Love and desire are imprinted with happiness and hope, but also, as everyone knows, with agonizing suffering. It’s a hard-and-fast existential law: The sublime feeling that we seek mightily to achieve entails torments that we would wish to avoid at any price. This law may seem unfair, but its logic is straightforward. A relationship fulfills a basic yearning for connection, and thereby heightens the quality of being. However, even the best relationship will inevitably come to an end, through parting, leaving or unavoidable death – and therein lies a bitter taste. Furthermore, in a relationship, we are perforce subjected to painful memories of separation, hurt or abandonment that we experienced in the past and repressed, particularly in our relations with our parents during childhood. The result is that every moment of intimacy is strewn with seeds of fear and pain. No one has ever succeeded in overcoming this and still remained human.
In a relationship, this ineluctable sequence is accompanied by variables of time and restoration. Time passed has the power to enhance a relationship – to create a shared history, stability, security and friendship. At the same time, routine operates like oxygen on iron and is liable to cause corrosion.
Sleeping together is a relatively good gauge of the quality of a relationship. Initially the lovers sleep pressed up against each other, as if they shared one body. The distance between them is a seismograph of amorous closeness; as Leonard Cohen wrote, “And everything depends upon / how near you sleep to me.” Afterward, under time’s corrosive power, that can all change. The partners will go to sleep at different times, in different beds, with newspapers and apps in their hands, and with very different feelings from those experienced at the start of the relationship. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “when human beings who hate each other / are forced to sleep together in a bed: / then, solitude runs with the rivers running...” (from Rilke, “Selected Poems,” translated by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland).
It’s regrettable, but over enough time, even someone who once stirred an emotional storm within us might be experienced as unpleasant or repulsive. This phenomenon is not confined solely to humans. Baboons, for example, are highly social creatures. They never live separately from their mother group, because a solitary baboon is a dead baboon. However, research found that when they are placed in a crowded cage, during relocation to a new zoo, they turn their back on one another during the journey. The need to share a small chamber brings about pressure and discomfort among these sociable animals. This willful ignoring by baboons of the presence of other baboons bears a certain resemblance to a couple who sleep in separate rooms. The arrangement can reduce the tension generated by the presence of the unbearable other.
Every couple in a lengthy monogamous relationship is well acquainted with the dilemma of time and routine. The faithfulness on which the relationship is based enhances personal security but over time anesthetizes desire. Some couples separate in order to renew desire elsewhere. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed, in his book “Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds,” that the capitalist economy in our time has persuaded us that a better product might easily be waiting around the corner, even in social, spousal or sexual relations.
Yet there are also fortunate people who even after a relationship of many years are able to preserve the spark – nothing will cool their mutual ardor. Others maintain the relationship but look for the flame outside that framework. Since at least the time of King David and his paramour Bathsheba, having an affair has been a possibility open to women and men alike. An affair is based on concealment and a feeling of sinning, which have an aphrodisiacal effect: “Stolen waters are sweet” (Proverbs 9:17). Esther Perel maintains, in her book “Mating in Captivity,” that desire is in the transgression.
But secrecy and cheating act in parallel against the security of institutionalized relationships. Secrets create an emotional thrust of lying, which wounds the couple’s meaningful intimacy. Lying also weakens the individual’s inner morality, which is a cornerstone of the psyche and a sine qua non for healthy functioning.
In the course of the search for an appropriate answer to the dilemma of desire and security in a relationship, another solution emerged, known as polyamory. The term means “a multiplicity of loves,” and its aim is to overcome monogamous routine without resorting to lies and cheating. Polyamory advocates maintaining a number of romantic relationships simultaneously, all of them open and known to everyone involved in them. The intention is to bite the apple of desire without forgoing one’s home – and the apple image is not accidental, as we will see later.
In contrast to open sexual relationships, polyamory is an attempt to maintain full and unconcealed relationships with more than one partner. The declared intention is not to multiply regular partners for sexual relations, but to multiply love and emotional bonds.
