Debunking Four Myths About Polyamory

I just went through a frankly hellish transition of ending my Midwest trip, saying goodbye to my family yet again, coming back to New York, and moving into my new apartment in Brooklyn. Predictably, all this led to an inordinate amount of emotional turmoil, but I somehow managed to write this piece for Friendly Atheist about some polyamory tropes.

Polyamory — the practice of having multiple sexual/romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved — is currently going through that stage that all “alternative” lifestyle practices must go through: the one where journalists discover their existence and have a field day.

Luckily for them, more and more people are willing to openly talk about their open relationships as the stigma of being non-monogamous diminishes. Journalist Olga Khazan interviewed quite a few of them in this article for The Atlantic. While the article is well-researched, balanced, and accurate overall, it (probably unintentionally) repeats and propagates a few tropes about polyamory that aren’t always accurate.

Note that I said “not always”; tropes are tropes for a reason. There are plenty of people whose polyamorous lives resemble them, and I mean it when I say that there’s nothing wrong with that (as long as it’s all consensual!). But I think that the (presumably non-poly) audience these articles are aimed at might benefit from seeing a wider variety of poly experiences and opinions, so I wanted to add my own voice.

With that in mind, here are a few dominant narratives about polyamory that aren’t always true, but that crop up very often in articles about polyamory.

1. Polyamorous people don’t feel jealousy.

It’s right there in the title, “Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy.” Although the article does later go more in-depth about the ways some poly couples experience and manage jealousy, the headline perpetuates the common myth that polyamory is for a special breed of human (or superhuman, perhaps) who just “doesn’t do” jealousy.

Some do, some don’t. For some poly folks, jealousy is a non-issue. For others, it’s an annoyance to be ignored as much as possible. For still others, it’s a normal, natural emotion to be worked through and shared with one’s partners. There are as many ways to deal with jealousy as there are to be polyamorous — and there are many.

The reason this matters is because framing jealousy as a thing poly people just don’t experience drastically reduces the number of people who think they could ever be poly. I’ve had lots of people say to me, “Oh, polyamory sounds cool, but can’t do it because I’d be jealous.” Of course, dealing with jealousy isn’t worth it for everyone, so I completely respect anyone’s decision to stick with monogamy because of that. But I think it’s important to let people know that you can experience jealousy — even strong and painful jealousy — and still find polyamory fulfilling and completely worthwhile.

Read the rest here.

Debunking Four Myths About Polyamory

8 thoughts on “Debunking Four Myths About Polyamory

  1. 1

    Awesome. Thanks for writing about this! It’s nice to read about someone talking about being poly without bringing in a ton of tropes and falsehoods that they’ve heard from people who don’t even know anyone who is actually a practicing poly person.

  2. 2

    I read both Friendly Atheist and Brute Reason, and I really appreciate you writing that guest post. Some of the readership there annoys me, with half of them congratulating themselves for being so far ahead of religion, and the other half demonstrating that they aren’t *that* far ahead. An audience like that needs writing like yours. (I’m not poly but I figure that what’s good for poly people is good for me.)

  3. 3


    I commented a bit on your post over there under my Disqus handle “Lichtenstein”. Just wanted to say I really appreciate the more nuanced look at Poly, especially as I’m in a poly relationship myself.

    Did you run into any interesting factors surrounding gender balance in your research for this article? I have a more academic curiosity as to what the predominant balance is, as opposed to the person at FA that seems to think that Poly means pairing off, and noone can share, apparently.

  4. 5

    I’m one of those weirdos who doesn’t experience jealousy and often experiences compersion.

    But every partner I’ve ever had is a jealousy-experiencer. I don’t know why I don’t experience jealousy, and I have a suspicion that my depression removes a block that might otherwise interfere with feeling compersion (I don’t think at all that it makes sense to call depression a source of compersion, but we know that a high self-value leads to magnifying the importance of slight harms to oneself in comparison to benefits or harms to others.) To that extent, it’s possible that my early-life experiences of compersion could only have happened in the presence of my depression, and that’s horrible. I wouldn’t want that for anyone.

    I think I’ve learned enough now that depression or no, compersion will be how I continue to experience my partners’ and lovers’ relationship joys. But it’s far from common even in poly persons. That we may handle jealousy-related challenges “better” as the title seems to say is probably very accurate, in a population sense.

    yet we are every bit as diverse in our personalities and relationships as any monogamous community might be.

    it’s so weird, therefore, even for me!, to see us being portrayed as “without jealousy”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t “get” jealousy. I don’t feel it, I don’t know what it’s like. Instinctively it seems to me that it must be a possessory, almost predatory emotion. It’s weird when other people expect me to be jealous in a certain situation. But that’s weird because they’re expecting jealousy from *me*.

