The term ‘polyamory’ is said to have been created by Morning Glory Zell in the early 1990s. The intended meaning is “many loves”1.
To use the most inclusive definition, polyamory – often shortened to ‘poly’ – is “ethical consensual nonmonogamy”. More specifically, it’s typically used to describe multiple romantic relationships; and it’s contrasted with swinging, which typically involves having multiple sexual relationships (often in the presence of emotional monogamy). However, polyamory is not ‘cheating’: ‘cheating’ involves breaking rules, and by the definition given above, polyamory only describes situations in which all involved have actively consented to the arrangement2.
So what’s the difference between ‘polyamory’ and ‘polygamy’? Taking into consideration only the strict definitions of both, one might assume that it’s simply that ‘polygamy’ involves marriage where ‘polyamory’ doesn’t. In practice, however, there’s more to it than that.
In polygamy, one individual has multiple partners, who themselves are not permitted to have other partners. That is: a man X may have wives Y and Z; but none of those wives are permitted to have other husbands apart from X. Although there is a form of polyamory called ‘polyfidelity’, which is ‘closed’ in terms of existing members’ ability to form new romantic relationships with new partners, polyfidelity isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘polygamy’. For example, a woman X might be in a ‘triad’ with two other people Y and Z (both of whom might be of any gender): in this triad, not only is X in a romantic relationship with both Y and Z, but Y and Z are themselves in a romantic relationship with each other. (They may also consider the entirety of the triangle thus formed to be a relationship in itself.)
I first encountered the concept of ‘polyamory’ in the late 90s, whilst browsing the Web; and it immediately resonated with me. I had been involved with feminist politics for many years, and as part of that, strongly felt that no-one should feel they have a ‘right’ to control what their partner did with their body, including sexual and romantic activity with others. I’d known of swinging for quite some time, but didn’t know there was a word that not only described sexual nonmonogamy, but romantic or emotional nonmonogamy as well. I strongly felt within myself that being in love was not a zero-sum game for me – that being in love with one person, and then falling in love with another, did not necessarily mean that I was now less in love with the first person.
Now, around a decade and a half later, I’m in committed, long-term relationships with three partners, who I’ll refer to as A, B and C. I am handfasted3 to A, and have been in a relationship with her for over nine years; I am also handfasted to B, and have been in a relationship with her for over eight years; and I am in an owner/property kink dynamic with C, and have been in a relationship with her for 2 years. A has another partner, with whom she is also handfasted, and with whom she’s been in a relationship for four years (three years handfasted). B has two other partners, one of whom she’s been in a relationship with three years (and who himself has other partners), and has just celebrated the first anniversary of her relationship with another. C has two other partners, and two lovers in addition to that: one of her other partners is her civil-union husband, with whom she’s been with for over nine years (civil-unioned for over six); and she has a boss/pet kink dynamic with the other partner, with whom she’s just celebrated her third anniversary.
I’ve gone into detail about the length of the relationships involved to demonstrate that polyamory can indeed – contrary to the claims of many – be sustainable over a long period. In the book “The Myth of Monogamy“4, first published in 2002, the authors put forward evidence that, contrary to the claims of mononormative5 society, humans are in general not ‘naturally’ (i.e. ‘evolutionarily’) monogamous6. They nevertheless conclude that despite this, monogamy is the best option for humans, claiming that “free love” experiments in 60s communes demonstrate that the alternatives can’t work. Strangely, the rapid – and continuing – growth of polyamorous relationships and communities seems to have escaped their attention.
So how does my poly setup work? Who spends time with whom, and when? Who sleeps with whom, and when? I’ll cover that next time.
1. A standard joke in polyamorous communities is “Polyamory is wrong – one shouldn’t mix Greek and Latin roots like that!”
2. Thus, although some people label their marital affairs as being ‘polyamory’, despite their spouse being unaware and unconsenting, they’re incorrect by definition.
3. ‘Handfasting’ is a pagan commitment ceremony. It can take a number of forms; a common one involves committing to a partner for at least a year and a day, after which both parties involved can decided whether or not they wish to continue being in the relationship. In my specific case, however, handfasting is a sign of lifelong commitment to a partner.
4. “The Myth of Monogamy“, by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton.
5. I here use the word ‘mononormative’ to refer to the assumption that monogamy is ‘natural’ for humans or at any rate the ‘ideal’ relationship arrangement that everybody should aspire to. In that sense, Western society and its mass media are both highly mononormative.
6. Another book putting forward evidence against the notion of humans being ‘naturally’ monogamous is “Sex at Dawn“, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. This in turn has recently been critiqued by Lynn Saxon in her book “Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from ‘Sex at Dawn’“.