Polyamory

What polyamorous and polygamous relationships tell us about the human condition

William Jankowiak and Leanna Wolfe

William Jankowiak and Leanna Wolfe

William is Barrick Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Leanna is a Sex and Relationship Specialist for Wise Woman Sex and Relationship Consulting.

This essay explores what sexual and emotional fulfillment means to American Mormon Fundamentalist polygamous and polyamorous communities. For polygamists, sexual variety is the byproduct of wanting more children (in quest of a respectable afterlife “celestial marriage”). In contrast, sexual variety in both male and female polyamorists can be an outcome of seeking enhanced eroticism. The two “polys” justify their lifestyle through their assertion that plural love is superior to the conventional dyadic love bond. It is an assertion based in hope more than practice.
 
Following William Jankowiak’s 2006 talk at UCLA, wherein he concluded that humans are emotionally monogamous but sexually non-monogamous, a faculty member asked:

“What about birds who abandon their ‘lifelong’ partner for a new more desirable mate. How do they differ from humans?”

Jankowiak responded: “Birds cannot love.”

The faculty member then proposed: “If they could, it would be serial monogamy, with one bird at a time.”

If this is true of birds, what do we make of the pursuit of plural-love relationships in polygamous and polyamorous communities? (For a historical perspective on this topic, read the article “Consensual Non-Monogamy and the history of marriage“)

To answer this question, Jankowiak conducted four years of field research amongst a Fundamentalist Mormon polygamous community. Likewise, Leanna Wolfe has conducted long-term research amongst Western practitioners of polyamory. They both wanted to know: Do polygamous or polyamorous marriages work? Are men and women emotionally satisfied in plural-love arrangements? These two researchers found that, for the most part, it is an emotional struggle to sustain these lifestyles. Moreover, it is the embrace of religious beliefs by the Mormons and cultural inventions by the polyamorists that sustain these practices.

From the early nineteenth century to today, a common contention has been that polygamy has nothing to do with love but rather is about satisfying a man’s lust. Like other researchers, Jankowiak found this not to be true (1). While some men through their religiously sanctioned “spiritual” marriage have sex with numerous wives, accessing sexual pleasure is not the goal. For them, preparing for a “celestial marriage,” replete with multiple wives and numerous progeny, assures a respectable eternal place in heaven. As for the wives, their best path to such heavenly respect is to support their husband in procuring the largest family he can.

In contrast, practitioners of polyamory would be hard-pressed to discount the erotic pleasure of multiple partners. The desired triad could be one woman and two men, or one man and two women. While polyamorous couples in the early 1990s largely dreamed of finding a “unicorn”, that is, a mutually compatible bisexual woman with whom to form a functional triad relationship, contemporary polyamory is much more varied. Open couples may either engage in hierarchical polyamory, in which they prioritize their primary connection, or they seek to become part of a like-minded pod via an extended family of choice (2). This communal dream is often referred to as “kitchen-table polyamory”, one in which erotically entangled couples might all share breakfast the following morning. These folks endeavor to support each other emotionally and even financially in the formation of “polycules”. In their cooperative spirit, they seek to be friends with their “metamours”, those with whom they share the same lovers.

Alongside these open couples, solo polyamory has emerged for those who embrace the communication values of polyamory, namely honesty and transparency, but who do not seek to cohabit, share finances, or generate emotional interdependency with a primary partner or polycule. They prefer self-reliance to generating dependence on a partner who might suddenly become impossibly smitten with someone else. These folks shun the “relationship escalator” (3), wherein intimacy is measured by socially visible acts, including marriage, cohabitation, and reproduction. Solo polys in particular may embrace “relationship anarchy”, wherein all traditional relationship goals are put aside in favor of whatever arrives and however it plays out. Here, anti-hierarchical practices are embraced, such as no primary partners, and relationships are neither sustained for emotional and financial support nor for social identity.
 

Polyamory
The picture shows three people in a polyamorous relationship. Photo @ Wikimedia Commons.

