Monogamy: The practice or habit of having one romantic and/or sexual relationship at a time.
Polyamory: The practice or state of being engaged in or open to the idea of having more than one romantic or sexual relationship at a time.
Yes, these are very general terms. Specifically meant to be general, in fact. Many people use the term polyamory to mean actual relationships, that don’t include individuals that are partnered but engage in other sexual exploits that aren’t particularly relationship based (like orgies, swinging, etc.) I am using the term polyamory more generally, as an umbrella for any relationships that are not monogamous, no matter what form those other relationships take.
I’ve shared research on this topic for the past few years when training, and I just noticed a new study came out a couple of months ago that reaffirms all of what we figured to be true. Humans are a unique species in that we are wired for both monogamy and polyamory. It’s a pretty much straight up 50/50 split, half of all people prefer monogamy.
So you math nerds are already with me on this. The other half dig multiple partners.
This holds true of both men and women. So the idea that men wanna play and women wanna stay home and raise babies with one mate doesn’t hold water.
Monogamy is actually pretty rare throughout the animal kingdom, especially among primates. Only 30% of primates are down for monogamy, and only 3% of mammals. So why humans? The monogamy part is a more recent evolutionary development, and was likely in response to the cultural changes unique to the human species. As we moved from being nomadic to community centered, there became more benefit to choosing one mate and sticking with that person. Long term cooperative relationships (you know, monogamy) started increasing our chances of survival and our ability to pass on our genes. It made practical sense. But this is a fairly recent development in human history (just in the past few hundred thousands of years or so), so it’s an incomplete evolutionary change.
So, yes, our cultural system supports monogamy, as do most secular and spiritual moral codes. But our wiring predates all of these things. So while monogamy is what makes our social system work best, only about half of us are wired for it.
So a lot of people wired for monogamy and are happily monogamous. And yaaay, if you are one of them.
Then there are a lot of people who are polyamorous and have slipped through the social norms and created the relationships that work for them. And things are bopping along just fine. (Lots and LOTS of bopping if you are doing things right!)
And there are plenty of people in the middle that just aren’t sure. They are interested in polyamory but aren’t sure they can make it work…and yeah, it can be difficult.
Even more complicated is when two people (who are partnered and nuts about each other) have opposing desires in that regard. That can be even more difficult. Forget race, class, religion, etc. Honestly, the ultimate mixed relationship is probably between a poly-wired person and a mono-wired person.
Of all the referrals I get, individuals in polyamorous relationships are the ones that are the least likely to follow through and attend counseling, even though I am a poly-friendly therapist. We have A LOT of stigma attached to polyamorous relationships. Which kinda makes sense. Our social structure is built on the idea of monogamous partnerships.
Now, none of the many polyamorous relationships out there have made the walls come tumbling down, but it still makes us hella anxious. Different usually does.
If you are happily monogamous, then this is not YOUR problem. You can even stop reading right now, unless you are just all Curious George about the whole thing (and hey there, George!)
But the main idea there is that other people’s choices about polyamory are (say it with me, now) not your problem. I am always surprised by the number of people who are huge advocates of marriage equality and LGBT rights are dead set AGAINST polyamory.
There is A LOT of other stuff people do that doesn’t affect you. Other people’s relationships are not a threat to yours or to the social structure, no matter how much it may weird you out. I promise.
And if your sweetie wants to swing because he found out your neighbors do? Your sweetie was always interested in swinging. The poly couple down the block didn’t turn your sweetie any more than your gay neighbors suddenly made all the straight guys on the street drop their BBQ tongs and weed whackers, trade their Dockers for assless chaps, and develop a hankering to go to disco night at Wild Zebra.
All that being said?
What if polyamory IS your problem? Or interest? Or hmmmmmm moment? Or you found a pair of assless chaps in the back of your sweetie’s closet? How is all that supposed to work?
And no, I’m not going to bust out a verse of Proud Mary. CCR stands for Consent, Communication, and Respect.
