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Polyamory (from Greek πολύ poly, "many, several", and Latin amor, "love") is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the informed consent of all partners involved. It has been described as "consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy". People who identify as polyamorous believe in an open relationship with a conscious management of jealousy; they reject the view that sexual and relational exclusivity are necessary for deep, committed, long-term loving relationships.
Polyamory has come to be an umbrella term for various forms of non-monogamous, multi-partner relationships, or non-exclusive sexual or romantic relationships. Its usage reflects the choices and philosophies of the individuals involved, but with recurring themes or values, such as love, intimacy, honesty, integrity, equality, communication, and commitment.
The word polyamorous first appeared in an article by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, "A Bouquet of Lovers", published in May 1990 in Green Egg Magazine, as "poly-amorous". In May 1992, Jennifer L. Wesp created the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites the proposal to create that group as the first verified appearance of the word. In 1999 Zell-Ravenheart was asked by the editor of the OED to provide a definition of the term, and had provided it for the UK version as "the practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved." The words polyamory, polyamorous, and polyamorist were added to the OED in 2006.
Although some reference works define "polyamory" as a relational form (whether interpersonal or romantic or sexual) that involves multiple people with the consent of all the people involved, the North American version of the OED declares it a philosophy of life.
Consensual non-monogamy, which polyamory falls under, can take many different forms, depending on the needs and preferences of the individual(s) involved in any specific relationship or set of relationships. As of 2019 fully one fifth of the United States population has, at some point in their lives, engaged in some sort of consensual non-monogamy.
- Kitchen table polyamory: Kitchen table polyamory is a style in which all members of a particular polycule are comfortable and connected enough with each other that it is not uncommon for them to literally gather around the kitchen table. Practitioners of this style may spend holidays, birthdays, or other important times together as a large group. This style places an emphasis on family-style connections, not all members are necessarily sexually or romantically involved with every other person in the group.
- Parallel polyamory: Parallel polyamory is a style in which members of individual relationships prefer not to meet or know details of their partners' other relationships. This is a companion term to kitchen table polyamory and one in which metamours may or may not ever interact.
- Solo poly: Solo polyamory is a style in which the individual has or is comfortable with having multiple intimate (romantic or sexual) relationships without wanting to cohabit or "nest" with any one partner. They eschew the "relationship escalator" which holds that relationships must follow a progression, or "escalator" from dating, to being exclusive, to becoming engaged, getting married and having children.
As a practice
Separate from polyamory as a philosophical basis for relationships are the practical ways in which people who live polyamorously arrange their lives and handle certain issues, as compared to those of a more conventional monogamous arrangement.
Polyamorous communities have been booming in countries within Europe, North America, and Oceania. In other parts of the world, such as, South America, Asia, and Africa there is a small growth in polyamory practices. There is not any particular gendered partner choice to polyamorous relationships. People of different sexual preferences are a part of the community.
Fidelity and loyalty
A large percentage of polyamorists define fidelity not as sexual exclusivity, but as faithfulness to the promises and agreements made about a relationship. As a relational practice, polyamory sustains a vast variety of open relationship or multi-partner constellations, which can differ in definition and grades of intensity, closeness and commitment. For some, polyamory functions as an umbrella term for the multiple approaches of 'responsible non-monogamy'. A secret sexual relationship that violates those accords would be seen as a breach of fidelity. Polyamorists generally base definitions of commitment on considerations other than sexual exclusivity, e.g. "trust and honesty" or "growing old together".
Communication and negotiation
Because there is no "standard model" for polyamorous relationships, and reliance upon common expectations may not be realistic, polyamorists advocate explicitly negotiating with all involved to establish the terms of their relationships, and often emphasize that this should be an ongoing process of honest communication and respect. Polyamorists typically take a pragmatic approach to their relationships; many accept that sometimes they and their partners will make mistakes and fail to live up to these ideals, and that communication is important for repairing any breaches.
Trust, honesty, dignity, and respect
Most[original research?] polyamorists emphasize respect, trust, and honesty for all partners. Ideally, a partner's partners are accepted as part of that person's life rather than merely tolerated, and usually a relationship that requires deception or a "don't ask don't tell" policy is seen as a less than ideal model.
