How Polyamory Works

Could you handle two romantic relationships at the same time?

Love is often described as two halves coming together to form a whole. Romantic comedies and love songs tell us that we'll find the person who will make us complete, and then we'll marry him or her, have children and grow old together. But the idea of marrying our soul mate is a relatively new one; for many centuries, people married someone their parents deemed fit, and then they pursued love with others, no questions asked. Some people claim that rising divorce rates and high incidence of infidelity are proof that monogamy, even with someone you truly love, just doesn't work.

So where does that leave us? Could monogamy be a bad system? What if it takes more than one person to make you feel complete? After all, we place rather tall orders with our soul mates -- we expect them to like the same types of movies, be compatible sexually and have the right words to say to us no matter what happens. There are some people who would argue that one person can't fulfill all those needs, and that it's foolish to make one person try. These people practice polyamory, or the practice of having multiple romantic relationships. But they claim they're not cheating or running around; rather, a central tenet of polyamory is garnering your partner's consent to date and fall in love with multiple people.


It can be hard to wrap your head around polyamory, if only because monogamy is set as the default for our society. So first, a few things about what polyamory is not. It's not about sex with a bunch of random people; while polyamorists certainly do have sex with multiple partners, they usually have emotional relationships with them. And it's distinct from polygamy, which we tend to associate with Fundamentalist Mormons who practice plural marriage. In those communities, men marry multiple women, while in polyamory, both genders have the opportunity to explore connections with other people.

So now that we've established a little bit about what's not polyamory, let's take a look at what polyamory actually is. Is it really possible to love more than one person? Don't people get jealous? And if we hardly have time to maintain one good relationship in today's busy world, how do people find time to manage three or four?


Examples of Polyamorous Relationships

Is two men twice as nice?

It's impossible to know how many people practice polyamory, as most forms ask for things like a spouse's name, leaving no space for people to write in an additional boyfriend or girlfriend's name. However, awareness of polyamory has grown tremendously because of the Internet, and according to current estimates, based on Web usage and online polls, as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as polyamorous [sources: Doheny, Gerard]. According to a 2002 survey conducted by polyamory awareness site Loving More, 40 percent of polyamorous people had a graduate degree (compared to 8 percent of the general population) and 30 percent identified as pagan [source: Langley]. Other anecdotal data suggests that most polyamorous people are white and in their 30s, 40s and 50s; many people who practice polyamory also identify as bisexual [sources: Gerard, Miller].

There is no one way to practice polyamory, but let's consider a few hypothetical set-ups. Let's say Ann and Bob are a married couple who practice polyamory. While Ann and Bob live together with their one child, Ann has a boyfriend who lives 15 minutes away that she stays with two nights a week; that boyfriend, in turn, has another girlfriend who is friends with Ann. Bob has a girlfriend that he stays with one night a week as well as a boyfriend who lives out of town that he sees occasionally. Ann and Bob have met each other's partners and frequently host dinners where all of the significant others come over to socialize. Ann and Bob's child is on good terms with all of the partners, but doesn't realize that they are his mom and dad's boyfriends and girlfriends.


Here's another example: Ann and Bob are a married couple, and they form a quad with another couple named Cathy and Dave. Ann frequently goes out on dates with Dave, and they spend a night together in a hotel once a week; Bob and Cathy do the same. The four of them are considering buying a home together, and none of them want children. They consider themselves polyfidelitous, meaning they're not open to other partners outside of their group right now.

One last example: Ann and Bob are married, but they're both in love with a woman named Cathy, who just moved in with them. Each person has his or her own bedroom, but depending on how they're feeling, two of them may spend the night together -- or all three may spend the night in a king bed. Both Ann and Cathy would eventually like to carry a baby fathered by Bob, though they plan to raise the children all together. Though they have no other partners at this time, it would be acceptable if any of the three found someone outside the group to date.

Again, these are just examples of how some polyamorous situations might go. Sometimes, keeping up with all of the partners involved can take a massive organizational chart, but sometimes, it may be as simple as a triangle (three people in love with each other equally). But how do people make this work?


Logistics of Polyamory

It's important that a man's two girlfriends get along -- if they're not involved themselves.

Polyamory involves a lot of talking -- so much so that "communicate, communicate, communicate" is considered one of the core tenets of polyamory. Though it might seem like polyamory is a bit of a free-for-all, it can actually involve a lot of ground rules. Remember, everyone has to know what everyone else is up to when it comes to carrying on outside relationships, which involves a lot of conversation (as well as, possibly, a conversation about how much detail you want about what your partner is doing with other people). There's also negotiating boundaries to ensure that each relationship receives ample time; for example, a woman may request that her husband only spend three nights a week with his other girlfriend. New partners usually have to meet with already-existing partners and get their approval (or at least avoid a veto; the power to nix a potential partner is usually the right of someone already in the relationship). All couples face questions of where to live and how to allocate resources, but talks get more intense with so many players involved.

Sex also comes with a lot of guidelines, so that everyone avoids sexually transmitted diseases. A married couple, for example, may be body fluid monogamous -- meaning that they exchange body fluids without the protection of a condom -- but they may have a rule that a condom must be used in encounters with other sexual partners. There may also be rules about how often someone must be tested for STDs in order to remain in the relationship.


Along with communication skills, good scheduling abilities are also essential to the polyamory lifestyle. Shared online calendars, such as the one provided by Google, can be vital to remembering which girlfriend has a work event and which one needs to be at her son's school. It might be disappointing for someone if their boyfriend can't come to dinner on a night when he's already scheduled to be with another partner, but again, talking about these kinds of issues and feelings is expected -- especially when the feeling at hand is jealousy.

Jealousy, worry or insecurity about your standing with someone you love is a universal emotion, and the chances for it are multiplied infinitely when you know that your partner is sleeping with someone else. And even though polyamorists know what they're getting into, they're not exempt from experiencing the green-eyed monster. However, rather than use a feeling of jealousy to fly off the handle, polyamorists try to assess themselves and communicate with their partners to figure out what the true issue is, and how it can be resolved.


Benefits of Polyamory

If you can overcome the jealousy, polyamory can have many benefits.

People who practice polyamory probably don't think monogamy is a realistic practice; it's inevitable, they might argue, that we'll have the urge to pursue or sleep with someone who is not our spouse or life partner. By recognizing this factor, and working around it, they've found a way to keep important relationships intact. Rather than enduring a devastating break-up over a dalliance, you can keep the person that you love in your life, even if he or she seeks to fulfill needs that you can't. In polyamorous lingo, there's even a word for feeling joy over the fact that your significant other has found happiness with another person: compersion.

Because your dating options aren't limited by saying "I do" or making a commitment to another person, polyamorous people often cite freedom of choice as a main motivator for polyamory [sources: Doheny, Newitz]. There is less pressure to find that perfect person that you can grow old with; rather, polyamory allows a person to seek out an entire network of people that meet his or her emotional and physical needs, which allows for lots of different kinds of intimacy and support. On the most practical level, that might mean being able to avoid watching an afternoon of football or ballet if a partner has another partner who enjoys that activity. Having such a wide array of relationship experiences might mean that you don't become bored or complacent in any of the relationships, and it might allow you to get to know yourself better.


One study indicates that this kind of freedom and choice can strengthen relationships, not hurt them. According to an analysis published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality in 2005, polyamorous couples who had been together for more than 10 years said "love" and the "connection" were the most important factors in their longevity. Monogamous couples, on the other hand, often cite religion or family as the most important reasons for a long-term commitment [source: Newitz].

And when it comes to polyamorous people who raise children, having several partners means help with parental duties like driving to soccer practice and figuring out homework. Though no research has been completed on the long-term effects of growing up with polyamorous parents, early findings from a study at Georgia State University indicates that kids surrounded by multiple adults benefit from the wealth of resources that a polyamorous relationship can provide [source: Miller].


Drawbacks of Polyamory

Though polyamory's profile has risen in recent years, thanks to the Internet, it seems highly unlikely that the practice will ever become widespread. Some people simply can't fathom the lifestyle, and most governmental and legal systems around the world are set up to recognize the legal rights of a married man and woman heading a family (witness the difficulty gay couples have had trying to get another form of family recognized in many countries). Because polyamory seems so outside the norm, the stigma of this kind of lifestyle keeps many people "in the closet," so to speak. Polyamorous people may not tell their coworkers, friends or even their parents about the number of people they've chosen to love, out of fear of personal repercussions. Women, in particular, are known to keep quiet about polyamory, thanks to social stigmas about women who sleep around.

Women who have kids have a particular need to worry about keeping their lifestyle a secret. In 1999, polyamory made the news when a young child was removed from the custody of her mother, April Divilbiss. Divilbiss appeared on an MTV documentary about polyamory with her two boyfriends, neither of whom was the child's father. The child's paternal grandmother sued for custody and won; even though court counselors filed reports that the child's home was safe and happy, the judge ruled that Divilbiss' lifestyle was immoral and depraved [source: Cloud].


And of course, one drawback of polyamory is simply how complicated it can be to juggle so many relationships. While more partners might come with more pleasure, it can also come with more problems, and breaking up with one person can have ramifications beyond just the two people who have ended their relationship. Still, there's no evidence that polyamorous relationships break up any more or any less than monogamous relationships. In love, everyone takes the same chances.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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