Polyamory has become a fashionable lifestyle over the past decade. There are many notable celebrities like Bratt Pitt and Angelina Jolie or Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith talking openly about poly relationships today.
When my husband first found the word “polyamory” on the internet (back at the turn of the century), it was something totally unknown to the mainstream media. We were amazed to read a web page describing people who can love more than one person at a time – and choose to do something about it.
“There is a word for me!” I remember thinking, “And there are other people like me out there – and they are breaking all the rules, and the sky is not falling …”
Fortunately, the mainstream media is no longer reporting on polyamorous families in the same breathless tone used for pedophiles and sex cults, and is now relatively matter-of-fact about the existence of an alternative to the dominant paradigm of relationships.
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More people are now aware of the existence of polyamory, but many misconceptions remain.
Franklin Veaux, a poly advocate for many years and co-author of the book More Than Two, is regularly interviewed by mainstream media, and says he has to spend a lot of time re-educating reporters about relationships before they are capable of asking questions that make sense in a poly context, or understanding the answers to their questions.
Some of the things the mainstream media might not get quite right even today, include:
Table of Contents
- What is polyamory?
- Isn’t polyamory just a fancy word for open relationship?
- Why would a couple want to try polyamory?
- Bad reasons to try polyamory
- Good reasons to try polyamory
- Are some people just not suited to polyamory?
- Why isn’t one lover enough?
- What are the advantages of polyamory?
- What are the disadvantages of polyamory?
- What it we try it and then find we can’t handle it?
- Don’t polyamorous people get jealous?
- So, you want to try polyamory…
What is polyamory?
The term “polyamory” is a recent addition to dictionaries. The first recognized use of the term was in the form “poly-amorous”, in an article by Morning Glory Zell, an advocate of responsible non-monogamy.
Definitions of polyamory can vary from one dictionary to another, but people practicing polyamory all agree on two specific components.
Polyamory involves multiple simultaneous romantic, loving relationships, and it requires the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.
This means that polyamory includes not only privileged Western “hippies” who reject social controls on their relationships, but also devout Mormon and Muslim polygamous marriages, relationships in which one or both partners have affairs or concubines (with the knowledge and consent of their partner), and cases where people manage a mismatch of sexual desire by one partner going outside the relationship for additional loving sexual contact with their partner’s permission.
Polyamory does NOT include any form of cheating or deceit, serial monogamy (multiple romantic relationships one after another), patronizing sex workers, casual sex, or swinging. Polyamorous partners may not ever have sex at all, in fact, because romantic love and sex are two different things. Polyamory is about “amour” – love – not sex.
Some polyamorous people may enjoy casual sex, but if there is no loving, romantic connection, the casual sexual partner is not a polyamorous partner. Some polyamorous people may enjoy swinging, but sex without emotional connection is not polyamory; it is something different. Many polyamorous people would find both swinging and unemotional casual sex quite unpleasant.
Isn’t polyamory just a fancy word for open relationships?
If people in an open relationship have romantic, loving connections with others outside the relationship, then it is polyamory. If, however, the connections outside the relationship are purely sexual, with no emotional involvement, that open relationship would not fit the definition of polyamory.
Some polyamorous people have sexually exclusive, “closed” relationships; they have them with two or three other people, rather than just one. These relationships are referred to as “polyfidelitous” relationships, or sometimes as “group marriage”.
Why would a couple want to try polyamory?
First, let’s make something clear – not everybody who starts exploring polyamory is already in a relationship. Many single people have discovered that their resistance to entering a monogamous relationship is that they don’t want to shut down their other loving connections. Some have committed to monogamy in the first flush of infatuation with someone, only to feel trapped and resentful when that initial glow wears off.
It is just as likely that someone will start exploring polyamory as a single person, as that they do it as a couple.
Bad reasons to try poly relationships
Couples sometimes have questionable reasons for starting to explore poly relationships. Perhaps one partner has been caught cheating, and wants a way to “have their cake and eat it”, rather than doing the hard personal growth yards to understand why they betrayed their partner’s trust.
