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.