Modern day relationships are changing quickly, and it can become difficult for couples or individuals to find themselves amid the wash of new terms, identities, and manifestations of affection that have been emerging over the past decade. In many ways, these new attitudes about sex and connections could be considered the logical endpoint of the individualism that lies in the fabric of American culture. Polyamory is one such orientation that may be particularly jarring or confusing because of the way it vacates the traditional relationship structure with which so many have been comfortable with for so long.
Still, it remains an attractive choice for a growing number of people. Others, who may or may not be interested themselves, may not yet fully understand the dynamics of polyamory. But it’s worth knowing, whether one part of a couple is considering it or is just plain curious about this growing subset of society.
Here are 6 questions worth asking about polyamory:
1. How Does It Differ From Monogamy?
It’s the most basic query out there, but it’s also the necessary starting point for exploring the subject. The answer is in the root of the word. “Poly” versus “mono.” One versus many. Whereas monogamy is a romantic — and usually sexual — relationship between a pair of individuals, polyamory is a committed, consensual relationship between more than two individuals. As explained by More Than Two, “A polyamorous relationship is a romantic relationship where the people in the relationship agree that it’s okay for everyone to be open to or have other romantic partners.”
2. Isn’t That Just Cheating?
In short, no, for several reasons. The idea of “cheating” in monogamy implies a breach of an emotional contract — partners have promised to be exclusive and then at least one of them has broken that promise. No such contract is broken in polyamorous relationships because the emotional contract itself includes more than just two people. This is also why polyamorous relationships are different from open relationships. The latter generally has to do with extra-relationship casual sex. The former is romantic in nature. Loving More, a polyamory nonprofit, explains, “The point of polyamory is not secrecy but openness… acting with caring and integrity, and sharing the love.”
3. What Are the Boundaries of This Kind of Relationship?
The answer to this question is obviously predicated upon the conditions set by the people in a particular relationship, but it is nevertheless important to understand that polyamorous relationships do have boundaries. According to More Than Two, they do not function as a free-for-all, nor are they intended to be one:
Some poly relationships, called “polyfidelity” relationships, have rules not much different from a traditional monogamous relationship, only there are more than two people involved…nobody in the relationship may take an “outside” lover, just as neither partner in a monogamous relationship is allowed to have an outside lover; if you do, it’s cheating.
4. What Constitutes Sex in Polyamory?
Some might question the extent to which a polyamorous relationship is really as sexually open as people say. The definition and act of sex are, of course, another thing that is heavily dependent on the individual. But polyamorous relationships are as sexually active (or not) as monogamous ones are. There is no special classification of sex for the poly community.
5. What About Jealousy, Given There Are So Many People Involved?
Well, considering polyamorous people are the same as anybody else, jealousy does come into play — just as it might in any relationship. Also, like any other healthy, functioning relationship, jealousy is dealt with through personal improvement and good communication. Untempered jealousy has the power to harm any relationship. Polyamorous ones are no different in that respect. Dedeker Winston, author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, writes extensively about the idea of jealousy and how it can, avoidably, impact polyamorous relationships.
Though transforming jealousy is mostly an internal process, there is much to be gained by sharing it with others…It can be embarrassing to open up to moments of jealousy, insecurity, and vulnerability, but sharing the lessons and insights you’ve gained with your partners allows them to understand even more of you and what makes you tick.
It can happen, but it’s a moment for growth.
6. How Do I Know I’m Not Just Dissatisfied With My Old Relationship?
It’s a tough question to answer. But if you’ve gotten this far and you (and maybe your partner) find the idea of exploring polyamory attractive, it’s worth asking. Polyamory is not escapism. It’s not a scattershot coping mechanism for moments when a single romantic involvement is unsatisfying. That would imply a lesser status on the part of each individual connection within a polyamorous union. As mentioned earlier, polyamory is also not an outlet for sexual dissatisfaction. That’s an open relationship, or maybe a trip to see Fifty Shades Darker if you’re in need of some big-budget inspiration. Polyamory is intimacy with multiple partners. True, it’s not for everyone. But, Loving More says, “For many, the necessary level of honesty, self-knowledge, and sensitivity to their partners’ deepest desires brings more intimacy than they ever experienced in monogamy.”Photos via Getty Images / Justin Setterfield