Within intimate relationships is quality better than quantity or can you have both?
According to Wikipedia, polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships involving more than two people, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. This past week alone, no less than three friends of mine (all male) shared with me about their polyamorous intent or experience. This caused my partner and I to start thinking about why people would want to enter into this kind of intimate relationship scenario and the likely outcomes if they did. The following is just our initial observations and best guesses as to why this lifestyle seems to be increasingly prevalent (over 500,000 such relationships in the U.S. alone) and how it differs from a truly committed binary intimate relationship.
Just to be clear, our musings are not an attempt at judgement, but rather an invitation to you, the reader, to chime in with your own 2-cents…
Variety is the Spice of Life
We humans love the excitement and thrill of new experiences. It’s a way to feel more alive, for a while anyway. Until the thrill of the last “new thing” fades and we seek out yet another “new thing” to get us excited. It is quite possible that the impulse for variety is part of the impetus towards participating in polyamorous relationships. However, if that indeed is the case, then the seeds of relationship failure are already sown. No one has any hard data on the success of polyamorous relationships over time. However, we suspect that they tend to be relatively short-lived in terms of the same group of individuals staying within an relationship. One could argue that the very definition of polyamory allows for the periodic or occasional switching out of intimate partners therefore where is the failure? Perhaps it all depends upon how one defines relationship success.
The Not Enough Syndrome
Implicit within a polyamorous relationship is the notion that having a committed intimate relationship with just one other human being is simply not enough. Let’s face it, we live in a society where *nothing* is ever enough. Most people are on this never-ending treadmill of doing more, acquiring more and experiencing more. This begs the question is “more” ever going to bring one a sense of deep fulfillment and happiness? Or is its pursuit just a vain attempt to fill a hole or sense of emptiness that only grows larger the more one tries to fill it? Also, keep in mind that every partner within a polyamorous relationship knows at some level that he or she is “not enough” for any of their other partners. This is a particularly sharp knife that cuts both ways.
The Dart-Board of Intimate Relationships
In my line of work as an intimacy and relationship coach, it has become abundantly clear to me that most adults have no clue on who their ideal mate is. Nor, do many take the time and effort to even think about such things. Instead, they tend to leave this all important choice to that initial spark of attraction and hoping all the other myriad issues of intimate relationship will somehow work themselves out. Good luck with that. This fact actually supports the notion of a partner eventually showing up as “not enough”. Lack of clarity and intent surrounding intimate partners (other than chemistry) is prime breeding ground for feeling like any partner will simply not be enough.
One way to look at this is polyamory becomes a unified crystal of intimate relationships where each facet provides a unique aspect of the desired whole. In essence the multi-partner relationship is an attempt to find all the pieces of the ideal mate, just not in one package. My partner and I know from personal experience that the need for this evaporates the moment one is very clear about with whom you want to share your life and not settling for anything less.
Since We Are Not Likely to Make It Anyway…
It is no secret that most traditional long-term intimate relationships either end, end badly or see their fiery passion fade as the price to be paid for the comfort of life-long companionship. Polyamory could be seen as a defacto admission to this sad fact as an attempt to keep intimacy alive and interesting through multiplicity. My partner and I are not married nor will we likely ever get married. We re-commit ourselves to each other every time we are together. And the day we stop doing that is the day our intimate relationship ends. We have no safety net, no document or adjudicated process that protects or dictates the state of our relationship. This is something we choose to be proactive about every together moment. As long as we fulfill each other, that defines relationship success for us. The moment that stops being the case we would rather end it than devolve into a pairing of convenience and comfort –that too is relationship success in our minds.
Seeing Only the Tip of the Iceberg
I am convinced that most intimate partners only see the tip of the iceberg that is their mate. This happens because humans have this tendency to label everything rather than be fully present to and aware of what is there in front of them. Just as the vast majority of an iceberg’s mass is below water and unseen, the near limitless depth and possibility of every human being is also unseen –even by their most intimate partner. I also believe that most people actually want to know their partner at that level but don’t know how to access it. With this in mind it is possible to suppose that polyamory is an attempt to experience that depth via associating with just more tips of human icebergs. Unfortunately, just relating to more icebergs will never bring the knowing of another at their full depth.
This is the analogy that my partner and I use when we speak to couples at events around the country about achieving extraordinary intimacy. I start by drawing the tip of an iceberg and show that the very human tendency of using mental constructs (i.e. labeling) effectively shuts one out from being able to see beneath the surface. To have a glimpse of the nearly limitless Beings we are for each other requires us to be fully present in the moment which allows more of what’s beneath the surface to be revealed. This means quieting the mind and silencing the voice of the judgmental ego –something that requires full intent and conscious effort. Is it worth it? Well, my partner and I have been together now for about 3.5 years and we have barely begun to discover the full depth of who we are for each other. As much as we know and love each other, we always seem to have this sensation of “Who IS this person?!” A very strange and wondrous feeling indeed. One that leads to endless variety and feeling fully alive as two almost totally mysterious partners continue to explore the depths of each other intimately as time goes on. The idea of being able to do this with the inclusion of a third (or fourth, etc.) intimate partner is not in the realm of possibility in our minds. Just speaking strictly for our relationship, quality and depth trumps quantity and variety every time.
So all of this begs the question: Is the emergence and apparent increasing prevalence of polyamory a reflection of, and an adaptation to, our generally disconnected society? Where generalized relationship frustration leads to exploring other intimate modalities for relief. Or, is it just another way of humans to intimately relate that has the same potential for depth, meaning and longevity that is possible with high-functioning binary intimate relationships?