copyright 2004 by Even Eve
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i was looking at the site & reading stuff there including my communities article, and your stories (which made me laugh so many times!) and remembered i have this other later article i wrote for ryam & loving more, in case you want to use it (about becoming monogamous). i don't remember when i wrote it... probably late '96 or '97.
Eve's article in Loving More.
The idealism of youth is both beautiful and terrible: beautiful because of its boundless sense of hope and possibility; terrible because of its desire to eradicate all that came before it. When I was in my teens, my mother and I would argue. "That's just the way life is," she would say. "Why!?" I would challenge. We both had our points, and neither of us was much inclined to really listen. I, in fact, couldn't listen. I had to find things out for myself, which is, after all, not a bad way to learn.
One of the themes of our arguments was the nature of family and relationships. In the late '60s and early '70s, communes and collectives were hip and happening, and anti-monogamous sentiment was popular in the circles within which I moved. Joining the ranks of people in the middle class, monogamous nuclear family just did not seem a very attractive or exciting way to pass the rest of my seemingly endless life. So, shortly after finishing high school, I headed for the west coast and got involved in a hippie communal trip. The group fantasized itself to be the vanguard of a new movement that was going to turn the world and all its archaic institutions on its head. Among other things, we were going to practice "polyfidelity" - we coined the word - and liberate ourselves from such nonsense as jealousy, possessiveness and other politically incorrect elements of our old cultural imprinting.
I stayed in that situation for over 20 years, followed by several more years of polyfidelity outside the organized commune context, so I did, after all, get that opportunity to find a few things out for myself. Which has led me back to being monogamous.
Polyfidelity is a great idea. Even today I could come up with a long list of features in its favor. The catch is that the idea has a hard time translating itself into successful practice.
Take, for instance, the question of romantic preference, ever a thorny issue. I would imagine (at least hope) that people today trying to do poly lifestyles have enough good sense and honesty not to aspire to "nonpreferential relationships," to use the phrase of my old communal days. The only way I know of that a person can be truly nonpreferential in a sustained sense is to avoid real intimacy with all her/his partners. Barring that, natural affinities and attractions being what they are, bonds between different twosomes in any group are inevitably going to vary widely, and may change over time, no matter what the good intentions may be. As committed as I used to be to the ideal of equal relationships, I sometimes found the discrepancy between the emotional reality (of being most in love with one partner) and the intellectual premise (of non-preference) to be quite excruciating. I do believe that different individuals are more or less suited, temperamentally, to having multiple sexual partners. Some can no doubt manage and mitigate the differentials they feel towards their various lovers better than I did; treat it as a matter of little importance. But whatever anyone's exact experience around this issue, in a group it is always an Issue, and along with it comes jealousy. Monogamous people are by no means free of jealousy either, but it can be particularly in-your-face, no getting away from it kind of problem when you are living in an activley nonmonogamous household.
Jealousy is about the desire to be preferred. For years I scoffed at people who told me that they wanted to be that one most special person in someone else's eyes. A mature person, I thought, is beyond such blatant neediness and insecurity. Well, whatever. After a very long run of trying to be that mature person, I finally admitted to myself that I did indeed have such a desire… and that there was nothing wrong with it. To be told "I love no one more than you," (unsaid: but others just as much) doesn't pack the same satisfying punch as "I love you," (unsaid: more than anyone else in the world). I know, intellectually, that I am no better than others; that we humor each other in some sense when we single each other out, making perhaps much ado about nothing (or little). But that's what romance is all about! Whether wanting this kind of love is a matter of cultural conditioning or innate genetic predisposition is not important. No amount of indoctrination to feminist or other ideological rhetoric can change the fact that to me, success in love includes being the most important person in my lover's intimate life. If it's a myth, so be it. It's one I can live with.
Looking back, polyfidelity worked best for me in the "institutional" context, that is, inside a structured community with a clear ideology and belief system. In that situation, at least in its earlier years, we got a lot of mileage out of positioning ourselves against the mainstream culture (guess what - we came out superior!). Peer pressure helped motivate members to play by the emotional and social rules we had set up. On a healthier level, it also worked because, within the community's polyfidelitous families, everyone became very involved with each other and many of the same-sex, non-sexual friendships were extremely close.
Doing polyfidelity after that institution disintegrated, in a smaller group, was a whole different thing. Though many forces eventually dissolved that group as well, a big one was the change in the relationship of the non-sexual group members. In our earlier years together we had thought of ourselves as a family, a group marriage; I was committed to the women as well as to the men. Later, as each of us began to re-define our lives and goals more separately, that sense of family was lost, and with it much of the lubrication needed to get through the complexities of daily group life.
Which are many, and intense.
