Polyamory’s dilemma

Studies show that lay-people have long believed that monogamous relationships are more trusting, committed, passionate, and sexually satisfying. Monogamy, lay-people believe, is also less likely to involve jealousy. A recent study conducted by Dr. Conley from the University of Michigan showed, however, that the two groups–participants in monogamous and consensual non-monogamous relationships–reported similar degrees of satisfaction, commitment, and passionate love. Moreover, non-monogamous participants reported more trust and less jealousy in their relationships.

Reading Dr. Conley’s article, I was almost ready to jump off the sofa, perhaps even jump on the sofa, in an enthusiastic “A ha” moment. I wanted to run out the door and spread the news. I wanted to come up with an almost strong recommendation for you all–residents of Marquette and the Upper Peninsula, and people in general, wherever you are–to quickly abandon monogamy.

Then I started thinking. I came up with two main arguments against the conclusions of Dr. Conley’s study. First, the participants in the study were either undergraduate students of psychology, or volunteers recruited through Craigslist. I assumed that undergraduate psychology students and those using Craigslist–searching for a gently used coffee table, or raving about a loophole in the Ice Bucket Challenge in the ‘Rants and Raves’ section–may not be the best sample of the entire population.

Once the second argument formed in my mind, I just had to contact Dr. Conley herself. “Your study,” I wrote to her in an e-mail, “seems to provide a snapshot in time,” but, I asked, is there any study that examines the long-term satisfaction/happiness in the relationships of couples in a consensual non-monogamous relationship? And what effect does non-monogamous relationships have on measures such as financial stability of the family as a unit, and on the ability of such families to raise happy, successful children?

Dr. Conley was kind. She e-mailed me back the next morning. “There are as of yet, no longitudinal studies of polyamorous/CNM [consensual non-monogamous] relationships. There is very little interest in funding this topic, although I personally find it fascinating!”

Lacking any scientific research comparing the long-term effects of monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, we are left with only anecdotal evidence in the form of stories told by individuals and couples. In her letter, Dr. Conley referred me to her colleague, Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist whose approach was different than that of Dr. Conley’s. In her book Stories from the Polycule, she did not seek to compare individuals in monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. Instead, she sought to document the experiences of polyamorists. She asked polyamorists to tell her their life stories. The book is an anthology–a collection of such stories.

In an interview by Thorntree Press published on YouTube, Sheff admitted that it was hard for her to track down past polyamorists whose relationships ended painfully, but she did compile enough stories to paint a vivid picture of polyamorous relationships. Several stories describe the formation of polyamorous relationships: some chose polyamory intentionally, others just fell into it, finding themselves in love with more than one person. These individuals then had to add an additional “puzzle-piece” person into their primary existing relationship. The extra piece, Sheff says, doesn’t always fit in.

Other stories in Sheff’s book shed light on how a poly-family functions, as in “what it is like to come back home to more than one partner?” Another section in the book tells the stories of kids in poly-families, yet another section describes the very long-term polyamory relationships. In the end, Sheff says, some polyamory relationships continue to exist for a long period of time, sometimes taking the form of non-romantic, non-sexual relationships.

Like in stories about monogamous relationships, the end isn’t always happy. Sheff doesn’t hesitate to tell her own Full Circle story: her initial attempt at polyamory, she tells the interviewer, was “ill-fated, poorly-conceived, badly-executed, and all-around disastrous–it turned out badly.” Later, she had fallen in love and married the woman who is still her wife. When the opportunity presented itself and she met yet another lovable woman, Sheff considered polyamory again, but her partner expressed concerns. Having experienced painful polyamorous relationship in the past, Sheff decided she didn’t want to be in a relationship with two people who didn’t want to share her. She decided not to pursue a romantic relationship with the other woman. And later, she found herself happy with the stability of her monogamous marriage.

Can we learn anything from the stories others–whether in monogamous, or non-monogamous relationships–tell us? Can the results of even the best of studies inform us as to which type of relationship to pursue? Isn’t it simpler to abandon relationships altogether, choose sologamy, and marry yourself? I shall return.

Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital. He sees patients in Laurium, Houghton and L’Anse. Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.