    Whatever my personal experience, it’s quite obvious that the jealousy experience – whatever it is – is far more common than the compersion experience, inside poly community as well as outside.

    My only hypothesis for why this comes up is simply that monogamous assume jealousy takes the form an omnipotent, omnimalevolent jealousy, that only fails to destroy poly relationships because of we have the good fortune for it to lack omnipresence. We lucky few, we merry mob of mates, have limned our lintels with hare’s blood and are passed over, for to be touched, however slightly, by this disembodied invader would destroy us utterly.

    How full of despair that view would be. I hope I am wrong, but I simply can’t see how else – or why else – this myth would have gained an audience otherwise.

    for other poly people, it’s less about getting particular needs met than about… well, we fall for multiple people. I can’t necessarily point to certain things that certain partners of mine provide that others can’t. I didn’t start seeing them because they met a previously unmet need. I just met them and we clicked.

    yes, but even if you click with someone, isn’t the dating about meeting a need? If you say no, well then it’s about meeting a desire, but what is a desire compared with a need? When some of us say it’s about “getting particular needs met”, do we really mean “need” in the sense of, “without this one thing, all cellular activity in my body will cease within 36 hours”?

    of course not. These are desires that negatively effect us if not met. But that, too, is a vague definition. Which negative effects count? Do opportunity costs count? At that point, there is no practical distinction between your “just clicked” definition by exemplar and the “getting needs met” language which defines by compassing a territory.

    it clearly **is** about getting needs met, unless you define “need” in a way it was never intended by those of us who talk about “getting our needs met”.

    I’m not saying you have to embrace that language. I am saying it’s more than a bit unfair to act as if those of us who’ve used that language are deranged folk compulsively acting on “needs” which we feel we must meet if we wish to avoid some melodramatically horrible fate.

    The most important reason I insist on polyamory with my partners is that I don’t want to create a relationship in which too much love is a problem. Monogamy insists that it’s possible to have too much love. Love A and B?

    Whoa! Slow down there, Alex!

    I submit that there has never, ever once been a social or inter-society problem that could be solved by having less love in the world. At best you could say that a person who happened to love someone who died horribly and tragically might be, for a certain unspecified amount of time, better off not having loved that person. And what would all of us gain by none of us loving each other to spare a minority some heartbreak?

    yeah, exactly.

    I never, ever want to contribute to the idea that love is a problem.

    Now, loving someone, even loving someone romantically, and having sex with that person are 2 very different things. I don’t have to have a sexual relationship with everyone I love romantically. But I insist on creating a relationship that treats the love as good and valuable, whatever boundaries we choose to create around sexual monogamy.

  5. 6

    Hey Miri, I dig your blog and have always enjoyed the discussions of polyamory, but now the issue has taken on a more personal turn for me.

    I’ve been married for five years, and my wife has recently shared her interest in polyamory with me. We both grew up in Christian patriarchy, so neither of us has much sexual experience outside of the other, even though we were atheists by the time we got married.

    Logically, I don’t have a problem with going poly–we’re atheists with no real reason to commit to monogamy, and we’ve talked about the possibility of other partners in the past–but emotionally it’s another story. I’m worried that she’s going to find a better partner, and I’ll gradually be replaced as the boring, stick-in-the-mud husband. Part of the issue is that she’s way more social and outgoing than I am, and I have far less opportunity to meet people (I work full time from home and am also working on my thesis), so I think I’ll be left behind once she sees how much fun she can have with other, less hermitty people.

    I understand that a lot of these feelings come from a place of insecurity (and, if I’m being honest, probably a little Christian purity culture baggage thrown in for good measure), but that doesn’t make them go away.

    At the same time, the last thing I want to do is stand in the way of my partner’s happiness and try to dictate what she can and can’t do with her body. I just don’t know if being poly will make me happy; I can’t wrap my head around sitting at home while she has a great time with her other partners, let alone feeling compersion. Yet she seems to be excited about the prospect of me dating other people, which makes absolutely no sense to me; it tells me that she doesn’t particularly care what I do, that my actions aren’t important. Am I just being selfish and clingy to feel this way? Is there an easy way to just “get over” it?

    1. 6.1

      I have a lot of thoughts on this! Maybe some of them will be useful to you. Do you mind if I respond in a separate blog post rather than in a comment here, and include the text of your comment? I’ve been meaning to write about some of the issues you’ve brought up for a while, anyway.

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