I want to dedicate this entry of my blog to my polyamorous friends and clients. Most of my clients are monogamous and I happily support them in protecting and affirming the viability of their monogamy and I have also had some poly clients and this entry intends to support and affirm them.
In a recent web series on CNN Money called “Sex, Drugs, and Silicon Valley”, some nonconforming practices with open followings among Silicon Valley’s tech elite are presented as “life hacks”. In one of those episodes, polyamory is discussed and eminent researcher Dr. Helen Fisher is asked her opinions about polyamory. In this blog entry I will offer a counter-point to some of Dr. Fisher’s statements.
Before I do that I want to express appreciation for Dr. Fisher’s work, her research, and her expertise. I have been including her scholarly articles or chapters in my courses on human sexuality for years. When it comes to the brain, I believe that she knows what she is talking about. My critique comes from the points where her comments deviate from her expertise on the brain to judgments and predictions about peoples’ lives. In fact, this critique relates directly to her admission in one of her TED talks, “. . . I am not a psychologist. I don’t work with people in any kind of traumatic situation.” Yet Dr. Fisher moves in this interview from her research on brains to making declarative statements about the emergent person that is a brain embedded in a body, a biography, and a culture.
“The human animal is not built for this.”
In the webseries entry on polyamory, Dr. Fisher’s first response to the interviewer ends with the statement above referring to polyamory. I would like to follow it with another quote from Dr. Fisher, “Opportunistic extra-pair attachments occur in all cultures for which data are available. . . . Mating flexibility is a hallmark of Homo Sapiens” (Fisher, 1998, p. 41). So, to clarify, Dr. Fisher is not saying that our brains are not capable of loving more than one person or of loving people in different ways at the same time, but I think she is referring more to the risks of jealousy which is the focus of her other comments.
“We are a naturally jealous animal.”
This comment provides her explanation for why she believes that polyamory is not a viable mating strategy. In several articles she identifies the damage that jealousy may cause (e.g., Fisher, 2000; Fisher, Aron, Mashek, Li, & Brown, 2002). In those articles, she uses the evidence of the distinct brain systems for lust, romantic love, and attachment as one explanation for the origin of jealousy. Yet, in one non-scholarly source, she states that jealousy is not immutable:
So what can you do if jealousy is making you miserable? First, figure out whether he’s actually cheating. If he is, you have a different problem: what to do about your relationship. But if you find yourself snooping through your lover’s pockets, or reading his e-mails on the sly, stop. This is demeaning to you. Explain that you are working to control your suspicion but would like him to help you by not provoking it. And if you can’t stop spying or obsessing (and many of us can’t), it’s time to consult a mental health professional. Ultimately, though, you may never feel emotionally secure with a flirtatious mate—in which case you might consider some wisdom from Zen philosophy: The way out is through the door.
All the books on polyamory that I have read (see a list below) so that I can serve polyamorous clients suggest that in polyamory jealousy is inevitable. So, on the face of it, I doubt Dr. Fisher would get many objections from those polyamory authors. Like Dr. Fisher, those authors advocate for talking with the partner and asking for help facing it. In the above quote, Dr. Fisher also suggests that unreasonable jealousy might be treated with psychotherapy so she identifies that jealousy is not an end of the discussion and acknowledges that some jealousy is mutable. Finally, she implies at the end of the quote that some people might get over being with a flirtatious mate, and others might not. So she identifies that jealousy, like other traits, is distributed among the population in varying degrees. That suggests to me that some people with lower jealous impulses might be able to experience less jealousy and that therefore the fact of jealousy in human history is not the end of the story about the potential viability of polyamory.
In another article Dr. Fisher states, “Sexual jealousy is also universal to human cultures; humans, as a rule, do not share long-term partners to whom they are attached unless the environmental and cultural perquisites considerably outweigh the deficits.” (Fisher, 2000, p. 41). Here Dr. Fisher identifies that cultural influences weigh in on the potential viability of polyamory. Given that the web series is about polyamory in Silicon Valley, I find myself considering what privileges life in Silicon Valley might offer polyamorists and therefore challenge Dr. Fisher’s assertion that polyamory won’t work because we are naturally jealous. Some facilitative factors Silicon Valley culture might provide include increased financial independence and security, a culture that pursues creative solutions to old problems, a culture supportive of meditation and intellectual pursuit, and an independent spirit. It is possible that Silicon Valley, and other urban centers in the internet age, may be more likely to provide just the environmental and cultural benefits that Dr. Fisher proposes are required to make long-term partner sharing viable.
