Polyamory + Aging = Loneliness?
I practiced polyamory from 1995 through 2010, in a progressive west coast city with a large and vibrant poly community. I've attended countless poly workshops and poly-friendly gatherings, and read pretty much all of the major poly books. But despite all this I ultimately ended up alone, and lonely.
I'd like to state the reasons this happened, since I believe they're reasons specific to polyamory, but which I've yet to hear any member of the poly community articulate a solution for.
1. The pool of potential partners drastically shrinks with time.
A recent TED Talk by psychologist Meg Jay brought this home for me, when she described dating in one's 20s as being like playing musical chairs: you're merrily changing seats, but suddenly realize the music has stopped and you're the one left out. Of course, in theory with polyamory this doesn't have to happen, but in practice many of the people who claimed to be polyamorous when they were younger eventually transition to monogamy. In fact, in my case this happened with every single one of the people I used to date fifteen years ago. It's also not surprising, since if your social sphere intersects with the poly community it may be easier (and perhaps even more "hip") to claim to be polyamorous than to admit you simply haven't found the right person yet.
Of course, I probably could have converted many of those relationships to something monogamous and permanent. But, I was committed to polyamory on an ideological level at the time, so I didn't even propose this, and now here I am.
2. As polyamorous people age, the only spaces in their lives tend to be for secondary rather than primary partners.
Even among the once-poly folk who don't transition to full monogamy, if they have room for you at all as they age it's probably as a secondary partner. I realize that splitting hairs over definitions is something our community dearly loves, but once they're boiled down here's what most definitions of being a secondary really mean: you're expendable.
So, odds are that person's primary partner eventually throws a fit, or decides his or her family should move across the country, and suddenly your "relationship" is over.
3. Polyamorous dishonesty and/or self-deception is often harder to detect than the monogamous variety.
I realize that sounds insane, but hear me out.
In a monogamous relationship whether to take things to the next level (e.g. either a formal commitment or moving in together) isn't dependent on anything other than the two of you, so if your partner were just stringing you along that would become obvious pretty quickly. With polyamory, however, your partner can credibly claim to be waiting on approval from any one of his or her other primary partners, and then whatever events in their own lives those partners claim to be waiting for, and so on and so forth.
If you get strung along in this way for a few years here, and a few years there, then pretty soon serious time has gone by, and maybe by then you've crossed over that event horizon which we all eventually cross, and expecting to find and attract an available partner is no longer a reasonable expectation.
Of course, there's no reason this should be a consideration if you're young, but the topic of this post is how polyamory can lead to loneliness as you age, and the closer you are to that event horizon the more of a concern getting strung along should reasonably become.
4. A history of polyamory diminishes your ability to find partners outside the poly community.
Let's say your response to ending up partnerless as you age in the poly community is to give up on polyamory, and look for a monogamous relationship outside it. That's logical: although in the past polyamory might have given you two or three partners while monogamy would have only given you one, now polyamory gives you zero partners while at least with monogamy you would still have one.
Unfortunately, it's easy to underestimate how repugnant polyamory is to much of the population, and if you're honest about your history with it how hesitant non-poly people will be to get involved with you, or alternatively how willing they will be in the future to break up with you, out of a frankly understandable fear that polyamory is something you would always be tempted to go back to if given the opportunity.
5. Polyamory creates constant reminders of your own aging and associated loss of attractiveness.
The previous four points were more about how, despite its best intentions and hype, polyamory can paradoxically result in fewer partners than monogamy (i.e. zero rather than one). By contrast, this point and those following it are more about how it can increase your subjective feeling of loneliness regardless of how many partners you actually have.
This one is pretty simple. In permanent monogamous relationships people tell each other that they're still attractive, or "still as beautiful as the day we met," and given the phenomenon by which people tend to think of each other as they did when they first met, there actually can be at least a grain of truth to this. But even if there weren't a single grain of truth to it, at least the fact of your loss of the ability to attract new partners isn't constantly thrown in your face, since you aren't seeking new partners; that's a comforting illusion unique to monogamous, or at least closed but permanent, arrangements.
