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What is Polyamory?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 23 2022

Polyamory - People are in an embrace

Summary

  • Polyamory describes the practice of having intimate relationships between three or more partners. Polyamory is, by definition, mutually consensual.
  • Polyamory is not to be confused with polygamy — marriages between multiple people, which is illegal in many countries. Polyamory is neither adultery, "swinging," nor a symptom of sex addiction.
  • Those in a polyamorous relationship may not necessarily engage in relationships with all other members of their polycule — or polyamorous network. Indeed, some in a polycule may refrain from having multiple partners altogether.
  • In a polyamorous relationship, some partners may take precedence over others, such as in sharing finances or raising children. Such partners are called primary partners. Other polyamorous groups may be hierarchically flat, with no relationship taking precedence over others.
  • Polyamorous groups are characterized by their valuing of honesty, self-knowledge, self-possession, integrity, and sex and love over jealousy, as well as communication and boundaries. Although these values seem characteristic of healthy relationships, scholars of polyamory have argued that these may be detrimental when practiced in excess.
  • Healthy and successful polyamorous relationships can allow participants to grow communicatively and emotionally. Boundaries, such as setting aside time for different partners and using non-blaming language, can help polyamorous relationships flourish.

What is Polyamory?

Polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with multiple partners with the consent of all involved.

People who identify as polyamorous may engage in open relationships and reject the idea that exclusivity is necessary for meaningful, sustainable relationships. 

Variants of the term polyamory have existed since the 1950s, and have traditionally resonated with critics of compulsory monogamy by then-counter-cultural groups such as leftist, feminist, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activism groups.

In practice, polyamory sustains a near-infinite variety of open relationships or multi-partner arrangements which differ in definition according to grades of intensity, closeness, and commitment (Klesse, 2014).

Polyamory, on an ethical level, has supported a set of interrelated values such as honesty, self-knowledge, self-possession, integrity, and the valuing of sex and love over jealousy (Klesse, 2014). These values are implicit in a number of theories around polyamory. 

What Polyamory Is Not

Polyamory does not involve infidelity or adultery, rather, it is a consensual relationship disclosed to everyone involved.

Polyamory can be hierarchical — with one relationship taking priority over the others — or equal. In a hierarchical polyamorous relationship, someone may have primary as well as secondary partners. 

People in polyamorous relationships may or may not be married; however, polyamory as a social phenomena is not synonymous with polygamy or bigamy. Whereas both polygamy and bigamy are illegal in the EU, the United States, and most of Oceania, polyamory is not. 

Polyamory is also not "swinging" or "spouse swapping," in which couples in monogamous relationships have casual sexual encounters with those from other couples.

Nor is it an "open" relationship, which involves committed couples agreeing that one or both partners are permitted to have sexual encounters with others without necessarily sharing information on the other partners. 

Polyamory is neither a sex addiction nor is a sex addiction a defining characteristic of polyamory. 

Despite these distinctions between polyamory, swinging, and open relationships, psychologists nonetheless use the term "consensual non monogamy" to describe all of these phenomena. 

Meanwhile, polyamory focuses on building emotionally engaged, supportive relationships with multiple people simultaneously. Meanwhile, open relationships tend to focus on one core romantic relationship but multiple sexual partners.

Polyamorous relationships, rather than being centered around one couple, consist of an interwoven network of sexual and romantic partners.

Polyamory vs Open Relationships

Polyamory involves having multiple relationships at the same time, with each partner having knowledge and consent. Meanwhile, open relationships are those where parties are free to take on multiple partners. 

Open relationships tend to be — though they are not inevitably — built around one couple. The couple in this relationship would see this as the center of their romantic lives, with other relationships being peripheral.

Often, those in open relationships have been monogamous in the past and could decide to do so again in the future. 

Issues Affecting Polyamorous Relationships

Polyamorous relationships, on virtue of the fact that one is negotiating the desire for intimacy with multiple people, bring up their own sets of common pitfalls. 

Brunning (2016) notes that the notion of the "one" in mononormative society may be replaced by the notion of the "many" for polyamorous people.

The concept of the "many '' is that of an intimate life with multiple partners who interact harmoniously, share interests, projects, and goals, and communicate without difficulty.

However, Brunning argues, this concept is unrealistic and damaging in that it has no place for partners who maintain separation from each other, of those who are radically different, or those who do not necessarily relate to their partner's partners. 

Brunning (2016) suggests that emotional work lies at the heart of polyamory, and that an emphasis on clear, non-confrontational communication and interpersonal mediation is positive.

However, overemphasis on these can lead people to fixate on the relationship at the expense of the people within them, leading to a neglect of partners' needs. 

