Father Knows Best: Are polyamorous relationships OK?

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Hey Rev!

Without going into too many details, I'm wondering what your thoughts are on polyamorous relationships. I don't know if that's the thing for me or not, but I'm interested in two people right now and would like to see where it goes with both of them. I've been honest about it with each of them.


by lauren_brown/Flickr

Dear Poly:

“God’s glory,” Irenaeus famously said, “is the human being fully alive.”

In speaking of being “fully alive,” Irenaeus wasn’t talking about the adrenaline kick that comes from whitewater rafting or flying down single track on a mountain bike. (Although that stuff is totally fine in moderation. Just be sure to wear a helmet). Rather, he was talking about the agency, the creativity, and the clarity that comes from choosing to live in such a way as to be oriented toward what we may variously call meaning, love, or joy — those things which the Christian tradition identifies with God. We can tell that we have chosen to orient ourselves in a Godward direction because doing so not only makes us happier and more satisfied, it also makes us more compassionate, more patient, more ready to listen and more ready to serve. In short, turning in a Godward direction makes us more fully the people whom we already are.

Irenaeus’ words are a helpful thing to hold onto when it comes time for us to make a decision. That’s because they invite us to ask ourselves a vital question: does the possibility which I am contemplating — this action which I may take, this idea to which I may assent, this vocation to which I may say “yes” — invite me to become more fully alive? Does it, in other words, invite me to become bigger? Or does it threaten to make me smaller — is it likely to diminish me and, in so doing, diminish the people and the world around me?

This is the line of questioning which allowed most of the church and wider society to conclude that the remarriage of divorced people could be a good and a holy thing. It is also the line of questioning which, right now, is helping us to realize that the marriage of gays and lesbians can be a good and a holy thing. In both cases, those of us who came to a more generous understanding of marriage did so because we were transformed by witnessing the love that the couples whom we knew shared. We saw that, to use a $5 theological word, their love was generative: it made both partners into more whole people and, in some ineffable way, it gave a gift of strength and of hope to the wider society. In other words, their love made all of us more fully alive. This is marriage’s awesome mystery.

Is it possible that you are called to share in that mystery, Polly, except with two partners? I guess so. But, gosh, it sure sounds exhausting. If you talk to just about anyone north of, say, five years into a long-term relationship, he or she will tell you that it’s a huge undertaking to maintain the mutual respect, the careful yet truthful conversation, the empathy, and the love which allows two people to keep on seeing the spark of the divine in one another. In short, while marriage is a wondrous vocation, it is also a whole lot of work. I can’t even imagine how much harder that work would become if you tried to keep its delicate and awesome dance going with more than one other person.

Maybe there is a distant chance that you and these two other people will be most fully alive in a polyamorous relationship. But here is what is vastly more likely, Poly: this is one of those times in life when you have been given the difficult gift of having to choose between two possibilities, each of which would be really fabulous. Sometimes we are granted admission to more than one amazing school, sometimes we get offered more than one dream job. And sometimes two really cool and fun and interesting people — two people who would both make great long-term partners — step into our lives at the very same moment.

Having a choice like this to make is a hard and a melancholy blessing. But it is indisputably a blessing — I guarantee that there are people reading these words right now who wish that they had your choice to make. Don’t squander your blessing by trying to walk down two roads at once. Trying to divide your soul in that way just about never works.

It’s time to take a beautiful risk, Poly. Let one of these people go. And then give the other one your heart.

Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Martin Elfert to melfert@stjohns-cathedral.org.

  • EJ

    Sadly this is pathetically lame and milquetoast reply, Aside from the gratuitous “good and holy” homosexual “marriages” nonsense, roudnly condemned in Sodom and St. Paul as shameful and sinful, here the only reasoning offered against polygamy is how difficult it might prove to be. It has been the constant teaching of all Christian churches from Christ that marriage is between one man and one woman, primarily for the sake of the children. Rev. Elfert has his own agenda, for his own reasons – but they have nothing to do with Christianity, to the contrary.

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  • Danielle

    It’s a shame that you encourage Poly to do what is right for her and what makes her a full and happy person, but then you tell her to do the “safe” thing. Yes, relationships are exhausting. By that logic, no one should undertake even one. By that logic, everyone should only engage in short-term relationships. Like those who were the first to get remarried, or those who were the first to come out as gay or lesbian in a hostile environment, Poly asked for your support to engage in a way that would make her happy even though it is not commonly accepted, and you let her down.

  • Swan

    “Does it, in other words, invite me to become bigger? Or does it threaten to make me smaller — is it likely to diminish me and, in so doing, diminish the people and the world around me?”

    This is an excellent principle for thinking about choices. There are a lot of people in polyamorous relationships who would agree that their choices have led to them being made “bigger”. I am not in any “committed” relationships right now, more like “dating”-type relationships, and I see tremendous growth in myself as a result. I am most definitely a better person for it, and able to be a more enriching presence in all my relationships.

    I would advise anyone thinking about poly to 1) look inside yourself and consider if you can really be honest and generous and non-jealous; and 2) talk seriously with your potential partners about this; and 3) find other successful poly people to talk to, so you can see how they do it.

    I have found excellent advice and support at the polyamory forum on reddit.,com.

  • Janet Scott

    Thank you father for your kind advice to Poly. Life is not having everything you want, nor all happiness. Polyamory is self indulgent. It is all about me, me, me. Never ending me. It is very selfish.

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  • Anonymous

    Bless you sir for being a light to the world and showing people in a kind, loving way,even if others don’t see it as kind and loving, how polyamory is sinful and completely unacceptable.