Monday, May 9, 2016

"Polyamory Doesn't Work Long Term": Presenting Some (Admittedly Unscientific) Evidence to the Contrary

I can't count the number of times I have heard someone dismiss the concept of open relationships on the basis that "they don't end up working out" -- and when I counter this asinine statement by pointing out that my husband and I are still together after twenty-three years, they often dismiss my experience as the exception that proves the rule.

It makes me crazy. And I know I'm not alone in my aggrieved annoyance. (For example, see Dan Savage's response to Helen Fisher's "expert" opinion.)

Just the other day, one of my neighbors was telling me that polyamory fails much more often than it succeeds: "Out of a hundred poly relationships, there might be FIVE that could be called successful, wouldn't you say?"

Marshalling all my self-restraint, I asked her for clarification: "Are you talking about single people who identify as polyamorous, or are you talking about couples?"

"Oh," she said, as if this distinction hadn't ever occurred to her, "...uh, I guess I mean couples."

"Couples. Okay. Do you mean couples who've had an open relationship from the beginning, or couples who decide to open their relationship, or both?"

"I guess I was thinking about couples who open their marriage."

I did not ask her how many such couples she actually knows, because it was already clear that her pronouncement was not based on any actual evidence. People are biased, and they make unfounded assumptions. Shocker.

So this morning, just for kicks, I made a list of all the open couples I have known in the past fifteen years whose relationship trajectory I know well enough to chart. I came up with a total of 25, counting me and Parker, which was convenient, since I was able to multiply by four and extrapolate some percentages.

Here's what what I discovered after running some numbers:

1) Out of the 25 open couples I know, two couples have already divorced, and another four couples are currently considering divorce. In my (non-random!) sample, then, polyamory had a 24% failure rate over the fifteen-year period from 2001 to 2016. (Yes, I know, a scientist would never make such a claim based on the available evidence, but given that approximately half of U.S. marriages end in divorce, I'd say my little sample is performing quite well!)

2) After categorizing couples based on their primary "reason" for deciding on an open relationship model (FIVE couples had a pre-existing agreement, based on one or both partners stating a preference for non-monogamy; EIGHT couples experienced a crisis precipitated by one partner having an affair -- either emotional or sexual -- with someone else; and TWELVE couples opened their marriage in order to solve the problem of sexual incompatibility and/or sexual dissatisfaction with the existing relationship), I determined that couples who had opened up as a result of some form of cheating were most likely to split up later (3 out of 8, vs. 1 out of 5 couples with a pre-existing agreement and 2 out of 12 couples who were sexually dissatisfied with their originally monogamous relationship). That's not surprising.

3) Of the 19 open couples I know who are NOT considering divorce, I would classify NINE as married and dating -- that is, the original couple still identifies as a primary dyad: they live together, they have sex with each other, and their other sexual partners are "part time" or "on the side". SIX of these couples now belong to a stable triad or network: the couple is still together, but their family has grown to include one or more committed partners. The remaining FOUR couples now live together as nesting partners only, and may consider their other partner(s) to be more emotionally or sexually "primary".

4) Even if you discount the four nesting only couples, because they are no longer sleeping together (many monogamous marriages end up in the same boat, though, and -- I would argue -- they are more likely to founder on the rocks of sexual frustration as a result), polyamory still has a success rate of 60%. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider that 80% of the open couples I know originally decided to open their relationship either because of infidelity or because they were not satisfied with their sex life. It looks to me like polyamory might be a pretty decent solution to the kinds of problems that make many monogamous couples decide to split up.

4) Interestingly, of the 19 couples who are, in my estimation, making polyamory "work" for them, none has returned to being monogamous -- at least not with each other. I do know a few people in this sample who are monogamous despite being part of an open couple, either because they aren't currently dating, or because they are the mono partner in a mono-poly pairing, or because one or both members of a "nesting" couple have chosen monogamy with their new partner(s). Overall, though, I'd say that people who have experience with polyamory tend to prefer it as their relationship model.

5) The average length these couples have been together (counting only the 23 relationships that have not yet ended) is 15.8 years, with 30 years as the longest and 5 years as the shortest. I don't have exact numbers for how long each couple has been open, but I can say with certainty that at least 14 of these 23 couples have been open for at least five years. In other words, I'm comfortable calling these relationships "long term".

I've no doubt that there are other conclusions that could be drawn from these data (have at it, y'all!), but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any evidence here to suggest that the folks in my sample are doing any worse than the general population when it comes to the success of their relationships.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Giving Jealousy a Little Love

The following is an excerpt from an email one of my partners sent me a couple of days ago, after he realized that a group sex experience had precipitated what he jokingly referred to as a morning-after “Mini Mental Meltdown”:

I think, for me, the up-side of jealousy (thank goodness there IS an up-side!) is that it helps to maintain the balance between my individual self ("Cam"), and my (more complex and exuberant) collective self ("Cam & Viny"). This may not feel like a good thing when jealousy causes an acute shift back towards individuality because this shift is invariably accompanied by feelings – to various degrees – of loss, loneliness, and alienation, but it is nevertheless beneficial, and necessary for maintenance of a confident and comfortable sense of ME. I have no doubt you can relate to this.

What I take from
[my reaction to] this [recent experience], at this point, is that I need to cultivate a life *outside* of our life together a little bit more actively than I have been. For a time, any opportunity that I have for such things will probably be taken up by my current projects of life transition, but in the near future, I need to get out and involved in some personal growth, ya know? Perhaps get back into music, surgery, and lost wax casting?? I’ve got to have at least one foot planted in places where you do not always stand, just in case I need to temporarily unwrap my leg from yours in order to protect my heart and head from angina and migraines.

I asked Cam if I could use his reflections as a starting point for a more general discussion of the “up-sides” of jealousy, partly because it would give me an excuse to brag about him (isn't he amazing?), but more importantly because his letter reminded me of something I often forget: jealousy is fundamentally a regulating mechanism. It performs a valuable function by calling our attention to the fact that something is out of whack. Our job is to listen carefully, so that we can figure out what is out of whack, and fix it.

Unfortunately, whenever jealousy starts talking to me, all I want is for it to shut up.

“You're basing your sense of self-worth on a fucking mirage, lady. Who cares if you're smart and funny? There are lots of people out there who are smarter and funnier than you. Oh, so you think you have nice breasts? Well, I've got something for you: GRAVITY. Boom. Wake up and smell the bitter beans, 'cuz there's not a single thing you have to offer that can't be eclipsed by someone else or lost entirely, through age or accident. And what's gonna make you lovable then? Huh?”

(Good question, right? Really important stuff to consider. But boy howdy, does that voice ever grate on my nerves!)

Yes, jealousy is horribly unpleasant. But the truth is that it can be a great teacher. So I wonder: What would happen if we were to approach jealousy with curiosity, instead of dread and resentment? How might our future experiences of jealousy improve if we cultivated a sense of gratitude for what we've learned from jealousy in the past?

Maybe I owe jealousy an apology for hating on it so much. Huh. Now that's a strange thought.