Polyamory: Ethical Non-Monogamy

"He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise."

- William Blake

You have been ransacking your kitchen all afternoon in a crazed attempt to prepare something that could please your parents. They arrive this evening to see your new place and eagerly hope to meet your new love interest. This thought punches electric bolts of nausea through your stomach. Mom, of course, is eager for a grandchild and considers you, at the age of 35, to be a bit remiss in your familial obligations to produce one. Pushing these thoughts aside, you take refuge in the fact that the apartment is clean, the table is set, and you have dressed modestly and appropriately.

As the timer goes off for the casserole in the oven, you hear a knock at the door. The house smells delicious, the cat is groomed and strikes an exaggerated pose of relaxation on top of the couch, and the bathroom sparkles. As the door opens you are greeted by perfumed hugs and instant dharma. While showing them around your new place there is another knock at the door. A moment later you lead two handsome men into the bedroom. "Dad, Mom," you say, "This is Tim and Andrew. They are my partners." Mom draws in a sharp breath but your father stubbornly persists in his innocence and you are momentarily touched, if not terrified: "Lovers, daddy. They are my boyfriends."

"Many Loves"

Polyamory literally means "many loves." It is a word that describes the practice of engaging in multiple intimate relationships simultaneously, with the consent of everyone involved, in the open -- as if there was nothing wrong with it.

Polyamory greatly expands existing definitions and structures for relationships. It can consist of loosely associated groups, referred to as "intimate networks." There are "expanded families" and "group marriages" where three or more people have made a commitment to one another. They usually live together and sometimes have children. Then, of course, there are open marriages, polygamy and polyandry (the practice of having more than one husband).

Like monogamists, poly folk usually find someone special they wish to make a commitment to. This is called a primary partnership and usually consists of a couple or trio who are in love. Naturally, primaries are considered first as other relationships come along. If a primary relationship ends, it is not considered a failure. Rather, the quality of time together is considered a truer measure of success and separation or divorce is simply perceived to be the last stage of a fully mature relationship.

Impossible you say? Don't say that to Floyd and Julie, a couple who have been married for more than 25 years and have practiced polyamory since day one. When asked about jealousy, Julie explains that "the other woman would have to be taking advantage of Floyd." Does Floyd feel that he has cheated on Julie? "In order to cheat on someone, you have to deceive them," he replies.

Momogamy Mythology

Biologists now tell us that 98 to 99 percent of the creatures that roam the planet are not monogamous. Anthropologists inform us that 86 percent of the world's cultures have sanctioned some form of polyamory. Sexual monogamy is virtually non-existent in nature and among human populations it has been rare until very recently. In view of such facts, it seems that we live in very strange times. Our peculiarity does not stem from our actual behavior, but from our staunch disbelief that non-monogamy might be natural even though a rather large majority of us are, in fact, quite polyamorous. Consider the statistics: More than half of males and a third of females admit to having at least one affair during their marriage. Unreported affairs would undoubtedly push this number up significantly. Random DNA fingerprinting has revealed that five to ten percent of our children have not been conceived by the man they believe to be their father. More than half of our marriages currently end in divorce. Finally, it is not merely sex, but the combination of sex and deceit -- lying about who we are not sleeping with -- which continues to spread the AIDS and other venereal diseases.

Overt behavior alone does not a polyamorist make, though. One must consider feelings and desires. If you've ever walked down the street with your significant other and caught the eye of a girl or guy walking toward you and considered what it might be like to ... well, then you are not behaving like a good monogamist. It seems that, although we would like to believe we are monogamous, our behaviors, feelings and thoughts reveal otherwise. Social psychologists call this "cognitive dissonance," a term that refers to the discrepancy between behavior and our self-perceptions and beliefs.

The idea of "serial monogamy" has been suggested as a way to explain our inability to remain within monogamous boundaries. Anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance is thereby relieved and we are able to maintain some sense of cognitive consistency. Psychologists call this "justification." However, serial monogamy is no different from serial polyamory. Both terms describe the same practice of being intimate with a series of lovers over time.

