Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Followup on Saturation (Or, the Other 'S' Word: Selfishness)

Instead of digging up the notes I have on my "5 Love Languages" book review (which I'll get to, I promise), I wanted to follow up on something I pretty much pooh-poohed in my last post:
There's a term in Polyamory called "polysaturation," which is basically the same principle applied to having multiple partners. One hits his or her polysaturation point when they have too many partners to adequately maintain relationships with them or to maintain a life balance outside of them.

I realize that folks who are critical of poly will tend to roll their eyes at this and think, "Poor poly people and their first-world problems." Get it out of your systems, folks. I'm moving on.
I'm not trying to dismiss anyone's very real frustration at this; it just wasn't quite what I was getting at in my last post. Time for a follow-up.

It isn't really polysaturation here that's being called into question, but the act of having multiple partners in and of itself: if you have multiple partners, how on earth can you devote enough time, resources, and just plain intimacy to the partners you have without leaving them wanting? It's the root of the whole "Polyamory is selfish" belief that many people on the outside - sometimes on the inside - of such relationships can have.

Let's take a step back and bring in an old friend we see pop up on Facebook and Twitter now and again:

Veracity of the quote aside (everyone quotes it, yet nobody seems to have a source), let's forget about resources: for many people, it's the act of loving another that undermines the first relationship. We see things through our own filters; if we're monogamous pendulum-types, then yes, nurturing feelings for another does negatively impact our existing relationship. Any pendulum-type who would do so should expect this, and therefore is being selfish by neglecting their existing relationship in favor of someone new. Lack of available resources just adds to the mix, when someone is okay with the concept, just not so much with the execution.

There's a huge disconnect between monogamous pendulum-types and polyamorous fountain-types in their understanding of each other. Many poly folks get out of sorts (and rightly so) when they see things like the Depp quote above, or hear that Poly folks are selfish. In their defense, some trot out our other good friends we see time and again:

  • My friends don't feel neglected when I make new friends, do they?
  • I don't love my children any less when I have another child, do I? Maybe I should put my first child up for adoption because I can't love them as much as my youngest.
Or the jokes:
  • That's right, I'm stealing ALL THE LADIES! Well, you can date them too! How is that selfish?

As I mentioned back in my first post here, these responses do nothing to bridge the gap - instead, they just cover it in day-glo yellow paint and highlight it even more. The sheer nature of a romantic relationship to a monogamous pendulum-type person is very, very different from either of these, and it's like equating apples to elephants. Of course it doesn't impact your relationship with your friends or your children. Of course it does impact your romantic relationships! And the poly, fountain-type person just sits there baffled by the distinction.

My point in all this isn't to scold anyone, or to fix anything single-handedly. It's just to present the understanding that there is a very real disconnect in the ways in which Poly and Mono folks see romantic relationships and love others. The perspective that polyamory is selfish is a byproduct of this.

It's a belief that such a relationship has to, by nature, be selfish, because we pendulum-types see things through our own filters (as does everyone else). It's not always an attack on Poly folks (although I'm sure some folks say it with enough distaste that it may as well be). It is a very real perspective that needs to be acknowledged and not mocked or dismissed out of hand (or wittily wordsmithed away into friend or child analogies) before we can ever work on understanding the "other side."

Poly folks - open your minds a bit and realize that Mono folks may really feel this way, for good reason. For a pendulum-type, nurturing romantic feelings for another would be selfish and unfair to their other partner, because their love would be divided.

Mono folks - open your minds a bit and understand that Poly folks don't love like we do. That the child and friend analogies actually make sense to them because they don't feel romantic love as exclusively as we do. Just try to accept that if they really are polyamorous, they aren't giving anyone the short end of the stick, love-wise. See what time and experience tells you as their relationships develop. Try asking your friends in polyamorous or mono/poly relationships what they really need in a relationship, what they really gain from this relationship (not in a snarky way, either!), and see how they respond.

And everyone? If you have multiple relationships, make sure everyone's getting what they need and that resource allocation isn't a problem. It's no success to have a partner who accepts or groks Poly while they starve for your time and intimacy. Loving More is great. Loving Well is a different skill entirely.


  1. "My friends don't feel neglected when I make new friends, do they?"

    I am very fond of a blog called Captain Awkward, which offers advice on all kinds of relationships (familial, romantic, sexual, workplace, friendly). If letters I've read there-- and my own experience-- are any guide, yes, some people probably do feel neglected when a dear friend gets really excited about building a friendship with a new person.

    And I'm not a parent, but as the older of two children, I remember what it felt like to take a hit in time and attention when my younger sibling was born. I didn't have enough other peer relationships yet to make up for the difference in time and attention, and I felt pretty lonely as a result.

    I don't dispute that the socially expanding friend and parents in those examples have good intentions. I don't think they're *trying* to hurt people who love them. But their actions may in fact have painful effects on the people who love them, and it would be nice if they'd acknowledge those effects, instead of dismissing them.

  2. Hi Rachel,
    Good point. There do exist people who get hurt when a close friend starts hanging out with others, or children who struggle when siblings are born and take time away from them.

    I think overall, though society expects friendships to change and evolve over time. Children are expected to have to deal with siblings. Spouses and long-term partners are NOT expected to have to deal with a relationship opening up. Why is that? Because society is a reflection of the people in it, and that is what we commonly do (or don't do) at this time.

    People take the socially acceptable arguments (kids, friends - or from the other side when it pertains to romantic relationships) as commonplace, because they are. Or we think they are. We neglect to dig deeper to acknowledge that some folks may not feel the same as we think they should. That's the divide I'm hoping to try to bridge.

    Question the "truths" behind the analogies, and maybe we'll dig into some real answers.

    Thanks for the feedback! :-)

  3. You're welcome. Three cheers for your questioning.

    I think it is a true statement about the world that relationships in general change and evolve over time. I think it is also a true statement that people's ability to deal with that change varies.

    What I would *hope* might come to pass, as a result of ethically non-monogamous relationships becoming more normative, is that we'll start as a society to develop better resources to help people cope with relationship changes resiliently, if that is what they want, or to determine with minimal angst when a change is one they do not want to deal with.

    I think that could have benefits not just for poly folks and those of us monos who love them, but also for people struggling to deal with friendships or familial relationships that are changing. Just because it is socially normative for a change to occur, that doesn't magically make it easy to handle!


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