The concept of being in a consensual relationship with more than one person was first introduced to me by one of my girlfriend’s siblings. They identified as non-binary and revealed to us one day that they were also polyamorous. Sharing with them existence in a community that is already a minority, I felt like I should have understood their experience more than I was capable of at the time. All I could think was “that must require that people never have issues with being jealous.” It’s interesting to me, the thought of loving multiple partners at once, and sharing those partners with each other. I think I’m so intrigued because we are raised in a monogamous society that ignores the possibility of anything outside it. We also are primed with the belief that having sex outside of a committed relationship is cheating, and not only do some consider that a sin, but it is also a sign that you have no respect for the other person. I can’t help but wonder though: Is commitment only for monogamy? Why can’t we be committed romantically to multiple people in a relationship that is healthy and functional? And then thinking deeper, I started to wonder: What if my girlfriend’s sibling in a polyamorous relationship is actually better off cultivating themself as a whole than I am in my own monogamous relationship (and possibly limiting myself)?
Research of polyamory is relatively new as of 1970. It is defined as engaging in multiple romantic relationships with the consent of everyone involved. There are a few less taboo forms of polyamorous affection. The first of is swinging, defined as a committed couple participating in extradyadic sex with another couple. I’ve known of swinging for much longer as it is represented in movies and television, often through the weird couple that is hitting on the main characters. There is also familiarity with open relationships, where partners in a monogamous relationship agree to have consensual sex outside of their partner. Usually this sex is just that: sex for satisfaction with no intense romantic feelings attached. Because the population of people identifying with these practices is a bit more developed and identifiable, I think it’s necessary to include their experiences in surveys because they are straddling the gap between polyamory and monogamy.
I want to first address why it is important to care. The fact that only about 5% of the population is even participating in consensual non-monogamy is so small–and I realize that, but few people participating does not limit its importance. A lot of us here at Goucher can relate to not being comfortable with the heteronormative expectations of our society, and given that fact, I feel like members of the LGBTQ+ community have special reason to broaden our horizons and work to de-stigmatize polyamory. Statistically, it is members of the LGBTQ+ community who are more likely to be polyamorous, and while that doesn’t mean the LGBTQ+ community has to take ownership of polyamory, it is worth considering the oppression many of us go through for who and how we love others. In a sense, us of all people should empathize with any stigmatization surrounding love and sex; with polyamory, though the stigma isn’t who you love, it is how many people you love. Some of the struggles that are associated with being gay cross over into studies carried out within polyamorous populations, too. One study by Alicia Rubel and Anthony Bogaert confirmed that polyamorous people are no more likely to have STIs that monogamous people. Wild right? It’s almost as if how you express your preference in relationships doesn’t have a correlation with whether or not you have an STI.
Surveys confirm that 97.5% of people participating in a polyamorous relationship feel that their life has improved overall because of it. Only 12.5% of people in these relationships report feeling anxious and stressed because of their relationships. Through research (via self-report), Rubel and Bogaert reported that “it has not been consistently found that consensual non-monogamists would have poorer psychological well-being while engaging in consensual non-monogamy.” In fact, some data suggests that people participating in non-monogamous relationships may actually have an opportunity for more self-awareness and peace with their sexual needs than those in a monogamous relationship.
In the U.S., we tend to base the legitimacy of our relationships off of how monogamous they are. When Obama was working towards legalization of gay marriage, a huge help towards the majority support was arguing that these relationships are real and valid mainly because of the fact that participants could be “committed” to their one partner. Nationwide, we view commitment as directly dependent on ability to stay monogamous in a relationship, but I challenge the line we draw between those two concepts. Can’t someone be committed to multiple people at once? It certainly seems doable with lots of communication and trust. Most of the time, people who challenge non-monogamy feel like the issue of jealousy would overtake the possibility of joy between themselves and others in the relationship. This makes sense to me; however I read several points of view from people who participate in these relationships and I felt myself opening up to understanding their views. Graham, who was interviewed by Deborah Anapol in her book Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy With Multiple Partners, explained his experience as “freeing the way you love and holding your heart open to the possibilities that life may bring is a very powerful way to live. Being able to look at a partner and feel an outpouring of emotion and love for them, but without a need to be possessive or controlling, is genuinely life changing.” Graham and others from different sources all were adamant that communication is the key to success in polyamorous relationships. These relationships require trust and openness—just like a monogamous relationship—which displays commitment. Ultimately in relationships, the expectations of partners have to be communicated and agreed upon for mutual comfort and understanding; that is the backbone of success. Being in touch with each partner’s needs for satisfaction and putting aside the notion that one partner can fill every need for another respectively opens the door to conversation about how needs can be met outside. Love is not exclusive; it is a shared feeling and one that realistically can be shared amongst people in the same intensity than it can between two.
At the end of the day, polyamory appeals to a small percentage of the U.S. population, but we must remember as young people to push ourselves to understand things that we may not traditionally have been raised to agree with. We are a new generation with new agendas, and if we accept that love is love, we should accept that fully. Polyamory can cultivate beautiful relationships between the people involved and that should be respected, not stigmatized. In many ways, I feel like I can learn from polyamory. When I feel jealousy towards my partner, I can remember to question myself first: What am I so uncomfortable with? What is the source? And am I considering their feelings in this? Considering polyamorous perspectives can be beneficial and worth learning about. Whether it is something we practice or just keep on our radar, we all can better ourselves from a widened perspective.
BY PAIGE HARPER
Burton, Neel. “The Rise and Fall of Monogamy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201704/the-rise-and-fall-monogamy.
Pappas, Stephanie. “New Sexual Revolution: Polyamory May Be Good for You.” Scientific American, 14 Feb. 2013, www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-sexual-revolution-polyamory.
“The Polyamorous Personality.” Polyamory in the Twenty-First Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners, by Deborah M. Anapol, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011, pp. 74–83.
Rubel, Alicia N., and Anthony F. Bogaert. “Consensual Nonmonogamy: Psychological Well-Being and Relationship Quality Correlates.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 52, no. 9, 2014, pp. 961–982., doi:10.1080/00224499.2014.942722.