Figleaf has a brief description of his own experiences with jealousy that completely jibes with my own. The times I’ve experienced romantic jealousy have all been times when I deeply longed for a certain intimacy, and saw someone else getting it. If I am not feeling loved and desired by my partner, to see him loving and desiring someone else is upsetting: if I am secure and happy in the knowledge that he loves and desires me, then his also feeling that way towards other people bothers me not a whit. Not sure if that’s true for most people or not, but it is for me.
I want to write about our experience on the talk show, and I will — when I’m able to post a link to the show itself, if not sooner — but right now I want to address a confusion about words. One of our fellow guests on the show was a woman who had been in a polygamous sect (I imagine fundamentalist Mormon, though I don’t think she ever said specifically), married at 15 to a man who had 5 wives before her and 4 after her. Partly for that reason, the show’s producers wanted us to avoid using the word “polyamory” on the grounds that people would confuse it with “polygamy.” (Viewers are Morons, after all. And, not to bite the hand that fed me my 15 minutes of fame, but in this show’s case they’re probably mostly right.) The funniest thing to me is that, even though we carefully said “non-monogamous” and “open relationship” an audience member still addressed us as “the polygamists.” So clearly the confusion is there.
Let’s just get dictionary definitions out of the way. Polygamy means multiple marriage: any marriage configuration where more than two people are involved. Polygyny means a man has multiple wives, but women are only permitted one husband. Polyamory is this newfangled Greek/Latin hybrid of a word referring to a specific cultural movement, emphasizing loving and mutually fulfilling relationships with more than one partner, where honesty, openness, and communication are paramount. (Yes, there’s also a word for women having multiple husbands — “polyandry” — but in our patriarchal heritage that word’s been practically irrelevant for many centuries. I was tickled to learn it when I was a kid, though, and enjoyed the idea of having more than one husband at a time. Shoulda figured I’d end up a hedonistic reprobate.)
Polygynous fundamentalist religions are almost always referred to as “polygamous” even though it is inevitably the men getting the multiple partners. And the history, and current illegal practice, of oppressive polygyny is a huge problem for those of us who think it might be nice someday to legally marry more than one person. While the ideas of polygyny and polyamory might be easily confused in the popular mind, they are very nearly opposite in moral philosophy. Polygyny is deeply sexist, both in structure and in common practice. Polyamorous communities are usually ahead of the cultural curve in gender equality. Polygyny demands that its participants submit and repress their feelings to conform with its rules about acceptable social and sexual behavior. Polyamory encourages people to understand their desires and seek out ways to satisfy them in harmony with the needs of others. Polygyny is imposed from without, often upon people too young to make a sound decision about lifelong matters. Polyamory comes from one’s inner sense of what is right and healthy for oneself. (At least, it should. I know there are many people who feel coerced into trying or adopting polyamory because their partner is insistent on it, and this is unhealthy both for the individual and for the relationship. But the poly community frowns heavily on this.)
So it’s kind of funny to me that the two groups in American culture that would like to see polygamy decriminalized are so profoundly opposite in overall philosophies of life. It’s awkward, because while I like the idea of being able to marry more than one lover, I’d rather never see that freedom if the cost is oppression of young girls married off before they have a chance to understand the world and the choices they make within it. But how to draft a marriage law that would allow my kind of polygamy without paving the way for theirs?
One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.) A 25-year-old might make bad, self-destructive decisions, but by 25 most people have scoped out the world a little and are ready to start on their own chosen path in life, ready in a way no 15-year-old can be. Polyamory in the broadest and most literal sense — building loving and nourishing relationships with multiple people — requires emotional maturity, whether it’s being done within a religious sect or among godless hedonist reprobates like myself.
And the heart of the matter really lies in the difference between “polygamy” and “polyamory.” The “-gamy” suffix means “marriage,” which despite our modern romanticization, has been a political and commercial arrangement as much as it’s been a romantic and self-fulfilling one. I am reluctant to defend multiple marriage in and of itself, just as I’m reluctant to defend marriage, period. A marriage is only as good as the love and respect given by its members to one another. As our fellow talk-show guest related, polygamy without concurrent polyamory is soul-destroying. The love, the respect, the commitment and devotion to caring for each other through good times and bad… that is what makes a good relationship, whether or not it’s exclusive and whether or not it’s formalized.