Indeed, those in polyamorous relationships may overemphasize communication. Talking can replace action and analysis can replace uninhibited emotion, leading people not to be led in their affection for others with honesty and integrity. 

The emphasis on communication common in polyamorous communities can also foster the policing of relationships and their boundaries by the more articulate partner (Brunning, 2016).

While the articulation and negotiation of boundaries are fundamental to polyamory, people must also be able to express uncertainty about them and the emotions they generate, thus having space to consider how best to lead an intimate life.

Finally, according to Brunner (2016), emotional work can often be interpersonal and require people to contain their partner's challenging emotions.

On the upside, this containment can help people undergo, describe, and communicate their emotional experiences. However, some partners can be burdened by this containing role, especially in circumstances when one partner talks to another about issues in their relationship with another partner.

This is called triangular communication and can impede direct communication with the party who is being talked about as well as burdening the intermediary, who must bear and process emotions for a situation they are not responsible for. 

Same-Sex Polyamory

Polyamory is common among people of the same sex, and has been called LGBT, queer, gay, or lesbian polyamory.

As in  heterosexual polyamorous relationships, same-sex polyamory involves three or more people in some intimate relationship, without every two people being necessarily involved with each other.

Same-sex male polyamory is more common than other types, with between 30% and 67% of men in male couples reporting being in a non-monogamous relationship (Bettinger, 2005), in contrast to 15-28% of heterosexual couples. 

Many polycules — groups of people connected through romantic relationships — have LGBTQ+ members (Pallotta-Chiarolli & Sheff, 2020), and research has documented a strong link between bisexuality and polyamory (Anderlini-D'Onofrio, 2009). 

Polyamory and Parenting

Children raised in polyamorous families, otherwise known as polyfamilies have parents who may identify with any sexual or gender orientation; and culture or social class have openly negotiated with more than one partner; and may or may not cohabitate, share finances, or expect sexual exclusivity among a group larger than two (Pallotta-Chiarolli, 2010; Pallotta-Chiarolli & Sheff, 2020).

Parents who agree only to be in sexual relationships with each other and are closed to relationships outside the group are polyfidelitous. Meanwhile, family networks of people associated with polyamorous relationships can maintain polyaffective relations that are emotionally intimate but nonsexual.

Pallotta-Chiarolli and Sheff (2020) state that there are four major issues surrounding the academic and social conversations about poly families.

Firstly, the topic of poly families has often been erased from conversations in academia, law, health, and education. Data about polyfamilies is missing to the extent that some scholars have used research on children from same-sex parents to articulate and explain what children from polyfamilies experience.

This leads, Pallotta-Chiarolli and Sheff argue, to the second problem: a situation where children of polyfamilies may face even more heightened levels of invisibility and stigmatization than children of same-sex parents. 

Thirdly, research into poly families often relies on white, middle-class, college-educated samples.

Researchers fear that these biased samples result in a lack of access to larger representations of people of different socioeconomic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, as well as those who are transgender, intersex, or gender diverse (Pallotta-Chiarolli and Sheff, 2020). 

Fourthly, there have been few perspectives, experiences, and insights of children and adults who have grown up in poly families, as well as the ways in which growing up in a poly family can affect children's well-being, relationships, and education (Pallotta-Chiarolli and Sheff, 2020). 

Psychological Theories of Polyamory

Scholars have defined polyamory differentially as an intimate practice, identity, and sexual orientation (Klesse, 2014). It is not uncommon, according to Klesse, for people who identify as polyamorous to consider their polyamory "hard wired" and durable in a way that deeply informs their sense of self.

This perception that polyamory is a fundemental component of one's sense of self is further supported by legal arguments that argue that polyamory should be incorporated into US anti-discrimination laws (Tweedy, 2010).

Researchers have attempted to explain polyamory in a similar way to other sexual orientations: biology.

In recent decades, research focused on genetics, brain structure, and possible interrelation between these factors have been applied to human sexual orientation — and assumptions that sexuality is inherited or determined biologically have been further sustained by theories from socio-biology and evolutionary psychology  (Klesse, 2014).

Common Critiques of Polyamory

One common criticism of polyamory is that it leads inexorably to the objectification or commodification of other people, because one uses them to state their sexual or emotional greed (Brunning, 2016).

Angie Young (2007), mirroring an analysis of the ideology of adultery in America, argued that polyamorous relationships replicate the disposable, throwaway values of capitalistic society, treating others as interchangeable and useful to one so long as they work for their own purpose.

