The One and the Many

Dear Planet Waves Subscriber:

The other day, an email came floating into my inbox from a website called Care2, a green-styled corporate site purportedly dedicated to saving the world, claiming 12.5 million subscribers. The subject header of the email read, “Monogamy vs. Polyamory: Do Open Relationships Work?”

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View from train bridge, Rosendale, NY. Photo by Eric Francis.

Naturally, I thought: this ought to be pretty interesting.

The writer gave her analysis a title like a boxing match or a legal case. Mono versus Poly is now in session! All Rise! The article commenced as such (literally, its first words): “Non-monogamy is about one thing — sex. And sex is good.”

(You can tell she learned her writing style from The Bible.)

It went downhill from there, fast. Faster than I ever thought possible without jet propulsion and a lot of lube. “And sex with different people — either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime — is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex.”

When you see the word ‘but’ you can usually tell how things are going to go. Her premise is that since polyamory is about sex, and since sex isn’t everything, polyamory is nothing special to concern oneself with. The author, whose name is Polly, continues: “I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won’t be, ‘I wish I had had more sex with more people’. Maybe if you’re a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn’t.”

I will spare you any more. This article, while one of the less eloquent and less favorable recent mainstream reviews of polyamory, shares one thing in common with every other article on the topic that I’ve ever seen: it sets polyamory and monogamy against one another as irreconcilable opposites.

While the author is less tactful about her prejudices, she does us the favor of expressing them overtly: for example, there is in many discussions the lurking suspicion that people who don’t claim orthodox monogamy are perverts, but the word is rarely used. Or they don’t really like relationships, and can’t handle intimacy; they just want to get laid. Facing these prejudices repeatedly is enough to push nearly anyone who tries to be openly polyamorous back into the closet.

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Social prejudices about polyamory emphasize the sexual aspects of the experience — which seems to represent the fantasy or desire most project onto the idea.

Yet I wonder what the real issue is. Studies done over the years on the incidence of cheating reveal that 45% to 65% of women and 55% to 80% of men stray outside monogamous commitments.

The variance is because some studies ask whether people have ever cheated while in a monogamous agreement; some ask whether they have cheated in their current relationship. Other studies show that women tend to understate their sexual conquests, and men tend to exaggerate. The two stats may be much closer than the studies show. Neither sex has a claim on fidelity.

In any event, we’re talking about a large portion of the population whose definition of monogamy has at one time included, and possibly includes today, sex with more than one person. For a fast check, ask yourself: do you know anyone who hasn’t been through this at least once? How about three times? How abut five?

Notably, the accepted definition of monogamy has changed in recent decades from one partner for life (now considered archaic), to one partner at a time, as often as you feel like moving on. That’s a big difference. The revised term is ‘serial monogamy’, but I prefer to think of it as serial polyamory: we tend to have multiple partners, one at a time (that is, while we’re not having multiple partners, two or more at a time).

By any realistic description, some versions of monogamy sound a lot like polyamory. Those who are proponents of monogamy at all costs, who advance the cause of abstinence-only until heterosexual marriage for life, sound like they are in reaction to the observable data, which basically proves that most people are simply not that way; that, and living in reaction to their own feelings. So do a lot of romantics, cruising for The One. True, there are some who choose a mate for life. For some this actually works beautifully and for some it creates misery. In any event, we only know their story up until today. We don’t know about tomorrow.

No matter how we experience relationships, I would propose that there are more similarities between what we call monogamy and what we call polyamory. For one thing, they both involve modes of relationship. No matter what the outward style, relationships boil down to a one-to-one meeting between two individuals. Those meetings are set within a larger context with many complex interrelations: a community.

That community either supports the relationship or it weakens the relationship. The relationship either offers something back to society, or it does not. Who has sex with whom seems to be incidental — except for one thing, jealousy. I won’t say much about jealousy in this article, except I would state upfront that in my view, if one issue is choking off the potential of the human race, choking our relationships and doing incalculable damage to sex, that’s the one.

