Monogamy, Polyamory, and What It Takes to Be Fulfilled

Marriage used to be an essential part of what most people envisioned as a fulfilling life. But times have changed! These days, getting married is not a given for many people, and even what it means to be married is changing. The freedoms of modern life are giving people the opportunity to experiment with new approaches, but modern culture is pretty clueless about what it really means to be fulfilled, and what it takes to get there. How can people achieve fulfillment without understanding what they’re aiming for?

Our evolving ideas of matehood

It’s become obvious that the traditional model of matehood — one man and one woman, till death do us part — is no longer the unquestioned ideal. Monogamy is still alive and well, but it’s losing ground to the widespread and growing interest in “open marriage” and polyamory. In the last few months, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the New York Times have all featured major articles that covered these alternative models in depth. Plural relationships is also the subject of a reality TV show, “Seeking Sister Wives,” that is beginning its fifth season.

Open marriage is a variation on matrimony in which a couple agrees to allow each other the freedom to date others. It offers an escape valve for the tensions of the primary relationship, and an opportunity to bring fresh air (and energy) into the partners’ lives. It’s clearly an improvement over the old-fashioned extramarital affair, which is usually pursued in secret. The secrecy factor inevitably creates an emotional rift between the partners, whether the affair is ever discovered/admitted or not, making it hard for the marriage to survive if the affair comes to light (and even if it doesn’t). Open marriage represents a welcome change, because it allows for the possibility of preserving honest communication between the primary partners even while allowing them to pursue extramarital attractions.

Polyamory opens the primary relationship even further, with an agreement to allow each other to cultivate ongoing romantic relationships with others. A risky proposition, fraught with numerous challenges, but an ambitious attempt at greater fulfillment in love.

The more radical option of plural relationships has become increasingly accepted and even popular in recent times, but the idea has been around for a long time.

Back in the 1970’s I visited Kerista Community in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco. Kerista was a utopian group of people who practiced what they called “polyfidelity.” The Keristans were idealistic, dedicated to creating an alternative lifestyle that discouraged tendencies toward possessiveness, preferentialness, and attachment in sexual relationships. Their approach was highly structured: a schedule that required members to share a bed with a different opposite-sex partner each night. I give them credit for gamely aspiring to liberate themselves and, ultimately, society at large from the problems inherent in exclusive relationships. But in my conversations with members, it was clear that their way of life wouldn’t suit most people, and didn’t even fit comfortably on most of them. Several of them admitted that their lifestyle brought up awkward and complicated feelings, which they hesitated to express openly in the group and were ill-equipped to resolve on their own. If anything, they felt farther from being fulfilled than when they joined.

At that time fifty years ago, there were a few isolated attempts at plural relationships, mostly under the radar. But today the idea of polyamory is making real inroads into mainstream culture. It’s easy to understand its current appeal. In the traditional style of marriage, the spouses hope that the advantages they gain from their exclusive commitment will outweigh the disadvantages, and they count on each other to persist in spite of the inevitable dissatisfactions that arise. But now that traditional values have been replaced by individualism and pursuit of personal fulfillment, many people find an exclusive commitment to a spouse unacceptably confining. So it’s understandable that the monogamous paradigm of marriage is crumbling — and if you look closely, you’ll see there have been faults in its foundation since the beginning.

The monogamous dream is that you find a life partner who will commit to you, be faithful to you, and fulfill all your needs. But the dream is inherently unrealistic and over-pressurizing, because no one person can satisfy all of another person’s needs. More than that, it’s entirely unnatural and ultimately unhealthy to try to save all our love for only our mate or immediate family. Those unachievable expectations put both partners under extraordinary pressure, and their inevitable failure to fulfill those expectations makes both of them feel inadequate, insecure, and unhappy. There’s a bigger problem, too: Selfish tendencies can easily turn the couple’s marriage vows into suffocating restrictions. Loyalty degrades into possessiveness, lovemaking deteriorates into insensitive self-indulgence, commitment becomes confinement in mediocrity. When ego gets a foothold in the relationship, the partners feel strangled and crave relief.

