Exploring Polyamory

Note: This article was written in APA format in 2011. Some of the information contained in this article may be slightly outdated.polyamory

“The more you love, the more you can love — and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.” – Robert Heinlein, 1987

Definition of Polyamory

Polyamory, also known as poly, is the philosophy and practice of loving more than one individual with the emphasis of honesty and integrity within all relationships. To distinguish from infidelity, it is also considered a responsible, intentional and ethical non-monogamy (McCullough & Hall, 2003). Polyamory is practiced in several ways but one thing every poly relationship has in common is clear and open communication with any partners engaged in a relationship. In addition, polyamorists share the philosophy that sex is pleasurable and a natural part of being human but is not synonymous with love (Lewis, 2011; McCullough & Hall, 2003).

Lewis (2011) defines a few types of polyamory relationships. An Open Relationship is when there is a primary relationship (partners are called primary) and is open to emotional and/or sexual relationships that may or may not include primary partners. The individuals in the relationships that occur outside of the primary relationship are called secondary, with the understanding that they are given less priority than the primary. Many times, the secondary is limited to specific activities, which may or may not include sexual activities that the primary agrees on (Lewis, 2011).

A Vee is a relationship with three people, where one person is involved sexually/emotionally/romantically with two people who are not involved with each other, as opposed to a Triad where three people are involved with one another. A Polyfidelity is a relationship that includes three or more people who are not permitted external partners. A Triad may or may not be a polyfidelity (Lewis, 2011).

Contrary to popular belief, polyamory is not the same as Swinging. Swinging is a recreational activity where couples exchange partners for the purpose of sex (McCullough & Hall, 2003). Unlike polyamory, swinging prohibits intimacy among partners outside of the original couple relationship (McCullough & Hall, 2003). McCullough, et.al, (2003) explain that monogamists created this misunderstanding about polyamory in order to undermine its value.

Monogamy as a Standard

Monogamy is highly valued in the United States; it is the standard in which law, media and education are built upon (McCullough & Hall, 2003). Polyamory has no protection, validation or consideration in U.S. institutions (Black, 2006). To understand the position of Polyamorists in the US, we must look at how the concept of monogamy benefitted society, to the point of becoming the standard relationship.

Dupanloup, Pereira, Bertorelle, Calafell, Prata, Amorim and Barbujani (2003) found a correlation between emerging agricultural societies, monogamy and partriarchal culture. As societies began to settle and farm, they watched animals copulating, which is how they learned about the necessity men in reproduction (Ryan & Jethá, 2011). Once homo sapiens understood that the male species contributes to the birth of offspring, property/inheritance became relevant (Dupanloup, et.al., 2003) and children were no longer raised by the women of a tribe, they now had identified male and female parents (Ryan & Jethá, 2011). With the influence of property/money, extreme circumstances (cannot “afford” too many children) and religion, it became more convenient and essential to keep only one spouse therefore turning monogamy into a valued practiced. In turn, multiple spouses seemed uncivilized and therefore prohibited (Ryan & Jethá, 2011).

Polyamory and the Law

Low (2003) explains that biologists determine monogamy based on genetic and social monogamy. Genetic monogamy is a mutually exclusive reproductive mating arrangement between two partners. Social monogamy is when two individuals cohabitate, have sex with each other and cooperate in acquiring basic resources such as food, clothes, and money (Low, 2003).

The author observes that based on those definitions, monogamy is not the primary mating system in the U.S. According to 2006 statistics of blended families, 60% of all remarriages end in legal divorce, 75% of divorced people remarry and 65% of remarriages involve children from prior marriages (Blended family statistics, 2006). 2010 statistics of rates of infidelity and extra-marital affairs indicates that 57% and 54% of men and women, respectively, admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had.

Black (2006) explains that while polyamory seems like an unusual family structure, given the statistics of blended families and infidelities and considering open adoptions, gay couples who utilize a known surrogate or sperm donor are all practicing some deviation from the traditional, nuclear family. Black (2006) insists that U.S. law is lacking and needs to work towards accommodating the needs of alternative family configurations.