From Self to Self: The Inner Origin of Relationships

But let’s go back to the egg. One must be a self to have a relationship with someone else. Being a self implies an inner awareness of existence, which is a relationship to existence that is in truth a relationship to self. The quality of this core relationship determines nearly everything that follows. No matter what kind of external relationships you engage in, your primary relationship is to you.

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Naomi from the Book of Blue. Photo by Eric Francis.

How do you feel about your existence? Do you love yourself, judge yourself, hate yourself, struggle to ‘be yourself’? What threatens you and what makes you happy? To what extent do you take ownership of your life? What threatens or enhances your sense of existence? How do you relate to death?

And, a kind of operative question that results from all of these: why do you want to be in relationship with others? What is your motive? Most of us want relationships, but we have different drives. Is the reason to share pleasure, learning, and food? Is it to share work and a mission? Is it to exchange misery? Is the purpose to seek completion in another, or to explore your wholeness with another? Is the purpose to protect you from something or to celebrate and explore a sense of safety? Do you seek love or attachment?

Each of these themes appear to be mediated by one’s relationship to oneself. Each individual brings an agenda into the pairing, and that agenda is internally mediated. It’s usually based on a level of maturity and experience in life, and one’s level of awareness. In other words, you decide and express your agenda in a relationship based on your relationship to yourself. Notably, this is the relationship that we typically seem to lose sight of when we’re ‘in a relationship’, which might feel like losing one’s independence or sense of identity.

Many people feel like they’re a ‘different person’ when they’re with a partner, and ‘go back to being themselves’ when a relationship splits up. This is a sign of inner fragmentation.

Our inner relationship is the real thing that most of us struggle with, most of the time we’re struggling. Even if we think we’re struggling in a relationship, what we’re actually struggling with is a relationship with ourselves. If we could figure that out, we would have fewer problems and more solutions. We would know where to look for those solutions.

From One Self to Another Self: Dyad as the Basic Bond

One subject that rarely arises at polyamory conferences (the places polyamorous people come to talk about relationships, make friends and exchange information) is monogamy. I mean, it’s mentioned, but the topic of the depth of one-on-one bonds is secondary to the issue of how things are doing with the other partners, the rules of engagement with other partners, and so on. Rare is it to hear open conversation about the need to relate one-on-one or the need to be in an exclusive relationship for a while. You meet couples at polyamory conferences that are monogamous before they branch out, but I’ve never met a couple at a conference that was choosing to keep their relationship exclusive.

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Crystal and Benji. Photo by Eric Francis.

I think that most people who identify as polyamorous know this and honor when others do this, but individual relationships seems to play second fiddle in poly culture when in fact, so far as I can tell, they are the second most basic foundation of poly culture. The very most basic is where one stands with oneself; and the second is the quality of our one-on-one bonds.

Now ‘monogamy’ and ‘polyamory’ have a second key element in common: they both use dyadic (that is, pair) bonding as a structural basis. Strong dyads share the same basic properties, no matter what the style of relationship: they are based on agreements; they are based on honesty; they are based on a desire to share; hopefully they are based on love.

Relationships have a purpose, and they express that purpose within a tribe or community. Remember that marriage, our society’s most basic and seemingly most coveted bond, is often performed in a public ceremony, officiated by a public official (traditionally by a minister, a judge, the mayor or a sea captain). The community is generally invited as witnesses.

The relationship is presumed to have public implications and the marriage license is a public document, filed with the city clerk. This suggests that the pair bond is part of something larger: society or a community and often, a family.

Relationships involve a contract or agreement of some kind, even if that is just to be together. Whether they’re happy affairs or not usually involves whether the individuals involved feel that the agreement is honored; whether the individuals get their needs met; and whether the arrangement works for both people. These facts apply whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, whether the individuals are members of the same race or economic class, or whether they are of similar or very different ages.

Most of us would agree with “whatever makes them happy.” Whatever makes us happy, if we can arrange it. Whether the individuals involved choose to have sex with other people would be covered by all of these concepts.