This explains why some polyamorous couples claim that opening up their marriage actually saved the relationship. I believe it, because it relieved them of the impossible demand to fulfill each other single-handedly, and the shame and blame that follows. A definite improvement, yes, but I foresee that the honeymoon of polyamory won’t last forever either. People will wake up one morning to realize they still aren’t fulfilled. Simply adding more relationships multiplies the interpersonal complications but doesn’t change the eternal standards for fulfilling any of them. In itself, it’s not a final answer.

Where do we go from here? To find the way forward requires us to deeply consider what human beings actually need to be fulfilled, as individuals and in our relationships — and why the prevailing paradigms are falling short.

The unchanging requirements for fulfillment

We tend to pay a lot of attention to our physical and emotional needs as human beings, but we also have some fundamental, non-negotiable spiritual needs. Anyone who doesn’t satisfy those higher needs will remain unfulfilled even if they’re satisfied in other respects. Love is the biggest and most important of humanity’s spiritual needs.

True fulfillment can’t be found in any of the current approaches to intimate partnership because they all have a major fault in their foundation. They’re not really based on love, and love isn’t their primary purpose.

Think about it: Generally, most people approach intimate partnership with a “shopping list.” They look for someone who has qualities they find appealing. They commit to a partner to create security for themselves, to have “somebody to love,” to nail down a stable source of pleasure and companionship in life, and maybe help them start a family. They focus on their own checklist of physical and emotional needs, looking for the right match for “me.” Yes, both partners get to check off the same boxes, but the whole checklist approach to relationship is too small and self-focused to truly satisfy anybody’s heart.

Couples don’t even realize how stingy they’re being with their love. It’s hard to see at first, because when two people first fall in love they’re not stingy at all. During courtship the lovers pour enough energy, attention, and devotion into each other to thrill anyone’s heart. Fueled by the euphoria of attraction and the hope of securing a stable source of pleasure and support in life, they both give their all.

If the pair kept investing that generously in each other, they would keep their love strong and growing even after the initial thrill fades and they start bumping into each other’s imperfections. But that’s not what usually happens in the typical case. Falling in love is a glorious mountaintop experience, but eventually the lovers wake up to find themselves in the valley of everyday life. Face to face with the challenges of living in close quarters with another human being. Up against each other’s blind spots and irritating habits. And lacking the relationship skills required to truly resolve disagreements and make joint decisions that take both partners into account. They discover they’ll need to do a lot of work on themselves, their relationship, and their functionality in love to have a truly fulfilling life together.

But generally, once the honeymoon phase of a relationship is over people tend to start coasting. They “have” each other so they stop investing enough of themselves in each other to keep wanting each other. They give themselves leeway to economize on the time, energy, openness, vulnerability, flexibility, and self-sacrifice they’re willing to invest in the relationship. That kind of low-budget mentality is not loving, it’s selfish. It doesn’t meet the true spiritual needs of either one or sustain them both through the inevitable interpersonal storms all close relationships weather. That thrifty approach cuts corners off the Hope Diamond of soul-satisfying love.

What is soul-satisfying love?

What kind of love and how much of it do human beings need for true fulfillment? And how can that need be satisfied? Just because a person is married, or dating someone or even several people, doesn’t guarantee that they’ll have enough of the right kind of love in their lives to be fulfilled.

We all have an inner blueprint for what love is, and it’s a high standard. We intuitively expect our beloveds to be devoted, loyal, trustworthy, understanding and compassionate toward our shortcomings, dedicated to our happiness and well-being, energetically invested in the relationship, and willing to set aside their own preferences and convenience for our sake when necessary. And we don’t feel truly loving unless we give that kind of love ourselves.

Thrifty relationships don’t provide that kind of love, because soul-satisfying love can only be exchanged in relationships of sufficient depth and personal investment for the partners to feel deeply seen, fully embraced, and actively wanted. But once you experience it, you’ll never forget it. When someone loves you that way it brings out the best of who you are and what you’re made of. It lets you feel safe enough to open up and be yourself, trusting enough to be honest and vulnerable with them, and secure enough to take the risks and make the sacrifices that deep relationship requires. When two people give each other that kind of love, they’re both deeply nourished and fulfilled by their love. Otherwise, they’re left partly hungry, insecure, and unfulfilled.

