Sunday, November 27, 2011

But She's Your Wife? What Happens Next in Polyamory

I have explained polyamory for the first time to many people, and most of them have accepted it. They understand the idea of sharing and see the benefit of not expecting one person to do everything and even see how jealousy could be managed. At some point in the conversation, there is often some question like "but they stop doing this when they get married, right?"

A friend of mine is engaged, and he and his fiancee live with his other partner. People sometimes ask what the other partner will do when they get married. His answer is usually something like "get dressed up and come to the wedding." They have no intention on changing any part of their lifestyle when they become legally married.

In our modern culture with 72 day marriages and 50% divorce rates, many people, especially those who have never been married, often hold this lofty ideal of marriage as some kind of magical and eternal bond between two people. It is thought that somehow everything changes, and, if it is the right couple who really love each other, love will conquer all.


If a person is inclined to polyamory before marriage, they would be inclined to polyamory afterwards. Marriage is a legal institution, which is very important for the benefits it conveys to the couple engaged in it, especially where children are involved. However, it does not turn someone into a different person.

The main reason that so many people learning about polyamory for the first time get so confused by polyamorous married people is the context in which they understand polyamory. Most mainstream Americans can pretty easily understand the idea of serial monogamy: being single and meeting a new person fairly often, having some fun with them, and moving on to the next. They can also well understand the concept of a relationship, which conveys the benefits of an ongoing connection and stability but comes with the trade-off of not being able to see other people.

To them, polyamory is a hybridization of these two concepts. The benefits of an ongoing relationship without the trade-off of exclusivity. However, this only makes sense to them for a more casual relationship: the kind of relationship that has emotional attachment but lacks the lifelong commitment of marriage or even engagement. It is in the casual nature of the relationship that it makes sense to be open to seeing other people.

There are certainly people who practice polyamory in this way. They are polyamorous until they get into a serious relationship with the right person. This makes a great deal of sense for them. Why be exclusive to a relationship which does not and is not expected to provide for all emotional and physical needs?

In this kind of relationship, it is very important that it is made very clear that any secondary relationships exist only so long as the primary relationship does not become too serious. Any secondaries involved need to emotionally prepare themselves for the time when the primary relationship will grow to exclude all others. This situation will naturally place a limit on how serous any secondary relationship can be.

The very dangerous situation to watch out for in this structure is that in which the secondary relationship does become more serious. It creates a zero-sum game situation in which the primary relationship getting stronger threatens the secondary and the secondary getting stronger limits the primary.

If you are thinking of structuring your primary relationship in this way, there is nothing wrong that that, but I would highly recommend that you keep your secondary relationships to more casual, friends-with-benefits relationships. The alternative of more serious secondary relationships is setting everyone up for a contentious and dramatic future.

1 comment:

  1. As with all things poly, you do actually have to talk about this, because not everyone, even every experienced poly person, does things the same way. I knew a couple where, shortly *after* getting married, one expressed happiness to the other that they were finally going to be monogamous, to the utter bafflement of the other. Turns out the first person wasn't "inclined to polyamory afterwards." They are no longer married.

    I also know a couple that was poly before getting married, but aren't any more. They're still happily married.

    Marriage does change things, and for some people the openness of a relationship is one of them.