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Friday, January 21, 2011

Legally Monogamous Polyamorous marriage

A while back I wrote an article that talked about divorce rates and to say I was surprised by the numbers is a mild understatement. I was even more surprised that given the current divorce rate, people still get married. (By the way, I'm talking about marriage in the U.S. only).

Think about that for a second. If you were buying a car and I told you there was a 50% chance the car would break down and be completely useless in a year, would you buy it? If I told you there was a 50% chance the house you were buying might burn down in the next year, would you still plunk down 20% and take out a six figure mortgage? Then again, if you were dying of an incurable disease and I told you there was a 50% chance an experimental vaccination might cure you I'm guessing you would give it a shot. But people who are getting married, in general, aren't dying of a terminal illness right? So why do they do it?

I think maybe the biggest reason is that legal marriage is the most commonly, and only legally in most states, recognized form of union between people in the U.S. It is also the most socially recognized form of union. If you want your friends and relatives to know you are committed to someone, you marry them.

But that is where I think a lot of problems begin, rather than end. For some I think the bond of marriage doesn't so much involve a commitment between two people as it does an expectation of commitment. An assumption that because I've married you, you are mine. I don't have to worry any longer about you straying. Because there is a ring on your finger prospective suitors will see it and walk away. A false sense of security supported by a legal contract of marriage is created. A byproduct or sub-category of this is that maybe marriage creates feelings of ownership. That you now have input as to what your partner can do with their body and emotions.

After everyone says "I do", they don't. They stop trying and relax, assuming that since the goal of marriage was achieved they can quit trying so hard. Relying on those false feelings of security and ownership, they don't put as much energy into the relationship anymore. In some ways, it is taken for granted. And when problems start to peek out the sense of security and ownership allows them to be overlooked and ignored because after all, we are married. Committed to each other. Legally bound to love forever. Right?

That is probably about the time things explode and another couple adds to the 50% divorce rate.

I'm curious if those same factors would contribute to divorce rates if poly marriage was legalized. I wonder if because another partner was involved people would continue to put energy into their relationships. Maybe the feelings of ownership and security would be diminished because they were sharing their partner with another. Would there even be feelings of ownership and security? I think those feelings as they apply to monogamous marriage have a lot to do with physical fidelity. With polyamory physical fidelity is often a different animal from the start so maybe they wouldn't even exist.

My experience with polyamory is that a lot more effort must be put into relationships. The reality, in my mind, is that if you want to keep your partner who probably has another lover, you need to put energy into keeping your relationship interesting and fulfilling. The expectations of commitment and security don't seem to be as strong with Polyamory as they do with Monogamy for some reason. I'm not saying you have to constantly step it up a notch to keep your partner, but simply that you can't fall back on the expectation of commitment. Maybe a better way of saying that is with polyamory keeping your partner satisfied so they have no reason to end the relationship is more important than simply attaining the relationship, which seems to be the goal of a lot of folks who get married. A large part of that, ironically, may be due to the lack of a legal marriage.

So where are you with this one? Do you think marriage helps create feelings of ownership and security? Do you see those same feelings in Polyamorous relationships? Would reasons and numbers of divorce remain about the same if poly marriage were legalized or would they change?


  1. While a successful polyamorous relationship takes more effort, if someone isn't willing to put the effort into making their monogamous relationship succeed, what makes you think they'll be any different when you present them with more work?

    I don't know if my marriage was just a cultural expectation - I'm Catholic, and there's no way my parents would have approved of my just living with my now husband. I don't know if we just did it so we could have a big part with all our friends and family. So I don't know if I did it to attain security and feelings of ownership. Because I don't know if this sense of security and happiness is because we're married or because we finally get to see each other every day and spend every night together, when we used to only see each other on weekends. It's a difficult thing to discern - you make a great point. It's difficult to tell the difference between what you truly want and what society expects from you.

  2. Carla,

    You make a great point about putting effort into a relationship. Would someone unwilling to put forth the effort in a monogamous relationship be inclined to put forth the effort in an admittedly more difficult relationship style like polyamory? Probably not.

