Polyamory is a neologism, signifying having more than one long term and multi-dimensional sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. Persons who enter into or consider themselves emotionally suited to such relationships may define themselves as polyamorous, often abbreviated to poly.
Morning Glory’s current definition, which she gave to the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (although there is no definition of polyamory included in the OED) when they contacted her in 1999 to enter the term:
- "The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved."
- This term was meant to be inclusive, and in that context, we have never intended to particularly exclude "swinging" per se, if practitioners thereof wished to adopt the term and include themselves. As far as we have understood, swinging specifically does not involve "cheating," and it certainly does involve having "multiple lovers"! Moreover, we understand from speaking with a few swinging activists that many swingers are closely bonded with their various lovers, as best friends and regular partners.
- The two essential ingredients of the concept of "polyamory" are "more than one" and "loving." That is, it is expected that the people in such relationships have a loving emotional bond, are involved in each other's lives multi-dimensionally, and care for each other. This term is not intended to apply to merely casual recreational sex, anonymous orgies, one-night stands, pick-ups, prostitution, "cheating," serial monogamy, or the popular definition of swinging as "mate-swapping" parties.
History of term
Like 'television', polyamory is a hybrid word: 'poly' is Greek for 'many' and 'amor' is Latin for 'love'. It has been independently coined by several people; including Morning Glory Zell Ravenheart, whose article A Bouquet of Lovers (1990) encouraged the popularization of the term, and Jennifer Wesp who created the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory in 1992. However, the term has been reported in occasional use since the 1960s, and even outside polygamous cultures such relationships existed well before the name was coined; for one example dating from the 1920s, see William Moulton Marston.
Forms of polyamory
Forms of polyamory include:
- Polyfidelity, which involves multiple romantic relationships with sexual contact restricted to specific partners in a group
- Sub-relationships, which distinguish between "primary" and "secondary" relationships (e.g. most open marriages)
- Polygamy (polygyny and polyandry), in which one person marries several spouses (who may or may not be married to or have a romantic relationship with one another)
- Group relationships and group marriage, in which all consider themselves equally associated to one another, popularized to some extent by Robert Heinlein in novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Rimmer and also the author Starhawk in her books The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993), and Walking to Mercury (1997)
- Relationship webs among a number of people who are in favour of and agree on "Friendship without Barriers"
Some people in sexually exclusive relationships may still self-describe as polyamorous, if they have significant emotional ties to more than one other person.
Values within polyamory
Unlike the general case of swinging, polyamorous relationships generally involve an emotional bond, though the distinctions made between swinging and polyamory are a topic open to debate and interpretation. Many people in both the swinging and polyamory communities see both practices as part of a continuum of open intimacy and sexuality.
Note that the values discussed here are ideals. As with any ideals, their adherents sometimes fall short of the mark - but major breaches of a polyamorous relationship's ideals are taken as seriously as such breaches would be in any other relationship.
Most monogamists define fidelity as committing to only one partner (at a time), and having no other sexual or relational partners during such commitment. By contrast, most polyamorists define fidelity as being honest and forthcoming with their partners in respect to their relational lives, and keeping to the commitments they have made in those relationships.
Honesty and respect
Most polyamorists emphasize respect for all partners. Withholding information - even a "Don't ask, don't tell" agreement - is often frowned upon, because it implies that partners cannot handle the truth or trust those they love to keep their commitments. A partner's partners should be accepted as part of that person's life rather than merely tolerated.
Communication and negotiation
Because there is no 'standard model' for polyamorous relationships, participants in a relationship may have differing ideas about how that relationship should work. If unaddressed, such mismatched expectations can be extremely harmful to the relationship. For this reason, many polyamorists advocate explicitly deciding the ground rules of a relationship with all concerned. In contrast to some other forms of negotiated relationship (e.g. the prenuptial agreement) polyamorists commonly view this negotiation as an ongoing process throughout the lifetime of the relationship.
In more conventional relationships, participants can settle on a common set of expectations without having to consciously negotiate them, simply by following societal standards (a husband and wife are expected to support one another financially, for instance). Because polyamorous relationships cannot rely on societal standards as a starting point, much more within the relationship must be chosen along the way by talking and by mutual respect and understanding, rather than assumed.
Polyamorists usually take a pragmatic approach to their relationships; they accept that sometimes they and their partners will make mistakes and fail to live up to these ideals. When this happens, communication is an important channel for repairing any damage caused by such breaches.
People in conventional relationships often agree not to seek other relationships under any circumstances, as they would threaten, dilute or substitute for the primary relationship. Polyamorists believe these restrictions are in fact not for the best in a relationship, since they tend to replace trust with possessive prohibitions, and place relationships into a framework of ownership and control: "You are mine". This reflects cultural assumptions that restrictions are needed to stop partners "drifting", and that additional close relationships would be a serious threat or dilution of that bond.