Many polyamorists[who?] view excessive restrictions on other deep relationships as less than desirable, as such restrictions can be used to replace trust with a framework of ownership and control. It is usually preferred or encouraged that a polyamorist strive to view their partners' other significant others, often referred to as metamours or OSOs, in terms of the gain to their partners' lives rather than a threat to their own (see compersion). Therefore, jealousy and possessiveness are generally viewed not so much as something to avoid or structure the relationships around, but as responses that should be explored, understood, and resolved within each individual, with compersion as a goal.
Distinctiveness of polyamory
Many things differentiate polyamory from other types of non-monogamous relationships. It is common for swinging and open couples to maintain emotional monogamy while engaging in extra-dyadic sexual relations.
Similarly, the friend/partner boundary in monogamous relationships and other forms of non-monogamy is typically fairly clear. Unlike other forms of non-monogamy, though, "polyamory is notable for privileging emotional intimacy with others."
Favorable preexisting conditions before non-monogamy
Michael Shernoff cites two studies in his report on same-sex couples considering non-monogamy.
Morin (1999) stated that a couple has a very good chance of adjusting to non-exclusivity if at least some of the following conditions exist:
- Both partners want their relationship to remain primary.
- The couple has an established reservoir of good will.
- There is a minimum of lingering resentments from past hurts and betrayals.
- The partners are in agreement on the question of monogamy/non-monogamy.
- The partners are feeling similarly powerful and autonomous.
Green and Mitchell (2002) stated that direct discussion of the following issues can provide the basis for honest and important conversations:
- Openness versus secrecy
- Volition and equality versus coercion and inequality
- Clarity and specificity of agreements versus confusion/vagueness
- Honoring keeping agreements versus violating them
- How each partner views non-monogamy.
According to Shernoff, if the matter is discussed with a third party, such as a therapist, the task of the therapist is to "engage couples in conversations that let them decide for themselves whether sexual exclusivity or non-exclusivity is functional or dysfunctional for the relationship."
Effects upon domesticity
Benefits of a polyamorous relationship might include:
- The ability of individuals to discuss issues with multiple partners, potentially mediating and thus stabilizing a relationship, and reducing polarization of viewpoints.
- Emotional support and structure from other committed adults within the familial unit.
- A wider range of adult experience, skills, resources, and perspective.
- Support for companionate marriages, which can be satisfying even if no longer sexually vital, since romantic needs are met elsewhere. This acts to preserve existing relationships.
- More emotional, intellectual and sexual needs met as part of the understanding that one person cannot be expected to provide them all. Conversely, polyamory offers release from the monogamist expectation that one person must meet all of an individual's needs (sex, emotional support, primary friendship, intellectual stimulation, companionship, social presentation).
In 1998, a Tennessee court granted guardianship of a child to her grandmother and step-grandfather after the child's mother April Divilbiss and partners outed themselves as polyamorous on MTV. After contesting the decision for two years, Divilbiss eventually agreed to relinquish her daughter, acknowledging that she was unable to adequately care for her child and that this, rather than her polyamory, had been the grandparents' real motivation in seeking custody.
Compersion is an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy. In the context of polyamorous relationships, it describes positive feelings experienced by an individual when their intimate partner is enjoying another relationship.
Definitions of compersion
- PolyOz—"the positive feelings one gets when a lover is enjoying another relationship. Sometimes called the opposite or flip side of jealousy."
- The Polyamory society—"the feeling of taking joy in the joy that others you love share among themselves, especially taking joy in the knowledge that your beloveds are expressing their love for one another".
- The InnKeeper—"A feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship. … It's analogous to the joy parents feel when their children get married, or to the happiness felt between best friends when they find a partner."
- More Than Two - "A feeling of joy when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship. Commentary: Compersion can be thought of as the opposite of “jealousy;” it is a positive emotional reaction to a lover’s other relationship."
- a drive towards female independence and equality driven by feminism — Jim Fleckenstein, Chair of the Board of Directors and Research Director of The Institute for 21st Century Relationships - The Foundation of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, states that "Increased financial independence means that women can build relationships the way they want to."
- disillusionment with monogamy — "because of widespread cheating and divorce."
- a yearning for community — a felt need for the richness of "complex and deep relationships through extended networks" in response to the replacement and fragmentation of the extended family by nuclear families: "[W]e have become increasingly alienated, partly because of the 20th century's replacement of the extended family with the nuclear family. As a result, many of us are striving to create complex and deep relationships through extended networks of multiple lovers and extended families…. Polys agree that some people are monogamous by nature. But some of us are not, and more and more are refusing to be shoehorned into monogamy."
