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Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy. To render it palatable to critics, activists and theorists often accentuate its similarity to monogamy. I argue that this strategy conceals the distinctive character of polyamorous intimacy. A more discriminating account of polyamory helps me answer objections to the lifestyle whilst noting some of its unique pitfalls. I define polyamory, and explain why people pursue this lifestyle. Many think polyamory is an inferior form of intimacy; I describe four of their main objections. I explain how commitment to ‘the polyamorous possibility’ prompts one to viscerally experience personal, practical, and social constraints. Unlike monogamous dynamics, these confrontations are mediated by third parties who destabilise the familiar dynamics of coupled life. Polyamory can be emotionally challenging but, as I outline in the article, it is sustained by interpersonal emotional work that helps people feel and understand their emotions, communicate without confrontation, and contain the difficult emotions of others. This work is qualitatively and quantitatively intensified in polyamory. Finally, I rebut objections to polyamory whilst also acknowledging the ways polyamory has its own pitfalls.
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory
ABSTRACT Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy. To render it palatable to
critics, activists and theorists often accentuate its similarity to monogamy. I argue that this
strategy conceals the distinctive character of polyamorous intimacy. A more discriminating
account of polyamory helps me answer objections to the lifestyle whilst noting some of its
unique pitfalls. I dene polyamory, and explain why people pursue this lifestyle. Many think
polyamory is an inferior form of intimacy; I describe four of their main objections. I explain
how commitment to the polyamorous possibilityprompts one to viscerally experience personal,
practical, and social constraints. Unlike monogamous dynamics, these confrontations are
mediated by third parties who destabilise the familiar dynamics of coupled life. Polyamory can
be emotionally challenging but, as I outline in the article, it is sustained by interpersonal emo-
tional work that helps people feel and understand their emotions, communicate without con-
frontation, and contain the difcult emotions of others. This work is qualitatively and
quantitatively intensied in polyamory. Finally, I rebut objections to polyamory whilst also
acknowledging the ways polyamory has its own pitfalls.
Desires for intimacy that bypass the couple or the life narrative it generates
have no alternative plots, let alone few laws and stable spaces of culture in
which to clarify and cultivate them. What happens to the energy of attach-
ment when it has no designated place? To the glances, gestures, encounters,
collaborations, or fantasies that have no canon?
1. Introduction
Much has changed since Lauren Berlant wrote those words in 1998. Non-monoga-
mous and uncoupled people are increasingly visible and are shaping theoretical discus-
sion of relationships, sexuality, and love.
As more people openly build their lives with
multiple partners, it becomes difcult to agree with Robert Nozick, who opined that,
it is not feasible for a person simultaneously to be part of multiple romantic couples
(or a trio), even were the person to desire this
or with Robert Solomon, who
claimed, if one can love more than one person romantically, it will certainly be a
source of conict.
I shall defend the viability of polyamory. Polyamory is a form of consensual non-
monogamy that Nozick and Solomon would deem unfeasible. To render it palatable
to critics, activists and theorists often accentuate polyamorys similarity to monogamy.
I argue that this strategy conceals the distinctive character of polyamorous intimacy.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main
Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
Journal of Applied Philosophy
doi: 10.1111/japp.12240
A more discriminating account of polyamory helps me answer objections to the life-
style whilst heeding its unique pitfalls.
In Section 2, I dene polyamory, and explain why people become polyamorous.
Many think polyamorous intimacy is inferior and I describe four main objections in
Section 3. In Section 4, I explain how commitment to the polyamorous possibility
prompts one to viscerally experience personal, practical, and social constraints. Unlike
monogamous dynamics, these confrontations are mediated by third parties who desta-
bilise the familiar dynamics of coupled life. Polyamory can be emotionally challenging
but, as I outline in Section 5, it is sustained by interpersonal emotional work that
helps people understand their emotions, communicate without confrontation, and
contain the difcult emotions of others. This work is qualitatively and quantitatively
intensied in polyamory. In Sections 6 and 7, I address the objections to polyamory
whilst acknowledging some of its distinct pitfalls.
2. Polyamory
Monogamous norms historically concerned marriage. They prohibited marriage to
multiple people at once, and regulated sequential marriages.
Today, however,
monogamy describes the connement of ones romantic and sexual attention to one
person at a time. (Monogamous relationships are dyadic and exclusive.)
People deviate from monogamy in various ways; from adultery, to swinging, or
polyamory. Unlike cheating, polyamory is a paradigmatic form of consensual non-
Alexis Shotwell denes polyamory as the practice of consensually and with
mutual interest negotiating desire for more than one relationship.
This denition, which
perhaps surprisingly says nothing of love, aptly captures the complexity of polyamory.
It reects the fact that one can be polyamorous without currently being in a relation-
ship; it is silent on the subjects of the desire in question (one partner in a couple may
desire multiple relationships, the other not); and it captures the honest and interper-
sonal character of polyamory.
Deborah Anapol suggests that, the form [a polyamorous] relationship takes is less
important than the underlying values.
Unlike Shotwell, however, she emphasises the
centrality of love:
... the freedom of surrendering to love and allowing love not just sexual
passion, not just social norms and religious strictures, not just emotional reac-
tions and unconscious conditioning to determine the shape of our intimate
relationships is the essence of polyamory.
Neither denition foregrounds sex, which is tting because the connection between
sexual desire and polyamory is not straightforward. Someone with limited sexual
desire, for instance, may pursue a polyamorous relationship so their partner can be
fullled sexually. Polyamory is notable for privileging emotional intimacy with others.
Such intimacy is typically guarded against in other forms of consensual
All forms of polyamory are characterised what Christian Klesse calls the basic
axiom: honesty.
Polyamorous people aim to be honest about their feelings, desires,
and expectations. This honesty helps polyamorists explicitly shape their relationship
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
2Luke Brunning
boundaries, which take different forms. Some polyamorous relationships have a
dened hierarchical structure, often involving primary partnerswho might live
together, share nances, or raise children.
Such partners are privileged in terms of
time, emotional involvement, and decision-making.
Other polyamorists eschew expli-
cit hierarchy on principle or because there is no natural corecouple. This often hap-
pens in veerelationships, where Beatrice simultaneously has a relationship with
Adam, and a relationship with Claire, but Adam and Claire are not in a relationship
with each other.
Polyamory has broad appeal because it resonates with two diverging political out-
looks. Some nd polyamory accords with individualistic liberalism because it values
autonomy and explicit choice. As one of Elizabeth Sheffs interviewees puts it:
... polyamory helps me, especially as a woman, to keep my autonomy so I
dont lose myself ... It helps me to dene what I want and set my boundaries
and take relationships at what [sic] I need.
Other people are drawn to a communitarian vision of polyamory. They want to
nurture wider intimate groups without limiting romantic intimacy to the traditional
Either way, polyamory can appear to remedy the perceived failures of monogamy.
Most people have seen relationships falter for lack of individual autonomy, or through
want of variety. In pursuing a relationship that prizes honesty, communication, and
the possibility of further intimacy, perhaps one can avoid a faltering relationship from
the offset.
For some, polyamory offers a way to accommodate the burgeoning intimacy they
are already experiencing, such as love for someone other than their partner. In those
situations, polyamory offers an honest and considerate way of nurturing affection for
multiple people.
However, the impact of having multiple relationships is not simply additive. It is
qualitatively different. Robert Solomon captures an important dimension of romantic
love when he argues love is the mutual creation of self-identity.
He argues that
whilst ones sense of self emerges in concert with many others, particularly ones care-
givers and friends, romantic love makes a denitivedifference. Romantic love, with
its attendant vulnerability, draws another person beyond the many fragments of ones
public self, to a perspective of greater intimacy, where one is seen as a stable unity.
Solomon thinks that one and only one other personmay play this stabilising role.
Polyamorous people will disagree. Whilst love might help to forge the self, ones frag-
mented parts can be unied from different perspectives. Thus some pursue polyamory
because they value the experience of being seen as a different person, in the eyes of
multiple people. This experience can be playful, revelatory, and pleasurable; it also
helps diminish loves idealisations, because it is harder to endorse a single inated
conception of oneself.
The effort people invest in romantic life, searching for the one, attests to many
peoples strong desire for companionship, intimacy, and love; and the pleasure people
take in the activities of seduction, conversation, irtation, dating, seems largely non-
instrumental. But these aspects of human sociality are stied by mononormativity: the
ideal that love, intimacy, and sex ought only be offered to one person.