“Eventually they will probably almost all fail because the human brain just isn’t good at sharing.”
This declaration may come as a surprise to the many people who spend a great deal of their lives giving, caring, sharing, or volunteering for others. In this statement, Dr. Fisher seems to be not paying attention to research on altruism or generosity. Or perhaps, she is not making a global statement at all but one specifically directed only at our feelings in romantic attachments (the editing of an interview like this can seriously contribute to the interpretation of a particular statement). Yet, even if she is only referring to partner sharing, she seems to contradict her own work. For example, in one article she wrote, “. . .these emotion systems [for lust, romantic love, and long-term attachment] became [during human evolution] increasingly independent of one another, a phenomenon that contributes to human mating flexibility and the wide range of contemporary human mating and reproductive strategies.” (Fisher, 1998, p. 23). In another place in that article she acknowledges that individual variation in these neural systems is natural so that different people will have different ways of expressing their desires to attach and bond. I believe that some people are innately good enough at sharing that polyamory can and does work for them. As evidence, I identify both friends and clients who have on-going long-term polyamorous relationships. I also believe that sharing can be learned so even people who have a hard time of it can get better at it if they want to. I would also say that Dr. Fisher is right about many people that they would not be able to make polyamory work. My issue is when a “many” or “most” becomes “almost all”.
Finally, I challenge this statement from Dr. Fisher because, though prompted by the interviewer, she uses the word “fail”. Polyamory invites people to challenge their definitions of what it means for a relationship to fail. If a relationship lasts for decades and is mutually fulfilling but then ends amicably and respectfully, does that mean it failed? Polyamory invites its participants to upend their notions of success in a relationship. To allow for the possibility that “good now”, is “good enough” as long as everyone can treat each other with respect if the “good now” ends. Polyamory challenges the idea that for a relationship to be successful that it must last forever. It operates under a different set of assumptions than Dr. Fisher is using to evaluate it.
To me, this blog entry is less about polyamory than it is about encouraging critical thinking about research and expertise in human sexuality. Our interpretation of data is always filtered through our biases (cultural, historical, and personal). In this case, I would not question Dr. Fisher’s authority about the brain, but when interpreting that data turns to making a pronouncement about how people will live their lives and what is possible, I think it behooves the researcher and the clinician to approach the diversity of human experience with humility. Human sexuality has such a diverse and nuanced expression across cultures, throughout history, and among people that we define it and limit it for others at our peril and theirs.
In general, be careful about listening to media portrayals and pronouncements about sexuality. There is always a bias and a filter. Ultimately I hope that you remember, whether the expression ends up being life affirming or painful, the impulse to express sexuality (even asexuality) is part of a whole human life.
Fisher, H. E. (1998). Lust, attraction, and attachment in mammalian reproduction. Human Nature, 9(1), 23-52.
Fisher, H. E. (2000). Lust, attraction, attachment: Biology and evolution of the three primary emotion systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25(1), 96-104.
Fisher, H. E. (2009, September). Jealousy—The Monster. Retrieved from: http://www.oprah.com/relationships/Understanding-Jealousy-Helen-Fisher-PhD-on-Relationships
Fisher, H. E., Aron, A., Mashek, D., Li, H., Brown, L. L. (2002). Defining the brains systems of lust, romantic attraction, and attachement. Archives of sexual behavior, 31(5), 413-419. doi: 0004-0002/02/1000-0413/0
Segall, L. (2015, January 28). Sex, Love, and Silicon Valley: I have a fiancé, a girlfriend and two boyfriends. Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2015/01/25/technology/polyamory-silicon-valley/
Additional Resources on the Topic:
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Easton, D., & Hardy J. (2011). The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Adventures. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Labriola, K. (2013). The Jealousy Workbook: Exercises and Insights for Managing Open Relationships. Emeryville, CA: Greenery Press.
Sheff, E. (2013). The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Taormino, T. (2008). Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press.
Veaux, F., & Rickert, E. (2014). More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory. Portland, OR: Thorntree. [If you are going to only read one book on polyamory, this is the one, as a relationship therapist, that I recommend.]
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