And Why Polyamory Might be the Key to Recreating the Tribe
They seem willing to acknowledge that one monogamous, romantic partnership is not enough to meet all of an individual’s needs for social bonding and human relationship. They’re ready to admit that one’s spouse cannot be one’s entire world. For example, a husband and wife can not be each other’s sole caretaker, best friend, erotic lover, philosophical conversationalist, psychological counselor, muse, spiritual guru, running partner, co-parent, business partner, financial provider, etc. You need friends to help fill all those roles – our culture tells us – well, except the erotic lover part.
Most people seem willing to agree these days that humans need to relearn how to live in more tightly knit communities – villages or tribes, they call them. They realize two people are not a tribe. They realize two people plus their kids (nuclear families) are not a tribe. They realize two people, plus their kids, plus their kid’s daycare center staff, plus the two friends they’ve kept in contact with since college and occasionally had a mom’s night out with are not a tribe.
The solution? Make more friends, they say – closer friends. Live closer to extended family. Go to church. Knock on your neighbor’s door. Join a meetup group. Maybe a mommy meetup group, where you can find your “mama tribe.”
Mama tribe… ha! While I admire what many of the ladies were trying to accomplish in the natural/attachment/gentle/peaceful parenting type groups I used to attend, tribes are not groups of unemployed women meeting up to gossip for a few hours a week, while they watch their kids play in plastic playgrounds or nicely decorated “living” rooms.
Tribes have men. Men who don’t have to disappear for 12 hours a day to keep up people fed and housed and entertained. Tribes have men and women, young and old and in between, all playing and working together, with “schools” of children imitating their parents’ play nearby.
Nuclear Families are Not Tribes
Modern tribes look like communes, I suppose, with everyone living, playing and working closely together, all day, everyday, sharing almost everything they have. Maybe a cluster of tiny houses, maybe a big house with lots of rooms – maybe both – with a big, shared cooking area and dining space, a fire-pit, etc.
But who would want to live in such close proximity with so many other people? How can we be expected to transition into such an intimate, interdependent group lifestyle? As it is now, it’s seen as strange even to have one adult roommate in our single-family-home neighborhoods, much less an entire household of adults co-parenting together.
Brad and I have tried multiple roommate situations since he and I got together – a male friend of Brad’s, an older female stranger, my sister – and considered several others, but it never worked. Having roommates in our college and young single days was hard enough. It was even harder for an essentially married couple with a baby to find the perfect quiet, clean, single person to rent one of our four bedrooms and not bug us.
But we were going about it all wrong. Instead of looking for someone to share meals and late night conversations with, we were looking for someone who’d stay out of our way in the kitchen. Instead of looking for someone we could trade skills and services with and entrust with our child, we were looking for someone who worked long hours and would make himself scarce. We weren’t looking for a new member of the family, we were looking for a stranger, who’d keep their distance and pay the rent on time. We actually said, “let’s not live with any friends, ’cause that would ruin our friendship.”
What a sad way to live. But that’s how we’ve been taught to live. The two-parent, two-job, two-car, three-kid families that lived next to us in Suburbia (just outside of Raleigh, NC) looked at us like we were crazy when I told them we were getting a roommate so we didn’t have to send Nora to daycare.
“Keep your friends close, but not too close”
But I’ve gotten off track. Back to the “make more friends” advice. How are we supposed to make and keep close friends in this modern, messed up world? It was easier in high school and college, but after everyone is spread across the country for internships and careers – and especially after they are matched up with their one and only “significant” other for life – it gets harder. Friendships fade – and between long hours at work, caring for kids, and trying to keep your “primary” relationship alive – there aren’t a lot of opportunities to make new ones.
Even if there are opportunities to make new friends – or keep old ones – they have to be kept at a distance. It’s our social custom. Once you’re in an exclusive romantic relationship, you don’t let friends get too close, especially friends you or your partner might have a sexual attraction to. Even if you don’t have a sexual attraction to them, it’s seen as a symptom of a problem in the romantic relationship if someone is spending “too much” time with a platonic friend.
