Defined simply as multiple love, polyamory or “poly,” is the social practice of consciously and intentionally engaging in multiple relationships of which all are aware in the spirit of openness and honesty. Much has been said in popular culture in American recently on t.v. shows and magazine articles and began in no small part with Dan Savage’s non-monogamy or monogam-ish discussion. I have no desire to go into a debate concerning the roots of polyamory or get bogged down in what I consider to be ridiculous and spurious debates concerning whether or not human beings as a species are biologically prone towards polyamory or monogamy, as this almost invariably devolves into an over simplistic conflation of biology and culture. That people are capable of loving a multitude is so obvious as to be rank absurdity to deny it. We love our family members, we love our friends, we continue to love those who have passed and much to our chagrin we continue to love even those who have hurt us horribly. The particular form that love takes is of course different with all of these, from the poetic license taken to express one’s romantic emotional explosions to the other extreme of intense anger covering the still persistent love for those having done us wrong. Here and now the discussion is on just what it is to practice polyamory, not behaviorally per se but principally.
Far too often when I initially entered the hot-bed of sexual depravity (yes that’s sarcasm) that is polyamorous culture I was faced with a steady stream of debates concerning just what is and what is not polyamory. After time passed I figured out that the discussion too often made the same mistake the research on human sexual practices makes, conflating two different things. In this case, the confusion stemmed from conflating principle and action or form. Rather than deciding what was consonant with all forms, debate would center on triads and quads, living with or separate households, on and on in a constant and emotionally-charged fruitless debate. While some of this seems inevitable in a so-called counter-culture movement struggling for its own identity, after a while I just got really tired of it. So, in an attempt to answer the question of what poly is I will attempt to do so from a stance of guiding principles. Let me first declare that I do not like and try to remove from my vocabulary the term “alternative.” Poly is simply a means of expressing love and tenderness, appreciation and joy with and for other people. This is a transcendent desire we all as human beings can and often do share, though obviously the how of it is open to a great deal of debate. For the purposes of a discussion on principle, poly here is not looked as alternative because just what is loving others an alternative to?
Polyamory requires open/honest communication.
I’ve written before on how communication is a matter of communal-creation, about communion with the intent of building a community of people involved in the practice of communication. Being open is both self-expression and self-reflection, a dedication to honestly appraising one’s actions, intents and desires, expressing them as clearly as possible and taking feedback in a spirit of humility though not abject acceptance of. That latter concerns not denying one’s own thoughts, however much some people seem to think feedback entail inevitable agreement. In other words, feedback is part of communion, it is not about declaring the “right” view and having the other obsequiously curtail their thoughts to it, though of course this in no way removes the passion of someone’s belief. What someone says about another is in no small part often about themselves and while the community created by two or more people is an emergent relational organism, it is about whole people coming together, not separate parts attempting to make a chaotic jigsaw puzzle work itself out.
Willingness to intentionally pursue all emotional connections within the bounds of principle one and the negotiated comfort of all parties involved.
This is a big one juxtaposing poly from monogamy as the latter, particularly in American society, puts definitive limits as to the pursuit of emotional connections with others, however foolish that may ultimately be. The number of angry conflicts over a discussion as to how a partner can care about someone else and therefore whether that means the partner is no longer cared for is a profound source of pain that has no issue being done except in light of personal anxiety and a pie-metaphor of love (where it must be given to only one person or with a piece gone there is thus less leftover for others).
This principle also indicates the difference between poly and swinging as the latter is less concerned with the deliberate pursuit of emotional connections though clearly there’s still an admission and acceptance of their occurance. The second part of this is a bit gray as the notion of comfort is nebulous, hence why I am placing these principles as one building or being nested within the other, therefore requiring the previous in fulfilling the next. Comfort is determined by open/honest communication, the communion of those parties involved and the recognition that such creates a particularly nuanced community between the relationships, one that is by necessity different than other groups as there are different people and therefore different attachments involved. This does not mean that all potential emotional attachments are of a necessary nature to be pursued, only that the intent is there to do so if desired. One of the cliches within poly is “love is infinite, time is not.” Quaint for sure but utterly true. Emotional bonds and pursuing them requires dedication and time, especially when done within open/honest communication.
An intentional desire to pursue the expression of relational bonds in all ways negotiated/discussed including that of a sexual bond.
This last principle is the juxtaposition between poly and monogamy, as a healthy and trust-filled monogamous couple can provide space for the deliberate pursuit of other emotional connections without damaging their own primary connection. In fact, much suffering would likely be averted if more couples would pursue love from a place of wholeness rather than anxious lack. This last principle also simply cannot exist in a healthy manner without the previous two. Without the first, it just boils down to using people and manipulation. Without the second it is nothing more than rutting or swinging (I in no way want to disparage the potential ethical practice of swinging) or using others for basic physiological release. Nothing wrong with this if it’s openly acknowledged and honestly practiced but it isn’t poly. Notice here that like principle two, poly does not necessitate the pursuit of any and all expressions. In fact, it doesn’t even necessitate sex but rather the deliberate pursuit of expressing the relational bond in whatever way is comfortable as discussed between those involved. This may include sex, it may include touch or any number of other things openly and honestly dealt with in a community of communal communication.
These are principles only, they in no way necessitate a particular form of relationship, though they will be helpful in creating a form that is both healthy and of benefit to all involved. Whether you practice polyamory or monogamy, the issue is to do so ethically and with the care of self and others constantly in focus. The key here throughout this all is a focus on openness, honesty, and the pursuit of happiness without unnecessary pain and betrayal as we endeavor to not live a life of illusion or from any place other than our complete and whole nature as beautiful people.