The word “Polyamory” often has people widening their eyes with the inquisition, yet it’s treated as an unchartered territory that people fear exploring due to the negative stigma attached to it. This post encourages you to apprehend polyamory with curiosity and a genuine interest to understand relationships.
Image Description: Various individuals matching their hands together to show a painted red heart, signify love between many. Photo by Tim Marshallhttps://unsplash.com/photos/cAtzHUz7Z8g
Poly- signifying many and amour- signifying love, describes a philosophy of being open to having multiple loving partners with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. A distinct factor of polyamory from consensual non-monogamy is that it has fewer if no restrictions towards exploring romantic relationships with different partners. Consensual Non-monogamy may have varying agreements with regards to romantic relationships outside a primary relationship. Although, they are often used interchangeably. The essence of polyamory is appreciating and celebrating love in different forms of relationships. Numerous people consider being polyamorous to be an integral aspect of their core identity and who they are as a person. They state that they've never really understood or “fit” the system of monogamy since the beginning. Grievously, their journey towards exploring polyamory has been turbulent. They had to deconstruct and decondition their ideas about love by searching and exploring more about their identity and self. This search might have taken years of questioning one’s belief or a multitude of failed relationships, to finally discover a community that felt more authentic to them. Although, being polyamorous doesn’t mean one can’t be in a monogamous relationship, as the foundation of a relationship is defined by the individual and their partner collaboratively. They see polyamory as a part of self that is unlimited and permissive of experiencing love. Whereas, some people consider polyamory to be subjected to the nature of their relationships or willingness to enter a polyamorous relationship. Here, being polyamorous is a free choice made, that may not reflect on it being a part of their core identity.
Polyamorous individuals believe in appreciating and building intimacy and romantic connections in various relationships through communication, trust, consent, and disclosure. An important hiccup in exploring polyamory is processing jealousy. Monogamy being normative often structures “feeling rules” (Hochschild, 1979), which are social norms that dictate how we’re supposed to feel in a given situation. Within Polyamorous relationships individuals unlearn and develop their own feelings rules that help create a communication to negotiate boundaries and address concerns in a safe space. The experience of love in traditional monogamous relationships often normalizes jealousy as a feeling rule to express their commitment. These insinuated rules that create expectations of having a partner fulfill all their desires and needs, often deepen and creates conflicts in relationships. Polyamory allows individuals to create a space to challenge and understand the source of rules that often become the root of distress within relationships.
It can be daunting at first, especially when we’ve spent our entire lives following and believing in notions about finding our “ one true love" or “the one”. The possibility of experiencing love outside a dyadic relationship seems incomprehensible and exhausting, since finding one person to share that love with can be difficult. Further, it shivers our worldview about love. A valid question often asked is “ How can you love multiple individuals equally?” First, Attaching parameters to compare the degree of love and intimacy here becomes unfair, since the experience of love differs with every relationship. Further, the reflection of love or intimacy in one relationship, may not signify a lack of love in another. While parents are generally thought to be able to love multiple children, even if it isn’t expressed in identical ways or matching amounts, the same philosophy becomes difficult to extend when we view loving multiple partners romantically. Polyamorous individuals believe that love, sex, and kinship are diverse and immersive experiences that cannot be exclusive to one individual.
Often, individuals who explore open or poly relationships experience a turbulent internal conflict due to feared judgment anticipated by people around them. The guilt and shame experienced here act as a double-edged sword, where at one hand, the experienced guilt and shame stems from heteronormative directives that look down upon their choice, and, on the other, guilt for experiencing difficulty in processing emotions like jealousy and envy in polyamorous relationships. Like monogamy, experiencing jealousy and rejection is unavoidable. Rather than denying jealousy, individuals in any form of a relationship must self-introspect these feelings. Further, effectively communicating one’s concern and discomfort with the purpose of resolution facilitates strengthening the relationship.
CONSENT AND COMMUNICATION
Consent and consistent communication are strong pillars of polyamory. One may assume that once we consent to a certain dynamic of a relationship, we’re supposed to stick by it without raising concerns or discomforts. This essentially can be a grave source of guilt, resentment, and isolation within a relationship. Every relationship requires a lot of work and attention towards each other’s emotions, needs, and discomforts.
