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What is polyamory?

In 2006, the term polyamory (‘many loves’) made an entry into the Oxford English Dictionary. Polyamory is the philosophy or state of being romantically involved with more than one person at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. The focus is more on intimacy than on sex, and polyamorous relationships, while being romantic, need not be sexual. 

Polyamory in context

The opposite of polyamory is monogamy, which is uncommon among animals: among humans, monogamy came about relatively recently, largely for social and economic rather than moral or romantic reasons. At the same time, polyamory is not synonymous with polygamy, which, unlike polyamory, is culturally sanctioned and codified, and typically takes the form of polygyny, that is, polygamy in which a man has more than one wife. 

Neither is polyamory synonymous with cheating, swinging, or free loving, since the focus is on intimacy and relationship building, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved. 

In fact, while some people see their polyamory as an identity or orientation, others see it more in terms of an ethical alternative to infidelity. Despite its ethical dimensions, polyamory is more stigmatized than cheating: cheating may threaten the system, but at least it operates from within it, whereas polyamory simply disregards it. 

Forms of polyamory

Polyamorous relationships can take many forms. They can, for example, be triads, or quads, maybe one couple with another. ‘Polyfidelity’ refers to a closed polyamorous relationship in which the parties agree to restrict themselves to one another, rather than take outside lovers. In some cases, there may be a primary couple with one or more secondary partners who are perhaps more distant or occasional, although this need not mean that they are any less loved. In other cases, one partner may have, or wish for, outside relationships, while the other may be content with just the primary relationship. This particular form of polyamory, on the part of just one partner, need not involve any bisexuality. The possibilities and permutations are endless.

The partners of one’s partner, who are not also one’s partners, are referred to in the jargon as ‘metamours’, and it is in the spirit of polyamory that one treats them with courtesy and respect, as friends rather than enemies or rivals. 

Polyamory today

As well as being close to the natural state of humankind, polyamory has long been recognized as an alternative lifestyle in gay subculture, and is becoming more and more mainstream, driven by feminism and gay emancipation, and the fragmentation of families and communities. When it is an important part of someone’s identity, polyamory is more an orientation than a lifestyle choice, leading to demands for legal recognition and protection for at least some forms of polyamorous relationship. 

Advantages of polyamory

What are the attractions of polyamory? For a start, polyamory is less limiting: it allows for rewarding relationships with more than one person, without the need to abandon one relationship for another, or to forego potentially rewarding relationships. To love more than one person is not necessarily to love each person less, just as to love two children is not necessarily to love each child less. ‘True love,’ wrote PB Shelley (1792–1822), ‘in this differs from gold and clay/ That to divide is not to take away.’ Love is not finite like money or time, but grows in the giving.

Polyamory recognizes that some people’s relational needs are best met by more than one person, and, conversely, relieves the pressure of having to meet all of another person’s needs. By creating more space around a tired relationship, it can breathe new love and new life into the relationship.

Because polyamory is non-exclusive, existing relationships and friendships are less likely to be abandoned or neglected in favour of a single person, leading to a larger and stronger social network with more resources, skills, and perspectives to draw upon. Unlike with serial monogamy, there is less incentive to write off an older relationship—and, by extension, a part of our history and who we are—simply because a more exciting or convenient one has come along. 

Disadvantages of polyamory

Needless to say, polyamory also has its drawbacks. From a young age, we are taught that true love is the love of just one person, who, in turn, is able to answer all our needs. The princess awaits her prince, and, once united, they live happily ever after. There is no question of another prince, and still less of a knight, squire, or lady-in-waiting. Given this state of affairs, and the stigma of polyamory, it may be hard to find people, or enough people, with whom to conduct polyamorous relationships. It may be that polyamory is better suited to gay couples and gay people more generally, since it is then much less likely to call upon bisexuality, which is not in everyone’s repertoire.

The vast majority of people are naturally prone to possessiveness and jealousy. The princess does not await the prince, but her prince. A new relationship is full of enthusiasm and excitement (or, in the jargon, ‘New Relationship Energy’), which can be tough on an existing partner. Jealousy can be even more of an issue if only half of a couple is polyamorous, while the other half merely tolerates, rather than embraces, it.

Polyamory demands time, energy, security, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence, and communication skills. Notwithstanding the stigma and lack of legal recognition, things can get pretty complicated, which can undermine the quality of the relationships and the very viability of the enterprise. Many people may not have the time, energy, or skills to manage much more than one relationship, and, of course, may not feel a need for more than one partner, if even that.

But even if we decide to reject polyamory for ourselves, there can still be much to gain from adopting a more fluid, flexible, and forbearing approach to relationships. 

Can you think of any other advantages and disadvantages to polyamory? If so, do drop a comment.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, For Better For Worse: Should I Get Married? and other books.

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Neel Burton
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