Many people these days self-identify as “poly” – shorthand for their personal views on sexual exclusivity in relationships, i.e. they do not choose to practice monogamy, ostensibly without moral or ethical dilemma. While this may seem like flimsy justification of one’s desire to be promiscuous without consequences (and sometimes is), there are those for which polyamory is simply their natural state of being.
Not to be confused with polygamy, or marriage to multiple individuals, most polyamorous relationships are intended to be long-term. The label of polyamorist does not necessarily denote sexual involvement with all participants though sex is often a feature of these relationships. A collection of individuals involved in a polyamorous scenario can be thought of as forming a “grid” or “constellation.”
Labels like monogamy and polygamy are not helpful in describing polyamory. Both of these terms imply both marriage and sexual activity as preconditions, though monogamy is often used in lieu of “sexual exclusivity within a single relationship regardless of marital status.” Polygamy has subdivisions derived from the sex of the individual and the gamy status of their spouse(s), further compounding the implications of the words. Polygamists are necessarily polyamorists, though polyamorists need not be married. And a “monoamorist” might also be unmarried despite being in an exclusive relationship with another individual, who in fact could also be a polyamorist and/or polygamist.
There are at least three roles in any polyamorous grid. First is the polyamorist, the person with more than one lover. “Primary” refers to this person’s main relationship, whether it be a spouse or lover. Then there is the role of each of the Primary’s other lovers, “Peers” being a suitably egalitarian term. Primaries typically occupy the top spot of a grid, though Peers can also be Primaries in their own grids.
Monoamsrists typically regard polyamorists as cheaters despite the consent of each person in the poly grid. These diametrically opposed views enshrine or eschew several social constructs associated with “romantic” relationships. Two oft-cited aspects of polyamory are its moral and ethical considerations.
A moral person is considered one who closely follows the social precepts of his community, including the person’s ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Right and wrong are in themselves moral judgments that precipitate moral behavior.
Morals are values overlaid onto us by others in our circle, offering a pathway to minimizing conflict. Our first encounter with morals is usually in the context of family, where our first socialization happens. Then there are impositions made on us by political or social policies that may or may not reflect our true sentiment on a given issue, yet these sometimes emerge as expectations regarding our individual behavior.
Along the way we may also learn of religious morals, lessons to help the pious through some of life’s pitfalls. Religious morals can be among the most extreme and potentially dangerous. One example is the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity, laudable basic rules for getting along with others. A different example of morality can be seen in some interpretations of the Quran that purport to enforce imposition of Islam on everyone through any means necessary, including methods considered repugnant and immoral by other religions. Countless battles have been fought over these moral convictions and such conflicts still exist today, senseless wars for no other reason than to assert dominance over the thoughts of individuals that do not agree with their own.
The dangerous thing about morals is following them without regard for one’s own nature. Morals themselves are somewhat immoral, considering that their underlying purpose to is to exert control of others through self-policing. “Follow these rules or something bad will happen.” We’ve all heard, whether in a joke or from a parent feigning shocked outrage, how masturbation is immoral and causes blindness or some other nonsense. Yet it is in the nature of all simians to masturbate and we still somehow to have good eyesight. How could such an arbitrary moral imperative work to our advantage? Someone else judging you for acting normally and naturally, or worse, feeling guilt over “immoral” thoughts or deeds, is psychologically unhealthy. For a poly person, conflict with morality can lead to repression, and subsequently depression and its concomitant dysfunctions.
Can morals ever be useful to a polyamorist? Of course, when those morals are informed and guided by strong ethical character. Much of what is presented as morals is actually ethics swaddled in the guise of religious or spiritual memes. The Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” forms the basis of all ethical decisions. Recalling that morals partly reflect one’s interpretations of right and wrong, polyamorists are often considered immoral because their lifestyle does not agree with the values of some other person. But can a polyamorist be ethical?
Is a masturbating teen unethical? Of course not. Is it wrong to love someone in a way that isn’t in the role of parent or child or other family? Of course not – there would be far fewer people if it were wrong to love others. Is it wrong to love someone you aren’t married to, or to love someone who is married to another, or to love someone in addition to your spouse? Again, of course not. In the first instance, love presumably precedes marriage; in the second and third, how can people help how they feel? How does feeling love for another person make them wrong or guilty or even immoral?
Simply having feelings for another is not a bad thing, but how one reacts to those feelings can be subject to ethical considerations. Deciding how to proceed ethically balances the individual’s thought or desire against the impact of fulfillment – on themselves, on their loved ones, on others in general. The ethical decision usually favors the lowest negative impact while satisfying at least some element, even if only by entertaining a notion privately instead of doing something about it more publicly. Masturbation is therefore ethical, especially when compared to some other ways of relieving sexual tension.
An ethic is not sound if it relies on deceit as a prerequisite to fulfillment. A polyamorist who denies her feelings does herself a huge disservice by repressing her true nature. Likewise, one who keeps to herself the existence of multiple lovers does so at the expense of consent to the arrangement by the others, setting up potentially greater problems. To withhold such a large component of one’s personality is in itself a deceitful act, and the secret-keeper will never be fully content in any relationship. There is no ethical justification as all parties suffer in some way.
Successful, gratifying polyamory requires sharing some extra level of information about one’s feelings. Not everyone can abide the notion of not being “the only one” and feel rejected or slighted in some way when presented with a partner’s poly leanings. Not sharing enough information could result in having a partner that might otherwise be agreeable feeling left out. Too much information may cause feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. Balancing the truth of one’s existence with the feelings of others can create its own ethical dilemmas.
