Ok. This is not going to be scholarly or exhaustive. Wikipedia covers so much information about this lifestyle choice including guidelines for therapists working with polyamorous patients, a topic I will touch upon in this post.
I do confess that I was quite ignorant about this topic until I started working with a polyamorous or “poly” patient, a young woman, a few years ago, and then I got interested as I learned a lot from her and others. I have worked with LGBTQ people who are polyamorous as well as heterosexuals who are polyamorous; there isn’t any difference in the philosophy or approach to relationships based on your sexuality, as polyamory is concerned with the topic of relationships between humans, more than sexuality and sexual or gender identity.
I approached the topic with an open and curious mind from the beginning and did not fall into the therapist trap of thinking that polyamory was an issue to be addressed as some kind of “problem”, but more that it would be a part of her discussion of her relationship issues. I was not unaware of this kind of lifestyle but had not gotten the chance to see it up close and learn about it.
As I said there are many scholarly studies as well as organizations, etc. around this topic. I just want to address the major misconceptions and stereotypes our monogamy oriented society has created towards polyamory. Imagine the President of the United States being an open polyamorous person. Once you do that, if you can even imagine it being possible right now in our current society, you can imagine the mainstream culture about so called family values’ view of it… Our society seems to expect the president to be married anyway, so the concept of a “single” president is just as foreign. Here are some misconceptions and “stereotypes” related to this minority group:
1. Polyamory is the same thing as polygamy.
Nope. Polygamy usually involves a man married to or involved with and cohabitating with multiple women and in rare minorities a woman with several male partners/husbands. The only thing in common here is that both groups exist in subcultures that accept and ascribe to these lifestyles. Polyamorous individuals emphasize equality in relationships, so a person may have multiple lovers or partners, but his or her partners usually also have multiple partners. It by definition is against there being a double standard in relationships. Gender equality is another big part if it. So actually polyamory is a very good approach towards no tolerance of any double standards, such as “I can love/be with others but she cannot…”
2. Leading directly to another common falsity, namely that polyamorous people are polyamorous in order to be promiscuous, or that polyamory is mainly about sex and being able to have sex with a lot of people.
The very term polyamory derives from “poly” meaning many and the amorous part means love, thus “many loves”. While many polyamorous people have a healthy sex life, most people who choose this lifestyle think of themselves as having and maintaining several romantic relationships at the same time and are more focused on the whole relationship, and not just the sexual aspects of the relationship. In fact many of the people who don’t choose this lifestyle are more promiscuous, for example, individuals who are single but choose to have sex with a lot of people or some people who suffer from sex addictions. Some sex addicts will have multiple sex partners in the span of a day or two. Some sex addicted individuals are in “monogamous” relationships but are actually leading a double life and secretly having many sexual encounters with strangers. In contrast, a polyamorous individual tends to be focused on getting to know a new person as a prospective romantic partner and, while s/he may be having sex with several lovers, these are actual relationships, not anonymous encounters. Each person involved is aware of the other person’s relationships and this kind of lifestyle tends to be concerned with openness and honesty, so secretive behavior is not sought out or encouraged. If your partner tells you about going on a date with someone else and you are accustomed to this type of behavior and would do the same, you are not very likely to be invested in secretive behavior.
3. Here is another false idea about polyamory: Most polyamorous people are gay men, thus even implying a stereotype that gay men do not like or engage much in monogamy. Well we know this is not true. First of all,many women of whatever sexuality are polyamorous too as are heterosexual men. In addition, this is quite false as LGBTQ populations are right now fighting for the right to get married and be thus recognized by society for being in monogamous relationships. Yes it is true that in places like New York, many gay men are comfortable with “open” relationships, not requiring complete monogamous fidelity. However, it is a big leap from being in a serious relationship and engaging in sex on the side once in a while that is tolerated or enjoyed by your partner and/or engaging in other sorts of casual sex in an open relationship to being polyamorous. The former that I described may be more common among some gay men, but it is an example of precisely how far that behavior is from polyamory. Also of course, there are plenty of gay men who are very monogamous anyway.
4. Anyway we now come to a very common misconception in our monogamy oriented society, that a polyamorous relationship is the same thing as an “open” relationship. Here the terms are confused. Basically all polyamorous relationships could be considered “open relationships” but not all open relationships are polyamorous. The contract in a typical so called open relationship is a rather vague permission from each partner for the other to be with other partners. Polyamorous relationships are more structured and involve a more complete concrete and detailed contract between multiple people. Which leads to misconception number 4, a bad trap most people fall into out of ignorance or plain prejudice.
