April 25th, 2023
By: Anna Abramyan, LICSW
What first comes to mind when you hear the word “polyamory”?
Three-some’s, polygamy, harem, cheating, unsustainable, confusion, excitement, orgies, etc.?
The actual definition of polyamory in the Oxford dictionary is “characterized by or involved in the practice of engaging in multiple romantic (and typically sexual) relationships, with the consent of all people involved.”
An Umbrella Term
Polyamory is typically seen as an umbrella term for ethical non-monogamy, similarly to “Queer” being an umbrella term. Other terms for ethical non-monogamous styles of relationships are:
- Polygamy: involves marriage between multiple people
- Open relationships: involve sexual relationships among multiple people
- Swinging: entails couples “swapping” sexual partners
- Triads or throuples: where three people all date one another
- Polyfidelity: all partners in a group agree not to have romantic and sexual relationships outside the established group
- Casual sex: people have sexual relationships without any romantic relationship or commitments, possibly with multiple sexual partners
- Casual dating: people date multiple people
- It can also include relationship anarchy, although many people consider this a philosophy or a political approach as opposed to a relationship style.
There is a vast spectrum of how relationships can look and function, but the main keyword is “ethical” and “consent”. Mutual agreement and understanding between people are necessary to create and maintain a healthy relationship.
These styles of relationships are not for the faint of heart; as they require constant communication, honesty, emotional intelligence, and personal growth. Non-monogamous relationships can quickly fall apart when open communication ceases. Jealousy and resentment can exist, and just like monogamous relationships, if it’s not addressed it can become insidious and lead to breaking up.
LGBTQIA2S+ and Ethical Non-monogamy
It would be safe to say that a large percentage of the queer and BDSM community engages in some level of non-monogamy. The exploration of sexuality and gender can coincide with one’s interest in how far they can take their body and emotions. Typically, queer relationships already involve a deeper level of communication. This is usually due to potential trauma, body dysmorphia, sexual identification, etc. Sensitivities around certain areas of a body, sexual or not, can elicit negative emotions. Having discussions of how one receives pleasure, love, and care in queer relationships is similar in how non-monogamous relationships function.
Folks who identify as asexual can also engage in non-monogamous romantic relationships. Relationships, like gender and sexuality, are on a spectrum and unique to those involved.
Not Always About Sex
It’s important to note that being non-monogamous doesn’t equate to only having sexual and romantic relationships with others. For instance, Relationship Anarchy doesn’t view relationships in a hierarchical structure—a non-sexual relationship (friendship, caregiver, kink partner) is as equally important as a romantic relationship.
Non-Monogamy Across Cultures and Society
Historically, most forms of polygamy and polyandry were normal in rural farming cultures and other ancient civilizations. As less hands were needed to work lands and individualism grew, less relationships maintained this style. Social regulations, laws, and many religions contributed to maintaining monogamy. Non-monogamy has always existed beyond time and laws.
Presently, around 4-5% of people in the U.S. participate in some form of non-monogamous relationship (cbsnews.com). 1/3 of people say their ideal relationship is some form of non-monogamy (yougov.com). Non-monogamy is regaining back as a popular relationship style.
Monogamy versus Non-monogamy
One form of a relationship style doesn’t supersede the other. Both require honesty, trust, and communication. Not all people can have successful monogamous relationships, just as not all people can have successful non-monogamous ones.
Forcing a relationship or a person into either style of relationship is bound to cause issues. Oftentimes, the idea of a non-monogamous relationships seems appealing, but the moment another person comes into the picture, a partner may get scared, jealous, and insecure. We can never truly guess the emotional outcome of our partner when a relationship goes from monogamous to non-monogamous. It’s important that all relationships are consensual and not coerced. Education, moving at an appropriate speed for the relationship, and being mindful of the emotions of inside and outside parties is important in those first steps.
Individuals that are coming in from the outside deserve respect and cannot be tossed aside if problems occur. They are also making themselves vulnerable and taking risks when entering a new relationship.
The “one penis/one vagina” policy risks creating resentment and fueling jealousy, as individuals may feel coerced or restricted to not engage with another gender due to the main partner potentially feeling insecure. “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policies are also risky since healthy relationships thrive in environments of open communicate. Even though each relationship is unique to the parties involved, these types of rules may bring to light an individual’s areas of improvement, which is suggested to address before moving forward.
Make sure that you and your partner(s) have a safe support system to communicate and work through emotions or issues that arise. This may include getting support through a relationship counselor or individual counseling. Feeling jealous or scared is normal, how we act when we feel that way can make the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.
Many books, websites, in-person meetings, online groups exist to provide support and additional information. Here are a few popular resources:
http://www.polyweekly.com/ Poly Weekly is a podcast produced by Cunning Minx, a poly and kinky sex-positive educator. She and her co-host, Lusty Guy, have decades of real-life poly experience to draw on. Now in its 14th year, it’s a long running and established resource, with over 500 episodes in production (medium.com)
https://lovingwithoutboundaries.com/ is a website that provides toolkits, podcasts, and information for poly relationships.
http://www.morethantwo.com/ a website and a book with extensive information
https://www.wellandgood.com/books-about-polyamory/ additional resource for books
Meetup.com and fetlife.com also provide a central website for connecting people and information.