Discussing and preparing for the difficulties one might face may look very different from experiencing them. At certain times, many individuals may enter a polyamorous relationship with a certain perception of preparedness. Much like monogamy, people who find themselves in polyamorous relationships may not always be polyamorous themselves. Often, when one loves someone, they may consent to agreements that may not be comfortable or secure. For them, it may not be their preference, but a leap of faith with the desired probability for success, by satisfying their partners' needs. The discomfort one’s experiencing may engulf what they might have anticipated in the beginning. The space to share their discomfort or withdraw consent from this dynamic, without experiencing guilt induced by their partner is essential. Polyamory is conditional on the informed, non-coerced consent of everyone involved.
Here individuals giving consent have agency and choice, which isn't a product of psychological coercion. The communication of consent here is done after discussing the various boundaries and discomforts that may arise in the relationship. Someone withholding affection, silent treatment, criticizing, and shaming one’s beliefs or threats about breaking up for drawing boundaries, is evidence of a power imbalance in the relationship that can lead to coercive consent. Hence, being self-aware of the power structures that may manifest in the relationship is important while viewing consent.
POWER STRUCTURES WITHIN POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS
Polyamory is primarily practiced within queer communities, inclusive of a spectrum of sexual and gender orientations. The experience of relationships of queer individuals is different in a heteronormative world, where a lot of heteronormative practices are based on the existence of monogamy. Going beyond the heteronormative framework, allows one to explore and surpass the monogamous template. Polyamory can be instrumental in exploring different facets of oneself, providing a new understanding of self through the eyes of their partners.
Although, it is important to identify certain concerns faced by queer individuals in a polyamorous relationship. It’s quite compelling to know that people’s understanding of poly relationships is drawn from replications of monogamy and heteronormativity. The popular understanding of polyamory is mostly and often exclusively viewed as hierarchical. It helps individuals distinguish the real couple. While Hierarchical Polyamory does exist, where it is completely valid to expect an individual’s feelings, needs, and desires to be addressed first before others, it is extremely dishonorable to view the secondary relationships and partners as replacements or extras. Researcher and polyamory advocate Andrea Zanin explained this by coining the term
. It describes how popular media often presents polyamory through a lens, where the primary heterosexual couple (most commonly) being the focus and symbol of love, explore and experience other forms of relationships and love at a peripheral. While this a dynamic that works for a multitude of couples, it insidiously set expectations and a degree of engagement with secondary partners.
It’s often assumed that a bisexual polyamorous cis woman would have a primary male partner, with other secondary partners being female or male. This may stem from a place where the heterosexual or primary relationship is viewed as permanent, where one might be able to envision a domesticated future. While there is nothing wrong with having a semi-casual, short-lived romantic relationship with other individuals, the hierarchy can’t be used to justify devaluing other relationships. The problem observed here is that the need for hierarchy ignores and subsets the emotional or physical needs of secondary partners. Having relationship descriptors instead of the hierarchical designation of partners eliminates the rules prescribed to devoting our resources.
THE AIR OF SILENCE AND SHAME
The stigma, prejudice, and discrimination faced by poly individuals and relationships categorizes them as strange and promiscuous. Many individuals face negative comments and perceptions about their identity and/or relationship, as individuals find it difficult to comprehend their “lifestyle”. Every utterance of conflict or disagreement shared with their support systems is directly attributed to the nature of Polyamory. The perception of Polyamory is often seen as temporary where it’s viewed as a road to monogamy. Because of this, many polyamorous individuals find it hard to express and articulate their concerns fearing the inapplicable feedback or reactions. Being open about polyamory also comes with risks of social exclusion that can also affect their professional life. Expressions of love, care, and affection are viewed as dysfunctional and incompatible with the popular belief system, which further makes one’s relationship and identity invisible. Sharing this personal and integral part of self comes with excessive scrutiny, that somehow sanctions their surrounding to ask and elucidate extremely intimate aspects about them.
The approval to encroach upon and fetishize an important part of self can be severely damaging and painful to endure. The perception of being unfaithful and loose, with the risks of being slut-shamed is a recurrent theme with polyamorous individuals. They’re posed with questions such as -
“ How many of them do you sleep with?”
“ Who would you have a threesome with?”
“Aren’t you scared of STDs?”
“ What if she leaves you for her?”
Lack of knowledge and the existence of prejudice exists in many communities and spaces, including mental health. Hence, many individuals choose to be silent about their relationships, that further causes the invisibility of their relationships with their partners.
In conclusion, the awareness, openness, and understanding of polyamorous individuals and relationships have great importance, even if one doesn’t want to be in one. Celebrating the different forms of love and relationships creates a space of safety and inclusivity. It opens our framework of conditioned relationships to the opportunity of new beginnings.