Is “relationship orientation” a thing?

A session on plural families at last week’s AAMFT Annual Conference in Portland used the term as a parallel to sexual orientation.

Teens from polygamous families
One of the workshops I attended at last week’s AAMFT Annual Conference focused on “plural families” — family structures that involve more than two partners and their children. The presenters argued that members of these families (seen most often in the US in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, in offshoots of the Mormon church, which officially banned polygamy more than 120 years ago) may well wind up in a family therapist’s office, and that the therapist needs to be prepared to work with the realities of their complex family structures.

The presentation was fascinating, and appropriately non-controversial: These presenters were not arguing that a plural family structure was right or wrong, just that it exists, and that therapists may be confronted with it. Fair enough.

What piqued my interest was their use of the term “relationship orientation” to describe one’s leanings toward monogamous or polygamous relationships. Are we moving toward considering a preference for monogamy or polygamy as simply one more demographic variable, not subject to change and worthy of equal respect in all its forms?

In a pair of essays for Slate, Michael Carey (a pseudonym) has argued that exact thing. He first suggests that, like gays and lesbians, polyamorists often feel compelled to hide their relationships even from close family members for fear of judgment or even expulsion — and that the lack of societal acceptance reflects prejudice. In the second, he notes that half to two-thirds of polyamorists do not experience their relationship orientation as a choice. (These numbers are from Carey’s experience, and he doesn’t pretend they are research-based.) For this majority, their “innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one.”

Don’t focus too much on that word “innate,” though. How much of a desire for polyamory is nature and how much of it is nurture isn’t especially important when arguing for moral acceptance of poly relationships, Carey argues:

Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.

Now, I should be up front about my own moral place here. I have no problem with poly relationships as long as there is no dishonesty involved and no one is getting hurt (at least, no more so than happens in the normal course of monogamous relationships). What concerns me here is where the parallel leads us. If “relationship orientation” is as inflexible as we now understand sexual orientation to be, and if participants in poly relationships are not being any more or less moral than anyone else, do we have a societal moral obligation to honor poly relationships with equal status as monogamous ones (whether straight or gay)?

In other words, do we owe them plural marriage?

The overwhelming science on gay and lesbian couples show that they and their children are harmed by societal discrimination and suffer from being unable to marry in a wide variety of ways. This is in spite of the fact that children of same-sex couples are just as healthy as those from straight couples.

The situation is different for poly marriage. While there may be many exceptions, poly relationships are generally understood to be oppressive to women, and polygamous families and cultures may have negative outcomes for children on a variety of measures. So there is ample reason to take a very cautious approach to polyamorists pushing for societal acceptance.

Status of polygamy worldwide
Legal status of polygamy worldwide (click the image for full details)

I’ll admit I have never been a big believer in the “slippery slope” line of reasoning, which essentially argues that if you raise the speed limit from 55 to 65, then you’re going to have to raise it to 200. You don’t, of course; raising it again even to 70 would be a different debate. Slippery slope arguments are often nonsensical fear tactics used to argue for the status quo, by suggesting that the alternative is an extreme alternate reality that no one has actually suggested. Applied to gay marriage, some argued that it would somehow logically follow that if we allowed same-sex couples to marry, we would then have to allow people to marry box turtles.

It is debatable whether re-legalizing polygamy equates with raising the speed limit to 70, or whether it would be more like raising the limit to 200. For now, I’m looking at it more like 200 — a radical and potentially damaging change.

But lots of people once felt that way about gay marriage, too. And it seems the language debate we once had around sexual orientation being a preference, a lifestyle, or an orientation is starting to replicate itself for plural families. As we saw with gay marriage, the outcome of the language debate has a lot to do with shaping what happens next.

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