Polyamory in the 21st Century

I finally read and finished Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory in the 21st Century. I bought it at the beginning of last summer (six months ago!), and while J read it then, I just finally had the time and mental energy to read it over our winter break. J read it again, too, and it has been nice to talk about the book together.

So, my thoughts:

-Anapol’s definition of polyamory is this:

the whole range of lovestyles that arise from an understanding that love cannot be forced to flow or be prevented from flowing in any particular direction. Love, which is allowed to expand, often grows to include a number of people. But to me, polyamory has more to do with an internal attitude of letting love evolve without expectations or demands that it look a particular way than it does with the number of partners involved” (Chapter 1)

At the very end of her book, she mentions that “the definition of polyamory given in chapter 1 includes freely chosen monogamy, which does not involve an ironclad agreement to maintain sexual exclusivity in the diversity of forms that make up polyamory” (Chapter 11 footnote)

She also includes wide and diverse behaviors as polyamory. She includes individuals who are in multi-partner marriages and individuals who have friends with benefits. She includes both intimate relationships in which the sex is focused on spirituality and sacredness and much more casual sexual relationships focused on immediate-gratification. It feels like to me that she is trying to encapsulate all forms of ethical nonmonogamy under a “polyamory” umbrella. I think that casual sexual encounters can definitely be loving, respectful, and caring, but I don’t think that someone engaging in that kind of sex necessarily has the attitude that love should be free-flowing and uninhibited. Likewise, I think someone with a network of friends with benefits may feel caring and loving toward his/her sexual friends, but not necessarily align with poly values. 

To me, polyamory is about having the internal attitude that love in infinite and unconditional, and that one is open to having multiple loving relationships. It does not necessarily mean that one has multiple partners. All of that jives with Anapol’s initial definition. However, I would not, unlike Anapol, necessarily include someone who has casual sexual friendships or someone who chooses monogamy in the same population of people who believe that love is infinite and free-flowing. Also, I think someone could present monogamous in only having one partner, but that person may also be open to more romantic relationships. I think this situation though is not “chosen monogamy” but just presented monogamy, and the person actually identifies more with nonmonogamous or polyamorous values. Someone who chooses monogamy, even if it is freely chosen (critically thought about, compared with other choices, etc), is to me monogamous, not polyamorous (with the exception I suppose of someone who identifies as polyamorous but chooses to be monogamous to a partner because of the partner’s wishes/desires/needs, etc).

-Another common theme throughout the book that sort of irked me is her focus on polyamory being linked to sacred spirituality and Tantric practices. I think I could love multiple people and have meaningful sex with those people without thinking that sex is sacred. I think we attach meanings to sex and to relationships. The sex I have with J feels very meaningful, because the relationship is very meaningful to me and I feel extremely connected to him. The sex I have in an NSA encounter feels much different, and I approach the encounter with caring and respect, but not with a sense of deeper, more intimate meaning. In addition she mentions that “Meaningful sex creates a lifelong bond” (chapter 4). To make such a blanket statement is a bit horrendous to me. I think what makes a lifelong bond is much more than meaningful sex, and meaningful sex is often not even part of creating a lifelong bond with someone (such as parents, siblings, platonic friends, etc). To me, meaningful sex creates a deep bond with someone in a moment in time, and it is the small things building on each other that creates a lifelong bond.

-I really enjoyed her chapter on jealousy. She has some useful concepts for thinking about jealousy, different types, and different ways to manage it. One of the most helpful pieces was this:

“In a monogamous relationship, where choice of a mate is clearly an either/or proposition, jealousy may be a reasonable strategy to keep others away from your partner or to discourage your partner from pursuing others. If your partner falls for someone else, it’s a realistic threat to your continued marital bliss. In polyamory, other lovers are not necessarily a danger, although, as we shall see, they can be. When partners agree that including others would enhance their lives, unyielding jealousy and possessiveness can become obstacles to their ongoing happiness rather than functioning to protect a dyadic bond.” (chapter 6, emphasis added, because that part really resonated with both J and I)

This quote in particluar stuck out to me, because I often experience both negative emotions (sadness, fear, inadequacy) alongside feelings of love and feelings of sexual arousal when I feel “jealous”: 

“…jealousy can feel like a powerful blend of all emotions at once. Love, sexual arousal, fear, and anger may all be blended together into one gigantic ball of energy that threatens to overwhelm the rational mind.” (chapter 6)

She talks about Dr. Ron Mazur’s different types of jealousy: possessive, fear, competition, ego, exclusion/time. The types that I have a lot of experience with is fear jealousy and exclusion/time jealousy. I have also experienced competition jealousy and only once experienced ego jealousy. While competition jealousy is related to feelings of being inadequate in comparison with a partner’s partner and feeling the need to compete with this person, ego jealousy is related to how you will be perceived by others or by a partner’s partner. The different implications for these different feelings is helpful in identifying ways to manage jealousy in these different forms. For example, when I experience fear jealousy I ask for emotional reassurance and support from J. When I experience exclusion/time jealousy I ask for information (about a partner, encounter, date, etc), and I also ask for the two of us to create space to reconnect and be with each other.

One of her strategies is to learn to replace feelings of jealousy with feelings of compersion (learning theory says that it is easier to replace behaviors with new ones instead of simply getting rid of the original). Anapol also has an e book on this specific tool that I am hoping to read soon:

“Instead of focusing on your own discomfort and fears, try putting your attention on your partner. Think of the happiness and pleasure your partner may be experiencing and how your partner’s good feelings will eventually be passed on to you. If this seems impossible, try imagining a situation which is less threatening to you but still touches on your jealousy triggers.” (chapter 6)

This is also important to remember, as J and I ran into this very situation (especially when we first opened up). Her point that jealousy triggers need to be managed as a team and not as a tool of manipulation is also key:

“Trying to have a rational and reasonable conversation with a jealous person is useless at best and very likely counterproductive.

Once the emotional storm has passed or before it has blown in is a far better time to work on identifying your personal jealousy triggers and ask your partner to help find ways to work around them. Many partners will resist taking total responsibility for managing another’s jealousy but are usually happy to negotiate solutions that help each get what they want. The key is to approach managing jealousy as a shared project both can cooperate on instead of pitting one person against another or allowing one partner to use his or her jealousy to manipulate the other or make the other wrong.” (chapter 6)

She discusses systematic desensitization, which is identical (from what I can tell) to Labriola’s phobia model. This includes increasing the discomfort, gently pushing on boundaries, and putting a larger goal into much smaller and more manageable situations. I find this approach really helpful in managing jealousy triggers and creating the relationship with J that we both desire.

-I also really enjoyed her chapter on international contexts for polyamory. It was really interesting to read about how polyamory is framed in different cultures and the different challenges that accompany polyamory relationships when there are different cultural legacies and messages at play. One of the most interesting pieces to me was how in the UK and other European countries polyamory is seen more as an agent of political change, whereas in the US it is often seen as a tool for personal growth. I think this speaks pretty clearly to how interdependence is a common value in the EU, whereas individualism is a strong value in the US.

All in all, I would recommend Anapol’s book for people who already have familiarity with nonmonogamy and polyamory. I would not recommend it for people just starting their open relationship explorations, because I think she presents a very particular viewpoint on what polyamory is and what it includes. Her book needs to be seen in light of all the other ways that people practice nonmonogamy and polyamory, and then I think it is possible for the reader to take away the pieces that resonate.

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