Contrast this with active polyamory, wherein as time goes on, and you steadily see fewer and fewer of your invitations accepted, you're spared absolutely no unpleasant reminders about the permanent loss of what you had when you were younger. And furthermore, if your polyamorous relationships are all either secondary relationships or else unformalized primary relationships, these unpleasant reminders are more than just annoyances: they're legitimate causes for the perfectly reasonable fear that you'll end up permanently alone.
6. Constantly hunting for partners can blind you to the other good things in life for which age isn't a barrier.
I attended the Burning Man festival in 2012, and sat in on a discussion hosted by one of the major poly camps from the Bay area. In addition to the usual props for Tristan Taormino's book, and the usual reminders of the importance of negotiating "hunting licenses" (can't quite remember if that was the exact term used but it was the same idea) with one's existing primary partners before leaving home, there was some talk about how to work up the courage to approach potential partners at Burning Man. Basically, what was being trotted out by at least one panelist was the old chestnut that one should "collect rejections," in other words force yourself to proposition a certain number of people each day before you consider that day a success.
I registered my discomfort with this idea at the time, but having had more time to think back on it I came to believe something much more general was at stake: that sex is such a powerful drive, and the burst of pleasure you get from being reminded that you're still attractive enough to attract people can be so overwhelming, that when you're free to indulge the pursuit of other partners it can crowd out your enjoyment of everything else, including unique experiences which you might never have the opportunity to experience again.
Stated more bluntly, the Burning Man festival is one of the most unique times and places on Earth, and the variety of educational and inspirational experiences you can have is astounding. But since as polyamorous people we can pursue other partners, we ignore all that richness and instead feel bad at the end of the day if we don't get laid? Even though if you can get laid at Burning Man, you can probably also get laid at home?
This is something which monogamous people don't expose themselves to: sure, particularly if your partner isn't there, when you see people making out in the moonlight on the Burning Man playa you might briefly feel left out, but you don't then feel bad all the way through the end of the event because on top of feeling left out you blame yourself for your inability to find a new partner. In fact, you'd probably pretty quickly turn your attention to the things you can enjoy that are unique to the event, and come away with a much richer experience.
Paradoxically, the richer one's environment is the more sense monogamy seems to make. Particularly as you age.
Why I Took the Time to Write This
Despite what my experience of polyamory has been so far as I've aged, I am still willing to keep an open mind. So, maybe someone here actually will be able to point out a reason why the odds aren't as bleak as they look to me (though merely pointing out that someone you know had better results doesn't count - obviously with a big enough population there will always be individuals who beat the odds).
But failing such a reason, I at least want to know that I said what I could.
Again, I have no moral problem with polyamory, and in fact believe that for the young it's much better than serial monogamy. But when you get to your 30s, if there's anyone still in your polyamorous life whom you could see yourself spending the rest of your life with, at least consider proposing exactly that while there is still time.
The most common symbol for polyamory is that heart with the infinity sign across its center. But for me now, a much more powerful symbol is the dog from that Aesop fable, who tried to grab the second bone he saw in the river and ended up with nothing.
Please don't let that happen to you.
I think some of those things are true-in certain types of poly.
For me-I have two relationships, but they are both live in partners, we have a family together. We have children and grandchildren. We've all lived together for 10 years. I've had a relationship with one for 15 years, the other 20 years. I don't see an end in sight for either.
But-I don't consistently date. I love two men. I don't believe in seeking partners-I never have. So, I don't date. I do socialize and meet new people and there is always the possibility that another person will enter my life and I will fall madly in love with them also. But I'm not looking for that.
Also, I don't add responsibilities to my life that I don't have time to focus on. So, a new partner couldn't be a secondary. I can't promise even 1 night a month away from my family outside of school. The only way another partner would be feasible for me was if it was someone who was willing to be a part of my current family life. Because for me to want to be in a romantic relationship with someone, I need to know I'm going to be able to see them and spend time with them on a regular basis-and in order for me to spend time with ANYONE-even friends on a regular basis at this point in my life-they have to be willing to spend that time shared with family..
