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The Inefficiency of Polyamory - Issue #18

Rebecca Kukla's recent conversation with Tyler Cowen was interesting for all sorts of reasons, but th
The Path Before Us
The Inefficiency of Polyamory - Issue #18
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #18 • View online
Rebecca Kukla’s recent conversation with Tyler Cowen was interesting for all sorts of reasons, but this bit about polyamory was particularly of note.
[Kukla:] I think one of the reasons right now why polyamory works very well for a lot of the people who do it is — and this is directly addressing what I think you’re getting at — is because since it’s a small, nonstandard community, people really — in order to make it work — they have to do a lot of critical self-reflection and studying to figure out what the norm should be.
I think that, for most straight, monogamous people, there’s very little thinking about what their fundamental relationship and sexual values and norms are and what their boundaries are. They just sort of go with the flow.
I once debated a member of ‘Sex Positive St. Louis,’ which meant spending some time learning about the world of open marriages and polyamorous relationships. It was some years ago, and….
THERE IS VIDEO. OH MY GOOD LORD THERE IS STILL VIDEO. I thought that was a moment of my life lost forever, but there it is. Thank you, internet, thank you. I was going to describe the delights of making such an argument, but it turns out you can watch those two hours of glory yourself. (How young and terrible at the format I was!) Would I do that debate again? Oh yes, yes I would.
It was while researching for that debate that I came to a similar conclusion that Kukla names here: polyamorous relationships are inefficient. It turns out, navigating the feelings and emotions that arise in such relationships can be especially difficult. Take your ordinary, run-of-the-mill marriage between a man and a woman–and now add another person of either sex. Many of the problems that would emerge are doubtlessly distinct to such unions. But think of the simple difficulty of two grown adults coordinating schedules. Adding a third person to that mix is way more than a 50% increase in difficulty, as any family with a teenager will attest. Now factor in the increased probabilities that miscommunications will occur and the frequency of their rate, and the time required to keep such a relationship functioning smoothly will expand dramatically.
For some time, I thought that inefficiency wasn’t a particularly strong argument against polyamorous relationships. I’m more sympathetic to them now, though, which may be a function of age: marriage and family is supposed to be fruitful, to be generative of life not only within the home but in the world. The more relational difficulties consume a marriage, the fewer resources they will have to participate in cultivating the world around them.
If polyamorous relationships are inefficient, then, it would be rational for such throuples to invest time up front designing rules to cover as many situations that might arise as can be imagined. They might write a contract, in other words, to help mitigate the dangers of jealousy or confusion. Polyamorous relationships are far more legalistic than an ordinary marriage; they have to be.
Kukla’s suggestion, though, is that these demands are a benefit to polyamorous relationships, rather than a drawback. Even if that were true, the fluidity of polyamorous unions would suggest that these inefficiencies are structural to them, rather than simply contingent upon the fact that broader social structures don’t support them. Limiting a union to two parties still allows for creative differences: no marriage is alike. In a where marriage is the only option, couples don’t have to choose the form of their intimate relationship: it’s given to them. In polyamorous relationships, though, customizability seems to be the point: there’s no upper threshold, intrinsically, on the number of people who might come in, which means the demand for constantly recreating the form is intrinsic to them.
None of this demonstrates that polyamory is morally wrong, or bad for society. America might still yet decide that the burdens on everyone’s time are worth it. But if we go that path, we should at lest be aware of what we’re doing.
[Coda: I really didn’t set out to write about this tonight. This isn’t quite the fare I was anticipating for the newsletter–but as they say, you get what you pay for.]

On related, if distinct, matters:
The dodgy, vulnerable fame of YouTube's child ASMR stars
The Final Word
“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1) Many serious and penetrating things result from this peace, as emerges in Romans 5-8. But they result from the fact that we HAVE this peace. Only half-serious and superficially penetrating things can result from a lack of peace with God, or from a supposed peace that we have or think we have in some other way than “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Christmas message is: “Peace on earth to men of (God’s) goodwill.” And what is meant is the peace with God which is included for all the children of men in the child who was born there and then.“ – Karl Barth
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