    I really was talking about one (or two?) aspects of relationships; how commitment and legal marriage interact. Admittedly there are many other factors that I didn't even attempt to address. What I was trying to contrast and question was the expectation of commitment in legal monogamous marriage vs. polyamorous relationships. Despite your very good point, I still wonder if the interaction between the concepts of commitment and marriage in monogamous relationships would be the same in polyamorous relatioships. Due to design differences and my own experiences I can't help but believe it is different. I looked around a bit but really couldn't find much research on the subject.

    Your second paragraph raises another qood question though; in a legal marriage is it the actual marriage that creates feelings of security (and possibly ownership), or is it natural progression of the relationship, or is it acceptance of societal expectations about what marriage means? That feels a lot like the "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" question. I wonder if there is really an answer to that one.

    Thanks for the stimulating comment!

  3. I think that part of the thing that allows us to go deeper with someone is the fact that we are committed and there is no escape plan. This is part of legalized mono marriage but you could create something similar with poly.

    At the same time, since society only recognizes legal marriage it is easier to get out of a poly relationship, even if you have property and kids, than it is to get out of a marriage.

    I think the real question to answer here is: can we create the same kind of connection/commitment with another regardless of our love/lifestyle?

    Although it is true that always having to keep up you efforts tends to keep things spicy, I think people are more complex than to only want that. If we go that route, always feel insecure and try to keep things exciting, we might end up trading spicy/fun for deep/real. That would be a big loss.

    I think there is a way to have both.

    Good relationships, regardless of orientation or lifestyle will have ways of revitalizing and reinventing themselves. Poly may have an inherent advantage in forcing people to be more upfront and on the edge, but it does not mean that they will always be.

    For example, what about the poly people who do not have access to other polys and can only deal with the ones that they have? Wouldn't they be forced to do/live as monos and compromise more?

    In the end, it really boils down to what you want to create and how you are about it, not what externals are around.

  4. Julio,

    Interesting comments!

    You said: “I think that part of the thing that allows us to go deeper with someone is the fact that we are committed and there is no escape plan. This is part of legalized mono marriage but you could create something similar with poly.”

    Followed by: “I think the real question to answer here is: can we create the same kind of connection/commitment with another regardless of our love/lifestyle?”

    At this point, I completely agree with you. I think legal marriage does provide support for a different level of commitment in a relationship. (Though I think you and I differ on what we believe that different level looks like). I also think that same kind of commitment can be made in any union if it is desired by those in the union.

    You ended with “In the end, it really boils down to what you want to create and how you are about it, not what externals are around.” That seems to be a contradiction to the first statement about depth in a relationship being “part of legalized mono marriage”. My argument is this; legalized mono marriage contributes directly to a relationship as a component, but also attracts external influences. Legal marriage provides an avenue to social acceptance, it provides an easy way to communicate with others (“This is my wife, Lucy.” as opposed to “This is one of my partners, Lucy”.), it provides ease of function such as insurance and medical issues, and provides legal support in the form of joint property laws and the like. In my opinion those are external factors to a relationship which can and often do have a huge impact on the relationship.

    The article was based on a simple theory; assuming external influences of legal marriage are static and relationship designs (or internals) are dynamic, what would be the result of changing the dynamic. Namely, applying legalized marriage to polyamory. And, how would divorce rates compare between legal mono marriages vs. legal poly marriages? I really don’t think there is a solid answer and I will admit that to write the article I had to make some generalizations and assumptions. You bring up some valid variables to the question for sure!

    You also said “For example, what about the poly people who do not have access to other polys and can only deal with the ones that they have? Wouldn't they be forced to do/live as monos and compromise more?”
    I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that one. How would someone be so isolated as to not have access to other poly people? Are we talking stranded on a desert island scenario? If so then yes, I would agree a couple stranded on a desert island would be forced to live as monogamous (assuming they wanted a relationship at all). I would also argue that is an external factor, not a choice they have made, which resulted in a forced compromise. But, I’m not sure I understand the scenario you are proposing. You have me curious now! Could you explain a bit more about that?