Sometimes, one partner is bisexual (usually the woman in a heterosexual relationship), and the couple thinks it would be just lovely to find a pretty, unattached, young bisexual woman to move in with them and “make their family complete”. Polyamorous communities refer to these new-to-poly-looking-for-our-special-girl couples “unicorn hunters”, because finding a completely single polyamorous bisexual woman who is equally attracted to both partners in an existing couple is about as likely as finding a unicorn.
That said, after 15+ years in polyamorous relationships, I did recently encounter a bisexual woman who was totally attracted to both me and one of my partners. She doesn’t qualify as a “unicorn”, however, as she already had two long-term partners when we met her!
I have seen couples where one partner really wanted to leave the relationship, and they turn to polyamory as a way to have the reluctant partner stay in some way, even as though are also leaving in some way. This always ends in tears.
I have had people tell me that they became polyamorous because they found monogamous relationships very intense, and they thought that polyamorous relationships would be less intense. Whenever I mention this to a polyamorous person, they almost always literally laugh out loud.
Of course, the opposite is usually the case – if you don’t have sexual exclusivity to make your relationship with your lover more intimate than any other relationship, then you need to develop much more emotional intimacy to feel that it is a strongly-bonded relationship.
If you want to avoid intimacy and intensity, stay monogamous!
Some people try poly relationships as a way to get more sex, or more variety of sexual partners. Polyamorous people are generally very aware when they are being used in this way, and unless they happen to like casual sex or swinging, they are likely to steer well clear of someone who is just looking for sex.
Good reasons to try polyamory
“I have noticed that I can love more than one person at a time.”
“I feel I could love more than one person at once.”
“I have never understood how to limit my love to just one person.”
Are some people just not suited for poly relationships?
Let’s be brutally honest – some people are just not suited to being in ONE relationship, let alone more than one.
If you have unresolved emotional issues from your childhood, from substance abuse, or from an internal biological cause, it is your responsibility to get them resolved to the point where you won’t be damaging other people, physically or emotionally, before you have any intimate relationship.
Yes, intimate relationships can be a beautiful place where healing can happen, but you can’t expect your lovers to be therapists, AA sponsors, or medical doctors. Have a management plan for your issues before embarking on an intimate relationship.
That said, some people who can adequately manage a single intimate relationship may find themselves unable to manage more than one.
Why isn’t one lover enough?
One lover IS enough.
I have one lover with whom I travel the world, and we spend a lot of time together. If I was required to be monogamous, I could limit myself to only having sex with that one partner without suffering in any way.
But I would still LOVE all the other people that I love. And I would continue to start loving new people that I meet along the way.
Polyamorous people can no more stop loving than they can stop breathing.
That doesn’t mean that polyamorous people have sex with everyone they love. It just means that they can have sex with more than one person that they love, if it works for everyone concerned.
When monogamous people think of relationships, and of love, they think of sex. When they think of living together, they think of sex. When they think of seeing someone naked, they think of sex. When they think about who to take to cousin Cheryl’s wedding, they think of sex. Sex determines almost everything in a monogamous person’s life – who they live with, who they shower with, who they go on holidays with, who they share finances with, who they plan for retirement with, who they go to social functions with, who comes to the hospital when they have an accident, who shares their bed at night, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Frankly, monogamous people are obsessed with sex, much the same way that dieters are obsessed with food. Poly people consider this extreme fascination that monogamists have with sex just a little bit weird. Sure, sex is an important part of life, but there are much more important things by which to define your identity, your family, and your life choices.
What are the advantages of poly relationships?
Polyamory is easier than monogamy in many ways. It doesn’t require you to suppress and deny your love and sexual attraction for people. It allows you to write your own rules for your relationships, instead of having to fit yourself into a set of rules written by others. If a relationship breaks up, you will usually be consoled by another lover.
