When I was home in Boston for the holidays, I spent time with my friends who are raising young daughters. I watched one three-year-old burst into tears at the prospect of sharing her favorite Christmas toy with another little girl; when she finally, reluctantly, did so, one of the moms gave her a sympathetic hug and said to her, "Sharing is the hardest thing to do."
It's a lesson we all learn early on, but sometimes, there are things that should not be shared.
Like a marriage.
The next morning, I eagerly tore into the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, one of the small pleasures of my visits home, and was instantly drawn to that weekend's cover story on polyamory, which the article defines as "consensual, romantic love with more than one person." For me, this was a totally unfamiliar term, and I was intrigued to learn more.
As the article went on, a glowing, poorly researched example of single-sided journalism at its absolute worst, I found myself learning less and less, and becoming more and more intolerant about this supposedly hot new lifestyle choice sweeping the Baystate (more on that later).
First, I consider myself pretty liberal when it comes to social norms. I have never, ever heard a single argument against gay marriage that's made even the slightest bit of sense on a social, moral, intellectual or even religious level. I adored the first season of "Big Love." I've been married for eight and a half years, and while I'm by no means an expert on marriage, I'm an expert on my marriage, and I pretty much think the same thing applies to everyone. In other words, every marriage is different, and only the two people who are inside of one know what it's really about.
But reading about polyamory shook that up. Suddenly, I have strong opinions about what a marriage should and should not be, and one of those beliefs is this: a marriage is not meant to include more than two partners.
How much can I blame my staunch reaction on the article itself? A lot, perhaps. As someone who studied journalism, I'm automatically dismayed by the lack of standards exhibited in the piece. The sources are few, for an article of this length, and all of them are pro-polyamory. Many of the "facts" of the piece are unchallenged. For instance, one person claims to run a 500+ person mailing list for Boston-area practitioners of polyamory, but this isn't supported with any evidence, nor did the reporter appear to attend any of the regular gatherings of the group. The list was started by two people who are no longer active in the poly community -- why? It would have made for a more balanced piece if we learned why some people choose to stop practicing a poly lifestyle within their marriages.
From my perspective, I cannot imagine a marriage with additional members -- some permanent, some, not so much -- thrown into the mix. Marriage is challenging enough when you are combining two points of view, no matter how in harmony you and your spouse may be. And it's not just about the sex, although that, I imagine, is a major issue. Marriage itself is one great balancing act, and if you look at it like a seesaw, sometimes it equals out, and sometimes you're left high in the air when your partner is down on the ground, but that's OK: equilibrium is always a potential possibility.
It's difficult enough to imagine the problems within a marriage that takes in multiple partners; what about one that goes beyond a husband and wife, and includes children? The article, hysterically enough, touted the benefits of poly relationships that include children, such as always having someone to help with homework, while remaining vaguely non-committal about the various pitfalls. I found the saddest example of practitioners in the Globe's polyamory story to be a couple raising two boys. Fifteen years ago, the couple identified themselves as non-monogamous; now, only the male partner is dating outside the marriage.
When asked how long his wife has been single, the husband responded, "Long enough to be annoying."
Marriage and motherhood and hell, being a woman in your 40s is hard enough without your husband urging you to find a boyfriend.
And this, more than anything, was my breaking point. I immediately imagined myself in that woman's shoes at those words -- and a husband on the ground with a broken nose.
In theory, I have no problem with open relationships (though they ever seldom seem to work long-term; I've seen enough examples blow up in the participants' faces to wonder why they seemed like a good idea in the first place). I don't think it's wrong to date more than one person at a time, as long as everyone involved is well-informed and happy with the situation.
But I don't think this theory should apply to marriages.
If you aren't sure that monogamy's right for you, it's simple: don't get married. If you want to practice a poly lifestyle, then don't propose. I've found my area of intolerance, I've found my secret, hidden conservative, and this is where it has decided to take a stand.
Sharing is hard, as we all began to learn around the age of three. But sometimes it's hard for a reason: like when it should not be done.
Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw
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1.15.10 @ 9:42a
I can understand your non-approval of this. If you make it into the second and third seasons of Big Love, you'll see more of the difficulty of the lifestyle explored. Moreover, I hold no personal interest in this sort of lifestyle. But though it's not for you and me, this may be a solution for some. The only context I can think to liken this to is one of my musical bands: we're all a family of sorts who are at times sharing close quarters, and we depend on each other. I suppose that any situation similar to this between multiple parties could evolve into some more intimate (albeit difficult) relationship. Who is to say that such a relationship cannot be recognized? (continued in a minute).
1.15.10 @ 9:43a
I agree that it is "difficult enough to imagine the problems within a marriage that takes in multiple partners." I imagine you (like me) don't dwell on such acts of imagination since we share beautiful monogamous marriages; if we were thinking about it more, such may indicate that we aren't happy with what we have.
But simply because we can't or don't imagine a situation where this works well, or simply because one bad writer opts to tackle a subject poorly, doesn't mean that this doesn't work for someone. For all we know (I'm assuming here that the wife whose dating husband finds her "annoying" was not also quoted in the piece), but she may think the same of him and be pleased that he's out with someone else a bit of the time.
My point: no matter how much something may not be for you, I caution against condemning actions between consenting adults simply because we don't appreciate them.
1.15.10 @ 10:42p
I like that you've written about a topic some will find difficult, others will consider the norm. This is the first I've heard of the term "polyamory," but not the first I've heard of these types of relationships. I know of a married couple who practices poly and my family and I have had some pretty interesting discussions about this couple's relationship--conversations much like your opinions here. But after reading what you've written, along with Jeffrey's comments, I'm willing to be a little more open-minded. And, I'm pretty certain that if I were married, I would probably not participate in poly myself.
In your column you state, "I've been married for eight and a half years, and while I'm by no means an expert on marriage, I'm an expert on my marriage, and I pretty much think the same thing applies to everyone." But then you go on to contradict this statement later in your column when you confess your intolerance for these types of marriages by sounding a bit repulsed. Perhaps the people who practice poly are experts in poly?
Recently an ex of mine and I had a conversation about our relationship (years ago) and how many of our friends/family members didn't approve of us being together (she was significantly younger than I). She said something that really stuck, "I think it's hard for people to understand unless you're in that situation." Perhaps what you speak of is, indeed, one of these types of situations...
1.16.10 @ 6:39p
You know, as much as I like watching Big Love, I'm not into sharing either. It's enough to have to compete in the world without having to come home and compete against another wife or girlfriend.
I also remember in college having a couple of polyamorous acquaintances- girls who said that they were into it in an effort to rub in how progressively cool they were and super-rebellious. The thing is, they were doing so just to piss off boyfriends and using the polyamorous label as a means of defending playing around. I've never thought much of the practice, and am suspicious of anyone who advocates this.
Ultimately, anyone else can go be poly-whatchamacalit. I'm happy to be a serial monogamist. And should I get married, I'll be glad to settle into monogamy.
1.16.10 @ 6:39p
(Whoops. Double post.)
1.18.10 @ 7:54p
Being part of a somewhat-less-than-typical community, I have encountered far more poly couples than I would have expected to ever know. Granted, most of them are not marriages in the sense of having filed papers, but a few are. It seems to me that these relationships are usually a central couple that has been together a while, and assorted temporary members. One couple I know has been together for about 14 years, and the "wife" of the couple blogged last year about how she was feeling bad because her husband's latest girl wasn't someone she particularly liked herself, but she was loathe to say so because she didn't want to interfere with his happiness. Another (legally married) couple of my acquaintance has just recently opened their relationship to a second woman.
I don't think I could make it work, but they seem to manage just fine.