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The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 3
polyamorous people place fewer limits on these activities. They value the process of
exploring human intimacy rather than the goal of securing a partner.
Put differently, many polyamorous people are unwilling to endorse what Nathan
Rambukkana calls the hegemonic fantasisesof mononormative society. These include
the perpetuation of arbitrary categorical distinctions between sexual and non-sexual
forms of intimacy, such as friendship and more signicantrelationships, and the
assumption that only certain forms of intimacy [e.g. love, and sex] can be articulated
together to constitute coherent or desirable life structures.
Polyamory suits people
whose attractions disrupt the binary of the intimate and non-intimate.
Polyamory is also conducive to self-development. For instance, it can help people
explore their sexuality. Polyamorous bisexuals can have relationships with differently
gendered partners, and multiple relationships can enable one to explore BDSM even
if ones partner is uninterested. Polyamory is often a route to a life of abundance, vari-
ety, and pleasure.
Other polyamorous people value the emotional challenges of the lifestyle. Polyamory
may help someone address aspects of their character they perceive to be negative, such
as their selshness or jealousy, or change their general approach to relationships. The
religiously minded, from Fundamentalist Mormons to Buddhists, describe this value
in spiritual terms.
Others, enticed by polyamorys utopian possibilities think these
instrumental benets can support new forms of social life.
Finally, polyamory can reect social change. As nancial and geographical pressures
alter family life, many embrace families of choice.
Polyamorous networks can help
people cope with the instability of modern living.
3. Strategic Similarities
Much writing about polyamorous relationships stresses their similarity to monogamous
relationships. One of Meg-John Barkers interviewees is typical: I dont think [poly-
amory is] vastly different to monogamous relationships. Romantic relationships are
always about the same kinds of things: fun, friendship, sex.
This rhetorical strategy
is motivated by theoretical, political, and ethical concerns.
Theoretically, romantic love is usually characterised as having an exclusive and dya-
dic focus. But if one heeds how polyamorous people describe their emotional experi-
ences, and there is no prima facie reason not to, this characterisation appears false, and
polyamorous love looks similar to monogamous love.
Politically, polyamorist activists seeking legal rights are incentivised to highlight the
similarities between polyamory and monogamy. They challenge lawmakers on the
grounds of consistency: polyamorous relationships sufciently resemble monogamous
ones, because they honour values of love and commitment, therefore they should have
comparable legal protections.
People stress polyamorys similarity to monogamy to rebuff ethical criticism.
Whilst some criticism is hasty and defensive other objections are better formulated.
Here are four objections.
First, one might think polyamory leads inexorably to the objectication or commod-
ication of other people, because one uses them to sate ones sexual or emotional
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
4Luke Brunning
greed. Angie Young, for instance, in her review of The Ethical Slut, an inuential guide
to consensual non-monogamy, asks:
... isnt it curious how polyamorous relationships replicate the disposable
throw away values of our capitalistic society, treating other people as objects
to satisfy our cravings, interchangeable as we please, useful to us only as long
as they work for our own purposes?
This criticism resembles Bonnie Zares analysis of the ideology of adultery in
... in our sale-bound, mall-oriented culture, variety and novelty are often
automatically construed as inherently good ...shoppingfor new partners
matches well with American societys ruling ideology of consumerism its obsessive
focus on new products.
Secondly, polyamory is purportedly immature because it impedes proper attachment
to ones partners. For instance, Robert Masters thinks, multi-partner relating gener-
ally bypasses (and is a distraction from) deep attachment
... if we have more than one lover, then when things get rocky with one, we
can just go to another, instead of staying with and working in depth with that
rockiness and its underpinnings; thus can we keep ourselves removed from
getting as attached as we might if we were to be with only one deep
Masters also thinks that non-monogamous relationships have fuzzyboundaries that
eroticise unresolved issues (like the fear of abandonment or craving being wanted or
craving being in control.
This worry, resting on assumptions about the nature of
attachment, eroticism, and polyamorous motivations, resonates with a common under-
standing of intimacy throughout the lifecycle with individuals purportedly progressing
from exploratory to mature relationships.
Thirdly, one may object that polyamory stretches people too thinly. A similar
objection was often raised against polygamy. Expressed generally, the thought is that
relationships ourish only if one has the resources, practical and emotional, to sustain
them; that individuals have limited resources; and thus that polyamory demands more
resources than an individual could provide. Consequently, at least some constituent
relationships in polyamorous life will not ourish.
A fourth objection is that polyamory is risky, precarious, and akin to a piecemeal life.
John Cottingham critiques someone who lives this way. Similarly, a polyamorist may:
... manage to live quite well, for weeks or months or even years ... But his
life, I suggest, will be less stable. He gets along all right by accident, as it were
... although the way he lives has not so far been such as to threaten his happi-
ness and security (or those of others), there are, in the very nature of the case,
various tensions in his way of living that are always waiting to surface, and
which, in moments of crisis, may erupt to damaging effect.
Many think polyamory is inherently unstable because it must generate jealously and
other difcult emotions. Whilst some may avoid jealousy by accident, it is
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The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 5
unreasonably risky to pursue polyamory, just as Cottingham thinks it is unreasonable
to have a piecemeal life.
These four objections portray polyamory as infeasible or inferior.
Whilst there are
similarities between polyamory and monogamy, the desire to defuse these objections
should not obscure the important differences, such as the challenges generated by
polyamorous life and the emotional practices that sustain the lifestyle. (Matters that
are orthogonal to the contingent social dominance of monogamy.) I must rst outline
these two distinct features of polyamory in order to provide a convincing response to
the above objections.
4. Confronting the Polyamorous Possibility
Polyamorous people often describe how transformative it is to realise that monogamy
is optional. As Elizabeth Sheff puts it, once it has occurred to someone that openly
conducted, multiple-partner relationships are possible and can be managed in an ethi-
cal manner, they can never unthink that idea.
Polyamory is provocative. Most people jump to the view that it is obviously unwork-
able, surely wrong, and that their partner would disapprove. These reactions seem
motivated by anxiety because awareness of polyamory can make people consider the
status of their relationships.
Anxious reactions are usually brief. But if one commits to the polyamorous possibil-
ity, Sheffs term for the mind-set that acknowledges the potential to love multiple
people at the same time,
then one is provoked in a sustained and multifaceted way.
The difference I have in mind is analogous to that between a cursory engagement with
feminist ideas and substantive consciousness-raising: the latter has a lasting impact on
ones behaviour.
Commitment to polyamory involves the stable intention to explore the prospect of
nurturing non-monogamous intimacy in ones life. This exploration includes intro-
spection, imagination, conversation with likeminded people, and emotional processing.
Such commitment need not involve actively seeking to form new relationships. One
can be polyamorous without currently having a relationship just as one does not need
a partner to be monogamous or question ones sexuality.
Sustained engagement with polyamory prompts one to explore ones desires. As
Shotwell made clear, polyamorous people must negotiate the desire for multiple rela-
tionships. But this rather abstract desire usually follows on the heels of others, such as
a desire to nurture intimacy with a specic person, or for different kinds of sex, or to
lead a more fullling life, and so on. In general, knowing what one wants, and avoid-
ing idealisation, is not straightforward. This process is exacerbated by monogamous
ideals which make it challenging to describe and communicate desires for alternative
forms of intimacy.
Exploring polyamory can reveal tensions between ones desires and needs or capaci-
ties. For example, ones desire to foster intimacy with multiple partners can be frus-
trated by ones lack of time, need for childcare, or ones prohibitive social anxiety. It
is easy to overestimate ones readiness to accommodate new partners or commit to
experiencing uncertain emotions.
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6Luke Brunning
The task of confronting ones desires, and managing the personal aspects of polyam-
ory, intersects unavoidably with the task of confronting broader social facts. One can-
not loosen commitment to monogamous ideals without grappling with how pervasive
they are, and without scrutinising the basic components of relationships. These con-
siderations are deeply linked: to think about honesty is to think about communication,
and to think about communication is to think about power, and so on.
In exploring polyamory, people retreat from what Mark Finn calls relationships as
maximum security institutionsthat have an implicit conception of trust as relying on
the avoidance of attractive alternatives ... to produce relational security through a ser-
ies of exclusions and, importantly, the policing of these.
To foster intimacy beyond
an existing relationship one must rethink what trust and commitment involve. Com-
mitment may seem to be less a process of defending an initial contract, and more an
on-going process of afrming ones desire to forge a relationship with another person.