5. Polyamorous people are in multiple love relationships at the same time because they aren’t equipped with the ability to communicate well in relationships and don’t take loving long-term relationships seriously. Very wrong. Quite the contrary; many polyamorous people have much better communication skills than monogamous couples. As such relationships involve establishing ground rules and a kind of very spelled out no secrets contract between each individual and couple, communication
in an open and honest way is a given most if the time, as well as a necessity for people leading this lifestyle to be comfortable in their relationships. Many polyamorous people have highly developed skills at communicating and working things out in their relationships, as jealousy is not clouding their judgment. This is a long topic, so suffice it to say that often the frustrations a very good communicator faces in being polyamorous is dealing with people who are new to it or who do not live up to the principle of all parties involved understanding the agreements… Sometimes a monogamy oriented person thinks they can be polyamorous but actually hasn’t thought it out enough and really is not able to follow the main principles of it. That is why most “poly” people look for other people that are very much identified as poly because there will be less misunderstandings. For obvious reasons monogamy and polyamory just do not mix at all because they represent opposing philosophy. Yet I would propose that there is plenty of room in our society for both lifestyles to coexist better if these misconceptions I am listing here were to get cleared up. In addition society would have to value them equally. That will take a while. Just take President Kennedy and his clan as an example of monogamy in its worst aspects. Cheating, double lives, the fantasy of “Camelot” of the Kennedy presidency. Not sure I’ve read exactly how many sexual partners he squeezed into his lifetime…
6. Monogamy is the be all and end all, and polyamorous people are simply unable to be monogamous. This is patently false. Some polyamorous people have tried out monogamy and simply found it limiting or just that this lifestyle was not for them, and so they chose to be polyamorous as it was their preference, not a judgment about monogamy or an inability to be monogamous. Polyamorous people, whatever their sexuality, often have a “primary” relationship that may last longer and be taken more seriously than their other romantic relationships, but usually the philosophy is that one can live or be in love with more than one “life” partner at the same time without trivializing any of these relationships. To simplify, polyamory is really by definition the opposite of monogamy, in the sense that many monogamous people believe there is “the one” out there, while polyamorous people place less importance on this kind of “soul mate” philosophy. So called “serial monogamists” tend to operate under the principle that each of their relationships is an attempt at being with the one love of one’s life, and the final one that “works out” ie. doesn’t end, is the one person one is meant to be with, or else the best choice possible. One could argue that a person who is in one serious relationship followed by another is not that different from a polyamorous person. The polyamorous person simply chooses to engage in more than one relationship at a time. A monogamous person could end up having more relationships than a polyamorous person in a lifetime. A side note, people also commonly think incorrectly that polyamory has some kind of emphasis on quantity over quality.
7. Polyamorous people are mostly into group sex and other types of “kinky” behavior. Some are, but plenty of polyamorous people do not engage in that kind of behavior. Some monogamous couples engage in this kind of behavior so it is not exclusive to any particular lifestyle choice.
8. If a polyamorous person goes to therapy, they probably need to examine their lifestyle and figure out what causes them to “not be able” to be monogamous or even that the person needs to try to change this choice if lifestyle. While this sounds ridiculous, you would be surprised at how many therapists out there think polyamory is some kind of deviant behavior that must have roots in the persons upbringing or sexual development or related to the persons parents failed relationships or something like that. This misconception sounds a lot like the old one where a parent might bring their son or daughter to therapy to make them “not gay”. Unfortunately this used to be common.
In any case, when a polyamorous individual chooses to engage in therapy, most often the reasons are the same as with anyone else, ie. issues around anxiety, depression, creative blocks and career issues, and low self-esteem (this low self-esteem is about the individual’s struggles with negative self-image and has little to do with being polyamorous, by the way…) Of course when you’re in therapy your relationships with your parents and other family members often get discussed as do your romantic relationships and your own comfort with your sexuality. However the emphasis is on each particular relationship with each individual. In some cases a polyamorous person will find him or herself involved with someone claiming to be polyamorous but actually not following the principles around ground rules and openness. So someone may come to therapy and say that s/he stopped dating a person after they discovered that this person’s partner was unaware that’s/he was dating that person. Some people claim to be polyamorous and may consciously think they want to be, but might not truly understand what it involves and are actually not cut out for the kind of open communication this lifestyle tends to require or lend itself to.
9. Polyamorous people are abnormal because they don’t get jealous or possessive, otherwise known as the false idea that monogamy is the best way to live and the best kind of relationship to have. Also not true. Our society finds it easier to follow this mainstream idea that one should aspire to loving one person and walking into the sunset with that “soul mate”. While it is true that people who really are polyamorous do not get jealous or possessive most of the time, this is not abnormal, it is simply different. If you want to stretch your mind, one could even posit the idea that ideally individuals would be neither jealous nor possessive. Indeed, imagine if society dictated that you should only have one child as people having two or more children were thought to be incapable of loving two or more children at the same time. To most people that sounds crazy, or we would live in a society where having only one child was the way to go. In a sense polyamorous people simply believe that they can and do have romantic and sexual feelings for more than one person at the same time and also do not mind if their lovers or partners also do the same. To some extent most people tend to try to decrease their jealousy and possessiveness anyway as these qualities usually do not help one to have a healthy and equal relationship with a partner. Perhaps polyamorous people are actually just better at putting this principle in action, or perhaps I am now suggesting that monogamy turns out to be a choice for people who simply are unable to love another one the way that polyamorous people are, that monogamy is simply easier, less challenging and just happens to be the norm, and we could “take a page from their book” as the saying goes…