Polyamory (“poly” meaning many, and “amory” meaning “love” or “lovers”) is the practice of being open to multiple sexual or emotional relationships at once. There is a common misconception that polyamory is mainly about promiscuity.1 However, many polyamorous people engage in long-term relationships with multiple partners in which they are emotionally invested.2 Polyamory not cheating, in which individuals engage in sexual activity with a partner outside of their established, monogamous relationship and without the consent or knowledge of their partner. Most polyamorous communities encourage honesty, consent, and full disclosure between all partners.1 Polyamorous people emphasize genuine relationships rather than meaningless sex. Often, polyamorous people will have a primary partner that they spend the most time with and secondary partners on the side who they spend less time with, but to whom they are still committed.2 However, not all polyamorous people identify as having “primary” partner(s) and “secondary” partner(s) and have similar levels of involvement with all of their partners. There are many other variations, however, such as triads or quads (where three or four people are in a relationship together) and swinging, where multiple couples continuously trade sexual partners. A more widely known type of polyamory is the practice of polygamy, in which individuals have more than one spouse. This form of marriage is illegal in the United States (US). The most common variation of polygamy is polygyny, in which one man has multiple wives. Although polygamy and polygyny are technically forms of polyamory, most self-identified polyamorists encourage all partners to have multiple partners.3 Polyamorists do not agree on one definition of polyamory, making them a difficult population to study.
Different Types of Polyamory
- Swinging– a practice in which established couples trade or switch off sexual partners. Swinging generally focuses on recreational sex, although in some cases more genuine bonds develop.2
- Hierarchical polyamory– relationships in which individuals have “primary” partner(s) and “secondary” partner(s). The definition of these two terms vary from person to person, but in general a primary partner is a more serious, spouse-like partner. Oftentimes, primary partners will share finances, live together, or raise children together. Secondary partners do less of these traditional spouse-like activities and are generally considered less involved partners.2
- Polyfidelious relationships– relationships in which it is considered cheating if individuals engage in sexual activity with someone not part of their established polyamorous relationship. For example, people involved in a trio or quad could agree that they will only have sexual encounters with people within the group.2
- Geometric configurations– relationship structures that refer to how each person is connected in a polyamorous network. For example, a “V” relationship describes a relationship with three people, with one person dating two separate individuals who would likely go their separate ways without the common partner connection. An “N” configuration describes a person that is dating two different individuals, one of which is also dating a different person. (Each point of the letter represents a person, while the lines in the letter show their connection.)2
- Mono/poly connections– two-person relationships in which one person is polyamorous and has multiple partners, while the other person is purely monogamous (but still aware of their partner’s other partners)2
- Group relationships– relationships in which people in a group consider themselves associated with one another and in a relationship with one another.2
There are a many different types of polyamorous relationships, and it may take trying out different types before finding one that works best for you.
Studies on Polyamory
In a study done on 1,093 polyamorists at the University of Georgia, individuals averaged nine years with their “primary” partner, and about two and a half years with their “secondary” partner(s).1 This same study found that polyamorous individuals reported more satisfaction and emotional support by their primary partner, disproving a commonly held belief that people enter in to polyamorous relationships because they are dissatisfied with their partner.1
A 2012 survey conducted by Big Love sampled 4,062 individuals that identified as polyamorous, aged between 16 and 92 and living in the US. The survey found that there were more women than men that identified as polyamory, with 49.5% of the sample being women, 35.4% of the sample being men, and 15.1% declining to answer or identifying as gender queer. Although participants were not asked to disclose what their sexual orientation was, about 20% of participants engaged in bisexual behavior in the last year, meaning that they had been sexually active with both men and women.4 The study also found that in comparison to the general population, polyamorous people are slightly happier. The study also found that 25% of the participants experienced discrimination due to their polyamorous lifestyle.4 The Gallup Poll has found that toleration rates for polyamory were 16% in 2015, up from a mere 7% in 2001 and 2002 among the general US population.4 This increase falls in line with a growing acceptance in the US of relationships that fall outside of the traditional “male-female” marriage.
Demographics of Polyamorous People
An estimated 1.2 to 2.4 million people have tried consensual non-monogamy in the United States.4 Little research has been done on polyamorous relationships, but several studies have found that bisexual, gay, and lesbian individuals are more likely to be involved in polyamorous relationships than heterosexual people.3 This finding suggests that more sexually liberated or open people are more likely to explore polyamorous relationships. Also, polyamorous people are more highly educated than the general population, with more masters and doctoral degrees.3 Although they are more educated, they are not especially wealthy, and it has been suggested that this demographic values new experiences over wealth.3
Polyamory and the Law
Polyamorous relationships do not have marital rights by law in the United States and most westernized countries. However, there have been some recent attempts to introduce legislature addressing this lack of representation. In California, a bill titled “SB1476” was introduced to allow legal guardianship of a child to be granted to more than two parents. The bill would have applied to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. In August of 2012, a civil union between three people was approved in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In India, as of 2006, marriage laws vary based on the religion of the participants. For Hindu, Jains, and Sikhs, polygamy is prohibited. In contrast, Muslims in India are allowed to have multiple wives.
