A polyamory researcher tells what she's learned
Despite the attention that polyamory is getting these days, there's little solid, real-world sociological research into it yet.
One of the few researchers working in this area is Elisabeth Sheff at Georgia State University. Here's her synopsis (as of 2007) of her research since 1996 on polyamorists and other sexual minorities (see left side of document).
Currently Sheff is conducting, among other things, a long-term study of poly families with children, tracking how both the families and the kids develop over time. Sociologists work under strict ethics rules regarding their subjects, children especially. Only recently did she gain clearance to interview children as young as six. She is looking for additional polyfamiles with kids to include in this long-term study; if interested, contact her at the address in the links above.
Meanwhile, Sheff offers some frank observations about the poly world in an interview in the Seattle Met, a glossy city magazine (June 2010 issue). She paints an unvarnished picture, but everything here strikes me as true. Excerpts:
More to Love
And much more time spent on communication.
By Kathryn Robinson
...Q: What have you learned?
Sheff: That polyamory works great for some people and is disastrous for others. Some find it an extremely fulfilling, liberating lifestyle based on really authentic, deep, emotionally intimate interactions, and are willing to put a lot of effort into that, because it is extremely time-consuming. It’s a lot of work. For others, it produces a lot of insecurity, jealousy, fighting. Some relationships break up. I would say overall, it doesn’t often turn out to be the idyllic, utopian love fest that many people want it to be. It takes a lot of effort to make it work well. It’s not just constant sex all the time; it requires a lot of communication. In fact, sometimes there’s alarmingly little sex.
So it looks like real life?
Yes! A lot!
What are the reasons people give for pursuing it?
The idea of emotional plentitude; that you don’t run out of love by just loving one person. That there’s lots of love to go around. With that comes a rejection of ownership. The idea that one can lay claim to someone else and what they can do with their body and their emotions is repugnant to these folks. So often there’s kind of a libertarian streak, a kind of ‘We’re gonna do what we want, so leave us alone!’ Some are consciously rebellious, so their polyamory is a kind of label of non-conformity to the regular, vanilla crowd. It often goes with ideas of multiplicity on other levels, so many enjoy paganism.
But many practitioners are just regular people, who feel they either have plenty of love to go around, or needs they don’t want to put all on one person. It’s a way to have more attention or different kinds of attention, or more companionship. It’s the idea that it’s too much to ask one person to be everything, so you either have to deny your needs or find a different way to get them met. Finally, [polyamory] offers a model that allows women complete access to multiplicity rather than the traditional [polygamous] model of just men having access to multiplicity.
Who does it not work for?
The ones I’ve seen as doomed are the couples who come in with a very staunch idea of what they’re looking for. Like the female-male couple, maybe married or maybe just partnered, looking for a bisexual woman to add to their relationship. They’re looking to create a triad of one man with two women. Often they have set ideas about who she’ll be and act, come looking for her, and frankly they have a hard time finding her.
So it’s a couple that wants a wife!
Yes. And it’s hard to find. Not that many women want to do that. It often leaves the bisexual woman feeling like ‘Hey! I’m not your sex toy!’ And it often leaves the couples dissatisfied....
But what about the heterosexual couple where the guy just wants freedom for both of them to pursue other love relationships outside the primary relationship?
Yes, there are folks like that. Pretty regularly it is the dude who says, ‘Let’s check this out.’ The woman is often more hesitant at first, sometimes will enter the poly community, if not kicking and screaming, at least lagging behind. Then she’ll realize, ‘Wow this is great! It’s not as scary as I thought.’ And he’ll realize, ‘Wait, this isn’t as much fun as I expected. It’s not living up to my fantasy. There’s not as much sex. Not as many partners as I thought.’
Is that common?
Enough that it’s cliché that they each do a 180....
What else changes when couples become polyamorous?
Introducing other people into the relationship almost always changes relationship dynamics. Add something else in, and everything shifts. Sometimes it’s large, sometimes minor. But sometimes it shifts in directions that change power relationships or the status quo....
How often does polyamory work?
Depends on what you mean by work. If you mean, takes some form and stays that way ‘til death do us part — extremely infrequently. But if you mean, meets the needs of the people involved for that point in time, then quite a bit. The larger the polyamorous groups get the less stable and cohesive they are. The more enduring form tends to be the open couple: The male-female couple who cohabitate, and often see additional partners. It’s the most common and appears to be the most enduring. But their cast of characters tends to shift.
