My Favorite Book on Friendships is a Book About Polyamory¶
I recently read a book called “More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory” by Franklin Veaux and Eve Ricket. I didn't know about polyamory before, and always lumped “poly” people with the rest of the sexually deviant groups of society. Because polyamory is a relatively new concept for most of the monogamous world, the authors spend a great deal of time outlining a guide for navigating in the world of polyamory. The upside of being so detailed in helping neophytes navigate complex relationships involving more than two people is that I learned a lot about relationships in general. “More Than Two” is probably my favorite book for navigating my friendships.
Friendships involve multiple people, and our relationships with our friends can interact in similar ways as polyamorous people. For example, jealousy is discussed at length in the book, but jealousy is equally frequent amongst close friends. So are long distance friends, or friends who grow apart. Friendships, like poly relationships, can have many shapes. They can be a V shape in which one person know two friends who aren't friends with each other. What kinds of problems can occur in these structures? What kinds of problems can occur in an hierarchical friendship? Polyamory people spend a lot of time and energy figuring this out.
Poly people also don't have any cultural norms or scripts to support their claims. We all know what a monogamous committed relationship looks like. We know about fairness, trust, commitment, and consent in the 1 to 1 relationship. But what does a V-shaped romantic relationship look like, and what does “fairness,” “trust”, and “commitment” look like in those relationships? Poly people reason about these issues from first principles that are laid out upfront, instead of hidden behind hidden assumptions.1
Before I dive in on why I find polyamory material practical for my own relationships, I should mention that the authors really want to make this clear: Polyamory is not the same thing as casual sex with multiple partners. Proponents of polyamory are adamant that though polyamory, like swingers, does sometimes involve multiple partners, polyamory is completely different in many other aspects. The book focuses less on the lifestyle of polyamory people and more on how the individuals in these poly relationship interact.
How to Win Friends (But Not Keep Them)¶
The most iconic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie sparked a flood of self-help books that followed afterwards, all focused on how to make friends. Those resources are fantastic and give good prescriptions for making friends.
The subject of making friends is also easier to study in an academic study, as it's easier to find subjects who don't know each other interact with other subjects in a short, self-contained study. Studying any relationship longer than a year is just a logistical night, hidden with confounding variables everywhere. No psychology professor will ever stake their tenure on making such an experiment or study happen.
Because of all these factors, I rarely come across compelling material for how to keep friends. No one seems to know how to interact with close friends, or everyone assumes they know how to do it properly (accumulation of experience doesn't always equate expertise). Most books on friendship involve learning to interact with acquaintances, and many of them are filled with trite aphorisms reminiscent of the original “How to Win Friends” book. Be kind. Be generous. Compliment people. Reach out to folks.
No one seems to know how to deal with interpersonal issues that involve more than one person. There are some informative resources for conflict management, two of which come to mind are “Nonviolent Communication” and “Crucial Conversations.” They both prescribe amazing advice with communication between two people. But unlike those books, our day-to-day relationships are less compartmentalized and more entwined. I know how to talk about my feelings and make compromises with a friend, but what if the compromise involves or affects another close friend of mine?
Putting it concretely in an example, Alex has two close friends Bob and Claire. Bob was Alex's childhood friend. Claire is Alex's college dormmate. Unfortunately, Bob and Claire don't like each other, and Alex desperate wishes they could just get along. Alex has been busy lately with his job, and Claire confronts him that she wishes they spent more time together. Should Alex spend more time with Claire if that time spent is at the expense of Bob? Where's Bob's share of voice in this? Friendships can be complicated, and when they involve more than 1 person it can get really hairy really fast.
It's also difficult to find material in romantic relationship books that transfer well to our own day-to-day friends. Relationship materials only involve one person, who is implicitly the most important person in the world. Unfortunately, I can't rank my close friends from best to worse. They each have a special place in my heart, so I can't draw good advice from the books that assume there's only one person that takes priority in your life.
Polyamory material fills this niche on the subject matter in which they discuss situations no books on the market currently talk about. They talk about relationships problems that 1. Are high emotional stakes and 2. Involve more than one person. The authors have done an amazing job walking through real examples that are transferable to my personal life.
Love: The Most Overloaded Word in Human History¶
It was only recently that I realized that “love” is the most overloaded word in human history. It's use to describe so many different type of interactions and so many different types of relationships. Yet many people talk about relationships as if there's one universally agreed upon definition. It makes answering questions like “are they in a relationship?” give very little information about the nature of two people's interactions. Does a relationship mean being exclusive? Does it mean “with the eventual intention of getting married” or just “we enjoy each other's company”? Does a relationship mean sharing a bed, money, or a child together?
Most books on relationships rely on a core, implicit assumption of what an ideal relationship is supposed to be like, and those assumptions contain the author's value judgments. For example, one recurring assumption that reveals itself often is Gary Chapman's conception of a biblical relationship in his book “The 5 Love Languages.” His implicit assumptions bleeds into his prescriptions of the various relationship problems he encounters. One jarring piece of advice I've found in the book was around a mismatch of sexual appetite. The advice nudges a female patient to be submissive to her partner for a couple of weeks in order to smooth out a disagreement between a husband and a wife.
“If Glenn comes back with a suggestion as to how you might be a better wife, accept that information and work it into your plan. Look for positive things in Glenn's life and give him verbal affirmation about those things. In the meantime, stop all verbal complaints. If you want to complain about something, write it down in your personal notebook rather than saying anything about it to Glenn this month.” -- The 5 Love Languages, Pg 114.
Due to my respect for individual rights, I disagreed with the prescription. The author is a church pastor, and navigates relationships with the biblical relationship in mind. His advice was a direct inspiration from Luke 6:38. His beliefs strongly favor the sanctity of the marriage over the sanctity of the individuals, and strongly view marriage as a commune between two individuals into one unit.
With those assumptions about relationships, it might make sense to draw conclusions as strange as “set a goal to have sexual intercourse at least once a week the first two weeks and twice a week the following two weeks” with the motivation of “your faith in God in order to do this. Perhaps it will help if you read again Jesus' sermon on loving your enemies, loving those who hate you, loving those who use you”.
The book really drilled the point home that many people have different understanding of what a relationship means, yet talk about it as if we had a common agreed upon definition.
Since polyamory is a relatively new concept, Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert cannot safely assume that their readers have any preconceptions of how poly relationships should work. They have no cultural script to rely on. Rather than just assume their own personal beliefs, I admire their courage to actually write down these axioms that are used to justify their thesis and prescriptions: 1. The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship 2. Don't treat people as things
Writing these down is super useful because if readers disagree with these axioms (found early in the book at page 41), then they can immediately drop the book go read something else. Fortunately, these sound like reasonable assumptions to me about how to navigate a relationship. They use these assumptions to build off prescriptions. As they walked through some examples throughout the book, I realize relationship advice sometimes violates one of these axioms. Referencing back to “The Five Love Languages,” Gary Chapman asks his female patient to compromise herself for the health of the relationship, violating both axiom one and two.
I definitely enjoyed More Than Two more than I originally anticipated. Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert demonstrated how a book on relationships should be written. They walk through some very real examples of how conflicts can arise amongst multiple people and give some great (but hard) advice for navigating those issues. Polyamory relationships are the edge-cases that break down our intuition of trust, commitment, and consent in our interactions with our friends, and I found some insightful nuggets of truth for understanding these concepts more deeply having read the book. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to improve their own relationships.
It's interesting to note how many polyamory materials emphasize “ethics” in them. The Ethical Slut. More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Polyamory. I recently came across a polyamory workshop titled Poly 101: An introduction to ethical open relationships. ↩