While blended families and open adoptions are non-traditional, they are legally recognized family structures and relationships and therefore protected by the law (Black, 2006). Polyamory is not legally recognized, which leaves polyamorists vulnerable to employment discrimination and risk of losing custody of children. Additionally, there are no legal benefits in multiple partnerships such as inheritance, property, child custody, medical insurance, etc. (Black, 2006). Tweedy (2010) adds that polyamorists social repercussions such as loss of social standing in monogamous society resulting in loss of friends, alienation from the family of origin and being ostracized from spiritual or other communities. The author finds it interesting that in the case of infidelity and divorce, there is no legal action to remove children from parental guardianship, but when there is a loving and honest open-relationship/ poly-fidelity with a strong bond, children are considered at risk. In both cases, more than 2 people are involved in a relationship, but in one of them there is stability in the foundation of the family.

Tweedy (2010) proposes that the definition of “sexual orientation” should be modified to include polyamory for the purposes of anti-discrimination law. Her analysis discusses whether polyamory should be seen as a sexual identity and if that warrants the title of a sexual orientation. While she agrees that polyamory is a choice while LGBT identity is not, monogamy is a choice while heterosexual identity is not. Tweedy’s (2010) research concluded that polyamorists are split about whether they want to identify polyamory as an identity. One group explains that they appreciate the fluidity and freedom of polyamory and fear that an official identity will limit them, while another group insists that being polyamorous is part of their identity, even if they are not in a relationship or currently engaging in a monogamous relationship. To the group that argues that Polyamory is an identity, polyamory is a philosophy and a value that is constant (Tweedy, 2010; Barker, 2006). Barker (2006) explains that polyamorous people do not “do” polyamory but “are” polyamorous, an identity that relates to their orientation. Once one accepts a polyamorous lifestyle, they are faced with questions that challenge societal standards, as they recognize that they do not fit into the standards. This level of introspection increases self-awareness, which permits deeper communication between partners (Barker, 2005).

Polyamorous Relationships

In order for a polyamorous relationship to function, each person must be able to communicate their feelings and vulnerabilities to their partners. The culture of clear, open and honest communication within polyamory strengthens the bonds between partners (Lewis, 2011). Lewis (2011) explains that there is no difference in marital stability on sexual exclusivity in married relationships. In fact, Poly relationships seem to be stronger due to the constant efforts each partner contributes to maintain the love in the relationship. While this is a source of great pressure, they work hard not to take one another for granted.

Polyamorists value the interpersonal relationships among their multiple partners and often have to defend themselves by clarifying that it is not just about sex (Melby, 2007). The intimacy of the relationship(s) increases through sharing of feelings and vulnerabilities that arise when considering new partners and negotiating details. Many polys consider it freeing to be able to share this with their partner(s) instead of feeling guilt/shame for fantasizing and/or acting out an infidelity. In addition to being transparent, partners have indicated that they appreciate their partner’s entrusting them with their deepest desires, even if it might hurt, they explain that it is preferred over hiding a lack of satisfaction (Melby, 2007).

Case Example: Chris and Kate

Chris and Kate are together for 7 years. They are happy in their relationship and are seeking assistance in creating a poly contract. Kate and Chris identify as dominants and are interested in finding female submissives for BDSM activity and exploration. Kate explained that 1 year ago, Kate and Chris ended a 2-year relationship with Ana, a submissive that they met online. For one year, Kate and Chris worked on their relationship and attempted to switch roles between them as dominant and submissive, but it did not work for them. They concluded that they need to have at least one other person to be submissive between them, but they do not want to repeat old patterns.

The relationship began with Kate as Ana’s mistress, and then Chris discovered that he was interested in joining the relationship as a master to Ana as well. As the relationship progressed, Kate noticed that her position as a primary in Chris’ life was being shared and Ana’s position in the triad became more egalitarian. Kate and Chris stopped having sex and Kate began to withdraw from her relationship with Ana. Kate worried that Chris and Ana were violating the clause in the contract that stated that there will be no oral, digital or penetrative sex with Ana, only BDSM activities that Ana approves of. Kate explained that her insecurities caused her to be jealous of Chris and Ana’s growing relationship and she felt isolated from the triad.

Assessment

Bartle-Haring & Lal (2010) explored Bowen’s intergenerational theory in couple’s therapy. They explained that the concept of the “Emotional Triangle” refers to the strain of a third “object,” in this case it is Ana, who changes the configuration of the triangle. As long as Ana stayed in her position as a secondary partner, the triangle is balanced. When Ana and Chris’ bond became stronger, Kate withdrew herself and became the “odd man out.”