    Thanks for the comments!

  5. PP,

    I like how you think and can see that my comments could be confusing and seemingly contradictory on the surface, but they do not need to be.

    First, the reason I said that people in a legal mono marriage tend to go deeper is because they feel that this is it and there is nothing more, so they must make it work. People can be very creative when faced with that, especially when they choose this willingly.

    Also, there is the practical reality that if you have less to focus on, you could then theoretically put more of your attention, and thus go farther and deeper.

    But that is just how it works most of the time and it has more to do with people's perception of having nowhere else (where they want) to go than the actual reality. There are plenty of monos who feel trapped and want to escape and do so by cheating or using accepted forms of escape like porn or online relationships that are never consummated.

    But I want to add a twist here. I would say the level of enjoyment and/or success in this kind of relationship, how far you go is similar to how well you can master a language. Most people can only speak or understand one language well. Add more languages and more often than not, the level of understanding and mastery goes down as you add languages, just as the level of depth in a relationship will tend to go down as you add partners.

    At the same time, I know of many people (myself included - I am fully tri-lingual) who somehow can manage different identities where they can on a very deep level communicate in different languages. A number of my friends can do this with more than 5. How is this possible? How can a person do that when most of us can only handle one? I am not sure why or how, but it is true and does happen.

    That is how i see many monos approach a poly person. They assume that since they have trouble going deep with one, they cannot imagine how it would be to add another person to the mix. It would be overwhelming and most likely undesirable. And for most, they would be right.

    But what about those who can manage more and want to do it? What of those who really feel very comfortable living in these different worlds, managing different realities? Should they be force to limit themselves on the basis that since it is hard for others, they should not be allowed? Are we going to judge them by the same standard?

    Unfortunately, as you know, and most do judge from their limited perspective. But is this fair or even accurate? I don't think so.

    That is why i said that for the most part having a legal marriage that limits things and creates a reality of no escape forces people to go deeper. This is true, but it is not the only or even the best way to go deep for everyone.

  6. As for your other comment about the scenario i presented, the simple answer is this is my experience living in asia where there is no culture or acceptance of poly. So, there is no access to poly people. I live in a city that is larger than NY, LA and Chicago combined, where there are over 30 million people with many foreigners for year and have yet to find any openly or practicing polyfolk.

    So for me to have someone, this means that either i recruit people and convert them or i choose to live a poly life in a really severe mono reality, trying to manage you poly relationships in the context of having no one that understands or accepts my preference/orientation. Yet because i am interesting, fun and engaging, there have been more than a few willing to try this out, with the hope of having me bat for the other side without being upfront about it.

    What ends up being the deal of the day though is that i and those others like me here are forced to confront differences in lovestyle everyday and either have to compromise or face losing the relationship as time goes on.

    The fact that I had to end my marriage of 18 years to the mother of my children is a good testament to that. And she would be the first to say that she knew all about it when we started but thought i would change or grow-up only to be bitterly disappointed when i didn't.

    But going back to your original question, would adding marriage as a possibility to the poly mix change things, would the divorce rates go down? I think that unfortunately there would be little change here.

    From what i have seen of marriage, including gay marriage, there is little difference in the rate of divorce or cheating, and there is no reason to expect a difference with polys. They cheat and lie just as much, and are out of integrity just as often as (if not more than) monos. I can tell you that from my experience as well, having been shocked more than once when i found out that my partner lied about an attraction or encounter with someone they were with, even though they never had to. And i am not, unfortunately, alone here, in having this experience with my poly partners.

    But back to the legal issue, I think divorce and all the problems in legalized relationships stem more from people's inability to truly commit than whatever preference/orientation they have running the show.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Julio,

    Thanks for the wonderful, thought provoking comments!

