For the first interview in our author series we are talking to Pete Benson, the author of The Polyamory Handbook.
Can I start by saying thank-you for agreeing to do this interview.
My pleasure! Thanks for asking!
Can you tell us what initially drew you to polyamory?
I don’t think anything “drew” me to polyamory. I feel that I’ve identified with poly attitudes ever since I discovered girls at puberty! So, for me, polyamory feels more like an innate orientation, like being straight or gay, than like a lifestyle choice. I will soon have my 69th birthday, so with a little arithmetic you see that I’ve been poly for half a century! Of course the word “polyamory” didn’t exist then.
I remember, when I was in high school (in the 1950s), I thought it strange that most of my classmates “went steady,” imitating adult monogamy or exclusiveness. I had one steady girlfriend at a time then too, but I still found various other girls attractive as well. My feelings for my steady weren’t diminished because I was also attracted to other girls.
How do you think attitudes have changed over the years?
There have been great changes, it seems to me, both in awareness and in acceptance of polyamory—at least in some regions—I suppose more so in the more cosmopolitan, culturally diverse or progressive regions, as with everything else. When my first wife and I joined with another couple to form a quad in 1971, we did not know of anyone else doing anything of the sort—although of course there was lots of experimentation then with open relationships among the hippies of the day, and people in general. But that was mostly just sexual openness, having fun, not trying to form ongoing emotional bonds with more than one person at a time.
The poly community should be very grateful, I feel, to Morning Glory Zell for coining the word “polyamory” in 1990, because that planted the seed for poly people to realize that they were not alone, to find other poly people, to form local and national and global groups, to compare experiences and puzzles, to allow books to be written. When we were all totally isolated, without even a word to describe our ways of loving, every poly person had to reinvent every wheel from scratch. It’s no surprise that there were a lot of mistakes and failures.
Of course having a label for what we are also makes us visible as well for the nonpoly mainstream—also a good thing, because that way (at least among open-minded mainstream people) we can be thought of as simply another subset of humanity, like the gays and lesbians, or an ethnic minority—rather than being somehow deviant or pathological in our relationships.
We poly folks also owe great gratitude to the gay and lesbian community for becoming fed up with the closet and chronic persecution, and having the courage to demand recognition that theirs is as ethical and honorable a way to love as is heterosexuality. The gays and lesbians hacked a path, making the travel a lot easier for the poly community.
What led you to write ‘The Polyamory Handbook’?
A couple of different factors. As I indicated, I’d identified with polyamory for many years and had watched the modern poly community form and mature and reinvent the same wheels over and over. Some great books had been published describing what polyamory is, and justifying its right to exist—the necessary first step, surely. Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: Love Without Limits is certainly at the forefront there. That one and some other earlier books included some suggestions about how the dynamics of living poly differs from sexually exclusive dyadic relationships—but there really was nothing published, that I could find, that could serve as a roadmap or guidebook for those who say, “Yeah, that’s how I try to live, or polyamory sounds good and I’d like to try it, so how do I go about it, or how do we as a couple go about it without blowing our marriage out of the water?”
Every bookstore has whole shelves or sections of books devoted to how people can improve their couple relationships. Those books are mostly fine as far as they go, but they all take for granted that once two people form a couple relationship, they’ll automatically stop all sexual involvement with anyone else. (The fact that well over half of all those couples get involved in secret “affairs” should tell us something about human nature!) There was nothing available in the bookstores for the individual or the couple or the triad, etc., on how to make the interpersonal dynamics among more than two openly loving partners work smoothly.
I’d experienced a number of different varieties of polyamory over the years—I’d been part of a couple with secondary relationships; a quad; I’d been a secondary to a poly married woman; there was an attempted triad that didn’t gel. One of my strong areas seems to be language and languages—expressing ideas in words. I came to feel that I could fill that void in the poly literature, the absence of a comprehensive guidebook for polyamory, based on my own extensive experience and my writing talent.
How do you think it differs from other books on polyamory?
As the title suggests, The Polyamory Handbook: A User’s Guide is a how-to book, mainly. I do address the question of what polyamory is (and what it is not), right at the beginning—since some people new to the idea confuse polyamory and swinging, or polyamory and polygamy, or polyamory and polyandry. But except for those few paragraphs at the beginning, The Polyamory Handbook is about how to make polyamory work smoothly in your life, whether you’re a single person or a couple or an established group of more than two, regardless of sexual orientation, and whether you’re new to any sort of open relationships or if you’ve been living that way for years and occasionally you’ve run across some puzzle in life that’s unique to the poly experience.
