Sunday, September 18, 2011

Polyamory as a Social Paradigm

Exerpt from an academic correspondence:

I've been playing around with a concept of polyamory in regards to social paradigms.

I got triggered on this path after reading the latest Poly in the News (, specifically the third excerpt, from Bitsy at Boston U:

"One of the things polyamory teaches you is to be comfortable with emotional pain, knowing you'll move through it, knowing you have a larger goal. Moving through emotional pain allows you to grow into a better person, to be more in touch with yourself, and better able to deal with life's curveballs. You learn to communicate clearly, directly, and proactively, a skill that's applicable not just to your personal life but to academic and professional pursuits."

This got me thinking about how polyamory and the dominant 'independent person' paradigm interact, and I realized that they don't do so very nicely. Everything I've read, and seen, about successful approaches to polyamory indicate that there is something of a self-yeilding that must occur for each individual for the betterment, growth and health of the relationship.This seems to be in complete contradiction to the self-efficacy that dominates modern society, where it's through one's individual capacity that we are able to grow and better ourselves, not through our yeilding to something larger than ourselves.

Actually now that I postulate this, polyamory (in this context) has some parallels with religion too.

So this got me thinking more, could polyamory be a symptom/cause of a paradigm shift away from self-efficacy as king, to community as king? Perhaps this is one of the core problems in many poly relationships I've seen today, as it addresses a common fear I hear through many people, the fear of loss of self, as if self-efficacy is tied inextricably to self-identity. Seriously though, the most common non-monogamous relationships are those that mirror a traditional monogamous one as much as possible (swinging, primary/secondary, etc). Is this connected with people clinging to a paradigm of self-efficacy as the dominant factor in their identity?

Consider too, how unhealthy it is to live with self-efficacy as such a core tenant of self-identity. If people value themselves only on how capable they think they are, unless capability is measured by how one is able to help others, it becomes easy to disconnect the individual's identity from others, and through that to create a form of external negligence, where he individual can dismiss and ignore the effects that their behaviors and actions have on others. In economic terms, this is called externalities. If my sense of self is tied to how capable I feel I am, then what does it matter how my actions affect you if they improve me? Very competitive, very masculine, very meritocratic.

Looking on the other side, a model that's more poly-friendly, where the self is defined in context of the community ('I'm a cog in the wheel'), then self-identity becomes inextricably tied to the effect that one has on others. If I define myself by how I affect you, then by helping you I improve my self-image. Now it's not to say that society doesn't have a form of this already, but it's a communalism that's ensnared within self-efficacy. I'll help you only so long as I benefit from it. I'm thinking the real deal is much more akin to what Bitsy's talking about, where it's more of a surrender of self to something greater, a 'larger goal.' I can see this reflected in one of the reasons that I often hear for why people are poly: 'I want that sense of community.' Ironically those are also some of the most self-efficacy focused individuals too, but that may be my own biases speaking there.

- Jason

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