Being serial does not explain our infidelities, though. It seems that, at best, a majority of Americans practice what could be called a "non-ethical polyamorous" lifestyle.

Why do we continue to insist on structuring our relationships around an idea that is clearly at odds with most of our own experiences? Jealousy plays a large role. In a way, monogamists enter into their partnerships as a pact or settlement so that they don't have to deal with this emotion. They agree to have fewer sexual adventures in exchange for less anxiety. However, we must look past jealousy to fully understand the variables at play here. How is it that we are so ill equipped to deal with this emotion -- jealousy -- when most other cultures of the world have engaged successfully in polyamory? What are the assumptions and hidden ideologies that drive behaviors so out of tune to our hearts and hormones? Is western man somehow weaker?

Of course we are not weaker. The difference between our culture and others is community. Industrialization, globalization and incorporation have utterly destroyed the tribal milieu and isolated modern man. We are an uprooted population without home, land or fellowship. Our relationships to family and friends have become disposable in the pursuit of a higher standard of living. Monogamy provides stability and meaning within the context of a fragmented culture that has lost its sense of community. We attach ourselves exclusively to others in response to an emptiness created by our lack of tribal fellowship. This is not to say that our love for our beloved is negated or even diminished, but other powerful influences have come to bear on our behavior from the culture around us that should be acknowledged. Within a society of isolation people are especially vulnerable to separation anxiety. Consequently, we suffer from all sorts of neuroses and depressions? We particularly fear being alone in the absence of a social network. This apprehension feeds into jealousy when threatened by loss of a lover and we tighten our control and possession over them. We are caught in the clutches of private despair parading as erotic reverence.

The polyamorist knows how to use sex creatively for many purposes. Bonding is one of them. Polyamorists recreate community by building extended networks and expanded families of intimate friends and lovers. Within such supportive networks they feel stronger, more capable and independent, and are less likely to feel small, apart or alone. Separation anxiety is diminished and jealousy loses its relevance. They become capable of great deeds of love.


"I know of no greater high in life than seeing those I love being loved by, and loving, others." Sonia types enthusiastic keystrokes in a posting to an internet polyamorous mailing list late one night after watching her two new lovers fall asleep in each other's arms. For a polyamorist, an offer of sex from someone is a reason to celebrate, not the beginning of an agonizing decision about a current relationship. It means that you can lie in bed with your partner and talk about other people you would like to sleep with.

The focus of a relationship shifts with polyamory. Floyd explains that the monogamous mindset engenders "an all or nothing mentality. Because you can't have two relationships at once, each person must be everything to their partner, must fulfill every need." Monogamists are either married or divorced, dating or broken up. They are looking for that perfect someone. Polyamory, on the other hand, is not so black and white. It does not ask the questions "am I in or out?" or "are they leaving or not?". As long as you love one another, you are both in and the relationship adapts to the changing circumstances of new lovers. it is, hopefully, enriched by it.

Monogamy, on the other hand, demands exclusive control over desires and behaviors. Imagine informing your significant other that it might be nice to have sex with his or her best friend. An improbable, absurdly foolish proposal, you say? Of course it is! Such thoughts are promptly forgotten in a monogamous relationship. They are relegated to the status of "fantasy," whereupon they often become unhealthy objects of fixation. In contrast, polyamorists not only believe such feelings should be expressed, but pursued as well. They feel the bonds they share with primary lovers become deeper and more stable. Do people get jealous? Of course. Do people ever get jealous of their partner's job? Of course. But they usually don't require them to give it up.

Communication is key. Rather than avoiding situations that cause jealousy, polyamorists confront and discuss their feelings within a loving context. A jealous person does not play the role of victim, but takes responsibility for their emotions and seeks to understand them. Jealousy is understood to be a dissatisfaction with the self and considered a sign of unresolved personal issues. Eric Francis explains in an article in Loving More, a magazine of polyamory (www.lovemore.com), that "jealousy is an expression of deep attachment, and to transcend it we must approach it as a natural erotic force, in a sense, as erotic pain." He suggests that many of our relationships are attempts to feel whole or complete. This is where we err. Friends and lovers should enrich our lives, not feed our needs.