The Many: We All Have Multiple Relationships

One thing does not change, whatever kind of relationship is involved: those individuals relate to other people. Unless they are really, really lonely, they love other people and other people love them. Partners in healthy monogamous relationships have loving relationships with others. One bit of revisionist history is that the ‘nuclear family’ is the basic unit of society: parents and kids. Until recently, these relationships were set within a complex social structure called the extended family. The dyad was part of a much larger structure that included many kinds of loving relationships.

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Humorous postcard explaining how complicated relationships are, which (if you don’t read the words) also gives a picture of the human networks surrounding any couple. Author or “curator” seems to be Adam Sicinski. Link to original.

Referring back to the beginning of Polly’s article (polyamory is all about sex), the truth is our relationships are always about so much more. It verges on hilarious that someone would accuse polyamorous people in particular of focusing on sex; poly folk spend so much of their time obsessively involved with the details of their relationships it’s amazing they have any time for cooking, much less for sex. But even the ‘let’s meet at the motel for a quickie’ kind of affairs have a way of becoming deeper emotional involvements.

Yet even if we presume sexual monogamy — someone who only has physical sex with one other person, for a long time — we all have bonds and commitments with others. Some of those, while ‘nonsexual’ in the physical sense, can be profound, intimate and long-lasting connections. Imagine a man is married, in a healthy relationship with his wife. He also has a secretary who has worked for him for 20 years, and they love and trust one another deeply. They haven’t shared sex, but their bond of love is as powerful as that of any marriage. Most people would not call that polyamory; I would.

And most of us have extremely active fantasy lives. Fantasy knows no bounds; yes, some people feel guilty about it, but that usually makes it so much hotter. And fantasy takes us outside the bounds of monogamy.

One thing I’ve always found interesting is that monogamy has many rules that don’t involve sex. Some monogamous couples do not ‘allow’ one another to have close friends of the opposite sex. Some monogamous people feel threatened when their partner has any friends at all. Some don’t ‘allow’ their partner to go to community college. Some feel threatened when their partner checks out a cute guy or girl, and some encourage one another to be open about their attractions and even their erotic fantasies, unfettered. Others would be profoundly threatened by this. Still others invite their friends to have sex with them.

Since nearly everyone has sexual desires and fantasies about others, the core issue running the show — that is, the thing that determines our choice to have more than one partner, and whether to be honest about it — would seem to be jealousy. Everyone gets jealous at times; some make a religion out of it. Some make it their dharma to work through it and be free. Those who dwell on jealousy relate to others with a different set of presumptions and expectations than those who process it in a healthy way. As it turns out, in an attempt to avoid the jealousy issue, a great many have sex with others without telling their partner about it. In other words, from what I hear, many people would openly want or admit to being with more than one partner or lover if jealousy were not in the way. One common equation is, “I want to be sexual with someone else, but I’m not going to because you might, and if you do, I will be jealous.”

When we talk about polyamory, what we’re really describing is an agreement to take up all the boundaries of a relationship consciously, rather than applying a term that seems to presume the nature of those boundaries, but more often denies their existence. In other words, polyamory is what we talk about, more than what we do. Most people choose to remain silent about their sexual reality.

Why ever would we do that? Well, since your first relationship is to yourself: ask yourself.

Yours & truly,

Eric Francis

For further reading:

Compersion Letters from Planet Waves Readers

“Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”

Wilhelm Reich, from The Mass Psychology of Fascism


Willing The New

By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

What a strange and exasperating period we’re living in. What has become habitual no longer serves us. Our existing patterns of behavior reveal themselves as increasingly unworkable, and our nation, along with most others across the planet, finds citizen pitted against citizen, political party against party. We are seemingly at a standstill here in the USA, where even our Vice President admits that, “Washington right now is broken,” adding, “I’ve never seen it this dysfunctional.” The President finds it necessary to toot his own horn, emphasizing that the year-old stimulus has been a success, keeping folks in jobs, creating new ones, and providing tax relief to ease the pain. The minority party argues that such assessments are all just speculation, that those jobs might have been funded anyhow — yes, when piggies fly, but that’s another story. What is ruthless and self-serving is deeply entrenched, while all that is hopey-changey, to quote the caustic Ms. Palin, must defend its very existence.

