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Polyamory: Assumptions vs. Reality
Part of Come (Out) as You Are’s loosely coined “identities 101” series.
Polyamory, though common in times past, seems to be making a comeback in the modern era as an emerging intimate lifestyle. Let’s backtrack and recount some of its specifics and misunderstandings that have arisen as a result of today’s media.
Introduction to polyamory
Stemming from Ancient Greek’s πολλοί (polloí) “many,” and Latin amor “love,” polyamory is the practice of, or desire for, romantic relationships with more than one partner at the same time. With this comes recurring common values of love, intimacy, honesty, integrity, equality, communication and commitment.
According to Psychology Today, it is said that about 1 in 20 Americans are currently in a polyamorous relationship. Also known as “consensual (or ethical) nonmonagamy,” polyamory is sometimes confused for polygamy, which is being married to more than one person at the same time, and is specifically involving marriage to multiple people of the opposite gender.
Polyamorous relationships can come in several forms of being open or exclusive. They don’t always involve marriage, organization or has to be sexual in nature, but they can. A closed polyamorous relationship is usually referred to as “polyfidelity.”
While stigmas remain about polyamorous relationships, it is oftentimes practiced privately and may even be kept from close friends and family, the Psychology Today article noted. At least one in four polyamorous individuals have experienced discrimination, according to Loving More.
PsychCentral notes four of the most common polyamorous relationship structues as:
Polyfidelity. This is where the partners in a group agree not to have sexual or romantic relationships with people who are not in the group.
Triad. This involves three people who are all dating one another, also called a throuple.
Quad. Similar to a triad, a quad is a relationship involving four people who are all dating one another.
Vee (or “V”). This is where one person is dating two different people, but those two people are not dating one another.
In addition to this, polyamorous relationships can also be hierarchical or non-hierarchical.
“In polyamory, a ‘hierarchy’ means one relationship is prioritized above others. For instance, you might be married and consider that your ‘primary relationship,’ while your other relationships are seen as secondary,” PsychCentral’s article reads.
Solo polyamory includes people who don't have primary partnerships but date multiple people. They remain mostly independent in their personal lives.
Polyfidelity refers to a group of three or more people who have a committed relationship with each other and do not date outside of the group.
Hierarchical polyamory means people who have primary partnerships to which they devote the most time and attention, and secondary and tertiary partnerships that receive less time and attention. The primary partner may have more power over important decisions.
Non-hierarchical polyamory refers to people who don’t have a hierarchy of partners. It is also called egalitarian polyamory or relationship anarchy. Each partner may receive equal time and attention. They may also have equal input on important life choices.
A brief history of polyamory
Polyamorous relationships, as mentioned previously, has been prevalent in other societies worldwide, dating back to B.C.E. As such, it’s been “reincarnated” or reimagined in several cultures.
The Maudern identifies common instances of “concubines,” or women recognized as sexual partners to a man of higher power or upper class in the ancient world. For example, “In ancient Greece, Rome, China, Mongolia, and Japan, powerful men were likely to have concubines, who were expected to bear them offspring,” The Maudern article reads.
“That’s not to say that concubines couldn’t ever be elevated to equal footing – Wu Zetian was a concubine in China who, after the death of two subsequent husbands, became the only empress of the country, ruling from 690 until her death in 705.”
In Islam, polygamy is permitted with limitations.
“It’s acceptable for men to have up to four wives, but it is not permitted for a woman to have several spouses,” The Maudern’s article reads. “However, polygamy isn’t widely practiced—and it’s not necessarily encouraged, either. On the topic, the Qu’ran says, ‘If you feel you may not be able to deal justly between them, then marry only one.’”
In the U.S., despite its laws, polygamy was recognized as a doctrine in the Mormon faith in 1843.
“Although the church disavowed it in 1890, some fundamentalists still follow the tradition (there’s even a whole TLC reality show to prove it),” the Maudern article continued. “While leaders within the religion can sometimes have upwards of 20 wives, more commonly, they’ll have two or three—either because they’re devoted to the original teachings of the church, they aim to have a big family, or a combination of those motivating factors.”
Polyamory didn’t hit America’s mainstream until the 1960s and ‘70s during the “free love” movement and sexual revolution in California, which was then known as “group marriage.” The term “polyfidelity” was also coined around this time by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco.
And since the sexual revolution, polyamory has emerged in TV and the media since the 1980s:
Starfire (also known as Princess Koriand’r), published by DC Comics, debuted in 1980 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. Starfire was known to be polyamorous being raised in the world of Tamaran “where it was acceptable to have an open marriage.”
