Deborah Anapol is a psychologist whose long time concern over domestic violence has evolved into research into alternative family and marriage styles that might break the negative cycle. She lives with her daughter in Muir Beach, California.
SOMETIME IN THE FALL of 1983 I had a startling insight. It gave coherence to my relationship history, including my two failed marriages. It resolved my lifelong sense that my sexual feelings were at once wonderful and out of synch with accepted societal norms. It incorporated my professional focus on the flaws in family structure which spawn epidemic wife beating and child abuse. It freed me from over 5 years of scrutinizing my internal and external worlds, looking for what was wrong. Suddenly, in a flash, nothing was wrong! Everything made sense. And it was so simple: I HAD BEEN A POLYGAMOUS WOMAN ALL MY LIFE, TRYING TO FIT MYSELF INTO A MOLD THAT NEITHER FIT ME NOR MY PERCEPTION OF THE TIMES I WAS LIVING IN. After more than a decade of struggling with relationship issues, I saw that the trouble might well be less with me (or with my partners or with not choosing or being chosen by the "right" partner) than it was with a simple mismatch between me and monogamy, or the institution of marriage as we know it.
My professional training, my spiritual education and my personal philosophy all pointed in the opposite direction – that maturity and peace came with tempering the will through acceptance of and skillful working with the reality of one’s circumstances. Yet my insight and my gut rang with the truth that the circumstance called monogamy and marriage was what needed to bend. And possibly for more people than just me.
I scanned my sexual and relationship history from the point of view of a polygamous and sexually awake woman moving through a monogamous and generally sexually repressed world. What follows are some snap-shots from this history. . .
I began to explore the world of sexual relationship before my 15th birthday. From the beginning I had the experience of, on the one hand, being completely at home, happy, peaceful, self-confident when I was making love with a man and, on the other hand, knowing that I was violating social and cultural rules and taboos, and there would be a price to pay for this disparity. There was.
Marriage #1 Steven, Tom and I were best friends. Together, the three of us, we were happy and alive. Tom and I had been lovers once, but "of course" the sex had to stop when Steven and I got married. I didn’t see why, but that was the way it was. Nothing else even occurred to us. Tom, naturally, felt left out when we got married without him. We all missed each other. Sex with Steven was not good – marrying him was a death sentence for my sex life – but we had such great head love. I thought because we shared ideals and good intentions everything would be all right. Shortly after the birth of our daughter I left him. I hadn’t realized he’d be unable to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. Two children were too much for me. Now I wonder, what if Steven, Tom and I had gone on as three? Would my daughter have had two fathers instead of none?
After this marriage, many lovers and a couple of "serious" relationships, I thought of myself as experienced. Then I met a man who triggered in me a state which up until then I’d assumed was only a romantic fantasy. With John I literally saw stars. The whole world was transformed. When he made love to me, I sensed that he was worshipping the divine. It was nothing short of revelation. Intellectually I knew that I had the power to feel this way, but emotionally I felt that I needed him to give it to me. I became afraid of losing him, losing this beautiful new life. I became attached. He could not tolerate attachment. So, we separated. But I never forgot the knowledge of what sex could be – divine communion.
Marriage #2 I was a single parent with a preschool child, struggling to make it through graduate school on a teaching fellowship in a strange town, when we met. He’d come from a stable, close-knit family in the Midwest. He was lonely. His father was dying of cancer. He wanted to get married. He was the kind of man mothers tell their daughters to marry: responsible, ambitious, personable. We were good companions. Maybe this was the rational, mature thing to do. At least, that’s what I told myself. Never mind that I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of marriage. Never mind that I still love every man I’ve ever loved. Maybe marriage is OK, with "the right kind of man."
By the fall of 1980 this second marriage was becoming intolerable. It looked good on the outside. One friend even told me we gave her hope that marriage could work. That was when I knew I had to stop living a lie. The trouble was, we never really connected at a deep level. We liked each other, but we always wanted to make each other over into someone else. The same jealousy, dependency and need to control that I saw in the abusive marriages I’d studied for my Ph.D. existed, at a more moderate level, in my own marriage; the same possessiveness, projections, confusion of boundaries.
As I see it now, this second marriage was a classic case of relationship-as-an-end-in-itself. We had no common goal or shared purpose for our relationship other than our own personal convenience – and creating one more nuclear family. His number one priority was to preserve the relationship; my number one priority was to perfect myself and create a better world. We were at cross purposes. He wanted me to grow, but he also feared that the relationship could not survive or contain my expansion. And he was right.
More Than One. And then I looked at my most recent relationships. Quite by "accident" I met five different men within the space of a month who became my lovers. It felt wonderful to exchange this much love. And, quite by "accident," they were all into non-exclusive, nonpossessive relationships, so there was no conflict over expectations or demands. They were all very different from each other, and they each brought something unique to our relationship. I had given up looking for one man who had it all.
Slowly they met each other, and I met their other lovers. We got a taste of what it would be like to be part of a network where everyone was a lover. We delighted in giving each other the gift of new friends. Eventually I began to long for deeper commitment, more sharing. I wanted us all to live together – but not all of us connected on every level, not all of us had identical visions. So, we drifted apart . . . but this was an important piece in my relationship puzzle.
