I love words. I’m an avid reader, and I appreciate works from authors who understand the power of words. I enjoy writing, and I know that sometimes the difference between a bland sentence and a powerful sentence can be a simple matter of finding just the right word. I don’t claim, however, to know a lot of words or even the nuances of the ones I do know, and thus I am always seeking to expand my vocabulary and my understanding of word meanings. I carry a dictionary app on my phone, and I refer to it often, probably to the consternation of those people in whose presence I practice this arguably antisocial habit.
So yes. I love words. I love to learn them. I love to use them correctly. It isn’t often, however, that learning a new word completely changes your life. Yet that is what happened to me. It was October of last year. I stumbled upon a word I had never seen before. And my life hasn’t been the same since. The word? Polyamory.
I know. It’s a strange word. It was coined rather recently, and it combines poly (meaning “many”) from Greek with amory (meaning “love”) from Latin. Splicing together roots from different languages is supposed to be a no-no in the word-creation business. Yet for this word, that very freedom to combine things that the rest of society doesn’t think should be put together is somehow apropos for the meaning of the word, which describes a lifestyle that is also somewhat foreign and thus rejected by society, and which, at its core, is about accepting love into your life, no matter what form that love takes. And yes, the word does appear in my dictionary app. It is defined there as: “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”
So. October. I was trying to figure out how to get my life back on track. How do you pull yourself back from the edge? You’re married, but you’ve developed feelings for another person? I was reading all the articles I could find about emotional affairs. I was trying to find articles about how to get over one, how to dissipate the strong feelings you have for that outside person. I was feeling like I was expected to treat Girlfriend as if she had died. That I had to walk away from her, grieve for her, and go on with my life. I felt that it was something that I could do, but only if I had to. That knowing that she was only a phone call, or a text, or an email away, I would not be able to grieve her loss, but would instead be angry that I was forced into abandoning my relationship with her. For days I read every article I could find, seeing if this problem was addressed by any of them.
And the more I read, the more I had the feeling that all of these articles about emotional affairs were approaching the issue with an obvious bias that was never addressed, never even acknowledged. There was never any discussion about why marriage demanded complete and unquestioned monogamy. That was always the unstated assumption. God made marriage. We follow God. So we need to fit ourselves into his plan for our lives. But with my new-found atheism, I wasn’t buying that argument anymore. I wanted to know the reason for monogamy, a reason that wasn’t centered on religion.
That’s when I made the discovery that changed my life.
My wife says you find what you look for. The Bible says seek and ye shall find. Oriental traditions say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Google says: feeling lucky?
I went with Google. It was a simple search phrase: “Alternatives to marriage.”
I didn’t find the word polyamory immediately. But I found a site that was open to the idea of allowing people to choose the lifestyle that worked for them, rather than trying to force themselves into a lifestyle that society told them was the one true lifestyle. I read a few mildly interesting articles on the site, and I forwarded one of them to Girlfriend. A day or two later she referred me to an article from the same site that included the word polyamory.
Everything clicked into place for me. I found a book on Amazon and read it a few days later. I wasn’t entirely convinced yet, but I felt that this just made sense. I read another four books about polyamory over the next few months, becoming more and more sure after each one that polyamory was a far more rational approach than monogamy, at least in my life.
It wasn’t that I felt that I was innately drawn to the idea of having multiple simultaneous romantic relationships in my life. It was that I felt the approach to life that polyamory offered was more consistent with the often uncomfortable realities of life. I realized that what I had been taught and what I grew up believing about monogamy was wrong.
First, I have to admit that I love the idea of monogamy. Perhaps it was only my social conditioning, but the central idea of monogamy–that you have this one person in your life whom you love perfectly and with whom you are forever happy–is very appealing. I’m a romantic at heart, and I am terribly attracted to the idea of a love like this. The idea that you find someone, you fall head over heels in love, you marry, you have children, you rear them, you grow old together, you support and love that person completely and are loved and supported in turn. Happily ever after until death do us part. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s a great dream.
But it’s only a dream. Statistics prove that. Over half of marriages end in divorce. In the marriages that last, most are rocked by infidelity. Even in those that somehow avoid infidelity, the best that can be said for many of them is that the two participants have agreed to disagree. Each has said to him- or herself: “I have to put up with certain things in deference to the institution of marriage itself, or for the sake of the children, or because I don’t have anyplace else to go, or I fear that I won’t find someone else to love me. My life is less than it could be, but the marriage survives.”