Norms of communication are enmeshed with norms of commitment, trust, and
honesty. If one thinks commitment is an on-going process, one must develop a com-
municative practice so it can be afrmed; if one thinks honesty is central to intimate
life, one must have the communicative resources to foster openness. Honesty is easily
frustrated in an angry or defensive environment, and commitment can wane if one is
In turn, when one grapples with new communicative practices whilst exploring poly-
amory one must contest received imbalances of power. Ones attempt to articulate
challenging feelings, or newly experienced desires, can be hindered by implicit power
dynamics within a relationship, and by intersecting social norms that structure gender,
race, and sexuality. Much practical writing about polyamory aims to help people
recognise and address these dynamics.
Its one thing to wrangle with polyamorys uncertain normative landscape but
another to explore it directly. When ones commitment to the polyamorous possibility
leads to meeting people and new relationships one must grapple with the practical
aspects of the lifestyle. Suddenly, one is faced with questions about how to spend time
with other people, how to afford it, how to balance relationships with work or child-
care, how to maintain ones sexual health, and so on. The practical impact of polyam-
ory is extensive and potentially unsettling.
These practical matters typically intensify the process of contesting mononormative
ideals of commitment, trust, and power. One might be happy, in principle, for ones
partner to date other people, but there is nothing quite like having to nd the money
or time to make it possible to expose residual tensions and implicit conceptions of
appropriate behaviour. Latent sexism and entitlement can creep into the cracks gener-
ated by practical considerations.
Committing to the polyamorous possibility is difcult. Even if alternative intimacies
were socially acceptable, the experience of navigating relationships with multiple peo-
ple remains personally revelatory. Ones desires may clash, or jostle against everyday
constraints and the needs of other people. Slowly, one learns about oneself in facing
these potentially frustrating realities.
In actuality, because most societies are hostile to polyamory, these encounters are
especially uncertain, dramatic, and resonant. The private attempt to shape an intimate
life is shadowed by the visceral experience of social norms whose full force is only felt
as one prepares to violate them. Because one cannot rely on ones social inheritance,
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The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 7
on received conceptions of relationships, the heady realisation that intimate life can be
redesigned is accompanied by the awareness that denitive blueprints for doing so are
Moreover, these confrontations are mediated by other people. The commitment to
exploring polyamory is a commitment to the visceral reality of others, particularly to
ones romantic partners. Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert, for instance, ttingly preface
their guide to polyamory with Iris Murdochs resilient maxim, love is the extremely
difcult realisation that something other than oneself is real.
Murdochs preceding
sentence is love is the perception of individuals.Polyamory fosters these realisations
and moments of loving perception. Whilst attempts to nurture intimacy with multiple
people are not automatically free of loves distortions, its excesses of fantasy or insecu-
rity, it is harder to overlook the reality of another person when, together, you must
negotiate the boundaries of your continuing affection. Polyamorous relationships are
less likely to glide along rails of routine, presupposition, and denial.
One could object forcefully that these confrontations are common to all kinds of
relationship as long as they are sufciently intimate and the individuals involved are
sufciently thoughtful. Even the most tacitly bound of monogamous couplings involve
the negotiation of some boundaries.
Have I overstated the distinctiveness of commit-
ting to polyamorous possibility? In short: no.
Polyamory generates confrontations that distinguish it from monogamous intimacy.
All relationships must manage the actual or threatened presence of other people.
Adam Phillips suggests that, the couple is a resistance to the intrusion of the third,
but in order for it to last it is indispensable for it to have enemies. That is why the
monogamous cant live without them.
Couples dene their identity, in part, through
a series of implicit exclusions that distinguishes their intimacy from other kinds of rela-
tionship or person. Romance is demarcated from friendship, and the particular rela-
tionship is contrasted dramatically with ex-relationships. These implicit exclusions are
embedded in the rituals, routines, and idiolects of monogamous life and replace the
need to actively dene a relationship.
Polyamorous relationships are different because they involve sustained and intimate
confrontations with third parties. For most polyamorous people this party is another
person, e.g. someone ones partner wishes to date. For people who explore polyamory
without having a current relationship this third partyis an imagined perspective that
cannot be ignored when considering the possibility of being open to multiple relation-
ships e.g. the fact that ones next partner could be dating other people.
The active presence of third parties destabilises the internalised dynamics of monog-
amous life. One must think again. The expansive idiolects of coupledom are thrown
into relief and people must work afresh to forge shared narratives. This is especially
the case regarding the future because the prospect of a third party drags one off the
steady relationship escalator, with its markers of deepening commitment and inti-
macy as dating segues into exclusivity, cohabitation, marriage, and children.
This destabilising experience resembles the discovery of an affair, the arrival of a
child, or a couples foray into joint counselling. It is visceral. Unlike the opaque pres-
ence of imagined ex-lovers in the lives of monogamous couples, but like the analogous
adulterer, child, or councillor, the third parties in most polyamorous lives are people
who become stakeholders in ones future. However, unlike a monogamous persons
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8Luke Brunning
contingent relationship to adultery, childbirth, and therapy, the presence of a third
party is a constitutive feature of polyamory.
Even if one is able to intimate what polyamory entails, practical commitment to the
lifestyle is surprising, as Sheff explains in reference to her own experience:
... many people anticipate their multi-partner relationships working out dif-
ferently in their imaginations than the actual relationships do in real life. In
my case, this translated into my virtual certainty that I would be uncomfort-
able and jealous if Rick [her partner] had other partners, and his virtual cer-
tainty that he would not experience jealousy of me and my imagined
girlfriend. What happened surprised us both: I was not at all jealous of Ricks
tryst with Joya, and Rick was quite jealous of my interactions with Steve.
All relationships are unpredictable but Anapol is right to say that polyamory is in-
herently more complexthan monogamy, at least in practical terms.
(And more
complex than other forms of consensual non-monogamy, like swinging, that exclude
emotional intimacy.) As this complexity increases, so does the potential for further
destabilisation; the addition of new partners to ones intimate network always risks fur-
ther unsettling confrontations. Hence why polyamorous people think their attitude to
relationships constitutes a lifestyle: it is a continuing process of clear and open engage-
ment with others.
Explorations of polyamory are emotionally charged. They expose one to anxiety and
uncertainty. As in any relationship, fear and anxiety can motivate defensive or manipu-
lative behaviour. This behaviour can harm ones partner. It can also obscure ones
relationship to ones own mind because defensive anxiety, and the desire to avoid neg-
ative emotions, muddles ones ability to understand oneself. Whilst these are real risks
of committing to polyamory, the lifestyle also leaves people in a good position to
address them in virtue of its second distinctive feature: its unique emotional work.
5. The Emotional Work of Polyamory
All relationships require people to process their emotions in concert with their part-
ners. The nature of these processes are shaped by social ideals. In mononormative
society, needing to talk, for example, is a feared remedial measure rather than a sign
of emotional health. As attested by many romantic comedies, these norms are espe-
cially powerful at the beginning of relationships when romantic ideals trump commu-
nicative clarity.
To sustain a relationship one must engage in what Cheshire Calhoun, following
Arlie Hochschild, calls emotional work. Emotional work is the activity of engaging
with another persons emotional life. It involves, the management of others emotions
soothing tempers, boosting condence, fuelling pride, preventing frictions, and
mending ego wounds.
For Calhoun, this interpersonal dimension of ordinary life is
a familiar moral activity that nevertheless escapes moral recollection and reection.
It is a form of moral mediation
that aids people to manage their agency by helping
them to interpret their mental life.
Calhoun thinks that emotional work is central to everyday life. Noticing this fact,
she suggests, should inform an ethical outlook that is not dyadic, or agent centred, but
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The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 9
deeply cooperative.
Emotion work is pervasive, has prima facie ethical importance,
and has a central place in any ethics of care.
Emotional work is a crucial constituent of polyamorous relationships. Polyamory
generates a range of challenging emotions. Jealousy is an example, but merely one;
other positively experienced emotional states can be just as challenging. What
polyamorists call new relationship energyis a prime example: the excitement, lust,
and attention that accompany a new relationship can be consuming.
As I interpret the notion, polyamorous emotion work has several core features.
Taken together they can be regarded as an ideal capacity. First, one is best able to
relate to ones partners if one can engage with them in a non-confrontational manner.
This involves the ability to convey ones state of mind in clear assertive language. For
example, Adams statement to Beatrice: I feel jealous when you are on a date with
Clairedoes not blame Beatrice. Non-confrontational engagement also involves the
ability to listen to others without interrupting or being swayed by defensiveness. Bea-
trice, in hearing Adams statement, might have to restrain her desire to defend her
date with Claire, or to refer to an occasion where Adam prompted her to feel jealous.