Bartle-Haring, et.al (2010) explain that the outsider of the triangle works to get closer to one of the “insider” members. Lewis (2011) explains that polyamorists who agree to secondary placement in a relationship understand that attempting to change the dynamic is a violation of the commitment agreement of the relationship. This author translates that into Bowen’s triangle theory, the “outsider” is satisfied with their position and does not attempt closeness with one of the insiders. This author theorizes that in this case, Ana was in fact an “insider” by the definition of the relationship as long as she maintained her position as a secondary. Once Ana’s position changed, she became an outsider until Kate did.

Sheinkman & Dekoven-Fishbane (2004) discuss the vulnerability cycle in a couple’s impasse. They explain that a variety of vulnerabilities within a relationship, will confirm “myths” or theories that each member in the relationship creates in order to maintain a conflicting dynamic (Sheinkman & Fishbane, 2004). Kate’s initial belief that Chris and Ana were violating the poly contract by having sex, which explained why Chris was not having sex with her, caused Kate to feel depressed, rejected and lonely. Kate’s “survival strategy” to her depression and loneliness was to act withdrawn, self-sufficient and to hide her insecurities about the relationship. Kate explained that she felt it was wrong to feel jealous when she was the one who proposed opening up the relationship. Chris’ initial belief was that Kate needed Ana because he was not satisfying her, which caused him to feel jealous and somewhat vengeful toward Kate. His survival strategy was to join the BDSM relationship as a second dom so that Kate would feel what he was feeling. When Kate did not respond with jealousy, as Chris had hoped for, his belief that he was “not enough” for Kate was confirmed in his mind, so he retaliated further by getting closer to Ana.

Bowen’s triangulation theory explains that when there is tension among the insiders, the most uncomfortable member of the insiders of the triangle seeks to bond with the “outsider” (Bartle-Haring & Lal, 2010). There was tension from the beginning of this triad with Chris’ insecurities about Kate’s true intentions with opening up the relationship. Chris exemplifies this triangulation when he chose to bond with Ana.

Treatment

Long, Burnett & Thomas (2006) explain that when working with sexual minorities practitioners must be aware of their own biases. Weitzman, Davidson, Phillips, Fleckenstein, & Morotti-Meeker (2009) explain that in order for therapists to work competently with polyamorists, they must acknowledge that polyamory is a “valuable, viable relationship option” (p.19) and that if they cannot accept polyamory on that level that it is their obligation to refer poly clients to those who can. Additionally, it is very important to be sensitive to the specific needs of polyamorous relationships (Weitzman, et.al., 2009). Weitzman, et.al, (2009) suggests that as part of the therapeutic process, practitioner must inquire about polyamorists’ support systems. Are they “out” to their friends/family about being polyamorous? What do they tell people about their relationships? How have people that they have told reacted? Do they know other poly people? These questions indicate that therapists are aware that poly relationships have different needs than monogamous relationships (Weitzman, et.al., 2009). Similarly, in order to be clear with polyamorous clients that there is no assumption that the polyamorous relationship is to blame for the relationship’s issues, therapists should balance questions about polyamory with “typical” questions (Weitzman, et.al, 2009).

Step 1: Communication Skills and Intimacy

In the case of Chris and Kate, their triad and couple tensions had nothing to do with the fact that they were in a triad, but everything to do with insecurities and a lack of communication. Long, et.al, (2006) explain that trust, openness, love, affection, understanding and emotional safety are the basis of intimacy, which is necessary for relationships to enjoy sex with each other. Kate and Chris’s feelings of rejection caused jealousy and a lack of trust, which limited their ability to share their feelings with one another.

