September 23, 2011

In American culture monogamy, or the lifelong sexual and emotional commitment of two individuals to each other, is the norm. Unspoken and less frequently practiced is polyamory. Polyamory, from the Greek and Latin roots meaning “many loves,” describes a diverse range of nonmonogamous relationship styles that heterosexuals, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals practice. To be successful, individuals in polyamorous relationships typically negotiate a set of rules or agreements around issues such as safer sexual practices, social proximity to other lovers, frequency of contact between lovers, and level of emotional and/or sexual involvement between partners. These agreements make polyamory distinctly different than infidelity or promiscuity as all partners are fully aware of the arrangements. Although infidelity and cheating can occur within the context of polyamory, polyamorous individuals strive to be up-front and open about their desires and practices, which is why polyamory is sometimes referred to as “responsible nonmonogamy.”

Although there is some disagreement over the terminology used to describe various multipartner relationships, they can be broadly categorized as primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary partners are committed to a long-term, supportive sexual and emotional relationship and typically have a high level of involvement in each other’s daily lives (e.g., share housing and finances). Secondary partners may also have a longterm, committed sexual and/or emotional relationship, but typically live separately and do not share finances. Tertiary partners may be involved in a relationship for a brief period of time or have a long-term, but infrequent relationship. Although tertiary relationships may be characterized as highly intimate, individuals’ lives are typically not as intertwined. it is possible to have any number and combination of primary, secondary, and tertiary partners.

No matter the arrangement, polyamorous relationships are typically characterized by mutual respect and caring for all partners. Because of this, many polyamorous individuals claim that the lifestyle, or “lovestyle,” is different from swinging, which involves more casual sex and typically does not allow for emotionally based relationships to develop. This distinction is tenuous, however, because some polyamorous individuals resist such hierarchical classification of relationships and reject such differences. These individuals may refer to their lifestyle as an “open relationship,” instead of a “polyamorous relationship.”

Multipartner relationships may be open or closed to outside sexual partners. For example, a triad of lovers may decide to be closed and thus only have sexual relations with members of that intimate network. Such closed polyamorous relationships are also called polyfidelity and are often considered a safer sex strategy. An open relationship among a small group of lovers does not have such rules on sexual relationships; however, there is usually an agreement between partners to disclose new sexual relationships and/or to consistently practice safer sex.

Although there has been little research on polyamorous relationships, practitioners often claim that with communication and support these relationships can be just as healthy as traditional monogamy and perhaps healthier than serial monogamy. Polyamory advocates claim that multipartner relationships may be an excellent solution for couples with different sex drives or different emotional or sexual needs. Furthermore, some believe polyfidelity or intimate networks are conducive for childrearing because they mirror the support provided by extended family.

Just as with monogamous relationships, feelings of jealousy are commonly experienced by those who practice polyamory. Unless agreements and commitments between partners have been violated, feelings of jealousy typically indicate an individual’s insecurity, inability to
trust, or lack of self-esteem. Polyamorous individuals are encouraged to process through feelings of jealousy and grow emotionally from the experience. The ability to do so, however, is a learned, ongoing skill and is usually more successful with the support of a skilled therapist or friends.

Because the Western world is couple-centric and values monogamy, polyamorous individuals often remain closeted or go through a “coming out” process as they accept their own desires and communicate those to others. Polyamorous individuals are often stigmatized as promiscuous, self-centered, irresponsible, and unable to commit, thus experiencing an emotional toll. It is important for polyamorous individuals to find a supportive therapist and community to help deal with and minimize the stigma of multipartner relations.

SEE ALSO: Safer sex

Suggested Reading

  • Anapol, D. M. (1997). Polyamory: The new love without limits. San Rafael, CA: IntiNet Resource Center.
  • Easton, D., & Catherine, L. (1997). The ethical slut. San Francisco: Greenery Press.
  • Matik, W. O. (2002). Redefining our relationships: Guidelines for responsible open relationships. Oakland, CA: Defiant Times Press.

West, C. (1996). Lesbian polyfidelity. San Francisco: Booklegger.



  • Polyamory Women


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