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What Is Polyamory, Anyway?

Updated: May 11, 2020

Polyamory is a made-up English word for a variety of non-traditional relationships that makes classicists cringe, because it mixes Greek and Latin roots. Poly (many, Gr.) and amor (love, Lat.). If we want to save the poor classicists we’d need to be Multiamorists rather than Polyamorists; or use one of 7 Greek words for love - we could be Polyphilists; or Polyeroists; or Polyagapists.

...I think we landed on the right word, despite making the classicists clutch their pearls.

Polyamorous relationships can take many forms, all of which share in common the willingness to enter into multiple romantic relationships. Many, but not all of these, are also sexual; and some people include close friendships and chosen family in their personal definitions of polyamory.

The term polyamory grew up out of communes in California in the 70s, which interchangeably used polyamory and polyfidelity to try to define their relationships, and first appeared in print in some writing by Morning Glory Ravenheart in 1990, and so polyamory is the word that stuck.

Social scientists like the term Consensual Non-monogamy. This umbrella term covers everything from polyfidelitous triads who live together to Dan Savage’s very public sex-only monogamish relationship - it’s any relationship that allows any degree of non-monogamy by agreement. Colloquially, and anywhere on the internet that isn’t a scholarly article, Ethical Non-Monogamy (ENM for short), is more popular as that umbrella term, both because of the positive connotations of the word ethical, and because of the cultural importance of The Ethical Slut, a book by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy that introduced a generation of people to the idea that it was possible to love or sleep with more than one person in an open and honest way.

Polyamory, as a term, is somewhat narrower than ENM, and typically indicates a willingness of the individuals to engage in romantic or emotionally intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all involved.

The most common question I, and my polyamorous friends, get asked, is a knee-jerk “So, it’s just cheating?”

I mean, that depends how you define cheating. But almost certainly, no.

Cheating, for most people, means breaking the agreement you had with your partner about what was exclusive to your relationship. In monogamy, that includes sex for pretty much every relationship I know. In some, it includes a whole spectrum of activities that are “too romantic”, or “too sexual.” Lots of monogamous people would include kissing someone of the genders(s) they’re attracted to in that spectrum. I’m pretty sure everyone has at least one friend who can’t hang out alone with a member of a gender they’re attracted to without their partner getting upset. That’s a couple with a strict definition of cheating, and a narrow definition of acceptable behavior. A lot is exclusive to their relationship.

Most monogamous couples don’t have big, detailed conversations about “what is cheating” until if or when something that happens feels like cheating to one of them. The cultural idea of cheating, of breaking assumed agreements, is built into the ideal of monogamy. So it’s most people’s reaction to the idea of a relationship that isn’t traditional, and the first question most people get if they tell someone they’re polyamorous.

Polyamory is more choose your own adventure. So, cheating is doing whatever you agreed you can’t do. Dating someone else, or having sex with someone else, or forming a relationship with someone else, is usually negotiated into polyamory, so it isn’t cheating. But, things that might still be cheating in polyamory, depending on a couple’s agreements, include:

  • Failure to disclose pursuing a new romance

  • Sex with another partner prior to disclosing sexual interest in them to existing partner(s)

  • Sex without barriers with one of multiple partners without disclosing the change in risk factor to other partner(s)

  • Sex without barriers with multiple partners at all

  • Doing an activity or going to a place that is being held exclusive in one relationship with another partner

  • Not following agreed on safer sex procedures in one way or another (e.g. not getting a copy of test results; using barriers for some activities but not all; not using barriers)

Obviously this isn’t exhaustive; and the main point is to illustrate that Cheating is Breaking the Rules, and polyamory has different rules, that you and your partner(s) get to pick.

In short, polyamory is a relationship style where all participants consent to choosing their own adventure in multiple romantic relationships.

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