Non-confrontational communication fosters relationships in which people can fully
feel their emotions, rather than defensively trying to avoid feeling them, or feeling
them under duress. This is especially pertinent in polyamorous life because third par-
ties may feel under pressure to avoid feeling emotions such as insecurity or deepening
intimacy that threaten an established relationship.
One is better able to parse ones emotional experiences if one can feel and commu-
nicate ones state of mind. This interpretative facet of emotional work is usually inter-
personal. The experience of apparent jealousy is a good example of an experience that
can need interpretation. Anxiety, insecurity, fear, and other negative associations and
memories are often mistaken for jealousy, and legitimate jealousy can be accompanied
by other negative emotions. Moreover, jealousy is prompted for a range of characteris-
tic reasons that can be easily confused with each other.
For example, Beatrice could
engage with Adam to help him dissect his negative emotional experience. Together
they may consider whether Adam is jealous of Claire in some respect, or whether he
feels low self-esteem and insecurity; perhaps he is afraid that Beatrices attraction to
Claire threatens his relationship with her.
Grappling with mental life, whether ones own or that of another, is rarely easy.
Relationships generate intense emotions, and even if one is not the object of an emo-
tion, such as a partners anxiety, it can be unpleasant to have it levelled in ones direc-
tion. Therefore, another facet of emotional work is the ability to contain someones
difcult emotions. Containment is a psychoanalytic concept. It describes the psycho-
analysts task of withstanding, processing, and returning, an analysands transferences,
i.e. emotional experiences shaped by past events and unconscious associations.
task is important because it enables the analysand to emote without recrimination, and
also because it establishes the analyst as a trustworthy interlocutor who can tolerate a
troubled mind.
Containment abounds in ordinary life, not just in psychoanalysts
consulting room (there it is merely intensied). Polyamorous people need to contain
the emotional consequences of their often complex interactions, such as a partners
insecurity or their new relationship energy. If they can withstand these emotions,
instead of being hostile or defensive, they can support their partners emotional under-
standing and establish themselves as a cooperative, mediating, presence.
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10 Luke Brunning
Finally, emotional work involves maintaining useful practices of emotional manage-
ment. Polyamorous people typically make time to check inwith their partners, even
if there is nothing obvious to talk about, because the practice of regular communica-
tion can itself prompt people to explore awkward feelings, thus preventing them from
blooming into anxiety or resentment. These practices might follow heuristics, such as
the rule that it is unwise to have important discussions whilst a partner is experiencing
acute jealousy.
The routines of emotion management support the other features of
emotional work.
Again, one might object that emotion work is central to all intimate relationships.
There are several reasons, however, to think that polyamorys emotional work is quali-
tatively and quantitatively intensied. First, even if one just drifts into a polyamorous
relationship (a rare occurrence), or is naturally emotionally articulate, ones openness
to, or engagement in, relationships with multiple people demands emotional work if
only for their sake. Polyamory requires one to intimately engage with the emotional
lives of more people than if one was monogamous, especially if ones partners them-
selves have multiple partners.
Secondly, because polyamory is practically complex there will be more occasions
where explicit emotional work is needed. The impact of more relationships in ones
life is multiplicative not additive. This remains the case even if ones relationships
ourish, because regular check-ins, and self-directed emotional work, are a core fea-
ture of most polyamorous relationships.
Thirdly, polyamory exposes people to unfamiliar, even unique, emotions. Paradigm
examples are emotions that take the romantic partner of ones partner as their object.
Revelations of indelity aside, emotions with this character are absent in monogamous
relationships. Therefore, these emotional experiences are typically challenging to
undergo, describe, and communicate. There are no solid cultural scripts to help one
relate to the romantic partners of ones romantic partner. Moreover, unlike exposed
indelity, these emotions are often positive. For example, many polyamorous people
describe their experiences of compersion, which Sheff denes as the joy at seeing
ones partner(s) happily in love with others.
Compersion is a complicated and
understudied emotional experience. Is it the obverse of jealousy, an instance of empa-
thy, or something distinct? Irrespective of how best to analyse the emotion, comper-
sion appears unique to certain forms of consensual non-monogamy. This partly
explains why some people think these lifestyles can be transformative, because one can
have powerful and novel emotional experiences.
Fourthly, note that all relationships are evaluated in comparison to examples of
other relationships in ones social context, like those of family and friends, and to
ones past relationships. These relationships inform ones personal standard of what
constitutes nurturing or abusive behaviour. Polyamory differs from monogamy because
ones comparative thinking is also inuenced by ones multiple concurrent relation-
ships. Thus ones evaluations are laced with realism and less likely to be distorted by
hindsight or fantasy.
Finally, ones ability to relate well to other people improves with practice. Early rela-
tionships are fraught with misunderstandings and mistakes. Polyamorous people are
no different but their learning is accelerated. There is nothing quite like negotiating
multiple relationships at the same time, over time, to improve ones ability to navigate
any relationship and to learn from ones mistakes.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 11
My account of emotional work describes several capacities that tend to be exercised
in polyamorous life. Individuals will vary in the extent to which their emotional work
approximates the ideal I have described, and some will be better than others. As with
the exercise of any capacity, people improve with practice. Polyamorous relationships
tend to provide people with this practice largely irrespective of whether they want it or
not. One cannot maintain polyamory whilst evading the emotional needs of other
Polyamorous relationships are practically complex and often emotionally charged.
Even if one is atypically resilient, insensitive, or unemotional, it is unlikely that all of
ones partners will be too (or in the same respects). Thus ones relationships are likely
to falter if one does not engage with their emotional lives.
Furthermore, consider Anapols description of the necessary conditions underpin-
ning polyamory:
Polyamory can take many forms, but as it was originally conceived, if decep-
tion or coercion is involved or if the people involved are out of integrity in any
way, it is not polyamory no matter how many people are sexually involved
with each other.
On this understanding, emotional work is arguably a constitutive feature of polyam-
ory because it manifests ones commitment to honesty and integrity. If one is unwill-
ing to engage with the emotional lives of ones partners, one is not truly polyamorous.
I am not presupposing that the fruits of emotional work are quick to ripen, or that
everyone experiences them to the same extent. Much depends on ones underlying
ability to relate well to other people. However, even if one struggles, the process of
engaging in emotional work with ones partners makes polyamory possible, and predis-
poses one to secure a range of benets.
Prolonged mediation in concert with ones partners, that is aimed at forging a
diverse intimate life, renes ones understanding of how to relate well to other people.
One learns how to avoid being manipulative or domineering; one can avoid conicts
that arise when the desires or needs of other people are neglected; and one learns how
to address tensions without being confrontational.
As these capacities develop, one is better able to nurture the kind of intimacy that
made polyamory seem attractive to begin with, to forge an abundant life, to be shaped
by multiple people, and to address stiing aspects of ones character, such as a
propensity to insecurity or anxiety. This is not to deny that emotional work is chal-
lenging, occasionally onerous, but this typically subsides over time as people develop
strategies of emotion management.
6. Reconsidering Polyamory
Polyamorous relationships prompt distinct confrontations with oneself and others,
mediated by third parties. These relationships are sustained by emotional work. The
character of these confrontations, and this work, distinguishes polyamorous intimacy
from the monogamous norm. Noting these differences allows me to offer better replies
to those who object to polyamory.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
12 Luke Brunning
The rst objection to polyamory was that it involves a toxic combination of com-
modication, objectication, and greed. This objection betrays an impoverished
understanding of why people pursue polyamory. It portrays people as implicitly seek-
ing to secure various goodsin their relationships, rather than wanting to nurture inti-
macy and love for other people, to honour the values fostered in any relationship, or
to try and become an emotionally receptive person. Furthermore, greed is dened rel-
ative to a social conception of what is appropriate. Therefore, to object that polyamory
manifests greed is to risk presupposing mononormative ideals of the onerelationship,
ideals that polyamorous people contest. Moreover, the emotional work underpinning
polyamory helps one nurture the intimate life of other people, which seems contrary to
greed. Finally, all relationships can involve the objectication or commodication of
another person. Even if one presupposes these attitudes are always morally question-
able (which is not self-evident), the emotional work internal to polyamory, coupled
with the fact that one is scrutinised by multiple partners, puts one in a good position
to identify and address these attitudes.
