When relationships are examined by the media and/or empirical research, the focus is often on the traditional monogamous couple (i.e., one male and female, two males, or two females). These monogamous relationships are depicted as the natural and healthy ideal.1 Conversely, the media often portrays those in consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships as deviants; and therapists also suggest that the existence of CNM relationships mean the primary relationship is troubled.1 Clearly, there is a stigma surrounding non-monogamy, and, therefore, non-monogamy is generally not openly discussed. This is problematic, not only because non-monogamous individuals are often stereotyped, but they also suffer from a lack of support within the therapeutic community. Nicole Graham, a psychiatrist, writes, “It is apparent that a lack of awareness of and appreciation for non-traditional relationship patterns can have deleterious effects, including but not limited to a lack of objectivity, inadvertent criticism and potential pathologization of individuals, damaged therapeutic alliances, resultant treatment non-adherence, and potentially poorer patient outcomes.”2
This article will discuss why it is so important to understand the various types of relationship configurations that exist, specifically polyamory, as well as provide a first-hand account and a deeper understanding of the polyamorous community. First, it is important to recognize that there are a variety of relationship configurations. For a brief discussion of non-monogamous relationships, please refer to my previous article on open relationships (see here).3
As previously mentioned, there are many societal, as well as therapeutic benefits of taking a closer look at CNM relationships. Mental health practitioners must be able to recognize the sexual fluidity both within individuals and within their relationship arrangements. Marianne Brandon, a clinical psychologist asks,
“If we as treators cannot accept and contain the monogamy challenge, how can we help our patients to do the same?…And if we chose to criticize our patients’ non-monogamous choices can we still optimally assist them in the intimate challenges for which they seek help? Probably not. And our patients need our help now more than ever”4
In order to be able to help those who come in with an “unconventional” relationship style, therapists must address their personal biases, and what better way to do that than by learning more about unconventional relationships?
One particular romantic configuration, which is being discussed more openly in mainstream media is polyamory. Polyamory is“…characterized by simultaneous consensual romantic relationships with multiple partners.” 5 Because of the stigma surrounding non-monogamous relationships, the prevalence of CNM relationships is difficult to determine. However, the Polyamory Group Registry has information on 265 poly groups (i.e., webpages, Meetup groups, and blogs devoted to polyamory) in 195 countries.6
To get a better picture of polyamory, the structure of poly relationships, the benefits/drawbacks of such a relationship configuration, and how in turn it affects a person’s perspectives on love and relationships, I decided to reach out to a member and advocate for the poly community. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Mischa Lin, former President, and current Director of Engagement of Open Love NY, a New York poly group.
Over the course of an hour and a half, not only did I learn about the wonderful, and supportive community Open Love NY provides its members, but I also learned about Mischa’s personal views on love, marriage, and polyamory. I will provide her valuable information and opinions below, along with those of researchers and therapists who have studied poly-identified individuals, or are poly or poly-friendly.
Definition/Structure. Polyamory is defined by researchers as the desire to have multiple relationships.7 It is considered a form of “ethical non-monogamy” as all partners are aware that the relationship is not monogamous and have agreed upon its terms.8 A major issue in trying to define and describe polyamory is that there are “…almost as many definitions of the word ‘polyamory’ as there are people using it.”9 While some may consider it a particular relationship form, others view it as a dedication to values regarding a particular approach to intimacy.8
During our conversation, Mischa noted that poly relationships are open to interpretation; however, her personal definition is that poly is an umbrella term for every relationship that is not part of “traditional monogamy.” “Traditional monogamy” involves two people who are faithful to one another, both sexually and emotionally, and do not allow themselves “vacations or cheat days.” Co-authors, and members of the open community, Dossie Easton (a therapist) and Janet W. Hardy (a writer, publisher, and teacher), note that some people lump swinging, group sex, etc. in to polyamory, however the most conservative definition only refers to “…long-term committed multi-partner relationships.” 9
There are two basic types of poly relationship structures. Some are hierarchical, in which there tends to be a primary, secondary, tertiary partner, etc. This is the structure that Mischa feels the “newbies” tend to gravitate toward. In this structure people often live with their “primaries”, and love, but don’t live with their “secondaries”, “tertiaries”, etc.9 There is also the nonhierarchical poly relationships, which Mischa playfully described as “relationship anarchy.” In such a structure, no one gets any preferential treatment, as all partners are equals. These can look more like constellations, and people at the hub are connected to several others.9 Easton and Hardy also note that members may form very complex structures, and that the roles within the group will continue to develop, grown and change over time.9
Mischa also described two camps: those who view polyamory as an orientation and those who consider it a lifestyle. She noted that those who view it as an orientation would feel that even “trying to think about being in a monogamous relationship is against their very grain.” Those who consider it to be a lifestyle, Mischa included, feel that it is a choice.
