Sunday, March 07, 2010

Monogamy is just one of many relationship models

There has been recent debate about the South African president, Jacob Zuma, over his open practice of polygamy. He has been married five times, and currently has three wives.

When it comes to polygamy, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is an important cultural tradition for many; on the other hand, polygamy is primarily based on patriarchy.


Polyamory, however, is one model of non-monogamy that seems to be more inclusive of both sexes. Also referred to as open marriage, polyamory (from the Greek word poly which means 'many', and the Latin word amor which means 'love') is the philosophical idea that it is possible to have more than one romantic relationship at a time, provided that these relationships take place
with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

As this interesting Wikipedia article states:


What distinguishes polyamory from traditional forms of non-monogamy (i.e. "cheating") is an ideology that openness, goodwill, intense communication, and ethical behavior should prevail among all the parties involved.


The first major different to polygamy is that polyamorous relationships are not necessarily bound by an act of marriage. The second difference is that polyamory is not patriarchal. Rather, it is based on

. . . such concepts as gender equality, self-determination, free choice for all involved, mutual trust, equal respect among partners, [and] the intrinsic value of love . . .


From what I've read, polyamorists tend to stress responsible non-monogamy, placing importance on honesty, negotiation, respect, and the use of safe sex.


In one Oprah poll, 7% of woman and 14% of men who responded indicated that they are in open marriages. There are families where the kids grow up with two dads and one mom in the house. In this article, the parents of one polyamorous family - consisting of a child, one father and two mothers - explain how they make it work.


As a Christian, I grew up believing that the only valid model of romantic relationship was monogamy, but it is interesting to learn that there are many people out there who are practicing various forms of non-monogamy. And it seems as if many of them are making it work.

18 comments:

atimetorend said...

Personally, I would be too jealous to ever consider polyamory, would not be happy. And I know it is just my own perspective, but it is difficult for me to imagine that would not be so for other people too.

The 14% number in the Oprah poll sounds way too high to me. Granted the circles I run in are significantly biased against polyamory, but I have never in my entire life met, that I know of, someone in a family two dads/one mom, two moms/one dad. I can imagine there are more than I realize, but 14% is way beyond that.

Interesting thoughts though, wondering how much is cultural conditioning, how much is built-in emotions.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi atimetorend

14% does seem to be too high. When I revisited the link I see they are referring to those who actually answered the poll. They are not claiming that the figures represent the entire population of the USA. I've adjusted my post accordingly to reflect this. Thank you!

rtai said...

I recommend HBO show Big Love. On the other hand it only reflects polygamy from a patriarchal view. I think if women want to have multipe husbands or lovers then they should be allowed to long as long as their partners are okay and mature about it. Monogamy/monoamory seems impractical to me considering it's poor track record.

Anyway Big Love ended the season last night with a bang and i think it will make next season very interesting. The show is approaching Six Feet Under status in my opinion.

Laughing Boy said...

From my experience with poly-amorists, they do tend to place importance on honesty ("Listen, the truth is I don't want to commit because I want to spread it around"), negotiation ("Now is it OK with you that I spread it around?"), respect ("I respect that you're OK with my spreading it around"), and the use of safe sex ("because, of course, I don't want to give birth to any reasons to commit or become infected with the notion that I should stop spreading it around").

"...but it is interesting to learn that there are many people out there who are practicing various forms of non-monogamy."

You were not aware of this till recently? Did S. Africa miss out on the Sexual Revolution of a generation ago?

You say that there are other valid models for romantic relationships besides monogamy. What makes a model valid?

CRL said...

LB:"What makes a model valid?"

What, aside from religion, makes a model invalid.

Laughing Boy said...

What, aside from religion, makes a model invalid?

First we have to determine if relationship models can be judged valid or invalid at all. Is there a standard, as Kevin seems to suggest? Once we answer that we can try to decide what that standard might be.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi LB

LB wrote:
Negotiation ("Now is it OK with you that I spread it around?")

You make it sound as if people choose polyamory just because they want sex. I’ve always found this view quite perplexing: that it’s okay for a couple to marry in the traditional, monogamous way (as they are motivated by love, intimacy, warmth, and companionship), but couples who step outside of this traditional mould (eg, into polyamory) are motivated only by sex. I don’t know if it’s just me, but some theists seem to paint those who don’t follow the status quo as sex obsessed narcissists.

I guess if you have been taught your entire life (as I once was) that it is impossible to foster healthy, romantic relationships outside the confines of religiously based monogamy, then I can understand why it might be difficult to consider the possibility that many polyamorists seek out their particular lifestyle for the same reasons that most people choose traditional marriage: for love, intimacy, warmth, and companionship.