The second objection to polyamory was that it is immature or precludes secure
attachment to other people. Attachment theory studies how people have a biological
proclivity to form attachments.
The attachment bond has three signicant features:
the maintenance of proximity, the attachment gures as a secure base, and as a safe
Infants desire closeness to an attachment gure, typically a parent; to return
to the gure when threatened; and are disposed to use the attachment gure as a base
around which to explore their world. These behaviours persist throughout the
There is some evidence to think that ones adult relationships are shaped by the
attachment style one develops in infancy. To take just one example, a study of a group
of women discovered that women who strongly endorsed both the avoidant and
ambivalent attachment styles were more likely to have difculties in their love relation-
ships and friendships than women who endorsed a single attachment style.
I must stress two points, however. First, these studies suggest there are connections
between attachment styles and later relationship dynamics, which inverts the causal
links central to the objection that polyamory leads to impeded attachment. Secondly,
whilst there appear to be studies linking attachment style and the dynamics of later
relationships, I know of no established link between attachment style and relationship
form. The links between attachment and polyamory are unclear and little studied.
That said, anecdotal evidence suggests that polyamory is not only compatible with,
but actively fosters, secure attachment. The emotional work internal to polyamory
helps defuse anxiety and insecurity, and can short-circuit more manipulative forms of
defensive behaviour. Furthermore, many polyamorous people have core relationships.
These units can provide a secure base that enables each partner to condently explore
other relationships without fear of jeopardising their intimacy. One can speculate
whether a greater number of secure basesare better than fewer? This reects com-
mon intuitions about parenting (and friendship) i.e. that having multiple gures of
attachment is good, and one could draw an analogous conclusion regarding polyamory
in suggesting that people with multiple intimate relationships increase, not diminish,
their potential for secure attachment. At the very least, Anapol is right to think that,
neither monogamy or polyamory has a corner on immaturity, and people can gravitate
towards both from a position of maturity or its opposite.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 13
The third objection to polyamory was that one will inevitably lack sufcient
resources to nurture good relationships. This criticism bears the imprint of the version
historically levelled at polygyny (plural marriage between men and multiple women);
namely, that one man cannot provide sufcient resources for multiple wives and chil-
dren. Most polyamorous people reject the presuppositions underpinning this objection
such as the patriarchal idea that women should be dependent on men and that signi-
cant romantic relationships should aim at raising children.
More positively, many polyamorous people emphasise the ways their relationships
expand their resources. Sheff, for example, documents the ways in which polyamorous
families have more resources when raising children: more adults in the family mean
there is potentially more money, time, and social support available.
groups without children may also nd their lifestyle provides them with greater emo-
tional support, as there are more people to talk to, learn from, and interact with daily;
that is, a greater number of life experiences and perspectives bear on any one individ-
uals situation.
The fourth objection to polyamory was that it is precarious, particularly because it
exposes people to jealousy and other negative emotions. All relationships involve risks
and offer rewards, so much hinges on ones understanding of risk. With respect to
negative emotions like jealousy, one can distinguish between the risk such emotions
will arise, and the risk they will be damaging when they do arise.
There is evidence to doubt whether jealousy is more likely to arise in polyamorous
Even if one presupposes that jealousy and other negative emotions like
anxiety are more likely, it remains an open question whether these emotions are more
likely to have a destructive impact on the relationship. The emotional work internal to
polyamory helps partners to understand, communicate, and work through negative
emotions together. Unlike many monogamous relationships, the boundaries and emo-
tional norms of polyamory are explicitly dened by the parties involved, partly to
accommodate the possibility of negative emotions. Thus polyamorous people are well
placed to confront negative emotions and prevent them from leading to manipulative
or defensive behaviour.
Still, monogamous relationships may look more stable than polyamorous relation-
ships because one only has to accommodate the desires and practical life of one per-
son. However, I want to distinguish between two ways an intimate life could be stable:
from the inside, and from the outside. If ones intimate life is internally stable, it has
fewer points of potential friction; fewer divergent interests, desires, and temptations.
This is the stability of specialisation. In contrast, if ones life is externally stable, it is
likely to be more abundant and varied. One might have several relationships with dif-
ferent people, and those relationships might focus on divergent activities, projects, or
desires. This is the stability of diversication. When people suggest polyamorous rela-
tionships are unstable, and certainly ... a source of conict, as Solomon put it, they
typically have internal stability in mind. They overlook the fact that polyamorous rela-
tionships are usually more externally stable. Polyamory is more resistant to external
shocks, such as illness, breakups, changes in income, and the general mutability inher-
ent in all relationships; both in terms of its form, because one has multiple partners
for support, and in terms of its content, as emotional work helps one confront change.
If this stability can be coupled with sufcient internal stability, and I think it can, then
polyamorous lives appear more stable.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
14 Luke Brunning
7. Polyamorous Pitfalls
The common objections to polyamory fail because they rest on inadequate under-
standings of what polyamory involves and why it is attractive. One would be mistaken,
however, to think polyamory lacks its own risks. These potential problems arise in vir-
tue of the fact that one is negotiating the desire for intimacy with multiple people. As
such they are unique to, or typically arise within, polyamorous relationships; a fact that
is easily obscured by the rhetorical emphasis on the similarities between polyamorous
and monogamous relationships.
Mononormative societies are structured around a teleological ideology of the one:
the individual who eventually completes ones life by being the singular source of
romantic love, sexual affection, and emotional intimacy. Polyamorous people nd this
ideal personally stiing, and socially insidious in its characterisation of romantic love.
Yet, in rejecting the one, and committing to the polyamorous possibility, polyamor-
ous people risk erecting an ideal of the manyin its place.
The ideal of the manyupholds, as a polyamorous norm, a conception of an inti-
mate life with multiple partners who interact harmoniously, share interests, projects,
and goals, and communicate without difculty. Like the ideal of the one, this con-
ception is unrealistic and damaging. It has no place for partners who prefer to main-
tain a respectful separation from each other, or who are radically different, and it
underpins criticism of people who do not feel compersion towards their partners part-
ners. The ideal of the many might resonate with people who are drawn to the utopian
possibilities of new forms of intimate life, but it risks overlooking the various practical
constraints, and emotional challenges, that comprise daily life as a polyamorous
As I stressed in Section 5, emotional work lies at the heart of polyamorous practice,
and is much discussed in various guides to the lifestyle. By and large the emphasis on
clear non-confrontation communication, and the nuances of interpersonal mediation,
is positive. But if misappropriated it can be problematic.
First, the complexity of polyamorous relating can lead people to xate on relation-
ships at the expense of the people within them. Relationships are reied, regarded as
interesting topics of conversation and analysis, whilst the concrete needs of ones part-
ners are neglected or marginalised. Such xation can arise in monogamous relation-
ships, but it is arguably more likely in polyamorous life with its explicit focus on the
active articulation of relationship boundaries, on-going emotional work, and clear
Secondly, the polyamorous emphasis on communication can be exaggerated. This
can be inhibiting, as talking replaces action, and analysis replaces uninhibited emotion.
More problematically, this attitude can marginalise people who are less articulate. It
risks portraying polyamory as an exclusive and highly cognitive form of intimate life.
This portrayal is at odds with most peoples understandings of what is integral to poly-
amory: being led by ones affection for other people with honesty and integrity.
Similarly, the emphasis on communication can easily foster the policing of relation-
ships and their boundaries, typically by a dominant or more articulate partner. Whilst
the articulation and negotiation of boundaries is a core aspect of polyamory, people
must also be able to express uncertainty about them and the emotions they generate,
and have space to reconsider how best to lead an intimate life. The policing of
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 15
boundaries and the enforcement of communicative norms can subtly pressure people
into inauthentic attempts to be clear and determinate about uncertain aspects of
their life.
Finally, emotional work is often interpersonal and requires people to contain their
partnerschallenging emotions. Containment helps people undergo, describe, and
communicate their emotional experiences. Some partners, however, can be dispropor-
tionality burdened by this containing role. This often arises if people engage in trian-
gular communication, that is, if they talk to one partner about an issue arising from
their relationship with another partner.
Triangular communication not only impedes
direct communication with the relevant party, something that can be manipulative, but
it burdens the intermediary who has to bear and process emotions for which they are
not responsible or implicated.
No doubt polyamory has other associated risks and problems. But it is important to
note that the potential issues described above are nearly all excesses of one kind or
another; instances of too much of a good thing, namely, emotional work and the clear
articulation of relationship boundaries. These decits are analogous to over-sensitivity
rather than the absence of sensitivity.
