In studying the alternative lifestyles and communities of the US in the past 200-odd years, there has been an attempt to judge whether or not these communities are good. That’s fine in the context of a rigid social system or system of morality against which it present a background or framework.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, the United States of 2009 simply doesn’t have a single, unified code by which to judge the goodness or badness of a lifestyle. Oh, we agree that child molestation is wrong and revile the more excessive behaviors of a Warren Jeffs of the FLDS church, or a David Koresh. But for things less extreme than rape and murder, the line between “good” and “bad” becomes far more fuzzy.
Social traditionalists might bemoan the fuzzy line, cry “declining family values” or even “lack of faith in God”. This is a difficult point of view for a thoughtful student of social history to take seriously. Even as recently as the 1950s, the Leave it to Beaver snapshot of a household wasn’t exactly the real world that people were living. The author’s own grandfather worked three jobs during that time-period to support a family of six, and when the children were in school, his wife also went to work to be able to pay the expanded expenses of a household with four pre-teen and teenagers.
If people can idealize and romanticize times they actually lived through, how much easier it is to romanticize times of more than a century ago. We remember the family solidarity of Little House on the Prairie, but fail to internalize the desperate poverty of a family that could only afford two dresses for each child, that counted on fish from a creek three times a day to get through a summer, and a rearing that caused one of the children to feel she must go to work to pay her parents back for the expense of rearing her.
In the face of this romanticism, it is easy to cry “Traditional Family Values!” when confronted with a new problem of living such as Polyamory. However, that sort of answer, when faced with the realities of our changing society and its mores is worse than useless, as Traditional Family Values hearken back to an age that never actually existed. If it didn’t exist and work then, how could it be possible to make it exist and work now?
Polyamory is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary thus:
The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.
This definition isn’t entirely accepted by everyone in the polyamory community, but as a writer in the polyamory community herself, the author personally considers it good enough to be going on with.
Polyamory, then, can just be considered an open alternative to sexual exclusivity. This is practiced in many ways by different people. Many married couples who are polyamorous might have their marriage, household, dog, kids and white picket fence, but also engage in romantic/sexual relationships outside of the marriage relationships. Others take it in a different direction – eschewing pair bonding and forming non-formal relationships. Yet others form group marriage. This relationship is often called a PolyFamily, and is probably the least common form of polyamorous relationship practiced.
So, does it work?
One could answer “yes and no”, but it would hardly be conclusive. Sometimes not. Margaret Hollenbach (Hollenbach) did not find her life in the Family in New Mexico very workable. Hollenbach had to be just about the classical “hippie”. College kid, white, from a relatively well-to-do background though with divorced parents – somewhat less common in the late 1960s and early 1970s than now. She joined the Family in Taos, New Mexico and found that the lifestyle and therapy sessions reminiscent of the brainwashing techniques used by the Chinese government (Hollenbach 166). She also comments that her own experience did not include coercion in the classical sense. One was free to get up and walk away and there were no physical attempts at restraint.
However, one of the serious problems with any long-term live-in relationship that may or may not be workable is the fact that while one might not be physically restrained from leaving if it becomes unpleasant, unworkable or difficult, there are matters of social isolation, inertia and the simple financial ties anyone has in a household that one must contend with. Historically, some communes, in a deep desire not to be coercive when it came to group membership have had a way to pay out members that wished to leave so that they would not feel financially tied to a group that they did not want to be with. The Shakers would allow a member who left to take any property that he had brought with him upon joining away, or give a monetary allowance to those who joined empty-handed. Few modern communes, poly or otherwise, have had such a forward-thinking view.
There is also the social isolation. If one lives in a group where the internal culture is “different”, there is an increased tendency towards Groupthink. Groupthink is generally characterized by premature concurrence seeking – high conformity pressures, self-censorship of dissenting ideas, mindguards and the maintenance of the image of unanimity (Forsyth 370). The ideals of marriage say that the happy, effective couple presents a united front. However good or bad this idea is, it becomes problematic in a group marriage situation.
At first, it might not seem so. That united front can be useful. Imagine being a car salesman and negotiating a loan among four people who can play off of each other and come together with the precision of watch gears while you have to answer each and every one of them all by yourself. To be a member of such an effective team can be pretty heady.