What makes a model ‘valid’? I don’t have a list of hard, objective rules, I’m afraid. But I was thinking that if a model aims to foster healthy relationships (as both monogamy and polyamory do), then we should not dismiss it out of hand.

CRL said...

LB:"First we have to determine if relationship models can be judged valid or invalid at all."

Perhaps they can't.

Anonymous said...

In polyamory, won't there inevitably be competition which reduces the bond that two people can have with each other? I don't think the almost universal jealousy that humans experience when a partner "cheats" arises because of some religious impulse... it is innately there in the heart because there is something special about an exclusive, committed relationship between two people. Let's not forget that people are people, and jealousy will happen... Not because of immaturity, but because of the wonderful bond that only a monogamous relationship can have.

Kevin Parry said...

Anon wrote
won't there inevitably be competition which reduces the bond that two people can have with each other?

Yes, there will be, but only if you hold onto the premise of exclusivity. The polyamorists would probably throw the question back at you and ask if having more than one friend, for example, reduces the bond that you have with each of your friends in general. In all other relationships in life (such as friends, acquaintances, children) we do not hold onto the premise of exclusivity. In fact, having more than one friend is often seen as something healthy, and I’ve never met parents who believe that they are ‘cheating’ on their first child by having a second one. Polyamorists simply extend this concept of non-exclusivity to romantic bonding as well.

there is something special about an exclusive, committed relationship between two people.

Yes, there definitely is, but only for those who decide that monogamy, or exclusivity, is for them. But there are many who manage to find something just as special with more than one person at a time.

Thanks for popping by.

Laughing Boy said...

Kevin: I’ve always found this view quite perplexing: that it’s okay for a couple to marry in the traditional, monogamous way (as they are motivated by love, intimacy, warmth, and companionship), but couples who step outside of this traditional mould (eg, into polyamory) are motivated only by sex.

Yes, because (non-sexual) intimacy, love, and companionship with others, can be had within the bounds of a traditional monogamous marriage.

some theists seem to paint those who don’t follow the status quo as sex obsessed narcissists

My religious beliefs are that God designed human beings in such a way that monogamy is best for us. It is my experience that shows polyamorists to be sex-obsessed narcissists.

But I was thinking that if a model aims to foster healthy relationships (as both monogamy and polyamory do), then we should not dismiss it out of hand.

That's a pragmatic starting point; although I would say they should in fact foster healthy relationships rather than simply aim to do so.

CRL: Perhaps they can't (be judged valid or invalid).

Really? How about a relationship model like the one undertaken by Phillip Garrido?

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin,

My argument about the inevitably of jealousy is based on what I believe is an inherent way that humans are wired, something that a logical argument one tries to convince oneself about (i.e. I can have a special romantic bond with more than one person) will never be able to overcome. The "premise of exclusivity" might be something natural within us that we cannot escape by reason, similar to the thought that I can eat whatever food I want and still be healthy... not true. Some "rational" arguments cannot rewire our biology/psychology.

Sure, we can have multiple friends and children... but jealousy even creeps into those relationships when we start to spend more time with one over another. This is not to say that we should not have multiple friends and children, but it is to point out the pervasiveness of jealousy... it creeps in all too often in these relationships, and look how much more it shows up in romantic relationships! It would be interesting to research the experience of polyamorous couples to see just how well they hold to their "logical" agreement and suppress their jealousy. I have seen several examples where the jealousy just cannot be contained and it ends up exploding.

Laughing Boy said...

Kevin, let's say that polygamy is a valid model (whatever that means). Would you consider yourself a polyamorist trapped in a monogamist society? Or are you by nature, apart from your restrictive religious upbringing, a monogamist? In short, is polygamy an option for you? Why or why not?

Kevin Parry said...

Anon wrote:
My argument about the inevitably of jealousy is based on what I believe is an inherent way that humans are wired

If we accept your argument that it is hard wired, some might argue that violence, hatred, and other ills are also hard wired into us. But this doesn’t make them right. Jealously is a negative emotion, resulting from low self-esteem and mistrust, that can be destructive to relationships. Polyamorous couples do suffer from jealously, but they realize that this is a negative emotion that requires a lot of work to reduce. In fact, the aim is to experience an emotion called compersion, which is the opposite of jealously.

LB wrote
Would you consider yourself a polyamorist trapped in a monogamist society?