The two “polys” differ in the value they give to eroticism. But do polygamous men and polyamorous men and women really love everyone they are relationally attached to the same? Both groups insist they do (4). It is their official discourse, which they invoke to counter outsiders’ claims that they are selfishly sex-driven. Generally, both groups contend that they have formed a heightened spiritual state in creating a plural-love bond. But have practitioners of either of these poly configurations truly achieved this emotional state? Jankowiak’s research repeatedly found evidence of men having a profound and deep love bond, but only with one wife and never with a plurality of wives. Amongst practitioners of hierarchical polyamory, Wolfe notes a division of ranked affection whereby one person is the primary or more exclusive love interest, whereas others serve as secondary or even tertiary love interests (5). Very often, it was the newest lover (5) that generated the most passionate interest and not the in-place primary partner. For some couples, this dynamic might threaten the core of their partnership. When compelling new love interests emerge, long-time partners endeavor to practice “compersion”, a polyamorous cultural invention where feelings of anger or rage are averted by generating positive empathy for the pleasure their beloved partner has been able to access. The concept of “new relationship energy” (NRE) (5) might also be called into play. In such cases, established long-term couples note that their partner’s intense dopamine-enhanced state will eventually pass, and that, once hormonal equilibrium returns, their relationship will be sustained.

In a separate study of individuals who did not seek to, but nonetheless became emotionally involved with, more than one person at the same time, Jankowiak found the two lovers were conceptualized differently: one was an intense passionate romantic love interest, and the other was thought of as a companionate love partner (6). The existential struggle of such individuals revolved around how best to reconcile loving two persons at the same time. Wolfe determined that these two states, the attraction phase (characterized by intense passion fueled by dopamine and norepinephrine) and the attachment phase (seen in long-term trusting partners and fortified by oxytocin and vasopressin) had equal value to practitioners of polyamory (7). A member of an established couple whose home life was replete with attachment phase hormones might fulfill their missing complement of attraction phase hormones via an erotically charged new lover.

Because practitioners of polyamory openly seek out plural arrangements, they rarely admit they suffer from guilt or emotional angst. Jankowiak suspects, if this is true, the absence of acute emotional angst arises from all members accepting their relative place within the polyamorous arrangement (1). Still, according to Wolfe, embracing cultural values may be much easier said than done. Couples new to the lifestyle fear loss of the integrity of their primary bond, while singles engaging hierarchal couples complain that their rightful desires for time and attention may be put aside in respect for the primary couples’ rules and boundaries (8).

Since poly configurations can be fluid, adjusting to the particularities of new lovers can be a challenge, although Wolfe observes that the embracing of poly cultural values can facilitate an eventual adjustment (5). Amongst polygamous Mormons, a wife’s refusal to accept her relative rank within the family along with a yearning to be a special love interest accounts for her disappointment (9). A strategy some polygamous wives employ is to “not love their husband too much,” acknowledging that such an emotional investment would ultimately be foolhardy. Another strategy for accessing the sensations of not being a husband’s favorite is to divorce and then to marry into a non-polygamous household, where she would be the only wife and thus the favorite.

What the two poly arrangements have in common is facilitating men’s engagement in sexual variety. For polygamists, sexual variety is the byproduct of wanting more children, in quest of a respectable afterlife “celestial marriage,” while for both male and female polyamorists, it can be an outcome of seeking enhanced eroticism. The two “polys” justify their lifestyle through their assertion that plural love is superior to the conventional dyadic love bond. In this domain, however, such assertions by either poly practitioner are based more on hope than practice. This effort and subsequent failure to develop and sustain a plural mutual love of equal intensity speaks to the human condition, which has evolved to often contradictory inclinations, namely to be sexual polygamous while also being emotionally monogamous. Individuals in every culture must in their own way reconcile these often dueling and competing emotional orientations.

 

William Jankowiak and Leanna Wolfe

 

References:

  1. Jankowiak, W., “Illicit Monogamy: How Romantic Love Undermines Plural Love in an American Polygamous Community,” 2022.
  2. Wolfe, L., “Women Who May Never Marry: The Reasons, Realities and Opportunities,” 1993.
  3. Gahran, A., “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator: Uncommon Love and Life,” 2017.
  4. Altman, I. and Ginat, J., “Polgyamous Families in Contemporary Society,” 1996.
  5. Wolfe, L., “Jealousy and Transformation in Polyamorous Relationships,” 2003.
  6. Jankowiak, W. and Gerth, H., “Can You Love Two People at the Same Time? A Research Report”, Anthropologica, 2012.
  7. Wolfe, L., “Are Polyamory and Cheating all that Different?” 2012.
  8. Wolfe, L., “Negotiating Pair-Bonding, Romantic Love and Jealousy in Polyamorous Relationships,” 2006.
  9. Jankowiak, W. and Allen, E., “The Balance of Duty and Desire in a Mormon Polygamous Community,” in William Jankowiak, ed., “Romantic Passion: The Universal Emotion?” 1995.
Received: 19.04.21, Ready: 01.05.21. Editors: David Ludden, Jessica Brown

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