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Why Poly Marriage Is Never Going to Happen
If you've ever observed a debate about same-sex marriage, then you've heard this argument: If we let gay people marry, the next bump on the slippery slope to the Total Collapse of Society is polyamorous marriage. To hear right-wingers tell it, you'd think there was an army of group-marriage revolutionaries howling at the barricades to overthrow our single-spouse oppressors. Seattle has a large polyamorous community (including me!). So perhaps you're wondering: Now that we have same-sex marriage, is it only a matter of time before King County executive Dow Constantine is signing marriage licenses for trios and quartets? It would certainly test the mettle of wedding planners, wouldn't it? I'm thinking Costco would be THE place for people doing multipack marriage to register for gifts.
But hold on a sec. For starters, poly- marriage organizers would have to agree on a precise definition of what, exactly, poly marriage even is. Explaining the flowcharts and Venn diagrams of poly relationships can be trickier and take longer than a play-by-play of naked Twister. And you can't just engrave "It's Complicated" on tasteful ivory card stock and mail it off to however many sets of in-laws. So how would you define it? Is poly marriage a system where a set group of people enter into an all-with-all marriage as a fixed-size unit? Or would it perhaps be a system of marrying only one spouse at a time, but having the right to enter into additional marriages concurrently? Or something else entirely? No matter how you phrased it, any workably pithy legal definition would necessarily exclude certain configurations of people. And poly people get uncomfortable at the idea of excluding people—it reminds us unpleasantly of monogamy. So that's a problem.
But let's say the poly community comes up with a way of defining "poly marriage." Then comes the price tag: It costs five bucks to file an initiative, but persuading voters to change the law in favor of poly marriage would take a lot of skillful and extremely expensive political marketing. How many gay/lesbian bars have I been to where a drag queen or a leather daddy had a microphone in hand and was working the tipsy crowd like a carnival barker for marriage-equality donations? Too many to count. Unfortunately, poly people are not oppressed enough to have our own bars. We only have potlucks, and no one drinks very much at those (although I have very much wanted to on the few occasions I attended one). I shudder at the idea of Obama-esque daily e-mails from Poly Marriage Now begging me for money. But fundraising infrastructure is key—and queers have it, poly people don't.
Perhaps I'm not the only poly activist who sees what a Sisyphean task this would be, because when I asked around poly networks about it, I heard... crickets. Oh, occasionally a poly activist dreams out loud about poly marriage on a blog, but no one in Washington State is doing anything serious at all to bring about poly marriage. That must surprise the right-wing types—they were certain that by now we'd be on a federally funded high-speed train to Sodom and Gomorrah. But you know who it doesn't surprise? Me. I'm a polyamorous person who has never yearned for poly marriage.
Does that sound unromantic? It's not. My whole adult life, I've actively pursued the wisdom and skills to sustain multiple romantic relationships, and I'm pretty good at it. But no matter what you do, it ain't all rainbows and unicorns. I think romantic love that leads to deep, committed relationships is wonderful. But the romance of filing a group tax return? I'll pass. The legal aspects aside, I've never been interested in sharing a household with more than one person. Frankly, even one person is a bit much sometimes. I appreciate cozy domestic intimacy as much as a monogamous girl, but I'm an introvert who requires blocks of time alone. And one of the things I have always loved about being poly is knowing I can turn to my partner and say, without a shred of compunction, "Darling, I love you, but why don't you go see your other girlfriend for a while?" That's harder to do when the other girlfriend lives with you. Multiple-partner cohabitation always seemed to me like it would have all the usual relationship difficulties, plus less closet space, more scheduling headaches, and definitely more emotional processing. I am not alone in my opinion. When I remarked to a poly friend that I was writing about this topic, he quipped wryly, "Oh, right. Poly marriage: When sustaining one happy marriage just isn't challenging enough for you!"
My other reason for being leery of poly marriage? A close brush with poly divorce. You see, I lived with a partner in a polyamorous relationship for 12 years. He and I were happy and well-suited to each other—we were both active in the poly community, we both had long-term relationships with other partners throughout that time, and lots of people thought we had this poly thing all nailed down. We thought we did, too—for a while. We broke up about a year ago.
It was just as awful as breakups always are, but I dodged a bullet in one crucial matter: Two years before we broke up, my ex told me he wanted to buy a new house with me—and his other partner. He wanted all three of us to live together in a house we'd own collectively. I seriously considered the idea—he was my committed partner, I got along very well with his other girlfriend, and I knew it would have made him happy. But in the end, I was too uneasy about the challenges of this sort of secular sister-wives arrangement. My refusal was a pivotal issue in the demise of our relationship. My partner's dream of a group poly household had become more important to him than I was, so I left. Now, a mortgage isn't a marriage license—although I probably could have gotten a divorce faster and cheaper than I could have sold one-third of a house. But I'm extremely glad now that I didn't make a legal and financial commitment to two other people that I would have had to dissolve while going through an intense emotional upheaval with one of them.
No matter who you are, love is complicated. Anyone who thinks poly marriage is what all poly people want hasn't met many poly people, because groups of poly partners living together long-term is actually not that common. Of all my polyamorous friends, I can count on one hand the households where multiple partners have all happily cohabitated for many years. If you can find one person to love and live happily with your whole life, you're doing very well. The odds of finding two, and having all of you want to commit to each other and live together forever? Roughly like hitting the polyamory Powerball. But being in love doesn't have to include a ring or a big white cake. To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you've learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?
Mistress Matisse is a professional dominatrix who writes about BDSM, polyamory, and sex work. Follow her on Twitter @mistressmatisse.