Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The nature of love

Have you ever thought much about the nature of love? What we look for in a partner, how we know when we're in love, how to make it last and why we fall out of love? I've been thinking about it a lot lately, especially since New Year's Eve when there was a passing mention of the topic in a conversation with Penny's friends Patrick and Louis.

Looking back on my life, I have to admit that I tend to be rather impractical in the targets of my affections. I've always believed that the initial attraction that sometimes blossoms into love is something you can't control, although it's only been recently that I've fully accepted that belief. I've fallen in love with different people in different ways over the years, and tried to make the best of imperfect circumstances - to sometimes disastrous results. Let's just say that if love were a team sport, I'd be one of the last persons to be picked.

So what to do when you find yourself in such a position? Change the rules, of course. If traditional monogamy ("TM") can be viewed metaphorically as a competitive, winner-take-all kind of game (say, like a tennis tournament), then my version of polyamory is more like a multi-player cooperative videogame like 1985's Gauntlet with the infinite health points cheat enabled. Instead of viewing love as a prize to be won (i.e., the happily ever after), why can't love just be part of the journey through life, with different players coming and going as part of a larger, ongoing process of personal growth?

I want to be clear that I'm not saying my way is better or that I'm somehow more enlightened because I choose not to buy into an institution with a failure rate of just over 40 percent. I agree that TM is a valid relationship option for a lot of people. The only thing I'm saying is that there are options besides TM, and among the infinite diversity of humanity and life situations, some of those options might actually be better than the standard, one-size-fits-all relationship model. Even among poly people, there are a plethora of different approaches and options that may or may not be compatible with each other. If someone chooses to follow a poly path, it's disrespectful and egocentric to assume that they are making a bad or illegitimate choice because of a bias toward TM, or to assume they are "settling for less" than the presumed relationship paragon of monogamy. It's like assuming everybody would be better off if they embraced the majority religion in the neighborhood.

Of course it is my place to defend polyamory since I practice what I preach, but there also has been some talk about why gay marriage rights activists aren't defending polyamory and the answer is simple. There are two components to the traditional view of marriage - the nature, and the number, of the participants. While you can use the same logic to argue against limitations to both, we Americans as a whole are much closer to being ready to change the nature of who can get married (extending it to homosexuals) than we are to changing the number (defining a marriage or family to include more than one adult participant, like a business partnership). Perhaps someday we will be able to broaden our concept of a lifelong romantic commitment by recognizing the validity of alternative relationship models that include more than two participants, but that time is not right now.

But I digress from the original purpose of this post. What I'm trying to do is find the commonalities between polyamory and traditional monogamy. If more mono people understood the reasons why people chose poly, maybe we could make some progress that would enable more people to pursue their own version of happiness. Once people accept that poly love is as valid as gay love, then maybe we can spend more time loving each other instead of fighting each other's rights to love whom and how we choose.

So the best way I can attempt to make this connection is to talk about the nature of love itself. Since the time of Plato we've been discussing the topic, but I will focus now specifically the early phase of love - I'm sure everyone knows what I'm talking about. It's that sometimes overwhelming burst of energy at the beginning of a relationship the brings individuals together, overcoming fears, boundaries and irritations that might preclude forming risky new connections between what are essentially strangers. It's the period of time when anything seems possible, where all obstacles can be overcome with love, and it's difficult to think about anything other than the object of your interest.

Poly people call this feeling "NRE" (new relationship energy), but I'm sure you can see that as I've described it, NRE is not just a poly thing. It's a human thing. It's another way of describing the feeling of "falling in love." And for those of you who have felt it, I'm sure you will agree that NRE is one of life's greatest blessings, a gift from the gods that can provide the energy and motivation to make huge changes (for good or ill) in one's life, as well as historically providing the inspiration for some of humanity's greatest artistic achievements.

An apt metaphor for NRE would be viewing it as the booster rockets for the space shuttle, in that they provide the extra power to get things moving off the launch pad and out of earth's gravitational pull. If the boost is strong and long enough, and everything else goes well, the craft escapes the atmosphere and the boosters are no longer needed. At that point, the rush of NRE fades and the relationship is guided by "LTE" or long term energy, which is wonderful and fulfilling, but not often as hot and exciting as NRE. However, without LTE, a relationship fueled only with NRE is probably going to burn out and crash, so both are necessary to ensure a meaningful and lasting relationship - if that's your goal.

This is all probably pretty intuitive for most people, whether you're poly or mono. People fall in love, go through a courtship phase, and either form a lasting commitment or realize once the sizzle subsides that an ongoing relationship is impractical or unwanted. The key difference with poly people is that we sometimes experience NRE and LTE with different people at the same time. Or we have to deal with (i.e. remain in a relationship) a partner with whom we have LTE who is going through NRE with someone else. So I readily admit that poly requires skill at compartmentalizing not dissimilar to the way I professionally advocate zealously for multiple PR clients at any one time, or how many people keep their work and home life separate. And yes, I admit this is harder and more complicated than focusing all your attention on a single person.

However, along with these concessions comes the realization that there's a price to pay for the stability and simplicity of traditional monogamy. Choosing TM means that you give up any foreseeable opportunities to experience NRE. It typically means you put all your eggs in one basket relationship-wise, meaning you only have one source for everything you require from a significant other. It means if you are tempted to act on NRE with someone, you have to be dishonest about it to preserve the TM relationship (i.e., cheat). There is also an expectation of fidelity that means you spend a fair amount of time enforcing agreed-upon behavior instead of spending the energy communicating honestly about the core feelings that lead to behavior in the first place. Basically, many of the common reasons why marriages fail are the compromises you make when you choose TM, although many of those can also end poly relationships as well.

So, there are two things we have to remember about NRE that helps us to deal with it. First, we should recognize it for what it is and not make it into more (or less) than it is. We should be able to understand that NRE is an altered state of consciousness (not unlike being intoxicated with alcohol, but less voluntary) that causes us to view everything through "love goggles" that alter our perceptions from those of our non-NRE-influenced partners. It also helps if those partners can be aware of NRE without being judgmental about it. Throwing out the phrase "oh, you're just in NRE" as an accusation is about as productive as telling somebody they only disagree with you because of PMS. Patience or even amused tolerance (if outright enthusiastic support is not possible) in dealing with a partner's NRE experience will do a lot to enhance the LTE relationship versus falling into a set of negative reactions. It's important to remember that while NRE is exciting and sexy, LTE is really what we're looking for if we want meaningful, lasting relationships rather than a series of casual hook-ups.

That brings us to the second point: we should recognize that NRE doesn't last forever, though LTE might (or might not) pick up when it fades. Most poly experts say NRE typically will last six to nine months, longer if it's a long-distance relationship, but the range varies widely from person to person. In fact, it's good advice not to make any decisions regarding career or housing until NRE has cooled off, just as a sensible precaution to ensure safe NRE enjoyment. And for the LTE partner, being aware that NRE will fade can be a comfort, plus highlight the need to continue nurturing the existing relationship without succumbing to the temptation of blaming NRE (unless real needs for time, energy, love and/or sex are not being met).

In short, the point is that poly and mono people experience love in basically the same way. The power and validity of those feelings engendered by the emotion of love are the same. Both versions have different rules and boundaries, and both have compromises. One is the overwhelming choice of the majority of the human population, sanctioned by the state, most organized religions and society in general - the other is not. But that doesn't mean that love between poly people is any less important to them than it is to TM people. When we as humans are attracted to a specific wavelength of energy put out by someone, we all feel it just the same. It's what to do with those feelings that we each have to decide however is best for us.