I don’t want cynicism to be my only argument against monogamy, and I realize that there may be a few marriages where there is true happiness and a base for lifelong growth and development for both partners. But I would contend that this is the exception, not the rule. Monogamy isn’t chosen because it’s the most likely way to achieve lasting happiness. It’s chosen because it’s the default, the expectation, the socially sanctioned avenue for having sex and propagating the species.
I’m even willing to consider, perhaps, that, as has been said of democracy, monogamy is the worst form for romantic relationships except all the others that have been tried. But I’m not sure we’ve given other forms a fair shake.
What do we know about human behavior? What does the prevalence of divorces, of affairs, of second, third and fifth marriages tell us? That we, as humans, aren’t monogamous by nature. That we often fixate for periods, sometimes brief periods, sometimes periods lasting years, on one individual who seems to us perfect, but then time and reality reveal flaws and the strains of quotidian living allow us to drift apart. Before we know it, our happily ever after is staring us in the face, and looking far more haggard than we ever dreamt.
What if instead of demanding that our spouse be everything for us, and hoping we can be everything for our spouse, we instead take a more compassionate view? What if we say to our spouse: “I love you, I want what is best for you. I understand that we are two separate people who are journeying through life. Right now we are walking along the same path. We may not always be on the same path, but I want you to know that I support you and want you to grow and develop in the ways that are important to you, even when that means that I’m not the best person to help you in your journey.”
Is it possible to be mature enough to say, when our spouse stumbles upon another individual who satisfies their as-yet-unmet needs: “I love you enough to want you to experience this joy in your life?” Or do we have to say: “I don’t want you to be happy unless it’s me you’re being happy with?”
To me it seems that monogamy is the more childish approach. Do we have to live forever in the two-year-old can’t-share-my-toys stage? Can the feelings of jealousy be conquered? Am I justified, because I’m insecure, in forcing my spouse to forego an experience that would bring happiness and joy to her?
The way I see it, the dictionary got it wrong. Polyamory isn’t merely having multiple open romantic relationships. It’s having a mindset that you aren’t owned by and don’t own your spouse. That you are open to the joy and beauty of each relationship on its own terms. That you are willing to allow each highly unique relationship to flow where it will, without placing external limits or expectations on it. If sometimes those relationships arrange themselves such that you have multiple romantic relationships, then you fulfill the dictionary definition of polyamory. But you can–and in my mind, should–be polyamorous regardless of the form or number of your current relationships.
Of course, not everyone will see it that way. Not everyone will choose polyamory. Some may realize that they cannot conquer jealousy, and for them monogamy is a more sane choice. But more often than not, monogamy isn’t a choice; it’s an expectation. I’m not opposed to people choosing monogamy when they know their options. I just wish we were more cognizant of the fact that there are options.
And of course, my wife disagrees with my analysis. She says I find what I look for, and I was looking for an excuse to have a girlfriend, and now I’ve found it. She says that I wouldn’t embrace polyamory if I didn’t need it as a solution in my life for the situation I currently find myself in. I suppose there is some amount of truth in that, but I also believe that polyamory is a more realistic approach to life’s–and love’s–vicissitudes.
I recognize there are unsolved problems with polyamory. Difficulties that are answered by monogamy. How do you balance polyamory, for example, with bearing and rearing children? If relationships are fluid and will sometimes end, what becomes of children who were part of a temporary relationship? But at the same time, monogamy has unsolved problems that are in turn answered by polyamory. So I’m not convinced that these initial rebuttals are as strong as they at first appear. Especially when you look at the failure rate of monogamy and realize that you still have to deal with many of these same issues when monogamy fails.
But theoretical issues aside, what do you do when you have two opposing and deep convictions? I believe in polyamory. My wife believes in monogamy. She can’t live with my polyamorous apprach to life, and I am no longer willing to submit to monogamy’s rules. I am willing no longer to reject a vibrant and healthy relationship with a person that I love simply because it doesn’t fit into someone else’s idea of how life should be lived.
That’s how the word polyamory changed my life. I discovered the world is bigger than I thought it was, and embarking into that new world shut the doors on certain aspects of my previous life. My wife told me that she wasn’t willing to have me as her husband if I wasn’t willing to deny all feelings for anyone but her.
Less than a month after I learned this new word, I moved out. She didn’t want me on my conditions, and I didn’t want to stick around on hers.