My apologies for taking this advance idea for a topic from someone who hasn't yet posted on it (I won't name them because the post is friendlocked), but I think it's interesting and I haven't written except in brief on the matter before. Storytime.. which eventually will hopefully meander onto/through some conclusions, observations, and impressions.
During my times in Columbus, I met a wide variety of people, both in University and outside it - my first significant exposure to Haredim, organised Atheism, gay/lesbian groups, militant feminism, christian extremists, eco-activism of various flavours, etc. I made a number of surprising friendships with very different people, and had a number of extremely frank conversations (including with that "Do you Agree with Jared" guy, for those of you who remember that) that revealed radically different (but internally consistent) ways of looking at the world. I'm glad I had all those experiences and managed to see all those conflicting ideas people have for improving the world. I don't think I could've come to as powerful a grasp of relativism without those experiences - I either would've remained part of an absolutist mindset myself or would've fallen into weak moral relativism if I didn't grasp the vitality needed to make ideas work in the world.
Some of the most interesting ties were not closely tied to University society - apart from the eco-activist groups, I met the most people through the art scene, which my first girlfriend Martha got me started on. I dove more deeply into this after my relationship with her ended, as her sometimes-friend Charles helped me into the "back-doors" of the art scene as a way of helping me through my depression. Eventually I started walking that social web myself a bit, and met some poly circles of various ages. This was a bit shocking for me, as I came from a fairly wealthy, spoiled satellite town of Cleveland, where the people who were not heterosexual were big news (although I was a good friend of a lesbian girl throughout much of high school, somehow I was ashamed enough of my own bisexuality that I wasn't able to talk about it even with my first girlfriend until near the end of that relationship, and treated the boyfriend I had before that rather dismissively - something I still regret). I hadn't read much about poly relationships except as a theoretical idea that had existed in a few points in history, and it broadened my horizons to talk with people who were in that state.
When I first came to CMU, I was a bit surprised to see it in Pittsburgh as well - CMU never really struck me as being particularly liberal in a meaningful way (certainly not compared to OSU or some other universities I've seen), nor as artsy in the same way - CMU feels a bit less adventurous in a lot of ways than I think Universities should be. The same is true, to a slightly lesser extent, of Pittsburgh (although I've branched out far less in Pittsburgh than in Columbus - I've never really felt welcome either in CMU's society or most of the interesting subcultures of Pittsburgh (although the local Jewish communities slowly came to feel a bit like a home)). A desire to belong somewhere is something I think is inherent in humanity for both introverts and extroverts - I've wanted terribly to fit in somewhere, even as I found being around people tiring, and I was a bit tempted by some of the poly webs (or at least one or two of the individuals I met) to see if I could "apply" to join, but after a lot of thought I came to the idea that it would likely take one of two forms for me:
- I would not be in love but just attracted to people, and would be part of the web for companionship and sex. This would be fine by my value system, and would work out fine for me provided I did not either fall in love or get jealous anyway.
- I would fall in love with someone, and necessarily become just an "end node" of the poly web (as far as I can tell, once I'm sufficiently in love, all my attraction to people apart from the one I'm in love with wanes away to nothing). In such a case, a number of notions of appropriate boundaries to preserve the uniqueness of that relationship spring up, and I would not deal well with those notions not being respected (or even being able to reasonably be "put on the table"). I don't know for sure what shape those boundaries must take with my psyche in a healthy relationship (in the past I've only found feelings of jealousy springing up either when a relationship was starting to sour or when I knew another interested party was attempting to undermine the relationship), but adding them to an existing relationship that's evolving towards a "love relationship" on my part would be difficult to negotiate and painful if not agreed upon
I've often heard people say that being poly is just a phase, but seeing people from their 30s upwards in Columbus in polywebs of various shapes disabused me of that notion.. at least partly. A number of differences from "standard" society do tend to be tried out during University, and a fair number of people are just "wiccan for a bit", "lesbian for a bit", or "poly for a bit" during university, where a bit can be a few months or a few years. I have known a number of folk who became significantly more "standard" as they got older, either because their experiments are inherently difficult/unworkable in the long run (for them or for anyone), or because at some point they feel they need to change something in their life and they decide to approach the beaten path a bit more closely on several topics to shake their life up. Do I think being poly is inherently unworkable? It's clearly workable in the long run for some people. Is it difficult? Perhaps - it might go against some of our instincts, but seems to go with some of our instincts as well in ways that monogamy does not. My intuition is that it is harder to get the expectations/emotions working out right than monogamy, but I cannot quantify or justify that so it may be unfair bias.
