"The Future of Marriage and Non-Traditional Relationships"
A public radio station presents an intelligent, 34-minute discussion of the future of polyamory, featuring three guests: Ethical Slut co-author Dossie Easton, family therapist David Peters, and family-law expert Janet Bowermaster.
Polyamory comes off in the discussion as a serious and promising, though difficult, new social institution for the minority of people who are suited to it and willing to face up to the work.
The segment aired March 18, 2010, in mid-morning. You can stream or download the audio, or read the transcript. Here are pieces of it:
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The big news about marriage recently is how many more people want to give it a try. Many gay and lesbian couples are working hard to achieve the right to marry in California, a right same sex couples have already achieved in five states and the District of Columbia. In addition to being part of a struggle for equal rights, the move toward same sex marriage might also be seen as a validation of monogamous relationships.
But not everyone agrees. At the same time that some are working for marriage, the polyamory movement is gaining strength in some urban areas and on the internet. Polyamorists believe in ethical non-monogomy by openly engaging in intimate relationships with more than one person at a time. And if that sounds like old fashioned hippie free love to you, you may not be so far off the mark. Joining me to discuss what place polyamory may have in the future of relationships are my guests....
DAVID PETERS: ...Well, monogamy in human history is the dominant form of bonding. Most of the animal world does not pair bond monogamously, 90% does not. But humans, through almost all of human history, have had a proclivity to monogamy and pair bonding. You have exceptions, of course....
CAVANAUGH: And many people live, in a sense, polyamorous lifestyles without being honest about it. I mean, spouses cheat and... does that sort of knock down the idea that monogamy is what most people sort of go towards?
PETERS: Well, we, as a species, attempt monogamy and then because we have emotions and drives that lead us by our nose sometimes, we fail at monogamy.... Affairs in marriage, you know, some 30% of men and women, statistics vary depending upon what you read, but most of those people who do have affairs would also say, well, they’re not happy about it, they would prefer that they had one love in their life and – or one love at a time and that they could be open with that one love. So many people who are having affairs feel caught....
EASTON: ...There’s no reason to think that having an affair or a relationship with another person needs to detract from a life partnership or any other relationship that you have. You don’t have to kind of subtract the one from another.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, I understand exactly what you’re saying....
PETERS: I’m going to quote a little bit from the work of a well known anthropologist, a Dr. Helen Fisher, who is out of Rutgers State University. And she’s done some remarkable research on the level of brain neurology and brain chemistry in terms of studying love, lust, attachment, and romance. She’s pointed out that we actually have three different brain systems within our heads that promote the mating and reproductive behavior among humans.
The first one is commonly known as lust. It’s merely that urge to have sex with someone. It’s impersonal, it doesn’t require love, it doesn’t require attraction even....
Another brain system is romantic love, and this is the very familiar human trait which is that attraction. You get this euphoric feeling. That’s marked by a rise in dopamine levels in the brain and it causes the sense of excitement, and then a lowering of serotonin in the brain which causes the obsessive love where you just can’t get the person out of your mind. And we really enjoy this romantic love. You know, poetry’s written about it, movies are written about it, music is composed about it. And this is really uniquely human and it makes our mating and partnerships so wonderful.
A third brain system, in this full human behavior, is attachment. And with attachment, you see the longterm bond between humans. This is the marriage that’s lasted for years. You have your best friend there. It may not be hotly romantic anymore but it’s very comfortable. You’re good friends. You trust one another. You stick together....
What’s interesting here is that these brain systems can act independent from one another... and cause confusion if your goal is monogamy. You have to really work to manage it. What’s interesting here is in the polyamorous community, they’re attempting to have a primary attachment with one partner, or sometimes two partners, while allowing romantic love or allowing lust to be explored with others. And this is all by open agreement. Everybody has to know what’s going on. Most people would not prefer this, but this is what’s being attempted.
...EASTON: Some people – and when my daughter was young, this was what I was doing and sort of still do – see their polyamorous connections as one kind of big, extended family, the equivalent of a neighborhood or a village. And extend things out like, you know, sharing raising kids and keeping houses going and all that, in one larger system that distributes a lot of the work in that system. I would simply add that there is room for attachment as well as lust and romance. My own experience is that sexual connection is kind of an amazing intimacy – I think of it really as sacred, a wonderful way of connecting, so I don’t think of it as just lust, or just romance. I think of it as a truly profound connection and I want to honor that connection.... So I sort of expect people who are present in my and my partner’s lives as lovers to, you know, have profound connections.
CAVANAUGH: Dossie brings up a point....
CALLER: I had a question for the author of “The Ethical Slut.” You know, I know that at least Christianity and Catholicism believe that when a couple get married and have intimacy, there’s a bond, a divine bond that’s created there. I know they were talking a little bit about spirituality before but in terms of that religious morality and divine connection between married people, monogamous married people, what is the polyamorous perspective on that?
EASTON: I think that the polyamorous perspective is largely that spiritual connection can exist beyond marriage and that the connections, that the love connections that we make are sacred, whatever rituals or whatever commitments involved in those relationships are. Certainly, marriage is a very special relationship, but the notion that love can only occur in marriage or that sexual love can only occur between two people in one particular kind of relationship, is, in my experience, really just plain not true. And that the kind of love that indicates a spiritual connection - loving, caring, concerned about each others' wellbeing, all that other good stuff - is something that can be more widespread.
PETERS: ...Well, jealousy is certainly going to be the biggest challenge if you’re attempting a polyamorous relationship. And, you know, when you hear people casually talk about this, they’ll say, oh, these people just want it easy to just get whatever they want. And, in fact, it’s not quite easy. What they’re attempting does require a lot of work because one has to take full responsibility for one’s position. You go in consciously knowing what’s going on, no one’s being fooled, and so if you do have feelings of jealousy or insecurity then you’re responsible for them. So there’s a deep personal challenge to own up to, you know, what you’re doing there.
And that can be growth enhancing, one could say, but clearly the majority of people, you know, are not wanting to be challenged in that way. We want the security of marriage. And so, you know, this is certainly not a route for everybody; this is a route for people who have really thought about it very seriously. And I wouldn’t recommend anybody get into such a thing casually.
PETERS: If you read much of the polyamorous literature, it is not male-centered. Much more of it is female-centered. They tend to - Dossie has mentioned several times the spirituality of sex and there tends to be – you can kind of find it in the literature as you read around a certain feminine-feminist-spirituality-sexuality, you know, flow here, where sex is celebrated in a spiritual encounter, and that’s definitely the trend in the polyamorous community....
Read the whole transcript (March 18, 2010).