BBC poly documentary sets off global hubbub
BBC radio sure has a big reach. On Monday August 19, BBC's Radio 4 aired a strikingly good half-hour piece on polyamory, titled "Monogamy and the Rules of Love." It suggested that ethical non-monogamy will be widely accepted in just 10 years. This prompted all kinds of reaction in Great Britain and around the world. The program description:
Does monogamy still have a place in a society where choice is everything? Jo Fidgen asks why people are still so wedded to the ideal, if not always the practice. Does true love really demand sexual fidelity, and what happens when people choose to open up their relationships?
You can listen to it here (28 minutes) until 3 p.m. EDT Monday August 26th.
The BBC put up a written companion story on its News Magazine site the previous evening. It became the News Magazine's most-read story for the week.
How does a polyamorous relationship between four people work?
Imagine one house, with four people, but five couples. How does it work, asks Jo Fidgen.
From top left, clockwise: Sarah, Chris, Charlie and Tom.
Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.
Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who's been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah's fiance, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
The two women are also in a full-blown relationship, while the two men are just good friends. Together, they make a polyamorous family and share a house in Sheffield.
"We're planning to grow old together," says Charlie.
Polyamory is the practice of having simultaneous intimate relationships with more than one person at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary only in 2006, and such relationships are rare enough that Tom finds himself having to account for his personal situation time and time again.
"The number of conversations I've had with peers where I've started to explain it and they've got as far as, 'so, you all cheat on each other' and not been able to get past that. I've said no, everybody's cool with it, everybody knows what's happening, no one's deceiving each other."
If any of the four want to get involved with someone else, they have to run it by the others - all of whom have a veto.
"We can't use a veto for something as silly as, say, personal taste," says Sarah. "If you were dating somebody and I could not understand why you found them attractive, that would not be sufficient reason for me to say, no, you can't see this person."
The word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, where it is defined as:
"The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned."
What counts as infidelity, then?
"Lying," they chorus.
"For example," explains Charlie, "before I went on this first date yesterday, I sat down with each of my three partners and checked with them individually that I was okay to go on this date. Cheating would have been me sneaking off and saying I was meeting Friend X and not say that it was a potential romantic partner."
The rules and boundaries of their relationships are carefully negotiated.
When they had been a couple for just two weeks, Tom suggested to Charlie that they be non-monogamous.
"It was a light bulb moment for me," she says. 'I had been scared of commitment because I had never met anyone I felt I could fall completely and exclusively in love with. The idea of this not being a monogamous relationship allowed me to fall as deeply in love with Tom as I wanted to without fear that I would break his heart by falling in love with somebody else as well."
But how did she feel when, a year into their marriage, Tom fell in love with another woman?
"Well, Sarah's lovely," says Charlie. "I was just so happy that Tom was happy with her."
Sarah's partner, Chris, was less comfortable with the situation at first. They had agreed that they could have other sexual partners, but forming an emotional attachment with someone else was a different matter.
So when Sarah fell for Tom, she agonised over how to tell Chris.
"We sat down and talked about what it meant to be in love with more than one person, and did that mean I loved him less. Well, of course it didn't.
"It's not like there's only so much love I have to give and I have to give all of it to one person. I can love as many people as I can fit in my heart and it turns out that's quite a few."
In interviews, people in open marriages say that although it is not for everyone, it is absolutely possible for adults to be in committed, emotionally satisfying relationships with more than one person at a time.
Chris and Tom bonded over video games and became firm friends. Before long, Chris had fallen in love with Tom's wife, Charlie.
"It had never crossed Chris's mind not to be monogamous - now he says he could never go back," says Sarah.
This quandary over how to manage relationships is something that couples counsellor, Esther Perel, sees people struggling with all the time.
"You can live in a monogamous institution and you can negotiate monotony, or you can live in a non-monogamous choice and negotiate jealousy. Pick your evil.
"If you are opening it up you have to contend with the fact that you're not the only one, and if you are not opening it up then you have to contend with the fact that your partner is the only one."
So how do Charlie, Sarah and Tom handle jealousy?
Not a problem, they insist, and point to a word invented in polyamorous circles to indicate the opposite feeling.
"Compersion," explains Tom, "is the little warm glow that you get when you see somebody you really care about loving somebody else and being loved."
"There's always a small amount of insecurity," reflects Sarah, recalling how she felt when her fiance fell in love with Charlie. "But compare my small amount of discomfort with the huge amount of love that I could see in both of them, and honestly, I'd feel like a really mean person if I said my discomfort was more important than their happiness."
Jealousy has to be handled differently in a polyamorous relationship, adds Charlie.
"In a two-person, monogamous relationship, it's not necessary but it is possible to say, we just need to cut out all of the people who are causing jealousy and then everything will be fine.
"Whereas when you are committed to a multi-partner relationship, you can't just take that shortcut. You have to look at the reasons behind the jealousy."
If an issue does arise, the four may stay up all night talking it over.
"We do so much more talking than sex," laughs Charlie.
But some argue that it is natural for people to bond in pairs.....