As I scanned these "facts" from my past, I wondered . . . could this recent experience be the new mating behavior of polygamous people? Might we be seeking to expand our committed relationships through this love-network, and not merely be "hedonists" who are "unable to make commitments"? Might there be a higher level of integration and relationship being born while monogamy and marriage and family are seeming to disintegrate? Might the urge to bond with many like-minded beings on many levels – including the sexual – be an expression of humanity’s growing spiritual awareness?
I came to understand and accept myself as a polygamous woman. It was just a fact for me that anyone I love I want to have sex with. It seemed crazy to legislate loving only one person, especially when there may be many polygamous people out there. Loving another person doesn’t mean you stop loving the first – not if it’s a high quality connection. What a terrible burden to place on a person: to be the one for whom he/she forsook all others. The real difficulty of polygamy is the time it takes to relate to more people deeply. But it also frees time from internal (domestic) and external (economic) functions.
Monogamy for me had been an uncomfortable either/or balancing act – freedom or intimacy, flexibility or loyalty, change or commitment. Polygamy had given me a framework for how to integrate these polarities in a responsible way. Stability and excitement. Security and freedom. Intimacy and inclusiveness. Depth and diversity.
A journal entry from that time:
I cannot live in close proximity, in daily intimate contact with a person I love and care about without experiencing a growing sexual attraction. And I certainly don’t want to live with a person or people I don’t feel close to. Unexpressed and unacknowledged sexual attractions eventually create tensions, anxiety, conflict, avoidance – and there goes the happy home.
We are all out to lunch when it comes to sexual ethics. We have internalized the economics of inheritance and the monetary exchange value of sexual gratification to such an extent that we disbelieve in the abundance of love. We fear exploitation and theft of our affections without a fair return of commitment, caring, sincerity. We reject others and anticipate their rejection of us. Are sex and intimacy such rare commodities that we must hoard them?
My professional self entered the internal review. If polygamy were an accepted relationship form in our society, might it ease some of the deep social problems of, on the one hand, family violence and disintegration and, on the other hand, the alienation of the maritally disenfranchised – the lonely single? Again, the response was yes, YES! If we really want to save the family we must expand its boundaries. There is strength in numbers. What function does it serve to insist on monogamy? It keeps the family weak, contracted and unsteady because it is always vulnerable to the threat of loss. With monogamy, if Mom or Dad should love another, they could not be included in the family – they must replace the spouse. Destroy the family. Divorce. Why is adultery as grounds for divorce such a given?
In a larger group, an individual may leave temporarily – or permanently – for career/emotional/personal reasons without destroying the family. Parents can get time off. Dependency, while destructive, is often the glue of bonding, keeping people together when conflict, friction and challenges come up. In polygamy, dependency is diffused, spread between several adults, thus lessening the burden on any one person.
As families become smaller with Zero Population Growth the adult to child ratio goes up, but children lose the opportunity to have siblings. Extended families or clans would give these children brothers and sisters.
Through all of this personal and societal reflection, I have come to believe that a multi-partner model for family and sexual relationships is not only consistent with the values of a humane, sustainable culture, but that to create alternatives to monogamy (or serial monogamy) as legitimate options is, as Buckminster Fuller would say, a critical path task.
I have been researching polygamous relationships for over a year now in an intentional way. Who else is out there? What can we learn from each other? How can we empower each other? How can we serve society with our collective wisdom?
I now know that many people are experimenting with and actualizing relationships, marriages, and sexuality that go beyond the couple. They are discovering what works and what doesn’t; they have found routes beyond jealousy and possessiveness, beyond dependency and insecurity, beyond ignorance, fear and guilt in their sexuality . . . but they are not sharing this vital information publicly for fear of being judged. They are wary of the loss of respect and credibility both from the alternative community and for the alternative community. This silence perpetuates the illusions that: 1) only the Moral Majority is concerned about the crisis in the family; 2) most people are satisfied with and find fulfillment in exclusive couple/nuclear arrangements; 3) the experiments of the 60s and 70s are a thing of the past, a dead-end; 4) anyone who prefers multi-partner relationships is either immature and immoral or (worse yet) unrealistic and idealistic; and 5) it is improper to openly discuss our emotional, sexual, and physical needs, desires and solutions in ways which allow us to learn from each other, draw closer to each other and leave the tyranny of habit behind.
Having pursued this line of thinking for two years now, I find I am in position to help midwife the birth of new relationship forms, new family structures, and new conceptions of sexuality with the intent of creating more freedom, more responsibility and more love in the world. They say that with awareness comes responsibility – and I confess that sometimes I am frightened by the immensity of this task. Where will I find the resources? Where will it all lead?
In the last few months I’ve found myself suddenly on national television and radio, fielding phone calls from would- be polygamists all over the country. My research has turned up working prototypes – and scores of people who are already in way over their heads, desperately in need of guidance. I make haste slowly to package what I know in the form of a book, workshops, resource directory. I dream of a newsletter, a network, new legislation. Maybe I’m being grandiose. My friends worry about my ego. They remind me I’m not alone.
When I encounter my fears, I remind myself . . . there is a part of me which is wiser, stronger, more truthful, more creative and more courageous than the everyday self I have been taught to present to the world. This self emerges at critical moments with solutions which rise above the apparent paradoxes which I experience as blocks. I have learned to trust it as the most enlightened part of myself. And this self is a polygamist.
I invite you to join me in stepping outside the conditioning which limits our inherent creativity in imaging the family and relationship choices which will sustain us in the future – and in the present.