On the broader scale, I think it's good that poly webs exist for those who can handle being in them - human happiness requires both a strong perception of autonomy and societal fluidity to help people explore their individual interests and inclinations. Just like with casual sex, I think the best advice people can offer is "be careful, and listen to what you know about your emotional needs in the long term and the short term" (a concern about STDs is also wise), rather than condemning various approaches. This is the trend in my thought on the matter that I like, but there is another concern that makes me nervous and frightened - the idea of poly becoming the dominant mode of relationships is deeply frightening to me on an individual level. I still regret that I never had a shot at those few people in columbus, and more strongly the person here, because of their being poly, and the more dominant that is, the more I am either forced to adapt to a relationship style that I am unsure I could manage (but maybe I actually could manage to be in a loving poly relationship - I've never tried) or not have the type of loving relationship I would like. Having a more sexual/companionship relationship is not something I would oppose, but to me it doesn't add the richness in life that being in a long term loving relationship would add. Although I don't think marriage is special - to me it's just a formal, nonreligious recognition of a loving relationship that already exists (and should exist beforehand in full if marriage to happen - ideally with the couple already living together and having established a good sexual relationship so they know those aspects of compatibility are there) - I would like a relationship with someone that would hopefully last a long time, for life if compatibility is sustained.
I've seen people who were "unwillingly in" a poly relationship in one way or another - either they were already nuts about someone who was already inclined to go poly, or they initially thought they would be ok with being poly but came to want monogamy with one of their partners in the web. Is it fair? I tend not to ask that question often, because the notion of "fair" doesn't really fit well with real life situations (notwithstanding the efforts of some great philosophers, like Rawls and Marx, to come up with formulations that are reasonably decidable for a lot of situations). It is often very unfortunate though, especially because a lot of the time people are put in a situation where they're asked to either try or sustain a set of relationship parameters that deal with areas of themselves they haven't experienced yet. This is of course not unique to being poly though - interreligious marriages are another situation where this can come up (although the primal aspects of the emotions involved are probably more intense in explorations of basic relationship parameters than issues of cultural and religious identity). This religious aspect should not necessarily be understated though - I once had a close friendship with a girl I met in one of my CS classes at OSU who was a devout Muslim (I never saw her hair because of her head covering), and there was some mutual attraction, but I knew a relationship would never work both because of her family and our different ways of seeing the world (my family's would probably be split into "like/don't like" camps for almost anyone I would choose although I don't actually care particularly about their approval). I suppose it's easier to deal with religious differences though because generally religious people tend to have enough differences in worldview that I keep a certain wariness with my dealings with them - this wariness prevents the fullness of empathy that goes into what I need for attraction (although I've never felt this wariness much around non-haredi Judaism or Buddhism, for some reason, meaning that I've sometimes been attracted to religious folk of either of those types and suspected that emotionally a relationship could work).
Summing up, I don't think poly relationships are things that people only experiment with in youth even if that's true for some people, nor do I think they're interently problematic for everyone. They may in fact be a better thing for some people, although finding out for whom that is true can be a painful process. I think but do not know that I could manage a sex/companionship-style involvement in a polyweb but not a love-style involvement, and while I do desire sex and companionship and would not object to having it through either something casual, I also want love and I suspect but do not know that I could not manage that in a poly relationship. The more people who are in poly relationships, the more people who I'd want to date otherwise become unavailable, and so in an indirect way, poly webs disadvantage me in a way that hurts more than many other types of systematic incompatibility/difficulty.