Capitalist economic logic works here masterfully: Diversity and quantity are considered hallmarks of abundance and freedom, indicators of success and self-fulfillment. More is better, it would seem. The interesting question concerns the psychic implications of this form of relationship. To consider the question from the psychological viewpoint, I interviewed a number of individuals who are in a polyamorous relationship, and was able to identify several significant characteristics.
‘My two passions!’
The first discovery about polyamorous relationships relates to demographics. In Israel, those involved in such relationships can be divided into two groups. One group consists of young women and men in late adolescence or in their twenties. They are examining the possible relationships that exist for them as part of a process, which began in early adolescence, of discovering their identity. These young people defy some of the conventions of the hegemonic, monogamous scenario and adopt liberal, egalitarian views about gender, relationships and sexuality.
The second group consists of people, mostly in their late thirties or early forties, who have been married for a number of years. They are parents of children, economically well-off, educated and may wield clout in society. The leading figures of this group in Israel are women – postmodern priestesses of love – who, in the fourth or fifth decade of their lives, have had their fill of the societal conventions of relationships. One might think that men would be the ones to spearhead the opening up of traditional relationships, but that is archaic thinking. Men usually prefer the old order, and are hurt when it is violated.
Explaining their choice of this singular type of lifestyle, polyamorous people tend to resort to food-related imagery. The most frequent mantra is that polyamory involves the ability to have your cake and eat it, too. The connection between sexual or emotional fulfillment and food is interesting, as they are needs that converse with one another. In one “Seinfeld” episode, George confesses that the height of his desires is to eat while having sex. “Food and sex – those are my two passions! It’s only natural to combine them,” George tells Jerry. Next, we see George gorging himself on pastrami on rye with mustard and then throwing himself on his partner. She, by the way, tolerates the “fornicating gourmet” (as Jerry calls him) – until he puts on earphones to listen to his favorite radio program, which is where the girl draws the line. George has learned yet again that narcissism has its limits.
By the way, food, sex and feeling are interconnected not only as mutual stimulants but also as compensatory mechanisms. Appetite comes and goes according to the fluctuations of the heart. Some people will devour quantities of carbohydrates upon experiencing heartbreak or the distress of loneliness, while others will eat nothing for weeks. In serious cases, the preoccupation with food reflects another crisis, earlier and more injurious, as in the connection between eating disorders and past physical or sexual attacks. The frequent polyamorous image of diversified, large-scale, endless eating that has no end and no price, could also be interpreted as compensation for unsatisfied needs.
Another key element of polyamory is that even though it is described as entailing multiple loves from all the parties, in practice it is not like that. In most of the relationships, there is a dominant individual – from either sex – who maintains an overt and known parallel relationship with at least two other people. Those two are invited to pursue relationships of their own but are less likely to do so, or will do so less frequently. The result is the formation of an emotional hierarchy in this relationship structure. In all the conversations I conducted, the dominant individual admitted that she or he felt better and more loving in one of the relationships, while the other was still pleasant for him but he was slightly less loving in it. This is a well-known phenomenon among polyamorous people, and it even has a name: along with the primary couple there is the other, known as “the secondary.”
Polyamory is a fascinating phenomenon of intimacy. One party is dominant and enjoys two relationships at least, with preference for one of them. A second party is the preferred one, whose relationship with the dominant person is stronger. The other party is the secondary and is satisfied with that. The secondary is present from the side, summoning up emotional and sexual energy. He constitutes the forbidden, the threat, but also redemption for the couple. In some cases, jealousy is aroused, but at the same time this person is a unifying force, as he possesses the alien presence of an enemy.
Each of the parties involved gets an answer to their own needs. The dominant person maintains one strong relationship but needs to be in an additional relationship in order to feel completely satisfied. For the other two, a divided relationship suffices – one in which they share the dominant one with others. Possibly they don’t believe they are entitled to one full relationship, or that the burden of one relationship is too heavy for them, so they prefer to share it.