Moreover, whilst polyamory is clearly not immune from difculties, polyamorous
people are well positioned to remedy these problems as a consequence of their emo-
tional work with their partners. The practical challenge of living a polyamorous life
increases the likelihood that one will develop and deepen the emotional and commu-
nicative capacities that help one identify and address problems. Even if one struggles
personally in developing these traits, in living polyamorously one also increases the
chance one will benet from the skills and abilities of others as they help one negotiate
this complex form of intimate life.
8. Conclusion
Polyamorous relationships have a distinct character. Their complexity prompts chal-
lenging confrontations of ones desires, emotions, practical context, and social world.
These confrontations are shaped by third parties. They destabilise the traditional
dynamics of coupled life. Grappling with polyamorous intimacy is exciting and scary,
but polyamory is sustainable when people learn to engage with their emotions. This
emotional work is interpersonal and fosters good relationships with other people.
Critics of polyamory overlook what it involves and why people pursue the lifestyle.
This selective focus makes polyamory seem inferior to monogamy or unfeasible. It is
neither. Polyamory has its own pitfalls, but many of those arise as a by-product of peo-
ple striving to enact ideals of honesty and clear communication. Moreover, over time
polyamorous people become well placed to identify and remedy their mistakes in con-
cert with their partners.
I have not argued that polyamorous relationships, in virtue of their form, promise
better kinds of intimacy that monogamous relationships. But it is clear, in light of what
I have argued and in light of how polyamorous people describe their motivations and
everyday life, that such an argument can be made. Polyamory appears to be an ethical
form of life. At the very least, it is high time philosophers sympathetic to Nozick and
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
16 Luke Brunning
Solomon replaced assertion with argument to show why polyamorous people are
Luke Brunning, Corpus Christi College, Merton St, Oxford, OX1 4JF, UK.
1 Lauren Berlant, Intimacy: A special issue,Critical Inquiry 24,2 (1998): 281288, at p. 285.
2 For an overview see Meg-John Barker & Darren Langdridge, Whatever happened to non-monogamies?
Critical reections on recent research and theory,Sexualities 13,6 (2010): 74877, and the introduction
to Nathan Rambukkana, Fraught Intimacies: Non/monogamy in the Public Sphere (Vancouver: UBC Press,
3 Robert Nozick, Loves bond, in his The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1989) p. 84.
4 Robert Solomon, About Love: Reinventing Romance for our Times (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub, 2006), p. 39.
5 Historically, what we call serial monogamywas called successive polygamy. See John Witte Jr, The Wes-
tern Case for Monogamy over Polygamy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 31.
6 Cf. Carrie Jenkins, Modal monogamy,Ergo 2,8 (2015): 17594. Relationships can be exclusive but non-
dyadic, e.g. a triad, or a dyadic but non-exclusive, e.g. a couple with a dont ask, dont tellagreement.
7 Another term used is ethical non-monogamy, which I avoid because Im examining the ethical status of
8 Alexis Shotwell, Ethical polyamory, responsibility, and signicant othernessin G. Foster (ed.) Desire,
Love, and Identity: A Textbook for the Philosophy of Sex and Love (Toronto: Oxford University Press
Canada, forthcoming). Italics in the original.
9 I sidestep whether polyamory is an orientation. Cf. Christian Klesse, Polyamory: Intimate practice, iden-
tity or sexual orientation?Sexualities 17,1 (2014): 8199.
10 Deborah Anapol, Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littleeld Publishers, 2010), p. 5.
11 Ibid.
12 Cf. Meg-John Barker, This is my partner, and this is partner: Constructing a polyamorous
identity in a monogamous world,Journal of Constructivist Psychology 18,1 (2005): 7588; Barker & Lang-
dridge op. cit., p. 750; Christian Klesse, Polyamory and its others: Contesting the terms of non-mono-
gamy,Sexualities 9,5 (2006): 565583; and Elizabeth Sheff, The Polyamorists Next Door. (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littleeld, 2014), pp. 122.
13 Klesse op. cit., p. 571.
14 Sheff op. cit., pp. 1720.
15 Cf. Franklin Veaux & Eve Rickert, More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory (Portland, OR:
Thorntree Press, 2104) chs. 912.
16 Veaux & Rickert op. cit., p. 458.
17 Sheff op. cit., p. 19.
18 Solomon op. cit., p. 203.
19 Solomon op. cit., ch. 4.
20 Solomon op. cit., p. 207.
21 Meg-John Barker & Ani Ritchie, There arent words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make
them up: Constructing polyamorous languages in a culture of compulsory monogamy,Sexualities 9,5
(2006): 584601, at p. 587.
22 Cf. Veaux & Rickert op. cit., p. 10.
23 Rambukkana op. cit., p. 13.
24 On the instrumental value of Mormon plural marriage, see Peter Marneffe, Liberty and polygamyin E.
Brake (ed.) After Marriage: Rethinking Marital Relationships (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2105), p.
147; for discussion of Buddhism and polyamory, see Brad Warner, Sex, Sin, and Zen: Buddhist Exploration
of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2010).
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 17
25 Cf. Kath Weston, Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press,
26 Barker 2005 op. cit., p. 82.
27 Cf. Jenkins op. cit. for an argument to think romantic love need not be dyadic and Troy Jollimores
ambivalent take on the same issue. Troy Jollimore, Loves Vision (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press, 2011), pp. 161167.
28 Cf. Elizabeth Brake, Minimizing Marriage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), ch. 6. This approach
can mask intersectional complexity (Melita J. No
el, Progressive polyamory: Considering issues of diver-
sity,Sexualities 9,5 (2006): 602620).
29 Veaux and Rickerts recent book devotes a chapter to polyamory and ethics (op. cit., ch. 3), which sug-
gests these concerns remain pertinent.
30 Angi Young, Review of The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Innite Sexual Possibilities, by Dossie Easton and
Catherine A. Liszt,off our backs May-June (2004): 389, cited in Rambukkana op. cit., p. 195.
31 Bonnie Zare, Sentimentalized adultery: The lm industrys next step in consumerism?,Journal of Popu-
lar Culture 35,3 (2001): 2941, at p. 33, italics added.
32 Robert Masters, Transformation through Intimacy, Revised Edition: The Journey Toward Awakened Monogamy
(Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2012), p. 25.
33 Masters op. cit., p. 24.
34 Masters op. cit., p. 25.
35 John Cottingham, Integrity and fragmentation,Journal of Applied Philosophy 27,1 (2010): 214, at p. 5.
36 The third and fourth objections are related to the concern that polyamory harms children. I cannot
consider this objection here but see Sheff (op. cit., chs. 59) and Anapol (op. cit., ch. 7) for detailed
37 Sheff op. cit., pp. 2021.
38 Ibid.
39 Cf. Barker & Ritchie op. cit.
40 Mark D. Finn, The psychological architecture of the stable couple relationship,Theory & Psychology
22,5 (2012): 607625, at p. 614.
41 Cf. Veaux & Rickert op. cit., chs. 6 and 7.
42 Iris Murdoch, The sublime and the good,Chicago Review 13,3 (1959): 4255, at p. 51.
43 Katherine Frank & John DeLamater, Deconstructing monogamy: Boundaries, identities, and uidities
across M-J. Baker & D. Langdridge (eds) Understanding Non-Monogamies (London:
Routledge, 2010), pp. 922.
44 Cited in Lisa Appignanesi, All About Love (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), p. 213.
45 Sheff op. cit., p. 115.
46 Anapol op. cit., p. 65.
47 Cheshire Calhoun, Moral Aims (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) p. 215.
48 Ibid.
49 Calhoun op. cit., p. 216.
50 Calhoun notes that emotional work is a work women do and are expected to do(p. 215), and it is no
accident that polyamory, which explicitly requires this work of everyone, is often associated with resistance
to gender-norms (cf. Sheff op. cit., pp. 2830).
51 Calhoun op. cit., p. 217.
52 Cf. Virginia Held, Taking care: Care as practice and valuein C. Calhoun (ed.) Setting the Moral Com-
pass: Essays by Women Philosophers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
53 Veaux & Rickert op. cit., p. 455.
54 Anapol op. cit., ch. 6.
55 The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion introduced the term containment(see Wilfred Bion, Attacks on linking
in E. Spillus & E. OShaughnessy (eds) Projective Identication: The Fate of a Concept (London: Routledge,
2012 [1959]).
