Some time ago, I had a visit from a friend I haven't seen in quite some time. We spent a bit of time catching up on what the two of us have been up to in the past couple of years--her move, my move, my divorce, and so on. She'd heard some of the more lurid and wildly inaccurate details of the divorce, of course--not surprising, really, as it seems like everyone within a three hundred mile radius or so has heard at least something about the situation.
At one point, she said, "Well, it must have been easier on you than on her, because, after all, you're polyamorous, and you've still got your other sweeties."
Now, this is an attitude I've encountered before, and it seems based on a conception of relationships that's quite foreign to me. It's difficult to know where to begin in taking that idea apart, as it's founded on so many tacit assumptions and unspoken ideas about the way relationships work and the way love works that it's hard to know how to start addressing them.
The first and most obvious problem with that idea is that it assumes human beings are interchangeable commodities, like toasters or DVD players. These things provide a service; a person who has two toasters can still make bread if one of them stops working, and a person with two lovers still has sex and companionship if one of the relationships ends, right?
Now, let's step back for a moment and think about that. Suppose a family had two young children, and one of them was killed in a car accident. Would anyone say "Well, it must be easier for you; after all, you still have another child?" I suspect anyone who displayed that level of insensitivity to their loss could expect to get smacked. We somehow know instinctively that children aren't replaceable; a parent who has lost a child is devastated regardless of whether he or she has another child or not. We know this; yet, somehow, it's different if it's a romantic relationship, right?
So why is it that romantic relationships are different? Why does everyone understand that children are not interchangeable, but still assume that lovers are?
For many people, I think the answer is the same as the answer to questions like "Why would you assume that if your partner has sex with someone else, he won't need you any more?" and "Why would you assume that if your lover finds someone who's prettier than you, or better than you in bed (for whatever value of 'better in bed'), it will threaten our relationship." And that answer is related to the reason that people are willing to risk losing their jobs to fly out to California and picket in support of Michael Jackson.
These people are utterly convinced of Michael's innocence because they actually feel, weird as it may seem, intimacy with Michael Jackson, even though he's a complete stranger to them and they've never met him.
This sense of intimacy is as false as it is shallow; and it's not limited to Jacko. People feel a sort of wishful, warm fuzzy sensation often--about celebrities, about their partners, about that girl in the next cubicle that they have a secret crush on. This "intimacy" is not really intimacy at all; real intimacy lets you see right through a person and down deep into what my partner Shelly calls their "superhero soul," past appearance and past superficial details and into what makes them who they are.
There's a Simpson's episode in where one of the children asks Mrs. Crabapple, the schoolteacher, "How will we know when we're in love?" The teacher laughs and says ""Don't be silly, most of you will never know love and will marry out of fear of dying alone." Sadly, I do believe that for many people, it's the truth. It seems to me that the world is filled with people who don't want intimacy, who don't like it and don't trust it, who don't take the time to really see their partners' "superhero soul" and don't want anyone seeing theirs. Remove intimacy from a relationship, though, and suddenly people do become interchangeable. Suddenly people do become vehicles for services. Suddenly there's nothing particularly compelling about them; "Well, Betty was a redhead who liked tennis, and Lauren is a blond who likes golf, but basically I get the same thing from both of them. Lauren is prettier than Betty, so I think I'll replace Betty with Lauren." And I think that somewhere, deep down inside, some people realize that they don't have any deep intimacy with their partners; many petty jealousies and insecurities reflect this. "I don't want my partner looking at anyone prettier than me..." (...because, really, there's nothing particularly compelling about my relationship with my partner; my partner doesn't really see me, and yes, my partner would replace me with someone prettier if I let him).
Once you've seen down into someone's superhero soul, once you've cut past all the clutter and really seen someone for all they are and all they can be, then that person becomes absolutely unique and absolutely irreplaceable in your eyes. At that point, nobody can replace that person; at that point, if you lose your relationship with that person, it leaves a hole in your life nobody else can fill.
Of course, there's a cloud around every silver lining. The downside is vulnerability; if you let someone really see you, that person knows you for who you are--good and bad. You're vulnerable like nothing before; your relationship shines a light on all your faults and personal failings and quirks and little neuroses, and to someone not accustomed to real intimacy, I'd imagine that's pretty scary.
Now, you might ask why someone would want a relationship without intimacy, and I'd say "for the reason Mrs. Crabapple said. Fear of dying alone." Even a shallow relationship is better than being alone, no? So people engage in relationships that are more or less interchangeable, with partners who are more or less interchangeable, and they invest a great deal of emotional energy into making sure that their partners don't replace them with someone else--because, hey, then they'd be alone.
Personally, I think that fear of being alone is a lousy reason to be in a relationship. If I had a partner who was willing to replace me because she found someone better looking or better in bed or (god forbid) a better cook than I am, I'd want to find out sooner rather than later. To my way of thinking, preventing your partner from talking to or spending time with other people through fear of being replaced is exactly backwards; if I'm that easily replaced, I want to know, because that's not a relationship I want to invest in. But that pesky fear of being alone is hard to short-circuit, isn't it? "If I lose my partner, I'll be alone, and nothing is worse than that."
Funny thing, though. If you can look at someone and really see them, if you have developed the skills to see another person's superhero soul, you will never be alone--it's not going to happen. Doesn't matter what you look like, or how good you are in bed, or even (thankfully) how good you are in the kitchen.
There is another cloud around the silver lining, though. A person who's unique to you can't be replaced--and that means it does not matter how many partners you have, once that person is no longer in your life, it's going to hurt. Nobody else will make it better. It's not about getting the things you need from your other partners; it's not about having another toaster, so you can still make toast. A partner who is unique is irreplaceable. We know this about children; it's time, I think, we understood this about lovers as well.