Polyamory has become a more widely known term over the past few years. Certain misconceptions and misunderstandings about how to define polyamorous relationships have become clearly much more widespread as well. It would be difficult to say which among these misunderstandings is the most common, or the most hurtful to us polyamorous people. But there’s one in particular that I’d like to discuss: the idea that “polyamory” means “committed couple who have casual sex partners on the side.”
There has been a lot of talk about “open marriage” and “open relationships” in recent years, with some even paradoxically dubbing non-monogamy “the new monogamy.” In this open-marriage conception of non-monogamous relationships, there is still a central, committed (often legally married) couple, who allow one another to engage in purely sexual (or at least quite casual) outside relationships. In general, any discussion about the benefits of such practice revolves around how it strengthens and/or reinvigorates the committed couple in question. I don’t see anything wrong with strictly sexual non-monogamy so long as it’s genuinely fulfilling and consensual for all involved, including the outside element. But for those of us living in polyamorous families, it can be incredibly frustrating when people use those concepts of open marriage to make assumptions about the structure of our relationships.
As we live in such a monogamy-centered society, it makes sense that many people can only conceive of non-monogamy in what ultimately still amounts to monogamous terms. There is also a common misconception that will define a polyamorous relationship as no different from an open-relationship agreement: one committed couple, with some light-hearted fun on the side. But the word “polyamory,” by definition, means loving more than one. Many of us have deeply committed polyamorous relationships with more than one partner, with no hierarchy among them and no core “couple” at the heart of it all. To me, this notion that there must be one more important relationship, one true love, feels a lot like people looking at same-sex couples and thinking that one person must be the “man” in the relationship and the other must be the “woman.” After all, both of these misunderstandings result from people trying to graft their conceptions of love and relationships onto people who are partnering in non-normative ways. It seems that it is somewhat easy for many people to acknowledge that humans are capable of loving one person and still enjoying sex with others (assuming, of course, that the terms of their relationship make such behaviour acceptable). It is much harder for people to think outside the romantic notion of “the one” and imagine that it might be possible to actually romantically love more than one person simultaneously.
The problem with this is that, for those of us in more than one deep relationship, the world around us insists on viewing one of those relationships as less valid than the other, especially when one relationship happens to pre-date others. I have been with my husband for 3 years, legally married for 4. But I am also deeply in love with and committed to my boyfriend of two and a half years and my girlfriend of 1 year and it hurts that people make assumptions about that relationship simply being something frivolous and recreational outside my marriage.
Another side effect of this misunderstanding is that people often wonder why we poly people need to talk openly about “what happens behind closed doors.” I have heard many times that there should be no reason to disclose one’s polyamorous relationships with parents, children, or the neighbors. That might seem logical if what we’re talking about is strictly extramarital sexual partners. But my life with my partners isn’t reducible to “what happens behind closed doors” any more than any serious, long-term relationship is. We share a home and a life; we are a family. Openly, publicly acknowledging my boyfriend and girlfriend as my partners is not just saying that we have sex. It’s saying that, like my husband, they are my partner in every sense of the word. They love me and support me and respect me. They see me at my worst and still wants to spend their life with me anyway. It would be unimaginable to me to hide the nature of our relationship, to pretend that they are merely a friend or room mate, to not have them by my side at weddings and funerals and family holiday gatherings. But this is exactly what people are expecting of me when they ask why I feel the need to be so “open” about my “private business.”
Not all polyamorous people have multiple equally committed relationships, and many do designate a more central (typically live-in) relationship as “primary.” But my partners and I are hardly unusual among polyamorous folks. Many share homes in configurations like ours, or as committed triads or quads or complex networks of five or more. Many have deep and lasting relationships with no cohabitation at all. To project traditional conceptions of love and commitment onto these relationships, to view them only as a slight variation on monogamy, is to deny all of the many varied ways that polyamorous people form relationships and families.
If you have polyamorous friends, relatives, or acquaintances, please don’t make assumptions about their lives based on what you think all non-monogamous configurations look like. Let them tell you how they define their relationships. And if they identify multiple people as their partners, don’t try to read into who is more important than whom, imagining hierarchies even if you’re told there are none. Though it might not fit with how you conceptualize love, offer polyamorous relationships the same validation that you would offer any other. And remember what a common human thing it is to want to be able to tell the world — and not be told by the world — whom we love. See How To Have A Polyamorous Relationship
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