The author created a set of rules for the couple before discussing open communication skills. The first necessity is to create a safe space among the partners by helping them assign good intentions to one another, relieving any concerns that they say was for the purpose of hurting the other as well as maintaining an understanding that they do not intend to hurt one another (Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006). The second rule was to make time to speak (Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006), so the author and the couple created a schedule that dedicated 3 evenings a month just for speaking and emphasized that if an issue should arise, the couple must address it immediately, and not wait until the “speaking dates”. The author acknowledged that relationships have difficulty with time-management, especially when they include more than 2 people. The author chose to leave other aspects of time-management for the contract negotiating part of the therapeutic process. The final rule required the couple to work on eliminating fighting tactics, such as blaming, listing complaints, undermining, silent treatments, interruptions, poking at vulnerabilities and sending mixed messages (Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006). Promising to remove negative communication tactics, permitted the couple to assume good will and be willing to share their deepest concerns, desires and feelings.

When Kate and Chris felt comfortable sharing with each other, they needed to learn how to communicate with one another. The author conducted an “Active Listening” exercise in the session and urged Chris and Kate to try utilize this technique at home. Active listening begins by dedicating time to communication with each partner focused and interested on the other (Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006). In order to confirm that what was said was interpreted clearly, the listening partner paraphrases what they believe they heard. The listening partner must be aware of implicit messages and make sure to clarify them with the speaking partner. The couple is to move back and forth between each other until the speaking partner is satisfied with the listening partner’s understanding. Once the message is clear, the listening partner must acknowledge the vulnerability that was shared by the speaking partner. Partners should take turns discussing their thought, feelings, concerns and interests, as sharing is just as important as listening. When partners are discussing emotions, they must take ownership of them utilizing “I” statements in order to avoid blaming (Long, Burnett & Thomas, 2006). The author insisted that these techniques are helpful for negotiating contracts in the future.

Step 2: Addressing Jealousy and Self-Acceptance

Weitzman, et.al, (2009) explain that poly individuals work toward compersion, which is considered the opposite of jealousy. It is the ability to enjoy and gain pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with others but it is a difficult ideal to work towards. Jealousy is not a simple emotion, but a range of emotions that are compiled by several problems (Weitzman, et.al, 2009). Each problem must be taken apart and dealt with by renegotiating with partners, lowering the intensity of the sensitivity and increasing self-awareness. Functioning and stable polyamorous relationships are not exempt from issues of jealousy; they exhibit them in positive ways. Rational jealousy motivates partners to work harder for one another and therefore is not a threat to the relationship. Irrational jealousy is the type of jealousy that builds on insecurities and exhibits itself through heightened emotions and destructive behaviors (Weitzman, et.al, 2009).

Cook (2005) agrees that jealousy is built upon insecurities and suggests that individuals should work towards self-acceptance to reduce instances and intensity of jealousy. In order to remember positive aspects of oneself, even during moments when one feels rejected, it is helpful to do the following: (1) Find what you appreciate in others and notice how you manifest those qualities, (2) Keep a journal of the ways you manifest those qualities and a daily account of what you appreciated about yourself on that day, (3) Practice a good deed every day and notice how it makes you feel, (4) Tell people what you value about them, (5) Read your journal when you’re feeling bad about yourself (Cook, 2005).

Step 3: Exploring polyamory in Chris and Kate’s relationship

Cook (2005) explains that when couples consider opening their relationships, they must be sure of their intentions and motivations. She says that opening relationships are often a response to lacking in intimacy in the primary relationship, or a desire to please a partner without considering one’s own needs. If a couple is struggling, polyamory is not a good option for them, as it will destroy their relationship by avoiding the problems and building new ones (Cook, 2005).

Kate and Chris entered treatment in a positive place; they had worked through the difficulties in their relationship and declared their love and devotion for one another. The author chose to have individual sessions to answer a questionnaire, developed by Elaine Cook that would help determine if polyamory will destroy or strengthen their relationship. Both Kate and Chris agreed on the following:

