This is a collection of insights derived from a number of clients who have examined the cost/benefit of polyamory in their lives. These clients had a common desire to both fill a physical need for sexual release and an emotional need for connection. Yes, even the Philistines. (Polyamory is choosing to have many sexual partners rather than one, as in monogamy. This article primarily applies to having many casual partners or pursuing serious open relationships. Some points do apply to polygamy also.)
For understanding how personal needs drive desires, I’ll reference Tony Robbins’ “Six Human Needs” for context: Variety, Consistency, Significance, Growth, Contribution, and Connection. Robbins posits that one or two of these needs dominates the others. Note “Connection” is one of the needs listed. While we want relationship, our driving needs – the more powerful desires fueling decisions – often differ from the core need of connection. Polyamory is therefore raised as a way to:
- Achieve experiential variety;
- Ensure consistent action;
- Feel greater significance;
- Improve (grow) sexual responsiveness or personal capacity;
- Contribute to others’ needs;
- Maintain constant connection with someone as partners phase in and out.
Remember that a partner can fill these six needs but only in their area of interaction. For example, we may feel significant with a partner, but they can’t satisfy the need to feel significant in our work nor make us feel so significant that our purpose becomes irrelevant. We may likewise feel fulfilled by contributing to our partner’s needs, but that can’t satisfy our full need to contribute. We need to contribute to a significant other, family, kids, community, and work, or some combination thereof, or our contribution becomes pathological, stultified, and/or regressive because character must grow and expands. Even a dominant need for connection must be satisfied by relationships with a lover, friends, and family. The point here is that a lover alone cannot fully satisfy fill a single need beyond their role as partner/lover/spouse etc. We must therefore allow our relationships to provide the good things they can and not demand they meet the totality of our other needs.
Needs in Polyamorous Action
Interest in polyamory often comes from a dominant need for Variety. I concede that it serves this need well in the short term, but with a number of long term caveats. This might make practicing the Kama Sutra a better way to experience variety.
The first caveat is expense. Maintaining and prospecting relationships costs time, energy, and money. This places individuals in cycles of emotional highs and lows that cause apathy, obscure good partners, and contribute to psychological degeneration characterized by noncommittal behavior, exploitation of others, emotional volatility, narcissism, and deception. Financial resources are lost through time spent in the pre-sex, dating process, money for activities, and doctor bills for well, you know. Restraining orders. Pregnancies. Disease.
The second caveat is damage to group norms. Angelenos are acutely aware of how a desire for variety harms dating culture by overpromising, ghosting, boasting, and acting in a flighty, noncommittal, and exploitative manner. This causes others to be distrustful and punitive, even towards good and well meaning individuals. We therefore misinterpret busyness as avoidance, consideration as sarcasm, interest as neediness, and love as manipulation.
Individuals who attempt to practice polyamory for Consistent sex must examine the data – statistically, committed monogamous relationships are more sexually active. Choosing a single relationship and advising others to do the same also increases the group’s probability of consistent intimacy. This highlights an ethical problem with polyamory and widespread casual sex (at least in societies where prostitution is illegal) – it reduces the group’s overall frequency of intercourse and produces instability by unique mechanisms. It increases intercourse for hierarchically dominant men while reducing their emotional and relational quality. It likewise decreases subdominant male success rates and increases sadistic, violent responses towards women. It even encourages female sociopathy, whereby women become accustomed to deceptive behaviors which are unnecessary in a committed relationship.
Significance and Hierarchy
Clients often want polyamorous relationships because they lose lovers to richer, better looking, more confident, or physically fit partners and they want to feel Significant by having multiple partners. This inevitably fails. They feel overwhelmingly diminished when partners reveal other sexual experiences or dump them, which happens more frequently in proportion to the number of partners. If the relationship lasts more than a month, a break damages the sense of personal significance and provides negative return on the experience, unless the partner is perceived as low value, but this undermines self worth in a different way. Thus polyamory as a means to gain significance is a short term game with long term failure. The lesson learned from individuals driven to be significant is that stable, monogamous relationships with someone they admire is the best option to meet the need for significance. The more partners they have, the higher the probability of damaging their significance.
Some clients approach polyamory as a means of Growth. They want to improve their social skills, confidence in bed, assertiveness, or orgasmic potential. None of these skills require polyamory to improve. More growth occurs in stable committed relationships because they have more time to practice and a psychologically safe environment in which to engage their body and their hidden desires. They can even practice seducing their partner if they want to be more sexy. There is no skill which cannot be gained. Meanwhile, dating provides the necessary means to improve social skills and assertiveness with stranger, without requiring copulation. A caveat is also behavioral degeneration – at some point in practice, individuals pursuing polyamory damage their growth as negative experiences or failures increase. They become aggressive, judgmental, or neurotic, much like individuals pursuing variety.
Contribution to Other’s Needs
Individuals who practice polyamory by placing a high value on Contributing to the needs of others often do so at their own expense, behaving in a psychologically impaired manner commensurate with dependency disorders. They fail to set boundaries, are exploited, and cause fights between partners. They have higher stress levels and may become ill from cortisol overproduction. Self denial often causes substance abuse in these individuals. The need to contribute often puts them in compromising situations and results in failure to achieve their own goals.
Connection & Love
In my experience, individuals with a strong drive for Connection (or love) rarely pursue polyamory. The exception occurs when they believe they are incapable of meeting their connection needs otherwise, whether due to internal psychological factors, and/or external monetary situations, living situations, or abuse. For these individuals, coaching (or therapy for trauma) is an imperative. They benefit from identifying their needs and realistic solutions to meet their need for connected intimacy in a psychologically unified, healthy manner.
Impact & Success
My clients often have different values and morals. As I watch them develop, I become more and more convinced that polyamory (or intentional pursuit of many casual partners) is a shortcut which becomes a long detour, having poor long term outcomes. It reduces meaningful experience, encourages objectification, impedes deeper psychological development, defies cultural norms, and causes harm to the group. The lack of cultural acceptance (and biologically motivated psychological underpinnings) also prevents most individuals in our society from intentionally accepting or pursuing a partner who immediately asserts polyamorous goals. Most people defer to hoping for a potential serious partner. Few people are willing to suffer rejection of this hope by making polyamorous intentions dominant.
In my coaching and counseling experience, the few polyamorous couples which survive are comprised of individuals from a cultural background which views sex as a need separate from commitment. They also have strong personality compatibility as well as mutual interests and goals which solidify their commitment. Even then the practice is often a response based on or intended to mitigate overwhelming isolation or trauma in some form.While mature practitioners of polyamory behave better, few individuals know themselves well enough to act forthrightly. Cue Arrested Development:
Tobias: You know, Lindsay, as a therapist I have advised a number of couples to explore an open relationship where the couple remains emotionally committed but free to explore extramarital encounters.
Lindsay: Well, did it work for those people?
Tobias: No, it never does. I mean, these people somehow delude themselves into thinking it might…
…but it might work for us!
Even for mature, relationally-stable practitioners, extra relational experiences often cause individuals to grow apart. This is not to assert polyamory cannot work but that it is the exception to a rule that most polyamorous relationships suffer instability which jeopardizes long term or permanent success.
For those interested in polyamory, examine personal needs and limiting beliefs. Then remember that outcomes are better when seeking a long term partner, even if we fail along the way. We will learn what we’re looking for and how to have a relationship. We will learn to respond to attraction, common goals, personality compatibility, and compatible needs. For individuals currently dating, polyamory is a good way to stall individual development or harm future goals. Instead,