Tuesday, 3 January 2012


"Poly-what?" What if there was a huge category of relationships you had never even heard of? What if you never asked yourself what your sexual orientation was because you couldn't imagine others? In the same way a lot of people dont imagine polyamory. So here's some information, no argument, just an idea.

Monogamy means "one wife" {edit, I'm totally wrong, see comments}. In some cultures men had many wives, in a very small number wives had many husbands. But in our culture Monogamy is expected. The idea is so deep we even make up the nonsense idea of "soulmates". People think any move from monogamy is wrong. No western country recognises non-monogamous marriages. This is such a deep idea in our culture many think it is a self-evident fact. But there's more than one thing that isn't monogamy. In our culture we can only imagine cheating, promising to only sleep with one person and breaking that promise.

But some people dont do this. Some are in relationships with more than one person that are just as real, deep and important as a normal monogamous ones (and a lot more real than the average celebrity wedding). They are not cheating. The catch all term for this is polyamory, meaning "many loves" with no reference to marriage or to gender. It is often called poly and mentioned with LGBT as a part of general sexual diversity. Here are some relationships to think about. You may or may not be interested in trying this at home, but you should notice that human sexuality is incredibly variable.

Swinging. Alice, Bob, Claire and Dave, (throughout this Alice, Bob, Claire, Dave etc are of whatever genders you like) have sex with eachother. They are either established couples or singles. There is no obligation for romance or even friendship between them. This is sex for pleasure, not an expression of love. This may be to add some variety to the sex life or may be to do with a fetish called Candaulism where one person is aroused watching their partner sleeping with another. Either way they are all happy and agree, nobody is cheating.

Open relationship. Alice and Bob are in a stable loving relationship but they agree that they can sleep with or have some kinds of relationship with other people within negotiated limits. Alice can sleep with Claire without cheating on Bob, Bob agreed to this so no promise has been broken. This is often the case with couples who, while committed to eachother, want to remain sexually independent.

There is a special type of open relationships in some fetish cultures. Alice can play with Claire without becoming fluid bonded. This means doing things with whips and chainsfeetgunge, ants etc without the sex. This is helpful if, in an otherwise good relationship, Alice's big turn on is Bob's big turn off. This way Alice can do what they like and Bob doesn't have to do what they dont want to. Or Alice and Bob can just think of things-like-relationships and things-like-dressing-up-as-a-dog as different. So Alice feels no more jealousy about Bob and Claire dressing as dogs together than them playing golf.

V-shaped relationships. Alice is in a loving committed relationship with Bob and also with Claire. But where Alice is not cheating on Claire with Bob or vice versa. This means Bob and Claire know about and agree to the relationships. (Alice is sometimes called the hinge). This is a fairly common relationship. This does take very careful discussion and negotiation. Claire is not getting any of the time and attention that Alice is giving to Bob, so it's important that everyone is happy with the balance. But Alice is happy because if the relationship with Bob is causing stress then Claire can give support.

One form of this is the primary/secondary relationship. Alice is in a committed relationship with Bob, this is the main relationship in Alice's life. Alice is also in a relationship with Claire, but everyone knows that this is less deep and less important than the relationship with Bob. This can produce tension if done wrong. But sometimes it makes sense. Maybe Claire is unable to commit. Maybe Alice cannot give enough attention to Claire. Sometimes Claire will have other partners of their own.

Triads, quads and other groups/tribes. In a triad Alice, Bob, Claire are all in a relationship each with each other. In a quad they are also in a relationship with Dave. People can set themselves up in small groups or tribes where each person may be in a relationship with any other. This gets complicated fast. If 5 people are all in a relationship together there are 10 relationships that all need attention and effort from both sides. This has happened. It is amazing how good some people are at controlling relationships.

Polyfidelity. Alice, Bob, Claire, Dave are in a relationship, within that they are faithful. For Alice to sleep with Eugene is as much cheating as in a monogamous relationship. This is a contrast to an open relationship.

It's obvious that such relationships between consenting adults are ethical. The point is there is a question to answer. Many people dont question their sexual orientation, they dont realise there could be another answer. Far more people (including myself not long ago) dont ask if they want to be poly. And it's not an obvious question. Many people assume that monogamy is a fact of human biology. This is false. It is not written that Alice cannot love Claire because she already loves Bob. Just as it is not written that she cannot love Claire because they are both female.

Stable, happy, poly relationships exist. The limited research on this topic suggests that poly relationships are no less stable than mono relationships. Most people dont know what they are. They cannot ask if they want to be in one. But now you at least cannot plead ignorance. Think about it. I will.


  1. Nice little primer on the various types of poly, but will you permit a former-Greek-student to nitpick? "Monogamy" doesn't mean "one wife" - the Greek word "gamos" actually means "marriage", so "one partner" would be a better translation. Therefore, yes, it's lovely that the term "polyamory" doesn't make any reference to gender, but if you're trying to contrast that with the term "monogamy", you're doing it wrong, as "monogamy" also makes no reference to gender.

  2. I apologise, disgraceful lapse of nitpickery on my part.


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