It’s quite possible to love more than one person at a time
One of the misconceptions about polyamory that I find the most frustrating is the persistent belief that this relationship style is at heart an inability to commit to any one person. This is a belief rooted in the notion that since you can really only love one person at a time, any intimate involvement with more than one person must be superficial and focused solely on the sexual component.
First of all, I’d posit that polyamory is actually the opposite of a fear of commitment and in fact is the ability to commit to more than one person at a time, on a variety of levels. Not every committed relationship has to look exactly the same and have all the same components in order to be a true commitment. For example, I live with one of my life partners and don’t even see the other one in person anymore since we now live far apart. We’re still in love and we’re still committed to each other.
Secondly, nearly everyone has had the experience of loving more than one person at a time — perhaps not in a romantic context, but many people have already experienced that too. Only being able to love one person at a time is a pervasive narrative within a monogamy-oriented culture, but it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Let’s unpack this:
Just because I have a lifetime commitment to two different men, it doesn’t mean that my relationships with them are exactly the same. And that’s OK. Polyamory is by definition, a variety of intimate connections that may (or may not) look and feel very different from each other. I know a woman who lives with two men. They have two master bedrooms and she goes back and forth between them, having the equivalent of two husbands. And I’m going to bet, based on what I know about polyamory that even though there is a lot of overt parity in each relationship, they still fulfill slightly different functions in her life. They may each be husband equivalents but it’s still two different relationships with their own flavor to each one.
My relationship with the partner that I live with is very different than the one that I don’t, but it doesn’t change the nature of our commitment to each other or the love that I share with each man. I can love both of them, plus my girlfriend because love is not a pie. Having love for one person doesn’t mean there is less for someone else, just like loving one child doesn’t mean that you love any subsequent children less fully. It’s only framed as being an exclusive thing with the context of a monogamous romantic connection but it’s an artificial social construct.
And even within this constructed narrative, how many stories have you read or movies have you seen where one of the characters loves more than one person? It’s a very common theme because it happens all the time. In a monogamy-oriented world, the character is going to have to make a choice about which relationship to pursue, which makes for good tension in the plot. They have to decide which love connection is going to fulfill more of their needs and wants since they are only allowed one.
But as sex columnist Dan Savage has pointed out, our culture isn’t so much committed to monogamy (a long-lasting love relationship with one person) as we are committed to only being involved with one person at a time, which is actually a different thing. Most people date one person at a time until they find someone that they want to “settle down with.” They stay with that person until it doesn’t work anymore, something that happens to roughly 50% of marriages, and then move on to the next person in something which is perhaps more aptly termed serial monogamy. The commitment isn’t to that one person, it’s to only one person at a time.
And in many, many of those cases, the partners who are splitting up do still love each other, but they just don’t feel that they can stay together as a couple any longer. Well, you might say, “I still love my ex-wife, but not in the same way that I love my current wife.” Exactly, now you understand what I’m trying to say. Love doesn’t have to look or feel exactly the same in all relationships in order for it to still be love.
“But there’s only one person that I want to live with or have children with,” someone might say. That may be true, but it doesn’t automatically make you incapable of loving someone else at the same time even if you don’t want those same things from a relationship with them. We’ve artificially constructed it so that love and exclusivity go hand in hand, and that’s certainly OK to do if you so choose, but it is a social construct. That means it’s not inherently universal.
Pair bonding is an ancient practice that serves social needs beyond that of just the couple involved. “Indeed, marriage as an elementary principle of human kinship systems has long been considered a central aspect of between-group alliances. The exchange of mates among kin groups (reciprocal exogamy) and accompanying networks of economic exchange (e.g., brideservice and brideprice) are widespread and arguably create the foundation of human social organization.” Source
But at the same time, sexual exclusivity has only become a common aspect of pair bonding in the last 6–9 thousand years. Until the advent of patriarchy, no-one particularly cared about paternity because everyone in the tribe took care of each other, and women were not socially controlled enough to be able to necessarily know for certain who the father of any of her children was. Lineage simply went through the mother as a matter of practicality.
In recent years, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and palaeoanthropologists have confirmed this, citing genetic and other evidence that early human kinship was centered around a matrilineal clan. You might not love every single person that you have sex with, but there’s also no reason that you couldn’t have more than one loving connection. A culture centered around interdependent female relationships is quite different than one centered around male control of women. “Biological anthropologists are now widely agreed that cooperative childcare was a development crucial in making possible the evolution of the unusually large human brain and characteristically human psychology.”
If one lives in a culture that shares everything as a survival strategy and has few personal possessions or notions about individuality, one where mothers and grandmothers are central, it’s a very different mindset than the one we have today in the Western world.
As Saint Louis University associate professor of anthropology Katherine C. MacKinnon told me, “We had predators. And we didn’t have claws or long, sharp teeth. But we had each other. Social cooperation, including cooperative breeding, was a social and reproductive strategy that served us well.”
Martin, Wednesday. Untrue (p. 91). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle
Aside from the proprietary aspects of patriarchal marriage, where historically the man literally owned the woman, as well as her reproductive capabilities, this social structure is also more broadly based in a dominance hierarchy that involves other things than just the power imbalance between men and women. A patriarchal system was also the first time that gross wealth disparity and social classes came into existence and social stratification of various kinds became a fundamental aspect of the culture.
This is a zero-sum model. Exclusivity, possessiveness, and related expectations about how romantic relationships ought to look comes from this particular social system, which highlights this aspect. If I want to win, that requires that somebody else has to lose. If I have your love, that means that it’s not available to anyone else — at least in this model. It’s absolutely fine to choose social, sexual, and romantic exclusivity, but it should be a choice and not a default that is assumed to be the only option.
It is entirely possible to love more than one romantic partner at a time if you open yourself up to that relationship style and to love them in a deep and committed way. It really shouldn’t be so difficult to understand this, and it wouldn’t be except for the social programming that insists that it’s not possible. In truth, it’s simply discouraged within that paradigm, which is only one possibility, even if it is the dominant one today — something that wasn’t always the case. But even within a monogamous construct, people often love more than one person, both inside and outside of romantic relationships. We do it all the time. It’s just not recognized or honored right now.
During medieval times, courtly love was a common thing, in which a knight and married woman had an emotional relationship, that was never consummated physically (at least in theory). It was considered to be both ennobling and chivalrous to openly engage in this type of passionate relationship which took place in addition to conventional marriage. Although most of these marriages weren’t love matches to start with, the woman was presumed to grow to love her husband anyhow, which did not prevent her from also loving her knight and expressing it in a different way.
Love is not inherently about allegiance, or loyalty, or exclusivity, and when you don’t treat it as if it is, there is plenty to go around. Polyamory is not an inability to commit, it’s simply a different way of engaging in romantic connection — one that doesn’t come out of a patriarchal paradigm and it’s just as valid, even if it’s not as common.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.
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