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Polyamory and friendship

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I have several half-written posts about polyamory and what it means to me, but those aren't likely to be in postable shape anytime soon.

So I'm gonna try a smaller and more specifically focused one for now.

I was thinking about poly stuff recently, and it occurred to me that the analogy with friendship is really a pretty powerful one. I've heard it used, and used it myself, plenty of times, but I think usually just in passing.

So here's one way to explain polyamory (or at least some forms of it) to people unfamiliar with the concept:

Imagine thinking of romantic and sexual relationships as being as non-exclusive as friendships.

Most people think it's pretty reasonable to have more than one friend. Poly people think it's reasonable to have more than one sexual and/or romantic partner.

Some people have one very close best friend, and various other less-close friends. Some poly people have one primary partner, and various other secondary or tertiary partners.

Some of your friends may be friends with each other; others may not even know each other. Some of a poly person's partners may be partners with each other; others may not even know each other.

It's nice when all of your friends get along, but some of them may just not like each other. Same is true of a poly person's partners.

“How does a poly person have time for all their partners? I like the idea, but it sounds like a lot of work!” Well, how does a monogamous person have time for all their friends? Isn't keeping up with your friends a lot of work?

“Don't you get jealous when your partner goes off to be with someone else?” Well, sure, sometimes; don't you get jealous when your friends go off to do something fun that you're not invited to?

“Aren't you cheating on your partner by being with someone else?” Well, would you say you're cheating on your best friend by hanging out with another friend? No? That's because you and your best friend haven't made an agreement not to have any other friends. Just like my partners and I haven't made an agreement not to have any other partners. (If we did have such an agreement, then yes, breaking that agreement would be cheating.)

“So what you're saying is, you can't commit to a relationship.” Well, you can be committed to more than one friendship at a time, no?

People sometimes engage in different activities with different friends; they don't expect their friend who loves movies to necessarily also satisfy their need for a friend who's a knitting aficionado, or a friend who's an expert target shooter. (Though some friends may be all three.) Poly people sometimes rely on different partners to fulfill different needs or desires.

“Can you be in the same room with your partner's partner without having a fistfight?” Well, can you be in the same room with a friend-of-a-friend without having a fistfight? (The answer may be no for a specific person, especially if you're jealous of the time your friend spends with this other friend (see above), but probably in most cases you can cope with interacting with a friend-of-a-friend, and you may even like them.)

Some friendships last a lifetime; others end. The same is true of poly relationships. (And monogamous relationships, of course.)

“You're seeing multiple people? So that means none of those relationships are serious, right?” Well, are any of your multiple friendships serious/close friendships?

Some people share housing with one or more friends; others don't. Some poly people share housing with one or more partners; others don't.

The analogy is not, of course, perfect; for example, it's rare (though not unheard-of) for people to raise kids with one or more friends. But I think thinking about polyamory in these terms might make some aspects of it make more sense to some monogamous people.

Note: I absolutely am not saying that polyamory is nothing other than friendship (I think sex and romance are distinct from friendship for most people), and I'm absolutely not saying “If you have multiple friends, then you should be poly.” I'm just saying that if polyamory sounds weird and alien to you, it might start to sound more reasonable (at least as an option for other people) if you look at it through this lens.

Then again, it might not; no analogy fits everyone's head. Just a thought.

(Written in May 2012 but never posted 'til now.)

(See also Facebook thread for this post.)

1 Comment

I like this analogy a lot!


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