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When Exclusive Love Is a Secular Religion & Polyamory Is Heresy

·1809 words·9 mins

It’s been a while since I’ve written about another site’s article on polyamory. However, one of my wonderful Patreon supporters reached out asking me for my thoughts on a New York Times article that came out recently called “ My Boyfriend Has Two Partners, Should I Be His Third?

We were in agreement about the bottom line: While it’s always good to see more polyamorous representation, especially in the mainstream, neither this reader nor I were wild about this particular article.

The title foreshadows disappointment a bit, since it has a salacious, sensationalist, confessional vibe. Although in this day and age headlines can be deceiving (by design, to get attention!), it really doesn’t improve from there.

“My mind could rationalize polyamory, but my heart rebelled,” reads the subtitle, when you enter the article. Hmmm, I thought at that point, this could go either way.

There was one way to read this subtitle, the more straightforward, less surprising (and to me, disappointing) way: “I wanted to do it but couldn’t.”

Orrrrrr this could be a complex, nuanced piece about wrestling with the layers, the fight between reason and emotion, forebrain and midbrain. Would this piece be cool as heck? Would it actually address the complexity of this interplay of attitudes with great depth, regardless of which way the inner battle ultimately went?

A Very Puzzling Aside That Turns Out to Be Quite Telling

No, sadly. There was a moment when I thought it would go the other way and be cool as heck, but in the end this article was essentially “I wanted to do it but couldn’t.” Fine. Not my favorite genre, but the author writes well.

And there were a few things that stuck out. Most notably, this bit was quite unexpected:

Why had the polyamorous community rephrased the rush of falling in love as “new relationship energy” (NRE for short)? Why would anyone endeavor to rebrand love into something like a start-up, complete with its own energized, abbreviated lingo? 

For starters, the polyamorous community didn’t invent the concept of New Relationship Energy. Polyamorous folks didn’t rephrase falling in love into NRE, not really. The intensely altered physiological and behavioral state that accompanies new love has long been known by sociologists as “limerence.” Polyamorists didn’t demystify limerence/NRE by creating a scientific operational definition. Social scientists had already done that decades prior. Granted, the polyamorous community rephrased “limerence” into “New Relationship Energy.” But the concept had already been well defined under another name.

Whatever the case, I don’t think coming up with new terms to describe social behaviors is a phenomenon limited to the polyamorous community. For example, the word “ghosting” is a pretty ubiquitous term, but it’s incredibly new. Its history only goes back to 2011 or so. I think it’s natural for people to come up with new terms to identify experiences that are hard to describe succinctly. And every day there’s a new one cropping up, primarily spawned by mainstream culture: Phubbing, relationship soft launches, doomscrolling, etc.

In the case of polyamorists talking about NRE, there’s a lot of utility there. I suppose it might seem heretical for some to demystify NRE, but if you’re falling in love a lot — as some long-time polyamorists are — it’s good to understand what’s going on, rather than viewing that shift as something magical, all-powerful, and unknowable (because if you understand something a bit, you can account for it and make sure it doesn’t throw your life into a state of chaos).

I actually relate to a lot of what this author writes in this essay, believe it or not. But definitely not this bit. As someone who had a rough adjustment to polyamory — and someone whose brain and heart did in fact war at the beginning of my polyamorous journey — it never occurred to me to be upset about the invention of terms like NRE. I instead found them helpful in giving me new ways to communicate about the novel experiences I was having. To each their own, I suppose.

So to me, this aside in the piece was very odd and telling. The only thing that would make this distaste for NRE as a term make sense to me is if the author viewed demystifying love as akin to sacrilege. Which is why I laughed aloud when I got to this passage:

…*my own love seemed less like something grounded in science and increasingly like a faith. It wasn’t that I couldn’t love multiple people simultaneously, but that I wouldn’t. Not because I thought it was ethically wrong or impractical or too difficult, but because it was sacrilegious to the idea of love I possessed. *

Ah. There you go.

I Had Higher Hopes for This Article

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I had higher hopes for this article. And not simply a knee-jerk reaction that “all polyamorous exposure must be glowingly positive!”

