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The many shapes of marriage?

Marriage

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a cutting-edge film of 1969, urged moviegoers to “Consider the possibilities.” Three years later, the book Open Marriage topped the bestseller charts, propelled by one chapter that explored the idea of inviting additional sexual partners into a relationship. These and other pop-culture phenomena represented the flowering of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, but with stagflation and a hostage crisis and another revolution named Reagan, they moved to the back burner. Still simmering, though: In 1993 a National Review cover story looked at “Monogamy and its discontents.” This “amoral case for family values” considered social history and social science, concluding that “monogamy is the most peaceful and progressive way of organizing a human society.”

Twenty years later, a less-than-scientific article in Scientific American claims that “Polyamory may be good for you.” A lot has happened in those 20 years, including the coining of new words to accommodate new thought. “Polyamory,” for example, refers to committed relationships among groups of people. “Polyfidelity” refers to the bond of such a group, and let me suggest another: “Polyannia,” the unwarranted optimism about the future of such arrangements.

That’s not to say they don’t have a future. Indeed they do. If same-sex “marriage” achieves widespread acceptance there will be no logical bar to polyandrous “marriage.” That’s a good thing, according to the Scientific American article, because these fluid relationships can teach moribund monogamy a thing or two. Says Bjarne Holmes, of Champlain College in Vermont, “They are potentially doing quite a lot of things that could turn out to be things that if people who are practicing monogamy did more of, their relationships would actually be better off.” Piercing the tortured syntax, what Holmes is saying is that polyandrous partners are champion communicators: “They communicate to death.”

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They have to. In a household of four or more adults, even taking out the garbage is a matter for negotiation, much less who sleeps with whom when and who is keeping secrets from the rest and who is nursing seeds of jealousy. With the proper communication, jealousy becomes “compersion,” defined as the joy one takes in a lover’s happiness. It’s really the opposite of jealousy, though it can feel like jealousy, since the both stem from the same passionate root … and if you get that, you might be good candidate for polyandry.

Neither polyandrous nor same-sex “marriages” are likely to become widespread, but they will further compromise social stability. Think of it this way: A man and a woman join in a permanent relationship, and they with their children form a triangle. Their children grow up and join others to form more triangles. The most stable shape known to geometry, multiple triangles can bear substantial weight and even make up for a certain number of broken shapes within the framework. But when too many triangles break, introducing other shapes into the foundation will only cause it to collapse that much sooner. Then monogamy may well be back in style. But it will have a lot of repair work to do.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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