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A little POLY 101

June 2, 2008

Psst, come on over tonight. He knows and he’s cool with it, plus the kids miss you. We can all play Wii together!

Tilda Swinton

When I speak to university students I am often met with gasps of disbelief if I suggest that for a small (but very real) subculture, long term, romantic love isn’t limited to two people. Some undergrads blink with confused dismay, but I notice those few that are wide-eyed with envy, or perhaps recognition. Yes, I see you back there, staring at me over your crossword. Got your attention now, don’t I?

Every now and then someone sneaks over to me after a class or workshop and quietly peeps “Do you only work with singles and couples? I mean…do you know much about…other…relationships? Not swinging or cheating, but…bigger families…of adults?”

Occasionally the popular news gets ahold of a family facing legal concerns over multiple marriages, and with that TV series BigLove, it is getting easier for students to begin to believe it happens. However, as always, a very limited and dysfunctional presentation is made, based on extremes. What those wide-eyed undergrads and shy workshop attendees really want to know about is good, old fashioned polyamory. So, what exactly is this mysterious utopian situation? And is it really just a myth?

Not swinging, not sleeping-around, not having affairs, not even wife-swapping, but polyamory. Poly, which means “many” or “multiple”, and amory, which means “love” (or, in this case, “loves”) refers to situations in which there is a deep physical and emotional intimacy that is not limited to a single partner (aka monogamy). In successful polyamorous families trust and communication are prized, so sneaking around and cheating outside the (web of) relationships is just as big of a no-no as it is for monogamous couples. People know, or at least know of, their partners’ partners. How big are these webs? Poly-families are as small as 3 and can be larger than I could begin to fathom, depending on on who you ask. Do they all live together? Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, just like monogamous couples and families.

Why do this? Well, there will be as many answers for this as there would be if one asked why many folks are monogamous (or try to be..or think they one day will try to be…) and lots of those answers will be the same. Some people feel that love doesn’t stop at just one person, and aren’t interested in restricting themselves. Others feel a religious or spiritual calling (and I’m not just talking about the sub-sect of Mormons who are rejected by the main Mormon church over having multiple wives), and still others just don’t get why anyone would have it any other way. I’m sure there many more reasons, too.

Are their kids OK? Thus far, we have no scientific/research reason to believe that they aren’t and some folks would assert that such kids are better off due to more resources (more adults means more money, time, attention, etc.). And are their “marriages” ok?Well, you know that planting and growing a successful couple is quite a challenge, and so doing the same among even more people is likely to be increasingly complex. But then, with monogamous marriage struggling and bumbling through the transition from a survival-structure to a romantic-structure, no long term relationship type has a very high success rate. However, my dear readers and listeners, it is not my place (or ability) to dictate your morals and values, so I’m sure you’ll come to your own decision on such questions. I merely bring up the ideas for your consideration, with a little background info along the way. I will say, however, that Tilda Swinton’s big family seems to be quite happy and successful.

Vocabulary lesson time! Here are some poly words to get you started, so you can look all savvy at your next chatty art gallery soiree, trivia night, or guest lecture with me.

Polyamory – long term, committed relationships in which one or both partners in the “couple” also have other partners. Everyone knows, everyone is cool about it, and it is about far more than sex. Maybe it isn’t even about sex at all, depending on the folks involved. This word is gender and sexuality neutral. There are all kinds of picky words, like “primary partner” (the main, #1 partner) that could fit in here, but I’ll let you chew on this much for now. High quality communication, emotional fulfillment, and loving families (often including solid child rearing) are prized by polyamorists.

Polygamy – Another gender neutral word which refers to more than one spouse for either partner. Marriage is implied here, so it is aimed at those opting for heterosexual unions.

Polygyny – This one is gender specific and means one man with 2+ women. These women know each other (although they often aren’t erotically attracted to each other) and work together as a large, structured and organized family.

Polyandry – This one is also gender specific but for the ladies. That’s right, one woman with many (or at least 2) men. Like polygyny, these men know each other and work together but may not (or may!) be erotically attracted to each other. Que the Tilda Swinton link one more time.

Alrighty – now go drop some big words to scare the grandkids!

Learn more about diverse relationships at one of Exploring Intimacy’s workshops in Atlanta this summer!

Or, drop us a question and we might answer it on our blog and include it in a podcast.

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