I don't have time right now to continue. But I do think you bring up some great points of consideration and potential discussion! I will check back in after classes tomorrow. :)
Nowhere in your post did mention love, although there was much mention of sex. While I have no issue with those who are poly sexual, don't get it confused with polyamory. In my experience, when genuine love is involved, as opposed to a more FWB scenario, people do not simply let others go on a whim. You equate your physical attractiveness with being able to attract more partners. And yes it does wane with age, and can be difficult if appearance is the basis for your relationships. You do realize that people - including monogamous people who lose a spouse through divorce or death - move on and find another mate whether they are in their 40's, 50's or even later. The relationships are based on far more than external appearance.
Forgive me for saying so, but what you describe sounds incredibly shallow.
I agree with bookbug.
You sound incredibly shallow.
I get approached by potential dates all the time in real life. Just not interested. I am happy with the men I have. I am in long term committed relationship with both.
How old are you?
Attitude is everything. I first embraced poly shortly after turning 50, as I hadn't really ever heard about it until shortly before that. I am certainly not going to dwell on how much more rough poly is when "aging." I have noticed, of course, how much less attention I get as an older, plus-sized woman than I used to as a hot young thing. But I fucked a lot of losers when I was young. Now I go for quality. I don't want just sex, I want loving connections, and those are harder to find for most everyone, poly or mono, young or old. Dating sucks whether poly or mono, young or old. Less of a selection when you're older, but still sucks.
I look at it all as an adventure and try to be as positive-minded as I can. I actually do enjoy going on a date with someone new, getting to know another human being - if it doesn't lead to a relationship, that's okay. If and when I get to know someone I want to give my heart to, I still will give it, and chalk up loss as part of the process and something that has a lesson in it.
Always moving forward...
I found your post interesting, thoughtful, and well-written (at a time when I've noticed a surge in silly and shallow posts on this forum). So I'm not sure why you're being called "shallow." I totally get what you're saying.
However, until I got to the end of your post I assumed you were in your 50s/60s...are you telling me you're only in your 30s???? All this talk about aging and ending up alone...really???
I understand what you mean about the feeling that you grabbed for multiple bones and ended up with none. This happened to me in 2010, when I was 29. I lost my three long-term lovers all at once in the space of two weeks. Two because they chose monogamy with someone else. I turned 30 feeling like I had lost everything, and wondering why I hadn't been smart enough to do what my monogamous friends had done--settle down with their college boyfriends.
Well, I hadn't done that because I didn't want to. I wanted to explore and date more and make more connections--and I still do.
Dating in my 30s is definitely different. But I find it's better--I am clearer about who I am and what I want, and so are the men I meet. Yes, I'm sure it will get harder as I age, because dating/seeking partners does have an element of shallowness/appearances/attractiveness in it. But people find love later in life all the time. (And "later in life" still seems a long way off to me).
Some of the previous comments on this thread bother me. I don't think it's fair to blame "certain types of poly" or to say that you are not doing love-based dating and that's what your problem is. It sounds like you had loving relationships that you expected would grow more serious, but instead you remained secondary and were eventually dropped.
I am practicing solo poly. I am not seeking a primary partner. My ideal is to date men who are also solo poly. But I do fear that I will end up secondary to two or three people and primary to no one. It's sort of paradoxical.
Anyway, I am in a non-monogamous relationship that is fun and caring and happy and totally right for me. I don't give in to those fears.
This is an important and well-thought-out post. I know of more than one person in this situation.
1) I've noticed over the years that most poly people do develop primary life partnerships as they age, usually of the "open marriage" variety. Solo networking poly seems to be mostly done by the young and early middle aged.
2) Simply by numbers, the problem will be self-solving. If there come to be more than a few people in this situation -- aging, poly, wanting a permanent life partner, and actively looking for same -- they will find each other.
3) The sad reality, working against point #2, is that some people who want to find a life partner cannot for good reason: serious problems with personality, behavior, or health that are too much for others to cope with. This could be anything from uncontrolled mental illness to something as simple as poor hygiene (a weakened sense of smell is common with age) and no one advising them that they need to use a scrub brush when showering, or clean their teeth and tongue properly before breathing.
-- Alan M. (age 62)
I didn't mention love because in context (i.e. in a polyamory discussion forum) the term "partner" reasonably implies it.
