The marriage equality movement swirling out of Washington, D.C. has the punditocracy declaring an inevitable victory for the good guys. Eventually. But all along the defenders of traditional marriage have made some valid points: Once you redefine marriage as not being just between one man and one woman, what’s stopping people from marrying their favorite goat, as Bill O’Reilly famously pointed out? I suppose if batty heiresses can leave fortunes to their cats, there really shouldn’t be anything standing in the way of anthropobestial unions.
But let’s lock the animals away and assume for this entire marriage discussion that we’re talking exclusively about human rights. As Harry Cheadle on Vice asked in a piece entitled After Gay Marriage, Why Not Polygamy?, “Why are polyamorous marriages between consenting adults illegal?”
This brings up an issue I dwelled on in a post two years ago when I was reviewing Sister Wives, a reality show about a polygamist family. I’m sure I’m not the only person who watched that as well as the HBO drama about a similar family, Big Love, and thought, Why should these people live in such fear? Despite their fundamentalist religious beliefs, they are actually well meaning and loving, and above all devoted, excellent parents.
It’s not like polygamy is unnatural; it’s probably legal in more countries around the world than same-sex marriage. Okay, so it’s specifically nations in the Islamic world —there is one Hindu community in northern Nepal/Bhutan devoted to Mahabharata heroine Draupadi that allows polyandry — and that comes riddled with its own minefield of feminist issues, but the fact is there are ‘poligs’ in this country whose unions are not recognized, and that is unfair. A Supreme Court Justice would even point out they don’t have nearly the political sway that the gay community now enjoys, despite the scion of a formerly polygamist family having just run for President.
Monogamy is unnatural, literally: it doesn’t occur in the natural world, and we are no exception to that. In any case, as a lifestyle rule of thumb one should always be wary of words with ‘mono’ as a suffix; they’re either boring or deadly: to wit, monotony, mononucleosis, monochrome, and so forth.
But monogamy is clearly the desired state of being, in Western culture at least, and current marriage laws seem to be in place particularly to cement that desire for unity and fidelity, and to protect property and inheritance, ironically by making two people the personal property of each other. It’s self-enslavement, no matter how blissful the union, and that often leads to discord. Yes, there are certainly some exceptions, some truly monogamous unions, but they are in the minority. Most people in the West can and do have multiple partners throughout one lifetime, as they should. Marriage is an encumbrance, but so is citizenship, borders, and so forth, and this isn’t a John Lennon song, so let me get to the point.
What is interesting about the Cheadle quote from Vice is he uses the word “polyamorous,” which narrows the focus of polygamy because it assumes there is love involved, that it isn’t just the expectations of a certain culture; in my experience, most polygamist marriages in the Islamic world are arranged. Although the Qu’ran does allow for women to have some say in their fate, that isn’t the reality of their plight, and it seems the Mormon polygamists likewise have a number of cultural pressures and restrictions they place on women. In other words, there’s generally little Cupid-quivered amor in it.
I think I’m like most people: I’m too insecure and mono-focused to handle true polyamory. And that means it disturbs my comfort zone, which means I need to shake things up within myself and explore new possibilities. I decided after reading the Vice article that I needed to experiment with a polyamorous relationship, especially seeing as I had the possibility of one sitting on my lap, often literally.
For the past year or so, I’ve had this kinda sorta romantic friendship thing with another filmmaker. The scene usually goes like this: He comes over for drinks or a party, and when the inhibitions have finally fallen away, some sort of physical union takes place, which then resets itself the next day back to kinda sorta nothing. And we’ve both been fine with that; I have never had any of that crushy intense ‘romantic’ emotion towards him, sometimes known as limerence, which I’ve fallen victim to a number of times in my life, as have many people.
Things have been getting cozier between us the past few weeks. But I’ve also always felt Kinda Sorta would be better suited to another friend of mine, for whom I once had those more intrusive limerent feelings, but the relationship has now evolved into a deep, treasured friendship. I’ll call him Old Flame.
Over a boozy night a few weeks ago and the subsequent pillow talk the next morning with Kinda Sorta, I suggested that maybe he and Old Flame should date. When he asked why I would want that—a reasonable question to someone with whom you’ve just made love and who ends the whole thing with the suggestion you date someone else—I replied, “I love both of you, and I think you would be good together,” perhaps already sensing a potential polyamorous situation. Also, Old Flame is Cuban, and Kinda Sorta prefers Latinos to Celts like me, and Kinda Sorta is Old Flame’s exact type. I’ve tried to push them together before at gatherings, but somehow Kinda Sorta always ended up in bed with me.
They needed more of a push, and by Saturday, the day after I read the Vice piece, I decided the time was now.
I went over to Old Flame’s house, my mind abuzz with purpose, like Jane Austen’s Emma pursuing a new matchmaking project. He was entertaining two women I’d never met before, but perfect strangers have never stopped me from expressing exactly what’s on my mind. I sat down opposite Old Flame and said, “Listen, this whole marriage equality has me thinking and [blah, blah, tangent, tangent] I’ve decided you and I should have a polyamorous relationship with Kinda Sorta.” Having only shaken my hand for the first time minutes before, the women almost fell off their chairs, but Old Flame is quite used to the outrageousness of me, so he took it in stride and said, “Yeah. Why not?”
While everyone else was now heatedly engaged in the subject of polyamory, I texted Kinda Sorta and told him to join us. He arrived shortly after the two women left.
Still not in the subtlest of moods, I instantly turned it into some sort of production meeting and informed Kinda Sorta what the game plan was as if we were going over a shot list. I actually thought of saying, “Okay. One, two, three… Go!” But the awkwardness simply bounced and tumbled among the palm trees of Hollywood like Buster Keaton pratfalling in slow motion.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Immediately feeling like an idiot for proposing this, I amused myself by imagining a big Conga line of free-love advocates through the ages, headed by members of the Bloomsbury Set, trailed by F. Scott Fitzgerald Jazz Age characters, ending with hippies, all bopping to The Turtles’ “So Happy Together”:
Me and you
And you and me
No matter how they tossed the dice
It had to be
The only one for me is you
And you for me
So happy together!”
Ironically, the song is yet another paean to monogamy, like most love songs ever, but somehow the words and tune fit the scene.
Kinda Sorta turned to Old Flame and said, “I suppose he said all of this in front of the women he didn’t know who were just here.”
“Yeah, he did,” Old Flame replied.
And things just got weirder from then on in. It didn’t help that we were smoking this super-strong Indica strain of ‘medicinal’ weed that had us almost tripping, and so far up in our heads that we were barely connecting with each other for normal conversation, forget polyamorous bliss, you know, a future imaged with three figurines of men standing atop a Baroque white cake, followed by a scene of a pair of Labradors chasing a pack of adopted children of ever color around the pool of our gay polygamist compound in Silverlake.
Like I said, really trippy pot.
The upshot of the evening is I ended up in bed alone, and Old Flame and Kinda Sorta never even exchanged numbers, much less joined my imaginary Conga line of free love. Worse, as of this writing, Kinda Sorta is now definitely not.
Still, it was a topical situation ripe for exploration. Maybe if I’d played it with more subtly it could have turned out differently. But now I know experientially why polyamory isn’t at all easy, much less common. So, much as I’m marching on Washington in my mind on behalf of poligs and their rights, I have a feeling that serial traditional relationships with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy towards the occasional outside dalliance are probably more my speed. After all, there must be some reason they call it ‘a couple’ in all five languages this polyglot speaks.