These are things that should happen in every relationship, but are ABSOLUTELY the keys to the successful polyamorous relationships that I have seen. And some of the healthiest relationships I have seen are polyamorous in some form or another. Yes, seriously.
What does this mean in practical terms if you are considering this? You are such the smartest blog reader ever! Awesome question!
Dr. Faith’s Rules for Navigating Polyamory
1. Polyamory doesn’t exist only in one partner’s mind. It is negotiated adultery, for lack of a better term. I shouldn’t have to say this part but I have had to say it and apparently continue to need to say it. If your partner doesn’t know about your side activities you are not polyamorous, you’re cheating. Don’t be a dick.
2. If you have a relationship fraught with all kinds of problems, and you are thinking polyamory is your last ditch effort to stay together? You won’t. You have just prolonged your breakup, made it messier, and created more heartache. Just break up.
3. Be open but don’t be pushed. This means if you have a partner who is asking you to consider polyamory, be willing to actually consider it. But you don’t have to be pushed or pressured or do anything that you absolutely don’t want to do. If this is something you and your partner are exploring, look at all the different ways your relationship can be opened up and see if any are in your comfort zone. Also consider different ways you can spice up your relationship while remaining monogamous. Sometimes we need something different and we don’t know what different is. Look at options before trying anything. There are plenty of meet and greet groups where you can explore options without being action oriented.
4. Do what’s right for you, your partner, and the relationship. The rules vary widely depending on what works for people. “I want to meet anyone before you sleep with them” versus “Don’t tell me anything about them, I just know Wednesday nights are your date nights.” Some people use polyamory for certain activities that their primary partner isn’t in to, some people prefer a fully shared third partner joining their family. What do YOU want it to look like? Something you do together? Something completely separate? Only people you know and trust? Only people you don’t know at all? Only people who are clearly not NEARLY as hot as you are? (I kinda like the idea of this one, just sayin’!)
5. Negotiate the HELL out of this and renegotiate as much as you need to. If you thought something was going to be fine then you went bat shit crazy jealous? Own that and work through it. Don’t seethe quietly in the corner while your partner is thinking everything is OK until you go kaboom one random Sunday afternoon when your partner leaves the toilet seat up. (And yes, I know, in your defense, they do that ALL THE FUCKING TIME AND YOU ARE OVER IT!).
6. Depending on the level of involvement of the secondary partner(s), include them in the negotiations. I have worked with primary and secondary partners in therapy, figuring out their issues regarding an individual with whom they both had a relationship. How great is it that they brought everything to the table and worked together? It took all of one session of honest convo and everything is going well now.
7. Consider how these choices can affect other areas of your life and how you want to handle this? Whose business is it? Do you tell people? How do you discuss it if they find out? What about if you have kiddos? Having a plan for these inevitabilities so you can act rather than react.
8. Have medical providers who don’t shame you for your choices. Make sure your docs know that you engage in activities that mean you need regular STD testing, for example (and, it should also go without saying, but practice safer sex, FFS!), and don’t let them give you any shit about your relationships. If you need help finding a poly friendly doc, shoot me an email and I will help you find one. They are out there.
9. Same goes with mental health professionals. If you are reading this and you need a referral to a therapist that is not me for any reason, I will help you find someone what is poly-friendly. Shoot me an email. We are out there, too.
10. Because I am the sucker for a list of ten rules (how biblical), I’m going to throw in one more, here. Don’t let other people determine your self-worth. There are only a handful of people in this world whose opinion of me actually matters to me. The rest of the eleventy billion people on the planet don’t get a vote, no matter how much they think they should. Your PCP, your therapist, anyone else in your life? Does not get a vote on how you handle your intimate relationships. Only you and the individual(s) you are in these relationships with do. If something isn’t right for you or your relationship, then don’t do it. But not because Aunt Susie says so. You are allowed to seek the types of relationships that are supportive, invigorating, and fun for you, whether they be monogamous or polyamorous. Consider this a note from your doctor.
Did I miss anything? Let me know!