Polyamory as stage 4 bridge
This post uses a key framework: Chapman’s version of Robert Kegan’s theories of emotional, cognitive and social development, it is summarised here.
This post is in dialogue with, and an expansion on, Chapman’s recent post about moving through stages 3, 4 and 5 in modern society (and the lack of support for it) here.
This post will not make sense unless you have read the other two posts first. They are somewhat lengthy, but I will be returning to these ideas as a basis for my blog posts for a long time, so it’s worth settling in.
Pathways to Stage 4
Chapman outlines some ways for young adults to reach stage 4 through societal structures. They are: higher education and employment. Much of his post outlines the ways that the stage 4 bridge for humanities students is in a very bad way because ‘Postmodernism’, a critique of stage 4 structures, is now taught in higher education well before young adults have had a chance to master stage 4 systematicity itself, thus hijacking their development before it can begin.
The situation is less bad for STEM students, since systematic thinking and structures are still thoroughly taught as the major component of higher education in these fields. Chapman’s post goes on to outline ways to help potential stage 4.5ers who have no societal support to reach stage 5.
Before I get to that discussion, I wish to outline one of the ways I think stage 3 humanities students DO manage to reach stage 4, which is not sanctioned by society. That pathway is through relationships, specifically non-monogamy.
Polyamory is not in any way special or better than any other way of relating to others, it just happens to be enjoying a useful cultural moment. It is still ‘alternative’ to the mainstream, but it is easy enough to discover, making it edgy but also accessible. I suspect that if it ever becomes normalised, its intrigue and usefulness might subside, in fact, it may have already passed peak ‘cool’.
None the less, the tenets of polyamory focus on excellent relationship skills as a pre-requisite (otherwise everything explodes rather quickly) and makes explicit both skills and practices that are integral to stage 4 living.
Poly as Stage 4
Polyamory requires a re-examination of relating to others that explictly moves away from Stage 3 communal mode. It requires new skills and beliefs:
- one must have ownership over ones own feelings and histrionics is no longer the way to express them
- one is not responsible for other people’s feelings, each person is resonsible for their own
- one must have a good sense of self, ones own desires, preferences, boundaries, and how to express them appropriately
- expressing feelings or needs no longer requires the listener to immediately change their actions based on those feelings
- there is a word for the feeling of “falling in to each other”, and that sensation is a phase that ends. The main part of the relationship is what comes after.
- it is no longer good enough to prioritise relationships based on type, eg romantic, family, friends which can trump each other. There are now multiple people in the same category, and old categories no longer work
- it encourages systematising scarce resources. For example managing free time by using calendars
- relationships are about a system of agreements. These are flexible and change over time.
- different ‘roles’ in different situations are explicit
- a person has feelings or needs, and polyamory is a system to meet those multiple needs from multiple relationships in a flexible way
- one has a separate value that is distinct from the sum of one’s relationships
- asymmetrical relationships are explicitly addressed
- the apparent coldness of stage 4 thinking is mitigated by the promise of more and closer relationships
Polyamory is partly so successful at delivering on stage 4 goals because it is not the norm in society. This makes it frightening, risky, but also ‘edgy’ and exciting. It can have a higher initial cost, for example questioning relationship norms that were so taken for granted makes someone also question every norm they’ve ever learned, which takes a while, and in relative isolation from friends and family.
However, the rewards offered by polyamory are fairly big – more satisfying relationships, and more of them (and yes, potentially more sex, which is great if you want that). So there is a big incentive to overcome that high initial barrier. Once the new skills of polyamory are learned, they are very thoroughly incuclated and it can be a revelatory change. Overcoming big fears successfully for high reward is deeply satisfying and can lead to embracing further personal change in the future.
I came to polyamory long after higher education and found it relatively easy to adopt, wheras my memories of university involve very slow progress with understanding basic systems politically, eg grasping what feminism was all about, and I did not attend until after the age of 21, graduating age 24. Poly arrived aged 27.
I’ve observed people arrive at poly during their higher education years and take much longer to grasp it, making many mistakes along the way. I don’t know if they’re eventually successful. I have a personal assumption that anyone younger than around age 25 will struggle with poly, though I know of some exceptional people.
None the less, I feel polyamory is one possible route to stage 4 for humanities majors, who might be drawn to social / relationshippy type things more than STEM majors.
I have a friend who runs support events for non-monogamously inclined people whose audience is largely young adults direct from top level universities (around 50%). I recently scoffed at the idea of tailored resources for these people, because they are too used to being spoon-fed with what to believe. Having written this post however, perhaps I should support him more as a facilitator for transitioning across stages which is now absent from some parts of higher education.