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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 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.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 Forms
- 3 As a practice
- 4 Philosophical aspects
- 5 Acceptance by religious organizations
- 6 Marriage implications
- 7 Research
- 8 Criticism
- 9 Symbols
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
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. The words polyamory, polyamorous, and polyamorist were added to the OED in 2006. 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."
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, and some believe polyamory should be classified an orientation or identity similar to romantic orientation, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
There is a cultural divide between the polyamorous and swinger communities, the former emphasizing the emotional and egalitarian aspects of plural relationships and the latter emphasizing sexual non-monogamy and emotional monogamy. A person with polyamorous relationships may also engage in swinging and other open relationships. As well, swingers occasionally develop deep emotional attachments with their sexual friends.
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.
- Fidelity and loyalty: Many[quantify] 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 often[how often?] 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 will usually 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.
- Non-possessiveness: 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.
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 (or frubble[need quotation to verify]) is an empathetic state of happiness and joy experienced when another individual experiences happiness and joy. In the context of polyamorous relationships, it describes[according to whom?] positive feelings[vague] experienced by an individual when their intimate partner is enjoying another relationship.
The concept of compersion was originally coined by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco, who also coined polyfidelity to describe their relational ideal which included non-preferentiality in a group setting and polyintimacy[need quotation to verify] to describe some of their previous attempts at lasting, intimate non-monogamous relationships similar to what is now called polyamory.
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." They comment that compersion can coexist with jealous feelings.
- 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. ... Compersion does not specifically refer to joy regarding the sexual activity of one's partner, but refers instead to joy at the relationship with another romantic or sexual partner. 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."
- From Opening Up, Serena Anderlini-D'Onofrio writes that compersion is, in part, "the ability to turn jealousy's negative feelings into acceptance of, and vicarious enjoyment for, a lover's joy" (p. 175).
- a drive towards female independence and equality driven by feminism — Jim Fleckenstein, director of the Institute for 21st-Century Relationships,[who?] 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.
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.
On August 29, 2017, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 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, Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, has said that polyamory is a choice that does not preclude a Jewishly observant and socially conscious life. Some polyamorous Jews also point to biblical patriarchs having multiple wives and concubines as evidence that polyamorous relationships can be sacred in Judaism. An email list was founded dedicated to polyamorous Jews, called AhavaRaba, which roughly translates to "big love" in Hebrew, and whose name 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 become 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.
At present, the extension to multiple-partner relationships of laws that use a criterion similar to that adopted in the United Kingdom, i.e., "married or living together as married" remains largely untested. That is, it is not known whether these laws could treat some trios or larger groups as common-law marriages.
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 recent case in the Netherlands 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.
U.N. effort to ban non-monogamous marriage
Such endeavors, however, may be moot. In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international bill of rights for women, with 99 initial signatories and an eventual 189 ratifying parties. The intent is to make monogamous marriage the only legal form, worldwide, with progress monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Polygamy is seen as contrary to CEDAW Article 16, which bars "discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations."
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.
Polyamory was the subject of the 2018 Louis Theroux documentary Love Without Limits, where Theroux travels to Portland, Oregon to meet a number of people engaged in polyamorous relationships. Also in 2018, a web series about a black lesbian couple dealing with their relationship being newly polyamorous, called "195 Lewis", received the Breakthrough Series – Short Form award from the Gotham Awards. That series premiered in 2017.
Research into 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).
A study by Moors et al. examined "consensual non-monogamy" or CNM (which includes polyamory) in the context of attachment in adults, particularly with regards to anxiety (insecurity about a partner's availability) and avoidance (discomfort with closeness). The first sample was of exclusively monogamous individuals who were not told the nature of what was being studied, and found that those with greater discomfort with emotional closeness tended to view CNM more positively as well as being more willing to engage in it (but had not actually engaged in it). The authors theorized this was "because these relationships promote distance from their partners and support their accepting attitudes toward uncommitted and casual sex". Individuals with high attachment anxiety tended to view CNM negatively, but no correlation was found regarding willingness to engage in it. The second sample was a targeted recruitment of individuals currently engaged in CNM relationships. This sample showed low levels of attachment avoidance, and no correlation related to attachment anxiety. The lack of correlation with anxiety in either sample with regards to willingness or actual engagement suggested it may have little impact on the matter. The large disparity in attachment avoidance between those willing to engage in CNM and those that actually engage in it could not be fully explained within the context of the study, but the authors offer several hypotheses. The study also had a few limitations, including that all subjects were heterosexual, the data was anonymous self-report and the second sample may have suffered from social desirability bias due to its targeted recruitment.
In a clinical setting
In 2002, a paper titled Working with polyamorous clients in the clinical setting (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".
Favorable preexisting conditions before nonmonogamy
Michael Shernoff cites two studies in his report on same-sex couples considering nonmonogamy.
Morin (1999) stated that a couple has a very good chance of adjusting to nonexclusivity 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 not polarized over 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 nonexclusivity is functional or dysfunctional for the relationship."
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 nonmonogamy.
- 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.
A number of symbols have been created to represent polyamory. These include a parrot (a pun, as "Polly" is a common name for domesticated parrots) and the infinity heart. The "infinity heart" symbol has appeared on pins, T-shirts, bumper stickers and other media.
The polyamory pride flag, designed by Jim Evans in 1995, has stripes of blue (representing openness and honesty among all partners), red (representing love and passion), and black (representing solidarity with those who must hide their polyamorous relationships from the outside world). In the center of the flag is a gold Greek lowercase letter 'pi', as the first letter of 'polyamory'. Gold represents "the value that we place on the emotional attachment to others... as opposed to merely primarily physical relationships". There is also a similar ribbon.
- Open relationship
- Group marriage
- Romantic orientation
- Sociosexual orientation
- Family: the web series
- List of polyamorists
- Ménage à trois
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Regression analyses suggest that the factors which predict better health and happiness differ between the general population and those who participate in consensually non-exclusive sexual relationships
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The final reason given by those in the 'Willing' group was that their engagement in CNM would be a sacrifice for their partner or for their relationship. This group of participants indicated that despite their own lack of desire to engage in CNM, they would be willing to try CNM for their partner or their relationship.
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Parrot graphic by Ray Dillinger, placed in the public domain for use as a poly mascot.
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Today America has more than 100 poly email lists and support groups. Their emblem, which marks the table when they meet in restaurants, is the parrot (because of their nickname Polly)
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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.