Polyamory, sometimes abbreviated as “poly,” is described as “consensual, ethical, or responsible non-monogamy.” It is also sometimes used in a broader sense to mean “sexual or romantic relationships that are not sexually exclusive…” with the critical emphasis on “ethics, honesty, and transparency all around.”While there are undoubtedly more, let’s look at a few ways modern couples are bucking convention when it comes to redefining union, love and loyalty. The following “polyamorous” arrangements involve married couples (made up of two) inviting others into their union in emotional and/or sexual contexts:
This type of relationship refers to multiple, romantic relationships combined into one, with sexual contact limited only to specific partners in the group. This may include all members of that group, but doesn’t have to. Some refer to this as “group marriage.”
The “triad relationship,” as its name hints, involves three people who are romantically involved. The triad relationship is often initiated by an established couple that jointly dates a third person. The third person can be emotionally and/or sexually involved with the couple.
As its name also suggests, a “quad relationship” is one that exists between two couples (involving four people). Different from “swinging,” the quad relationship usually involves only the two identified couples, and can include the formation of deep, emotional bonds.
A “mono/polyrelationship” involves one partner who is monogamous but agrees to allow the other partner to have outside relationships.
Open Relationship/Open Marriage
An “open” relationship involves a core partnership that is inviting to other groups of partners and (separating it from the “quad relationship” already mentioned) usually involves varying core couples partnering with one another. The other defining difference is that open relationships usually are only “open” sexually, while “exclusive” emotionally. In other words, there is still an emphasis on emotional loyalty between the core couple(s) while more sexual boundaries are inclusive of others. The “open” relationship/marriage is also commonly referred to as “swinging.”
Polyamory: Pros and Cons
In a popular piece featured in the New York Times, writer Alex Williams met with a group of New Yorkers who practice polyamory. In his acclaimed piece, Hopelessly Devoted to You, You and You, Williams noted:
Polyamory gained a degree of cultural vogue in the sexual revolution of the 1970s, when books like Open Marriage made best-seller lists and swingers capitalized on the concept to justify experimentation.
Whether experimentation or something more, the practice (complete with its many configurations!) has survived the eras. Though unmarried as yet, Ms. Adams and Mr. Vessell, two individuals included in an “open relationship” interviewed in the Times piece, talked with reporter Alex Williams about their decision to engage in a polyamorous arrangement.
Ms. Adams, a former Lutheran minister raised by devout Christians and openly “skeptical about monogamy from the time she was a child” said, “I always had this lurking concern… How am I going to find a man and be married to him for 60 years?”
Mr. Vessel, also reared in a monogamous, nuclear household, commented that he felt monogamy “sold something short” – the “idea of flexibility.”
While many polygamous relationships include heterosexual partners, both Allen and Vessel are bisexual and openly see steady partners of the same sex, in addition to one another. But, summarizes Williams in the Times piece, polyamory is not just about “boundless sex.” There is a lot of communication and planning that goes into maintaining the lifestyle (which, for the New York couple interviewed, in addition to frequent check-ins to talk through things like unexpected jealousy, social pressure, etc., involves the commitment of diligently maintaining a dating calendar through shared Google docs).
The individuals explained that in open relationships, “relationship rules” become even more important because of the “emotional and health hazards involved in having multiple partners. All parties are expected to give full disclosure about whom they are seeing and what they are doing.” That can amount to a whole lot of work!
David Barash, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington and co-author of The Myth of Monogamy, tells us:
There are a wide variety of open-relationship models out there, and they can vary drastically from one couple to another… Having an open relationship can work really well for some people… However, as people, we’re also inclined to be sexually jealous of a partner being with someone else, and from a biological standpoint, we’re resistant to that partner having another relationship.
Relationship expert and nationally syndicated Radio Chick Leslie Gold, adds:
Usually, you see open relationships in one of two situations… There are the kind people who engage in them because their partner is a rock star or a politician and they’re getting something else out of the situation, like status. And then the other category is when it’s just a person who likes to have sex with a lot of other individuals. Both types of relationships can survive, but you have a lot of minefields to overcome to make it happen.
Ultimately, as with any topic that may arise within the boundaries of love & marriage, polyamory has to be something partners venture into together, in a safe and mutually supportive way. It would also benefit couples wanting to experiment with an open relationship lifestyle to have the qualifier in place that if it doesn’t work out (i.e., if involved parties begin to feel hurt, jealous, judged, cheated or any other of a host of possible negative outcomes resulting from the arrangement), it’s okay to change the rules of the game. It’s alright to say, “We tried it, and this isn’t the thing that works best for us.” (It doesn’t really matter why.) If, on the other hand, polyamory works great for a couple, and the pros of the lifestyle choice consistently outweigh the cons, then “No need,” as they say, “to fix what’s not broken.”
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