I’ve been to a few polyamorous weddings, but not to many polyamorous anniversary parties. William Saletan at Slate thinks he knows why.
Look up other articles on polygamy, even sympathetic ones, and you’ll see the pattern. A Columbia News Service report on last month’s national conference of polyamorists—people who love, but don’t necessarily marry, multiple partners—features Robyn Trask, the managing editor of a magazine called Loving More. The conference Web site says she “has been practicing polyamory for 16 years.” But according to the article, “When Trask confronted her husband about sneaking around with a long-distance girlfriend for three months, he denied it. … The couple is now separated and plans to divorce.” A Houston Press article on another couple describes how “John and Brianna opened up their relationship to another woman,” but “it ended badly, with the woman throwing dishes.” Now they’re in another threesome. “I do get jealous at times,” John tells the reporter. “But not to the point where I can’t flip it off.”
Good luck, John. I’m sure polyamorists are right that lots of people “find joy in having close relationships … with multiple partners.” The average guy would love to bang his neighbor’s wife. He just doesn’t want his wife banging his neighbor. Fidelity isn’t natural, but jealousy is. Hence the one-spouse rule. One isn’t the number of people you want to sleep with. It’s the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.
I think Saletan gets it wrong—but, hey, I don’t want to be an ingrate or anything. The piece is a defense of gay marriage, an attempt to show that it’s unfair for social conservatives to lump gay marriage in with polygamy and condemn both. Gay marriage needs all the help it can get in this country, and we’re grateful, William, really.
But what Saletan gets wrong, though, is this: The problem with polygamy and/or polyamory isn’t that it allows a married man “to bang his neighbor’s wife,ā€¯ but that one man plays husband to more than one wife—or one person plays spouse to more than one spouse. The poly guy is expected to treat both his partners, or all three of his partners, as somehow equal. While Saletan cites some examples of jealousy eating away at poly relationships, what really destroyed the relationships he mentions isn’t physical infidelity—it’s not the banging—but the emotional infidelity.
You can forsake all others emotionally and still bang someone else occasionally. Indeed, there’s an organized, heterosexual swinging movement in the United States dedicated to facilitating just that. Two people can commit to each other, put each other first emotionally and socially, and do all the above-and-beyond-banging stuff that spouses are expected to do for each other each other, and still sleep around a bit—indeed, that’s one of the things that social conservatives find so threatening about many gay male relationships. We seem to be capable of committing and also allowing for the occasional outside sexual contact without a lot of drama and divorce—and without a lot conventions in Vegas either. But what isn’t allowed—or sometimes is, but just doesn’t work over the long haul—is a relationship in which two, three, or more people are co-equal spouses.
The poly relationships that I’ve seen work are the ones where there are primary partners and secondary partners, but even that can be difficult to navigate.