Polyamory is a compound of the Greek πολύ [poly, meaning many or several] and Latin amor [love]). So if you translate it into its constituent parts, it literally means “many loves.”
And that’s not such a bad way to think of it. I tend to translate it in my mind as “more love” though.
Since you can count lovers, sure. And some people do indeed call their lovers their “loves.” But there’s another way you can use love, a different case. When love is its own noncount noun, something hard to quantify like other abstract concepts. Just like you have more ice, more enthusiasm, more honesty, you can have more love. Be open to it. Nurture it in others, even when it has little or nothing to do with you.
And that’s basically how I’ve seen polyamory. More love, more connection.
Sounds nice, right?
Well, it can be. The dirty secret though is that more isn’t better or worse; it is just different.
And even as a polyamorous person, I have to make careful I’m still being discriminating and only letting people and things into my life that make me genuinely happy. Because if you’re not careful, more can actually turn into less. When taken to extremes, more can easily tank your happiness.
Too Much of a Good Thing Can Backfire
For example, a study by Iyengar and Lepper from 2000 challenged the assumption that more choices is always clearly better. They studied limited versus extensive conditions in three different experimental contexts:
- Shoppers were presented with either 6 varieties of jams to try in a grocery store (limited choice condition) versus 24 flavors (extensive choice)
- Students in a social psychology class were given the opportunity to write a 2-page extra-credit essay and were provided either 6 (limited choice) or 30 (extensive) potential essay topics.
- Participants in the final study were instructed to choose a single chocolate from a selection of 30 or to choose a single chocolate from a limited array of 6. However, breaking from the first two studies, there was also a group of participants who were not given a choice and instead were given a chocolate arbitrarily chosen for them by the presenter (half of this control, no-choice group group were exposed to the 6-chocolate collection and half were exposed to the 30-chocolate sample, order to control for any effects related to collection size).
The researchers found throughout all three studies that participants were more satisfied with their selections when their choices were from a limited set as opposed to an extensive one.
In the first and third studies, participants were also more likely to subsequently purchase products if they’d been exposed to the limited set of options rather than the extensive set.
In the second study, students were both more likely to complete the extra credit essay assignment and to also produce quality essays if they had fewer topics to pick from.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the no-choice condition in the third study produced the worst results of all. People were the least satisfied in that scenario.
Judging by these results, it would seem that a little variety can be a good thing. But too much, and it can actually backfire.
Polyamory As Abundant Love in a World That Argues for Scarcity
As I wrote in a previous piece, one of the cornerstone principles in polyamorous theory is that love is abundant, plentiful. And the more love that there is in your life, the more love you have to give. It’s like the biblical miracle of the loaves and fishes, feeding large crowds with only meager supplies. Love is not zero sum. It isn’t like you can only feel so much love — when you love one person, you don’t automatically love everyone else less.
As Franklin Veaux writes in More than Two:
In the starvation model, opportunities for love seem scarce. Potential partners are thin on the ground, and finding them is difficult. Because most people you meet expect monogamy, finding poly partners is particularly difficult. Every additional requirement you have narrows the pool still more. Since relationship opportunities are so rare, you’d better seize whatever opportunity comes by and hang on with both hands—after all, who knows when another chance will come along?
Conversely, the abundance model embraces the premise that many, many opportunities for love exist. Veaux writes:
The abundance model says that relationship opportunities are all around us. Sure, only a small percentage of the population might meet our criteria, but in a world of more than seven billion people, opportunities abound. Even if we exclude everyone who isn’t open to polyamory, and everyone of the “wrong” sex or orientation, and everyone who doesn’t have whatever other traits we want, we’re still left with tens of thousands of potential partners, which is surely enough to keep even the most ambitious person busy.
The sneaky thing about both models is they’re both right: the model we hold tends to become self-fulfilling.
These days I tend to try to adhere to an abundance mindset. Because for the most part, viewing love through the lens of strict scarcity model meant that I clung to unsuitable partners, pushing them in ways that made us both miserable.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t potential perils in abundance as well, ones that I try to remain cognizant of.
The Paradox of Choice
As Barry Schwartz writes in The Paradox of Choice:
Part of the downside of abundant choice is that each new option adds to the list of trade-offs, and trade-offs have psychological consequences. The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.
Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.
Just like the experiments conducted by Iyengar and Lepper, it’s possible to find yourself pulled in so many directions that you can’t enjoy yourself. To have so many options that you are paralyzed by the decisions and never quite feel like you’ve chosen well.
Then again, as evidenced by their third study by the chocolates, having no choices at all is the most miserable fate.
So I’ve tried as a polyamorist (slash ambiamorist) to take a middle path approach, to honor the spirit of unlimited loving abundance but to be judicious in my actions and behaviors and make sure I’m not adding more into my life simply for the sake of having more.
Because at a certain point, more is less and less is more.
Suggested Further Readings:
- Goldilocks Love: Not Too Scarce, Not Too Abundant, “Just Right”
- The Katamari of Kink or Sickness at the Love Buffet?
- Poly Pitfalls: Confusing Polysaturation with Oversaturation
- Poly Pitfalls: The Sampler Who Makes the Impulse Purchase
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.