When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous: Understanding Poly People and Relationships Paperback – 1 March 2016
When Someone You Love Is Polyamorous offers answers to these and more questions, to help you better understand and support your polyamorous loved ones.
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
When Someone You Love is Polyamorous
Understanding Poly People and RelationshipsBy Elisabeth Sheff
Thorntree Press, LLCCopyright © 2016 Elisabeth Sheff
All rights reserved.
What is polyamory?
Polyamory is one form of consensual non-monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy is an umbrella term for any relationship type in which people are not monogamous. Polyamory emphasizes emotional connection between or among more than two romantic partners who know about (and might even like) each other.
You can see the glossary for a list of polyamory-related terms, but here are a few important words to get us started:
• polyamorist: a person who has polyamorous relationships
* a short form of the word "polyamorist"
* an adjective to describe something that has polyamorous qualities (a "poly person" or a "poly relationship")
* an umbrella term for several different types of non -monogamous relationships
To better understand polyamory, it's helpful to take a look at what it is not. Polyamory is not ...
For everyone. Polyamory can be a complex and intense relationship style that takes time and devotion to maintain. Many people prefer the simplicity, security, and exclusivity of monogamy.
Cheating. In polyamorous relationships, everyone is (ideally) aware of the other partners. Relationships have been negotiated with agreements to handle issues like scheduling and safer sex.
Swinging. Swinging tends to focus on sexual variety and puts less emphasis on emotional intimacy with people outside a core couple. Some swingers forbid emotional connection, or even repeated interaction with the same "outside" lover.
Polygamy. In polygamy, people are married to more than one person. Polyamorists are not always married. Even more importantly, polygamy is almost always practiced as polygyny, or one man married to multiple women. Usually in those relationships, the women are not allowed to have other male partners, or to have sex with each other. Most polyamorous relationships, in contrast, allow people of all genders to have multiple partners.
Sex addiction. Poly people spend a lot more time communicating about their feelings than they do having sex. For someone whose primary motivation is sex, there are far easier ways to get it than becoming polyamorous.
Group sex. Most often, poly people interact sexually only in pairs.
Do people choose to be poly?
For some people, polyamory is a sexual orientation. For others, it is a lifestyle.
People who experience polyamory as a sexual orientation describe themselves as being "wired" that way. These people say that they have always been oriented toward multiple people in many ways:
• They often did not have a single best friend when they were growing up, but tended to socialize in groups.
• They find it hard to stay in monogamous relationships.
• They felt trapped in monogamous relationships, or they cheated until they stopped making agreements to be monogamous.
• They literally cannot imagine being comfortable in a monogamous relationship.
Folks who are poly by orientation will most likely be in some form of open relationship for the rest of their lives. When people with a poly orientation talk about how they feel in a monogamous relationship, they compare it to wearing shoes that are three sizes too small, or a lesbian trying to be happy in a romantic relationship with a man. They might be able to force themselves into that situation for a while, but it is not sustainable for them without a lot of pain and eventual damage.
For people who experience polyamory as a choice, there is much more flexibility for them to find fulfillment in a range of relationship styles. Some poly-as-lifestyle folks choose to be polyamorous for a portion of their lives: while they are young and do not have children; after a divorce, when they want to play the field in an open and honest way; or after their kids have moved out and they feel more freedom to experiment with their sexuality. Some people who see polyamory as a lifestyle option choose it for personal and political reasons as a permanent lifestyle, and others go in and out of it depending on what else is happening in their lives.
Traits of polyamorous people
Most people who identify as poly live in Australia, Canada, the United States, and Western Europe. Some live together, usually in groups of two to five, and others live alone, or with roommates. Many poly folks have children, some of them from previous monogamous relationships, and others born into poly households. Women in poly communities tend to be either bisexual or heterosexual, and most men are heterosexual, with a few bisexual people. Poly people tend to be politically liberal.
It is hard to tell how many people are having polyamorous relationships in the United States. First, because of the wide variety of non-monogamous styles, it's difficult to decide whom to count. Also, poly people can be hard to find, because they are often closeted, and there is no mechanism to count them (yet).
Still, a number of estimates exist. The most well-researched one comes from Kelly Cookson, an independent academic. Unfortunately, this estimate only deals with the total number of people who participate in some form of consensual non-monogamy, and there's no way to estimate how many of those identify as polyamorous. In an email to me, Cookson summarized his results:
• There are millions of sexually non-monogamous couples in the United States.