56 Robert Caper, A Mind of Ones Own (London: Routledge, 1999), p. 14.
57 Anapol op. cit., p. 124.
58 Sheff op. cit., p. 20, cf. Barker & Ritchie op. cit., p. 595.
59 Anopol op. cit., p. 5, italics added.
60 Peter Fonagy, Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac Books, 2001), p. 7; cf. John
Bowlby, Attachment (London: Pimlico, 1997); John Bowlby, A Secure Base (London: Routledge, 2005).
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
18 Luke Brunning
61 Cindy Hazan & Phillip Shaver, Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relation-
ships,Psychological Inquiry 5,1 (1994): 122, at p. 4.
62 Gerard McCarthy, Attachment style and adult love relationships and friendships: A study of a group of
women at risk of experiencing relationship difculties,British Journal of Medical Psychology 74 (1999):
305321, at p. 315.
63 Anapol op. cit., p. 38.
64 Sheff op. cit., p. 196. A range of intersecting factors, such as race, class, and wealth, mean that various
social groups may be disproportionality privileged by their polyamorous lifestyle. cf. Rambukkana op. cit.,
p. 159.
65 Terri Conley et al.A critical examination of popular assumptions about the benets and outcomes of
monogamous relationships,Personality and Social Psychology Review 17,2 (2013): 124141.
66 Veaux & Rickert op. cit., p. 99.
67 I am grateful for the support of Meg-John Barker, Matthew Broome, Carrie Jenkins, Patricia Marino,
Laurencia Saenez, Kate Tomas, Sheila Udeagu, two anonymous referees for this journal, and participants
at the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love session at the Pacic APA, 2016.
©Society for Applied Philosophy, 2016
The Distinctiveness of Polyamory 19
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... 10 Slavery, segregation, and inequitable gender norms demonstrate this point. 11 For extensive criticism of monogamy seeBrake (2017);Brunning (2016Brunning ( , 2020de Sousa (2017de Sousa ( , 2018;Jenkins (2017). ...
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What makes romantic jealousy rational or fitting? Psychologists view jealousy's function as preserving a relationship against a 'threat' from a 'rival'. I argue that its more specific aim is to preserve a certain privileged status of the lover in relation to the beloved. Jealousy is apt when the threat to that status is real, otherwise inapt. Aptness assessments of jealousy must determine what counts as 'threat' and as 'rival'. They commonly take for granted monogamous norms. Hence, compared with jealousy in monogamous relationships, norms of polyamory set the thresholds for what counts both as threat and as rival much higher.
... 10 For further discussion of this last point (from a perspective defending monogamy), seeWeaver and Woollard (2008: 517-519). For discussion of (non-)monogamy and practicality more generally, seeBrake (2017: 211-212),Brunning (2018), McKeever (2015, and Veaux and Rickert (2014: Ch. 14).Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved. ...
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Monogamy, I’ve argued, faces a pressing problem: the difficulty of finding a morally relevant difference between its restriction on having additional partners and a restriction on having additional friends. To the extent that we’d find a restriction on having additional friends morally troubling, that puts pressure on us to judge the same about monogamy. This argument, however, has recently come under attack by Kyle York, who defends monogamy on grounds of specialness, practicality, and jealousy. In this paper I’ll argue that, pace York, these defenses of monogamy all fail.
... Similarly, the recent literature has also involved discussions of a number of ethical issues that arise from romantic and sexual relationships such as consent (Dougherty 2013), infidelity (McKeever 2020), the use of love drugs (Earp and Savulescu 2020;Spreeuwenberg and Schaubroeck 2020), and ethical issues that arise at the end of relationships (Lopez-Cantero and Archer 2020). Relatedly, philosophers have also explored the ethical status of relationships that go against conventional heterosexual norms such as homosexuality (MacLachlan 2012), polyamory (Brunning 2018), and asexuality (Brunning and McKeever 2021). While far from a comprehensive overview, this hopefully provides a general idea of the kinds of ethical issues relating to love, sex and relationships that have been the focus of philosophical attention in recent years. ...
... As stated above, polyamory is defined as "the practice of consensually and with mutual interest negotiating desire for more than one relationship" (Brunning, 2018, p. 514, original italics). Brunning (2018) argues that intentionally developing multiple romantic relationships decreases anxiety and insecurity, which could engender secure attachment. In polyamory, partners often discuss difficult emotions such as jealousy and insecurity, as they cannot be ignored. ...
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Interest in attachment theory and polyamory, a form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), has grown and evolved. However, romantic adult attachment is still understood within a monogamous construct, where insecurely attached individuals are stigmatized. The attachment literature describes those who exhibit dimensions of avoidant attachment as desiring multiple relationships with little emotional depth and commitment. However, empirical research illustrates that polyamorous individuals are predominantly securely or anxiously attached. Securely attached individuals are better able to communicate about intimate subjects, which often occurs in polyamory, while anxiously attached individuals thrive in an environment where intimacy is plentiful. This article provides an overview regarding attachment theory and polyamory and examines the contention that avoidantly attached individuals are attracted to CNM. While attachment theory is an empirically validated framework, modifications will be required in order to accommodate the polyamorous community.
... Indeed, moral reasons are often cited in support both of monogamy and of heteronormativity. Discussing such reasons with care is beyond the scope of this Introduction (but see Brake 2017;de Sousa 2017;Brunning 2016Brunning , 2020. Clearly, however, the facts mentioned set a clear agenda for the moral psychology of love: to explain the origin of widely held (though far from universal) beliefs in the superioritymoral or practical -of certain forms of love. ...
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The cliché, "if you haven't loved, you haven't lived" conjures up about 512 million Google search results. The cliché's popularity attests to the importance and diversity of roles that love plays in our lives. Love is thought to be a fulfilling experience not only because it is often pleasant (when it isn't excruciatingly painful) but also because it aims to forge connections with others, bring meaning to our lives, and often feels like an indispensable ingredient of happiness. At the same time, love is hemmed with imperatives and taboos that imbue it with numerous often contradictory social meanings: 'love is blind' vs. 'love is seeing clearly', 'all is fair in love and war' vs. 'love is kindness', 'if you love them, never let them go' vs. 'if you love them, set them free'. These different love-narratives create a complex set of normative constraints reflected in cultural attitudes towards love. These attitudes are embedded in the minds of individuals and guide their experiences and practices of love. These love-narratives specify the appropriate circumstances, objects, ways of feeling, expressing, and acting in love. Due to their widely accepted status and normative force, the resulting attitudes and expectations are often felt as commands. And these commands are often rendered as moral imperatives. This suggests several questions: To what extent are moral concerns a part of love itself? What makes love good or bad? What makes love morally praiseworthy-if or when it is? What role can and should moral considerations play in love? We might ask similar questions about practical or prudential concerns: when is love good or bad for us, our life goals, people and 2 things we care about, the society at large? This introduction chapter demonstrates some of the core questions in the moral psychology of love, and provides a roadmap for the rest of the volume of the Moral Psychology of Love.
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Polyamory is an umbrella term denoting the practice of having multiple romantic and intimate relationships with the consent of everyone involved. Within a mononormative culture, becoming polyamorous may be associated with uncertainty and a feeling of being suspended. Moreover, the preferential attitude towards monogamy marginalises polyamory as indecent and corrupt, creating feelings of shame and social isolation. Our research explored the discursive construction of polyamory in Italy by identifying the strategies used to deal with such identity construction and social recognition issues. We conducted 15 semistructured interviews with people who defined themselves as polyamorous. Our discourse analysis identified a narrative that overturns the dominant hegemonic perspective; this narrative presented monogamy as a practice generating difficulties and problems and polyamory as a thoroughly satisfying and adequate relational modality. This narrative was constructed using six discursive strategies, allowing participants to achieve three discursive purposes. By naturalising polyamory and constructing it as a stable trait, participants essentialised polyamory; by providing a normative definition of polyamory and identifying with the polyamorous community, they set up the boundaries of polyamory; finally, by moralising polyamory and attributing transformative power to it, they valorised polyamory. Overall, the definition of a polyamorous order allows for the integration of polyamory into one’s life, even if polyamorists remain a minority group trapped in the public liminality brought about by a mononormative culture.
