When it comes to polyamory, many people think of constant partner swapping, wild sex orgies and one-night stands. But actually, polyamory has nothing to do with open hedonistic arrangements or with swinging.
‘Dear Media: Polyamory Is Not All About Sex,’ writes Carrie Jenkins, philosopher and author of ‘What Love Is And What It Could Be’. She complains about a one-sided and prejudiced media representation of polyamorous relationship models in which sex appears to be a priority. According to her, romantic relationships that don’t fit into the societal norm are often discredited with the claim that ‘it’s all about sex and nothing else’. Today, relationships outside of the monogamous norm are under such attack – the same way homosexual relationships or relationships between white and black people used to be devaluated.
Janet Hardy, one of the authors of the well-known book on polyamory, „The Ethical Slut – A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love,“ says she shares her home and life with a person who is a perfect match for her in every way — except sexually. She has a very fulfilling relationship in which sex is not an issue.
My friend Tina lives polyamorously. “I have always had a big heart, big enough to love more than one person” – says Tina, 35. “But I was not a promiscuous girl. On the one hand I felt the need for security and exclusivity, on the other hand I longed for freedom and variety.” – she adds. “My relationship with Mark was still fresh, when out of the blue my ex boyfriend, James, decided to move to my city. Seeing him again gave me butterflies and hot flashes. I realized I was not over him yet… However, I also had feelings for Mark and did not want to leave him…”
In the society advocating for “one partner only”- relationships, Tina would be pushed to choose between Mark and James. Surprisingly, the three of them found a different solution. “We have decided to give polyamory a go. We sat together and talked it through. Now I divide my time between my two men. The beauty of it is, that they are so different and have contrasting hobbies. Mark enjoys visiting museums and theaters, James is a sporty type, who loves the great outdoors.”
When asked if the three of them ever have sex together, Tina says ‘no’. “My men are strictly hetero and even though they know and like each other, they prefer to see me alone.”
What is polyamory?
The term „polyamory“ is made up of two Greek words: „poly“ for „many“ and „amor“ for „love“. Polyamory means that you can love romantically more than one person at the same time. In contrast to cheating or “going behind someone’s back”, this happens with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. No effort is made here to keep anything secret from the others.
Polyamory involves a lot of honesty, openness and self-reflection, because all parties involved strive for a transparent, long-term, trusting relationship. That is why they have agreements and rules in order to meet the needs of the individuals, just like monogamous partnerships do. As Tina mentioned, she tries to spend about half of her free time with each of the men she loves.
Is polyamory the same as polygamy? No, it is not. In polygamy (meaning „many marriages“), only one partner (the dominant one, traditionally a husband) has the right to multiple other partners (wives), who do not have this freedom of choice. In polyamory, every individual is free to love more than one person. A polyamorous network can have several forms: two men + one woman, or three women + one man or two men + two women. This has nothing to do with „polygyny“ (a man can have several wives at the same time).
There are often primary partnerships and secondary relationships. But you can also have several completely equivalent relationships.
Polyamory vs. Jealousy
Friends aware of Tina, James and Mark’s arrangement often ask if there is no jealousy involved. According to Tina, jealousy – just like in monogamous relationships – can be an issue. “When you give your partner freedom and there are emotional and erotic interactions with other people, you are often confronted with your own fear of loss and self-esteem issues.”
But jealousy is not necessarily bad. “The three of us have learnt to deal with it. It’s important not to blame someone else for your own feelings,“ says Tina. “Instead of saying ‘you made me jealous’, we ask ourselves where the negative feelings come from and what is necessary to neutralize them? Like: what do I need? It is often very banal things that can be easily changed so that jealousy goes away. An example: feeling neglected, followed by the desire to spend more time with one partner.”
So to sum it up, jealousy shows people their own wishes and deficits. Learning to communicate those needs improves the quality of each relationship.
Is polyamory better than monogamy?
A quick glance at the divorce statistics reveals a brutal truth – monogamous two-person relationships do not work for the majority of our society. Half of the married couples divorce within ten years, usually due to affairs and infidelity. The monogamous marriage often ends when one of the partners cheats and is caught doing so, thus initiating a separation or divorce.
It is sad to think that many people are monogamous because they were told it was „normal“, but they feel trapped and unhappy in one-on-one relationships. “When frustration or attraction to a third person comes into play, it’s only a matter of time before one of the pseudo-monogamists cheats on his or her partner,“ says Tina.
The solution could be an alternative, polyamorous relationship concept: Instead of cheating on your partner, you talk openly about your own needs.
If polyamory is so great, why is it so rare?
Unfortunately the society pushes for monogamy. Not because it is more “natural”, but because it is easier to handle from the legal point of view. All our laws are designed for monogamous, long-term two-person relationships. Polyamorous lifestyles with three or more partners get little social recognition.
People with multiple long-term partnerships strive for equality. They want polyamorous life-styles to be treated the same as monogamous is in certain aspects, such as that all partners should have the right to visit hospitals and make dispositions in the event of a life-threatening illness, or that surviving partners should have rights of residence in the event of death. People in polyamorous families would feel safer if raising children together was protected by adjusted custody rights.
So far there has been little political discussion about the recognition and equality of polyamorous lifestyles, as they are justified as an extreme minority. Possibly a fallacy, since many people do not live their polyamorous relationship publicly – for fear of being discriminated against. They pretend the third person is “just a family friend” etc.
Laurie Penny once wrote that for purely logistical reasons, it’s not possible to have close romantic relationships with an infinite number of people. At some point the schedule gets full and your free time is gone. And even in poly relationships it’s about whose turn it is to do the dishes or to clean the bathroom.
The busy schedule argument is easy to understand. That’s probably the reason why students are more active in the poly scene than “adults“ with full-time jobs and/or kids. Students simply have more time to get emotionally and physically involved with many partners in parallel relationships.