• Estimates of people who have actually tried sexual non-monogamy (rather than simply being open to it as an idea) are around 1.2 to 2.4 million.
• An estimated 9.8 million people have some kind of agreement with their partner that they can have other lovers. This does not necessarily mean that they have intimate relationships with these other lovers.
• These millions include polyamorists, swingers, and other sexually non-monogamous people.
Monogamy is far more popular in the United States today than is any form of openly conducted non-monogamy. Even among non-monogamies, swinging is far better known and appears to be much more common than polyamory. Clearly, polyamory appeals to a minority of people.
Some personality types are more suited to polyamory. Polyamory can be a good choice for people who relish social interaction, want to examine their feelings and discuss them in detail with others, like trying new things, enjoy sharing, find themselves falling in love with more than one person at a time, have a high sex drive or want sexual variety, are willing to use safer-sex techniques, and are open to the idea of honest non-monogamy.
Other common characteristics that appear to be linked to an interest in polyamory are things like being at least a little geeky, enjoying science fiction, having an interest in kink, working with technology, being economically self -sufficient (or having enough education that you could get a job if you needed to), and thinking of yourself as open-minded.
Why are people polyamorous?
People report a range of reasons they want to be polyamorous.
More love. Pretty much everyone who wants to have a polyamorous relationship is interested in love. Some other forms of consensual non-monogamy, such as swinging, allow people to have sexual variety with little to no emotional involvement, and might require a little less maintenance than the emotional complexity than can come with polyamory. In order to choose the more complex and emotionally intimate style of polyamory, most people find they have to emphasize love over sex.
More needs met. One of the most important things poly people like about their relationships is that they get more — and different — needs met in different relationships. Having multiple partners allows people to go see a play with the partner who loves the arts and go camping with the other partner who is an outdoor enthusiast. That way, the person gets to see plays and go camping, and gets to do it with people who are having fun too, instead of someone who would rather not be there.
Sexual variety. Many people in poly relationships report that they enjoy the sexual variety of being able to have sex with more than one person, without having to give up the relationships they are already enjoying. Being in a loving, stable relationship and still having sex with new people is a big draw for some people interested in polyamory, but not everyone.
Expanded family. Adults and children both experience additional support and connection through polyamorous families. Adults not only have additional partners, but often form connections with their partner's partners, who are called metamours in poly lingo. Metamours generally do not have sex with each other, but may develop emotionally intimate relationships that bond them in to an expanded family.
Freedom. Being free from the restrictions of monogamy means not only freedom to experiment with multiple partners, but also freedom to question other norms in our society. This form of critical thinking is not just about questioning monogamy, but also about questioning other things that are often taken for granted, such as what makes a relationship "successful," or whether all relationships need to follow the same, socially prescribed template.
Types of polyamorous relationships
Poly people share a common focus on honesty, emotional intimacy, gender equality, and openness to multiple partners. But the ways in which people actually practice polyamory vary dramatically.
• Polyfidelity is a subset of polyamorous relationships in which people expect sexual fidelity among a designated group that is closed unless otherwise explicitly negotiated.
• Polyaffective relationships are non-sexual, emotionally intimate relationships between metamours who share a polyamorous partner but are not lovers themselves.
• Solo polys or free agents have emotionally intimate and lasting relationships, but don't organize their lives around romantic relationships and usually don't identify as part of a couple.
• Some poly people are coupled with or legally married to a primary partner, with whom they share a home, finances, and children. These people also date, and often love, people other than their primary partner. These other partners are called secondary partners.
• Some poly people reject the implied hierarchy of the primary/secondary model. They emphasize nesting (living together) versus non-nesting (living separately) relationships.
• Group relationships like triads (three-person relationships) or quads (four partners) connect multiple adults who may or may not have children or live together.
• Moresomes are group relationships with five or more people. Moresomes can merge into intimate networks that connect groups of people who share common lovers, exes, and friends.
Most poly people have identified an "emotional bandwidth," the amount of emotional intimacy, relating, and effort for which they have room in their lives. For some, this translates into a set number of relationships they can handle at any one time: three is a common number. Others seem to have an infinite capacity to form new relationships with other people, and boundless enthusiasm for maintaining them.
Emotional intimacy with multiple partners
For people in monogamous relationships, it can be hard to imagine how polyamorists can nurture emotional connections with multiple partners at the same time. In our society, "settling down" in a monogamous relationship is a sign of maturity. Non-monogamy, in contrast, can appear immature, insincere, and insecure. In reality, some polyamorists say that having relationships outside the norm actually requires a lot communication, honesty, and self-growth.
