True Love in this differs from gold and clay, /That to divide is not to take away. —PB Shelley
What is polyamory?
In 2006, the term polyamory (‘many loves’) entered the Oxford English Dictionary.
Polyamory is the philosophy or state of being romantically involved with more than one person at the same 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 political and economic, rather than romantic, reasons.
As well as being 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 choice or lifestyle, leading to demands for legal recognition and protection for at least some forms of polyamorous relationships.
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 less loved.
In other cases, one partner may have, or want, outside relationships, while the other may be content with just the primary relationship.
The possibilities and permutations are endless.
One’s partner’s partners, 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 rivals.
What polyamory is not
Polyamory is not polygamy, which, unlike polyamory, is culturally sanctioned and codified, and typically takes the form of polygyny i.e. polygamy in which a man has more than one wife.
Polyamory is not 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. But sex, if it were the true object of polyamory, could be obtained more easily by other means.
Finally, polyamory does not amount to bisexuality, which is not a prerequisite and need not be involved. Some forms of polyamory may involve three or more people in bed together, but other forms not.
Advantages of polyamory
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.
Love is not finite like money or time, but grows in the giving: 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.
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 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 in favor 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 one relationship, and, by extension, a part of our history, of who we are, simply because a more exciting or convenient one has come along.
Drawbacks to polyamory
From a young age, we are taught that true love is the love of just one person, and that that person can answer all our needs. The princess awaits her prince, and, once they are 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 difficult to find people, or enough people, with whom to conduct polyamorous relationships.
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 hard on an existing partner who has not been made to feel that she is not expendable or interchangeable. Jealousy can also pose a particular problem if only one 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 project.
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 and other books.