Many think of polyamorists as sex-crazed or insecure or addicted to love. This may be true in some instances, but the majority of poly folks focus on their partners holistically. Their relationships are in most respects normal and healthy, save the limitations imposed by time and locality. Some choose to live together as poly units to address these obstacles, and may even have children of partners living with them. In all cases, each participant is usually open about their love for others.
Troubled are those with poly leanings that cannot determine how to proceed ethically. “If I tell her she’ll dump me, and if I don’t she’ll catch me.” Keeping it to yourself would be deceitful, as would engaging in a clandestine relationship. The only ethical thing to do is decide how important it is to one’s well-being, and assuming it is critical, share that with the partners. The ones who cannot accept the distribution of feelings are are not likely to continue in the relationship, and even if they do there may be resentment.
But the polyamorist is not to blame for her feelings. It’s not a choice like dressing western or listening to rap or driving only blue cars. It’s a state of being, thinking lovingly of your special ones throughout the day, acting lovingly toward them when in their presence, caring for them lovingly in all things. If it were some sort of psychological condition or aberration, would not the polyamorous person fall in love with most everyone? There are mental disorders like that, but those don’t involve polyamory.
She is torn sometimes by the strength and depth of her feelings for her lovers. There are decisions about how to allocate time and resources. Time with one lover may need to be sacrificed for the benefit of another, like in the case of illness or injury or other major life event, or travel or holidays. Not all in the grid may be amenable to what they perceive as favoritism in such cases. She may also struggle with how much to share of her life with each lover, truly desiring to be completely open but unsure of their reactions.
She is not a slut and does not see herself this way. She may have many lovers and only have sex with one or a few of them or all of them, but these are her lovers exclusively. New individuals typically do not enter and exit; in fact, new lovers are seldom introduced into the grid if they’re not likely to be longer-term.
Chances are she’s neither insecure or love-starved, instead confident enough to be herself, with love in abundance. Having more than one lover does not mean she is not fulfilled by any one of them, or that they’re not good enough to be the “only one.” She feels attached to each one, perhaps more to some than others, but loves each one in whichever unique ways that develop with that individual. She is not obligated to take on multiple lovers, but desires and accepts each for who they are.
Inasmuch as polyamorists constitute a group with unusual characteristics, so do their lovers. These special people may be poly themselves, or might prefer to concentrate on one lover at a time, but in any case accept that they share someone with others that love her too, just as deeply, just as sincerely. These individuals can have and hold without barring the other half from their own fulfillment. To quote musicians .38 Special, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.”
There is something unique about each of the polyamorist’s lovers. Each offers something compelling, overlapping with others at times, widely differing in other ways: Personal tastes, areas of specialty, outlook on life, sexual proclivities, modes of expression. No one person can embody all things; accepting this truth is the first step toward understanding polyamory. One could argue that the polyamorist seeks to have more than they are entitled to, but what limits can there be on love? How much is too much? If it is an honest, healthy sentiment that forms of its own volition, should it reasonably be subject to arbitrary conditions?
A lover in a poly grid must accept the truths about the polyamorist and their other relationships, much as the polyamorist must accept this about themselves. However, the lover’s location in the poly grid and any relationship between other grid members may affect other aspects of the pairing. For a common example, a peer may not like one of others, either through some prior history or a perception of unsuitability for the lover they share. Another example involves one’s disapproval of activities their poly lover engages in when with another peer, such as drinking or drugs or skydiving or S&M. Or perhaps the lover questions the cleanliness or health or truthfulness or legal status of another grid member, all very valid concerns.
Overcoming the fear of losing the poly lover to someone else can be difficult to quell. But the polyamorist feels the same fear of loss with any of their lovers. The larger view is that a lover really shouldn’t fear this at all, considering that their poly lover chose them too and would not be in the relationship were it not for their desire to be there. Shucking the fear of loss removes one of the greatest obstacles to fully engaging and enjoying another person.
Competition with other lovers is seldom productive. So is criticizing them. Commiseration and being objectively supportive of the other lovers are productive efforts that can lead to deeper feelings of closeness and commitment. By projecting positivity toward the polyamorist’s lovers, one is also being good to the poly person, benefiting the entire grid. As memorialized by movie adventurers Bill & Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”
Polyamory in Practice
There is no standardized way of conducting polyamorous relationships, just as each conventional relationship may take any number of forms. A person may enter a relationship without their lifestyle changing significantly, or the new lover may bring a host of new activities and acquaintances.
One’s relationship status before acquiring the new lover has some bearing on how the new relationship might unfold. Being single with no other involvements may lead an individual to put more emotional energy into the new poly relationship. Already being in a relationship may create an atmosphere of increased relaxation, having an additional partner and their support. Either party may experience an increased desire to spend time with the new partner and sex may carry a higher level of priority, both normal aspects of new relationships.
Living situation also plays a role in integrating the new lover into one’s life. Someone who lives alone typically has little trouble hosting their lovers, while someone who co-habitates may have few opportunities to host. The length of time to be spent together can also affect the arrangements, like in the case of lovers that live in different cities. Planned activities may also dictate the arrangements, such as marathon sex or snow skiing or travel. Everyone in the poly grid can be affected when the polyamorist is absent or rearranges the schedule to fit circumstances.
Communication is the key to any relationship, and is even more important in polyamorous settings. All topics must always be on the table; uncomfortable topics likely carry more gravity than average and should be fully explored. Without adequate communication many potential pitfalls open up, such as bent relationship rules, boundary infringements, missed dates, broken promises.