    To your first comment:
    I like how you tied relationships to language. It illustrates your point very well and I can’t help but agree with you. I know for myself that as I add partners my existing relationships usually change. I try to minimize those changes but some happen, such as time management. Does that mean I’m not involved as deeply with each of my multiple partners as I could be if I had only one? Yes and no. In some ways I believe that to be true, yet at the same time because each of my partners is different and we connect differently, there is a level of satisfaction with each relationship that may/may not be able to go deeper. And since we remain in the relationship the satisfaction level must be high enough, otherwise I think there would be difficulties or one of us would end the relationship.

    I think you are right about how monogamous people sometimes see polyamory as simply adding more people to an already complex situation. For some, the complexity is overwhelming and they dismiss polyamory. For those people I definitely don’t see legalized poly marriage making any difference.

    Which brings me to your second post.

    I agree that most indicators suggest legalized poly marriage would have no impact on the divorce rate. However, most of those indicators are based on a two person union. I still believe that creating multiple person legal unions would at a minimum skew the divorce rate. If for no other reason than how we statistically calculate the divorce rate would become questionable. For example, in a poly triad if one person wants a divorce are they divorcing one person or two? From a divorce rate perspective, would that count as one, two, or three divorces?

    The real question in the article though is how would the assumed restrictions and safety of legalized marriage impact poly relationships were marriage legalized for the polyamorous. To that end I do tend to agree with you. Poly or mono, straight, bi, or gay, people are people and lying or cheating isn’t particular to a gender or lifestyle. With that in mind I don’t know that legalized marriage would have much impact at all. But, not knowing was what made writing the article, and hearing feedback like yours, fun!

    I must also say I’m amazed that in a city the size of the one you live in you are having a hard time finding poly people, or a poly community for that matter. I have traveled a bit and from what I have seen of the world, it is quite diverse anymore. Maybe I’m na├»ve but I have a hard time imagining a place without diversity in this day and age when traveling is so easy.

    Thanks again for your interesting comments!

  8. Thanks for the acknowledgement.

    As for your comment about diversity, i would tend to agree with you. There is a lot of that out there, and you can find pretty much anything if you are looking for it.

    My dilemma was more an issue of lifestyle. In Tokyo, Taipei and Manila where I have hung out these last few years, there has been plenty of opportunity to play, do almost anything. My problem and what led to my comment is that i like to be open/honest about it.

    The reason i say poly is not taking here is because although there is a lot of room to do things here, it is clear no one needs to know about it. So, although there are plenty of alternatives to vanilla monogamy, very few people are really willing to be or allow others to be open about it. That means that the environment is set for people to live as they please as long as they don't talk or get caught.

    In my world, even if you are with multiple people, that alone does not make you poly. It is the doing it openly component that makes it poly.

    The fact that there is more info available on this choice makes it possible to talk about it and persuade people to try it with you, but still it has not gotten to the point where people can really live openly this way.

    I would say that this is similar to how gayness is becoming more acceptable in even traditional cultures, just as long as the men dress like women and act effeminate - how we looked at gays many years ago - but we know now that this is just a very extreme version of gayness, not the only option.

    Things are getting better, but they are not yet where they need to be. And that is what i was talking about relating to poly in Asia. People can actually hear me speak about my orientation, and some are even able to get themselves to point where they can try this with me, but it tends to break down when we try-on the open part of the relating.

    Judging how hard it is still in the US to deal with this and the time it has taken to get more acceptance, it is reasonable that other parts of the world will lag behind.

    That just means that we, those of us who are living in these areas, have to do a little more heavy lifting - that's all.

  9. Julio,

    Why do you think "poly is not taking there"? Do you think it is due to lack of social acceptance, cultural differences, or something else?

    I guess I can understand people not wanting to be open about their lifestyle in general, such as at work, but with polyamory I have difficulty understanding how they would not want to be open/honest within their relationships. In my mind, those are two different issues. Here we call that relationship model, which is somewhat rare, "Don't ask, Don't tell", where people know their partners have other partners but it isn't discussed openly. That is different than being "out" about your lifestyle socially.

