“If you asked most people whether they believed in love or not, they’d probably say they didn’t. Yet that’s not necessarily what they truly think. It’s just the way they defend themselves against what they want. They believe in it, but pretend they don’t until they’re allowed to. Most people would throw away all their cynicism if they could. The majority just never get the chance.”
-Alain de Botton, On Love
The Other Half
There’s a love story that’s at least a couple of millennia old. Aristophanes of Plato’s Symposium tells the story of an original human being with four arms and legs. Hermaphroditic. Essentially a form composed of a man and woman, joined as one, before Zeus split them in half when humanity’s might threatened the gods.
And because of the resultant longing, this search for our “other half,” the gods were able to keep humans in our place.
This is myth of course. But nonetheless, many people are on the quest for their other half. The deep, entangled relationship. Two lives that approach one another so closely that one person is essentially subsumed by the other. Or perhaps even a mutual subsummation. What matters is the joining. A reunion of that which was once divided.
In the literature of a society that idealizes monogamy, this has often been described as the Quest for True Love.
In polyamorous circles, this might well be called the Quest for Primary.
According to the terms of the relationship escalator, a common cultural model for romance, we’re raised to believe that relationships follow a particular pattern. A template whereby they progress automatically from stage to stage. You meet someone, fall in love, define the relationship clearly, engage in regular contact, commit, and become entangled in predictable ways: Sharing a home and finances, legally marrying, and perhaps even having children.
Typically, the relationship escalator assumes monogamy. It’s part of that commitment phase (or perhaps even the definition phase, depending).
So pursuing polyamory entails a certain degree of diverging from the template of the relationship escalator. How much though? Well, it varies based on the individual.
Many of us never get out of those patterns, polyamorous or not.
Skyspook Never Thought He Would Get Married
I look to my own life for an example. My anchor partner Skyspook never thought he would get married. He didn’t believe in this “other half” business. Thought the romantic ideal either didn’t exist or was rather rare. That idea of perfect compatibility.
Plus Skyspook? Was an unusual person. A loner. “I didn’t think he would ever find someone,” his brother told me. “Someone who could keep up with him mentally and that would geek out like he did.”
Skyspook underwent a string of odd dating experiences couched in monogamous ideals before stumbling onto a polyamorous and kinky social group. He’d always been interested in non-monogamy and kink, but theory was one thing. Watching it unfold before him with actual people? Well, that was another case altogether.
As he interacted with his new friends, it dawned on him: He hadn’t been able to find everything he was looking for in a partner in one place. But maybe that was the whole problem. Maybe he was asking for too much from one person. Why couldn’t he find one thing with this partner? Another thing with a different partner? And still more with other partners?
And so he leapt. It was an exciting foray, full of ups and downs.
A Pile of Secondaries
“But I reached a point,” Skyspook said. “Where I felt like there was something missing.”
He had fun but still often found himself spending nights alone. And some of his connections were profoundly unstable, with lovers ignoring texts and ghosting on him in quick succession, only to reemerge months later confused that he had moved on to other people and things. He wanted something stable and ongoing. Something intimate. It became evident to him that a pile of secondaries (with a habit of blinking into tertiary territory) wasn’t going to emulate that.
“I’ve been giving it a lot of hard thought,” he told me one evening, as we chatted. “And I think what I really want is a primary partner.”
“That makes a lot of sense,” I replied, my heart sinking a bit. I was intensely attracted to him. Cared for him deeply. But I was sitting in Maine while he spoke to me from Ohio, awaiting a cross-country move out there in 3 months, to live with one of his poly friends. I wasn’t just committed – I was multi-committed. A girl who already had not one, but two primaries.
I respected him and what he wanted. But I knew I couldn’t be that for him. I was so busy and entangled as it was.
Little did I know that we would be married in a year and a half.
The Quest for Primary
And it isn’t just Skyspook.
I’ve heard Skyspook’s story many times, from polyamorous friends and lovers. So many times that I’ve almost come to expect it when I’m watching friends go through things.
It’s like the Quest for Primary is the main quest. But it’s just like a video game. You’re cruising along until you come upon a boss encounter that’s too hard. One that blocks your progress forward. You cannot beat this particular fight. And frustrated by this obstacle, you instead go exploring off the beaten path of the main plot. Level up. Knock off some side quests.
And sometimes the game is more like a sandbox style, where you can do this indefinitely. The content is so compelling and so immersive that you never return to the “main” quest. You just explore and finish “side” quests forever. Because to you, they aren’t side quests. They’re the game you actually want to play. You won’t be railroaded by the developers. You’ll create your own experience. (Solo polyamorists find terrific joy in a free agent approach.)
But for others? The unfinished plot will nag at you. Or you’ll run out of side quests. Become bored in your wandering. And you’ll jump at the soonest opportunity to rejoin the Quest for Primary.
A Universe of Longing
“It’s time to face it,” another friend says. “I thought I’d be happier unattached. But if I’m being honest with myself, I want a primary relationship.”
“It’s understandable,” I say back to her. I’ve been expecting it for a while, watching the smaller frustrations pile up.
On the drive home, I wonder about the way that all things with mass tend towards one another. Gas coalescing to form stars.
I think idly of how profoundly lonely my boyfriend CC seems. That persistent longing. What he’ll likely need that I can’t give him.
And most of all, I think of the ache I feel when I go without companionship for too long.