As anyone who's ever been single knows, it can sometimes feel like the world is built for couples, with "forever and ever" upheld as the gold standard of romantic success. Yet the practice of non-monogamy, or exploring relationships outside of the traditional two-people-only model, may be more common than you think: According to one 2016 survey of U.S. Census-based data, 1 in 5 out of nearly 9,000 single people said they had engaged in consensual non-monogamy at least once in their lives.
While polyamory and open relationships have been portrayed on shows like The Politician and House of Cards (and teased, yet never fulfilled in Three's Company's scintillating "where the kisses are hers and hers and his" theme song), you might not have met an openly polyamorous person in real life before. Whether you're merely curious or interested in trying it for yourself, here's a brief explanation of what polyamory is, as well as a few terms common to the poly community.
What's the difference between polyamory and an open relationship?
They're similar, in that they're both forms of consensual non-monogamy (meaning all parties involved know what's going on, and thus nobody is cheating on someone).
"I would say that 'open relationship' is a broad, overarching category under which polyamory fits," says Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door and a leading academic and legal expert on polyamory. "Polyamory is more specific, in that it implies emotional intimacy among partners who all know about each other."
According to Dr. Eli, an open relationship or open marriage often entails one or both partners dating someone else outside their "serious" partnership, or inviting in additional sex partners in a situation often defined as swinging. Polyamory, she says, is closer to a concept of group marriage, in that it emphasizes emotional intimacy and long-term relationships.
Primary partner: The social equivalent of a spouse (or an actual spouse). A poly person may share their home, financial resources, and even a family with their primary partner. They may also have a secondary partner. "Secondary partners are probably less financially entwined, probably don’t live together or have kids together, but may have very strong feelings for each other," Dr. Eli says.
"In the poly world, marriage is not emphasized," she continues. "Polyamory may involve one person with four partners, but they're also primary-partnered with someone who has two partners, and that person might be partnered with a fellow poly who isn't interested in keeping score of how many lovers they have."
If reading that leaves you overflowing with questions like "but what about sexually-transmitted diseases?" and "how does everyone manage these amorphous relationships without getting overwhelmed and exhausted?," don't worry—ethically-non-monogamous people give those concerns plenty of thought. In fact, polyamorous people arguably have to give more thoughtful consideration to what they want and need from relationships than most conventionally-coupled people do. It's all part of keeping everyone involved feeling safe and respected.
Do polyamorous relationships have rules?
Yes—but any set of rules is entirely unique to the poly person in question and their respective partners. Setting rules is particularly common and valuable when a person or couple is first starting to dip their toe into the polyamory world. "If people continue in a polyamorous lifestyle, they often move less to a rule-based agreement and more towards acting in ways they know will make them all feel well-treated," Dr. Eli explains.
Metamour: A partner's partner. For example, if you have a husband and he has a girlfriend, but you and the girlfriend are not romantically involved with each other, she would be your metamour.
A common beginner's agreement includes a "veto rule," in which one or both primary partners reserve the right to nix the other's potential lover. However, Dr. Eli says the veto rule can lend itself to manipulation through overuse. Further, she adds, long-term poly relationships tend to work best when everyone involved likes each other's metamours.
"If they don’t, it causes a lot of strain," she says. "Ultimately those relationships need to be kept separate—which is much easier in a long distance relationship—or, over the years the metamours come to like each other better. Otherwise, someone’s relationship in that configuration breaks up."
"'Be honest about what you're doing' is probably one of the few rules that is nearly universal among polyamorous folks," Dr. Eli adds. "Also, negotiate. Communicate about what you want, and make agreements with all of your partners involved."
How do polyamorous people protect themselves from STIs?
Many, though not all, people in polyamorous relationships share what's called a "safer-sex agreement" with those they're involved with, which is a negotiation about who they will and will not be having unprotected sex with.
Fluid-bonded: An agreement in which two people actively choose to share bodily fluids via unprotected sex. While this term is not unique to the poly community, it presents itself when multiple partners are in the picture.
