Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, assistant professor in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University, has studied polyamorous couples and families since 1997. The following is taken from an interview with Seattle Met ’s Kathryn Robinson.
How do you define polyamory?
Polyamory is a form of relationship in which people openly maintain multiple romantic, sexual, and/or affective partners. With its emphasis on long-term, emotionally intimate relationships, polyamory differs from swinging—and from adultery—in its focus on honesty and full disclosure of the network of relationships to all who participate in or are affected by them.
What form has your study of polyamory taken?
I initially wrote my dissertation at University of Colorado at Boulder on polyamory, looking primarily at the Midwest and West. It was not designed to be longitudinal, but I have conducted follow-up studies since then to track as many of the initial respondents as I can.
What have you learned?
That polyamory works great for some people and is disastrous for others. Some find it an extremely fulfilling, liberating lifestyle based on really authentic, deep, emotionally intimate interactions, and are willing to put a lot of effort into that, because it is extremely time-consuming. It’s a lot of work. For others, it produces a lot of insecurity, jealousy, fighting. Some relationships break up. I would say overall, it doesn’t often turn out to be the idyllic, utopian love fest that many people want it to be. It takes a lot of effort to make it work well. It’s not just constant sex all the time; it requires a lot of communication. In fact, sometimes there’s alarmingly little sex.
So it looks like real life?
Yes! A lot!
What are the reasons people give for pursuing it?
The idea of emotional plentitude; that you don’t run out of love by just loving one person. That there’s lots of love to go around. With that comes a rejection of ownership. The idea that one can lay claim to someone else and what they can do with their body and their emotions is repugnant to these folks. So often there’s kind of a libertarian streak, a kind of ‘We’re gonna do what we want, so leave us alone!’ Some are consciously rebellious, so their polyamory is a kind of label of non-conformity to the regular, vanilla crowd. It often goes with ideas of multiplicity on other levels, so many enjoy paganism.
But many practitioners are just regular people, who feel they either have plenty of love to go around, or needs they don’t want to put all on one person. It’s a way to have more attention or different kinds of attention, or more companionship. It’s the idea that it’s too much to ask one person to be everything, so you either have to deny your needs or find a different way to get them met. Finally, [polyamory] offers a model that allows women complete access to multiplicity rather than the traditional [polygamous] model of just men having access to multiplicity.
Who does it not work for?
The ones I’ve seen as doomed are the couples who come in with a very staunch idea of what they’re looking for. Like the female-male couple, maybe married or maybe just partnered, looking for a bisexual woman to add to their relationship. They’re looking to create a triad of one man with two women. Often they have set ideas about who she’ll be and act, come looking for her, and frankly they have a hard time finding her.
So it’s a couple that wants a wife!
Yes. And it’s hard to find. Not that many women want to do that. It often leaves the bisexual woman feeling like ‘Hey! I’m not your sex toy!’ And it often leaves the couples dissatisfied. This search is so common within poly communities, this bisexual woman is called ‘The Unicorn.’ Because most of the women in the poly scene are partnered on some level.
But what about the heterosexual couple where the guy just wants freedom for both of them to pursue other love relationships outside the primary relationship?
Yes, there are folks like that. Pretty regularly it is the dude who says, ‘Let’s check this out.’ The women is often more hesitant at first, sometimes will enter the poly community, if not kicking and screaming, at least lagging behind. Then she’ll realize, ‘Wow this is great! It’s not as scary as I thought.’ And he’ll realize, ‘Wait this isn’t as much fun as I expected. It’s not living up to my fantasy. There’s not as much sex. Not as many partners as I thought.’
Is that common?
Enough that it’s cliché that they each do a 180.
I think that some men think they’ll be the sexual center of attention, but then they end up just having two women they have to be communicative with. In fact in some of the couples who do end up finding The Unicorn, and having sex with her, the man will say, ‘How disappointing!’ because the women were so focused on each other, he’s like, ‘Hello, I’m over here!’
The story of Amy and Josh, a couple contemplating polyamory, HERE.
What else changes when couples become polyamorous?
Introducing other people into the relationship almost always changes relationship dynamics. Add something else in and everything shifts. Sometimes it’s large, sometimes minor. But sometimes it shifts in directions that change power relationships or the status quo, that takes her attention away from him, or that makes the woman question other aspects of their power dynamic. Once women loose the constraints of monogamy, it can trigger a whole set of other things the woman might question, like ‘Why am I always the one that takes off work to take the kids to the doctor?’
How often does polyamory work?
Depends on what you mean by work. If you mean, takes some form and stays that way ‘til death do us part—extremely infrequently. But if you mean, meets the needs of the people involved for that point in time, then quite a bit. The larger the polyamorous groups get the less stable and cohesive they are. The more enduring form tends to be the open couple: The male-female couple who cohabitate, with additional partners. It’s the most common and appears to be the most enduring. But their cast of characters tends to shift.
And do couples of that description stay together?
Their chances of staying together depends wholly on who they are.
You mean like ones with great self-esteem can best overcome the jealousy?
Well…in reality who doesn’t have self-esteem issues? Predicating successful poly on perfect self-esteem isn’t going to work. But some people have a degree of relational possessiveness that makes poly a bad choice for them. Some people are just hardwired to be monogamous. I do think that. As a sociologist, that’s uncomfortable to say…it’s so essentialist! But it’s just their most comfortable emotional zone, a personality orientation, not unlike a sexual orientation. And, I think, some are hardwired to be poly.
OK, so now it’s my turn to be essentialist. What’s the difference between a polyamorous male and…a guy?
If he wants to have other partners but doesn’t want you to have other partners, that’s a major red flag.
How did you become interested in polyamory?
I was the classic woman who came in kicking and screaming. My partner really wanted to try it, and was looking for The Unicorn but couldn’t find her. He found other things. And I found another man. Basically he couldn’t deal with that. So ten years into it for the two of us, and at great trauma to us both, we came back to monogamy. We tried that for the next five years—and it wasn’t problematic sexually, because in reality neither of us really been that actively polyamorous. But I felt so betrayed by his sudden turn of intention once I found another man—I couldn’t get over that. Because he had pushed it for so long, finally overcoming my resistance, and then once I began to like it he said, ‘No, let’s not do this.’ I was like, ‘No! You don’t get to make that rule!’ Finally I left him. We’ve remained good friends, but I’m really gun-shy of polyamory for myself. I’m not sure I could maintain a long-term poly relationship. I could date multiple people, yes. But the idealized poly image of having this expanded family—it is just so much work.
Is Seattle a hotbed of polyamory—so to speak?
Yes! Seattle and the Bay Area are both centers of polyamory. Washington, D.C., as well. Much like gay and lesbian communities, polys gravitate towards larger population centers because of the social opportunities. The West Coast has always had this sexual adventurousness, and is a bastion of sexual tolerance. Plus there’s a strong connection between poly and bisexuality, and Seattle has been a major center of bisexual organizing.
The story of Amy and Josh, a couple contemplating polyamory, HERE.