If you and your partner are thinking about expanding your relationship to include other people, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First and foremost, communication is highly important. Many polyamorous people establish initial ground rules. These rules oftentimes include things such as the power to veto who their partner is dating, what kind of sexual acts each person is comfortable doing with others, and complete, honest disclosure about all relationships. It is important to periodically schedule checkups with your partner to make sure you are still on the same page and comfortable with what is happening.
Not only is it important to communicate with your primary partner, but it is also crucial to be prepared for open communication with other sexual or romantic partners. If you have a primary partner and are seeking someone out as a second, it is essential to be honest with your new partner about your polyamorous relationship. Also be sure to use protection and to ask all your partners to get tested for STIs before engaging in any sexual activity, especially if they have multiple partners as this greatly increases the likelihood of contracting an STI. Similarly, make sure that you are getting tested regularly and using protection. Ideally, polyamorous people look to other polyamorous people for their non-primary partners. However, identifying other polyamorous individuals can be difficult because many couples keep their polyamorous activities under wraps. For this reason, we would suggest joining a polyamorous community. There are many online forums that provide such resources.
Remember, it is important to not make finding a secondary partner a competition. For many couples who are just getting into polyamory, there is often a disparity between how many partners one partner has and how many partners the other has. If you begin to feel angry or jealous that your partner is “more successful” in the dating scene, talk about it openly with him or her and work on fixing it together. One option is to increase the time spent together so you do not feel alone in your relationship while your partner is out dating. Because the first time your partner has a date can be stressful for you, we suggest that you try to spend this time doing something fun and relaxing with a few friends.
Finally, it is very important to consider that polyamory is not for everyone. Polyamory can only work if both partners are on board. It is essential that one partner does not coerce the other into such a relationship. If you find that jealousy is overtaking you and ruining your relationship, it might be a good idea to step back and rethink whether an open relationship is right for you.
Tips for Successful Polyamorous Relationships
- Do not try and force a specific type of relationship – You may have a preconceived notion of what type of relationship you want with a specific person, but realize that your partner may want something completely different. Try not to coerce your partner into a specific relationship structure.5 Instead, communicate and ask your partners what they are looking for in a relationship, and share what you desire in a relationship so that you can set ground rules come up with a mutually beneficial relationship type.
- Do not compare your own relationship with your partner to the relationship your partner has with someone else – It can be easy to start comparing your own relationship to the relationship your partner has with someone else. For example, you may get upset that your partner slept with you once in a week but slept with another partner 3 times, or that your partner gave their partner a gift but did not give you one. Instead of turning your relationship into a competition, try to focus purely on your own relationship. Every relationship is different and every person has different needs. Rather than asking yourself if you are getting as much as your partner’s other partner, ask yourself if all your needs are being met. Also recognize that one partner may be going through a time in which he/she requires more emotional support, and your partner spending more time with him/her is not a sign that that you are less important.
- Communicate your needs clearly – It is can be very damaging to your relationship to assume that you partner can read your mind.5 Be sure to communicate your emotions and needs clearly, and ask your partner to do the same. Small issues can become large ones if you continue not to address them, and although it can be uncomfortable, it is much more effective to address problems as soon as they arise. This principle is true in all relationships, polyamorous or not, but it is still important to keep in mind.
- Do not try polyamory to escape past recurrent relationship issues – If you have had a lot of relationship issues in the past, especially if these issues are centered on lacking communication, honesty, or commitment, polyamory is likely the wrong choice for you. It may be worthwhile to reflect on these issues and try to make positive changes in the future, rather than trying to enter into a more complex relationship dynamic. Many polyamorists say that their love lives require much more effort, communication and commitment than previous monogamous relationships, as there are more people involved. If you are seeking carefree fun rather than genuine emotional attachment, the poly community is probably not for you.5
Exploring polyamorous relationships can be an exciting time, but it is important to focus exclusively on your own relationships with your partners and to communicate openly with your partners in order to have successful relationships.
A Final Note
Polyamory is the practice of having multiple partners with the full knowledge and consent of all people involved. The practice is increasing in popularity and more research needs to be done to determine its effectiveness and the satisfaction levels of all participants. Poly communities encourage strong communication, transparency, and consent in each relationship. Polyamory is not for everyone, and the idea that polyamorous relationships are free of any boundaries is a misconception. Be sure to use protection, ask your partner(s) to get tested for STIs, and get yourself tested regularly, especially if you have multiple partners as it puts you at higher risk for contracting STIs.
Feel free to check out this cool video about polyamory!
- Pappas, Stephanie. “5 Myths About Polyamory.” Live Science. N.p., 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 23 May 2017.
- Veaux, Franklin. “Polyamory 101.” More Than Two. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
- Pappas, Stephanie. “New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You.” Live Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
- “Polyamory By the Numbers.” The Advocate. N.p., 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 May 2017.
- Veaux, Franklin. “Polyamorous Relationship Dos and Don’ts.” More Than Two. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
Last Updated: 03 October 2017.