Polyamory, meaning "many loves," can be defined as the practice of having or pursuing multiple romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved. Falling into the category of ethical nonmonogamy, polyamory is becoming increasingly recognized as a relationship style, although monogamy is generally still the norm in many cultures.
Many of those who pursue polyamorous relationships find them to be fulfilling, and when challenges arise, a therapist or other mental health professional may often be able to help committed partners navigate polyamory and other nonmonogamous relationship styles.
In many cultures, monogamy is still upheld as the ideal structure for committed relationships, but nonmonogamous relationship styles are increasingly being recognized as a valid choice for some individuals. Monogamous cultures tend to support the ideas of soul mates, true love, and marriage as the ultimate goal of all committed relationships. In an idealized version of this model, people generally engage in romantic relationships in order to find one person to spend the future with, believing once that person is found, they will no longer desire to seek out other relationships.
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Nonmonogamy typically should be an informed choice, not something a person pursues only at the request of a partner. While people become aware of their own desire for or tendency toward nonmonogamy in a variety of ways, it is generally considered to be unhealthy when individuals embark upon a nonmonogamous relationship without choosing it for themselves. Polyamorous or open relationships may have different rules regarding information shared between partners about other relationships, but most exist on the basis that some information about each relationship will be shared, for reasons of safety, consent, and trust.
Some pursue an open relationship or choose to share partners out of the desire to experience casual intimacy with a variety of people. Others find they experience love and affection for multiple people at the same time, and they may feel unhappy or stifled when in a monogamous relationship. For many, polyamory may be an unalterable aspect of identity, not a phase or a temporary lifestyle while waiting for "the right one" to come along.
Infidelity is not considered to be a form of polyamory. Though some polyamorous or open relationships may have different rules regarding the information shared between partners about their other relationships, most exist on the basis that some information about each relationship will be shared, for reasons of safety, consent, and trust.
An ethical, nonmonogamous relationship may take many forms:
- Swinging refers to the pursuit of recreational sex outside of a marriage or committed relationship. Generally, both partners in the relationship will pursue sex with members of other committed partnerships. Friendship and/or love may develop, but in general, this type of nonmonogamy does not focus on the development of a relationship.
- An open relationship is a committed relationship in which one or both partners (with the knowledge and consent of both) pursue sexual intimacy outside of the relationship. These sexual encounters may be casual hookups, friends-with-benefits relationships, and so on. Though one couple's definition of an open relationship may differ from another couple's definition, generally an open relationship differs from polyamory in that the committed relationship is the core relationship and outside encounters are more casual. Other understandings may include relationships where partners are committed to each other romantically but are not sexually intimate, for whatever reason. One or both partners may be free to pursue casual sex or friends-with-benefits relationships outside the committed partnership.
- Polyamory is the practice of embracing romantic love with more than one partner at the same time. Important tenets of polyamory—and all other relationship styles—are respect, honesty, consent, and trust. Philosophies and relationship styles often vary, although in general terms, polyamorous relationships involve commitment to multiple partners. Some polyamorous relationships may prioritize one relationship, such as a marriage, but others avoid prioritization and focus attention equally on all partners.
- Polyfidelity describes a closed relationship involving more than two people. This may be a triad or a quad, for example. Those in the system are committed and exclusive to each other.
Because polyamory largely exists outside social norms, many individuals are private about their relationships, not wishing to experience discrimination or intrusive questions. Polyamory and other forms of nonmonogamy may be as natural to some people as monogamy feels to others, though any type of relationship may be tested at times. Nonmonogamous relationships may be challenged by the same issues occurring in monogamous relationships and also by unique situations particular to nonmonogamy.
- Jealousy may often arise as an issue in nonmonogamous relationships. One partner in a committed relationship may desire attention from a partner who has plans with another individual, for example. Jealousy is often inevitable, but those in nonmonogamous partnerships are often able to develop ways to address and work through it in a healthy and open way.
- Time available to spend with partners may be limited by jobs, children, household responsibilities, and so on. This may make scheduling dates and intimacy difficult, and complications may in some cases lead to conflict.
- Society's assumptions of monogamy may marginalize polyamorous relationships and further the stigma surrounding them. Assuming individuals who are polyamorous are simply pursuing sex or a temporary thrill can be harmful. Polyamory, simply put, is a valid and legitimate relationship style. It may be natural to some and may not work for others.
- Rules are often essential components of polyamorous relationships. Some monogamous relationships may operate with understood or explicitly stated rules, such as, "Having sex outside our relationship would be cheating." However, in a polyamorous relationship, rules and boundaries—when established for the right reasons—can help define the relationship and make partners feel safer. For example, many couples may have some variation of the following rule: "We have a conversation about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) with each new partner and get tested once a year."
- When one partner begins dating someone new, the beginning stages of the relationship, which often include excitement, anxiety, and new thrills, may have a negative impact on the other partner. In some cases, this partner may feel hurt, neglected, or worry about being replaced. Communication, honesty, and in some cases couples counseling can help committed partners address this.
