Polyamory puts the “sensual” in consensual non-monogamy (CNM). In For Better For Worse: Essays on Sex, Love, Marriage, and More, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Oxford professor Dr. Neel Burton defines polyamory as the “philosophy or state of being romantically involved with more than one person at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all parties involved.” Notice the emphasis on romance–Dr. Burton contends that while being romantic, polyamorous relationships need not be sexual.
Once considered lascivious, throuples are making their way into the mainstream, on reality shows like HGTV’s House Hunters and fictional ones too, like The Politician. As our society opens up to more fluid sexuality and thinks in less fixed binary terms when it comes to gender, could we begin to consider relationship continuums, too?
Marriage, like love, or trust, or religious belief, is, as it must be, an act of faith that transcends reason and prudence.
The Problem with Monogamy
While monogamy may benefit society socially and economically (and may be how we got big brains), it isn’t necessarily natural. In fact, only about five percent of mammals are considered to be mostly monogamous. As the BBC puts it, “Monogamy remains more of an ideal than a reality.”
Lifelong monogamy is still evolving. Mutual attraction wasn’t even an important consideration until about a century ago and marriages only started to become equanimous as of the past 50 years. Now, marriage rates are at an all-time low, and divorce rates have followed suit.
In his book, Dr. Burton points out that “‘Till death do us part’ means a great deal more today than it ever did.” He pontificates that now people are living longer, divorce is doing the job that death once did. According to Dr. Burton, polyamory is closer to humankind’s natural state.
Polyamory vs Polygamy
Polyamory and polygamy are similar, although polygamy involves getting hitched. As Psychology Today states, “Technically, polyamory means multiple loves and polygamy means multiple spouses.” We all are all fairly familiar with the latter thanks to shows like Sister Wives, where one man has many wives. This form of polygamy is called polygyny and is much more common than one woman having many spouses, which is called polyandry. While polygamy remains illegal in the US and much of the world, polyamory is totally legal.
An Ethical Alternative to Infidelity
Monogamy works for many, but it also invites infidelity. With polyamory, the focus is on building relationships and intimacy among consenting parties. Instead of limiting yourself to one partner, “It allows for rewarding relationships with more than one person at a time, without the need to abandon one relationship for another, or to forego potentially rewarding relationships,” according to Dr. Burton. He observes, “Polyamory acknowledges that some people’s needs are best met by more than one person, and, conversely, relieves the pressure of having to meet all of another person’s needs.”
Advantages of Polyamory
Genetically, polyamory is advantageous to the species, but Dr. Burton explains why it hasn’t been practiced. He cites that, “Despite the potential genetic advantage to the offspring of having been fathered by a ‘fitter specimen’, in practice, cuckolding seems to have been kept in check by male jealousy, female fear of spousal aggression or abandonment, and social and religious codes that strongly discourage adultery.”
Polyamory enjoys many of the same benefits as any intimate relationship–you have another person to do things with, support you, and learn from. Of course, there are also logistical benefits as well to polyamory. As Healthline points out, “If you live together, for instance, there are more people to contribute to household upkeep and finances. If there are kids, there are more people to help with child-rearing responsibilities.” Having another person around to cook and clean doesn’t sound bad to me!
There’s a bunch of fun vocab that goes along with polyamory I thought we all should get acquainted with. Here goes:
Throuple: An ongoing romantic relationship between three people (differs from a threesome, which is a sexual encounter).
Metamour: The partners of one’s partner, who are not also one’s own partners.
Polycule: No matter how many people are in the network, everyone is considered a polycule.
Compersion: Vicarious joy associated with seeing one’s partner have a joyful sexual or romantic relations with another.
Problems with Polyamory
Dr. Burton admits that “Polyamory is elitist insofar as it demands time, energy, security, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence, and communication skills, and all of them in spades.” He also talks about the stigma associated with such a lifestyle, citing that “Polyamory is more heavily stigmatized than cheating: cheating may threaten the system, but at least operates from within it, whereas polyamory simply ignores or bypasses it.” Then of course, there’s the question of legal rights.
Finally, what about jealousy?? First of all, as Dr. Burton points out, there’s plenty of love to go around. “To love more than one person is not necessarily to love each person less, just as to love two children is not necessarily to love each child less. ‘True love’, wrote PB Shelley, ‘in this differs from gold and clay/ That to divide is not to take away.’ Love is not finite like money or time—or gold and clay—but grows in the giving.”
The whole point of polyamory is that it is consensual, so it helps if you and your partners share realistic expectations. Even if you are not in a relationship with your partner’s metamour, Dr. Burton says “it is in the spirit of polyamory that one treats them with courtesy and respect, as friends, or potential friends, rather than enemies or rivals.”
What Polyamory and Monogamy Have in Common
One couple who had been together for eight years and married for five now have a girlfriend. The throuple says that kindness and respect are the keys to their relationship, which sounds a lot like any relationship to me. Like in monogamy, communication is also a big deal. Each individual needs to feel like they can express feelings and concerns about their relationships with their partners. Financial, sexual, relationship, and familial boundaries are also just as important in monogamous relationships as they are in polyamorous ones.
Perhaps polyamory is not for you, or society’s norms, but as Dr. Burton says, “We may well decide to reject polyamory for ourselves, but even if we do, there is much to gain from adopting a more fluid, flexible, and forbearing approach to relationships.”