But there’s a dark side. That groupthink? It’s very real. In the interests of the unified front, one can suppress one’s own dissenting opinions, find oneself weary of discussion and abdicate opinion in the interests of quiet. This is an example of something that doesn’t work for long.
The social isolation is often a problem as well. If one lives in a group marriage or other alternative relationship, one often finds that the internal frame of reference of the group is the one that’s turned to for a “reality check”. Choosing the left-hand path means that one occasional faces outside disapproval. The “us against them” view that one can develop within such a context, while entirely human and natural, can be counter-productive for the individual health of individual members of a group.
In observing group relationships that work out well, a primary characteristic of any of them seems to hinge around personal privacy and, oddly enough, a high value placed on individuality. “The two (or three or four) shall become one” does not wear well in a polyamorous situation. The relationship and personal dynamic must be very different for it to work.
The Oneida Community had an inkling of this when it built its group home. Each adult member had his own small room. While they professed to value the group over anything, and diaries of the time talk of struggles with selfishness (Herrick 62), there was an understanding that a certain level of personal privacy and personal choice are very necessary to the happiness of a person within a group. Within the Oneida Community, there were people with varying interests and these interests were encouraged. Children were sent off to school away from the O.C., people often made trips to visit the “Outside”, as they called it, and there was a tacit understanding that one would choose for oneself how much to participate in the “social life” of the Community. While it ultimately dissolved, keep in mind that the Oneida Community lasted for thirty years – a Methuselah among communes.
Modern marriage counselors now talk about this more and more often. In modern mental health literature, there is a strong theme of taking responsibility for one’s own needs instead of depending on another to meet them. This isn’t to say that we must blow off others’ needs and desires, nor that we have no responsibility to the people with whom we’ve formed relationships.
Each human being has freedom of choice over his or her own actions; all of us are accountable for our choices and their consequences. No other person can be responsible for the feelings that result from our choices, be they happy or sad. (Paul and Paul 212).
Recognition of this individual responsibility seems to be the key to happy interpersonal relationships of all sorts. While it might seem that it means that one could callously assert that if someone else is unhappy in the face of what’s going on that it’s his own problem, that extreme isn’t quite the way accepting personal responsibility for one’s own feelings and actions work. While it’s impossible actually to be responsible for another’s feelings, it’s also impossible to have a good relationship without caring about the other’s feelings as well. It’s an important balance.
Also required for good balance is the “what’s in it for me?” factor. There has to be some incentive for people to devote time/energy/money to almost anything, and they have to feel like they’re getting a good trade out of it. A housewife, putting in long hours to create a beautiful and comfortable home, might be compensated by a spouse with more free time to earn a higher salary. That spouse might be glad to have a well-run home and be relieved of housekeeping responsibilities. While a very “traditional” view, it’s one that works out in practice as well. In communal situations larger than a family, a credit system where work means something tangible tends to work out better than an “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” situation. The founder of Twin Oaks in Louisa, VA commented, “Nowadays, I think you need some personal incentive to put out your best in the work scene.” (Kuhlmann 126)
The poly families that work out the best do seem to be families where there is a high regard for individualism and privacy, as well as a strong vested interest in each member of the group finding the relationship a fulfilling, perhaps even profitable, one.
Forsyth, Donelson R. Group Dynamics. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005.
Herrick, Tirzah Miller. Desire and Duty at Oneida : Tirzah Miller’s Intimate Memoir. Ed. Robert S. Fogarty. New York: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Hollenbach, Margarget. Lost and Found : My Life in a Group Marriage Commune. New York: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.
Kuhlmann, Hilke. Living Walden Two : B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities. New York: Univeristy of Illinois Press, 2005.
Paul, Jordan and Margaret Paul. Do I Have to Give up Me to Be Loved by You? Grand Rapids: Hazelden & Educational Services, 2002.
 They used a form of Gestalt therapy as a means of social cohesion.
 This actually happened in my own quad. One of the former members still owns and drives that car!
 There are few things better for group cohesion than a common “enemy”, as history has proven more than once.
 The expression “social life” in the Oneida Community was a euphemism for sexual relationships.
 When I worked full time, while I did do housework at home, having a housewife there for primary childcare duties was a great boon to my ability to focus on my job!