Polyamory: an introduction, kind of

7 Oct

Trying to encapsulate the entire world of non-monogamous relationship options in a single blog post is akin to trying to read all of six parts of Tolstoy’s War and Peace overnight. It’s impossible. For now, I’d like to introduce some terms and concepts that may pop up throughout this blog. This is by no means a comprehensive guidebook, but should give you at least a quick idea of what’s going on when we talk poly! Once more, mileage will vary: you may find different uses of these terms out in the world.

For a more thorough how-to on polyamory, I highly recommend The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. A great online resource for many things poly is Franklin’s Polyamory FAQ.

First of all, lets clarify what we’re *not* talking about here:

  • Cheating is not polyamory, cheating is breaking relationship agreements, which is destructive for any kind of relationship. While cheating might take the form of having multiple sexual relationships, it is hurtful and destructive because it is in violation of a monogamy agreement, not because the sexuality itself is a bad thing, but because it breaks the trust within the relationship.
  • Polygamy is a form of polyamory often sensationalized by the media, and while it is one possible relationship configuration, it is not the only form of polyamory. Polyamorous people of all genders may have lovers, spouses, sweethearts, friends with benefits, partners, or something else entirely of any gender. It all depends on how they’ve negotiated their relationship.
  • Poly people are not universally by definition commitment-phobic. In fact, I would contend that polyamory often takes a lot of commitment. Negotiating relationships, comforting partners, and time-managing multiple love and sexual relationships is a lot of hard work! While certainly some people use polyamory as a way to avoid “settling down” with anybody, many poly folks are in happily serious, long-term, committed love relationship(s).

Relationship agreements can take many different shapes and configurations. Each possible configuration usually has something to do with agreements surrounding romantic relationships and sexual relationships.

  • Monogamy refers to the practice of having one romantic and sexual partner.
  • Polyamory specifically refers to the practice of having multiple romantic and sexual relationships.
  • Open relationships usually mean there is one committed romantic and sexual partnership, and each partner has the option of having other sexual relationships.
  • Closed relationships refers to any relationship in which there is an agreement not to seek additional romantic and/or sexual relationships outside of what already exists. Monogamy is one form of this, though some polyamorous individuals may also have a closed arrangement within their group.

Polyamory requires many of the same relationship skills needed to maintain a healthy monogamous realtionship, including:

  • Fidelity to the relationship agreements. For monogamy, this means not having other romantic or sexual partners. In polyamory, this might mean talking to ones existing partners before having a new sexual partner, or letting them know about a new love interest right away.
  • Honesty and communication about what is going on in one’s emotional and sexual life. This includes honesty with ones own self about what is going on emotionally, and communication with ones partner about what their relationship needs are to feel secure and comfortable.
  • Informed consent of everybody participating. This means in healthy polyamorous relationships, everybody involved knows about the polyamory, agrees to it, and talks about how to make it work. If an individual has a “fling on the side” and his wife, who is aware something is going on, but unhappily and begrudgingly tolerates it, that is not polyamory. See: cheating.
  • Trust that ones partner will live up to the relationship agreements… and not leave you for somebody better (a common insecurity, we’ve all been there..).
  • Respect for the needs of all of ones romantic and sexual partners.

There are also many different terms used to designate different kinds of relationships. These possibilities are almost limitless, so I will just introduce the most common ones- including the hierarchy system that I personally prefer not to use, but find very handy sometimes because they’re generally well-understood and recognized within the poly community.

  • A Primary relationship is usually used to describe the relationship or relationships that involve the most day-to-day life investment. This usually indicates a partner or partners one has romantic investment in, lives with, has some long-term or lifelong commitment to, or has financial entanglement with (joint bank accounts, mortgages, sharing a phone plan, etc). Most mainstream marriages operate like a primary relationship.
  • A Secondary relationship is any relationship that involves romantic investment, some commitment, and regular contact. Most mainstream dating relationships without cohabitation operate like a secondary relationship.
  • A Tertiary relationship is a relationship with sexual, but not necessarily romantic involvement. The mainstream relationship “friends with benefits” is essentially a tertiary relationship.
  • A new term coming into style is the word anchor to describe relationships that may have the same level of commitment or lifelong involvement as a primary partnership, but do not involve cohabitation, financial entanglement, or daily contact. Especially with the dawning of the digital era, individuals may have people they are romantically attached to around the country or around the world, and love very deeply, but do not have primary life involvement with them.
  • Some people choose to use terms like lovers or sweeties to describe secondary romantic and sexual relationships, because the term secondary has some negative hierarchical connotations.

And to wrap up our polyamory mini-course, a few poly principals and values that I hold, and I believe may be prevalent in the community:

  • Love is Limitless.  Love is not a scarcity, by loving multiple people we do not jeopardize the fullness with which we love each of them individually. It would, for example, be ridiculous to say that we love one child any less by having a second.
  • Time is not limitless. Sometimes love is knowing when to say “no.” It can be tempting, as a poly person, to be so full of love that you just want to start having an intense romance with everybody you connect with. Eventually the rest of life’s time demands get in the way. Polyamory requires careful time management and planning! 
  • Jealousy is a symptom, not a cause. Jealousy, envy, anger, hurt, sadness, are all perfectly normal emotions. One of the challenges of polyamory (that we can go into much deeper detail about in a later post) is learning how to face jealousy as just another feeling, and figure out what insecurities,  fears, or situational realities are feeding it.

To be discussed: In the next installment of this poly introduction, we’ll mythbust some popular misconceptions about polyamory’s sexual, emotional, and mental safety. Please comment with what you’d like some more information on, and I may have a resource or opinion to share with you! Or post your own resources to share with others! Thanks!


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