Polyamory Lifestyle – Guide to
In its ideal form polyamory means 'to be involved in multiple loving, long-term sexual relationships, each of which is supported on a bed of open communications, honesty, and negotiation'. While to the layperson polyamory may sound like an easy way to have multiple partners, it is actually a fairly involved process with rules and responsibilities - just like any other loving relationship. If you're looking for Swinging, or a way to avoid intimacy, this certainly isn't it; there’s a lot more here than just sex.
Before reading this article further we recommend you check out our Introduction to Multi-partner Sex, then come back here to read-on for the specifics relating to polyamory.
Here we'll look into what this lifestyle actually looks like, get some historical perspective, define the rules of the game, and then go over the benefits and consequences of being involved in such a relationship.
The word 'Polyamory' comes from the combination of the Latin 'poly' meaning more than one, and 'amour' meaning love. The arrangement typically embraces most forms of alternate lifestyles and sexual orientations. Polyamorists create small intimate groups which are often, but not necessarily, sexually involved with other members.
What defines a polyamorous relationship is that all those involved know fully about every other member of the group, and consent to their being there. Members may, or may not, live in the same home. Sex with people outside the group (unless otherwise agreed) is still considered cheating.
Polyamory is distinct from ‘Swinging’, in that swingers have no connection to others outside the Primary relationship other than sex (and perhaps friendship).
Other terms that describe polyamory include 'intentional non-monogamy' or 'responsible non-monogamy'.
A closer look
Polyamorous relationships can take many different forms, with nearly any imaginable combination of men and women taking part. Some of the more common combinations include: two of one gender and one of another (perhaps – but not necessarily - one gay and one bi-sexual partner with a third), and two of one gender with three or more of the other gender (again with perhaps an element of gay or bi-sexuality). The list of combinations is almost endless; but what is really important to members is the quality of the relationship with others of the group.
To simplify this a little, folks living this lifestyle typically have one main partner, with other relationships taking back seat to the first. These levels of relationships are typically labeled primary, secondary, and tertiary.
Primary relationships represent the closest bond, the highest level of intimacy, and the greatest attraction, emotional involvement, and level of attention. Primary partners share life paths, life goals, personal values, parenting, personal finances and living arrangements, being very much like a traditional marriage in terms of lifelong commitment.
Secondary relationships are much like the primary, but receive less time/energy and hold a lower priority. Sexuality and emotional support are still very high, but there are fewer commitments in the areas such as life goals and personal finances.
Tertiary relationships are formed with those who are basically considered 'acceptable outsiders.' The amount of time spent is minimal, even sporadic, and although a strong emotional and sexual connection may exist, this person is not considered a steady part of one’s life.
There are also communities or networks of polyamorists who live in open relationships with many members of a given community.
Polyamory is quite different from swinging in that, swinging is focused on sexual fun – the physical aspects of a relationship, while polyamory focuses more on the emotional side and (in fact) may not necessarily involve sexual elements at all. Polyamorists typically engage heavily on an emotional level in addition to any sex, whereas swingers are much less emotionally (or practically) committed to one another on an ongoing basis.
In practice there is a wide overlap between these lifestyles, but as a general guideline the above differences are accurate according to members of the respective groups. An interesting side note is that occasionally you'll find swinging couples that have transitioned into polyamorists over time because of a desire for greater intimacy with specific sexual associates.
Biologists have long known that sexual monogamy is rarely, if ever, practiced in the natural world; it is in fact, a largely human social convention. For example, in the world of birds, even among those species that ‘pair for life’, there can be as much as a 20% genetic divergence from the females ‘partner for life’. This means that sperm from another male has fertilized some of the eggs in a single clutch. This clearly demonstrates that even some species which were previously considered monogamous are in fact sexually active with partners outside their bonded mate!
Furthermore, males of all species are the sperm makers - an easy thing to make a lot of. Eggs on the other hand are more difficult to produce and are done so less often, which may help to explain why women are often choosier than men about whom they partner with – and why they are typically more inclined to view sex and love as a ‘combined package’, seeking security for the upbringing of their offspring.
The almost unique approach of humans to monogamous relationships may help to explain why it is so difficult for us to maintain them – perhaps it is just not in our nature!.
Interestingly, polyamory has existed as long as there has been recorded history. Evidence, as shown by temple carvings in Asia and on pottery from ancient Europe and South America, show that this kind of arrangement has existed for literally thousands of years. And although modern Western culture has a bias towards monogamy, it is polyamory that is in fact the more traditional of the two forms of relationship.
One of the most confusing aspects of polyamory is the openness of ‘the rules’. Because each situation is different, each adopts different specific guidelines. The rules are really specific to each group.
That said, there are generally accepted guidelines. Although all of the following are open to debate, here we offer some of the more prominent. Keeping in mind that the following are ideals, not all poly relationships follow these to their fullest degree. The goal, however, is virtually the same - healthy, happy, fulfilling sexual and emotional relationships.
