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Picture a triangle

Polyamory makes deviance the norm

The post’s headline read, “Polyamory Is Growing—And We Need To Get Serious About It.” I clicked, expecting a serious breakdown of a serious issue that everyone should consider seriously.

Surprise! What the writer believes we all need to get serious about is overcoming our biases against polyamory because, well, it’s growing. The source was no left-wing fringe blog but a respected online libertarian publication. The writer is a university psychology professor but also, as it turns out, a cheerleader for all forms of open marriage, consensual nonmonogamy, and other preferential arrangements he lumps under the heading of “poly.” In the article he tips his hand, identifying himself as a partner in an open relationship: “and we’re getting married.” He did not reveal how many individuals that includes.

I appreciate full disclosure, but his advocacy threw some doubt on the stats he cited—that 4 percent to 5 percent of all adults are currently in consensually nonmonogamous relationships, for example. Or that almost 30 percent of adults under 44 see no problem with them. Maybe, maybe not. 

But the writer’s breezy disregard of marital norms is anything but serious: While granting that monogamy has the most successful track record of any social institution, we must keep up with the times. Science, Social Security, and changing gender roles have relaxed some of the old necessities, like producing children to support our old age. Shifting norms have washed out the stigma of nontraditional domestic arrangements. Poly marriages provide more interest and variety to a relationship, plus incentives to stay attractive to multiple partners, plus opportunities to build character, like learning to control natural jealousy. 

Is jealousy of a rival partner a character flaw, or a hard-wired accessory to any stable marriage?

Judging by the comments, no one was convinced. They questioned the professor’s stats and his casual dismissal of the unique problems polyamory would present to child-rearing. And is jealousy of a rival partner a character flaw, or a hard-wired accessory to any stable marriage? To my mind, though, the most devastating critique from the comments was this: “You can have some space for deviance but you can’t make deviance the norm.”

Picture a triangle. Any structural engineer will tell you there is no more stable figure. Bridges, roads, and skyscrapers would not exist without a sound underpinning of countless triangles. Picture a family: A man and woman become husband and wife, and in the normal course of events they produce and nurture one child, or two, or eight. Father, mother, and offspring make a triad, on which the children go on to make further triads, generation after generation, row upon row. This firm foundation builds a civilization. 

Many of those relationships falter and many break, to the detriment of the children. Many are less than blissful, and some are downright miserable. But if enough triangles are sound, society as a whole will keep building on top of them. A free society can even tolerate a certain number of squares or parallelograms or trapezoids, as long as there are enough triangles to maintain its structural integrity. It may look like a mess, but it won’t fall down.

I suspect there’s a deeper reason for the triadic structure of marriage, beyond providing a functional means to populate the earth. As Augustine observed, triadic structures form the foundation of the universe, built upon the creative dynamic of Father, Son, and Spirit. Peer into any corner of the natural world and you’re likely to find two distinctives held in tension by some sort of indispensable relationship: particle and wave, brain and mind, one and many. Reality can break down into smaller pieces, but the bond of three is irreducible.

Attempts to get creative with relationships are really about individual preference. Decide what you want, and what fulfills you, and any arrangement will hold as long as all participants feel the same. But individuals can’t hold society up; that’s a deviation. And you can’t make deviance the norm.