The Western world is in love with monogamy—in concept, if not in practice. Throughout history, much of society has been predicated upon the idea of lifelong sexual fidelity between one man and one woman. On paper anyway. Monogamy is enforced in social ways and legal ways (paternity laws, property laws, inheritance laws, etc.), but the reality is far more complicated. While monogamy tends to hog the spotlight as the relationship model of choice, non-monogamy, i.e., polyamorous relationships have been around and thriving for a very long time and continues to be practiced today.
I have been involved with my share of polyamorous relationship. The first being with my first true love. There was Sir/Daddy, me, His Boy, and the Sir's/Master's slave. I use these terms not to offend but rather educate others to the structures within a past polyamorous relationship of mine. The terms are not meant to be triggers in today's society; they are titles of honor that were observed within my polyamorous relationship.
A polyamorous relationship does not indicate a mental health issues has developed. In fact, there is no evidence that monogamy is better in terms of relationship longevity, happiness, health, sexual satisfaction, or emotional intimacy; just as there is also no evidence that polyamory is better. So, you may as well go with what feels best to you—and your partner(s).
"Polyamory is the nonpossessive, honest, responsible, and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously," according to the Polyamory Society. "Polyamory emphasizes consciously choosing how many partners one wishes to be involved with rather than accepting social norms which dictate loving only one person at a time."
To be polyamorous means to have open intimate or romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. People who are polyamorous can be heterosexual, lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and relationships between polyamorous people can include combinations of people of different sexual orientations.
Unlike open relationships, polyamory is characterized by emotional as well as sexual or romantic intimacy between partners. In contrast to infidelity, adultery, or extramarital sex, polyamory is consensual and disclosed to everyone involved.
Sometimes polyamorous relationships are hierarchical (one relationship takes priority over others) and sometimes they are equal. In a hierarchical scenario, a person may have a primary as well as secondary partners:
- Primary: A primary partner is at the top of the hierarchical structure; this person may be the person with whom you live, have kids with, or even marry. A primary partner is not necessary for polyamorous relationships.
- Secondary: Secondary partner(s) may not be as intertwined in your life as a primary partner; for example, you may not share housing or finances, but you may still be fully committed to each other.
The defining aspects of polyamorous relationships over other nonmonogamous relationship types are consent and communication.
What Polyamory Is Not
While the boundaries in polygamous relationships are quite different from those for monogamous relationships, they still exist.
People in polyamorous relationships may or may not be married, although people who identify as polyamorous may reject the restrictions of the social convention of marriage, and particularly, the limitation to one partner.
Nor should it be confused with "swinging" or "spouse swapping" in which couples in established one-on-one relationships have casual sexual encounters with people in other couples.
Polyamory is also not the same as an "open" relationship, which involves a committed couple agreeing that one or both partners are permitted to have sex with other people, without necessarily sharing information on the other partners. However, polyamorous couples may also have open relationships.
"Consensual nonmonogamy" is an umbrella term that psychologists use to describe swinging, open relationships, and polyamory. Research suggests that more than 20% of Americans have participated in a consensual, nonmonogamous relationship at some point in their lives.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
Unlike monogamous relationships, which by definition are limited to one partner, polyamory comes in many forms and may change over time based on the individuals involved.
While many polyamorous relationships are characterized by a couple who openly and consensually pursues independent or joint relationships outside of their primary relationship, others practice polyamory by having multiple independent, separate relationships, or even relationships between three or more people.
Triad - Also known as a “throuple,” a triad refers to a relationship with three people. Not all three people need to date one another, however. One person may be dating two different people.
Quad - As the name implies, a quad refers to a relationship with four people. This type of polyamorous relationship often occurs when two polyamorous couples meet and begin dating one person from the other couple. You can also have a full quad, where all four members are romantically or sexually involved with one another.
Polycule - This term refers to a whole network of people who are romantically connected. For example, it might include you and your primary partner, your primary partner's secondary partner, your primary partner's secondary partner's primary partner, and so on.
Kitchen Table Polyamory - This term refers to a family-like network formed by people who know each other. The name comes from the fact that people in this type of polyamorous relationship gather around the kitchen table for meals.
Parallel Polyamory - Parallel polyamory refers to relationships in which you’re aware of each other’s other partners but have little no contact with those partners.
Solo Polyamory - Individuals in a solo polyamorous relationship do not intend to merge their identity or life infrastructure with their partners. For example, they don’t wish to marry or share a home or finances with any of their partners.
Tips for Avoiding Relationship Issues
The need for clear communication and boundaries among all concerned is a key feature of the polyamorous philosophy. The complexity of interrelationships between polyamorous partnerships can leave some individuals vulnerable to exploitation. However, research shows that people in consensual nonmonogamous relationships and those in monogamous ones have similar levels of psychological well-being and relationship quality.
Establish Rules and Boundaries
A big part of polyamory is ensuring that all partners are on the same page when it comes to emotional and physical boundaries, including:
- Divulging details about relationships with others
- How often to spend time with each other and other people
- Sharing your polyamorous status with others
- What's OK and not okay as far as sexual acts and safety practices
Support one another
Just like in a monogamous relationship, it’s important to support your partners and show respect and courtesy, even if you don’t like your partner’s metamour (your partner's partner who’s not romantically or sexually involved with you).
Although it’s human nature, do your best to avoid the comparison game. For example, don’t go and book an extravagant trip for two just because your partner had a weekend getaway with one of their other partners.
Express Your Feelings and Needs
Jealousy is a common feeling that can come to the surface in a polyamorous relationship. Communicating these feelings, instead of letting them consume you, is key for polyamory. In fact, a common term used in polyamory is comparison, or the feeling of joy from seeing your partner happy with another partner. This is the opposite of jealousy.
Relationships are built upon and maintained with trust, hard work and commitment. All relationships go through times when (hopefully) it’s great, times when it’s okay; and times when it’s all a bit crap. So, before you toss your relationship on the scrap heap — especially one with a long history to it — consider if a little more effort might make a difference. I am trained to recognize and understand how all partners contribute to their pattern of disconnection and distress and to assist partners to understand the painful emotions that underlie their partners’ attempts to reach them.