Consent and open communication
The single most important factor in a polyamorous relationship is the approval of (at least) your primary partner to the addition of another to the group. If the addition is not welcome, the relationship cannot be added. In simple terms, everything each partner does in terms of relationships with anyone new is on the table and discussed, usually at length, before any physical connection is ever made.
There must also be lots of communication just among the group as it stands. Like any successful monogamous relationship, communication is key - and because poly relationships are more complex, they require even more communication. It is also vital that communications are kept open in order to deal with discrepancies. When someone steps over a line there must be a rapport to support repair of the damage done.
Loyalty and fidelity
This must be included for completeness - cheating is simply not acceptable. Poly relationships are still relationships of loyalty and fidelity within the agreed group, so poly is no different than monogamy in this respect.
This ideal requires that partners respect all other members of the group, and the relationships they have with one another. There is the basic agreement that competition be kept to a minimum and that each member respects the others’ role and place in the hierarchy.
Polyamorists agree that putting restrictions on emotionally-committing relationships puts trust at risk, because it forces trust to be conditional. They believe that when you truly trust your partners, you and they are free to love more openly and fully with less fear of loss or breach of trust.
This is also an area that varies quite a bit of individual interpretation. Sometimes one person will accept additional partners, while the other does not. With the amount of variation possible here, what is important is to know that outlining the guidelines of a particular relationship is vital. The more non-possessiveness you practice, the more open the relationships can be - but in practice, one member is nearly always more possessive than others. This is where communication comes back in.
Polyamorists state that there are a number of advantages:
Sexual variety - It’s difficult to get around what most would cite as one of the primary benefits of polyamory, and that is having multiple sexual partners. Purely in terms of physical needs, having sexual access to more than one partner can increase the longevity of relationships, especially when sexual growth is happening in more than one direction at a time. Each is free to more freely explore the whole range of their interests and sexuality, but without putting a specific partner under pressure to participate. In this way, each relationship can become more fulfilling and fun in the ways that are important to it.
Deeper non-sexual relationships - When confronted with a deep friendship, some monogamous relationships come under stress because of jealousy, even when there is no sex involved! Under a polyamorous arrangement, these kinds of friendships are most often fully accepted and in fact welcomed. In this way, many non-sexual needs can be met without there being the need for sexual contact.
Personal growth - Living in this kind of arrangement can open your eyes to many aspects of yourself you may not previously have been aware of. Dealing with issues surrounding jealously, personal boundaries, relationships and sexuality are all brought into sharp focus within a polyamorous relationship. Addressing these can be a vehicle for tremendous personal growth, which is one of the true benefits of being in any relationship.
An extended support network - When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of a relationship, ‘many hands makes light work’ is a phrase that fits here. Whether it means household chores, multiple incomes, or child raising - having an extended family around makes a number of jobs easier, as any single parent can attest to. A monogamous family will typically rely on aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins for this kind of daily help. Poly families can do exactly the same thing, but within the nuclear family itself.
Keeping the spark - Many of us are familiar with the effort we put into new relationships, and into grabbing and holding that other persons attention. Once this subsides, and a relationship becomes familiar, it is often a break from one another (or similar event) that reminds us of those things. Other relationships can, according to many polyamorists, actually keep those sparks alive, because the energy of a new relationship tends to be a little infectious. This is compounded by the constant shift in a multi-partner arrangement, which also helps keep things 'feeling fresh'.
The most serious challenges of polyamory include:
Having to unlearn a great deal of social conditioning and pre-conceived perceptions in order to make this complex form of relationship work.
Dealing with much negative social pressure from the monogamous majority in Western culture.
Dealing with feelings of jealousy and possessiveness.
Building levels of trust and respect that may need to exceed what you may have been used to with monogamous relationships.
Increasing your communications skills in dealing with personal boundaries, wants and needs - all within a relationship context.
More personal issues (baggage) rather than less, because every person comes with baggage - and if you are involved with more than one partner, this means supporting more than one person emotionally.
With careful thought and attention, plus a lot of personal growth, a polyamorous relationship can hold many advantages for those whom monogamy simply ‘doesn’t fit’. With a strong hold on your own feelings of jealousy and by developing the trust required, polyamory can work very well and result in a happy, fulfilling life. However, this will not happen without a great deal of work and effort, because allowing someone you love to love someone else (as well) is much easier said than done. Even beyond that, there are still the social and cultural implications to deal with – what will you tell your family, and how will Christmas Dinner look from now on?
The decision on whether to live in a polyamorous relationship is purely individual. It has significant benefits, but also some real challenges to make it work out successfully. We commend all those who are attempting to find greater happiness through this form of open, loving relationship and hope that this article is helpful to those who know less about it.
If you’re looking for more information regarding alternative choices, please refer to the rest of our related Multi-partner & Alternative Lifestyle articles, plus our highly active and informative Forum.