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Polyamory (not to be confused with polysexuality) is a style or philosophy toward relationships that recognizes that an individual can ethically be involved in more than one sexual or romantic relationship at any given time, as opposed to the socially normative convention of monogamy. Polyamory is a form of ethical non-monogamy, an umbrella term that encapsulates activities such as swinging and kink, and philosophies such as free love. It is also part of the larger umbrella of just non-monogamy which includes certain unethical or questionably ethical activities, such as cheating and polygamy.
Because of the spectra of gender identities, sexualities, physiologies and just general attitudes of individuals, there are multiple forms of polyamory. Authors and bloggers on the subject will often say that there is no one right way to be polyamorous (or "poly"), but there are several wrong ways (such as being unethical or abusive).
According to anthropologists and authors of books like Sex at Dawn, there have been human cultures practicing polyamory or some form of ethical non-monogamy since before written history and continue into the present day in certain pagan and tribal communities.
Modern western polyamory in its current forms has been around since experimental religious colonies of Quakers and Shakers have given the idea of a "complex marriage" a shot, such as the Oneida colony. The first Mormons practicing polygamy were close to polyamory, but since the women weren't allowed to take on multiple husbands, most polys will argue that they were not practicing polyamory. This is known as the "first wave" of modern non-monogamy.
The "second wave" came during the free-love/hippy/commune era of the 1960s and 1970s, spurred on by the sexual revolution when traditional values were first openly challenged by those who would see the "establishment" burnt to the ground. In the 1980s and 1990s, the initial luster of swinging and partner-swapping experienced by many couples gave way to a desire to have more emotionally fulfilling and longer lasting encounters outside of the coupling. In 1990, the term "polyamorous" was coined to mean "having many loves", and in 1992 the word "polyamory"[note 1] was created in order to accommodate the Usenet group on the subject, alt.polyamory. During the second wave, poly practitioners experimented and reached out to others in their communities trying to find ways to make multiple-partner relationships work; however, polyamory was very "couple-centric" and the extra partners (sometimes called "secondary" or "non-primary" partners) were often regarded as expendable if they were deemed threatening to the established "primary" or "core" relationship. Because polys were basically inventing (or re-inventing) the idea, there were many failures of experimental relationships, including several notable ones like the marriage of graphic novelist Alan Moore. In 1997, relationship experimenters and authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy published The Ethical Slut, the first book that addressed the ethics and "proper" (e.g., successful) ways to handle multiple partners.
The "third wave", which is really the current wave, came about with proliferation over the internet. As the option of polyamory as an alternative to monogamy is becoming more mainstream in literature and media (such as in the movie Bandits), and as children have grown up in polyamorous households, more people have been reaching out to find out how to make polyamory work. Long time practitioners, bloggers and authors such as Franklin Veaux, Kathy Labriola and Steve Bensen have become guides for the uninitiated and unexperienced (they would not call themselves experts), continuing to challenge not only the notion of monogamy, but many of the internalized constructs of polyamory as well. Instead of polyamory being described as heterosexual couples hunting for a "unicorn", polyamory has been regarded as something that individuals do. Styles of polyamory have been named to accommodate these alternatives: "polyfidelity" (a closed relationship of more than two people), "solopoly" or "singlish" (a non-couple-centric style where a person chooses to not entangle their lives with their partners' lives, i.e. by cohabitation, having children or shared finances), "monogamish" (a couple that presents as monogamous but has clandestine or occasional external partners), "mono-poly" or "poly-permissive" (where one monogamous partner is involved with a polyamorous partner), "relationship anarchy" (where non-sexual/non-romantic relationships are regarded as carrying equal weight as the sexual/romantic ones), just to name a few.
In 2008, Tristan Taormino published Opening Up, a primer on how to maintain couplehood while accepting additional partners. In 2010, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha published Sex at Dawn which examined the history and biology of non-monogamy. In 2011, The Ethical Slut hit its second edition with new information and stories. In 2014, Veaux and partner/blogger Eve Rickert published More Than Two, which addresses the ethical concerns of pretty much every aspect of polyamory from the multiple lenses of the many successes and failures of past relationships.
With the introduction of dating sites and social media, the polyamory community has grown and matured as well. FetLife has one of the first and largest communities on the World Wide Web. Many communities for meeting and discussion persist on Facebook and Meetup.com, and the reddit for polyamory is actually not a terrible place for advice and stories.
Because much of the language involving relationships assumes monogamy, poly authors and bloggers have had to come up with their own terminologies to describe what they're doing and the feelings they encounter.
