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Adjusting expectations: what does marriage mean, anyway?

With conservatives foaming at the mouth over gay marriage threatening their institution, it can be easy to overlook the question at the center of it all: just what is marriage, anyway?

Recently, some friends of mine in the local Boston community did a spot on 20/20 profiling their intertwined intimate community. It was an incredibly brave thing, and the spot painted them largely positively. But part of its message was also about rethinking how we define marriage. While gays and lesbians in this country are fighting hard for the same rights and responsibilities that straight couples easily enjoy, polyamorous folk are redefining marriage still further, to include multiple committed relationships. To the readers of this column, this concept is nothing new. But what do open relationships do to the common conception of marriage?

Back in October, I wrote an article for Loving More asking these questions for myself. I wondered what marriage meant for me when my own husband now had a second, serious, live-in partner. Since then, I've come to some new understandings and much greater comfort. But along the way, I definitely had to change how I was looking at marriage.

These days, I'm a lot more able to look at my partnerships individually, and really let them take their own shapes rather than forcing them into my image of what it means to be a husband, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a long-distance lover. Part of what this means is letting go of some of my pre-conceptions of "being the wife" - including that I'm the only one who gets to wear a ring. The practicalities of the arrangement I'm now living in allow for more love, more support, so long as I don't imagine that I'm going to be the one taking up the majority of my husband's time. At this point, his other partner and I share time with him almost equally; I've even joked that I'm now his "part-time wife." The reality, though, is that I'm still his wife, truly and completely. We are physically, emotionally and spiritually bonded, and the time we do spend together is precious. If anything, having it be three or four nights a week rather than every night makes it more precious, and gives us both a chance to breathe apart from one another. This can mean a lot when, as happened this past weekend, we're in a car together for eight hours at a stretch.

It took me a while to come to this level of comfort, and at times I'm still aware of what I've "given up," if I choose to look at it that way. But when we enter unions in which we agree to be polyamorous, part of what we agree to is that things might change in ways we don't anticipate. The heart is a mysterious organ; as one reader said at a wedding I just attended, "Love is a car with no brakes on a dark night." If anything, the attitude that love will blossom with other people over the course of your married life together is perhaps healthier than the attitude, common in monogamous pairings, that getting married means neither of you will ever be with anyone else again. But it can be difficult to get past our preconceived notions: the language of tradition is so powerful that some in this country can't even conceive of two people of the same sex deserving a legally recognized loving union. When your time and energy for loving relationship needs to be divided among more than one partner, even the most open-minded poly person can be challenged and fall back on relationship ideals which, in many ways, are highly conservative.

All of this is to say: just as the members of every poly relationship must create their own rules, so must every poly married couple decide what marriage means for them: veto power? Polyfidelity? Only dating other married or partnered people? Or seeking that elusive third partner for a triad?

In my own experience, the simple fact is that when you open yourself to love, it's near impossible to govern the shapes it will take. The best I've been able to do is to navigate by what my vows mean to me: that I will love my husband through the growth and changes that he and I experience, that I will always seek to support him through those changes, and that I will devote time and energy to creating a life of love with him. As might have been predicted, the road so far has been different than we could have imagined - and richer, more vibrant, more challenging.

Easy? By no means. But maybe marriage - however you define it - never is.

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