"If you’re fluid-bonded with one person, you would generally use barrier methods (such as a condom or dental dam) when you're with other partners in order to protect that person from sexually-transmitted infections," Dr. Eli says.
Do polyamorous people get jealous?
Jealousy is a natural human emotion, and no one is wholly exempt from feeling it—no matter what type of relationship they're in. Plenty of polyamorous people struggle with feelings of jealousy over their primary's secondary partners or metamours (or their metamour's primary, and so on). It may flare up when their primary's new feelings for another intensify, or during a period of personal insecurity. However, Dr. Sheff does posit that a polyamorous person's relationship to their own jealousy may differ from that of someone who feels it within a two-person bond.
"Research indicates that people in monogamous relationships actually have more jealousy than people in polyamorous relationships," she says. "At first that seemed counterintuitive to me, but the more I thought about it, it made sense. In monogamy, you’re not supposed to notice or be attracted to other people, so everything can potentially make a monogamous person jealous. And in the fairy tale version of love, jealousy is evidence that your partner loves you." By design, polyamorous relationship structures can allow more space for a neutral acknowledgement of one's jealousy.
That said, Dr. Sheff dismisses the notion that poly people are more emotionally evolved than monogamous ones. “It assumes that if everyone were evolved, they'd all be polyamorous.” She doesn’t agree. “I think some people are deeply monogamous—I would call it a 'relational orientation.' And it doesn’t mean that someone is small and grasping, it means when they really fall for someone, they're very oriented toward that person and no one else."
Solo poly: One who's not seeking a primary partner, though they may have ongoing and even long-term relationships. "While a solo poly person may have safer-sex agreements with people, it’s all at their own behest," Dr. Eli says. "They’re not looking for that kind of social expectation of, ‘yes I’ll come home from work every night, and we’ll raise kids together and things like that."
"And I think the opposite is true, that some people are polyamorous by relational orientation, and even if they really love someone, they'll always be wanting multiple partners," she continues. "It’s not a symbol of lack in their two-person relationship. It’s more an effect of how they're wired."
Polyamorous people don't have commitment issues.
Well, some undoubtedly do, just like some monogamous people have commitment issues. But that's not what drives people into a polyamorous lifestyle. In fact, Dr. Eli has interviewed people who have been maintaining poly relationships for upwards of 50 years together.
Tertiary relationship: A term used by some to distinguish a bond from that of a primary or secondary partner. A tertiary connection may be long-distance, fleeting, or simply infrequent, but it can be long-term and involve a significant degree of emotional investment.
"Polyamorous people do develop deep emotional intimacy, in part because they have to think about themselves and what they want, and get to know themselves before they talk to their partners about it," she says. "It’s probably easier to develop that if you kind of make up the rules as you go. In a monogamous relationship, there are so many role models—in real life, in songs in movies—but polyamory has very few. So for people to improvise, they’ve got to think about it and talk about it. That honest communication leads to emotional intimacy."
Want to try polyamory? Don't forget to tell your partner.
Seriously, it's called consensual non-monogamy for a reason. "Negotiate before acting," Dr. Eli warns. "Because if you come back and say, ‘honey, I hooked up with this person and I’m so excited about them, let’s open up our relationship? 'Honey' is not going to feel safe, or trusting.
You may also want to read up on the topic beforehand, whether you're broaching it to a partner or you're single. Respected books include More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, and Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships. Those who have or are thinking of having children may want to read Dr. Eli's Stories From the Polycule: Real Life in Polyamorous Families.
Supporting a polyamorous loved one is easy.
If a friend or family member "comes out" to you as polyamorous, being welcoming and nonjudgmental goes a long way. "Don’t question the reality of it—'this must be a phase, you must be delusional,'" Dr. Eli says. She also recommends inviting their partner or partners to events like a barbecue or potluck, and even consider giving that person a small gift to make them feel welcome.
Ultimately, it's important to remember that polyamorous relationships are relationships, even if they look a little different from yours. As Dr. Eli says, "relationships in general are fluid. Even monogamous relationships change, or end, or grow. "
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