Rules. Rules, which may be explicitly stated or inferred, are important as they set the boundaries for a relationship. Easton and Hardy note that “in an open sexual community, it is important to deal with each relationship within its own boundaries.”9 These boundaries can often get tricky, and many times are learned through trial and error. When setting boundaries through rules, it is important to both learn from mistakes and allow room for exploration.9
When I asked, Mischa about rules that help to maintain such relationships, she used the analogy of training wheels. In the beginning, those navigating poly relationships may need boundaries, and the rules set can assist in keeping you balanced and on track. As time goes on, Mischa noted that people most often “…shed their assumptions that they have grown up with regarding relationships.” They are no longer tied to the rules that have been ingrained in their consciousness. As they grow into their relationships with others, “people eventually find a structure that works, without having to draw lines.” Mischa also noted that it is ideal not to have rules that would preclude an open, honest discussion (ex. “Don’t ask, don’t tell”), as both honesty and openness are important components of making open relationships successful.
“Ideal” relationship. Easton and Hardy state that relationships should be written based upon your own script. This is difficult as it requires a lot of effort and honesty. 9 However, once the work it done, it can be very rewarding.
Mischa noted that an ideal relationship doesn’t have lines. It is a safe space in which people can talk about anything, without worrying about a person’s “knee-jerk reaction.” Most people in “traditional monogamous relationships” would not feel safe discussing their feelings of attraction toward someone outside of the relationship, essentially feeling as if they don’t have the “right” to talk to their partner about it. This may be because no safe space had been established within that relationship. When initiating a poly relationship, however, ideally all parties would agree at the beginning that the relationship would be open. In cases where this does not happen, one person must bring up the topic of the relationship structure to see how his/her partner feels about it; the sooner, the better.
“Ideal” participants. Easton and Hardy have found that open relationships work the best when the initial couple takes care of each other before letting others in.9 This often requires work and great communication. It also requires that people are comfortable setting and defining their boundaries.
I asked Mischa who should and should not engage in poly relationships, stemming from my assumption that this relationship style may not be for everyone. She noted that people who tend to be extremely jealous or hold the Disney myth of “one true love” should not get involved in polyamory. She also noted that more successful relationships consist of people who enjoy their alone time, need their own space, like to have fun, enjoy a variety of activities with different kinds of people, and are more realistic about relationships. These realistic people are “less starry eyed” in that they are less “wedded” to the idea that people will be together forever. A person should be comfortable with him/herself first, “viewing partners as the icing on the cake rather than a necessity or goal”, before engaging in a poly relationship.
Benefits/Drawbacks. While poly relationships allow individuals to express their love for multiple others and create their own romantic destiny, poly individuals may also face harsh criticism from others. As mentioned before, many therapists view this type of relationship configuration as deviant.1 Easton and Hardy note that family members and friends may be hostile and unsupportive.9 They “…know people who have lost jobs, child custody, and more because the wrong people have become aware of their sexual choices.” 9
In discussing the benefits and drawbacks of poly relationships, Mischa provided a lot of interesting points. Mischa feels that the best thing about poly relationships is the freedom that it affords in creating your own type of relationship. An individual is able to form intentional relationships with like-minded people, rather than conforming to society’s script of what a relationship should be like. Polyamory also presents the ability to form a greater number of these intimate relationships.7
However, Mischa said that forming relationships can be problematic when meeting people who are not like-minded and are committed to the idea that there is one soul mate. These people would not be able to start a meaningful polyamorous relationship as a person who wishes to be monogamous is usually incompatible with a non-monogamous individual. Although she did note that “mono-poly relationships are possible with a great deal of work.”