  • Opening up their relationship to accept a submissive partner adds to their current relationship, since they both have a need that neither can fulfill.
  • They are increasing intimacy by including a submissive because they are able to share in each other’s interests. Since they learned new communication skills, they have been utilizing them and therefore not avoiding intimacy.
  • The consequences of including a person into the relationship have yet to be determined. Kate and Chris agreed that they would address all issues immediately in order to avoid a small problem from growing.
  • Including a submissive partner will encourage personal growth as it offers them the opportunity to explore their dominance.
  • When creating the contract, Kate and Chris promise to look for win-win compromises for each of them, which will address BOTH their needs.
  • Their motivations are to be able to explore their dominance with a willing participant who enjoys being submissive and grow intimately with their primary by sharing their experiences with each other (either by watching or speaking about it).
  • At this point in their lives, Kate and Chris believed that they would be able to fit this activity into their lives, while making sure not to neglect each other. They attended time-management seminars and the techniques were working for them.
  • They both were very excited about the idea of exploring this with each other and believed that it was life affirming, as it validated their interests.
  • Kate was not able to pin point what her inner voice was saying about this. At first she was fearful that she and Chris would be in a similar situation as their last relationship, but they would not be able to recover from it. After the skills learned in treatment and the slow pace of getting to the point of finding a submissive, helps her feel more confident that polyamory will be great for them. Chris said that he no longer has an inner voice because he speaks it out loud, which gives him the faith that he and Kate will be fine no matter what the circumstance.

Step 4: Defining commitment, creating negotiations

Ritchie and Barker (2006) explain that Western society’s definitions of commitment are vague and assume that any version of non-monogamy is a violation. They suggest that conventional definitions of jealousy, infidelity, commitment, love and partnerships constrain the scope of Polyamory by being mono-normative. In order to create a clear contract, it is important for the members of poly relationships to create their own definitions for such limited words (Weitzman, et.al, 2009).

Barker (2005) explains that because concepts such as love, relationship, commitment, infidelity, etc. are socially constructed, it is preferred to offer the space for polyamorists to create their sexual stories as opposed to limiting them to the existing definitions. This author chose to begin negotiations, by asking Kate and Chris to share their stories, in a joint session, by focusing on their sexuality (history, desires, fantasies, misconceptions, etc.). This narrative technique revealed patterns and innermost thoughts about Chris and Kate, which offered a deeper understanding of one another. Long, et.al, (2006) explain that narrative approaches are utilized to validate people’s experiences by offering space to tell their stories and acknowledge their construction of reality and essentially exploring unique solutions to problems or concerns.

Once Kate and Chris created their own definition of commitment and infidelity, they were able to begin negotiating their Polyamory contract. The decided on factors such as how a partner is chosen, the number of partners permitted into the relationship, length of the relationship with secondary partners, time and location restrictions, specific sexual acts, use of protection, requiring consent before meeting with secondary partner and repercussions for violating the contract (Weitzman, et.al, 2009). Weitzman, et.al, (2009) warn that it is a grave mistake to assume that poly contracts are stagnant since relationships grow, mature and change as the members do and that it is necessary to revisit contracts and change them if necessary. Exit strategies should also be considered when creating contracts in case Polyamory no longer suits the primary relationship (i.e. new time constraints, illness, children, etc.).

Discussion

Working with Kate and Chris revealed how little I knew about competently working with polyamorous relationships. Weitzman, et.al, (2009) explain that practitioners should remove themselves from the “expert” role and exercise insight and sensitivity when exploring problems in poly relationships. Therapists should be extremely self-aware about their feelings and constantly check-in with themselves and supervisors to be sure not to cause any harm to clients through judgment, assumptions or bias (Weitzman, et.al, 2009).

Due to unemployment and a limited professional license, I was not permitted to work with Kate and Chris professionally, but offered my insights as a “knowledgeable friend.” After we were clear on the terms of our relationship, we drafted a contract where I promised confidentiality and they promised not to sue. I was very anxious about working with them so I did my due diligence and began searching for techniques for working with polyamorous relationships. Most of my research resulted in blogs where polyamorists discussed their needs, concerns, contracting tools. There were a few articles written between 2000 and 2011, but majority of them seemed to be from mid-1970 to mid-1980.

Cook (2005) explains that the research in the 1970’s was to address the “free love” and commune culture that began in the 1960’s. By the 1980’s, attention to that culture died down and existing polyamorists went underground to avoid social, financial and legal ramifications. The Internet brought more attention and members to Polyamory and the re-emergence is begging for updated research (Cook, 2005). Cook’s (2005) research explains that institutions and researchers fear sponsoring research on polyamory because it threatens society’s idea of marriage, thus putting institutions at risk for public scrutiny. As a result the only people who are conducting current research on Polyamory are the people who stand to gain from it, polyamorists. Until there are more brave researchers (that are willing to fund their own research) and more public demand for research on Polyamory, most of what is written will be unpublished and not very accessible.

References

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