You can develop a large extended family of metamours (the other partners of your lovers). The last big house move that I did with my husband, we put out the call to our friends and family for help. The people who actually turned up to help were two of my lovers, two of his lovers, and the lover of one of his lovers.
Polyamory forces you to discover and express your own individual wants and needs.
One of the first things that happened, very early in my poly career, was that a new lover asked me “have you ever had your hair long?” He liked long hair on women. I wore it short, because my husband like to see my neck.
Now I was faced with two lovers, who had incompatible preferences. I would need to choose how to wear my hair. Suddenly, I realized that I could now wear my hair the way I liked it.
At which point, I realized that I had NO IDEA how I liked to wear my hair. I had it the way my mother liked it until I was about fifteen, and then I had it the way my boyfriend liked it, until one boyfriend became my husband.
I had never had the opportunity to ask myself how I would like to wear my hair. I was appalled to see how much of my life had been predetermined by pandering to the preferences of other people, and how unaware I had been of my own preferences.
I now have waist-length hair, and I love the feel of it on my skin.
The hair is, of course, a metaphor. I now have a whole life that fits me like a glove, because I broke out of the monogamous model that said I needed to adapt myself to the wants and needs of one other person.
What are the disadvantages of polyamory?
Polyamory forces you to discover and express your own individual wants and needs.
And, of course, to talk for hours about the wants and needs of all the other people affected by any particular decision.
Work offers you a promotion if you transfer to another state? It is not just one other adult who will be affected; it is two, three, four, or even more.
Somebody feels their relationship has reached a level where they should start having unprotected sex? Several people will need to be consulted, not just the two in that particular relationship.
The most extreme case of this that I personally witnessed was a person in a fluid-bonded threesome wanting to be fluid-bonded with someone who was in a fluid-bonded group of five – eight people whose risk profiles needed to be considered.
In that particular case, an accommodation wasn’t reached, and the couple at the centre continued to use condoms.
Polyamorous people still face social pressure, and in some cases, outright discrimination.
Anti-discrimination legislation, if it exists, rarely mentions polyamory as a protected lifestyle, which means that a bisexual woman with a husband and a girlfriend couldn’t legally be fired for being a lesbian, but she could legally be fired for having a husband while being a lesbian. Polyamory is poorly understood by child protection agencies in many jurisdictions, and malicious reports of polyamorous families to child welfare authorities are still happening today.
Polyamorous people need to be careful when travelling; any sex outside marriage will get you two years in prison in Dubai, for example, no matter how consensual it is.
What if we try polyamory, and then we find we can’t handle it?
What if you tried skiing, or veganism, or living off the grid, and you found you couldn’t handle it? Just stop!
Polyamory is not like parenthood – that is a one-way ticket to a new place from which you can never return. Polyamory is a certain agreement about how you manage relationships. Agreements can be re-negotiated at any time.
Every day, some couples decide to open their relationships, and others decide to close theirs. Every day, people end relationships that aren’t working for them, and every day people start new ones.
Don’t polyamorous people get jealous?
Most poly people feel “jealous” in some form at some time. Some feel it often, and painfully.
In the usual monogamous world, it is acceptable to use feelings of jealousy to control our partner’s behaviour, so monogamous people are generally pretty attached to jealousy as a concept. They like being able to control their partner’s behavior.
In polyamorous circles, there is no assumed right of anyone to control anyone else’s behavior.
This motivates poly people to look more closely at these bad feelings, and understand where they come from.
In truth, the word “jealousy” is so misused as to be almost meaningless. When someone says they are jealous, the only information they communicate is that they feel bad, and their partner is (or might be) interacting with a third party. The usual intention in the monogamous world is that the partner stop the interaction, so that the bad feeling goes away. Polyamorous people take a different approach – they explore the reasons for their bad feelings.
- Am I feeling lonely, because my partner is out with someone else, and I am home alone?
- Am I feeling worried, because my partner was due home an hour ago?
- Am I feeling frustrated, because my partner isn’t doing things with me that they promised to do?