Jealousy has been disparaged as psychologically debilitating and morally flawed since well before Shakespeare wrote Othello and is indeed represented—particularly well—as far back as in Homer's portrayal of gods and goddesses in The Iliad. According to some of these traditional views, often shared by philosophers, psychologists and the general public, jealousy is the sign, if not of an irredeemably corrupt mind, then at least of an excessively possessive and insecure character. But does jealousy always indicate some sort of flaw or failure? Is jealousy rerehensible in all contexts? In the present paper, I intend to suggest some modifications to the view that it is, by giving jealousy a more sympathetic and charitable hearing than it normally receives, and suggesting that jealousy might, in some cases, be justifiable.
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Norma monogamii jest jedną z najpowszechniejszych i najbardziej ścisłych norm w kulturze zachodniej. Odstępstwa od niej są w przestrzeni publicznej patologizowane, niedoreprezentowane lub nieobecne. Istnieje jednak spora grupa osób podejmująca życie poza normą monogamii w związkach konsensualnie niemonogamicznych, czyli takich, w których wszystkie zaangażowane osoby świadomie wyraziły zgodę na bycie w takich relacjach. Do relacji konsensualnie niemonogamicznych zalicza się poliamorię, związki otwarte lub swingowanie. W niniejszym wystąpieniu zaprezentowana zostanie charakterystyka związków konsensualnie niemonogamicznych, a także podstawowe tematy podejmowane w badaniach na ich temat, w tym to, jak postrzegane są osoby w związkach niemonogamicznych. Zostanie podjęta krótka dyskusja na temat potencjalnych różnic między stylami przywiązania wśród osób niemonogamicznych i monogamicznych. Zaprezentowane zostanie również zjawisko kompersji, polegające na doświadczaniu pozytywnych emocji wynikających z intymnej relacji partera z inną osobą lub innymi osobami. Na koniec zaprezentujemy także wstępne wyniki adaptacji do warunków polskich kwestionariusza służącego do pomiaru kompersji (COMPERSe; Flicker i in., 2021).
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This article is a critical review of mainstream psychological theory on heteronormative “Western” coupledom from the 1930s, focusing on the ideological notion of stability as a foundation for successful romantic partnerships. Theorized qualities of couple stability and associated subjectivities are broadly discussed in relation to the psychologies of attachment, commitment, trust, intimacy, and monogamy. It is argued that these central facets of coupledom, as a microcosm of the sociopolitical realm, work to stabilize and regulate relationships according to static versions of wholeness and certainty. Promissory of an illusionary order that is devoid of perceived chaos, the stabilizations of couple relationships are critiqued as limiting transformative possibility. Aspects common to process philosophy and chaos theory are discussed as laying ontological ground for a relational system that is not structured by way of a misplaced foundational stability. Current research and theory around practices of open non-monogamy are addressed in regard to this.
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According to the writings of members of the polyamorous community, polyamory is a type of non-monogamous relationship orientation in which it is considered acceptable to love more than one person and emphasis is placed on openness and honesty within one’s relationships. The proliferation of websites, e-mail groups and books on the topic since the mid 1990s mean that polyamory can be seen as a burgeoning sexual story (Plummer, 1995). However, very little has been written academically on the topic, despite its fascinating potential to challenge mainstream discourses of monogamy and infidelity and to reveal the constructed nature of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (Rich, 1980). In this article I draw on social constructionist and personal construct psychology perspectives to examine the ways in which polyamorous individuals construct their personal and group identities in relation to conventional monogamy and to explore the implications of polyamory for people’s own sense of self (Butt, Burr and Bell, 1997)
The book presents the ethics of care as a promising alternative to more familiar moral theories. The ethics of care is only a few decades old, yet it has become a distinct moral theory or normative approach, relevant to global and political matters as well as to the personal relations that can most clearly exemplify care. The book examines the central ideas, characteristics, and potential importance of the ethics of care. It discusses the feminist roots of this moral approach and why the ethics of care can be a morality with universal appeal. The book explores what is meant by “care” and what a caring person is like. Where such other moral theories as Kantian morality and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, the ethics of care understands the moral import of ties to families and groups. It evaluates such ties, differing from virtue ethics by focusing on caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. The book proposes how values such as justice, equality, and individual rights can “fit together” with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity. In considering the potential of the ethics of care for dealing with social issues, the book shows how the ethics of care is more promising than other moral theories for advice on how limited or expansive markets should be, showing how values other than market ones should have priority in such activities as childcare, health care, education, and in cultural activities. Finally, the book connects the ethics of care with the rising interest in civil society, and with limits on what law and rights are thought able to accomplish. It shows the promise of the ethics of care for dealing with global problems and with efforts to foster international civility.
Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of research on close relationships and the emergence of a new relationship subdiscipline within the social sciences. To date, the new science of relationships has been dominated by data. This article is based on the conviction that progress now hinges on the development of theory to organize and interpret extant findings and to guide future investigations. Through a selective but extensive review of the major bodies of empirical literature, we attempt to show that attachment theory can incorporate a broad range of findings on adult relationships. In addition, attachment theory addresses an impressive array of research questions concerning the functions, emotional dynamics, evolutionary origins, and developmental pathways of human affectional bonds. We conclude that a comprehensive theory of close relationships is both desirable and, with the integration of existing theories and concepts, currently achievable.
In this article, we critically examine the social institution of monogamy. First, we discuss the lack of an adequate and consistent definition of the construct of monogamy and consider how common monogamy is. Next, we address perceived benefits of monogamy and whether those ostensible benefits are supported by empirical evidence. We conclude that evidence for the benefits of monogamy relative to other relationship styles is currently lacking, suggesting that, for those who choose it, consensual non-monogamy may be a viable alternative to monogamy. Implications for theories of close relationships are discussed.
L'A. soutient que la representation de l'adultere a tendance a changer dans la societe americaine, comme on peut l'observer dans un certain nombre de films qui donnent une representation sentimentale de l'adultere, des films mettant en scene une relation dans laquelle une ou plusieurs personnes mariees trouvent une passion intense et une satisfaction emotionnelle dans une relation extra-conjugale. Elle centre son analyse sur trois films realises dans les annees 1990 : Bridges of Madison County, qui represente l'adultere comme liberateur ; The English Patient, qui en donne une image plus opaque et troublante ; et Shakespear in Love, une comedie, dont le motif de l'adultere garantit le succes populaire. Examinant les facteurs qui ont contribue au changement d'attitude envers l'adultere, l'A. soutient plus particulierement que la culture consumeriste du capitalisme contemporain - et notamment son ideologie de la nouveaute - contribue de facon significative au succes des films d'adultere sentimentalise. En conclusion, elle propose quelques reflexions sur les dangers de cette ideologie du changement et la remise en cause des liens communautaires ancres dans la tradition
This study examines the relationship between attachment style and love relationships and friendships in a group of women (N = 40) known to be at risk of experiencing relationship problems. The association between attachment style and measures of self-esteem and depression were also investigated. Women with a secure attachment style had more positive ratings in the domain of adult love relationships than women with insecure attachment style (avoidant and ambivalent) and difficulties in adult love relationships werefound to be particularly related to an avoidant attachment style. Insecure attachment style was also related to having cohabited with a deviant partner. Adult attachment style was not found to be related to ratings of current mood but was significantly related to self-esteem and to ratings of functioning in the domain of adult friendships. In particular, participants with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style had more negative self-esteem than secure participants. Secure participants had more positive ratings in the domain of adult friendships than insecure participants and a moderately significant association was also found between difficulties in the domain of adult friendships and an anxious-ambivalent attachment style. In addition, 20% (N = 8) of the women also reported attachment styles characterized by high levels of avoidance and ambivalence: this group was found to have more pervasive difficulties in their close relationships than women who endorsed a single dominant attachment style.
The virtue of integrity does not appear explicitly in either the Aristotelian or the Judaeo-Christian list of virtues, but elements of both ethical systems implicitly acknowledge the importance of a unified and integrated life. This paper argues that integrity is indispensible for a good human life; the fragmented or compartmentalized life is always subject to instability, in so far as unresolved psychological conflicts and tensions may threaten to derail our ethical plans and projects. Achieving a stable and integrated life requires self-awareness; and (drawing on insights from the psychoanalytic tradition) it is suggested that self-awareness is not a simple matter, but requires a complex process of self-discovery. The paper's final section argues that although vitally necessary for the good life, integrity cannot be sufficient. Against the view of influential writers such as Bernard Williams and Harry Frankfurt, our commitment to our chosen projects, however authentic and integrated, cannot in itself give our lives meaning and value. The good and meaningful life cannot be a matter of authenticity alone, but requires us, whether we like it or not, to bring our projects into line with enduring objective values that we did not create, and which we cannot alter.