New Perspectives on Polyamory

Polyamory is sometimes used as an umbrella term for consensual nonmonogamy or “open” relationships of a variety of types; other times it is more specifically defined as “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and free consent of everyone involved.” If you identify as polyamorous, a bit of Internet searching will uncover a wealth of communities — both virtual and local — for launching discussions of issues that arise in multiple relationships: how to deal with the prejudices and concerns of friends and family; how to manage jealousy; how to allocate resources of time, money, and even sexual energy; religious considerations; legal roadblocks; etc.

Linguistic inventions — such as the phrase “new relationship energy,” which is used to explain the intense focus often bestowed on a new lover or the word “spice,” used as a plural of “spouse” — aid polyamorous people with common personal and social challenges. Many individuals, however, do not identify as polyamorous, reject the term, or have never even heard of it. Still, their relationships may be arranged in such a way as they fit commonly used definitions: college students engaging in multiple “friends with benefits” relationships, certain divorced or “blended” families (think of the pictures of Ashton Kutcher/Demi Moore/Bruce Willis/Emma Heming on outings with the kids), or people who have formed long term open or triangular relationships but have no need or desire to hash out the details or trials of those relationships with a social network.

The past decade has brought a renewed interest in forms of nonmonogamy. As social psychologists Barker and Landridge point out in a their edited book on non-monogamies, there is an important move towards exploring the dynamics and implications of nonmonogamous or “polyamorous” relationships that does not pathologize participants (2009). Whereas individuals in consensually nonmonogamous relationships are sometimes treated with suspicion in both general and academic forums — as inherently promiscuous or as too immature to develop and maintain monogamous relationships, for example — there has been a recognition of the importance of understanding consensual nonmonogamy as a conscious and ethical decision that may be appropriate for certain people.

Some of the literature on open relationships is memoir or personal experience based (Block 2008); other books fall into the genre of self-help (Easton & Liszt 1997; Taormino 2007). While some researchers and writers champion the political implications of such new and expansive ways of intimately relating, arguing that polyamory may be better for the planet than monogamy (Anderlini-D’Onofrio 2009) or may somehow be a more enlightened manner of organizing love and sexuality (Kaldera 2005), some writers and practitioners choose to focus instead on the practical boons and difficulties that such relationships can bring. Recent academic research has questioned easy distinctions between monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships, as well as between categorizations of relationships such as swinging, polyamorous, “cheating,” or monogamous (Frank and DeLamater 2009), looked at the practicalities of poly parenting (Sheff 2009), and explored the negotiations and agreements used by lovers traversing this territory.

Now, is any of this really new? Undoubtedly, humans have always had the potential for multiple intimate relationships, despite widely held beliefs in the ideology of “one true love.” The complexities of love triangles, being “torn between two lovers,” and the maintenance of secret parallel relationships have long been fodder for literature and film, not to mention the drama of everyday life. And in different societies and time periods, political movements have questioned the social and religious privileging of monogamy, as have the actual sexual practices of couples — swinging, “dogging,” or group sex, for example. What may be novel about today’s experimenters — and even the seasoned practitioners of such social forms and lifestyles — is the relative ease of locating like-minded individuals, increased opportunities for congregation (conferences, lunch discussions, and happy hours) and the commodification that has accompanied these trends. One can attend a Loving More retreat, purchase (and fly) a polyamory flag, or buy a custom printed t-shirt at Café Press that reads: “I love my boyfriend… and his wife.” Many legal battles remain to be fought by individuals in consensually nonmonogamous relationships, and social stigma remains a lingering and problematic issue for anyone departing from intimate social norms. But just as our institutions are adjusting to handle the needs of same sex or divorced couples — much to the chagrin of conservative commentators — they may eventually adjust to handle the diversity of contemporary love.

Anderlini-D’Onofrio, Serena. (2009) Gaia and the new politics of love: Notes for a poly planet. North Atlantic Books.

Kaldera, Raven. (2005) Pagan Polyamory: Becoming a Tribe of Hearts. Llewellyn Publications

Sheff, Elisabeth. (2013) The Polyamorists Next Door.

Katherine Frank