While I generally hope for positive mainstream representation whenever possible, it’s literally the author’s life experiences, and if they were not glowingly positive, then that’s fair. I don’t expect them to lie or keep their mouth shut. And not only that, but I myself have publicly shared some of the unglamorous, difficult parts of adjusting to polyamory when you’re not a natural at it (I wasn’t). At great length, too. That’s basically the plot of my first book. And here’s an article about polyamory I wrote for Archer magazine in 2017, now available online, where I talk frankly about a few awkward, painful breakup scenarios I experienced.

I’m actually cool with people writing about the weird, uncomfortable bits. Because that’s reality. Some people take to polyamory in a glowingly positive, easy way, but that wasn’t my experience. It’s pretty idyllic for me now, but it didn’t start out that way.

No, first I had to challenge a lot of assumptions I was making. And I had to let go of an old dream I had about love. I wrote about it a bit in a previous piece:

On one hand, the realization that I didn’t have to put that much pressure on myself, that I was “enough” without being someone’s One and Only, well, it was really freeing.

But at the same time, it felt like I was losing something. And not just because of struggling with feelings of  demotion and displacement (although those were certainly factors).

It was also the loss of a dream.

Without even being consciously aware, the quasi-magical state of being someone’s One and Only had been part of a picture of romantic love I’d had my entire life. And now that dream was over. I couldn’t go back to seeing things the same way as I had before, even  when I was functionally monogamous after a spate of breakups.

I grieved for months.

And then one day, the sense of relief overtook that grief. The knowledge that I didn’t have to be someone’s everything to be “enough.”  That I didn’t need to put that kind of pressure on myself to be someone else’s world.  That I could be an important part of a life that was also rich outside of their love for me.

And as much as this process was incredible and transformative for me, I know it could have gone another way, that I could have noped out and taken my ball and went home — particularly if I wasn’t so committed to seeing it through and finding out what was on the other side of that cognitive dissonance I felt with a head and heart that were warring.

It Feels Like the Interesting Part Was Glossed Over

There’s a phrase in journalism: “Don’t bury the lede.” Essentially, the lede is the introduction to a piece of journalism. Traditionally, that’s where you put the most important information — because in the days of print journalism, you only had so much space in which to print the news, so typically the most important details were at the beginning of articles so that an editor could easily lop off the end if pieces ran too long.

At the end of the day, I feel like the lede was buried here. The bit about love being a sort of religion and the idea of reforming or reshaping the author’s idea of love feeling like losing their faith or sacrilege was — hands down — the most interesting part of this article. But it was buried in an otherwise straightforward “I tried it, and it wasn’t for me” story, where I would have liked to have seen that idea front and center, delved into deeply and vulnerably, and with analytical complexity.

But maybe that sort of introspection would have been a form of heresy? Maybe looking too deeply into one’s own feelings — for some — is akin to a vivisection, killing your sense of self by examining your inner life in stark terms.

I don’t feel that way. But then again, I still believe in love, romance, and various forms of magic (the realms of science we don’t understand), even though I know how the magician who does kids’ birthday parties does a lot of their tricks.

I believe that mystery is abundant and infinite. That we don’t need to keep ourselves in the dark to have mystery.

And I believe that when you give up on the mundane mysteries, the ones that are foisted upon you by society, then that’s when the magic truly begins.

What I Take From This Article, Productively Speaking

That isn’t to say that I didn’t have any productive takeaways from this article. I did. It’s actually a very helpful way to think about personal resistance to consensual non-monogamy — to think of some objections being felt in almost religious terms.

To give credit to the author, they did try to be in a polyamorous relationship. That’s a lot more open-minded than a lot of folks get. I’ve known many in my day who say that not only that they couldn’t personally do it themselves but that no one should ever do it.

And when confronted with people who say that consensual non-monogamy is wrong, period, paragraph — I often find that they don’t have much to say as far as why they feel that way. They often can’t explain this viewpoint.

Some of them do literally object on religious grounds. “My religion is against that.” (Which can actually be a questionable claim, depending on the religion/sect involved.) But I suspect there are agnostics or atheists who react strongly with their gut — but come from a similar framework, objecting on faith and not reason.

It’s almost as though they have an implicit religion of exclusive love, one that requires certain faith and ritual, and within that framework polyamory registers as threat and/or heresy.


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