- honesty and realism in respect of relational nature of human beings — "since so many people are already non-monogamous, why not develop a non-monogamy that is honest, responsible and socially acceptable? … It seems weird that having affairs is OK but being upfront about it is rocking the boat."
- human nature; and
- individual non-matching of the traditional monogamous stereotype — a couple's response to a failure of monogamy, by reaching a consensus to accept the additional relationship.
Research into the prevalence of polyamory has been limited. A comprehensive government study of sexual attitudes, behaviors and relationships in Finland in 1992 (age 18–75, around 50% female and male) found that around 200 out of 2250 (8.9%) respondents "agreed or strongly agreed" with the statement "I could maintain several sexual relationships at the same time" and 8.2% indicated a relationship type "that best suits" at the present stage of life would involve multiple partners. By contrast, when asked about other relationships at the same time as a steady relationship, around 17% stated they had had other partners while in a steady relationship (50% no, 17% yes, 33% refused to answer).
The article What Psychology Professionals Should Know About Polyamory, based on a paper presented at the 8th Annual Diversity Conference in March 1999 in Albany, New York, states the following:
While openly polyamorous relationships are relatively rare (Rubin, 1982), there are indications that private polyamorous arrangements within relationships are actually quite common. Blumstein and Schwartz (1983, cited in Rubin & Adams, 1986) noted that of 3,574 married couples in their sample, 15–28% had an understanding that allows nonmonogamy under some circumstances. The percentages are higher among cohabitating couples (28%), lesbian couples (29%) and gay male couples (65%) (p. 312).
Acceptance by religious organizations
The Oneida Community in the 1800s in New York (a Christian religious commune) believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon.
Some people consider themselves Christian and polyamorous, but mainstream Christianity does not accept polyamory. In 2017, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical Christian organization, released a manifesto on human sexuality known as the "Nashville Statement". The statement was signed by 150 evangelical leaders, and includes 14 points of belief. Among other things, it states, "We deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship."
Some Jews are polyamorous, but mainstream Judaism does not accept polyamory. However, in 2010, Rabbi Jacob Levin came out as polyamorous to his synagogue's board in California without losing his job as rabbi. As well, in his book A Guide to Jewish Practice: Volume 1 – Everyday Living (2011), Rabbi David Teutsch wrote, “It is not obvious that monogamy is automatically a morally higher form of relationship than polygamy,” and that if practiced with honesty, flexibility, egalitarian rules, and trust, practitioners may "live enriched lives as a result". In 2013, Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, said that polyamory is a choice that does not preclude a Jewishly observant and socially conscious life. Some polyamorous Jews point to biblical patriarchs having multiple wives and concubines as evidence that polyamorous relationships can be sacred in Judaism. An email list is dedicated to polyamorous Jews; it is called AhavaRaba, which roughly translates to "big love" in Hebrew, and which echoes God's "great" or "abounding" love mentioned in the Ahava rabbah prayer.
LaVeyan Satanism is critical of Abrahamic sexual mores, considering them narrow, restrictive and hypocritical. Satanists are pluralists, accepting polyamorists, bisexuals, lesbians, gays, BDSM, transgender people, and asexuals. Sex is viewed as an indulgence, but one that should only be freely entered into with consent. The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth only give two instructions regarding sex: "Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal" and "Do not harm little children," though the latter is much broader and encompasses physical and other abuse. This has always been consistent part of CoS policy since its inception in 1966, as Peter H. Gillmore wrote in an essay supporting same-sex marriage:
Finally, since certain people try to suggest that our attitude on sexuality is "anything goes" despite our stated base principle of "responsibility to the responsible", we must reiterate another fundamental dictate: The Church of Satan's philosophy strictly forbids sexual activity with children as well as with non-human animals.— Magister Peter H. Gilmore
Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness, founded in 2001, has engaged in ongoing education and advocacy for greater understanding and acceptance of polyamory within the Unitarian Universalist Association. At the 2014 General Assembly, two UUPA members moved to include the category of "family and relationship structures" in the UUA's nondiscrimination rule, along with other amendments; the package of proposed amendments was ratified by the GA delegates.
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Bigamy is the act of marrying one person while already being married to another, and is legally prohibited in most countries in which monogamy is the cultural norm. Some bigamy statutes are broad enough to potentially encompass polyamorous relationships involving cohabitation, even if none of the participants claim marriage to more than one partner.
