Michael Greenberg on Polyamory
In his archly erudite "Freelance" column in the Times Literary Supplement, Michael Greenberg casts a jaundiced eye on a meeting of Polyamorous NYC. Do you recognize yourself here?
An acquaintance called Barbara Foster phones to invite me to the monthly meeting of her "polyamory group" in Greenwich Village. "We believe in multiple love relationships", she explains. "An extended family where everything's above board you're fully aware of your partner's lovers, and he knows all about yours. No cheating, no broken trust, which, as you know, is what causes love to crumble."
I pull The Kreutzer Sonata from my shelf, Tolstoy's diatribe against sex, to read on the subway ride downtown. The narrator Pozdnyshev mocks the notion that "spiritual affinity" is the basis of marriage. "Is it because of unity of ideals that people go to bed together?", he asks sarcastically. He can't bear the fact that, duped by sexual attraction, he convinced himself he had fallen in love. When attraction ends, contempt takes over, lasting until the couple's last miserable breath. Yet we "go to the grave believing we have lived perfectly normal and happy lives!", cries Pozdnyshev. To protect the "purity" of ideal love, Pozdnyshev proposes chastity in marriage.
The meeting is to take place at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, a former elementary school on West 13th Street, filled with concealed staircases and unexpected wings. "We're just renting space here", a polyamorist hastens to inform me. "For the most part, they're completely confused about who we are." About forty people have gathered in a room tucked away in a remote corner of the third floor. An air-conditioner rattles loudly. Strips of black duct tape keep the carpet from coming apart. Our chairs are arranged in a circle, like in nursery school.
I find Barbara, who hands me a book she co-wrote, entitled Three in Love: Menages a trois from ancient to modern times. The other authors are her husband and the third member of their menage. "I lived it", she says with disarming intensity....
At 8 o'clock sharp, the featured speaker bursts into the room. She is Nan Wise, Certified Relationship and Alternative Lovestyles Specialist, and Happiness Coach.
Tall, voluptuous, with long coppery hair, she looks as if she has stepped out of the pages of a Robert Crumb cartoon....
"Languaging is of critical importance", Nan says. We are immediately bombarded with made-up words, apparently meant to lend a sociological aura to the movement. A heavy-set man wants to know how to present his polyamorous desire to his monogamous girlfriend. "The dreaded poly/mono dilemma!", Nan cries. "To lead this life successfully, you need advanced skill-sets. They can be learned. But they require commitment. Sacrifice, in some cases. Maturity. Work." The couple sitting next to me clutch each other's hands, like nervous passengers on a plane.
The polyamorist's ultimate goal is to reach the state of "compersion", where jealousy is transcended and "one finds pleasure in the pleasure of his lover with another" a variation, perhaps, of Pozdnyshev's ideal love. The ability to negotiate is paramount.
...Someone complains about the word "compromise", with its "negative connotations of giving something up". All agree that "collaborate" should replace it as the favoured term. A man reports that, after they went poly, his wife of twenty years left him. He seems morose and stung, but sympathy for his plight is measured. He has failed to reach compersion. However, more bruised feelings from members of the audience come to light. A young woman worries about maintaining primary status with her main lover. "I don't want to be demoted to number two or three." Another complains of being stuck at a low rung on the ladder. "I feel like a mistress. I mean, what the hell am I doing this for?" Maybe a change of language would ease her discomfort. "'Primary' could be 'principal', and the rest could be called 'satellites'", suggests a man. "It's less hierarchal."...
Read the whole article (Sept. 1, 2006 issue).
Labels: New York