- Am I feeling anxious, because I have an unresolved issue with my partner and we haven’t had time to discuss it?
- Am I feeling sad, because my partner and I haven’t had much fun together lately?
- Am I feeling envious, because I wish my partner would look at me the way he/she looks at this new person?
- Am I feeling confused, because I don’t have enough information about this new person’s intentions?
Extreme jealousy can be as crippling as a phobia, and can be treated by a similar therapeutic process as is used for phobias. A friend of mine was plagued with intense and irrational jealousy, and he eventually cured himself using Kathy Labriola’s workbooks.
So, you want to try polyamory …
Before leaping onto OKCupid to make your new, polyamorous dating profile, it is a wise idea to take some time to prepare yourself for this new adventure.
1. Identify your monogamous mindset
The major hurdle for many people when they first engage with the poly community is that they still think like monogamous people. Love is scarce, and you need to get your supply cornered and protected.
Does this new person “belong” to someone, or are they “available”? Whose permission do I need to ask this person on a date? Which of your lovers is the “real” one, or the “main” one? How can I get to be your “main” one? How will I feel special if you have other lovers?
Monogamy is a scarcity mindset. Polyamory is an abundance economy.
The biggest problem for polyamorous people is that there just isn’t time in the day to be as intimate as they would like to be with all the people they love. That, and having to navigate the morass of monogamist thinking in other people’s heads.
2. Explore your weaknesses
It is all too easy to say “yes, I love lots of people already; let’s go!”
We all have our character quirks that show up in relationships – make sure you know yours.
Do you want to have the final say in any decision? Are you sure that other people will do things the wrong way if you leave them unsupervised? Does vagueness or unreliability drive you batty? You might be a little at the controlling end of the spectrum.
Do you check your phone every two minutes between sending a message and receiving the reply? Do you wilt in the absence of praise and reassurance? Does the voice in your head keep telling you that the person you love has left you, or will very soon? You might have higher-than-average levels of anxiety.
Do people tell you that you are “living in your head” or “too conceptual”? Do you find it infuriating when people admit there is no logical reason for their position, but refuse to change it? Do you get frustrated and exhausted when people dump a load of emotional suffering and blame on you when they have no reasonable basis for it? It is possible that you have less than average access to visceral empathy.
Are you willing to have long, involved, emotional discussions about the wants and needs of three, four, or more people?
What are your big fears? What makes you feel insecure?
Are you at all possessive? Do you associate control with security? Do you love from your ego, or selflessly? (No, really, be honest – selfless love is very rare.) What form of self-centredness shows up in your loving?
Nobody is a saint, and it is important to know your how your individual unsaintliness shows up in relationships, so you can be responsible about managing it.
3. If you have a partner already, talk more than you think you need to talk.
My husband and I added up our estimate of the time we spent talking about being polyamorous before we actually did anything about it, and it came to more than 50 hours.
Talk about everything, and then think of more things to talk about.
Talk about safe sex agreements, and how you will manage STIs or unplanned pregnancies.
Talk about boundaries and agreements, and where you would feel comfortable starting (you can always relax your boundaries once you have some good experiences and feel safe).
Talk about your fantasies, hopes, and fears. Design hypothetical situations, and discuss how you would handle them.
4. Look for poly friends before you look for poly lovers
Your monogamous friends are going to offer very limited support when you are grappling with poly issues. Not because they don’t care about you; it is just that they will have little relevant experience to draw on, and they are likely to give you deeply flawed advice as a result.
Make sure you have at least two or three experienced polyamorous people you can reach out to any time you have a question or a dilemma.
Many cities have regular discussion groups, meetups, and events for polyamorous people. If you can’t find something happening nearby, you can always connect online.
5. Research more than you think you need to research
Read books about polyamory and poly relationships, for example:
Read websites and blogs about polyamory; here is a comprehensive list of options: https://www.morethantwo.com/resources.html
Watch videos about polyamory, like: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLXHqyAEbjyFlL0E6C2DWsSXub1PpplpIV