This week Evan Bayh, a Blue Dog Democrat who once served as Governor of Illinois, announced he wouldn’t be running to retain his Senate seat. Calling himself disillusioned, Bayh finds the Congress too partisan, and urges electoral “shock” to fix the broken system. Vote incumbents out, he proposes, and vote in those who want to reform the process for the good of the people rather than for special-interest groups. Those of us who watch these things carefully wonder at a statement like that, since Bayh was one of those who set out to kill the Public Option; also his wife is a member of the board at WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurer, earning millions in the last couple of years. Gosh, doesn’t that seem like a deeply personal ‘special interest’ to you? Those who hoot and holler because Democrats couldn’t get anywhere with their supermajority should carefully scrutinize this man and his fellow Blue Dogs, because the Dems’ ability to utilize their power successfully this year was obstructed by him and those like him who serve the corporate middle.

Evan Bayh has been pointed to as an example of a centrist. He campaigned faithfully for Hillary Clinton, who aligns with her husband as a domestic centrist and military hawk. There is another word for this: establishment. While embracing Obama after his win, even briefly being considered as a vice presidential nominee, Bayh immediately organized a Blue Dog block and threw the e-brake on progressive legislation. Over the last thirty years and longer, the political stance of this nation has been diligently moved so far to the right that I think of it as a little left of Moses. In compromise with this supposed center, nothing has changed over the years but the lineup of players urging that liberals everywhere take them seriously since they represent the majority.

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Weekly Horoscope for Friday, February 19, 2010, #805 – BY ERIC FRANCIS

