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Outside the Monogamy Box


Have you heard of polyamory? Don’t know what it is? Have questions about it but don’t know where to find answers? This post will try to shed some light!

Before I begin, I must lay out one of my personal rules: on topics involving relationships and sexuality, my experience is my experience. It isn’t yours, it isn’t anyone else’s. My experience is no more valid than anyone else’s. If others describe polyamory differently (and no doubt, many do), that doesn’t mean someone is wrong, we’ve simply had different experiences. So, while I may sometimes speak in generalizations here, it must be taken with the caveat that others will have had different experiences and may have different ideas about all this.

With that out of the way: polyamory. Aside from inciting the ire of linguists by mixing Greek and Latin roots, a lot of confusion and misconceptions are out there. I’ll start with a simple definition and then go to the particular misconceptions I have encountered.

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is the practice (or desire to practice) of having multiple romantic partners at once. That’s it! Everything else is gravy. There are many different “configurations”–that is, organizations of groups of partners–and different approaches to how polyamory is lived. It would be impossible to attempt to describe them all, so stick with the basic definition as a starting point.

Does that mean you’ll have sex with basically anyone?

Generally, no. Polyamorous people (or “poly” for short) tend to stress emotional, romantic involvement. Sex can, of course, be an important feature of poly relationships, but it isn’t what defines polyamory. As a distinction, a couple in which one or both partners are free to have sex with others is more commonly considered an “open relationship.” People in an open relationship can be poly, but being poly is not quite the same thing.

Personally, sex is important to me but not as much as forming deep, emotional connections. Forced to choose between one or the other, I’d pick the romantic option, rather than the sexual one. (Others may choose differently. That’s fine, too!)

Embedded in the “you’ll have sex with anyone” assumption is that poly people are “easy”–that is, freely sexually available. Some individuals may be, as suits their own preference, but it is by no means required, and likely not common. Poly people are probably, on average, no less choosy than anyone else.

Don’t you get jealous?

This one can be a contentious topic among poly people. There are people who simply do not experience jealousy, and some of them are poly, and that lack of jealousy is key to their relationships. That said, plenty of people do experience jealousy–and even poly people can.

What is important to realize about jealousy is that it is not caused by a partner. It’s an emotion you develop within yourself that stems from some lack of satisfaction or contentment. When you see your partner having a good time with someone else and feel jealous as a result, it’s not because they’re having fun with another person and that’s wrong–it’s because you aren’t having your own needs fulfilled. Between reasonable people, it should be possible to come to agreement on sharing time, attention, and activities so that no one feels neglected, and mitigate any feelings of jealousy or dissatisfaction. I would say that this goes just as much for monogamous relationships, as well.

Isn’t sleeping with someone else cheating?

No. The key feature of cheating is not sex, but deception–the breaking of trust. Having sex with someone else isn’t cheating if the  people who have a right to be aware of it (such as your other partners) are aware and don’t object. Poly people can cheat, obviously, by having sex or engaging in romantic relations behind their existing partners’ backs, depending on what commitments they have made. Some partners may not care what you do; in that case, it’s not really possible to “cheat.” But if you have agreed to keep one or more partners informed of your other romantic and/or sexual activities, it would certainly be cheating to have relationships or sex with others without telling them.

The central rule is: be honest.

I thought this was illegal!

You’re thinking of polygamy, which is being married to multiple partners. Indeed, that is illegal you in the US: you cannot have a legal marriage to more than one person at a time.

I inserted this one more so I could soapbox about the notion of polygamy itself. As historically practiced–that is, one man with many (often very young, even child) wives–it is quite repugnant and exploitative. Given the inherently sexist, patriarchal power dynamics involved, it’s hardly something I could endorse. But in a relationship between more than two consenting, informed adults, I don’t see compelling reasons to keep it outlawed. Religious objections hold no sway over me–civil marriage is a public institution administered by the state, not a religious institution. Arguments that it is legally complex don’t wash, either, as if legal complexity is reason enough to avoid the topic. It may not be possible to account for all situations within the law, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to form workable legal contracts that work similarly to marriage. Indeed, complex configurations are what wills and estate law are all about, and somehow society hasn’t collapsed under the weight of those (and plenty of people still die every day).

All that said, while I don’t think marriages between more than two people are a pressing issue in the way same-sex marriage was (based on the number of people affected and the degree of oppression faced by those seeking it), I have not seen any logical arguments against it that could not be used against marriage more generally. At this point, there is no large, organized movement to legalize polygamy, either, so its opponents can probably rest easy for now.

It’s fair to say that polyamory isn’t for everyone, any more than monogamy is for everyone. For most of human history, polygyny (men having multiple female partners) was the rule, and monogamy is the more recent invention. I am not in favor of such a one-sided arrangement, but it’s obvious that demanding strict monogamy isn’t suitable for all people, either. Polyamory, whether by that name or not, has been practiced by humans for ages. Non-monogamous relationship configurations were not rare, and they still aren’t–but social norms that insist upon monogamy, and _only _monogamy, are destructive and invalidate a way of life that functions just fine for a lot of people.