Book Review: Love in Abundance: A counselor's Advice on Open Relationships

Book by: Kathy Labiola

Greenery Press (2010) $15.95

While a number of good books about polyamory — having sexual / emotional relationships with more than one person at a time — have come out over the last dozen years, those curious about the subject will want to check out Kathy Labiola’s new book because of her unique perspective and focus. Labiola is a practicing relationship counselor and draws upon her work with many poly clients to address practical issues (jealousy, disclosure, honest communication, etc.) that come up for people trying to carry on open relationships.

Labiola has also been poly herself for almost 40 years, so she can also draw on her personal experiences with the subject. I found her writing funny, daringly honest and easy to get through. She writes from an explicitly activist and feminist perspective — it is nice to read about someone wanting only secondary relationships because they’re busy with a lot of activist meetings!

Rather than mostly containing an argument for the viability or “ethical” quality of a poly lifestyle, Love in Abundance is directed towards people who are already convinced that open relationships make sense to them, but who may need help actually making them work in practice.

The book is full of check-lists and specific tips. My favorite sections were on communication skills, which I think could be helpful for monogamous as well as poly people. She has a great section on metacommunication — communicating about communication itself. Labiola breaks down communication into a few basic purposes: to make connection, to solve a problem, to ask for support, etc. Person A may be communicating to ask for support, and if person B understands it as an attempt at problem solving, they may fail to connect. If person B first takes time to understand the purpose of the communication, they can react more appropriately and avoid friction.

Another insightful section is on disclosure. Labiola has observed that most people fall into one of two camps: either you want as much information as possible to feel empowered by knowing all the details, or alternatively knowing details causes you to fixate and feel overwhelmed, and it is actually better to know less. Knowing which camp you and your partner are in and figuring out what facts you need to know to feel safe can make life a lot easier. One of my favorite parts of the book is where Labiola publishes her three page long list of precisely what she wants to know from her partners about their involvement with a third person. Getting to the point where you know what you need to know — and communicating it with your partners — is an advanced state of honesty and self-knowledge.

I recommend Labiola’s book even while I feel very far from being comfortable with either the poly vision it presents, or monogamy. Becoming sexually involved with another person — which at the time usually feels like the expression of a special closeness with that person — very often eventually destroys all connection with that person when the relationship breaks up. While ex-lovers often never want to see each other again, friends rarely break-up. Sometimes you may drift away from a friend over time, but that doesn’t require you to fight, cling to past ways of relating that may change, or declare a formal end to the relationship. Friends can be more accepting and free about each other — less rigid and bound by abstract rules of how the friendship is supposed to be. I’m still close with many “platonic” friends I made 30 years ago and I often feel a greater degree of emotional intimacy with them than I do with people I’m dating.

If sex so often separates us, rather than unites us, with people we love, maybe it makes more sense to concentrate on non-sexual love and intimacy with other people, which you can have with a number of people simultaneously under either poly or monogamous rules. Domestically, the monogamous ideal is living with one other person and perhaps any children from the relationship. The poly domestic arrangement described by Labiola would be living with a number of lovers, or perhaps living part time with one lover, and part time with another. A third option — sort of neo-poly because it is non-sexual and yet involves more than one person — is communal living in which one lives with and is emotionally close with a number of housemates who are not sexual partners. This maximizes intimacy and options for community but downplays issues of jealousy, possessiveness, competition, and the risk that relationships will be destroyed in the heat of a sexual breakup.

Labiola’s book is about how to have practical poly relationships — figuring out rules based on everyone’s consent and open communication. Building relationships with rules and expectations means you’ll still face breakups and lots of opportunities for people to hurt each other. I appreciate the poly scene because it seeks to question and change some of the most oppressive rules of monogamy, but it is up against very deep sexual repression and patriarchal socialization that most of us hold deep within us.

From a certain point of view, Labiola’s description of the very real limits of polyamory is depressing. We want love in abundance, but we’re merely imperfect humans doing the best we can, and real abundance may be beyond our capacity at this moment in history. Having more love than permitted under tradition rules — either through polyamory or trying to expand the emotional content of all types of relationships — is a good direction to move.

[Full disclosure: Labiola has helped Slingshot collective by typing prisoner addresses into our mailing list.]