Planet Waves en Italiano

Aries (March 20-April 19)
You’re not the goodie-goodie you like people to think you are; this, despite how you flaunt your wild side. Though you would probably never own up to that contradiction, it’s time to worry less about your image and more about how being authentic draws authentic people toward you. I suggest you admit to your chaos, your passion, your craving for freedom. I suggest you admit to the true fact that your attractions follow no special logic, no rules, and in the end, know no bounds. You could spend a lot of time worrying about why you have tried to pretend otherwise; you could wonder why you’re caught in the structure that you’re in. Or you can simply be free.
Taurus (April 19- May 20)
You have an active imagination; it’s so active, you rarely give yourself a chance to step out. Yes, Taurus is the sign most often associated with physicality and grounding and all of that, but lately you seem more in your head than usual. You seem to be searching and dreaming and exploring in there. That’s fine, as long as you take some of what’s in your head, and put some of that pancake batter onto the griddle. True enough, you don’t have to. You can keep stirring it in your mixing bowl. You can keep adding sugar. But as long as you do that, you’re always going to have batter and you’re never going to have hotcakes.
Gemini (May 20- June 21)
Don’t expect your social experiences to follow a plan, or even your vaguest notions of what you thought you wanted. I would propose that you will figure out what you want in a series of experiments, at the end of which you will have given up on a few old friends and made some brilliant contacts with some new friends. This is the time to desire new people, places and experiences. In fact, it’s time for them to desire you right back. I would say if you don’t want attention, don’t leave the house, but not even that will work. Remember this attention parlays into your workplace or professional activities. You will be rewarded for good work, so keep your focus.
Cancer (June 21- July 22)
You cannot control the outcome of events, and you don’t want to. What you can do is pay attention to the flow and skate along with the game. And it looks like a fast game, for sure, where the rules change. Mars finally stationing direct is likely to improve your attitude about money, as long as you remember to invest it in what has lasting value, or in what fits a long-term plan. You feel like you have a lot of mojo, which remains true as long as you apply every molecule and photon of it consciously. There is a direct relationship between awareness and power, and at this opportune moment I suggest you add some ambition. Not a lot, just enough.
Leo (July 22- Aug. 23)
You’re about to get a surge of energy — though I suggest you go for the slow burn. Keep your flame blue and clean and just the right temperature. In other words: plan for the long run. Mars is about to station direct in the first degree of your sign; then over the next 10 weeks it will work its way clear across Leo, touching the natal Sun of everyone born under your sign. Through the long Mars retrograde, you’ve done a fine job reinventing yourself. I suggest you stretch gently into this new concept of who you are, rather than inflating like an airbag. You’ll be tempted; yet the long-term outlook says that if you pace yourself, the very best is yet to come.
Virgo (Aug. 23- Sep. 22)
You now know the truth about a health situation that has long troubled you, taxing your peace of mind in a way that you’ve let on to only a few people in your life. Though you prefer to be truthful, you were correct in not spreading your anxiety, mainly because you knew it would come back to you. Now that your worst fears have been proven unfounded, you can spread something else, which is your unmitigated vitality. And that will come back to you, just like anything else you broadcast. In the next six months, this echo effect is only going to intensify, and you’ll need to be clear what is yours and what is not.
Libra (Sep. 22 - Oct. 23)
This is not the time to seek stability in your relationships — it’s time for something better. This theme repeats over and over this spring, any way you shuffle, slice or dice the planets. You need to trust the stability within yourself. Most people seek structure on the outside, and give their relationships a too-difficult job. The difference, in the end, is about maturity; when your life moves as fast as it’s going to move, and becomes as unpredictable as it’s going to become, you need to know where your center is, and you need to know how to get there fast. Then you will be able to play fast and loose, something that is unusual for you, but which you’ve craved for a long time.
Scorpio (Oct. 23- Nov. 22)
It may be driving you half-mad that a partner can’t home in on their sense of identity. But then, you’ve been wavering on a commitment for many weeks, and this commitment has a lot to do with who you are; or rather, with acknowledging who you are. There is more to this commitment than meets the eye, because of the depth of the understanding involved. In a sense, you’re making an agreement with yourself about the role that you deserve in the world; which in turn is a reflection of how powerful you are willing to believe you are. True, over the past few months you’ve given yourself many reasons to doubt, but in truth you’ve discovered just as many to have confidence.
Sagittarius (Nov. 22 - Dec. 22)
Few astrologers would advise someone born under your sign to take a little extra risk, fearing what you might do. However, I’m aware the extent to which you have put the restraints on yourself in recent months, and have retreated far from your usual swashbuckling self. Here is the key: respond to your feelings and not your mind. Start from where you feel safe. That is a feeling you can actually trust. From that space of safety, take a step; then when that works out, take another step. You may, along the way, feel the impulse to leap in feet first, and I wouldn’t want to stop you; just make sure you’re absolutely willing, with no hint of hesitancy.
Capricorn (Dec. 22- Jan. 20)
It’s time to make some fast, bold professional moves; primarily this is the time to make sure you’re as visible as possible. If you stay where people can see you, you’ll increase the chances of success significantly: success as you define it. I have an idea what that is: the privilege of expressing the person you actually are in your professional life. Capricorn is often accused of being ambitious: I see the matter differently, as a quest for authenticity that brings you through many incarnations of your career and your role in the world. In actual fact, you must try again and again till you find the place not where you fit, but where you are free to exist.
Aquarius (Jan. 20- Feb. 19)
In astrology there are, occasionally, before and after moments. That is the easiest way to understand, or to even see, the meaning of how the planets move. You have now arrived at an ‘after’ moment: after a very long spell of the need for clarity, coexisting with yourself in a kind of misunderstanding. You have resolved something, or perhaps you’ve just observed something, but it goes so deep into who you are that it seems to reach across all your lifetimes. In any event, however you choose to think of it, you have turned one page of your life and embarked on a whole new volume of existence. The territory changes fast from here: take careful, conscious steps and always notice where you are, and whom you’re with.
Pisces (Feb. 19- March 20)
Know good times when you’re in them — and you are. These are not the kind of good times that melt into the background of history, forgotten because of their comfort. Rather, this is a moment that stands out rather than stands back, and which you may consciously, willingly and lovingly use to enter a new phase of your life. I trust that you feel a certain energetic relief, the ability to relax and the growing sense not that you have enough, but that you are enough. Keep that feeling, and remember the idea, if you lose contact with the inner orientation. It is fair to say that everything is about to change — in ways you would have wished for, if you could have ever predicted what is possible.

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