Our desire for monogamy has deep roots, says Marian O'Connor, a psychosexual therapist at the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships in London.
"As children we need someone who loves us best of all in order to thrive. There's normally one main care giver, usually the mother, who will look after the infant.
"The thing about a monogamous relationship, it can give you some sense of certainty and surety, somewhere you can feel safe and at home."
Sarah, Tom and Charlie agree that a safe base is important, but see no reason why only monogamy can provide one.
"I feel safe and secure, with the ability to trust and grow, with Tom, Sarah and Chris," says Charlie. "It is from the base and security of the three of them that I face the world and the challenges the day brings."
"The way I see it, it's only a problem if I feel like one of my partners is spending more time with all their other partners than with me," says Sarah. "It just leads to people feeling hurt."
A shared Google calendar is the answer.
"We mostly use it for keeping track of date nights," says Charlie. "The couple who is on a date gets first pick of what film goes on the TV and it helps keep track of who's in what bedroom."
Sarah chips in. "So, for example, I have a weekly date night with Charlie. It's us snuggling up, us with the TV, us going to bed together and all that kind of business."
Perel sees polyamory as "the next frontier" - a way of avoiding having to choose between monotony and jealousy.
"We have a generation of people coming up who are saying, we also want stability and committed relationships and safety and security, but we also want individual fulfilment. Let us see if we can negotiate monogamy or non-monogamy in a consensual way that prevents a lot of the destructions and pains of infidelity."
But it's not an easy option....
Tom is cautiously optimistic that polyamory will become "average and everyday".
"Anyone who is expecting some massive social change overnight is terribly mistaken, but it will happen."
...They all agree managing a multi-partner relationship can be exhausting.
"But we don't have a choice. We're in love with each other," they chime.
Read the original (Aug. 18, 2013).
The show prompted this column in The Guardian:
Being polyamorous shows there's no 'traditional' way to live
Polyamory is not a euphemism for sleeping around. It's just another way of organising life, love and who does the dishes.
By Laurie Penny
...This week the BBC Radio 4 documentary "Monogamy and the Rules of Love" tapped into a growing curiosity about polyamory, the formal practice of having multiple romantic partners at one time. For many people, though, polyamory isn't curious at all – it's just another way of organising life, love and whose turn it is to make the tea.
It may be hard for the conservative old guard to fathom, but for a long time lots of people have quietly been getting on with non-monogamous relationships. During the recent debates around the legalisation of gay marriage, Tory critics warned that the next, unthinkable step would be multiple marriage. I can't be the only one who wondered if that'd be such a bad idea. Some of the sweetest couples I know, including many with healthy, happy children, are not couples at all, but triples or even quadruples – but the public conversation about open non-monogamy is still stuck on horrified confusion. An article in the Independent about the BBC programme confused polyamory with "wife-swapping", which makes the women involved sound like unwanted Saturdays CDs.
...I've been in various polyamorous relationships, some delightful, some less so, particularly with people who confuse structured non-monogamy with simple sleeping around. From a distance, they look similar, but only the former has the tedious syncing-up of calendars and household chores.... Once you've got past the initial thrill of being allowed to fall in love and fool around with multiple people at once, you tend to find that polyamory replaces one set of problems – suspicion, frustration, guilt at lusting after people you shouldn't – with an exciting new set of problems. Problems like how to make sure you're spending enough time with each of your partners, or what precisely you're supposed to call your girlfriend's other boyfriend who you may or may not also be dating (answer: your "metamor"). Problems like how to balance the time you spend talking discussing your feelings honestly with various lovers with other important things like eating dinner and going to work....
The fact that doing polyamory properly requires a lot of time and energy is one of the reasons that many participants in the "poly scene" – although by no means all – are urban, middle-class professionals. These tend to be the people with the hours and energy to devote to maintaining multiple partnerships in a time when even monogamous love is a struggle for working people....
...Radio 4 predicted that monogamy would lose its "moral monopoly" within 10 years. Bring it on, I say.
Read the whole article (Aug. 20).
The Independent was less sympathetic:
Monogamy is outdated, according to controversial BBC investigation
'Polyamorous' relationships, involving multiple partners, could become the new normal
By Adam Sherwin
Monogamy and the Rules of Love, a Radio 4 documentary broadcast on Monday, features a pair of co-habiting couples, living together in Sheffield, who use a Google calendar to plan when they have sex with each other.
The programme argues that the “taboo” around sharing lovers between an unlimited number of sexual partners could disappear within a decade.
Presenter Jo Fidgen interviews experts and meets British couples who have rejected monogamy. “Could monogamy really lose its moral monopoly inside ten years?,” she asks.
She meets Charlie, a woman who has been married to Tom for six years. Before their marriage, Tom met and fell in love with Sarah, with Charlie's approval.
Subsequently, Sarah and Charlie also began a relationship. Then Sarah got engaged to a man called Chris. “And somewhere along the line I fell in love with Chris and now we're all planning to grow old together,” Charlie tells the programme.
...Ms Fidgen speaks to Esther Perel, a Belgian sex therapist with a radical approach to relationships, who predicts that the “power” of monogamy is subsiding.