I guess how this works is that if you're shut out from the world of LOVE relationships on the basis of something shallow, then you're somehow shallow yourself for correctly identifying that thing as the basis.
For the record though, I'm looking for long-term love relationships with people roughly my own age and am not hung up on looks or weight. Of course I'm sure I'll somehow be called shallow for mentioning that as well, even though I was basically forced into saying it :)
Anyway, well-played: I guess I'd forgotten about the internet dynamic whereby if anything is omitted, including things which should be reasonably assumed, then everything else you said can be instantly dismissed. In my own defense I guess all I can say is that 10,000 characters isn't a lot of space to make something internet-proof.
And then meanwhile, back in the real world, the reality still remains that I fucked up my life, and may just live the rest of it alone, because I didn't jump off the polyamory train in time.
Your post is fascinating, Shipwrecked. Some of what you say is very much in line with my own experiences with poly. Not sure why anybody would call you shallow? Anyway.
1. The pool of potential partners drastically shrinks with time.
Yep - I have a bunch of friends who were poly when they were in their 20s (and 30s for at least one in the group). None of them are now. For a variety of reasons. At least one just prefers monogamy. At least one has a partner who doesn't want to be in a poly relationship. At least one couple have decided that it's just too much work to make it work.
So yes I'd expect that dedicated poly folks will have a smaller pool and I'd guess that'll start to happen as you get into your 30s and 40s which is when most people seem to settle down and start families.
4. A history of polyamory diminishes your ability to find partners outside the poly community.
I would guess this to be very true. My SO spent much of his 20s and 30s in poly relationships and when I started to see him people used to take me aside and warn me that he wasn't to be trusted. That he would cheat - he has never cheated on a partner.
Others would tell me that all of his past girlfriends have cheated on him. Again - not quite true. He was just in poly relationships.
My SO and I are monogamous and have no plans to change that right now. I'm friends with some of his old lovers and I have had people be appalled when they've found out.
My experience is that there is a deep seated mistrust of poly relationships around in general and I'd guess that people who have been poly may find it harder to gain the trust of a partner who has always been mono.
Having said that, I was very happily single for about 7 years and I don't necessarily feel the need for any romantic partner in my life. I like it but I have lots of wonderful friends, family and interests in my life that I can happily live without a romantic partner indefinitely.
Why I Took the Time to Write This
I have a theory that it might well get easier again with age. It seems to me that people in their 30s and 40s are busy building homes, careers and families. I would guess that maybe in people's 50s and 60s and older it might be easier to be poly? Or at least easier to find relationships.
I don't think you should write your chances off whatever age you are.
And - even if you are single from now on I also don't see that as necessarily a bad thing. All of us living in the West get to live lives of utter luxury - we have so much going for us and so many options open to us. Be a shame to waste opportunities because of pining for love.
I find your post one of the more thought-provoking and substantial posted here lately. As MeeraReed said, there's certainly been a glut of silly and shallow posts here lately. I would add that reading here in the last month would not convince me that poly is about 'love' or relationships, since it seems lately most posts are all about sex.
I think your post faces honestly the real problems with poly, and that these points will be remembered before anyone posts that others are 'afraid' to try poly, or somehow narrow minded or ignorant or prejudiced against it. I don't know, maybe someone somewhere is, but plenty of people will refuse to be involved because there are good reasons not to be. As highlighted in your posts.
Regarding number four, I went into dating a married poly man in the wake of divorce due to infidelity, thinking if the wife knows and agrees, then the dishonesty that makes infidelity such a big problem is gone. His attitude was that someone would come along and sweep me off my feet and why not enjoy dinner and theater together until that happens. I enjoy it, he enjoys it, his wife loves that he's got someone to occupy him while she's off doing her thing.
But the reality slowly dawned on me as I have dated other men. I haven't been attracted enough to anyone to go on more than two or three dates, so it simply hasn't come up. But I have come to understand that many people will be turned off by the fact that I have dated a married man. I'm not going to call them names for it--they have every right to have their values, standards, and beliefs. And doing so wouldn't change the reality, anyway. By dating him, I have quite likely, limited the pool of people who will be willing to date me in the future.
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