My boyfriend was sitting opposite me with his lover when the question came.
“But who’s your favourite?” said our friend who had joined us for coffee. “Who do you love the most?”
Eric Clapton from 1987 starting singing Behind the Mask in my head.
If the answer was that he loved one of us more than the other, then the conclusion was foregone. We were kidding ourselves; our polyamorous relationship was a dysfunctional product of our own denial rather than a pragmatic and joyous solution to our varying relationship needs.
Usually it’s the sexual love part that get’s people’s knickers in a twist (no pun intended). They find it impossible that I can sexually love two different kinds of people. When they ask, I usually answer in allegory because everyone knows that you can enjoy both fresh strawberries and chocolate for different reasons and at different times.
I want to be honest about my preferences. If a man with a gun demanded that I pick one dessert to eat for the rest of my life. It would be chocolate. But boy, would I miss my fresh strawberries. They’re amazing and people need fruit (so I’ve been told).
Nevertheless, it’s a very natural question to ask since our society programs us to think in terms of comparison in all aspects. As with many things, this aspect of our behaviour is not randomly chosen, it is also innate. The way we get to know ourselves is by comparison. The way we survive biologically is initially by competition. But nowadays it’s less about killing each other, more about status.
I had the kind of mother who compared my achievements to my friends achievements. When I did better than them, I was approved. When I came top of the class I was rewarded. I got into the best schools. Associated with a good ‘class’ of people. My survival within the British middle class was primarily about accessing more privilege by association. It makes you feel more secure ~ but only temporarily ~ because more you access, the more you ‘status’ have to lose. The more insecure you become and the harder to fight to keep it.
The strong aversion to losing status/desire to gain status exists in every facet of our culture. Pretty Woman is the modern fairytale because a prostitute with no social status, ends up with a man with huge social status.
The model is a familiar one for monogamous relationships. Is she prettier than me? Is her arse nicer than mine? In monogamy competition tends to be the means of survival. It’s social comparison at its finest and winner takes all. Social comparison occurs when
- there are no objective standard to measure our attitudes and skills
- we are uncertain about ourselves in a particular domain.
- When there is a person who is similar to us on the relevant dimension. [Festinger (1954)]
There is no objective standard to measure a lover. In polyamory, uncertainty abounds because there are few models to follow. And there is a strikingly similar dimension. The position of someone else in the relationship.
There are two potential positions of comparison within polyamory. One is where we compare our lovers with each other. The other is where we compare ourselves to our lovers’ lovers. These are the closest dimensions that we have on offer. But whilst competition helps monogamy, it actively works against polyamory because it leads to a loss of status of the individual(s) within the relationship(s).
Compare the white hot heat of passion you have with a new lover to the comfortable sex you have with an older partner and perhaps one comes up lacking. Compare yourself to your lover’s new lover ability to perform BDSM against your vanilla rose petal ideas of romance and you might feel indequate. Compare yourself to your lover’s live-in parner and you’ll eventually be afraid of becoming them or inadequate because they get more time, more intimacy, more _____ (fill in the blank).
Survival, when it comes to loving many, requires that we move past our intensely programmed comparative and competitive models. And yet this itself doesn’t go ‘against nature’ because biologically, we have both switches depending on what we perceive as our circumstances.
Testosterone has been linked competition in mating when men battle one another for a sexual partner [but] interestingly, once the competition for a mate is secure, testosterone seems to flip and boost a fierce need to “tend-and-befriend.” Testosterone Fuels Both Competition and Protectiveness
In most group dynamics survival is about collaboration. Companies are built this way. Tribes are formed this way. Families operate this way. In almost every sphere of life, collaboration plays an equally, if not more important role as competition in how we are able to survive. If we can’t see it in ourselves, we see it mirrored in every Hollywood relationship…
One of my boyfriends recently watched the movie ‘Closer’. Again. It’s his own little sado-masochistic torture ritual.
‘But why’, he always moans at the end. ‘Why don’t they just try polyamory? They love each other. They’re so blind.’
It’s about two couples who get into a complicated relationship. Four people who might have worked really well together in polyamory. But end up tortured, guilt ridden and deceitful because they operate under a monogamous paradigm.
I don’t pretend that collaboration instead of competition with your so-called sexual rival isn’t a revolutionary idea for many. But I also know that revolution ’causes instability, resistance and uncertainty that have negative impact on the system and team dynamic for some time. [Ideas in Software Development: Revolution vs. Evolution.] Often where a game-changing new lover comes into the mix, there will be a revolution. If you cling to the status quo, instead of learning to swim and embrace the change, you will drown in the pit of insecurity; you will lose your status even as you fight for it; you might die. Or…
Revolutionary ideas have always given us humans an enormous advantage. New frameworks or ideas allow us to adjust to our situations. Longer lives, sexual empowerment, geographic freedom, gender equality… all push us towards a change in the traditional relationship models. Polyamory is one of many open relationship models which deserves recognition as a workable solution to the changing face of our society.
Yes, if you want to navigate polyamorous waters successfully, if you want to be part of this revolution, you will have to learn to undo some behaviours. You will have to give up applying your survival mechanisms of comparison and competition to your relationships because they promote disempowered hierarchy, create false division, breed envy, jealousy and insecurity…By design.
You will have to decide that you want to try to live a life without these things. And just maybe, it’s not about surviving. It’s about thriving.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” ― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell