What does the label “polyamory” mean? Literally, many loves. And, some would assume, therefore many lovers.
In the popular culture, this term conjures up images of wife-swapping, anything-goes kinkiness. Somehow its true meaning has been perjoratively distorted into something resembling “polyfuckery.” Asking people what they thought it meant, most snickered and said, “swingers,” “sport fucking.” Some confused it with polygamy or bi-sexuality. To distinguish polyamory from “swingers,” one can characterize swingers as more physically available, whereas polyamours are more emotionally available.
Though the term polyamory is commonly used as shorthand for sexual openness, its core remains in the un-nameable poetry between souls as they recognize and honor the sparks they see within each other. What distinguishes the spirit of polyamory from more conventionally defined relationship roles is the suspension of fear, both of our selves and of others. To truly be free to love requires a deep trust in the resonance within oneself, and the discernment to recognize and honor that quality in others. A beautiful poem by Rumi captures this glimpse:
We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.
We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.
Run my dear.
That may not strengthen
Your precious budding wings.
Run like hell my dear
From anyone likely
To put a sharp knife
Into the sacred, tender vision
Of your beautiful heart.
We have a duty to befriend
Those aspects of obedience
That stand outside of our house
And shout to our reason
“O please, O please,
Come out and play.”
For we have not come here to take prisoners
Or to confine our wondrous spirits,
But to expereince ever and ever more deeply
Our divine courage, freedom, and
In its essence, polyamory is intimacy. The human heart is quite capable, under the right conditions, of honoring multiple channels of intimacy. In contrast, the monogamous extreme would hold that intimacy is the product of an exclusive emotional and presumably sexual relationship.
Of course, the reality for many people is somewhere in the spectrum between these two poles. They may have a mosaic of different types and qualities of intimacy. For example, someone may cultivate brotherly love with buddies or co-workers, smoldering romantic tension at the taco stand, occasional flings with an old classmate, and a comfortable domestic sexual partnership at home. So what is it, then, that qualifies as polyamory?
The main feature is that all those involved would have full knowledge of, and consent for, what the others feel and do. This of course requires a deep respect for the need others have for additional meaningful relationships. A great deal of effective and honest communication is required to achieve this, and boundaries must be clearly and carefully established among all parties to prevent misunderstandings or disrespect.
For those to whom this concept is new, perhaps the most puzzling thing about the label of polyamory is that it is not a formula. Though conventional monogamous marriages may vary, there exists a general consensus about the conventional sets of expectations, entitlements, and compromises that most couples would expect to abide by.
In contrast, polyamorous arrangements are cultivated and clarified in an ongoing process. There is no particular guarantee about sex, quality time, income, and so on. These and many other factors must be addressed on a situational basis. Frequently, there is an arrangement of veto powers for the primary dyad of the polyamorous couple. So, polyamory exists in a rare paradox of brave experimentality and playfulness, while remaining rigorously “no-bullshit” in the open communication of the positions of its participants.
Mainstream cultural fears about such arrangements may be unfounded. Though most people in a committed relationship would describe themselves as monogamous, over time, many if not most of these relationships are terminated by breakup or divorce, on average at about 4 to 5 years. In contrast, a survey of committed polyamorous couples found their average duration to be twice that, at over ten years.
Advocates of monogamy-only relationships, such as the “Family Values” set, may pause to acknowledge that chances are quite good that they or their spouse are de facto in some continuum of what sexologist Betty Dodson terms “serial monogamy with cheating on the side.” So looking at it that way, the monogamous program in many cases is just a truncated and more dysfunctional version of polyamory: less duration and poorer communication.
Many practitioners of polyamory are in long-term relationships. To do this sustainably requires participants to be highly functional, self-actualized and honest with themselves and about their interactions. In other words, this is not something that everybody can do. We all know that many lack the communication skills and ego security to even start an intimate relationship or maintain it, let alone add additional people to the equation. It requires an active and self-directed morality, one in which empathy for others’ experience, personal responsibility, and raw honesty are ground rules. As someone who lives the poly lifestyle recently said, “What really seems important to me, in relationships these days, is not choosing monogamy, but choosing openness, authenticity, trust and communication.”
To place this attitude in its proper context of psychology theory, we can draw some important insight from psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous “Stages of Moral Development.” He describes morality as a series of six levels that develop concurrently with reasoning ability. For example, young children and later young adults go through a typical progression involving: 1) avoiding punishment, 2) discovering selfish opportunities, 3) conformity with conventional attitudes, 4) law-and-order based on authority, 5) the consideration of the greater good of the society, and 6) acting from the principled conscience. With increased development, the social imagination allows insight into the experience of others and the broader society.
It is important to note a major distinction between levels 4 and 5. The social-order maintenance of level 4 operates from a fundamentalist belief that laws or social conventions are moral by virtue of simply existing as laws or traditions. Therefore they must be maintained to prevent some anticipated anarchy of further rule-breaking. In contrast, level 5 social contract orientation is based in the democratic idea that laws are malleable by the collective in order to serve the society and its individuals better.
Rather than people being the tools of law, we have laws used as tools for the people. This idea is at the heart of the distinction that divides medieval fundamentalist thinking from the later humanist thinking of the Age of Enlightenment which revived democracy and its associated rights. From this perspective, we can approach level 6 and see that the humanist endeavor tends toward a goal of more integrated ethics. As microcosms of the society and its rules, interpersonal relationships are negotiable constructs much as laws are for the greater population.
It is not difficult, then, to see how the negotiable constructs of polyamorous relationships are naturally at home at the level 5 or 6 end of the moral spectrum. The ethical navigation is done from within, mindful of the individual and social drive for maximum harmony, justice, and happiness. Having said this, however, it must be acknowledged that such an ideal social container is rare, delicate, and maintenance-intensive. Predictably, importing a person who operates from the lower’ levels of moral development will almost certainly tangle the mobile of a polyamorous arrangement, interfering with factors of trust and communication.
Some fear that a relationship will self-destruct if it is allowed to be open to additional emotional or sexual connection. Maybe it will. A relationship, if opened to these possibilities, needs to base itself in a deeper connection, one that meshes at an unchangeable level, spark-to-spark, where the details of logistics and score-keeping cannot move the foundation. Such a suggestion may sound daunting or fierce, or even somewhat unattached. It is. If the connection is incompatible in its deepest sense, then it will likely fail, whether propped up over weeks or years, monogamous or otherwise. If it is doomed, something better may await.
If the connection is strong, it will be enriched by the combination and learning of new energies. The fierce soul wants to know. This is not a place for fears. This is a place where the lust for life honors the self and other equally, guided by the faith that deeper styles of the soul will find their proper fit and resonate more harmoniously, more playfully, and more indestructibly.
Polyamory can provide the opportunity for self knowledge, deeper expression and strong intimacy. The philosophy and psychology of polyamorous arrangements impose a rigorous honesty with oneself and others, requiring the withdrawal of our own projections and the relinquishment of the concept that another person holds the key to our happiness or we to theirs. We are in relationships to experience joy and resonance within ourselves and to discover it in others.
The author wishes to thank Martin Stensaas for his editorial counsel.
Image by Sunny Strasburg. More of her artwork can be seen at her website, www.sunnystrasburg.com.