Another major drawback that Mischa noted was that poly relationships are open to interpretation. Essentially the “delta of ideas”, or set of notions we have regarding the form and function of a relationship, is much larger, as there is no prescription for what a poly relationship is or should be. While this is helpful in allowing openness, it leaves the possibility that two poly people may have very different philosophies, making them incompatible relationship-wise. In “traditional monogamy”, there is this clear cut idea that both members will engage in sexual fidelity and will be together until death.
Views of Love/Marriage. People often equate a monogamous relationship with a loving relationship, as “…the couple relationship and the model of the core family have been shaped by the cultural ideals bound up with romantic love.”8 Easton and Hardy write, “Our monogamy-centrist culture tends to assume that the purpose and ultimate goal of all relationships- and all sex- is lifelong pair bonding, and that any relationship that falls short of that goal has failed.”9 Assumptions that love is finite should be abandoned, as our capacity for both sex and love is greater than we think.9 People who identify with polyamory may or may not have multiple partners, however they are in a relationship in which love has the potential to grow eternally.8
Mischa also noted the fallacy that if you fall in love with someone else, there is an inherent problem with your existing relationship. In reality, people are capable of falling in love with more than one person, at no detriment to their relationship(s) with their other partners. This, to an extent is confirmed by research which shows that “…individuals’ relationships with one partner tend to operate relatively independently of their relationships with another partner. Thus, having multiple partners in itself does not appear to have a strong positive or negative effect on dyadic relationships.” 5
Mischa also stated that many people, both within and outside of the poly community, have ideas of what they want in a relationship. According to her personal views, when people try to force their preconceived ideas of what a relationship should be on another person, it can be problematic. Many people are essentially “unicorn hunting”, by trying to find a relationship that they think they want, rather than focusing on the people that they are meeting. People should meet others organically, as opposed to searching for the “cog in the wheel.”
Mischa feels that marriage should be a personal decision that is not state sponsored. By affording people who are married certain rights that are not given to others, the government has created a “privileged class.” Rather than this, marriage should be entered into for the “for the noblest of reasons- love.”
Mischa ended with the idea of the relationship escalator. If you get off this escalator, you fall down into the abyss. She loves the idea of “relationships not needing to reach certain milestones proscribed by society to be viewed as successful.” Instead you are creating your own relationship and your own story, rather than having it dictated to you by society.
Polyamory is being discussed more openly in the mainstream media, and as a result the number of groups and support systems available is on the rise. However, more empirical studies are needed, as research on this population is lacking.
Through my extensive review of the literature focused on polyamory, and discussion with poly-individuals, I have learned about the variety of relationship structures that exist, as well as the importance of starting off with clear expectations and discussions regarding boundaries. In order to be in a happy and supportive relationship, a great deal of work is required, as well as the ability to communicate honestly with your partner(s).
Preconceived notions regarding the structure of a relationship can be damaging when it results in the stereotyping of individuals who don’t conform to this “standard.” By learning more about others, we can become more accepting, and perhaps even learn more about ourselves. Because at the end of the day, what is it really all about?
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1Conley, T. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non-monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (ASAP), 13, 1–30
2Graham, N. (2014). Polyamory: A call for increased mental health professional awareness. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(6), 1031-1034.
4Brandon, M. (2011). The challenge of monogamy: Bringing it out of the closet and into the treatment room. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 26(3), 271-277. doi:10.1080/14681994.2011.574114
5Mitchell, M. E., Bartholomew, K., & Cobb, R. J. (2014). Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 51(3), 329-339.
6Modern Poly. (n.d.). Polyamory group registry. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20141218060256/http://polygroups.com/
7Manley, M. H., Diamond, L. M., & van Anders, S. M. (2015). Polyamory, monoamory, and sexual fluidity: A longitudinal study of identity and sexual trajectories. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 2(2), 168-180.
8Klesse, C. (2011). Notions of love in polyamory- Elements in a discourse on multiple loving. Laboratorium, 3, 4–25. Retrieved from http://www.soclabo.org/index.php/laboratorium/article/view/250/586
9Easton, D. & Hardy, J.W. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships & other adventures (2nd edition). New York: Crown Publishing Group.
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.