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Monday, November 8, 2010

Normal polyform.



In geek-land, particularly database geek-land, there is a concept called Normal Form that defines how data in a relational database is stored to provide for the most logical configuration with the least amount of data duplication or for the most efficient access. There have been books written on the subject that work wonderfully as sleep aids if you are interested. I tell you this because I thought the title of this article was a cute play on the term and you should know. I'm done geeking now. Maybe.

Sometime ago I was helping a couple having some problems. The woman was a long time poly practitioner and the man was not. He was however very in touch with himself and his feelings yet couldn't understand why he was experiencing certain feelings about polyamory and his partner. In an attempt to help them both understand what might be happening we discussed a theory I have had for a long time. I don't remember how or when I first imagined the theory, and it very well may not be completely mine but, rather the mutated offspring of a college psychology class. And I warn you, unless you are interested in psychology (as I am) you may hate reading some of this stuff.

The theory, which uses another term since I haven't come up with my own yet, is called Formative Norms.
To put the formative norms concept simply: When you are young your brain makes connections between actions you see from others and develops assumptions about why those things happen. They are then reinforced when you test the assumption with positive feedback and acceptance from others. Or, they can be destroyed by negative feedback and disapproval from others. Once the connection is made in the brain, such as the belief in monogamy, related behavior is then modified to support the connection that was made. Such as: Monogamy is good so cheating must be bad. Further relative behavior adaptations would be something like: Cheating will get me in trouble, I will lose my monogamous relationship which is good, so I better not cheat or I better hide it well.

The result is a psyche that is made up of millions of little norms or rules that support one another with the basic concept supporting all those rules. Some of the little rules can be changed but to change the basic concept (norm) that created all those little rules can cause serious problems. Think of a computer; everything depends on the electrical plug. You can change programs on the computer but if you pull that plug (which we will call monogamy here) the whole computer ceases to function. The same can happen with a brain but since there is no plug to pull the brain won’t shut down. Instead it will refuse to change the basic norm (monogamy) and instead try to change all the little rules supporting the basic norm. Such as: Monogamy as the basic rule is still good but now I learn it is okay to sleep with others, so cheating is okay.

Notice I didn’t end with "sleeping with others is okay" I ended with "cheating is okay". The little rule "cheating is bad" was changed to "cheating is okay". The result is that the basic rule that "monogamy is good" still remains. We are just supporting it differently.

Now, I’m not saying the basic norm can’t be changed. What I’m saying is that changing that basic norm first requires re-writing all the rules supporting it, then it can be modified. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, willingness of the person to accept change, and their ability to comprehend the change to their most basic psyche. A lot of work!

This theory, to me at least, explains why some people who were raised to believe monogamy was "the one true way" have a hard time accepting the concept of polyamory. Even those who were raised monogamously but want to try poly and understand it, because of the Formative Norms theory, may have difficulty.

What do you think of this theory? Does it help to understand psychology around monogamy and polyamory and explain the actions and feelings of some, or did I once again get lost off the reservation?

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