Polyamory as a zero-sum game and other musings on relationship

I get a lot of email from my polyamory site. The majority of that email is very positive, but every so often someone takes issue with the idea of polyamory (not so much of the idea of being polyamorous, so much as the entire existance of polyamory), and objects to polyamory in principle as well as in practice.

One of the most common objections to polyamory is based on time management, and betrays a fundamental worldview which, I think, is not necessarily accurate, but which is buried so deeply in assumptions about the way relationships work that it’s nearly inaccessible.

Now, before I go any further, I do think it’s important to say that there is a kernel of truth in complaints about polyamory from a time-management perspective. Love isn’t infinite, press releases to the contrary; but more important, time and energy are definitely not infinite, and are sometimes in very short supply indeed. It is not possible, philosophically or practically, for a person to have an indefinite number of partners; eventually, even the most patient of people will simply run out of time.

But that doesn’t happen as quickly as people think it does, because love is not a poker game.

A poker game is a classic example of a zero-sum system. In game theory (and in economics), something is said to be “zero sum” if all the gains and losses in the system, added together, always equal zero.

In poker, it’s easy to see how this works. If Alan and Bob play poker, then for every dollar that Alan wins, Bob loses exactly one dollar. The total of the winnings and losses added up equals zero; each dollar in the pot that one person wins, the other players have lost.

Many people approach relationships in much the same way. The assumption is that relationships are also zero-sum; every minute of time, every bit of attention you give to one partner is a minute of time or a bit of attention that is taken away from someone else. If Alan is dating Betty and Cindy, the net sum of the time Allen spends with Betty is time taken away from Cindy, and if you add the total amount of time one partner gains and the other loses, you always end up at zero.

Now, hidden deeply within this idea is another, related idea, and that is that a person who is in a relationship has a rightful claim on his partner’s time and attention. If I am dating Alice, then Alice’s time and attention rightfully belongs to me; if Alice spends that time and attention on someone else, i have lost something which I am entitled to and which is mine by right. Her time is mine; she has no right to take it away from me and spend it on someone else.

Both ideas are wrong, though for different reasons.

The fact is, my partner’s time does not belong to me. Nor is it anything I should legitimately feel entitled to. Two people engage in a romantic relationship for the mutual benefit of each; should the relationship not be a source of joy for each person, it’s certainly reasonable for them to look for relationships which are satisfying. More importantly, though, it’s neither beneficial nor necessary to lay claim to a person’s time and attention.

It’s not necessary because if a person is interested in you, it’s reasonable to assume that person will dedicate time and attention to you; people tend to spend their time on things which are important to them, and to find time for those things. Behavior is an emergent phenomenon; people behave the way they do as a result of the things they believe. Someone who does not believe that his partner is a priority or that his relationship is important is not likely to focus a lot of time on it, and compelling him to do so won’t make him feel like it’s important to him.

It’s not beneficial because a person who gives his partner time and attention only because his partner forces him to is not likely to provide high-quality time. Just the opposite, in fact; he’s likely to resent it. You can’t compel someone to find you important, which is precisely what you’re doing when you believe that his attention is something you can lay claim to.

Getting back to the point, though, love is not a poker game. Time and attention are not zero-sum, and time spent with one person does not necessarily mean time taken away from another.

It’s reasonable for the people in any romantic relationship to expect to have a certain amount of “alone time” with their lovers, of course. This is something healthy relationships need in order to grow and develop; and because time is not infinite, it’s reasonable to say that no person can really expect to build high-quality relationships with a vast number of people.

But even considering that healthy relationships do need some measure of alone time, it’s still not a zero-sum game. This is because it’s possible for a person to spend quality time with two or more partners concurrently.

If–and this is important–that person does not see his relationships as separate and discrete things to be kept isolated from one another.

here is a model of polyamory I call the “free agent” model. People who subscribe to this model tend to isolate and compartmentalize their relationships, and one of the hallmarks of free-agent polyamory is that the people who subscribe to it will often present themselves as “single” when meeting new people, and behave in public as if they were unpartnered, even when they have existing relationships.