The fact that the book is designed as a “handbook” or “manual” is why I not only grouped the material into chapters covering broad subject areas but also subdivided each chapter into numbered sections, so people with a specific question could flip right to the specific part of the book that responds to that question, without reading through a lot of irrelevant material before finding what they’re looking for.
In short, unlike other books about polyamory, The Polyamory Handbook for the most part does not try to describe polyamory or justify its existence (since that’s already been covered elsewhere quite well), but aims to help people with what they need to learn, unlearn, and remember, in order to have the greatly enriched life experiences that polyamory makes possible.
I understand that you also have a spiritual outlook, how does that inform your approach to polyamory?
Like many people, I carefully distinguish between “spirituality” and “religion”. I am not interested in any form of religion that asks me to accept the truth of this or that assertion without question or examination. I have been steeped since childhood in the scientific method (examine everything, don’t conclude too quickly that you know all there is to know about something, and always be ready to change your mind when you get new information); and I still feel, as I always have, that that’s the best approach for us humans with our limited abilities at perception and understanding.
The way I sometimes phrase it is that “I don’t do belief.” I either consider some idea to be very probably true, based on credible scientific study or on personal experience; or I’ll hold the idea as a theory or hypothesis or conjecture; or (if I can’t find any relevant information at all) I’ll just say I don’t know and leave it at that.
Although I have not pursued a scientific or technical career, I have always been fascinated by the progress of theoretical physics over about the last hundred years—basically since Einstein came out with his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, followed by quantum mechanics, non locality, and so on. What fascinates me is that this very left-brained, no-nonsense field called physics, over the last century or so, has been coming closer and closer to what the ancient eastern Mystics and indigenous shamans have been trying to tell us for many thousands of years!
Of course the theoretical physicists and the mystics use a different style of writing, but if you get down under the different language styles, they’re really saying the same thing, now: The most fundamental aspect of reality is not the space-time, matter-energy physical universe that we can rap with our knuckles, but consciousness. The physical universe is somehow projected by that consciousness—maybe something akin to holography. It’s perfectly natural, then, that consciousness can choose to attach itself to a bit of matter (a soul/mind becoming associated with a body—i.e., incarnating), and can also influence a living body or other matter (for example, spiritual healing, and manifesting reality in other ways).
Quantum mechanics tells us that there are no sharp boundaries in space or time—no line that divides “here” from “there”, or “now” from “then”, or “me” from “you”. In other words, the universe is all one, and consciousness must be pervasive throughout the universe. Think of an archipelago of islands in the sea. From the air, we see them as individual bits of land surrounded by water. But if we imagine ourselves inside Earth’s crust, looking upward, the islands are seen to be all part of the same planetary crust, just bumping up a little here and there. We think of a hurricane or the Gulf Stream as having an identity of its own, but they are respectively part of the one atmosphere or the one ocean.
Again, this is just what the mystics and shamans have been saying since long before the Buddha’s time. Furthermore, the scientific method of physics should work just as well for investigating those nonphysical or spiritual realms as it has for the world of space-time and matter-energy. Some scientific researchers and institutions are now venturing out into those realms.
So how does that rambling relate to polyamory? Well, I never claim that polyamory is somehow emotionally or spiritually superior to monamory. Everyone needs to live in the way that’s best and most comfortable for them. But I can’t help but feel that the more we live in harmony with other beings and the rest of the world, or the more we resonate with them, then the closer we come to being in harmony with higher realms of reality and with whatever higher purposes there may be.
In my book at one point I compare people to atoms or molecules. A bag full of thousands of loose atoms can’t do much, and a bag of two-atom molecules (like table salt or carbon monoxide) also can’t do much. But bond thousands of atoms together into a molecule of DNA, and those same atoms, all working in harmony, can now do countless amazing things.
The same is true of people, whether they stay isolated in life, or form bonds of only two, or larger bonds. That kind of working together, and that harmony with Universal Consciousness and All That Is, is the essence of spirituality, I would say. And polyamory is one way that we can live in that harmony.
What do you see the future of polyamory being, and how do you think it will effect the way monogamy and marriage are viewed today?
I expect that we’ll continue to see polyamory coming more and more into the mainstream as a more common way for people to relate as well as being more accepted by nonpoly people. Society does change; it just takes a while sometimes! Well, that’s no different from how it is with individuals.
We have recent examples of that kind of societal change. It was only three or four decades ago that no single person would openly admit to being sexually involved with someone without marrying them first. Unmarried men and women just never lived together. That would be shockingly immoral! Some religious fundamentalists still live that way, but now they are the odd-balls, the small minority! I expect the day is not far off when poly-style open relationships and multi-adult households (maybe legally sanctioned, as multi-adult marriages) will be accepted by mainstream society as the perfectly normal option for living and loving that it should be.