Being Open About Polyamory

Berries in heart shaped bowlMost of the couples who walk into my office are monogamous, or at least aspire to have a one-on-one relationship. But some people believe that wedding vows or other exclusive agreements heap a host of unrealistic expectations on marriage.

“Open marriage” has become a term of the past—now such people usually refer to their preference for “polyamory,” meaning “many loves.” Coined in the early 1990s, “polyamory,” or “poly” for short, provides a way for those who choose to have more than one lover to identify their lifestyle.

This may seem a long way from most people’s lives, but my local bookstore owner confirms that Catherine Liszt’s book on polyamory, Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, continues to sell, even in my relatively conservative neck of the woods!

Definitions of Polyamory
In my 30 years as a licensed therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and counsel quite a few poly folk. Before the internet, they would read articles I wrote and contact me based on my relatively (compared with most marriage therapists) progressive views about relationships and the different forms it can take. Now they usually come through a website called Kink Aware Professionals, which lists therapists nationwide who have experience and expertise with the alternative forms that relationships sometimes take.

But what about the TV series Big Love, about a middle-aged Latter Day Saint man who has several wives? (Forgive me if I’m wrong about the details—I watched one episode on a Netflix rental, since we don’t have cable.) Surely, someone asked me recently, people like these Mormons would not be considered “kinky?”

That of course, depends on your definition of “kink.” Advocates of polyamory would not see it that way at all. In 1973, Nena and George O’Neil, a pair of married anthropologists, published the classic Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples. In this book they critique the “outward manifestation of the clause in the closed marriage contract that calls for the two partners to be all things to one another, to fulfill all of one another’s needs—emotional, psychological, intellectual and physical,” which they call “couple-front.”

They disparage traditional marriages as “inward looking relationships…a type of bondage that requires husband and wife to turn off the outside world, and to turn on only to one another.” Perhaps this sounds even more extreme now than it did in 1973, when those of us old enough to remember were just emerging from the swinging and free-love sixties.

Different Forms of Polyamorous Relationships
New Jersey polyamorist John Wise has written about his 25-year open marriage to psychotherapist Nan Wise in the British magazine Eve. “The biggest misconception is that polyamory equals sexual promiscuity,” he says, but claims that this is not an aspect of their relationship. He explains that they frequently spend the night with other lovers, but they aren’t deceiving one another. They’re open about these extramarital sexual liaisons, and “our relationship remains full and satisfying.”

John and Nan Wise are in a primary-plus polyamorous relationship: their first commitment is to each other, but each has secondary relationships outside the marriage. This particular form of polyamory, has, in my clinical experience, been the type of arrangement that has the best chance of enduring, although I’m not sure why.

In the 2002 edition of The Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, my colleague Joy Davidson describes other forms of romantic arrangements that she has found working with polyamorous clients in the clinical setting. These include triads (three people in a committed relationship), individuals with multiple primary relationships, or group marriages where three or more people form a closely knit, intimate relationship system that is sexually exclusive within the group.

Perhaps the most challenging form that I have encountered is attempts by a  married couple to “swing,” while steering clear of deep infatuations that are viewed as threatening to the twosome. More than once I’ve seen these attempts break down when one person “falls in love” and declines to communicate with the primary partner about their true feelings.

The Benefits and Challenges of Polyamory
As Nan Wise points out, “It’s not a simple way to live. It’s for people who are very people-oriented and who love complexity.” A successful polyamorous relationship often involves more talk than sex, and jealousy remains a challenge for most polys. Wise does not recommend people try polyamory. “It’s a problem-creating lifestyle…[that] most people will not feel comfortable in.”

My advice? Don’t try this at home, unless of course you are sure this is the best and most life-giving way for you to live—in which case I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful time! If you’re not sure, find a trusted counselor to talk it over with so you can make wise decisions.

© Copyright 2010 by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CCS, therapist in Los Osos, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • bernard


    July 6th, 2010 at 11:21 AM

    Polyamory is a modern day reality and is something whose existence cannot be denied. There is just so much temptation out there to cheat and so much of medium to do the same. The temptation is just way too much!

    At least poly people are saying out their preference. It is much better than pretending to be very ‘one-person minded’ and then do just the opposite. Hypocrites!

  • T Martha

    T Martha

    July 6th, 2010 at 3:51 PM

    Polyamory is yet another invention of the society to approve of relationship with more than one person and I see it as a ploy to corrupt the society.Where has all the ‘one love forever’ gone?!

  • judy F

    judy F

    July 7th, 2010 at 2:36 AM

    ^^ at least its better than cheating on your partner and pretending to be ‘perfect’,isn’t it?!

  • Maggie


    July 7th, 2010 at 4:28 AM

    I have always had a difficult time with couples who want to explore this kind of intimacy with others. Why get married in the first place if you are not willing to commit to just one person? No one says that the marriage road is for everyone, so why not stay single and just date as many people as you want to? Then there is nothing wrong with it as long as you play it safe.

  • Moonkai


    March 10th, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    It is very difficult in our society to both strongly desire a poly relationship structure and to want a traditional family structure as well. I don’t think that the issue is commitment- Most poly people are perfectly capable of being monogamous in their actions, but it is a betrayal to their hearts. It’s not just about sleeping around. Poly acknowledges that a person may love more than one person at once, just like a person can have multiple friends. You just have to be sure that your reasons for pursuing a poly lifestyle are good ones- never do it because something is going wrong in your current relationship. Poly is really about an abundance of love shared amongst multiple people.

    I do urge anyone who is interested to read “The Ethical Slut”, even if you are completely monogamous- Catherine and Dossie are excellent writers and the book is full of great stories and explanations.

  • Bonnie


    November 17th, 2014 at 7:44 PM

    I have been with my boyfriend about 3 years now. I am really struggling accepting or getting used to our relationship. He has me and another woman that I have not met yet. I am really jealous and it’s hard being home knowing he is with her. I am wondering if anybody could point me to the right direction to get the help I need to have a happy and successful relationship. I love him and I want this to work and genuinely be happy.

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