The idea of being involved in multiple romantic or sexual relationships is a deviation from societal norms—what Ryan and Jetha refer to as the "standard narrative" or others have referred to as the "relationship escalator". The idea that a relationship must travel upward in intensity (e.g., meeting to dating to moving in together to getting married to having kids to growing old and retiring together) is fairly antithetical to polyamory—in polyamory, the "escalator" can move backwards, stop indefinitely at certain floors, and different people can get on and off without being a disaster.
Also thrown in the trash is the conventional idea of a "successful relationship", which Dan Savage has described as one which lasts until one of the partner dies. A successful relationship for the polyamorous is one which enriches the lives of all involved in the relationship for however long the relationship lasts.
In the first and second waves, the concept of a "relationship" was regarded as being all the members involved. Poly relationship examples included the "V" (two individuals dating a common "hinge"), the "triad" (three people all dating each other", the "quad" (four people, usually two heterosexual couples, with the men dating the women), the "cross quad" (four people all having a relationship with each other), the "asterisk" (one person dating three or more other individuals) and the simple "dyad" (two people involved in each other, possibly with the intent of adding more). Note that in any given relationship type, the level of intensity was not defined; it could be as simple as friendship or acquaintances (which makes polyamory a fairly reasonable choice for asexual individuals) or as intense as a fully sexual, romantic, cohabiting and financial integration.
However, as the second wave worked into the third wave and more people who were outside of the arrangements were getting involved with the arrangements, more amorphous and less defined concepts had to be invented. A simple drawing of "who is involved with who" can be quite the non-directed graph, and one that changes over time. Because of this, the words "network", "poly family" or "polycule" (named so because the drawing would look like a complex organic molecule) have come into use. Consequently, it has been recognized that a relationship should be described in all cases as a dyad; thus, a triad is actually three relationships, not one; the cross quad, actually six relationships. Recognizing this complexity actually explains why these arrangements can actually be difficult to maintain, but it is also that recognition that facilitates the arrangement and addressing all the issues that can occur within it.
A concept of contention even within the community is the "relationship hierarchy", in where there exists a core or primary relationship (usually a partnered couple, possibly married) and all other relationships are secondary, tertiary or otherwise subordinate to the primary relationship. While some are okay with the hierarchy, friction can occur when the agency of one person in a poly network is denied by the decisions made by other people in the network. For example, if a wife decides her husband can't see his girlfriend on a certain day that had been previously agreed to, the girlfriend is clearly secondary in the hierarchy (whether by description or by default) because her agency has been overridden by the wife (and possibly the husband, if he agreed with the wife)—and is probably pissed. However, if the wife asks the husband to not see his girlfriend on a pre-agreed date night, and the husband (and maybe even the wife) talk to the girlfriend to explain why and possibly make up the date another time that the girlfriend is comfortable with, then the girlfriend is part of both the renegotiation as well as the solution/compromise (and probably less pissed). While equality can never truly exist in a poly network due to the natural constraints of time, money, energy and locality, the concept of fairness (where everyone's individual needs are addressed by the relationships they maintain) is one that, when properly addressed through open and honest communication, tends to lead to more successful relationships.
Inherent in the hierarchy, as well as society as a whole, is the concept of "couple privilege", which is the privilege afforded by society at large to those who identify as couples and denies those who, while they might be involved with member(s) of the couple, are still regarded as single, secondary or otherwise not involved. Some of those privileges are written into law or policy (e.g., tax benefits, next-of-kin relationships, beneficiary and child custody arrangements, acquiring citizenship) while others are societal convention (e.g., who gets invited to a dinner party or wedding, who in the network can show up at church together, etc.). The poly community sometimes refers to these privileges, as well as the assumptions made by society regarding a couple, as "mononormativity". Mononormativity is prevalent in society at large; many poly families have had to keep their arrangements secret, and many of those who have been "outed" have experienced ostracism or discrimination from those who would deem their lifestyle as amoral—including hardships such as being fired or having their lifestyle used against them in a child custody battle. Some poly families (particular among the polyfidelitous) construct legal agreements through incorporation in order to get around or otherwise the paperwork which is normally afforded only to two people (and in some countries, only one man and one woman).
Interestingly, much of the writing and advice on polyamory is also good advice for monogamous relationships, just with fewer people involved. That's because the bulk of the problem-solving involved in polyamory basically boils down to open and honest communication of needs and desires. Feelings such as envy and jealousy are not shunned, but can be addressed through non-violent communication—they are not always resolved, but they can be mitigated or lessened. Polys have also coined the neologism "compersion" to describe a person feeling joy for another person (e.g., a partner, but possibly also a family member or friend) who is happy in a situation that doesn't involve them, not as the opposite of jealousy, but an alternative and complement to it.