In most countries, it is legal for three or more people to form and share a sexual relationship (subject sometimes to laws against homosexuality or adultery if two of the three are married). With only minor exceptions no developed countries permit marriage among more than two people, nor do the majority of countries give legal protection (e.g., of rights relating to children) to non-married partners. Individuals involved in polyamorous relationships are generally considered by the law to be no different from people who live together, or "date", under other circumstances. In 2017 John Alejandro Rodriguez, Victor Hugo Prada, and Manuel Jose Bermudez became Colombia's first polyamorous family to have a legally recognized relationship, though not a marriage: "By Colombian law a marriage is between two people, so we had to come up with a new word: a special patrimonial union."
In many jurisdictions where same-sex couples can access civil unions or registered partnerships, these are often intended as parallel institutions to that of heterosexual monogamous marriage. Accordingly, they include parallel entitlements, obligations, and limitations. Among the latter, as in the case of the New Zealand Civil Union Act 2005, there are parallel prohibitions on civil unions with more than one partner, which is considered bigamy, or dual marriage/civil union hybrids with more than one person. Both are banned under Sections 205–206 of the Crimes Act 1961. In jurisdictions where same-sex marriage proper exists, bigamous same-sex marriages fall under the same set of legal prohibitions as bigamous heterosexual marriages. As yet, there is no case law applicable to these issues.
Having multiple non-marital partners, even if married to one, is legal in most U.S. jurisdictions; at most it constitutes grounds for divorce if the spouse is non-consenting, or feels that the interest in a further partner has destabilized the marriage. In jurisdictions where civil unions or registered partnerships are recognized, the same principle applies to divorce in those contexts. There are exceptions to this: in North Carolina, a spouse can sue a third party for causing "loss of affection" in or "criminal conversation" (adultery) with their spouse, and more than twenty states in the US have laws against adultery although they are infrequently enforced. Some states were prompted to review their laws criminalizing consensual sexual activity in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas.
If marriage is intended, some countries provide for both a religious marriage and a civil ceremony (sometimes combined). These recognize and formalize the relationship. Few countries outside of Africa or Asia give legal recognition to marriages with three or more partners. While a relationship of three people being formalized in the Netherlands in 2005 was commonly read as demonstrating that Dutch law permitted multiple-partner civil unions, the relationship in question was a samenlevingscontract, or "cohabitation contract", and not a registered partnership or marriage. The Netherlands' law concerning registered partnerships provides that
- a person may be involved in one only registered partnership with one other person whether of the same or of opposite sex at any one time.
- persons who enter into a registered partnership may not at the same time be married.
Authors have explored legalistic ramifications of polyamorous marriage.
- The "dyadic networks" model calls for the revision of existing laws against bigamy to permit married persons to enter into additional marriages, provided that they have first given legal notice to their existing marital partner or partners.
- Ronald C. Den Otter has stated that in the United States the Constitutional rights of due process and equal protection fully support marriage rights for polyamorous families.
In June 2020, the city council of Somerville, Massachusetts voted to recognize polyamorous domestic partnerships in the city, becoming the first American city to do so. This measure was passed so that those in a polyamorous relationship would have access to their partners' health insurance, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a clinical setting
In 2002, a paper titled Working with polyamorous clients in the clinical setting (by Joy Davidson) addressed the following areas of inquiry:
- Why is it important that we talk about alternatives to monogamy now?
- How can therapists prepare to work with people who are exploring polyamory?
- What basic understandings about polyamory are needed?
- What key issues do therapists need to watch for in the course of working with polyamorous clients?
Its conclusions were that "Sweeping changes are occurring in the sexual and relational landscape" (including "dissatisfaction with limitations of serial monogamy, i.e. exchanging one partner for another in the hope of a better outcome"); that clinicians need to start by "recognizing the array of possibilities that 'polyamory' encompasses" and "examine our culturally-based assumption that 'only monogamy is acceptable'" and how this bias impacts on the practice of therapy; the need for self-education about polyamory, basic understandings about the "rewards of the poly lifestyle" and the common social and relationship challenges faced by those involved, and the "shadow side" of polyamory, the potential existing for coercion, strong emotions in opposition, and jealousy.
The paper also states that the configurations a therapist would be "most likely to see in practice" are individuals involved in primary-plus arrangements, monogamous couples wishing to explore non-monogamy for the first time, and "poly singles".
A manual for psychotherapists who deal with polyamorous clients was published in September 2009 by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, called What Psychotherapists Should Know About Polyamory.