I wouldn’t describe myself as either a polyamorist or a monogamist. Rather, my broader aim is to be open to everyone I meet, and open to all types of possible relationships (friendships, family, romance, etc). Both Cori and I are drawn to the philosophy of polyamory, because it isn’t based on the ideas of ownership, possessiveness, exclusivity or jealously, but rather based on the broader ideals of community, openness and sharing.

So we try and foster these broader ideals in all our relationships, instead of focusing on definitions like ‘polyamory’ or ‘monogamy’. So, philosophically, I am polyamorous. But in practice, and in romantic sense, I am currently monogamous. And it doesn’t really matter to me whether I remain monogamous for the rest of my life or practice polyamory at a later stage. What’s more important to me is that I foster the positive ideals above in all my relationships.

Anonymous said...

Jealousy is always a negative emotion? Interesting... Could not jealousy be an important ally of true love? Kevin, by defining jealousy as negative, you eliminate monogamy as an option. Your argument appears to be founded upon this assumption, so it is worth pondering whether jealousy could actually be a wonderful gift, something that could help fuel patience and courage for the love of another.

Kevin Parry said...

I think jealously has its source in personal insecurity. It is based on the fear of loosing something that is of great value to you. In the romantic sense, it is the fear that someone (or something) else, who you perceive to be better than you, will ‘compete’ for the love and attention given to you by your partner.

So I think jealously is primarily a selfish emotion, as it is all about the self: my fear of loss, my needs, my insecurities. It does not focus on the needs of my partner at all, but instills – within me – a sense of entitlement and ownership over the other person.

Secondly, I believe that jealously can also be an indication of mistrust. If you don’t trust your partner, how can I feel secure in the knowledge that she/he will honour the boundaries that both of you have negotiated for your relationship (boundaries can be set in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships)?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to build a relationship that is based on selfishness, mistrust or a sense ownership, but rather on equality, trust, openness, and honesty. These are the traits that I choose to foster in all my relationships, irrespective of whether they are monogamous or not.

Anonymous said...

Kevin, based on your own reasoning, the desire for love itself is selfish, because it is all about my needs. There are appropriate desires we have to take care of our own needs - "love your neighbor AS you love yourself."

You're looking at jealousy from the wrong side, the bad side, but there is a good side: being concerned for the well-being of the other person who is losing the joys of monogamy and dividing their love, lessening what they can give to someone else...

Do you think that romantic love might be different in that it's joys get spoiled the more it is spread around? Can someone really love multiple people in a romantic way with equal intensity, without the others getting seriously hurt? Imagine everyone embracing polyamory... No commitment, no depth, just an endless series of hook-ups and break-ups and heartache. Romantic love is different than friendship love or love for children, don't you think? Eros is just not phile, and not storge either.

You say that you don't want to build a relationship on selfishness, but polyamory reeks with selfishness for its insatiable and endless desire for more relationships, and I can't help but suspect, despite your protests, that sex has much to do with this. Be real with yourself Kevin. The self can be easily deceived, no matter how introspective one may be.

Kevin Parry said...

Anon wrote
the desire for love itself is selfish, because it is all about my needs.

If I am found wondering in the desert and someone offers me a glass of water, would they be justified in claiming that I’m selfish by quenching my thirst? Not really. But if I quench my thirst and then decide to drink someone else’s water when they are dying of dehydration, then yes, I would be selfish. There is a big difference between simply meeting one’s needs and selfishness: one can meet one’s needs by working in partnership with others, through negotiation and give-and-take; selfishness is the opposite this, as it is all about meeting one’s needs at the expense of others, without considering their needs at all.

losing the joys of monogamy and dividing their love, lessening what they can give to someone else.

Does having more than one child lessen the love you can give to each one? I would think many parents would say that having more than one child actually increases the amount of love and joy in the family. Each child introduces a different dynamic into the relationship, bringing out and enhancing different sides of each parent. Polyamorists simply argue that the same can be achieved with romantic bonding.

Can someone really love multiple people in a romantic way with equal intensity, without the others getting seriously hurt?

Yes. I know someone who is quite close to me who is in a happy poly relationship.

No commitment, no depth, just an endless series of hook-ups and break-ups and heartache.

There are many monogamists out there who also throw themselves into a series of hook-ups and breakups that that lack commitment, depth, and often result in heartache. But nobody blames monogamy for that fact. Rather, we blame the individual person (or people) for being irresponsible. There are many monogamous relationships that fail because of irresponsibility. But there are many monogamous relationships that are successful because of hard work, commitment, honesty and trust. Polyamorous relationships can succeed or fail in much the same way.