To employ the terminology of the philosopher Martin Buber, polyamory is a psychic relationship that contains within it at any given time I-thou relations that are inclusive and I-it relations that are exclusive. The beloved is experienced as a full human subject, but when one is with another beloved, the first one becomes a foreign, object-like being. Thus, in the polyamorous psyche, an ambivalent mixture is formed that intertwines love and alienation. At the moment of love, an emotional bond is realized with one beloved, but unavoidably also a distancing from another, who a moment earlier was a beloved himself. The heart’s confusion in this systematic manner creates self-alienation and pain, and in the end reduces rather than augments intimacy.
Pain is indeed a frequent characteristic of polyamory. The multiplicity of relationships entails a necessary entry into the minefield of jealousy. Everyone who is involved in this type of relationship must cope with a situation in which their partner is with others, sleeps with them, shares intimate time, and time as such, with them and has feelings for them. Many participants in polyamorous relationships are occupied obsessively with different forms of unavoidable pain. As one polyamourous interviewee told me, "We suffer like wild animals." They talk a great deal about overcoming the desire to be possessive about the other, about releasing the other into a state of sexual and emotional freedom, and about their efforts to accommodate insecurity or instability. The emotional suffering they undergo by choice is by no means minor. A threat to faithfulness triggers the emotional system at the level of survival itself and is never calm.
The psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow argues that there is a basic need, which is meant to be responded to in infancy, to the effect that one is the total object of love of one’s parent. Everyone longs to feel that at least one person in the world – mother or father – thinks that he is irreplaceable and that it is impossible to do without him.
Adult love reprises this desire: The exclusivity of monogamy has roots in the early intimate experiences with our parents. We yearn for someone who will be solely ours, in every situation and in every place, as our primary caregivers were supposed to be in our childhood. There are few more reinforcing assertions than “You are the only woman I am attracted to,” or “You are the only man I want to sleep with.” An assertion like that satisfies completely, just as its opposite is painful: A male or female partner who chooses someone else instead of us will generate in us an untenable feeling of rejection.
What happens to a person who does not feel in childhood that he is an absolute object of his parents’ love, due to parental unavailability or selfishness, maternal depression or paternal absence? He is liable to develop personality disorders, be suspicious of every relationship and find it difficult to hold onto one relationship in a stable, sure way. Research has found that this pattern is indeed related to difficulties of managing relationships in adulthood. A woman or a man who fits this description might not make do with one relationship, might refuse to believe that he or she deserves to be loved exclusively or, alternatively, might pursue eternally a perfect relationship that is nonexistent. They also harbor a masochistic wish to undergo repeatedly the experience of the nonsatisfaction of their needs in childhood.
That’s exactly what happens to the polyamorous. They choose to undergo the experience of repeatedly undermining the bond of love, from a place that seems to them interesting and exciting. Whenever the partner goes with another, openly and consciously, they experience the primal abandonment. That is very painful, but pain, too, is a learned habit that is not easy to shake off. The sympathy that polyamorous individuals receive from a new partner, alongside the sexual aspect, provide them with a veneer of rationalization that allows them to pursue this behavior. They conceptualize experience as inquiry and maturation. But both postures conceal the fact that they are effectively revisiting the painful arena of the primal unsatisfactory bond. Instead of recovering from the wound, they scratch it.
Relationships are doomed always to converse with the past. Polyamory is another relationship that is fated to return eternally to basic relationships from childhood. It’s interesting, as it gives the impression of being a liberal and bold posture, but in practice it is another way of being imprisoned in one’s personal history. As such, it illustrates one's limited ability to move away from the patterns of the past, as long as awareness of them has not truly awakened, and genuine awareness is examined through choice. Observing it also underscores the difficulty of realizing love in our time, and shows that division and multiplication are not the way to stir desire and preserve love. Quantity or diversity are of no use in this regard, as they cannot prevent the reenactment of the primal pattern. Instead, the way lies in understanding the connection between the way in which we were loved, the love we acquire for ourselves and the love we are capable of bestowing on the other.
Gabriel Bukobza is a psychologist, researcher and lecturer at both the Peres Academic Center and Tel Aviv University.