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.

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  1. Insightful.

    But I think perhaps there’s yet another paradigm to explore here.

    Why consider “success” at all? What is that for? Who is to profit by it?

    Over the years I’ve been monogamous, polyamorous in a triad, polyamorous in multiple triads, and now poly in a sort of loose confederacy.

    Each of those options has had benefits and negatives. I changed over time, as did the people I was involved with.

    To me, the idea of success is almost code for “Here are the things I did which made me happiest,” perhaps followed silently, implicitly by “maybe you should do these things to be happy too.”

    To be sure, there are certainly bad behaviors, red flag traits, and poorly thought out actions. But the very idea that there’s one or more success paradigms for a MOVEMENT, for a social cohort, strikes me as vapid.

    There are as many ways to be polyamorous as there are people BEING poly. What makes one person deliriously happy might be nothing to someone else.

    We’re all individuals, who have an individual sense of what makes us happy.

    Speaking for myself on this matter, I don’t require the validation of other people for my relationships to have meaning and value in my life.

    If a monogamous person judges me poorly for being poly, the only thing they’ve done is self-selected themselves for a special group I like to call “people I’m not inviting over for dinner.”

    • I don’t mind the term “success” in this case but I can see why it might rub you the wrong way. I just want to redefine what success in relationship(s) means. It sounds like we completely agree other than that word thought!

  2. (Thinking as I type, here) In some ways I think it’s almost easier to be a poly person because we don’t have the ‘traditional’ measures of what society uses to deem a relationship successful, at least legally: we can’t marry multiple people, it’s very difficult (but not impossible!) to have a legally-bound multi-parent household, etc. But that’s also the harder part, because you have to, you know. Use your heart and brain to determine if you think it’s working or not. As you say– “The definition of success in poly is not our ability to emulate the ideals of traditional relationships”– I agree wholeheartedly.

    (Additionally, I always tell people: you know how many quietly unhappily married people I know? A LOT. But upon first glance, people might consider their relationships a success because they’ve ticked a box they’re expected to. I think that really ALL relationships could use more thought from people in terms of deciding whether they’re successful or not).

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