The Heart of Polyamory: Show Me the Love

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By Millie Jackson

I am a literalist when it comes to polyamory—a self-proclaimed poly-purist.  Since the word contains “amory” from the Latin “amor” meaning love, love is literally a defining characteristic of polyamory.  A common definition for polyamory is the concept of being open to having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with knowledge and consent of all partners involved.  There are other styles of non-monogamy and various ways to engage in open relationships that are not polyamorous.

Though we often contrast and compare polyamory to monogamy, the truest comparison would be between polyamory and mono-amory—the arguably rare state of loving only one partner throughout a lifetime. Another challenge with comparing polyamory to monogamy is that a relationship can be truly monogamous but devoid of love.

Polyamory is a love-style more so than a life-style. One of my pet peeves as an activist for polyamory is when the word is used to describe emotionally disengaged encounters. Everyone is certainly entitled to their own approach to relationships and to how and why they have sex, but calling it polyamory doesn’t make sense if it is not amorous. Obviously, we aren’t going to immediately be in love with everyone we date. It doesn’t usually work that way for monogamists or polyamorists, but polyamory is about having the intention to cultivate an emotional relationship. I would love to see clearer distinctions made among different forms of non-monogamy so myths and misunderstandings are not perpetuated.

Unfortunately, polyamory sometimes gets incorrectly used as an umbrella term for non-monogamy and/or open relationships instead of as a subcategory. Polyamory is not a synonym for either of these. Not all forms of polyamory are open relationships such as polyfidelity which is a closed relationship shared by more than two lovers. Likewise, there are non-monogamous relationships that are not polyamorous such as swinging. Swinging is fundamentally different since its emphasis is on recreational sex, typically with the implicit if not explicit intention to not get emotionally involved.  Incidentally, most swingers have only a partially open and partially non-monogamous relationship since they usually practice emotional monogamy. When not engaged in their couple-based recreational sexual activities, their relationship is often structured in a way that resembles that of traditional monogamous couples.  New terms are being coined as life-styles blend and cross-over, such as “swoly”—a swinger/poly hybrid.

This is not just an issue of semantics, but reflects an important distinction in if and how we relate to one another on an emotional level. An emotional detachment from sexuality is to me the opposite of the paradigm shift that I see polyamory to be.  Polyamory expands our capacity to love by exploring deeper levels of intimacy with more than one person. Again, it is indeed someone’s personal freedom to have consensual sexual experiences without an emotional connection, but it is a misnomer to call it polyamory. I sometimes get the impression that people over use the term polyamory to make their sexual adventures sound more acceptable to themselves or others. This could be an indication for someone to check in about any judgments they may have about the choices they are making or why they care about what others think of them.

In her book, Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, Tristan Taormino does a great job of distinguishing different forms and degrees of non-monogamy.  She breaks them down into the following categories:  partnered non-monogamy, polyamory, swinging, solo polyamory, polyfidelity, and mono/poly combinations. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like guidance in finding their way beyond traditional monogamy.  The book can help you determine which style of relating best suits you depending on your desires, preferences and personal proclivities.

I don’t object to adults freely practicing whatever forms of non-monogamy or open relationships they desire; I do object to calling it polyamory when it is not amorous. Most everyone who is honestly practicing some form of non-monogamy is helping to dispel the tightly held myth that monogamy is somehow the only noble and acceptable relationship dynamic (despite its abysmal record). We can further expand the acceptance of responsible relationship alternatives by better distinguishing among how those can be structured which reflects the natural abundance of ways humans experience love and express sexuality.

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