    When I mentioned "diversity" I was speaking about lifestyle diversity, not so much about general or cultural diversity. I remain surprised that finding openly poly folks in a heavily populated area would be difficult. Doing just a little searching I found a Polyamory Registry in Tokyo with 300-400 people, several poly folks on OkCupid! in Taipei, and quite a few looking for a poly Meetup in Manila. Those results are somewhat sparse but even where I live, which has a good sized poly community, a lot of the community is behind the scenes and found only after getting out and socializing a bit with folks in the lifestyle or a related lifestyle.


  10. Hi PP,

    Interesting points as usual.

    I can understand the need for being a bit guarded about your lifestyle at work, as this was a huge issue at my work when some people found out about my relationship outside my marriage. Though it was acceptable to the people involved the people who learned about were not cool with it and made it an issue at work. Sad, but a real concern.

    As for the practice of "don't ask don't tell", though i am not a big fan, i can accept it as a viable option for the people who choose it. The distinction i am making is that the way it is practiced here is that people are allowed to do whatever as long as no one knows about it.

    i will give you an example. a friend of mine is married. after many years the wife said that i no longer want to have sex to his query about why they they haven't been intimate lately. justifiably disappointed, he asked what he could do. to this she replied, you can do whatever you want, as long as i don't know about it and it never comes to my attention from someone else. so, now for the last 12 years he has been having relations with many men and women, but always has to be in fear that his wife might find out.

    this is the arrangement many have here, and apparently it works for most. but is this poly, not really - at least not in my lexicon.

    as for the group you pointed out, Asia Polyamory, as usual here this is really not a poly group, but more an umbrella org for anything sexual, usually slanted towards kink or free-love. basically, it would be a place where people like my friend can discretely play, but it does not live up to the billing, which has been my complaint.

    Taipei probably is more viable but i am not there that often, though i love the place and would love to go back. So maybe we can try that, but Tokyo and Manila, which are both much larger and places i spend more time, they are disappointing in their dearth of possibilities.

    As for why, i believe it is a combination of culture and religion that makes it hard. i think this is what made it hard for the americans and europeans to accept the lifestyle, so it is understandable that they should go through the same. we just tend to place a stronger value on freedom and choice than they do, so i believe it would be more natural for those of us from those cultures to embrace this quicker.

    probably poly could work here if it were packaged differently and made to look more like a functional arrangement, as asians tend to be more practical stereotypically - but that is just conjecture on my part.

    again thanks for the comments and questions, they are very stimulating.

  11. Julio,

    I find it interesting that a society, based on your comments, which places such a high value on freedom and choice would be disapproving of a lifestyle that involves a high level of freedom and choice, specifically Polyamory. That seems somewhat contradictory.

    It seems even more inconsistent the practice of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which sounds common from your comments, not only exists but has to be well hidden. One would think a society that places such high value on freedom and choice would be less judgmental of someone exercising their freedom of choice.

    I find those types of societal inconsistencies and contradictions very interesting.

    You said, “…Asia Polyamory…does not live up to the billing…”
    That is common here as well. Many of the Poly focused organizations here in the U.S., if examined more deeply, actually seem to be more about making money than promotion or support of the poly lifestyle.
    I also found, after becoming involved with groups claiming to be “Poly oriented”, that many of the smaller local groups were much less focused on Polyamory or building community than they claimed. In fact many were the result of a few energetic individuals looking to expand their dating pool or simply create opportunities to “hook up” with others casually. Those groups still have value for someone looking to expand their social circles, as there are poly people in the groups, but personally I tread more carefully in those circles. They do however allow me to connect with people living a poly lifestyle, many of which like me are looking for more than casual hookups or expansion of our dating pool. That led me to begin running a formal social group that is focused on community and support instead of dating and hookups. Were I to find myself in a city lacking such a group but with a high level of interest, I would again get involved in “the community” and form my own group. I look at it as a way of supporting myself while building community and supporting others.

    Thanks for the continued comments :)