From the monogamous perspective, polyamory can be quite the foreign idea, simply because monogamous culture has dictated through media, religion and law . There are those who consider it to be "experimentation" or a "phase" (just like experimentation can occur with sexuality or gender identity). However, many polys come to understand that polyamory is in their nature, and therefore part of their identity. Others regard it as a conscious lifestyle choice.
Another popular misunderstanding is conflating polyamory with polygamy. However, because polygamy is often culturally understood as polygyny (e.g., FLDS) and therefore misogynistic, polys generally shy away from that definition. Polygamy is also recognized as having multiple spouses (hence the "-gamy") and thus multiple marriages, whereas polyamory doesn't necessarily require ritualized marriages (legal or otherwise). There are polyfidelitous arrangements where members consider their partnerships as marriages, and participate in ceremonies such as hand-binding or exchanging rings, but these arrangements do not define polyamory—they are simply a version of it.
Since polyamory and swinging are under the same umbrella of non-monogamy, many people confuse the two. This is not actually true, but neither are they completely distinct. It's better to think of polyamory as a lifestyle or relationship philosophy, where as swinging is an activity. To compare, one doesn't self-identify as a "baseball player" as part of their nature, but rather as part of their activities or profession. Many polys do not swing; and most swingers are not polyamorous. Think of them as hot and cold taps on the shower faucet; each non-monogamous person adjusts their taps different to whatever level is comfortable for them. Orgiastic lifestyles within polyamory are not impossible, but the "poly agenda" is pretty similar to the "gay agenda"—working to pay bills, spending time with family, doing laundry and figuring out what to watch on Netflix in the evenings.
Then there are those who feel that polyamory is simply cheating, because it involves violating the tacit agreement (as defined by the mononormative society) that is a monogamous relationship. Poly authors have used the dictionary definition of cheating as "the purposeful and deceitful violation of a pre-arranged agreement", applying just as well to polyamory as it does to monogamous relationships, board games and peace treaties. Cheating can certainly occur in polyamory—particularly in polyfidelitous arrangements where the inclusion of a new partner requires knowledge and consent of the other (or all) members of the arrangement. Since every arrangement or network of relationships is different, the definition for what constitutes cheating can differ.
Harmful to children
The religious right and others certainly consider polyamory to be a slippery slope to more sinful ways and often invoke the "think of the children!" argument against the poly lifestyle—which is an interesting hypocrisy: if a two-parent household is more stable and loving than a single-parent household, why wouldn't a household with three or more parents be even more stable and loving? Just as has been shown with same sex marriage, loving arrangements between any number of adults are beneficial to a child's development, and contentious arrangements can be harmful.
More generally, there is a misunderstanding that non-monogamy is rare. What is actually true is that consensual, honest non-monogamy is rare. Monogamous people step out on their spouses from time to time without getting consent, and, if the high divorce rate within the United States is any indication, that is hardly rare.
In her book, Why We Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher notes that romantic love has a certain insane, over-the-top aspect about it, above and beyond what would be considered "strictly necessary" (from, say, an evolutionary or biological viewpoint). Richard Dawkins summarizes her argument in his book, The God Delusion (the summary of which is also quoted in the book Sex at Dawn):
“”Rather than the fanatically monogamous devotion to which we are susceptible, some sort of 'polyamory' is on the face of it more rational....We happily accept that we can love more than one child, parent, sibling, teacher, friend or pet. When you think of it like that, isn't the total exclusiveness that we expect of spousal love positively weird?
Polyamory pride flag
The polyamory pride flag was created Jim Evans. According to him:
"The colors of the stripes, from top to bottom, are as follows: blue, representing the openness and honesty among all partners with which we conduct our multiple relationships; red, representing love and passion; and black, representing solidarity with those who, though they are open and honest with all participants of their relationships, must hide those relationships from the outside world due to societal pressures. The symbol in the center of the flag is a gold Greek lowercase letter 'pi', as the first letter of 'polyamory'. The letter's gold color represents the value that we place on the emotional attachment to others, be the relationship friendly or romantic in nature, as opposed to merely primarily physical relationships."
- Sheff, Elizabeth: Three Waves of Non-Monogamy: A Select History of Polyamory in the United States
- The Ethical Slut on Google Books
- Bandits on IMDb.com
- Opening Up by Tristan Taormino
- More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert