I have, over the years, written about polyamory, both in the abstract, and more specifically, about how we do it inside our family. Recent public discussion about "marriage equality" has given me reason to think in "updated" terms about my own thinking and understanding related to polyamory as we move into our second decade of living that relational model. So, that's what follows here -- the state of my thinking on the ideas that comprise the practice of polyamory... at least for me.
I think that any decent conversation about polyamory as a lifestyle choice is going to be long and winding and probably convoluted. This will be an overview of my current understanding. This is not all there is to say on the subject, by any means.
Let me start with a bit of a disclaimer, lest this be misunderstood. I don't think that polyamory is the "best" relational model for everyone. I do think that there is ample evidence to suggest that monogamy is not a very congenial relational style for some significant chunk of people. Please understand that, when I describe and discuss poly within the context of my own relationship and experience, I am not being prescriptive.
Those who have been reading us for any period of time probably know most of the story about how we three came to be a family. There was no plan for that in the beginning. When I first met Tom and T, I'd never heard of poly. The term actually came up in a conversation over dinner the first time we met face to face. At the time, Tom explained that they were "poly" in the sense that He met and spanked others. We didn't really talk much more about it than that. Much later, when we were all confronted by the reality of our very own polyamorous love, we hammered out a version of poly that worked for us. It was all about us, and we never explored what "else" that might mean in some future we couldn't see or imagine. It really was, in the beginning, a sort of mutual agreement that no one had to "lose" inside of our family. That understanding included my husband in the early days, although he bailed out on the arrangement pretty quickly.
Looking back, I can see the four of us so clearly. We had no idea what we were doing. We simply knew that we all loved each other, and we chose, deliberately, to take a leap of faith and construct some kind of structure that would honor and perpetuate the love between all of us. There are people who identify as poly, and then set out to deliberately form relationships that involve multiple partners from the very start. They negotiate carefully, and they define boundaries and expectations. They do a lot of up front work, and their agreements help to shape the relationships between them. We didn't do any of that. We really did fall into poly out of necessity, and we worked out the details of that day by day and situation by situation. Mostly, that worked just fine. Even as He occasionally found someone He wanted to play with, it was OK. There were a few of those who came and went, and it really didn't cause any big drama. They were "casual" play partners and nothing more, and there was nothing about any of those encounters that raised any alarms for any of us. Our one abortive foray into a more serious poly entanglement pointed out some of the shortcomings in what we knew and understood about polyamory at the time. We really had no idea about the complexity of forming NEW poly relationships from inside an existing and established relationship. We did not know, because, in truth, we hadn't ever really done it before.
I don't want to imply that I've "got this down," or that I am any sort of expert when it comes to doing polyamory, but I think that I know some things that I did not know ten years ago. I don't know if we will ever again feel the pull to open our lives up to someone from outside, but here's the "wisdom" that I think I've gained by surviving this long through all of it:
1 ) Our alternative relationship is the living proof that it is possible to make your own rules for your relationship. I think that we are all culturally imprinted with this monogamous/coupled model for love and commitment. We learn, over time, that the model we are given for relationships has serious flaws and often just doesn't work well, but we have NO OTHER models. So, most of us never understand that we can make up relationships that really do work to make us happy and complete. One of the things that I think successful poly people learn to do is to forge creative, mutually satisfactory agreements about their relationships, and they learn to revisit those agreements and adjust them as they go along and things change. Because, change does happen. We age, and we grow, and we encounter the losses that come with living day to day. What seemed good in the beginning of any relationship may come to seem dull or constricting or too demanding as we move from our 20s to our 30s to our 40s and beyond. So, part of the "wisdom" of poly is that it rejects the notion that there is one "right way" to be inside of a loving relationship. There is no "one size fits all" model for loving someone else. Of course, many monogamous relationships make adujstments and accommodations as they move from year to year. Still, even though most of us know that to be the case, we continue to put out that "one man one woman -- happily ever after" myth.
2 ) Polyamory, for those who manage to do it successfully, is a way to address the complexity of the human person. Monogamy insists that we find the one person who was "meant for us." That person is then supposed to become our sun, moon, and stars. They are also supposed to be our best friend, confidant, defender from the storms of life, appreciative audience, chief advisor, financial partner, parenting partner, and employment coach. We set up our marital partner to fulfill the divergent roles of housemate, dance partner, travel companion, bowling buddy, spiritual advisor, date for the opera, entertainment manager, family social director, interior decorator, live in comic relief, nurse, and favorite (and more to the point, only) fuck buddy. It is impossible. No one person can reasonably do it all for us through all of the days of our whole lives. So, polyamory provides for the potential that we might not need to supply all of the needs and wants of the person that we love. Successful poly folks create webs of people with whom they build up a variety of intimate, loving connections that fill in the various compartments of their lives with people who meet their needs in different ways. When it works, I suspect that it makes for a very rich, full, joyful way to live.
3 ) Polyamory is grounded in the notion of radical honesty. For polyamory to work, partners have to be willing to tell the truth about themselves and their needs and desires. They also have to be willing to listen to their partners with openness and compassion. Inside of a poly relationship, it becomes possible to acknowledge that there are places where we want or need something other than what we can get from our primary (or monogamous) partner. I sometimes think that poly's are good at compartmentalizing their various needs. For example, if I have one partner who hates the ballet, but I have a healthy relationship with another who adores it, I can go and enjoy the ballet without dragging my unwilling, non-ballet-type partner along to something he hates. Meanwhile, it might be that my non-ballet-type partner might find it pleasant to spend the evening at the ballgame with his sports-crazy lover. And, of course, there are plenty of other wants and needs (sexual, relational, intellectual) in all of our relationships that we find cannot be easily "had" in a one on one monogamous relationship. That is the sort of relational equation that most poly people have in mind when they spout that ubiquitous "more love makes more love" maxim.
I think that much of what I have struggled with when it comes to poly has been about the basic inequities that we tried to balance against the promises that poly offered. The lesson of the passage to this point is that our "one-sided" power dynamic skewed the benefits of the poly lifestyle so that there were none that accrued to me in the event. When He fell "in love," I experienced that as a huge loss. There was no "more love" for me in that arrangement. The M/s card was played so that I was required to be there waiting patiently whenever He might come back to THIS part of His life. For that space of time, I lost His attention and His presence, and because of our power agreements, I was unable to make up for that loss with other partners of my own. All of the balance and openness, promised by polyamory, was denied to me, and within our relational setup. I was required to remain monogamous while also being required to embrace the concept of polyamory. Impossible. For me, anyway.
If we ever try that sort of poly again, and I do not know that we will, I am fully prepared to insist that there be complete openness for us all. I am convinced that I'd be much better at celebrating His loves, if I were not entirely dependent on the He+I pairing for getting the love and affection and companionship that I want and need.
Right now, it seems that our triad is closed and inward looking. I think that is part of our continued healing, and it feels appropriate that we wrap up around each other and hold on tight. Right now, we are just breathing in the peacefulness of this calm place. It may be that, in time, there will be some move to look outward again. Or not. I don't know. I only know that if we move outward into more open poly practice, I will insist on some sort of foundational equity between us all.
I'm sure there is more to say, but that might be a start.