Polyamory has recently received significant attention, both in the news and the media. Showtime’s Polyamory: Married and Dating highlights the lives of a polyamorous triad and two married couples who move in together as a polyamorous foursome. A number of books offer advice on polyamory. One such book, The Ethical Slut, is considered by many to be a helpful guide and a good starting place for those who choose to pursue polyamorous relationships.
Due to the recognition of polyamory as a legitimate relationship style, people may be increasingly likely to identify as polyamorous. People in polyamorous relationships may raise children together, and married people may make additional long-term commitments to lovers to whom they are not married. Dating sites such as OKCupid feature selective filters for nonmonogamous relationships, and many individuals use these sites to find friends and potential partners. Although polyamory is becoming more accepted, one challenge to the way it is viewed is the lack of inclusion of people of color, whether in the media, research studies, or in events and groups. People of color often report feeling othered or fetishized at polyamory events or in groups, and this marginalization may lead others to be reluctant to join communities that do not seem diverse or welcoming. Thus, many individuals may feel excluded from a lifestyle natural to them.
Because plural marriage is not legal in the United States, polyamory has an ambiguous legal standing. Laws generally do not specifically prohibit sexual relationships with more than one person; however, adultery is still grounds for divorce in most states. Thus, married people who are polyamorous may be violating their state’s terms of marriage even if they have chosen different terms for their marriage, and this aspect of polyamorous relationships may provide the potential for complications. Other complications and possible conflicts may arise when partners in a polyamorous relationship raise children together but not all partners have legal rights to the child or children.
A couples counselor may be able to help individuals navigate the beginnings of a nonmonogamous relationship, and therapy may be a safe place for many individuals to discuss their goals for and concerns regarding a nonmonogamous relationship. Many therapists may be able to offer counseling services in these areas, but an increasing number of mental health professionals specialize in addressing the challenges of a polyamorous relationship, and their services may be particularly beneficial to some individuals.
Partners who remain committed to each other but also wish to explore intimacy or relationships with other individuals may find therapy a safe and positive place to begin discussion of this topic. Partners who wish to remain committed to each other while exploring intimacy or relationships with other individuals may find therapy a safe and positive place to begin discussing this topic.
Issues that may be particular to nonmonogamous partnerships include:
- Boundary navigation
- The potential for jealousy
- Safe sex practices
- Communication skills
- Feelings of inadequacy or neglect
Some people may find that, despite their interest, a polyamorous lifestyle is not for them. Therapy can help one arrive at and clarify this realization and may also provide a supportive place for an individual to discuss this with a partner.
- Interest in polyamorous lifestyle threatens partnership: Eliza, 29, and Morton, 28, seek out a couples counselor who specializes in nonmonogamous relationships. Both Eliza and Morton are interested in opening up their partnership, but they have different ideas about how to pursue an open relationship. Eliza is heterosexual, while Morton is pansexual, and he states his desire to pursue casual or friendly sexual encounters with any individual to whom he is attracted. Eliza is supportive of Morton's orientation and encourages this. However, she tells the therapist, she is not interested in casual sexual encounters. Based on her relationship history, she knows that she has the capacity to love more than one person at the same time, and she wishes to pursue men in the hopes of making other romantic connections, while remaining committed to Morton. Morton expresses his frustration and discomfort with this, telling the therapist he does not believe he has the capacity to care for other people in the same way he cares for Eliza. He thought Eliza was satisfied with his role in their partnership and he feels threatened by her professed interest in other men. In therapy, the two work to set up boundaries for their relationship as they begin to pursue other intimate connections and, with the help of the therapist, explore ways to show and reinforce their commitment to each other and their relationship. They each make goals for themselves: Eliza, to communicate her feelings about others clearly and share with Morton her attraction or interest in another, and Morton, to trust Eliza's commitment to him and the life they have built together. They decide to continue in therapy as needed in order to address and work through any concerns—such as jealousy, resentment, or miscommunication—as they arise.
- Addressing the challenges of parenting while in a polyamorous relationship: Joni, 32, and Hallie, 38, enter family therapy with their mutual partner, Oscar, 35, and their son, Marcus, 9. They report no issues affecting the family dynamic but express the desire to talk through issues that may arise as they continue to raise a child as a polyamorous triad. Joni is Marcus' biological mother, and Oscar is his father. Joni and Hallie are legally married, and the three consider Marcus to be equally parented by all three adults. One issue they bring to therapy is how Marcus will explain the relationship in school and to his friends, if doing so becomes necessary. Marcus tells the therapist that he thinks his parents' relationship is "fine" because "they all love each other, and they love me," but the adults worry that in a few years, his views will change, and they want him to grow up accepting and tolerant of relationships that exist outside social norms. Although Joni, Hallie, and Oscar express mutual happiness and satisfaction with the relationship, they also discuss what might happen if one or more of them wishes to leave the partnership, exploring ways to prevent any negative impact on Marcus. The therapist helps them address these issues and gives each of them a chance to voice their thoughts and concerns, and they decide to continue periodically in therapy to discuss any areas of concern, in order to prevent possible conflicts before they arise.
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