"Failure or Transition? Redefining the ‘End’ of Polyamorous Relationships"
The success or failure of a marriage is usually defined just one way: Does the marriage end with the death of one party, or before?
For no other kind of relationship are success and failure defined this way. A successful, rewarding, rich friendship may drift off in time, or when one party moves away. This does not mean the friendship was a failure or a bad thing. Conversely, you may have a "failed relationship" with your nasty mother, even though you remain in a mother-child relationship until one of you dies.
Romantic relationships? Many people assume, unwittingly, that these follow the marriage model. This leads to demonizing the ex after each breakup and recasting the romance as a failed mistake from the start.
|Elisabeth Sheff's summary of her study sample to date.|
And many poly relationships end, or downshift, simply by an agreed "transition," via discussion, negotiation, and decision: away from sexual connection, or emotional primacy, or having such a large role in each others' lives.
This is surely one reason why polys tend to stay friends with their exes more than average. (Another reason: most poly communities are small. That means you're going to run into each other, you may be linked by other partners now or in the future, and you know that others in the community are watching how you manage a breakup and may judge your desirability accordingly.)
Sociologist Elisabeth Sheff has studied and written about poly people since the mid-1990s. She is currently working on a book about polyfamilies and their children based on her research.
On her blogsite, Sheff (who is not poly herself) has just posted a 5,000-word paper on "redefining the 'end' of polyamorous relationships." It will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming academic anthology Selves, Symbols and Sexualities: Contemporary Readings, edited by Staci Newmahr and Thomas Weinberg (Sage Publications).
Failure or Transition? Redefining the “End” of Polyamorous Relationships
...Cultural norms define “successful” relationships as monogamous and permanent in that the two people involved remain together at all costs. In this worldview, sexual fidelity is fundamental to the successful relationship and functions as both a cause and a symptom of relationship success.
Polyamorists, in contrast, define the ends of their relationships in a number of ways in addition to success or failure....
Respondents in my research emphasized the importance of choice as a guiding principle for their lives and relationships. Focusing on the utility and health of their relationships, respondents reported that if their relationships became intolerable, violated boundaries, or no longer met the participants’ needs, then the correct response was to modify or end the relationship....
This consciously engaged choice means that polyamorous people acknowledge their own responsibility for their relationships, with little or no social pressure (from the polyamorous paradigm at least) to either stay together or break up. As a result, poly people ultimately define their relationships as both voluntary and utilitarian, in that they are designed to meet participants’ needs. Clearly this self-responsibility is easier to espouse when the people in question are financially self-supporting and do not have children whose lives would be affected by parental separation. Given the framework of those familial and macrosocial constraints, poly people attach diverse meanings to the ends or transitional points of relationships. In this post I first detail the research methods I used in the study and then discuss those meanings poly people apply to the ends of their relationships. I conclude by examining the social implications of redefining the ends of or transitions in relationships.
Read on (Dec. 20, 2012).
I'm looking forward to her book. She writes that this paper
is part of a larger project based on three waves of qualitative data (1996-2003, 2007-2009, 2010-2012) collected across 16 years through participant observation, content analysis, Internet research, and in-depth interviews. The total sample is 500 participant observation and 131 interviewees, some of whom I interviewed only once and others I interviewed up to six times.
She says that her respondents held three primary definitions for the ends of their relationships:
– It Is Really Over: Success and Failure
– Moving Apart: Divergent Interests and Needs
– Not Really the End: Changes and Continuity
Among her conclusions:
My data indicate that poly relationships may not last in the traditional sense of permanently retaining the same form. Instead, some poly relationships appear to last more durably than many monogamous relationships because they can flex to meet different needs over time in a way that monogamous relationships – with their abundant norms and requirements of sexual fidelity — find more challenging.
...Such persistent polyamorous emphasis on fluidity and choice has several ramifications for the multitude of ways in which people can define the ends of or changes in their relationships. The most flamboyant version of poly identity is explicitly sexual in that it centers on being open to multiple sexual partners. A quieter version of poly identity, polyaffectivity, appears to be more durable and flexible — able to supersede, coexist with, and outlast sexual interaction. Relationships that have such a multitude of options for interaction and define emotional intimacy as more significant than sexual intimacy provide poly people with a wide selection of possible outcomes.
This expanded choice has two primary implications for poly relationships: graceful endings and extended connections between adults....
...Key to this redefinition is dethroning sexuality as the hallmark of “real” intimacy....
...This does not mean that no one in poly relationships gets hurt or mistreated in a breakup – poly people lie, betray, and cheat each other like everyone else. But the existence of alternative meanings provide a way for relationships to end in one phase and begin in another, or continue across many iterations that may or may not include sexuality....
Other interesting papers and presentations by Sheff are available on her site.