In praise of polyamory

Prudishness – the combination of extreme modesty and proprietyis a dogma that denies the nuance intrinsic to personhood; the idea, for instance, that we can both be a teacher who inspires students to greatness, as well as a stripper – or both eager to put our life on the line for our country, and attracted to people of the same sex.

Infidelity is an assault on prudishness. It embodies the incongruity between the way that we publically think people can and should behave - and the covert, private reality of desire and authenticity. Marriage epitomizes social normality, while affairs give social norms the middle finger. Though the anti-prudishness of the polyamorous may come with a penalty, it is the penalty of revolutionaries.[1]

The false comfort of marriage

The benefits of marriage have been long touted – benefits that we cannot achieve simply from being in a de facto arrangement: married people “are happier, healthier, and better off financially.

And yet, marriage does not even remotely guarantee fidelity.

Committing ourselves to a path of action that we have ordained in the here and now is certainly popular – just think of how many people get permanent, rather than temporary, tattoos, or get married, for instance – and yet we are condemned to be free. The man or woman who swims out into the ocean in order to drown controls neither the currents nor their instinct for survival, and cannot therefore guarantee the success of his or her own suicide. Similarly, a bride and groom cannot in all authenticity pledge their undying and singular love for the other. “Roughly 30 to 60% of all married individuals (in the United States) will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage” – so if you think that the institution of marriage helps limit the spread of STIs, think again.

Admit to committing infidelity in any relationship
  •  % Men: 57
  •  % Women: 54
Say they would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught
  • % Men: 74
  • % Women: 68
Incidentally, the above figure is only in reference to physical, and not emotional, affairs. Assuming that these emotional and intellectual affairs are more a phenomena of women than to men - and factoring that into the figures – it would appear that there is an insignificant differences in the rates of infidelity between men and women .

Why do affairs lead to divorce?

The fear of getting caught only stops a third of husbands and wives who would otherwise have an affair. Yet why do only 31 percent of marriages last post-revelation?

Most probably see infidelity as a sign of a marriage’s ‘failure’. After all, I would marry someone I thought would be the perfect person for me for the rest of my life (and that the feeling was mutual) – to then go ahead and have an affair means admitting a grand fallibility. More than anything, it would be the dissapointment in myself of having failed to be happy in an exclusive sexual and emotional relationship with that one person.

As the frequent mantra goes  –  the real pain of infidelity is not the actual having sex with other people part, but rather the deceit. Affairs – like any conspiracy – mock the limits of our certainty.[2] This deceit is far from limited to the betrayed. “If I get a divorce, it's a public act and everyone will know that my marriage failed, that I'm a failure.” An affair is not a lack of faith — it is a load of bad faith. “If I have an affair, I'm able to pretend that everything's O.K.”

Yet if we are to believe the statistics, people don’t hesitate having affairs out of fear of the sense of failure that an affair might engender. Rather, people are reluctant to have an affair out of the (justified) fear of putting the very marriage at risk. Yet considering that in 41% of marriages, one or both spouses admits to either physical or emotional infidelity, it seems that the risk of loosing their marriage is not enough to inhibit people from having affairs. Something seems seriously wrong here – and I suspect it comes down to prudishness.

The case for polyamory

Ironically, normalizing open and polyarmous relationships would probably be one of the best things ever done to halt the deterioration of marriages and nuclear families. The social obsession with monogamy clearly generates needless anxiety – and hypocrisy:
"Most people, in their heart of hearts, are ‘polyamoralists.’ That is, they are capable of loving more than one person at a time."  – Tad
"A true polyamoralist is honest and open about his/her feelings and desires … I own a house with two women and live in a polyamorous relationship with both of them in a triad relationship. It never seems to astound me how many people will condemn the way I live, yet at the same time admit to an affair." - AJ Abrams
Considering that only a marginally greater percentage of men want to have affairs, polyamory[3] is not necessarily detrimental for women:
“The mistake that straight people made … was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.” - NY Times
Open relationships would undoubtedly be valuable when both spouses desire an extra-marital relationship, yet neither is confident to broach the subject, which reminds me of an article that discussed men faking orgasms – and the frightening scenario of both parties locked in an awkward sexual performance for the others’ perceived benefit:
“It’s funny to think that sometimes it ends up that the girl fakes it just so the guy can fake it. What a perfect representation of performative sex. Both partners are so strictly adhering to an expected script that they become outside observers to their own sexual encounter. Or, sometimes, it’s less an issue of performance and more an attempt to avoid one’s own, or one’s partner’s, embarrassment.”
‘So strictly adhering to an expected script that they become outside observers, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment’ – is there any better summary of what it must feel like in a dissatisfying marriage?

Image by I.M. Photo


[1] This might be why anarchists turned up in much of my earlier writing, while cuckoldry featured in quite a few of my more recent novellas and screenplays.

[2] Playing around with an ‘infidelity calculator’ - technically called a ‘potential for cheating index’ - I plugged in my partners’ values in order to determine the supposed liklihood of her being ‘unfaithful’. She weighed in at 51 - a “moderate risk” of cheating - and amusingly, I'm part of the above-average risk group, at 60%.

[3] Note here that I'm not talking about polygamy, which an adviser to the Canadian government has claimed would increase crime, lower the marriage age for women, further gender inequalities, and lead men to invest less in their existing family.