Panic at the Cuddle Pile: When Polyamory Scares People New to the Idea

a carton of milk
Image by HealthGauge / CC BY

“You’re polyamorous?” she asks me.

I nod. “Yup, been poly for a while now.”

“What’s poly?” she asks.

I explain polyamory. The concept of openness to multiple committed, loving relationships. Ethical non-monogamy. And the broad strokes of how it plays in my own life.

She clutches her husband’s arm. “Don’t be getting any ideas now.”

He frowns. “I wasn’t. Yeesh,” he says.

But over the ensuing weeks, I find her demeanor towards me growing colder. She’s suddenly always busy.

When I ask her about it, she says, “Well, I’m not sure how I feel about the polyamory thing.”

“The polyamory thing? Nothing’s changed. I’m the same person.”

She pauses. “I just don’t know how comfortable I am with you being around my husband.”

I laugh. “You don’t have to worry. I’m not interested in him. He’s not my type. And I stay away from people who are spoken for.”

“Mmhmm,” she says. “Well, I don’t want you filling his head with ideas.”

I don’t see them for a long while.

The Fear of Polyamorous Possibility

It’s difficult to know how people are going to react when they find out that you’re polyamorous. Especially if they’ve never heard of polyamory before. Some people are really neutral about it. Don’t seem to care one way or another. It’s just something else that they know about you. A fact to be stored away.

Others are very curious. They ask a lot of questions. Sometimes they’re excited about the discovery that polyamory exists. The idea of having multiple lovers ethically. Without cheating or betrayal.

But a third category? Well, they become very uncomfortable. And may even view polyamory as a threat.

Dr. Sheff, author of the Polyamorists Next Door, has written of this  reaction as the “fear of polyamorous possibility:”

Coming to the realization that there is an option to have openly conducted non-monogamous relationships is what I call the polyamorous possibility. Once people become aware that there is middle-ground between monogamy and cheating they have grasped the polyamorous possibility, and can never unthink it again.

Realizing the polyamorous possibility can feel extremely threatening, especially if their partner has ever given any indication that they might want to have an open relationship.

Dr. Sheff lists past issues surrounding infidelity, sex negativity, and a monogamous orientation as all being common causes of the fear of polyamorous possibility.

Casual Sex, Scarcity, and the Pressure to Stay Sexually Relevant

In my travels and speaking to other polyamorous folks, I’ve found that women are particularly prone to the fear of polyamorous possibility, especially when confronted with a non-monogamous woman.

In a study published in 2002, psychologists Twenge and Baumeister theorize and write of the suppression of female sexuality:

The evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.

Abundance is one of polyamory’s chief ideals. The belief that sexual abundance could harm the ability of women to negotiate in their relationships is very much in keeping with the popular saying, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

In this sense, when women are having casual sex, they are “giving away the milk for free.”  And in addition to potentially shortchanging themselves, they are also possibly driving down the “market price” of sex. Or at least other women’s ability to leverage sex into other desirable outcomes. Therefore, in Twenge and Baumeister’s paradigm, women have a vested interest in discouraging other women from having casual sex. By shaming or judging them. Even if they aren’t consciously aware that they’re doing this.

Now, there are plenty of polyamorous women who never have casual sex. They’re non-monogamous, sure, but it’s always part of a committed, loving relationship. However, other polyamorous women partake of a mix of casual and committed. And still others may have predominantly casual sex.

But even with a polyamorous role model who never has “casual” sex in its purest sense, polyamory can be quite a threatening concept to their female friends.

It certainly doesn’t help that as certain acts become the sexual “norm,” women may fear that they themselves are expected to participate in them to stay sexually “relevant.”

Panic at the Cuddle Pile

I, too, felt this pressure. When I first found out my friends Megan and Pete were polyamorous (after discreetly dating others for 2 years prior). Some of that pressure was purely internal. And some of it came about in response to the attitudes of other friends.

“Wish I had a cool wife like that.”

I wanted to be the cool wife. And by not doing so? I felt like the uncool wife. I worried about the implications. Would my friends fall one by one to this shiny new polyamory thing? Could I be the only uncool monogamous person left? Would I end up alone?

It was one of many factors in my consideration of polyamory as a relationship style (and a few other major ones). Not the biggest reason. But if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit it was in my calculus. Even if I was not fully owning it at the time.

Part of my own personal coming to terms with my initial fear of polyamorous possibility? Was having good poly role models in Megan and Pete.

So I came into the situation with harsh judgements of polyamory. But as I watched the way they communicated and managed multiple relationships, I realized my initial fear wasn’t warranted. It all seemed very… healthy.

As time went on, I even ended up pursuing polyamory (I wrote more about that here and here)

And I noticed that, if anything, polyamory seemed to be matriarchal.

*

Time and being a good, unscary role model help. My monogamous friend eventually started talking to me again.

 

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