Polyamorists tend to see their partner's partners' in terms of the gain to their partner's life rather than the threat to their own. The old saying "If you love something, set them free, if they come back they are yours, if not they never were" describes a similar type of outlook. For this reason, many polyamorists see this 'possessive' view of relationships as something to be avoided. This takes a great deal of trust. (A simple test of success: would seeing one's lover find another partner be cause for happiness [compersion] or alarm?)
Although non-possessiveness is an important part of many polyamorous relationships, it is not as universal as the other values discussed above. Alternatives include arrangements in which one possessive primary relationship is combined with non-possessive secondary relationships (common in open marriages), and asymmetrical relationships in which 'ownership' only applies in one direction.
Similarities to other forms of relationship
The polyamorous values of respect, honesty, communication and negotiation are akin to those espoused by the BDSM subculture. (Indeed, several prominent polyamory advocates are also BDSM advocates). Many of the problems encountered in polyamorous relationships have close parallels in BDSM, and can be resolved by similar methods; both groups benefit from a cross pollination of ideas.
Open relationship denotes a relationship (usually between two people) in which participants are free to take other partners; where the couple making this agreement are married, it is an open marriage. 'Open relationship' and 'polyamorous' are not identical terms:
- Some relationships place strict restrictions on partners (e.g. polyfidelity); such relationships are polyamorous, but not open
- Some relationships permit sex outside the primary relationship, but not love (cf swinging); such relationships are open, but not polyamorous
- Some polyamorists do not accept the dichotomies of "in a relationship/not in a relationship" and "partners/not partners"; without these divisions, it is meaningless to class a relationship as 'open' and 'closed'
However, there is enough overlap between the two concepts that 'open relationship' is sometimes used as a catch-all substitute when speaking to people who may not be familiar with 'polyamory'.
Several other forms of nonmonogamous relationship are listed at poly relationship.
Criticisms of Polyamory
Most major religious denominations (including all major Christian ones) expect a person to choose one sexual or marital partner. Even those that allow non-monogamous relationships commonly limit this to one rigidly-defined form of marriage - most commonly polygyny. Religious leaders have said little on polyamory, but this is probably due to its low public profile compared to other relational/ethical issues such as homosexuality, and because polyamory is neither widely known nor widely identified as a distinct lifestyle.
Division of love
One common criticism of polyamory is rooted in the belief that by dividing one's love among multiple partners, that love is lessened. This is a Malthusian argument, so called because it treats love as a commodity (like food or other resources) that can only be given to one person by taking it away from another.
Polyamorists reject this view of love, arguing that love need not be lessened by division. A commonly-invoked argument is that a parent who has two children does not love either of them any less because of the existence of the other.
Those who value monogamy often point to the strength and trust that can be built up within a long standing couple, who only are focussed on each other and have no other partners.
An intermediate viewpoint is that maintaining a loving relationship requires time and energy, and neither of these are infinite resources; hence, while it may be possible to love several people just as well as one, there is a point beyond which relationships do begin to suffer.
Perceived failure rates
Polyamorous relationships are often criticised as "not lasting". While it is hard to come by accurate numbers on the longevity of polyamorous relationships versus monogamous ones, this perception is skewed by several factors.
Like many groups with non-traditional relationships, polyamorists often do not publicize their relational status. Commonly, only the ones which fail in public become known. The participants' criteria for a "successful" relationship also do not always coincide with the usual expected "goal" set by conventional monogamy. Polyamory is far more fluid than traditional marriage, so polyamorous relationships change or end as those within them feel right. A relationship that enriches the lives of its participants will usually still be considered a "success" even as it comes to an end. Since this is part of the flow of polyamory, it can be done without the souring that accompanies the end of most marriages.
Those who are not inclined towards such relationships may judge the type of relationship based on the failure of a particular instance of it. This would be similar to judging the entire institution of marriage a failure because a particular couple got a divorce. Such criticisms are often based on observation of non-traditional relationships that lack the emphasis polyamory places on honesty, negotiation, and respect. These essential factors are not always obvious to outside observers, and multiple-partner relationships lacking these traits are indeed (like any relationship) likely to fail early.
For these reasons, there is no significant evidence that monogamous relationships are any more successful than polyamorous ones, based upon the expectations of those participating. Support for this view is also found in the divorce rate for monogamous relationships, and in the number of marriages which hold together in name only, for economic or other reasons, or where partners are unhappy or cheat.
Inability/unwillingness to commit
Polyamory is sometimes seen as an inability, or unwillingness, to make a lasting commitment to one partner — especially a commitment to sexual exclusivity to one person for one's entire lifetime, as in traditional monogamous marriage.
Whilst open relationships in general may have a varying degree of commitment, polyamorous ones usually have a strong bond of affection and friendship, and this is intended to endure as long as any friendship might. Polyamorists therefore cast the "commitment" argument into this form - does one commit to one partner, or to such partners as may be right at various stages in ones life?
Another argument goes, that since it is less easy to move on from a marriage, therefore there is a barrier and an incentive to try and make a marriage work, which is usually lacking in polyamory.
Polyamorists commonly see themselves as making multiple lasting commitments, much as a parent is committed to loving all her/his offspring. One expression used by polyamorists is that "We are faithful to ALL our lovers".