Polyamory is often defined as the act — or what Merriam-Webster calls “a state or practice” — of actively juggling more than one intimate relationship at a time, in an open fashion amongst its participants. Within this definition, polyamory can be seen as a performance of multiple sexually or romantically committed relationships upon the stage of one’s own daily life; a show populated by those ensemble members who enter and exit said relationships. For many, this is an exceptional effort at balancing one’s emotional, physical, and mental energy with other people. For others, the effort seems impossible and, perhaps, even unethical. As we examine this month’s theme of growing up, we consider the question of what it means to grow up with respect to intimate relationships, in particular examining the often misunderstood practice of polyamory.
In reality, it is rare to find someone whose entire romantic and sexual life has been spent with only one individual, without any infidelity or exploration outside the relationship. In fact, becoming “exclusive” is an important event for a monogamous couple. Other than that particular event, when compared to each other, the life cycle of the polyamorous person is not actually that different from that of the monogamous person. Like monogamous individuals, polyamorous individuals may marry, have children, and participate in many of the traditional milestones of intimate adult life. The only major difference may be a matter of “organization” in terms of the relationship(s) at hand.
One of the leading researchers in the study of polyamory is psychologist Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, whose work focuses a lot on children in polyamorous families. As such, much of her research asks important questions about how couples and families ‘perform’ their relationships (perhaps as parents, perhaps not) within the context of polyamory. Consider the following question and click through these options as provided by Sheff in her Non-Monogamies Survey, a questionnaire designed and shared for use by the research community — how many of these do you agree/disagree with as a method of structuring your intimate relationships?
People choose to organize their sexual and romantic lives in many different ways. We’re interested in hearing about your feelings regarding some of the ways people practice relationships. In each case, we’d like you to say whether you find the practice always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all:
Posing this question — and asking for a response in judgment — implies polyamorous individuals engage in a wide variety of relationships, much like monogamous individuals, with a spectrum of moral deliberations to consider. What one polyamorous person might understand as morally okay, another might dislike or condemn. While we don’t know the results of Sheff’s survey with regards to this specific question, based on most understandings of polyamory and its values — in particular, the importance of transparency — it is likely that most polyamorous individuals would reject relationships involving deception and the withholding of information as not truly polyamorous.
Speaking of values, many polyamory groups see their ethics as a wide-ranging and philosophical perspective. As such, many polyamory communities resist comparisons with kink scenes such as BDSM, where a set of guidelines or rules are necessarily put in place during play in order to protect participants. Both kink and polyamory communities are necessarily attentive to the centrality of transparency and consent. However, some polyamorous individuals consider their lifestyle a ‘worldview’ rather than a ‘kink.’ This is particularly because kink often centers around a time-delineated and regulated “scene,” while polyamory does not have such clearly defined areas of relevance. Furthermore, kink and polyamory are not mutually exclusive. Polyamorous websites repeatedly reference their commitment to open and honest communication, transparency with all partners, and support for any children involved in these unions. These values are so important that they are described on the Wikipedia page for polyamory as follows:
Separate from polyamory as a philosophical basis for relationship, are the practical ways in which people who live polyamorously arrange their lives and handle certain issues, as compared to those of a generally more socially acceptable monogamous arrangement.
So what are these “practical ways,” these rituals and performative mindsets of polyamory life?
Understood in this fashion, polyamory is less about the oft-cited multiplicity of sexual partners (and the temptation that it’s all about sex) and more about the ability to maturely handle and nurture all these relationships — sexual and non-sexual — in a responsible and ethical manner, without depriving any of the involved parties of their freedom and dignity. In fact, some of the most compelling and powerful performances of polyamory may be the ones we don’t get see at all; the ones where, on the surface, we only see happiness and satisfaction. Shouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of any kind of human intimacy?
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