Many people grow up, start dating, and get married. They accept the notion that there is only one person in the world for them, and they will grow old together. They will have kids, and grandkids, and so on and so forth. This has been society’s ideal for generations and generations, but there have always been people who rejected this monogamous lifestyle and believe that deep, committed, long-term relationships do not have to be exclusive. These days, those people have become more vocal and open to the public. They practice what is called “ethical non-monogamy,” meaning they and their partners are allowed to see multiple people with the consent and knowledge of everyone involved. A phrase for this, coined in the early 1990s, is “polyamory,” and is one of the many types of non-monogamy.
To attempt to pigeon hole polyamory into one type of non-monogamous relationship and lifestyle would be erroneous. There are many, many configurations of non-monogamy and polyamory. It is up to the individuals involved to define what their relationship is and the boundaries therein. Polyamory literally means “many” (“poly” from the Greek) and “love” (“amory” from the Latin). Many loves, ie not having to stay with the same person for the rest of your life.
Polyamory is often confused with polygamy. They are non-monogamous, but they are not the same thing as polyamory. Polygamy means one person with multiple partners (usually spouses) of the opposite gender. Polygyny means a man is married to more than one wife, with no romantic ties between the wives. Polyandry means the opposite – a woman has multiple husbands, with no romantic connection between the husbands. People are familiar with polygyny because of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saint’s (FLDS) practice of multiple (or “sister”) wives. People are also quite familiar with the scandals that have been unveiled within the FLDS, such as the leader, Warren Jeffs, marrying not only scores of women, but marrying some who were underage, and arranging underage marriages for other men in the FLDS.
Polyamory is different. There is an emphasis on ethics, communication, and honesty. Within these, there are agreements about what can and can’t be talked about, what partners want to know about their partners’ other relationships, and time management, among other things. Often, people want to meet their partners’ other partners. Sometimes, they do not. Anything goes, as long as it is consensual and talked about. Polyamory does not always have to be sexual. A person might be sexual with one partner, and intimate in non-sexual ways with another. Polyamorous relationships are highly varied and individualized.
When practicing polyamory, there are issues that arise. One of the major issues is jealousy, which is something that is discussed at length within polyamorous relationships and communities. Possessiveness is also often discussed with jealousy. It is an emotion that arises often in polyamorous relationships, but it is not seen as something to be ignored or stifled. It is seen as an opportunity to explore where the emotion is coming from, so it can be understood and resolved. Sometimes partners will go years and years dealing with jealousy. The opposite of jealousy is compersion, a phrase coined by the Kerista Commune which was polyfidelitous (meaning the members only had sexual and/or emotional relationships with each other and no one outside the group; the term “polyfidelity” was also coined by them) in San Francisco. Compersion is literally the opposite of jealousy, when a person feels happiness and joy about their partner seeing other people. It can also be used in a general sense to mean experiencing happiness when someone else experiences happiness.
Another issue is time management and neglecting partners. When one is involved with more than one person, it can be difficult to give enough time to each partner that person has. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a week. It usually means sacrificing some time that was spent on one person, or on something else, in order to fit everyone into busy schedules. It is important to be clear about time expectations, as well as other expectations, and to come to compromises – not much different from a monogamous relationship, in fact.
A question that many people have about polyamory is: Is it legal? Polyamory is not legal in the United States and Canada. It is a complicated topic that would have to be explored in another post on its own. Polyamorous people get married. The distinction is that they (usually) only get married to one person legally and “on the books.” (I say “usually” because some people never get legally married to anyone, and they are still polyamorous.) They may, however, have a ceremony that to them equals a marriage. To the government, however, it would not.
Polyamorous people are also single. One can be polyamorous and not have any partners. Being polyamorous and single means that you are willing to be in relationships with multiple people at a time. Sometimes, there are no prospective partners for an individual, just like someone who is monogamous.
Lastly, as stated before, polyamory can take many forms and arrangements:
As mentioned above, the Kerista Commune in San Francisco coined this term and was polyfidelitous. This meant the members were in multiple romantic and sexual relationships, but only with each other in the group. No outside relationships were allowed. Polyfidelitous relationships still exist. They do not always involve all members in the group (for example, in a group of 5 people, a given person may not be involved with 4 other individuals, they may only be involved with 3, or 2, or 1).
Three people are involved with each other. There are many configurations of triads as well. Sometimes one person is dating two people, but the two people are not dating each other.
Two couples involved with each other.
Everyone is involved with each other, but unlike polyfidelity, outside relationships are allowed, usually with consent of the group.
One person is monogamous and is only seeing the other person, who is involved with more than one person.
Polyamory generally means that the individuals involved have emotional connections that are stronger than just friendship. However, there are other non-monogamous configurations that may be considered polyamorous, depending on who you ask:
Those involved in the relationship/marriage can be involved with other people outside of the relationship. The difference between being merely “open” and being polyamorous is that in some agreements, the people involved may be sexually open, but emotionally exclusive.
Swinging usually takes a sexual focus rather than an emotional one. Wikipedia has a great little section about swinging in polyamory and says:
It is possible for a person with polyamorous relationships to also engage in traditional swinging and other open relationships. Those in polyamorous relationships who take part in casual sex often see it as separate from the emotional bonds they share with their polyamorous partners. However it is also possible for swingers to develop deep emotional attachments with those they have sex with, and thereby find themselves in polyamory. Such swingers in their new polyamorous relationships may or may not choose to continue swinging with others. Finally, both swingers and polyamorous people can engage in secret infidelities, but this is no better accepted by either communities than in monogamy.
Polyamory may be a new concept to many people, and it may be something not everyone agrees with. But it is a lifestyle choice that many have made, and many more continue to make. With the conversations about same sex marriage, polyamorous marriage has come into the discussion as well and is getting more publicity. Whether people agree with it or not, it is lifestyle that is consensual and filled with love, hence its name.