Secondly, some call polyamory immature because it impedes "proper" attachment to one's partners (Brunning, 2016). Robert Masters believed that non-monogamous relationships have "fuzzy" boundaries that eroticize unresolved issues such as the fear of abandonment, craving being wanted, or craving being in control.

These objections resonate with the idea that, throughout one's life cycle, individuals purportedly progress from exploratory to mature relationships.

Thirdly, some object that polyamory stretches people ``too thinly" (Brunning, 2016). The thought behind this objection is that individuals have limited resources, and the practical and emotional resources to maintain relationships with multiple partners would demand more than an individual could provide.

Fourth, some also consider polyamory to be risky and precarious. Many believe that polyamory is inherently unstable because it must generate jealousy and other difficult emotions (Brunning, 2016).

All of these objections portray polyamory as infeasible or inferior to monogamous relationships. Brunning (2016), however, argues that there are counterarguments to each of these.

He argues that commitment to polyamory involves a stable intention to explore the prospect of "nurturing non-monogamous intimacy in one's life."

This exploration includes introspection, conversation, and emotional processing. Rather than "stretching people thin," polyamory can also serve to reveal tensions between one's desires and needs or capabilities. 

Examples: Types of Polyamorous Relationships

Polyamorous relationships are typically named based on the number of partners involved in them, as well as the nature of the romantic relationships they are entwined in. The most common terms are:

Triads or Throuples: A polyamorous relationship between three people. These three people could either be dating each other or not. For example, a triad could consist of one person dating two different people. 

Quad: A polyamorous relationship with four people. Again, these four people could each be dating each other or not. If they are all dating each other, this is referred to as a full quad. One common scenario for a four-person polyamorous relationship involved two polyamorous couples meeting and dating one person from the other couple. 

Polycule: Polycules are networks of people who are romantically connected. These people can either be dating each other, dating only some members of the polycule, or dating no one but their primary partner. 

Kitchen Table Polyamory: Kitchen table polyamory involves relationships between people who know each other well, often as part of a large, family-like network. 

Parallel Polyamory: Parallel polyamory refers to relationships in which couples are aware of each other's other partners, but have little-to-no contact with them.

Solo Polyamory: Finally, those in solo polyamorous relationships have no intention to merge their identity or lives with their partners, such as through marrying or sharing a home or finances with any of their partners. 

Tips for Avoiding Relationship Issues

Polyamory can be emotionally challenging; however, it can be sustained by interpersonal emotional work that helps people feel and understand their emotions, communicate without confrontation, and contain the difficult emotions of others. 

Christian Klesse (2014) calls the basic axiom of polyamory honesty. People in successful polyamorous relationships aim to be honest about their feelings, desires, and expectations.

Honesty can also help polyamorists shape their relationship boundaries in an explicit way. These boundaries can have different forms, such as:

  • Primary partners who live together, share finances, or raise children. These partners are privileged in terms of time, emotional involvement, and decision-making. 

  • Clearly stating, out loud or in writing, the types of physical and romantic relationships polyamorous people are willing to have with others. For example, a primary partner may not be comfortable with another having unprotected sex with their other partners. 

  • Setting aside explicit time for partners to be together, and not letting other forces (e.g. work, other partners) impinge on this time.

  • Using non-blaming language, such as "I," rather than "you," statements, when giving feedback to partners. Allowing partners to cool off after arguments, or agreeing to revisit a conflict after another has had time to process and regulate their emotions.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, March 23). What is Polyamory?. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/polyamory.html

References

Anderlini-D'Onofrio, S. (2009). Plural happiness: Bi and poly triangulations in Balasko's French Twist. Journal of Bisexuality, 9(3-4), 343-361.

Bettinger, M. (2005). Polyamory and gay men: A family systems approach. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 1(1), 97-116.

Brunning, L. (2018). The distinctiveness of polyamory. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 35(3), 513-531.

Klesse, C. (2013). “Loving More Than One”: On the Discourse of Polyamory. In Love (pp. 77-90). Routledge.

Klesse, C. (2014). Polyamory: Intimate practice, identity or sexual orientation?. Sexualities, 17(1-2), 81-99.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, M. (2010). ‘To pass, border or pollute’: Polyfamilies go to school. In Understanding non-monogamies (pp. 194-199). Routledge.

Pallotta-Chiarolli, M., Sheff, E., & Mountford, R. (2020). Polyamorous parenting in contemporary research: Developments and future directions. In LGBTQ-parent families (pp. 171-183). Springer, Cham.

Tweedy, A. E. (2010). Polyamory as a sexual orientation. U. Cin. L. Rev., 79, 1461.

Young, A. (2007). Once More… With Feeling Nervous but Excited.

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