All groups are political, in the sense that power dynamics patterns among different personalities assert themselves, and people become involved in varieties of manipulative behavior to get what they want. Though couples are not exempt from this problem either - only the loner seems to escape it - the complexity and magnitude of interpersonal politics and intrigue, as well as practical, logistical problems, seem to multiply by powers of ten as each new person is added to a group. Decisions and plans between you and one other partner are no longer yours alone; many things you do affect others, so their feelings and plans, too, have to be considered at all times. Psychic and psychological privacy is hard to come by, even if physical space is arranged to support it. The sense of relationship continuity becomes more fragile, jarred and interrupted as it is by the necessary rotation (whatever form it takes) of different partners spending blocks of time with each other.
Many of these are generic group issues or issues of anyone with a busy life, not necessarily issues pertaining to multiple relationship circles, but the added factor of overlapping intimacies seems to amp up the emotional pitch rather than calm it down. In the ideal group where everyone gets along great with everyone else at a deep level maybe things would be smoother… but the odds of that ever being the case are slim.
Another group issue is what we used to call "commune syndrome," where the notion of collective ownership has the effect of cancelling out one's sense of personal responsibility. In the material realm, this is easy to see: the classic hippie crash pad where the space "belongs to everyone"… and, no one cleans up. The demoralization of collective farms under the old Communist system, compared to the energy and motivation of private farmers caring for their own land. The sluggishness and endless meetings of committees trying to carry out a delegated task, compared to the same task getting done by one individual who personally decides to make it happen. When you know it's yours, you care. This same syndrome applies in the personal relationship realm as well. In a couple, it's hard to get around directly dealing with the other person and your own issues. If you don't deal with it, who will? In a group relationship, it's much easier to avoid personal responsibility for what's going on between you and another partner, because there are more distractions, interruptions… and besides, maybe someone else will do it if you don't. It's not that this attitude goes on so much at a conscious level; it's just another quirk of human nature, always looking for the easy way out. The upshot is, a deeper intimacy in at least some dyads within a group may be comfortably kept at arm's length, almost indefinitely.
I suppose that as time goes by, our reasons for doing things change. When I first embarked on the polyfidelity path, I was driven by the ideal of a communal life where all are equal, all things shared, and love liberated from the shackles of straight-laced convention. It was a beautiful vision; it gave me a cause to live for. Conveniently (and not entirely coincidentally), it also fit well with the efforts of a young adult to differentiate herself in the world, and the political perspectives of the era. I had little prior experience in the real world of love and relating from which to understand or form my own private preferences. Some of the experience I found in polyfidelitous life did turn out as I'd dreamed. For many years I felt free of loneliness and boredom, had full social life with many close friends and lovers, and something to believe in.
But things change, as do our perceptions. At some point my priorities began to shift; the clash between ideals and reality became louder and harder to ignore, as did the shortcomings of the lifestyle. I lost the ability to think of my life choices in terms of what was going to be good for the world: what about me? I stopped believing that a human mind and heart were lumps of clay that could be molded into whatever new shapes we wanted them to take. I began to understand that there was perhaps some wisdom behind the injunction, "that's just the way life is:" not that we can never hope to change anything, but that there are fundamental reasons behind some of our larger cultural and societal institutions that have grown naturally out of the endless cycle of common human experience. It is therefore smarter and, in the end, less painful, to recognize and accept these things. The alternative is a lingering dissatisfaction with the world, a figurative banging of the head against the wall. So, I could keep aspiring to be a person who could rise above jealousy and interpersonal politics, continue trying to appreciate the differences between lovers without comparing them or valuing one above the other, become content enough within myself not to desire someone else's exclusive devotion.
Alternatively, I could stop banging my head against the wall.
Unfortunately, life rarely gives us simple solutions, at least not to its more profound questions. Monogamy is not a grand panacea anymore than polyfidelity is. Every serious choice we make is loaded with trade-offs. In my present situation I appreciate many of the things I used to have that are now gone from my life. I miss the mental stimulation of a more lively household. I miss the sense of belonging to a close-knit community. I miss many of the people, friends and ex-lovers, whom I now rarely see. I miss the feeling - even if it was an illusion - that I am doing something of significance for the world. I miss singing and dancing with my friends as regular parts of my life. I don't expect that I or my partner will never again feel attracted to others, but I understand that there's a lot more to sleeping with someone else than just the "sleeping." There's a whole life to be led, personalities to interweave and integrate, ten thousand compromises, arrangements, concessions, fights, reconciliations to make it all work. I'm sure that for some people the rewards, real or imagined, of this expanded circle are worth this effort.
On the upside of the trade-offs, I have more peace of mind these days. I am clear about who I love, who loves me and what that means. My love life no longer feels fragmented or diluted; I feel freer and more in control of my own life. I am happy to have left behind the subliminal interpersonal/political struggles that were always present in my nonmonogamous years. I am facing new struggles and challenges: how to focus my energy, make and keep my spiritual, creative and love life interesting, increase my social circle, maybe make some sort of contribution to the larger society. I guess no matter what we do, it all comes down to this in the end.