Although the existential circumstances of the human condition allow us an enormous breadth of emotion, we persist in modeling our feelings on a limited handful of simplified, basic emotions displayed to us in the media, rather than exploring the reality of the subtle shades and exquisite, amorphous composites shifting within. We often react with an emotion such as anger because it is what we've seen; it seems appropriate. Psychologists call this a schema. This is a cognitive map, or script, which structures our experiences and guides our behaviors. If one carefully examines their feelings, though, they may find that their schemas do not reflect their true inner feelings but mirror arbitrary scripts/ programs imprinted by society. They are nothing more than habits. The outrage we feel when we become jealous is, to a large extent, nothing more than learned behavior˜a social parasite to individual reason.


Polyamory is less about sexual relationships than it is about romance and intimacy. It is about allowing your partner to court another lover and emotionally bond within the context of another loving relationship. It is curious that sex breaks couples up when a good conversation can go deeper. This is because love tends to be sexualized and the nuances of intimacy are lost in our culture. And the television can divest attention and intimacy from a relationship on a daily basis. It is thus difficult for people to understand the idea of polyamory separate from sex.

The sex drive has been repressed in Western culture. Repression leads to fixation. This is a basic fact of human psychology. If we have been repressed, signs of our fixation abound. Men ogle women as they walk down the street, systematically deconstructing their bodies into quantifiable elements. Half naked women projected onto billboards tower over us as we drive home from work. While the sitcom Sex in the City plays on one television channel, another runs a commercial where an orgasmic woman screams while massaging shampoo into her hair. Our media are saturated with sex. It sells because we are highly responsive to it. It is as if we are hypnotized by it and thus become programmed by whatever is associated with it. This is known as being fixated. The ancients called this a curse.

The objects of our fixations become impossible ideals and we end up treating each other like commodities. We feel less satisfied when our partners do not meet the bogus standards presented on the glossy magazine covers selling toxic diets in IGA. Polyamorists are not as enraptured by these ideals, though. They are less likely to hold one another up to outside standards because they do not attempt to meet all of their needs with a single person. More partners make it easier to be satisfied sexually, intimately and communally. It would be an interesting study to find out whether their rel-ationships are more stable and longer lasting.

Polyamorists enjoy exploring many different levels of intimacy separate from sex and many are surprised to find that much of their sex drive was merely fixation. They may enjoy giving and receiving a sensual massage from one person. Another relationship might consist of spending long evenings talking about theories of non-linear dynamics with nothing more than holding hands and rubbing noses. Yet another relationship might consist entirely of casual sex of infinite perversities. By allowing more relationships into our lives we are able to meet more of our needs. We receive more love and therefore give more love. Exclusive relationships, on the other hand, are often filled with resentment and disappointment because our partners inevitably fail to meet some of our needs.

Two Important Principles

Honesty. If one loves their primary partner selflessly, then compassionate honesty requires us to address the legitimate needs of our sexual and intimate desires. A polyamorous person will sacrifice him or herself as they strive to be true to themselves. They may risk losing someone they love as they test the limits of their partner's ability to love. Unconditional love does not require fidelity, though; it is compassion, honesty, loyalty and patience. It asks for nothing and accepts others for who they are, simply and without requirements. Polyamory seeks a genuine understanding of what it means to love unconditionally.

Love is an infinite resource. This is the most important message of polyamory. Do we restrict our friendships to a single companion? Can we exhaust our ability to love by having too many children? Love for another does not diminish or alter our love for existing partners. It enhances it. More partners allow us to experience ourselves in different ways and fulfill more of our potentials. We become more integrated and are less likely to resent a monogamous partner because of unmet needs. If we cannot understand people who are drawn to this lifestyle, we can at least appreciate their commitment to the idea of love as boundless and infinite.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.