Does this standard sound too idealistic? It’s definitely lofty, but we’re stuck with it. We can decide to aim lower, but we can’t change what we need. The proof is in the pudding. You can see the proof all around you and in your own experience. The lack of truly soul-satisfying love is what actually makes a monogamous marriage unsatisfying, and what keeps fulfillment elusive in open or polyamorous relationships as well. We don’t need to put all our eggs in one basket, but we’re not satisfied if we’re not putting enough eggs in any of our baskets.

Now, here’s the catch: All human beings are stuck with a very high inner standard for love, but not every human being is ready to meet that standard — at least not yet. People may sincerely love each other and do their best to make each other feel well-loved, then come to find out that neither of them consistently measures up to what the heart recognizes as love. They also discover that diamonds in the rough don’t become polished gemstones any time soon. Outgrowing personal shortcomings is a slow process that can’t be forced or hurried by either partner.

Now what? What if one or both people in a relationship aren’t currently prepared to give each other the kind of love human beings truly need, the kind of love that would fulfill both of them and fortify them for tackling the hard work all relationships require?

The way forward

I said earlier that no one person can satisfy all of another person’s needs. Accepting that fact may be our saving grace. It means that an imperfect partnership of two imperfect people is not doomed to failure. It gives us more possibilities for fulfillment!

Human beings can have more than one significant relationship in life, and in fact I think we’re meant to. We actually need to, and truth be told, all of us (secretly or openly) want to. This doesn’t necessarily mean an open marriage or a polyamorous lifestyle. Soul-satisfying love can be shared between friends as well as between lovers. In fact, sex is not a necessary aspect of soul-satisfying love, and often introduces complications and selfish motivations that are challenging to navigate. We need more than one significant love-relationship in our lives, but not necessarily multiple sexual relationships.

I know from personal experience that loving more than one person need not diminish the quality, intensity, and satisfaction of any of the relationships, if a person is truly committed to loving and what that requires. In fact, expanding our love to larger numbers of beloveds can actually enhance all our relationships without taking away from any. No matter what form it takes, every relationship is unique, and every relationship brings out something unique from both people. So every relationship is important in its own right.

Roles and functions in relationships are interchangeable, but the people themselves are not. For example, say a husband expresses his love partly through taking care of the yard and house. After an accident or illness, he is no longer able to complete those chores, and the couple must hire a handyman to do them. Obviously, someone else is filling the husband’s former role, but not his place in his wife’s heart.

None of us becomes a master of soul-satisfying love overnight. And we can’t master love by reading books or attending workshops or even by meditating deeply. Love is something to be brought into life for and with others, under the challenging conditions of ordinary human life. In that process, close friendships are invaluable. Close friends inspire us to love better and they complain whenever we fall short. Close friendships also show us where we need more work by bringing out the rough edges and selfish impulses that no one sees in themselves simply by looking in the mirror (or gazing at their navels).

The road of love-learning is long and full of rocks, hills, and valleys. But it is deeply heart-satisfying to be walking that road hand-in-hand with people you love, when each of you has accepted your real spiritual needs and taken responsibility to sincerely help each other fulfill them. Finding fulfillment in love does not depend on finding the right person (or people). It’s more important to commit to being a right person — willing to consider your loved ones deeply and give yourself as generously as you can, in whatever form each relationship takes. Perfection is not required, just a truly loving orientation, a willingness to discipline and release selfish tendencies, and a commitment to growing in capacity to love. Every heart has the same inner standards for love, and anyone can grow into meeting them who is willing to be honest with themselves and committed to putting love first in their interactions.

~ by Sara Donna, co-founder of LoveTrust

If you’re interested in learning more about creating fulfilling relationships, I recommend the article “How to Create Love That’s Worth Living For” by my friend David Truman. I learned much of what I know about fulfilling love relationships from his example, his writings, and our deeply satisfying lifelong friendship. 



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