Perhaps some nights you lie awake next to your partner. Probably, they’re not awful – but they are, almost certainly, a little bit boring. After all, it’s been quite a long time. Sex with them is OK, but not great in every possible way. There’s something so special about undressing someone for the first time, feeling their excitement in your hands, and hearing them say rude words to you in lust. But you don’t want to give up the relationship you are already in which is pretty good in some key ways: maybe you have children or a joint home you’ve put a lot of work into. You don’t want to lose everything, you just want to enjoy a few new scenarios. At such points, like many people, you think: ‘What about polyamory?’ And you feel quite brave and adventurous for going this far.
Part of the problem is that polyamory sounds so plausible, an ideal way out of our societies’ collective hypocrisy around sexual desire. Maybe you know someone from the tennis club who is said to be into polyamory; they seem normal, very sane – and extremely cheerful. There was an article in a magazine describing how polyamory is becoming fashionable in Paris and is gaining popularity in Vancouver. Apparently plenty of others manage it; why shouldn’t you? Polyamory looks like it could be, as its advocates suggest, the future of relationships in general and – more urgently – of yours in particular.
Like many aspects of existence, polyamory is convincing in principle. Big, general ideas usually are. To take another example, in principle, many people feel it would be nice to give up on the rat-race in the city and relocate to the countryside: it’s healthier, housing costs are lower and you’ll be able to grow vegetables and reconnect with nature. Or, to take an example from politics, in principle, many people feel that direct democracy – with referenda every weekend to determine every decision – sounds like a great idea: we’d finally get the kind of government we want. It happens in Switzerland so it’s obviously possible and technology has made it much easier to organise.
But the problem with principles is that they are perilously prone to leave out the details – which is where the problems are located. They encourage us to forget that, if we move to the country, we’ll be hampered in our plans to order sushi at short notice, the neighbour’s tractor will wake us up at 5.30, things will be surprisingly expensive and we’ll have a terrible sense of being left out of the party. Or (when it comes to direct democracy), we forget the whimsical and terrifying nature of mass public opinion, along with our own disinterest in the details of policy and the entirely exceptional nature of Swiss society and public life.
Things are no different with polyamory. When, at certain times, the general principle of polyamory strikes us a mature and viable option for organising our sex lives, we’d be advised to hold a few details in mind.
We should picture how challenging it can be when, at an orgy, our partner gives us a wink as they disappear into a softly lit bedroom with two other people, we make a sign to join them, but are firmly rebuffed by one of the strangers who asks gruffly who the weirdo with the strange underwear might be. Hearing a partner orgasm at the hands of another is a complex experience.
We may forget too that, once we sign up to polyamory, it won’t be entirely straightforward to locate other people who excite us deeply. Of course, we may have offers from types we don’t much fancy, except it will now be agony to explain why we don’t want them. However, even if we do find someone we favour, it may turn out their sexual tastes don’t quite match our own. They may share our love of spanking but it could be harder or softer than we would ideally prefer. Or they’ll love dressing as a pirate but they might refuse to wear an eye patch, which is a deal breaker for us. Or they might indeed shout obscenities but their repertoire risks being sadly unimaginative and their accent grating. Our partner, on the other hand, might all the while be having no trouble at all locating some pretty amazing new friends. We had assumed we’d be in demand, but that’s not how it could turn out.
We also tend to forget how nice it is when something is fully ours. As children, we never actually liked sharing our toys, though borrowing them was pretty nice. When we were five, we deeply resented if other children took the fire engine or started a cooking game with the miniature kitchen. A disavowed possessive streak runs quite deep in us.
Furthermore, we’ve got a busy life, and polyamory takes a lot of time to organise. Our prospective partners may be busy just that night we’re free or more inclined – exactly when we had a slot – to hook up with a dentist who is slightly repugnant in our eyes.
Despite the freewheeling atmosphere, even in polyamory, there will be some surprisingly tricky and intractable emotions to deal with. There will be splits, painful endings, feelings of abandonment and moments of rage. We’ll be exposed to the inner tribulations of a great many people rather than just those of a single well-charted spouse. Certain partners will burst into uncontrollable sobs and talk urgently of their mothers – when all we were looking for was a rapid sexual thrill. Others will, as we stand at the bedside with a whip or a mask, accuse us of selfishness, pretend to read a magazine and refuse to explain what’s wrong.
There’s no dispute at all that polyamory will work for some people; but like many very alluring ideas, this doesn’t mean it will work for us. Mostly likely, if we become polyamorous, we will once again encounter almost all of the problems we’d once known well in monogamy – only far more often, more chaotically, and with a greater sense of violated expectation.
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