Communication. Communication is one of the most important features of polyamorous relationships. Poly people rely on good communication to discuss relationship boundaries and safer-sex agreements, express their feelings, and get to know each other. Communication is the main way that poly people build emotional intimacy. Poly folks often enjoy sex, and sexual intimacy can certainly contribute to emotional intimacy, but very few polyamorous (or monogamous) relationships can thrive without consistent and intentional communication.
Honesty. People in poly communities often emphasize nonviolent communication (using "I statements" and listening compassionately) and radical honesty (telling the truth even if it is not comfortable or convenient) as ways to create intimacy and work through conflict. Key to both of those practices is honesty, with self and others. Telling lies means negotiating in bad faith, a breach of poly community norms, which prize honesty above all else. Most importantly, without honesty, it is very difficult to feel safe and trust that partners will live up to safer-sex and other agreements.
Growth. Communication, honesty, and working through conflict often lead to personal growth. Having to face their insecurities, question their motives, and consider their own boundaries almost forces poly people to either get to know themselves, or leave the relationship style. Poly people who don't come to grips with their issues tend to go from one dramatic relationship explosion to the next.
Enough love to go around. When discussing their relationship style, poly people often point to an abundance of love. They sometimes compare loving multiple partners to loving multiple children. They point out that parents do not stop loving the children they have simply because they have another child. Rather, their love grows to include that new child, and still includes previous children. In that same way, poly people can still love their current partners even when they fall in love with someone else. Because poly people are able to love more than one person, sexual variety in poly relationships does not have to come at the expense of emotional intimacy. As poly lore has it, some poly people really can "have their Jake and Edith" too!
Do polyamorous relationships work?
Just like all relationships, the health of a poly relationship depends on the people involved and how they handle themselves. It's also important to think about how we decide a relationship is "successful."
If we use a traditional definition, a relationship that "works" is one where a couple gets legally married, has kids, and remains together in an emotionally intimate and sexually exclusive relationship until one of them dies. By this definition, polyamory does not work. Unfortunately, the high rates of divorce and infidelity in the United States show that most monogamous relationships do not work this way, either. When they don't work, they are called "failed" relationships or "broken" families.
If we define a successful relationship as one that meets the needs of the people involved and can be flexible as needs change, then polyamory works well for some people. These people tend to work through conflict by accepting life transitions as key elements that help their families work. If their relationships change form over time, it does not mean they have failed or are somehow broken, only that their needs and personalities have evolved. Even if two people no longer have sex, they can still co-parent effectively, rely on each other for help, and remain emotionally supportive. The flexibility inherent in polyamory provides some relationships with a unique resilience that allows them to serve the needs of adults and kids over time.
When it is good, it is very good indeed. When people have long -term poly relationships that work well for them, their lives tend to run fairly smoothly, without a lot of drama. By setting boundaries that meet everyone's needs, communicating effectively, and practicing relationship skills and techniques, these poly folks can have lasting, loving, and satisfying relationships. Many poly families live caring and happy lives in which their multiple partners multiply their happiness.
When it is bad, it is horrid. When polyamorous relationships melt down, they can do so spectacularly. If things go wrong, the consequences are not limited to the people directly involved. Mistakes and bad choices have the potential to echo through others' relationships, which is why trust is so important in polyamorous relationships.
Advantages of polyamorous relationships
The advantages people get in polyamorous relationships are similar to the motivations they list for trying polyamory.
While they like the sexual variety, most adults say that the additional emotional, financial, and practical support that comes with polyamory far outweighs any sexual advantages. For parents in poly families, sharing parenting among more than two people means more sleep and personal time for everyone.
Another advantage of poly is the freedom to be, think, and act genuinely. Poly people think deeply about what they want and purposefully create relationships outside of social norms. So for some, polyamory can be a crash course in self-knowledge and personal growth. Linking freedom with honesty allows poly people to develop deep emotional intimacy with each other. Parents who are polyamorous tend to be very honest when communicating with their children. They feel this honesty creates greater intimacy and trust among all family members.
(Continues...)Excerpted from When Someone You Love is Polyamorous by Elisabeth Sheff. Copyright © 2016 Elisabeth Sheff. Excerpted by permission of Thorntree Press, LLC.
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