And do couples of that description stay together?
Their chances of staying together depends wholly on who they are....
Sheff goes on to describe her own decidedly mixed poly history, which seems to inform the above:
I was the classic woman who came in kicking and screaming. My partner really wanted to try it, and was looking for The Unicorn but couldn’t find her. For the vast majority of the time, we just talked about polyamory and had various agreements that gradually opened our relationship, but we didn't act on it for ten years. Eventually he found a girlfriend. And I found another man, and basically he couldn’t deal with that. So ten years into it for the two of us, and at great trauma to us both, we came back to monogamy. We tried that for the next five years — and it wasn’t problematic sexually, because in reality neither of us had really been that actively polyamorous. But I felt so betrayed by his sudden turn of intention once I found another man — I couldn’t get over that. Because he had pushed it for so long, finally overcoming my resistance, and then once I began to like it he said, ‘No, let’s not do this.’ I was like, ‘No! You don’t get to make that rule!’ Finally I left him. We’ve remained good friends, but I’m really gun-shy of polyamory for myself. I’m not sure I could maintain a long-term poly relationship. I could date multiple people, yes. But the idealized poly image of having this expanded family — it is just so much work.
Read the whole article (be sure to look for the second page; the navigation isn't obvious).
The interviewer also presents a sidebar article about a conflicted poly-mono couple, friends of hers, who face some serious choices:
For Seattle polyamorists, love is a many-partnered thing. And managing the jealousy is a full-time job.
By Kathryn Robinson
MY OLD FRIEND, whose name isn’t really Amy, had never even heard the word “polyamory” until her husband of 15 years brought it up one night, between dessert and indigestion.
...As she sat piecing together Greek and Latin roots — many? loves? — he elaborated, with all the enthusiasm of a toddler clutching a shiny trinket. Not superficial swinging, nor Big Love–style polygyny, he explained, polyamory is the umbrella term for the practice of loving more than one person at a time. He wanted her to consider the kind that would free each of them to openly pursue romantic interests in addition to the primary one at home.
“So…cheating,” Amy summarized crisply, her strawberry pound cake thudding to the bottom of her gut.
“No!” Josh corrected. “That’s just it! It’s openly loving more than one person, within a context of honest disclosure and loving agreement. It’s actually the opposite of cheating.”
...Over coffee with her the next morning... she smiled weakly and I took her hand. “Josh is a good man, Ames,” [I said]. “The only guy in the world who would ask his wife’s permission to play around. He loves you to the point of adoration, you know he does.”
Gratitude shone from her weary eyes. “I know he does. The irony is, this ‘open love’ thing appeals to him precisely because of the qualities I love best about him.”
I knew what she meant. I’ve known Amy through the long chain of cads we all dated before we were surprised by fine men, and Josh is among the finest. Kind, smart, and grounded, he is made of a nonjudgmental spirit, a large heart for people, and an integrity so genuine he would never submit blindly to any convention for its own sake. Josh is a flower child, born 10 years too late.
So it makes sense that when he heard about polyamory — from a friend who turned out to be a practitioner — it stirred something deep in him....
...“It’s all so high-minded,” she sighed, swigging her coffee. “So dripping with integrity.... I just don’t think I’m wired for it,” she murmured. “And the thing is — I’d like to be. I know Josh loves me. I love him. Because this means something to him I’d like to be able to at least try it. But I think the jealousy could destroy us.”
...And suddenly I was back in high school humanities class, learning for the first time about the philosophical underpinnings of the political theory called Communism. I’ll never forget running in the door from school that night and telling Mom and Dad all about this life-changing philosophy I’d learned. Pure classlessness, the foundation of the good society. It made so much sense!
“So great in theory,” Dad said. “And so seriously incompatible with the human heart.”
I smiled at Amy, and felt tired for her. Because I’m sure some small percentage of humans genuinely is polyamorist; women and men who, unlike Amy, really are wired that way. All she needs to do now, God help her, is figure out if Josh is one of them.
Or if he’s just, well, a guy.
Never mind the crack about guys. But the crack about communism? After 40 years of observation I'll say, at the risk of sounding like John Reed1: "I have seen the future, and it sometimes works."
Read the whole article (June 2010).
1 John Reed, colleague of Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, and Max Eastman, was the American radical journalist mixed up in the Bolshevik revolution who wrote Ten Days that Shook the World (1919) and was portrayed in the 1981 movie Reds.