In the media
Polyamory: Married & Dating was an American reality television series on the American pay television network Showtime. The series followed polyamorous families as they navigated the challenges presented by polyamory. The series ran in 2012 and 2013.
During a PinkNews question-and-answer session in May 2015, Redfern Jon Barrett questioned Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, about her party's stance towards polyamorous marriage rights. Bennett responded by saying that her party is "open" to discussion on the idea of civil partnership or marriages between three people. Bennett's announcement aroused media controversy on the topic and led to major international news outlets covering her answer. A follow-up article written by Barrett was published by PinkNews on May 4, 2015, further exploring the topic. You Me Her is an American-Canadian comedy-drama television series that revolves around a suburban married couple who is entering a three-way romantic relationship.
On May 29, 2017, in the last season of Steven Universe, Fluorite, a member of the Off Colors, a fusion of six different gems into one being, with fusion as the physical manifestation of a relationship, was introduced. This character reappeared in various episodes in the show's fifth season, along with one in Steven Universe Future ("Little Graduation") and in Steven Universe: The Movie, with the latter two as non-speaking appearances. The series creator, Rebecca Sugar, confirmed that Flourite is a representation of a polyamorous relationship at the show's Comic Con panel in San Diego. Sugar said at the panel, and at another conference, that she was inspired after talking with children at an LBGTQ+ center in Long Beach, California, who wanted a polyamorous character in the show.
Also in 2018, "195 Lewis," a web series about a black lesbian couple dealing with their relationship being newly polyamorous, received the Breakthrough Series – Short Form award from the Gotham Awards. The series premiered in 2017 and ran for five episodes.
Polyamory, along with other forms of consensual non-monogamy, is not without drawbacks. Morin (1999) and Fleckenstein (2014) noted that certain conditions are favorable to good experiences with polyamory, but that these differ from the general population. Heavy public promotion of polyamory can have the unintended effect of attracting people to it for whom it is not well-suited. Unequal power dynamics, such as financial dependence, can also inappropriately influence a person to agree to a polyamorous relationship against their true desires. Even in more equal power dynamic relationships, the reluctant partner may feel coerced into a proposed non-monogamous arrangement due to the implication that if they refuse, the proposer will pursue other partners anyway, will break off the relationship, or that the one refusing will be accused of intolerance.
To date, scientific study of polyamory has run into bias and methodological issues.
- A significant number of studies rely on small samples, often recruited from referrals, snowball sampling, and websites devoted to polyamory. Individuals recruited in this manner tend to be relatively homogeneous in terms of values, beliefs, and demographics, which limits the generalizability of the findings.
- These samples also tend to be self-selecting toward individuals with positive experiences, whereas those who found polyamory to be distressing or hurtful might be more reluctant to participate in the research.
- Most of the studies rely entirely on self-report measures. Generally, self-reports of the degree of well-being and relationship satisfaction over time are flawed, and are often based on belief rather than actual experience.
- Self-report measures are also at risk of self-enhancement bias, as subjects may feel pressure to give positive responses about their well-being and relationship satisfaction in the face of stereotype threat. This disparity was noted by Moors et al. (2014), who compared respondents expressing interest in consensual non-monogamy drawn from the general population to those drawn from online communities devoted to discussing positive aspects of non-monogamy.
- In academic works involving volunteer interviews, the participant is almost always a single partner of such relationships or a small group where certain partners are not present, resulting in one-sided views being recorded about the relationship.
Polyamorous relationships present practical pitfalls.
- One common complaint from participants is time management, as more partners means one must divide one's time and attention up between them, leaving less for each.
- Related is that the complexity of the arrangement can lead to so much effort being spent on the relationship that personal, individual needs can be overlooked.
- Another potential issue is lopsided power dynamics, such as one partner having significantly more resources, being more attractive or being much better at initiating new relationships, making the arrangement clearly more beneficial to that partner than the others.
- The strong emphasis on communication can unintentionally marginalize partners who are less articulate.
- Finally, negotiating the sometimes complex rules and boundaries of these relationships can be emotionally taxing, as can reconciling situations where one partner goes outside those boundaries.
Groups advocating for polyamory rights
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Polyamory-related media coverage
- Polyamory in the News (2005–present)
Research and articles
- The Kenneth R. Haslam Collection on Polyamory hosted at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction includes a wide variety of materials related to polyamory, along with research data.
- Polyamory Bibliography from the Kinsey Institute.