What is polyamory? The word is increasingly being used in public sources and media but the explanations of what it is can vary from one source to another.

That is mainly because polyamory (poly for short) itself can be variable. So, how can we understand something if it is varying?polyamory

First of all, let’s start with what it is not. It is not swinging. Swinging consists of casual sex with others with no strings attached. Sometimes, real names are not even exchanged. In poly, more than just names and body fluids are exchanged. It is a relationship that may last a lifetime. It is liking, loving and being intimate with another very much like a marriage but without the restrictions of marriage.

It is not marriage, at least not by this country’s legal standards. Polyamory does not have that legal binding that can end up in courts defining and dissecting what your life has come to mean. That doesn’t mean polyamory is devoid of heartbreak. Any relationship can end with sadness or bitterness, whether legal or not. Poly is also without the legal protection that marriage can offer in that breakup. Marriage is also a commitment to ‘staying true’ to one person. In poly, each partner is free to have more than one partner or lover.

It is not polygamy which means a husband with more than one wife. To give equal time to the other side, polyandry is the case where a woman has more than one husband. Polyamory is where both or all partners are free to have more than one lover. Beyond these simple differences, polyamory is free to be defined by those in the poly relationship.

Now that we know what poly is not, let’s look at what poly is. First of all, the word itself. Poly (more than one) and Amory(love) literally means loving more than one. Even though its origins are in Greek, the word polyamory first appeared in 1990 as ‘poly-amorous’ in Green Egg magazine. Polyamory has been in the Oxford dictionary since 2006. The idea of poly has been around for generations even if the word itself has not.

In a poly relationship, each is free to date, pursue or fall in love with another. This doesn’t mean that everyone in a poly relationship is actively searching for another lover. It just means that they are free to. It is their decision. Some choose to share their partner with another for various reasons. That nonparticipating partner may be focused on things outside a relationship like a career or an interest. With their partner having someone else, they have more time to devote to other pursuits.

In a case of three partners, (triad) in a poly relationship, the shared partner now would have a primary and a secondary partner.  The primary is the one the shared partner was already in a relationship with. The shared partner may have an interest they want to pursue but their primary partner has no interest in it. If this other interest involves intimacy, it can lead to searching for a poly partner. The other interest could involve certain sexual practices that the first partner does not want to get involved in. For those who have seen 50 Shades of Gray, it could also involve the power exchange of BDSM which is another article entirely. The primary and secondary partner can choose not to meet. Or they can come together and become very good friends. In some cases, even lovers. This is why polyamory can be so varying. It is defined only by those participating in the relationship.

Another form is where a couple is searching for a third partner to share intimacy with. The common form here is looking for the fabled unicorn which means a bi-sexual woman that can please the both of them. Again, another article entirely.

One more example: a long and happily married couple have friends. One partner starts becoming closer to one of those friends and they start realizing they are having feelings for each other. In the old days, if they pursued this desire, it would mean cheating on the other partner. The lies would start to distance the couple and the lying could destroy them. More marriages can break up over an affair than heal through one.

polyculeImagine now a case where you are starting to feel strongly and deeply for another. You discover that they are having feelings for you as well. Instead of starting an affair, you approach your current partner and bring up the subject of polyamory. If the two of you agree to try the lifestyle, there is no cheating (Because you have permission) and there is no lying (because the other partner knows about it). However, there are two dangers to approaching your partner to try it. One is your other partner is absolutely against it and you either have to lie and cheat to have an affair to pursue your desire or the other partner even decides to leave your relationship. There is a huge risk in trying to get your partner to be open to a poly relationship. Both of you must come from that discussion feeling that you can still trust each other for either a monogamous relationship to continue or a poly one to start.

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The other danger is now that you are free to date another, so is your partner. I have seen quite a few (mostly men) who convince their partner to try the lifestyle only to find that they cannot handle the thought of their partner with another. The insecurity leads to panic and if not resolved, can lead to their breakup.

But, for every reason to be careful or cautious about this lifestyle, there can be just as many reasons to consider it. If any relationship partners connect and become one or a team with the same focus, they are stronger together than apart. This works for the average couple. It can also work for the average triad. It just takes longer and is harder to attain.

There is much more to polyamory than just this brief introduction. That is why it is called 101. It is a start. There are the previously mentioned poly terms BDSM or unicorn along with NRE or closed poly and fluid bound. You will notice my icon on top of being a parrot. The parrot is the symbol of polyamory as in “Poly want a cracker?” Get it? So, if you see a parrot, it might not mean a pirate. Or it could mean both if you think about it.

To paraphrase Jimmy Buffet, “Yes, I am a parrot”. I first entered a three-person polyamorous relationship back in 1999. First heard the word in 2001. One partner recently left the relationship two years ago after 16 years of the three of us together which is longer than some marriages. We are currently enjoying the company of a new third poly person. At times, we even had a fourth. Poly is self-defining and ever-changing.

The final thought to consider: I have seen a few monogamous couples point their fingers and decry sin or it is another way of cheating or swinging. I have also seen a few poly people point their fingers at monogamous couples and call them backward or too insecure. Neither side is right. The truth is that monogamy and polyamory are just different choices. Neither one is better than the other. Each person gets to decide for themselves what works best for them. To accuse the other side of being wrong is no different than claiming one religion over another. Another skin color over another. A different gender identity over another. None of these are wrong. And we are lucky if we live in a world that allows us to choose. A world that allows us to define ourselves without hate from another. That is what poly is all about. Loving more than one.

photo credit: theslowlane The banner via photopin (license)

photo credit: theslowlane I was invited to march with the Vancouver Polyamory group in the 2011 pride parade via photopin (license)

photo credit: theslowlane Not necessarily just being attracted to one person via photopin (license)