I’ve sometimes wondered what it would’ve been like if I’d still lived near my best friend in California when I met Brad. Though she and I were entirely platonic (non-sexual) friends, we were extremely close. We did everything together during our college and young single years. We were closer than sisters. We shared every thought, fear, hope, joy, embarrassing moment and our darkest secrets. We worked together, grocery shopped together, cooked together, ran together, went man-hunting together, had sleepovers at each other’s houses and traveled the world together. It was her bathroom floor I lay sobbing on the night my dad died. It was her who held me and supported me through those dark hours. It was me she called and cried to about her break up, for hours, after I moved away.
But when you get a boyfriend, or a husband, it’s assumed that those kinds of relationships will take a back burner to the romantic one. Everyone outside of that “primary” relationship is suspect. What if my boyfriend or husband develops a crush on my best friend? What if she is guarded with him because she doesn’t want to appear to be flirting with him and make me jealous? What if he thinks I’m spending too much time with her and secretly in love with her? Even if the three of us had no problems with me maintaining an intimate relationship with her, other people would talk and snicker if we all spent “too much” time together.
This is not a tribe: Clusters of couples and singles who can’t spend too much time together, or live together, or “get too close,” because of cultural paranoia and fear-mongering about how awful it would be if already-romantically-partnered people started feeling sexual attraction to or romantic feelings for each other.
Tribes are networks of open-hearted, interconnected individauls – not clusters of monogamous couples
When I moved across the country from my best friend, I had to make new friends. Brad was my first. I developed a handful of other worthwhile friends during my five years in Raleigh, but our subdivisions and social norms kept us at a safe distance. We would only meet at carefully planned play dates, scheduled between naps, and cut off just in time for us to all go to our separate homes to make dinner for our separate nuclear families. This is just how life had to be I thought, until this past year.
In one year in Asheville, I’ve made more fulfilling friendships than I’ve made in my entire adult life. The difference? I learned about polyamory just before moving here – a town with a large poly community and an even larger group of open-minded people, who aren’t freaked out by us – and started opening my heart and mind to developing close relationships with new people.
We now have a growng circle of polyamorous friends and acquaintances with whom no arbitrary and artificial boundaries have to be set. We don’t meet people thinking “which neat and tidy role will you fill in my life?” We just meet people and spend time with them and enjoy their company and let relationships grow into whatever shape and form feels most natural. The majority of those relationships aren’t romantic or sexual, but there is no tension or reason to worry if romantic and/or sexual feelings develop.
When my first female friend here spontaneously jumped into bed with Brad a few months back (which I’ve written about in a secret post I will maybe someday reveal), I jumped in with them. It was awkward for a few weeks, but soon enough, we were all able to get back to being regular friends again. We’ve never really talked about that night and kind of pretend it didn’t happen, but it’s fine. We all know it did, and we are all over it. Now, she just feels like extended family who lives across town and occasionally drops in. Maybe it’ll happen again someday, maybe it won’t. Doesn’t matter. We’re still friends. It didn’t ruin the friendship. And that is what is awesome.
Just last week, we moved into a new house with a new roommate, Brad’s best friend since we’ve lived here. It seemed only natural for us to live with him when our leases were up. It would save us all money, and he was at our house all the time anyway. Our daughter loves him more than she loves us it seems sometimes, and we all feel like a little family. Brad and I are entirely platonic friends with him, as he feels like a brother, but something about living polyamorously takes away the pressure to keep artificial emotional distances between us.
There’s another couple, whom all three of us are close friends with, whom we’ve also been spending a lot of time with lately. I’ve joked they should move in too, but in seriousness, I wish they could. I wish we could all buy a big house together and have a whole tribe of little families and individuals living together, in all areas of the house, not just the “living” room.
I feel so much less lonely and isolated already, with just one roommate and two other close friends in the house more often, I can’t wait until we grow into a larger, more integrated tribe – a tribe without limits on who we love, how many we love, and in what ways we love them.