monogamy. If monogamy is the practice of forming and maintaining romantic relationships with only one person at a time, the polyamory is the practice of being open to multiple romantic relationships at once. While most people are familiar with the concept of monogamy and polygamy, polyamory has many subtle differences that overlap with both of these concepts. Like monogamists, polyamorists are capable of deep emotional bonds with their partners and often aspire to the same ideals of honesty and love. However, unlike both monogamists and polygamists, polyamorists may or may not aspire to lifelong commitment, and in addition to having multiple partners of their own, their partners are also free to have multiple partners as well. This is a key difference between polyamory and polygamy; polygamy is inherently imbalanced. Perhaps, however, the most important difference between polyamory and monogamy is that in a monogamous relationship, both partners are committed to achieving all of their fulfillment within the boundaries of their relationship with each other whereas in a polyamorous relationship two partners can choose how much fulfillment they want to receive from each other and how much they want to receive elsewhere. The implications of this subtle difference are profound.
I am at the age where many of my friends are marrying or at least beginning to contemplate marriage. While as a divorcee I am deeply suspicious of marriage, my friends often say to me, “but we already live together and neither one of us intends to ever break up, what’s the difference?” The difference is huge, I assure them. What is it exactly? Once married, you lose your outside option. To my married readers, have you ever wondered where all the affection and romance went from your relationship? Does it not seem as if as soon as you got married, your husband stopped offering you foot massages with scented oils, your wife stopped going to the gym? Once you marry, your partner can no longer walk out on you as easily. This means that you lose the motivation to care for yourself and to care for your partner in the same way you did before you married. Many of us swear to ourselves that we will be different, that we will not change when we marry, but we also swear to ourselves that this year we will finally lose those last five pounds, too. Marriage gives us comfort and certainty that we will not be abandoned (as easily), but it also relaxes our standards of care. It is true that many couples can survive happily decades into the marital contract, but it is folly to believe that every one of them will be able to maintain the relationship they had before tying the knot.
In a similar vein to the bounds that marriage provide, monogamy provides a closed context within which we can feel safe, but also lax and trapped. A single individual is required to provide emotional and sexual satisfaction in addition to providing companionship and partnership. This package deal is very attractive for the same reasons that it is restrictive. Take just one aspect of a relationship: emotional support. Over our lives we wax and wane in our need for support and our ability to provide it. If we are in synchronization with our partner, then we can trade the support we need with ease, but if both of us are in crisis, or if one partner is simply exhausted and no longer able to provide the support needed by the other, then there is no outlet for the build up of pressure. No amount of love, care or commitment can cure exhaustion; only rest can do this. So what we get is that in a closed relationship the exhausted party and the needy party erupt into conflict.
Compare this situation to an open relationship. When one party is in need of emotional support, there is no designated provider of that support. If she has two partners, she can ask one or the other, and when it is clear that one source is exhausted, she can turn to the other to fulfill her needs. Certainly there is no guarantee that this will satisfy her need, but it does provide relief for an overextended partner both because there are other alternatives and also because morally he is not obligated to solve her emotional crisis. The knowledge that exhaustion on his part is not an indication of failure to uphold his responsibilities in the relationship by itself can provide a soothing balm to the tension a crisis engenders. It can give him patience. It can also serve as a check to the partner in crisis. Because she has no commitment on the part of her primary partner to solve her emotional problems, she must be careful not to overload him and to maintain a healthy sense of awareness of her own responsibilities towards her own emotional health.
While a monogamous relationship provides an implicit guarantee of emotional support, the supply of that support is restricted by the ability of one’s partner to provide it. On the other hand, a polyamorous relationship does not provide such a concrete guarantee of support, but its inherent openness means that when provided, that support can be given more honestly and received more fully. Which relationship structure is preferable depends on one’s own tolerance for uncertainty and one’s ability and commitment to personal health. A monogamous relationship is a guarantee of a sort. It allows one to “play cards” such as the “if you love me” card, or the “this is your responsibility” card. These can be incredibly reassuring as can the notion of ownership that monogamy provides. The polyamorous structure means accepting in advance that those cards hold no value. Any partner can walk out, or form a new relationship at any time which means at every moment all partners must take care to ensure that they all still desire to maintain the relationship with each other. Many people are unwilling to tolerate this kind of uncertainty in their most intimate relationships. For all things, there is a cost.