Plenty of people fight for their right to pursue polyamory because they claim that they are by nature, polyamorous. They say it’s an inclination, not a choice. Is it? I'm not about to argue anyone's feelings. They are the expert on themselves. If they feel they are polyamorous, then I believe they are... but not only because their feelings are valid. Also because science has come a long way in explaining how we become who we are.
How we individually express our genes is not predetermined... even if the set we are born with is fixed. The very structure of our brains is inextricably linked to, and altered because of, the influences in our environment. I was born like everyone else, with a blueprint which contained a multitude of different genomes which could be switched on or off by chemicals, according to how I needed best to survive in my particular environment. I could have expressed myself through many different identities... because we are both nature and nurture.
What do the Experts Say?
In 'The Developing Mind', Daniel Siegel describes the mind as a set of mental processes as emerging from neural functions throughout the whole body (not only the brain) and from relational processes. The mind is not a product created in isolation. These relationships include the communication an individual has with all other entities in the world, but especially other people. It's a useful model to understand how we work (if not particularly scientific).
A stressful childhood for example, will alter the expression of our genes propelling us onto a different path than the one we could easily have followed in another environment. Our minds and brains will form differently. An explosion of cortisol and adrenalin experienced due to stress early on in life will entrench certain connections which are more likely make you prone to anxiety and stress later on in life, even if this also depends on a million other variables which might either counteract or enhance it. [Stress disrupts the architecture of the developing brain ~ Harvard Edu]
My childhood was stressful. I know that as a consequence of my formative experiences I become easily stressed if I find myself being controlled (or even if I see others being controlled). Loyalty without proper justification is an anathema to me. I desire freedom. Any hierarchical arrangement causes me anxiety. Drama, coercion and lying are all behaviors which send me screaming to the hills. And because I learned very early that trust could be abused, a whole bunch of other chemicals made sure I didn't trust easily - as a matter of survival. So what could chemicals have to do with polyamory? Maybe everything.
In the famous experiment with the two prairie voles, it's demonstrated that their inclination towards non-monogamy is simply the interaction of two chemicals, oxytocin and vasopressin (which no-one so far apart from the scientists with the needles can control).
The female prairie vole, noted for her cuddling and affectionate grooming tendencies toward her chosen mate, when given an extra dose of oxytocin, increased her affections and stuck even tighter with her partner.
Conversely, when an inhibitor to oxytocin was introduced to her system, she left her partner for others, ceasing to display a preference at all. The oxytocin antagonist prevented pair bonding, though it did not interfere with mating.
In males, vasopressin was found to play the key role in pair-bonding. When additional vasopressin was administered to male prairie voles, their normal behavior of mate guarding was amplified into aggressive snarling behavior to other passerby males. However, when vasopressin antagonists were introduced, the protective male casually stepped aside, allowing other males the opportunity to mate with his partner.
The Two Become One: The Role of Oxytocin and Vasopression
Questions I Asked
These are of course not the only two chemicals we have rushing around our system nor are we prairie voles.
We have a neo-cortex which is also able to modulate our reactions according to the mental models we have built... and continue to build.
- Am I able to pair bond with many people because I have less oxytocin in my system?
- Am I able to love several because I was taught early on through my adoption that I could love more than one mother?
- Am I less likely to be able to 'commit' to just one person, preferring to put my eggs in many baskets because of the loss of my first mother?
- Do I desire freedom because I have an intolerable level of adrenaline pumping round my body when I feel controlled due to maternal narcissism?
Maybe all of the above. So what?
Because my influences are just several of any number of environmental factors which stimulate a variety of chemicals in our brains, changing the way we express our lives. There are a million different combinations which might influence us to prefer loving under a variety of structures. For those who define themselves as polyfidelitous, swingers or even monogamous, they have chosen the relationship structure which suits them best because of the way their brains, minds, genetic needs and prior relationships have created their sense of selves and who they feel they are. We change over the course of our lives. Our brains change. Our mental models change because of our environments. People feel monogamous because - in perhaps that moment at least - they are. Monogamy is for them their most preferred method of survival, of getting their needs met and of making them happy... tomorrow who knows? But it is not my method of survival.
We Make Choices to Survive (and Thrive)
Before I discovered polyamory, I was in a monogamous paradigm. My life consisted of the same old relationship patterns with the same old fear mechanisms I had experienced as a child. I desired freedom from the tight leash I had grown up with, but didn’t know whether I just wanted to escape monogamy or whether I could cope with the complexities that polyamory brought. I believe it was the former (and I am the expert on me).
But being single or entering into many casual relationships didn’t bring me the love I wanted and needed. Cheating involved deception, the very thing that had poisoned my life. And yet I wanted above all things, to have the love and freedom which was so important to me without drama, coercion or deception. Then I found polyamory. The particular brand I aspired to was non-hierarchical polyamory and now even borders on relationship anarchy, the ability to love freely with plenty of trust and without restriction. But realized that this freedom necessarily meant that the relationships I had today, might be gone tomorrow. Freedom to love, also means the freedom to stop loving. That generated even more anxiety. So the truth is that in the beginning I believed in polyamory as a concept, more than whether it actually worked for me - the person I had become. To best survive and get my fundamental needs met, I had to adapt.
So I worked. Damn hard. I worked on my communication skills, on my self-esteem and on my anxiety levels. I worked to eradicate fears, to trust more in life and my ability to cope, come what may. Take responsibility for my life. I sought out partners who had done some personal growth and who weren't afraid of doing a whole lot more. I didn't want the drama of people who refused to grow. I can say without question that I actively chose to pursue polyamory and for many reasons continue to choose it every day.
It has helped transform me from a fearful, anxious and insecure person to a happier, healthier more aware person. It has helped my mind create more positive neural connections and more possibilities than monogamy and a single intimate relationship ever would have for me. Because if the mind develops as a consequence of relationships, then polyamory is not only an expression of who you are. It makes up a fundamental part of who you will become in the future and makes your mind explode in more ways than one.