When trying to understand a complicated idea it’s important to be sure we’re actually having the conversations we are intending to.
Several years ago a dear friend came across a few articles about Polyamory and found parts of them really seemed to resonate. They asked if they could use me as a sounding board for these new thoughts and ideas and I wanted to help but not being Poly myself I needed to do some reading and research in order to offer the proper understanding and support. I started looking for everything I could get my hands on and quickly hit some initial stumbling blocks. While there was a fair bit of material out there about Polyamory and some great resources like Morethantwo.com a frustratingly large amount of I came across seemed to end up talking about very different things than it was claiming to, sometimes twisting back around on itself in contradicting circles.
Whether we’re trying to learn about them or explain them wrapping our minds around unconventional relationship models, especially ones which seem contrary to several rooted cultural norms, is already challenging enough without the whole process getting derailed, mislead, or hijacked. Too many of the conversations about Polyamory I encountered turned out to be about different topics entirely. While there are no absolutes when it comes to human behaviour, and especially the romantic and sexual arenas, a clear framework in terms of language and definitions could definitely help the process. Folks involved in or familiar with the Poly world are fluent and able to talk about these issues, and they certainly don’t need other to speak for them, but sometimes the best help for someone on the outside trying to understand can come from someone else on the outside who has already waded through a fair bit of the clutter. So if you are wanting to try and understand Polyamory here are some definitions and some pitfalls to avoid.
A combination of the Greek ‘poly’, meaning ‘many’ or ‘multifaceted’, and the Latin ‘amor’, meaning ‘love’ or ‘affection’. There are some who winge at the cross-combination and try to insist on more linguistically uniform terms like ‘multi-amorous’ or ‘poly-philia, poly-eros’ but to my mind a term referring to multiple forms of loving being itself a combination of multiple languages has a certain poetry to it. The term is almost always used specifically in reference to having multiple and simultaneous sexual relationships but, to be honest, I feel that is too narrow a use.
When we look at its base meaning, not simply ‘many lovers’ but rather ‘many loves’, the truth is that every human being is polyamorous. We are all capable of multiple loves and forms of loving, even if our language and thinking doesn’t make it easy for us to express or understand it. We don’t form just one type of emotional connection and one type only, nor do we only form one bond at a time. What we feel for each member of our family is different, for each of our friends, for different romantic partners over our lifetimes, all different and in many cases existing simultaneously. The difference doesn’t make one feeling of love greater or lesser nor does one bond automatically cancel out all others. They are all simply different, varied, many.
poly • am • ory
The fact of having simultaneous close romantic relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.
Not every human being is wired for this one, though if there were fewer cultural taboos and restrictive assumptions we would likely find the capacity for Polyamory is more common than we might think. A central component of the definition is ‘romantic relationships’, as opposed to specifically sexual matters. The idea of having multiple sexual partners is a different concept, one will get to in a moment, but true Polyamory is about much more than that. It’s about the capacity to form deep, meaningful, committed relationships with multiple partners at the same time. These kinds of pluralized relationships can take the form of one individual maintaining several relationships or that of an interrelated group of partners. In the case of both Poly individuals and groups the number of committed partners typically ranges between three and five and whether or not the various partners are directly involved with one another they are aware of each other. That is the other central component of the definition, ‘with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.’ True Polyamory is open, honest, and caring. Polyamory is not ‘cheating’ nor is being Poly a license to cheat.
While the idea of an individual maintaining multiple relationships can inspire skepticism or even open incredulity it’s the concept of the group relationship which really tends to shake people’s minds and instincts. Trying to suss out all the possible connections and combinations within a group can cramp the brain but not necessarily every member of the group is directly involved with every other member. Some connections are referred to as ‘primary’ or ‘direct’ and others as ‘secondary’ or ‘indirect’ but they are all invested and committed to the happiness of the entire group. Of course jealousy and possessiveness can and do present challenges, we are dealing with human beings here. Sharing the time, attention, and affection of those we care deeply for isn’t always easy, even outside of the romantic sphere. People who are Poly tend to have an extremely strong capacity for compersion, the genuine feeling of joy caused by experiencing someone else’s joy which in this case more directly refers the joy of seeing a loved one love another. This can certainly help mitigate or offset those challenges but when you get right down to it a crucial part of true Polyamory is open, honest communication. And lots of it.
