Moving the Goalpost on Polyamorous Success
A few weeks ago Miri from Brute Reason on Freethought Blogs wrote a post for The Friendly Atheist called Debunking Four Myths about Polyamory. It was also cross posted to her blog and her Facebook page. The post itself was fine, but I found myself reading through the comments on The Friendly Atheist site and dwelling on a criticism of polyamory that I see crop up fairly often.
The basic complaint is “Polyamory doesn’t work, because lots of poly relationships fail.” Variants include “Relationships with more than two people are inherently unstable” and “Polyamory is too complicated to last in the long run.”
When poly people point out the longevity of many of their relationships, the goalpost is just moved. On the Atlantic article Multiple Lovers, Without Jealousy a comment states: “I’ve been in a non-monogamous relationship for six years, my partner and the partners partner are approaching ten. Funnily enough I know of very few monogamous relationships in my own age cathegory (sic) which have lasted so long. But since you know this to be true in your gut it doesn’t matter what I say since I am either lying or am an exception.” The response to this is quite direct: “This will kick you off your high horse,but six years is NOTHING. Just because YOU do not personally know longer lasting mono relationships does not mean they don’t exist. I am friends with a couple who have been married 35 years,were high school sweethearts and still act like teenagers. My sister and her husband have been together over 7 years and very happy. My brother has been married to his high school sweetheart happily for 20 years.”
No matter how long poly relationships last, people will always claim their inherent instability. For some reason longevity is considered “success” for relationships in our culture (a rubric I consider deeply misguided) but the longer people have healthy and happy (or just long) poly relationships those who object will always just bring out examples of longer monogamous relationships. Numbers of long term poly families/groups/couples/singles will never be a good example of our stability either, simply because there are fewer of us. For every person who knows 5 long term poly families there will always be a greater number of long term monogamous couples people can point to to “prove” that monogamous couples are more stable or more successful.
Dan Savage is guilty of this too. He has famously said (many many many times) that he has attended a lot of poly weddings but never a 6 year anniversary. This is how he attempts to demonstrate the inherent dysfunction of poly households. It’s incredibly frustrating to hear the man often seen as the poster child of marriage equality degrade the family structures of others.
It gets worse when you consider what people call a successful poly relationship. Generally they are only willing to consider married primary couples who have had other partners but remained in a married primary relationship (especially a heterosexual one) for many years. Poly families in which relationships have changed, or in which there is no primary relationship, or in which the primary relationship is not one in which the people are married don’t count.
The goalpost will always be moved on us. For as long as people are uncomfortable with poly relationships they will demand that we prove our “stability” and “success” by having longer and longer relationships that fulfill an increasingly narrowly defined structure. When people see triads that have existed for 6 years they will demand 10, then 20, then 50. When they see that someone in that triad had a few relationships during that 50 years that started and ended the whole ordeal will be considered a failure. When families grow and shrink over time, we will be considered invalid families. When solo poly folks are happily dating for years without “settling down” or getting married they will be held up as examples of the failure of polyamory. This is unacceptable, and I wish we’d stop participating in the argument.
The definition of success in poly is not our ability to emulate the ideals of traditional relationships. It lies in our choice to structure our lives and relationships in the ways that work best for us as individuals, couples, groups, and families. Success in polyamory lies in having lives and relationships that make everyone stronger, happier, and better people.
Perhaps success in our movement is getting everyone else to see that too.