Polyamory and other forms of Consensual Non-Monogamy are, at the most basic level, about choice. Because there are few contemporary role models and even fewer people who grew up in CNM households, most people who get into CNM relationships must actively choose them. In other words, it is hard to go about a mainstream life on automatic pilot and still end up in a polyamorous partnership. Instead, the people who participated in my 20+ year study of polyamorous families with children and those I have observed in mainstream polyamorous communities in the United States choose to engage in CNM.
For polyamorous (and many other sex and gender minority) folks, the idea of choice is fundamentally about consent. If someone cannot say no, then their yes is not really a choice. Crucially, for the idea and practice among CNM folks, true consent is founded in an authentic—uncoerced—consideration of all options. It is a common cliché among poly communities that some heterosexual men who want to have sex with two women simultaneously can badger their female partners into trying polyamory, and the women try it begrudgingly because the cost of saying no is too high in their position. In my research data and personal experience, those not-truly-consensual polyamorous relationships tend to self-destruct rather spectacularly.
Although many polygynous families are consensual in that the adult women truly do have choice and actively seek a shared husband, one of the primary differences between polyamory and non-consensual marriage between young girls and older men (such as FLDS leader Warren Jeffs) is that someone else makes the marriage arrangements for the girls, who are then informed (not consulted) of their fate. Usually, these girls live sequestered lives on compounds and have no access to education or the world at large. In sharp contrast, women in polyamorous relationships (at least those who have participated in research) tend to have high levels of education, the ability to earn and control their own money, and decision-making power in their own lives.
Beyond the obvious issue of consent in choice, the less glamorous element of self-responsibility is also important for people in polyamorous relationships. Self-responsibility comes about not only when people consider what they want and ultimately choose polyamory, but in how they handle their relationships. For instance, in a previous blog, I wrote that polyamorous people are generally not trying to steal other people’s partners for a range of reasons. A reader responded in true poly community fashion that a partner can only be “stolen” if they allow it. In other words, everyone has an ultimate personal responsibility in their relationships—monogamous, polyamorous, or otherwise. Making choices and living with the consequences is part of being self-responsible, even though sometimes it really sucks when the consequences are profoundly uncomfortable. And even when that happens, generally people in polyamorous relationships continue on and try to learn from their past difficulties and find new ways to make effective personal choices.
Even though polyamory (and most relationships in general) is grounded in personal choice and self-responsibility, it does not mean that poly folks live in a vacuum where they make absolutely independent decisions. Rather, these relationships are founded on mutual reliance, and the choices one partner makes can affect their entire polycule. Balancing choice with personal responsibility and mutual reliance can be an incredibly difficult task even in relationships with just two partners, and it can take on a whole new level of complexity when three or more partners enter the mix. This is especially true when partners have conflicting or competing needs and demands. For that and other reasons, polyamorous people rely on extensive and honest communication to navigate the potentially tricky arrangements of meeting their own and each others’ needs while taking responsibility for their own choices.
There are many different ways to structure relationships, some with much higher levels of mutual reliance and some with much more independence. In their delightfully accessible and non-judgmental book Designer Relationships, Patricia Johnson and Mark Michaels present the range of options, from happy monogamy to positive polyamory and optimistic open relationships. Johnson and Michaels emphasize the utility of actively considering the many options—instead of unthinkingly accepting conventional relationship rules—as a way to foster flexibility and happiness. Such active consideration also allows for relationships to change over time.
Michaels, M., & Johnson, P. (2015). Designer Relationships. San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press.
Sheff, E. (2014). The Polyamorists Next Door. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sheff, E. (2005). "Polyamorous Women, Sexual Subjectivity, and Power," The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 34, Issue 3, pgs. 251-283.
Goldfeder, M., & Sheff, E. “Children in Polyamorous Families: A First Empirical Look,” The Journal of Law and Social Deviance. Volume 5, pages 150 – 243.