When I first mention my polyamorous relationship, most people ask if it's emotionally difficult—not only in terms of jealousy, but all in regards to the balance of attention amongst partners. The reply to both is: in other intimate relationships, we deal with these dilemmas all the time. Upon hearing friends scoring exciting jobs, I often feel jealous, but that doesn't prevent me from feeling happy for them. Parents must learn a balancing act between their children—they cannot give all their attention to each all the time. These emotions and conflicts are real and difficult, but they don't have to absolutely determine our actions or absolutely define our relationships.
Moreover, the balancing of attention is often a strength of polyamory. After all, in a monogamous relationship, you may not have to split time between multiple partners, but you do have to share your partner with all the other people in her life. Sometimes this leads to unavoidable conflicts.
A hypothetical: your sister comes into town once each fall to tailgate and share a football game with you. Since you were children, football has been an vital part of your relationship, and it has helped keep you close despite living on opposite coasts. On the other hand, your partner hates football; he'd rather be hung upside down by his toes, slathered in peanut butter, and covered with army ants than go to a game. Most years he's content to spend the day alone, but, this year, his grandfather passes away the night before the game.
This situation sucks. Either you give up an important day with your sister, or your partner has to find another emotional support on short notice. While both will understand your decision no matter what you choose, all three of you are going to feel pretty shitty. You will feel guilty abandoning one of the people you love, one of them will feel guilty taking you away from someone you love, and the other will miss you terribly.
Now, a polyamorous relationship will not make everything better1, but it does provide another option—the third2 partner can stay with the mourner and you can spend the afternoon with your sister. Your conscience may not be completely clear, but you will know your partner has someone there who cares as much about him as you do. No one has to stress out about finding a friend at the last minute; no one has to sacrifice an emotionally important need; no one has to feel deeply guilty.
Yes, to some extent this is both an extreme and ideal scenario3, but the principle still holds in more mundane situations4. In a polyamorous relationship, there are more emotional resources available—each person does not need to be the sole5 anchor for the other. Today's culture spreads extended families6 far apart, pushing us to rely on a primary romantic relationship. It even idealizes this reliance. But this asks too much of any one person, any one bond. The strain can be too much. Even if it does not precipitate a divorce, the stress and added guilt will still make everyone feel even worse. Just listen to almost any episode of Savage Lovecast to hear husbands and wives ask how to stay with their partner after years of chronic illness. Dan even has a story of his own: a promise to stay there forever with a former boyfriend dying of AIDS, when “forever” meant at most a year. Then the first effective drugs finally became available, and “forever” was no longer a promise Dan could keep.
This is not to say that polyamory is the right choice for everyone7, nor that friends and family may not still fill these roles. Rather, it does show that concrete emotional advantages exist. That polyamory makes some situations easier even as it makes others more complex. That sharing partners can be a wondrous, blessed thing.
Your partner's grandfather has just died, after all. ↩
And/or fourth, fifth, etc. ↩
There's a death in the family; your sister only comes in once each fall; your other partner(s) is free. ↩
Work parties, vacation interests, 24-hour flus, among others. ↩
Or most important, most available, etc. ↩
Even those families we choose. Close friends may move out of town for work; your college roommate will probably not end up in the same city as you do; suburbs are more dispersed than ever. ↩
Especially as our culture still elevates the primacy of sexual and emotional exclusivity. ↩
- Blogging and the Anti-Social Bookmarker, Part 2