Perel agrees that “multi-partner relationships are coming on the radar” and suggests that they will become common within 30 years, if not ten.
“Monogamy has shown remarkable endurance. These relationship pioneers are revising the rules of love to promote sexual honesty over exclusivity,” Ms Fidgen said. “If they persuade people there's a viable model, then monogamy becomes a choice rather than the default.”
She asks: “Does true love really mean forsaking all other lovers? Most of us assume a conventional serious relationship depends on sexual fidelity. What happens when we open our minds and our relationships?”
The programme quotes a British social attitudes survey which found that 80% still believe that it's wrong to stray. But Ms Fidgen speaks to Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, a Norwegian sex expert with a radical approach to relationships, who predicts that the “power” of monogamy is subsiding.
Pirelli agrees that “multi-partner relationships are coming on the radar” and suggests that they will become common within 30 years, if not ten....
Read the whole article (Aug. 18).
The London Evening Standard sniffed, Partners are best sampled one at a time (Aug. 22):
Monogamy is on the way out, apparently. According to a recent Radio 4 documentary, Monogamy and the Rules of Love, having a one and only may soon be passé. In the next 10 years, it was claimed, polyamory — having multiple partners — could become the norm.
...By way of example, the Beeb gave us a foursome who loved in a square (well, a square minus one side: the two men weren’t horizontally tangoing). They didn’t make this multi-loving malarkey sound fun, they made it sound like a logistical nightmare, tougher to negotiate than the Northern Ireland peace process.
...You have to find a way to organise the shindig so that no one feels left out. That means a libido-extinguisher more potent than chronic halitosis: a timetable. And who wants to be a slave to spreadsheets in their relationships, or to be held captive by Google calendar?
...I’m not suggesting that the only path to happiness includes a trip to H Samuel. It’s just that, given the alternative, monogamy doesn’t sound so bad.
• Elsewhere around the world, brief reaction in The Times of India: Monogamy on way out with Polyamory coming in! (Aug. 19).
• The same item appeared in The Business Standard, "India's leading business daily," and probably elsewhere.
• In the health section of MSN New Zealand: Has monogamy become outdated? (Aug. 21).
• A tech site picked up on the Google Calendar angle: Poly Couples Using Google Calendar to Schedule All Their Awesome Sex Stuff.
• Appearing later in The Guardian, an idiot woman fails to get it; conflates everything with patriarchal polygamy. To which a polyamory activist in South Africa, where traditional polygamy is legal and common, writes a scathing reply drawing the distinction.
Polyfolks were thrilled with the BBC report. For instance, longterm poly pair Anna and Alan (not me; another Alan) write at their website The Ordinary Extraordinary,
...The BBC delivered an absolutely sparkling primer on what polyamory is and what it isn’t. In the profiled quad, each man has a loving relationship with each woman and the women also have a loving relationship — four people, five couples. They all live together and are, through frequent quotation, lovely spokespeople for polyamory.... Share it with others!
While writers at big conservative journals were seriously grumped out. At National Review Online, If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Need Google Calendar (Aug. 21):
By Kathryn Jean Lopez
“We have a generation of people coming up who are saying, we also want stability and committed relationships and safety and security, but we also want individual fulfillment. Let us see if we can negotiate monogamy or non-monogamy in a consensual way that prevents a lot of the destructions and pains of infidelity,” a British “couples counselor” Esther Perel explains in that BBC piece on making polyamory work.
“Manag[ing] relationships” is something she says she “sees people struggling with all the time.” The choices, as she views it, are: “You can live in a monogamous institution and you can negotiate monotony, or you can live in a non-monogamous choice and negotiate jealousy. Pick your evil.”
Marriage as we knew it is evil, and then there is “love” on the other hand....
Love and marriage and the baby carriage might be boring in comparison, but it’s not doomed if the Google server crashes. It’s also not all about adults, but is open to higher expections and a commitment to rise to responsibilities and challenges together, toward good and actually away from evil.
At The American Conservative, columnist Rod Dreher bemoans that such positive coverage appears in mainstream media: Those Wacky Polyamorists! (Aug. 21):
The BBC brings us a somewhat chirpy look at polyamory in the UK....
Is this a flash in the pan, or a sign of things to come?
Polyamory seems so strange, but is it really that much stranger in 2013 than legalized same-sex marriage sounded in 1983? The logic justifying them both is the same. I think there is really no way to overstate the power of the mass media in conditioning the public to accept things like this. [Yay! –Ed.] The propaganda campaign for gay marriage has been overwhelming. We’re starting to see it on transgender stuff now.... What is important to note about these things is not that the media report on them, but the way in which the media report on them....
...While polyamory may or may not be the wave of the future, adoring coverage of it probably will be, at least if the SSM story is any guide.
The Christian Institute wasn't a bit chirpy: Bring on multi-partner marriage, says writer (Aug. 22).
In conservative responses like those last few, I'm seeing less shocked outrage as time goes on and more grumpy resignation about being on what looks to become the losing end of yet another social issue.