“Is…is there anyone else in your life?”
She was puzzled. “Many,” she said at last.
“That you _love?_”
“I love everyone.”
“As…as much as me?”
“Yes.” She seemed to have no idea that this might bother me.
“I suppose you–you perform–you do what we just did with–with other people?”
“Of course. […] I make people happy. Love is good, not bad.”
Many traditional attitudes about sexuality are based on the unspoken belief that there isn’t enough of something —love, sex, friendship, commitment—to go around. If you believe this, if you think that there’s a limited amount of what you want, it can seem very important to stake your claim to your share of it. You may believe that you have to take your share away from somebody else, since if it’s such a very good thing, someone else is probably competing with you for it (how could they!). Or you may believe that if someone else gets something, that means there must be less of it for you.
We want all of our readers to get everything they want. Here are some ideas that might help you over some of the obstacles on the path.
We call this kind of thinking “starvation economies.” People often learn about starvation economies in childhood, when parents who are emotionally depleted or unavailable teach us that we must work hard to get our emotional needs met, so that if we relax our vigilance for even a moment, a mysterious someone or something may take the love we need away from us. Some of us may even have experienced real-world hunger (if you didn’t grab first, your brother got all the potatoes), or outright neglect, deprivation, or abuse. Or we may learn starvation economies later in life, from manipulative, withholding, or punitive lovers, spouses, or friends.
The beliefs acquired in childhood are usually deeply buried and hard to see, both in individuals and in our culture. So you may have to look carefully to see the pattern. You can see it in a small way in the kind of complaining contests some people engage in: “Boy, did I have a rotten day today.” “You think your day was rotten—wait till you hear about my day!”—as though there were a limited amount of sympathy in the world and the only way to get the amount due you was to compete for it. Or remember how you have felt looking at the last piece of a very good pie, the secret salivation that made you greedy and territorial and a “selfish” person. When is it okay to want anything? People may think that if you love Bill that means you must love Mary less, or if you’re committed to your relationship with your friend you must be less committed to your relationship with your spouse. And then how do you know if you’re Number One in a partner’s heart?
This kind of thinking is a trap. We know, for example, that having a second child doesn’t usually mean that a parent loves the first child less and that the person who owns three pets doesn’t necessarily give any less care to any one of them than the person who owns one. But when it comes to sex, love, and romance, it’s hard for most people to believe that more for you doesn’t mean less for me, and we often behave as if desperate starvation is just around the corner if we don’t corner some love right now.
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures
When they approach romantic relationships, people often fall into one of two patterns. Some follow a starvation model, and some follow an abundance model.
In the starvation model, opportunities for love seem scarce. Potential partners are thin on the ground, and finding them is difficult. Because most people you meet expect monogamy, finding poly partners is particularly difficult. Every additional requirement you have narrows the pool still more. Since relationship opportunities are so rare, you’d better seize whatever opportunity comes by and hang on with both hands—after all, who knows when another chance will come along?
The abundance model says that relationship opportunities are all around us. Sure, only a small percentage of the population might meet our criteria, but in a world of more than seven billion people, opportunities abound. Even if we exclude everyone who isn’t open to polyamory, and everyone of the “wrong” sex or orientation, and everyone who doesn’t have whatever other traits we want, we’re still left with tens of thousands of potential partners, which is surely enough to keep even the most ambitious person busy.
The sneaky thing about both models is they’re both right: the model we hold tends to become self-fulfilling. If we have a starvation model of relationships, we may tend to dwell on the times we’ve been rejected, which may lower our self-esteem, which decreases our confidence…and that makes it harder to find partners, because confidence is sexy. We may start feeling desperate to find a relationship, which decreases our attractiveness further. So we end up with less success, which reinforces the idea that relationships are scarce.
When we hold an abundance model of relationships, it’s easier to just go do the things that bring us joy, without worrying about searching for a partner. That tends to make us more attractive, because happy, confident people are desirable. If we’re off doing the things that bring us joy, we meet other people there who are doing the same. Cool! The ease with which we find potential partners, even when we aren’t looking for them, reinforces the idea that opportunities for love are abundant, which makes it easier for us to go about doing what makes us happy, without worrying overmuch about finding a partner…and ’round it goes. We think our perceptions are shaped by reality, but the truth is, the reality we get is often shaped by our perceptions (Cognitive scientists talk about confirmation bias—the tendency to notice things that confirm our ideas, and to discount, discredit or not things that don’t.).
These ideas will also influence how willing we are to stay in relationships that aren’t working for us, both directly and indirectly. If we believe relationships are rare and difficult to find, we may not give up a relationship even when it’s damaging to us. Likewise, if we believe that relationships are hard to find, that may increase our fear of being alone, which can cause us to remain in relationships that aren’t working for us.
Naturally, there’s a fly in the ointment. Sometimes the things we’re looking for, or the way we look for them, create artificial scarcity. This might be because we’re doing something that puts other people off, or because we’re looking for something unrealistic. If you’re looking for a Nobel Prize–winning Canadian supermodel with a net worth of $20 million, you might find potential partners few and far between. Similarly, if you give people the impression that you’ve created a slot for them to fit into that they won’t be able to grow out of, opportunities for relationships might not be abundant either.
More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory