Polyamory in a Monogamist World

Group of three walking to beachWe live in a culture that prioritizes and glamorizes monogamy. This is most clearly visible in the importance that we give to marriage. Not only is it expected to be a lifetime goal, but it carries with it state and federal benefits. However, monogamy is only one way to structure a relationship.

Many people have found they flourish in a relationship structure that stretches beyond traditional monogamy. This can mean many different things for different people. Some terms used to describe alternative relationship structures are polyamory, open relationship, open marriage, non-monogamy, and polygamy. Each of these structures is different, but they all share the concept of being romantically linked with more than one person at the same time.

Questions About Practicing Polyamory

I teach a human sexuality class at a college in Philadelphia. My students are often diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion. Every semester, I have a guest speaker come in and talk about polyamory. He defines polyamory for the students as “the desire, practice, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”

I enjoy the opportunity to learn from him and to see the reactions from students in my class. Some people respond with openness and curiosity; they want to know more about polyamory and what kinds of benefits and drawbacks come with it. Some students are defensive and incredulous; polyamory falls outside their value systems. And almost all of them respond quickly, either expressing their own shame or shaming others. How could you tell your friends and family? Wouldn’t you face a lot of discrimination?

This semester, a student pointedly asked the speaker, “What do your parents think?” What strikes me about this is how quickly the students go from exploring their own wants and needs to anticipating hostility and rejection from friends and family. Instead of questioning what it might feel like to be in this kind of relationship and exploring the feelings of excitement and curiosity that come up in the room, the question being explored is how to live with a stigmatized identity. Practicing polyamory in our culture is a radical act.

Living with an Identity Surrounded by Stigma

This feeling of shame and navigating stigma has frequently been expressed by people I have worked with who are in polyamorous relationships. With a polyamorous relationship come all of the challenges that accompany living with any identity that is not culturally sanctioned. This includes coming out to oneself, family, and community. It also includes experiencing institutional discrimination in the workplace, school, or within a religious community. Lastly, it includes the day-to-day experience of having your identity invalidated by the mainstream media and popular culture. This invalidation can be found in punch lines on television shows that glorify monogamy and demonize polyamory, in reality shows that tokenize and fetishize non-monogamous relationships, and in movies that typically only show monogamous couples. The message is clear: being polyamorous is not a valid relationship structure.

It can be even more frustrating to acknowledge and make visible this type of discrimination because we don’t have a term for it. Unlike homophobia or racism, it’s difficult to name because it doesn’t have a name. However, the experience of this discrimination can lead to feelings of loneliness and shame. This shame isn’t about the individual’s own value system, but about the messages that he or she is getting from society about his or her relationship structure.

In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, researcher Brené Brown talks about shame, the importance of vulnerability, and combating shame—something she calls “shame resilience.” Her first element of shame resilience is recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Shame itself can be connected to many different parts of ourselves and take many forms. In the context of utilizing shame resilience to shift the shame of living in an alternative relationship structure, recognizing shame and understanding its triggers can be a way to begin to expose the unrelenting messages about monogamy and polyamory that proliferate in our culture. I’ve worked with people who can’t figure out why they feel so guilty until they begin to recognize the messages they are getting that invalidate their identity.

This is the step that begins to build a language to talk about what is happening, and this language can be an empowering tool. It can take an internal experience and connect it to an external event. Suddenly the issue can go from “I am a bad person” to “Someone is telling me I’m a bad person. Do I really want to believe them? How much does their opinion matter to me? What do I really believe?” This process makes the feeling of shame and oppression something that can be understood not as a personal failing, but as the result of a message from somewhere else that may or may not be consistent with your own belief system.

Polyamory is a valid alternative relationship structure, and as with other alternative identities in our culture, people who practice polyamory may find themselves affected by oppression and discrimination. Recognizing and naming this experience as caused by an external force—instead of perceiving it as an internal failure—can be one tool toward healthier relationships.

Reference:

  1. Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Gotham Book: New York.

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  • Jo

    April 2nd, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    How can this be the definition of another style of healthy relationship? I could never be with someone who was not fully committed to me and only me.

  • KL

    April 2nd, 2013 at 10:49 PM

    Just because this wouldn’t be a healthy model for you does not mean it’s not a healthy relationship model for other folks. My sweetheart and I have been together for over 13 years and are not monogamous. We also have one of the healthiest relationships I see. For us, this works best. For therapists to be more familiar and comfortable with poly relationships would be great. Sometimes can get all caught up on the poly relationship when that is not the thing the client actually needs to address.

  • Dave

    April 2nd, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    I disagree with the above comment, and agree with the article. Monogamy is a great lifestyle choice for many, many people, but it’s not for everyone. Our culture certainly rewards monogamy in many ways, but really, as an evolutionary adaptation, it’s only useful when kids are little, and as a cultural institution, it worked great when parents died at 35 or 40. In the modern world where we live until 85 and are sexually active until 70+, it no longer reflects our natural tendencies. It’s still useful, and it still feels like the best and most natural choice for many of us–myself included–but I’ve had many poly clients whose issues were not about polyamory. These folks don’t need to be talked out of their choices, but rather, they need to be supported and educated in how to integrate polyamory into a lifestyle and culture that expects monogamy. My own experience is that few couples find polyamory easy, and that’s why they need qualified therapists who don’t pathologize them. They need therapists who understand the pitfalls and the benefits of a poly lifestyle, and who can help them develop coping, relationship, and social skills that support their lifestyle, rather than telling them that they need to be like everyone else or they’re unhealthy.

  • vincent

    April 2nd, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    monogamy, polygamy, or polyamory – what the person next to me does is none of my business. but if he is in-my-face and talks about his polyamory (or whatever else) all the time then don’t call me an anti-polyamorist (I made that one up) if I punch him in the face.

  • Jo

    April 3rd, 2013 at 4:29 AM

    @ Dave- so you would seriously be okay with your wife or girlfriend coming to you and saying that you are great and all, and they want you around, but they just need a litte something else that you can’t give them? I think that most of us would be open minded until it actually hit home and then we would have a very different viewpoint.

  • Webmistress

    April 3rd, 2013 at 7:39 PM

    @Jo, we do that all the time. We don’t expect our partners to eliminate the need for all our relationships – friends, family, children, our careers. In fact, that kind of behavior is considered pathological on both sides of the equation. When we have a second child, no one expects us to stop loving the first one. Every other person in our lives has that something we need that our partner can’t give us. And that’s ok.

    Ironically, it’s the non-monogamous people that are *not* making sex and affection into the most important element of their relationship with their partner(s)…

    Yep, the man I love to bits has a girlfriend, and she’s a cool lady. They are very good for each other… but then, I’m prejudiced, I feel that my honey#1 would be wonderful for anybody :-). I have another important long term relationship, too. It’s simple when you, deep down to your toes, know that people are *not* interchangeable.

  • Michael Smith

    April 3rd, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    Omg. I am surprised at the ignorance of the first two replies. The first person doesn’t recognize that others choices can be valid, and the other would punch someone..in the face, really? for talking about it.. why can’t you just ask them to not talk about it? Hmm. Also just thought the word polygamophobic would work as a word for what poly people face. I think we need to respect others choices who aren’t hurting people and are consenting adults. Personally, I would have trouble with the lifestyle, yet this is my own choice or maybe hangup and issue with jealousy. I’ve heard historians say that Most of our history as humans has in fact Been polygamous, and even now we are only serial monogamists. Few people are only with one person, which is what monogamy means. Even with kids, it takes a village as they say.. so to the idea that monogamy is better for kids.. well, you may research that and be surprised to discover a village probably raises better kids. That’s possibly why we were not monogamous apparently. In this country we are supposed to be ok with having different opinions.. without getting punched in the face.

  • Annalisa

    April 4th, 2013 at 3:08 AM

    Vincent said “what the person next to me does is none of my business. but if he is in-my-face and talks about his polyamory (or whatever else) all the time then don’t call me an anti-polyamorist (I made that one up) if I punch him in the face.”

    Do you not see how this is exactly like people saying “I don’t care if someone is gay, but why do they have to flaunt it?” (by, for example, wanting to hold hands with a partner or introduce the person to family)? This is a terribly bigoted comment and the fact that you feel VIOLENCE is an appropriate response to someone TALKING is shocking.

    Jo, you certainly don’t have to be polyamorous, but allow me to clear up a few misconceptions. Polyamory is not about someone not being “enough.” Do you have more than one friend? Did you tell your best friend “I like you and all, but you aren’t enough for me?” Do parents who have a second child love the first child less and feel he wasn’t enough?

    And trust me, I am totally committed to both my husband and my boyfriend. I fail to see why only having sex with or only loving one person is a sign of “total commitment.” Commitment is about caring for a person in times of trouble, thinking about their needs, and having an ongoing relationship with them. That is completely possible with multiple people (parents, friends, children, coworkers, why not partners?).

    Your assumptions are common, but simply wrong.

  • Ginny

    April 4th, 2013 at 5:18 AM

    I really appreciated this article. I’ve been in a polyamorous relationship for three years and all the hardest things about it have come from outside: from family, friends, and media who question how the life I’ve chosen can possibly be moral or healthy. One of the worst things about it is that I don’t feel I can share struggles or frustrations I’m having in my relationships with most people, because I know they will use any struggles I have as a reason to attack the validity of my relationship style. I feel as if people are looking for any reason to say, “See? Polyamory can’t work” … whereas if I was in a monogamous relationship having the same level of problems, people would just nod sympathetically and say, “Yeah, relationships are hard sometimes, but they’re worth it.”

    Last year I had a wedding ceremony with my primary partner. It was a joyful time for us, and our other partners were there with us and happy to be celebrating our love and commitment. However, many of my friends and family took our engagement announcement as an opportunity to express how much they disapproved of our relationship style. Several of my oldest friends said they wouldn’t be there because they felt it would be wrong. The first thing my father did when I called to tell him we were engaged was to lecture me on how strange and wrong he thought polyamory was. My brother got engaged (in a monogamous relationship) a little after I did, and I had to watch my parents throw tons of effort, planning, and enthusiasm into preparing for his wedding, while I wasn’t sure they would even come to mine. It’s almost impossible not to internalize this kind of rejection and invalidation. I became mildly depressed in the aftermath of all this, and while I’m used to being very open about my personal life and struggles, I felt I couldn’t talk openly about my depression because so many of my friends would interpret it as proof that polyamory was making me unhappy: when in fact, it was their rejection and stigmatizing contributing heavily to it. I’m much happier now, thanks to the support of my poly family and my few monogamous friends I could trust to respect my choices the same way I respect theirs.

  • Mandi

    April 4th, 2013 at 8:30 AM

    @ Jo – It’s not about ‘a little something else’ , and it’s not about one partner being ‘not enough’ either. It is about what fits. What fits for me and mine may not fit for you. I am poly, and have been with my husband for almost six years, and I have a boyfriend. Our lifestyle fits us rather nicely. My husband doesn’t feel threatened by my boyfriend, nor does my boyfriend feel weird about my husband. They are actually great friends. I will agree with you that the ‘hitting home’ thing can happen, and my husband was monogamous when we met. I happened to be in a long term relationship with another woman at the time, and he had an adjustment period. We have no secrets, we don’t hide and we try very hard not to hurt each others feelings. Everyone needs to come to an agreement no matter what dynamic the relationships take. Everyone on the same page. That’s how it works for us. I would never presume to think that it would work the same way for anyone else.

    @Dave; kudos. I was in therapy years ago for PTSD and my relationship status came up, I was unbelievably relieved to find a ‘poly-friendly’ therapist. With the focus NOT on my choice of partners, it allowed me to get to the root of the issues I REALLY needed to deal with. She was just more concerned that was I was cultivating healthy relationships, than the fact that I happened to have a number of people intimately in my life, and everyone was fine with it.

  • Nicholas Hoover

    April 8th, 2013 at 1:10 PM

    Anyone looking for more support look for groups on Meetup.com for poly support groups. Many major cities have one. I am also part of 3 facebook groups of 200+ people that are local and polyamorous (they’re all private though.)

  • Steve M.

    March 3rd, 2015 at 11:00 AM

    Anyone who lives a “non-traditional lifestyle” faces potential repercussions, regardless of what form it takes. I am and have been a nudist long before I became interested in polyamory. I am also actively-involved in a conservative Presbyterian church. Being a nudist doesn’t go over very well with most Christians, but I have learned the hard-lesson that I don’t need to be “validated” by other people or my church. I am not a “closet-nudist”, but neither do I shout is from the roof-tops. I would never deny it, but I don’t talk about it in the “wrong-company”. I know who is “nudist-friendly” and who isn’t.

    The same would be true if I were to develop a polyamorous relationship. My friends wouldn’t understand, but they don’t need to know. I am in a Polyamory meetup group, so I do have an understanding support-system.

    The more we move away from needing “validation” from those around us, the easier it becomes to be ourselves, and to make our own decisions about how we are going to live our lives. I was a “clone” of society for far too long, doing what society expected of me, but now I am who and what I am, and I don’t need anyone’s permission.

  • jessica

    March 3rd, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    “What strikes me about this is how quickly the students go from exploring their own wants and needs to anticipating hostility and rejection from friends and family. Instead of questioning what it might feel like to be in this kind of relationship and exploring the feelings of excitement and curiosity that come up in the room, the question being explored is how to live with a stigmatized identity.”

    This was a powerful quote – glad I ran across it. This quote applies to me in many things in my life that I want to do but don’t out of fear. It is an important reminder how often we let what we anticipate others will say – especially those “closest” to us – can stop us from doing what makes us happy.

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