On the other end of the continuum from free agents is people who subscribe to an “inclusion” model of polyamory, one that sees all the relationships as interconnected, and that seeks to build relationships which are mutually compatible and supporting. This does not necessarily mean that people with an inclusion ideal of polyamory want their partners to be dating each other, or sleeping in the same bed; it means that they seek to find partners who will respect the existing relationships, who can spend time together, and who don’t view each other as competition. It also means that they seek to find relationships in which everyone involved feels comfortable with everyone else involved, and tend to be aware of the effects of each of their relationships on all the others.

One of the primary drawbacks of the free-agent model is that it can lead to resource competition, in which time and attention given to one person is taken away from someone else. If Alice is dating Bob and Charles, and Alice compartmentalizes those two relationships–by spending time with Bob or with Charles but not with both, for example–then the relationships are zero-sum. Time given to Bob is time not available to Charles, and vice versa.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The benefit of seeking relationships which are mutually supportive and which aren’t compartmentalized is that Alice can spend quality time with Bob and Charles simultaneously, without competition. When this happens, suddenly those two relationships aren’t zero-sum any more; it’s possible for the sum total of time spent with Bob and time spent with Charles to exceed 100%. It is not necessary for Bob and Charles to be romantically connected with each other, and it certainly is not necessarily for Bob and Charles to be sleeping with each other; all that’s necessary is that Bob and Charles be able to function together without competing for Alice’s time.

Of course, there’s a drawback. It means thinking about relationships, and choosing partners who fit into the existing network of relationships well. It means finding partners who are philosophically compatible with one another. And, it means being aware of the effects of each of those relationships on all the others, and taking responsibility for those effects.

I have in the past been involved in situations where my relationship with someone is a source of pain or discomfort for that person’s other partner. When that happens, i don’t try to isolate myself from her other partner; instead, I’ll tend to put the brakes on that relationship until I and her other partner can work out where the problem is. Doing this means I don’t always get to pursue all the relationships I want to as quickly as I want to–but it also means that I’m not participating in a system that’s hurtful to someone else, even though that person’s happiness is not directly my responsibility, and it means that, in the end, the relationships I build are healthier and more inclusive.

When you build relationships this way, something magical happens.

If Alice is dating Bob and Charles, and each of them is equally important to her, and Alice wants to give each of them equal time, but she compartmentalizes those relationships, at the end of the day Bob and Charles can have no more than 50% of her time and attention. But if Alice does not compartmentalize her relationships, then at the end of the day each of them can get much more than 50% of her time and attention; each of them may get 70%, or 80%, or more, of her time and attention. The relationship isn’t a poker game.

I have been involved with people who do not believe it’s possible to spend quality time with two partners concurrently. I’ve also seen it often in other people’s relationships. In fact, this belief often lies beneath many enforced primary/secondary structures; people will construct primary/secondary relationships out of fear of losing importance or losing a partner’s time and attention, and see primary/secondary as a means to keep the time and attention they feel rightfully belongs to them.

I remember one night when Shelly and my ex-wife and I had gone out to dinner together after I came home from work. We went to a Thai restaurant, spent a while lingering over dinner and talking, then came home. On the way home, my ex-wife asked me “When am I going to get to spend some time with you?”

The fact was, she’d spent the entire evening with me. But the fact that another person was present somehow invalidated that time in her mind; even though we’d had a wonderful dinner together, it “didn’t count’ for her, because she believed that love is zero-sum. Time with her had to be time spent away from any other romantic partner, or else it wasn’t really “her” time. (Interestingly, the same was not true of time spent together with friends who were not romantic partners–far from it, my ex loves to entertain, and was extremely happy spending time with me and with friends, provided they were not lovers.)

When a person approaches a relationship with that philosophy, it cannot help but become zero-sum. he sad part of that is that in a zero-sum relationship, everyone loses. The total amount of time and attention spent on all the members of the relationship can never exceed 100%; the pot is smaller, and there is no win-win scenario.

Love does not have to be a poker game. When it is, it becomes a game nobody wins.