This post was the third in a three-part introductory series in which I elaborate upon the central topics of this blog, and the central tenets of my worldview. This post, as you may have guessed from the title, is about Polyamory. Posts about Panpsychism and Permaculture can be found below.
Polyamory is the belief in, and practice of, ethical nonmonogamy. It is an openness to being in romantic love with more than one person at the same time, and to one’s partner (or partners) doing so too. Polyamory often overlaps with open relationships, but I, like many other Polyamorous folks, make a strong distinction between the two, and here is why: The term “Polyamory” comes from the Greek word poly (several/many/more than one) and the Latin word amor (romantic love), because apparently the person who first thought it up couldn’t tell their ancient languages apart. In other words, the word literally means “romantic love for more than one.” However, in every open relationship I have encountered, emotional exclusivity has been practiced, though of course sexual exclusivity has not. In other words, open relationships (as I understand them) tend to be mono-amorous. The participants are not practicing Polyamory, but merely what I call “polyfuckery.” I say “merely” not to demean open relationships, but to point out that sleeping with multiple people is only one component of Polyamory. While it is obviously a relevant and imporant one, it is not the whole story.
So, what is the whole story? Every Polyamorous relationship—just like every monogamous relationship—is different, and given that there are at least 500,000 self-identified Polyamorous relationships right now in the United States alone, the “whole story” would take a very long time to tell indeed. But Polyamory can be described with reasonable accuracy using a few broad brushstrokes. In the first place, practicing Polyamory involves entering into multiple simultaneous committed and loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. Just as Polyamory is very different from open relationships, it is also distinct from cheating. Polyamorous relationships emphasize honesty and communication. Everyone is aware of what is going on—that is, of who is with whom—though different people have different standards about where to draw the line on oversharing of details. (“And then my other girlfriend and I did this and that and the other thing and it was so awesome and…honey? Where are you going?”) Though sometimes a “don’t tell unless asked” policy about the specifics can help avoid stirring up jealousy and possessiveness, no one is going behind anyone’s back. Polyamory is not about secretly violating one another’s expectations about sexual and emotional exclusivity, it is about rewriting or doing away with those expectations entirely. It’s not breaking the rules, it’s changing the rules. So, you might say that Polyamory is the opposite of cheating.
Though honesty (with oneself and with one’s partners) is probably what I would call the definitive value of Polyamory, it is far from the only such central tenet. In keeping with the “opposite of cheating” theme, I would also list trust as a key feature. After all, it takes a lot of faith in one’s partner to actively encourage their other romantic relationships without fearing for the future of one’s own relationship with that partner! Similarly, it takes a lot of faith in the value of the bond between two people to actively invite the formation of other such bonds without worrying that they will make this one “less special” in some way. Trust, like honesty, is pretty much mandatory for Polyamory to work. So is respect for your partner’s individuality and independence. It sounds silly to have to list that one, but I, personally, am of the opinion that most of what goes wrong in monogamous relationships is the result of its absence. The structure of monogamy encourages possessiveness. Once you start feeling a sense of possessiveness about fellow people, you’re in murky moral waters as far as I’m concerned. Thinking of other people as your possessions is not really a healthy way to think of them. Especially not the ones you claim to love.
It took me a long time to realize that I was polyamorous, and had been all along. What I came to understand was that Polyamory naturally and more or less inescapably emerges from two seemingly innocent beliefs I already held. The first is an ethical claim, a claim about what the right course of action is in a given situation. The second is a factual claim, a true-or-false statement (this one happens to be true) about how the world actually is, not how it ought to be. I realized that because I believed both these premises, I had already been committed to the conclusion that Polyamory is ethical for a long time without realizing it, like someone who has determined the degree values of “only” two of the interior angles of a triangle. Here are the two claims:
1) If two people are mutually in love, then they should be together. As premises go, this one is about as innocuous as they come. I would be interested (and probably amused) to hear arguments against it. Even if such arguments succeeded, though, it wouldn’t just be Polyamorous relationships that would be in trouble: any relationship between partners who are in the relationship because they love each other would be under threat. After all, if “mutual romantic love” isn’t a necessary and sufficient criterion for a romantic relationship, then what is?
2) It is possible for a person to be mutually in love with multiple other people simultaneously. Of course, this doesn’t mean that it is impossible to be mutually in love with only one person. Maybe you and your partner genuinely don’t feel any feelings of romantic love for anyone else, but only for each other. Good for you, but that’s not relevant. All this premise is stating is that it is possible to be truly, madly, deeply in love with someone—and also truly, madly, deeply in love with someone else at the same time. Maybe that doesn’t sound plausible to you, but remember: romantic love is the meshing of emotional and sexual attraction. Surely you have multiple simultaneous emotional attachments? Parents, siblings, friends, children…you emotionally love lots of people! (I hope you do, anyway, for your sake.) And what about sexual attraction? Even if you call yourself monogamous, have you really never felt sexually attracted to anyone else while you were in a relationship? You started dating your current hubby and suddenly ceased to find Ryan Gosling (just for example) good-looking? If so, once again, good for you, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how the rest of us work. So: you can emotionally love multiple people simultaneously without running out of love, and you can be sexually attracted to multiple people simultaneously without running out of libido. This is just a corollary of those two facts.
By (1), if persons A and B are in love, then they should be together. Also by (1), if persons B and C are in love, then they should be together. And according to (2), it is possible for A and B to be love while B and C are in love too. So, in that possible circumstance, it is true both that A and B should be together and that B and C should be together. That is Polyamory.