Many people who are Poly are also pansexual but while there does seem to be a strong correlation one does not necessarily guarantee the other. Poly simply means ‘many’, those many can be different or similar. It completely depends on the person. It’s also important to note that being Poly doesn’t automatically mean being perpetually and exclusively involved in pluralized relationships. Poly people are capable of having singular relationships or at times, just like everyone else, going through periods of not wanting any romantic relationships at all. Being Poly doesn’t mean ‘requiring’ multiple romantic partners it simply means the capacity for it. The only need is the freedom to have the choice.
Non-monogamy is the practice of having multiple sexual partners within the same time period, ‘ethical’ means being open and honest about it. While Poly relationships are clearly non-monogamous, even if the members of a group don’t have outside sexual partners, non-monogamy refers only to sex and thus isn’t always an act of Polyamory. There is a definite cultural shift towards tearing down the taboos and traditional restrictions around sex and sexuality, in particular freeing sex from prescribed requirements of romantic fidelity. The idea of committed romantic partners having casual outside sexual encounters is much more common than it was even ten years ago. Debating the merits of unburdening sex to the level of ‘play’ can go back and forth interminably but this is not the core issue or concern of Polyamory. Polyamory is about committed romantic relationships of which sex is only a part.
One of the main stumbling blocks I mentioned above is that far too many discussions which claimed to be about Polyamory end up being solely about non-monogamy or worse, and far too frequently, what I would refer to as ‘anti-monogamy’. If you want to tell me about how what you do works for you and try to clarify what most people seem to misunderstand about it then I am all ears. If all you’re interested in doing is tearing down what other people do, whether it is what I do myself or not, I have zero interest. Defensiveness in the face of ignorance or persecution is understandable but more persecution doesn’t solve anything.
Neither monogamy nor non-monogamy causes any harm or evil provided all parties involved are fully aware of the truth of their situation and are given choice. The greatest gift we can give to one another is the freedom to make the choices we feel are right for us.
Cheating is a deliberate act of deception and betrayal. That is the bottom line whatever context or impulses may have motivated it. The taboos around sexual fidelity and prescriptive cultural assumptions about monogamy can certainly lead to intense feelings of inner conflict and restriction in those for whom monogamy is not the ideal fit. Those same taboos and assumptions can make having open conversations about non-monogamy incredibly difficult. There is nothing wrong with wanting sex nor with wanting the freedom to engage with multiple partners it is simply a matter of ensuring ‘the knowledge and consent of all parties involved’. There is no excuse for deceiving and betraying a committed partner. Cultural assumptions and taboos can make the conversations needlessly difficult but monogamy does not make people cheat. Our drives and impulses may not be matters of choice but what we do or do not do about them absolutely is. Cheating is a choice, a choice to lie instead of having a potentially difficult conversation and there is no excuse for betraying one another.
The general tone of the dating world at large is much less assumptive of immediate exclusivity but once any relationship moves to a more committed level honesty is non-negotiable. Sexual compatibility is a crucial part of a serious relationship but true compatibility can only happen when everyone involved is being honest with each other and themselves. If we’re not able to do that we aren’t ready to be a committed partner.
With regards to Polyamory cheating is essentially its antithesis. True Polyamory is all about open and honest communication with everyone involved. It’s not about trying to sleep with as many people as possible, nor about banishing monogamy from the world. It’s simply about having the freedom to feel whatever loves we do for whomever we do.
So, if you’re seeking to learn about true Polyamory you will have to do some sorting and filtering of the information you encounter. With this or any subject focus on articles and postings which aim to explain and lift up rather than tear down. Don’t be drawn in or sidetracked by railing attacks on monogamy, especially those which are simply aimed at circling around to propose excuses for cheating.
True Polyamory is about open, honest, and committed loving relationships. It’s simply another way of loving.