Futurama’s “A Taste of Freedom” episode, 2002, and also in the show’s film “The Beast with a Billion Backs” featured two polyamorous characters, Colleen O’Hallahan and Yivo.
The 2010 TV show “Caprica” identifies several main characters that appear to be in a polyfidelitous-style marriage.
A webcomic from 2015 to 2017 entitled “Always Human” by Ari North shows a polyamorous relationship with the main character’s parents.
The hit TV show “Steven Universe” shows Fluorite as a polyamorous being, “a fusion of six different gems into one being, with fusion as the physical manifestation of a relationship.”
A 2018 Louis Theroux documentary “Love Without Limits” features several couples in Portland, Oregon who are in polyamorous relationships.
Eight-part BBC series “Trigonometry” began in 2020 and features a couple welcoming a third into their relationship.
Common assumptions of polyamory
As was mentioned before, being polyamorous comes with occurrences of disrespect and misunderstanding by the general public. While in some cases these do happen, most times it is nothing but an assumption.
“Polyamory is just cheating”
Referring back to polyfidelity, polyamorous relationships stem from a continued conversation between all partners. The semantics of a group may vary from being completely open to quite exclusive, by the consent of all members.
“Polyamorists are just avoidant or afraid of commitment”
On the contrary, polyamorous folks are committed to multiple partners and prefer it that way.
“Polyamorous relationships don’t have true intimacy”
As previously mentioned, they don’t have to be intimate. Some polyamorous relationships are purely romantic.
“Polyamorous people don’t get jealous”
Jealousy is common in all relationships, intimate, romantic or platonic. If this is the case among a polyamorous relationship, it always narrows down to being open and communicative with everyone about your feelings.
“Parents having multiple partners is damaging for their children”
Take a look at this family who introduced their kids to a live-in partner. After going to family-friendly poly events, the children were fairly normalized to the idea of having more than one partner. This particular relationship is a “V,” where one person switches between two partners, and the other two are not together.
“Parenting while polyamorous might seem complicated, but having multiple adults in the house while raising children is actually a dream come true,” the Insider article reads. “Someone is always around to watch the kids, and there are plenty of people to do chores, especially since my kids are older. We each have our "specialties" — I like to create meal plans and cook, Ty manages laundry. Daniel does the dishes, [kid 1] takes out the trash and [kid 2] feeds the pets.”
“Polyamorous people just want a lot of sex”
Please read “polyamorous relationships don’t have true intimacy.”
Aside from common misconceptions about polyamory, they also come with its struggles. Psych Central notes both time and energy constraints as common as involved partners in a polyamorous relationship requires a division of oneself to others more than normally seen in a monogamous one.
Another common misconception of polyamorous folks is the confusion of them with “swingers,” which are those “who are married or in a long-term relationship and who like to have sex with other people’s partners.” While poly folks can be intimate, swingers oftentimes are attracted to “the novelty of an unfamiliar partner.”
Legal aspects of polyamory and recognized resources
Polyamory is not legally identified as an orientation in the western world, and in some states it is even outlawed. However, it’s rarely enforced.
For poly folks who would like some additional help on their journey, here’s a list of recognized nonprofits and organizations specifically for polyamory:
The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA), founded in 2009.
The Organization for Polyamory and Ethical Non-monogamy (OPEN) was founded in the United States in 2022 as “a nonprofit organization dedicated to normalizing and empowering non-monogamous individuals and communities.”
The Polyamory Action Lobby (PAL) was founded in 2013 in Australia to fight cultural misconceptions about polyamorous people and to fight for their legal rights.
The Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition (PLAC), based in the United States, "seeks to advance the civil and human rights of polyamorous individuals, communities, and families through legislative advocacy, public policy, and public education."
Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) was founded in 2001. It "has as its mission to serve the Unitarian Universalist Association and the community of polyamorous people within and outside the UUA by providing support, promoting education, and encouraging spiritual wholeness regarding polyamory."
How to safely explore polyamory
WebMD explained briefly too how polyamorous folks can approach a partner about opening the relationship.
“If you already have a partner, the first step towards establishing a polyamorous relationship is to talk to your partner about it. If you are nervous about bringing it up, you may want to gauge their interest in or knowledge of the topic by:
Inviting them to watch a movie with a polyamorous situation
Asking them what they think about polyamorous people you both know
Asking them their thoughts about a non-monogamous celebrity
Sending them an article about polyamory”