Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Paradigm Shifts

In the most recent episode of the Polyamory Weekly podcast, Minx answered a question from a listener about the difference between polyamory and open relationships.  She basically defined open relationships as those with a couple already at the base, and polyamory as more of an orientation.  So Minx is single and poly, but she couldn’t be single and in an open relationship.  This is a little different from how I’m used to thinking of polyamory vs. open, which is basically that poly is multiple relationships and open means sex outside one or more relationships, but it did get me thinking about how these structures function in my life and generally, and how being polyamorous affects the way one looks at the world.

When I started out with polyamory, I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of “open.”  Part of that was that it seemed rather chaotic and haphazard.  I didn’t think that there was any reason to limit romantic relationships to just one, but the word “open” gave me a mental picture of extreme promiscuity and I think especially, a lack of control.

Without really thinking about it, though, I’ve ended up in an open, poly situation and I’m happy with that.  It was mostly accidental, because I had no interest in setting rules about sex and dating, outside of the important safer sex questions, of course.  I still think of myself primarily as a “polyamorous person,” even though I’m only with one person right now, because polyamory has become a lens through which I view the world, rather than a simple way of describing what’s going on in my love life.

Poly Vocabulary & Relationship Structure

Of course, whether you use Minx’s definition or mine, there is some play in these terms.  Open, I would argue, could be a kind of orientation, as in “I do open relationships” or “I’m not interested in a monogamous relationship, all my relationships are open.”  Poly doesn’t necessarily have to be multiple long-term relationships, I think–one of my favorite things about poly is the freedom to have multiple simultaneous relationship types, from the occasional lover to the committed relationship to close friends with or without benefits.  I think if I lived in my poly fantasy land, it would be some sort of communal living arrangement where everyone was free to move in and out of relationship structures with an overarching principle of mutual support.

The way I define “open,” you can be both–polyamorous because you claim that as an identity or have multiple partners at this point in time, but at the same time open to have sex with other people outside of your relationship(s).  Minx mentions polyfidelity, which would be what I tend to think of as “poly, but not open”–in multiple relationships, but not allowed to explore outside of that.

This, of course, brings us to another question–if there are these rules on whether you can be sexual outside the relationship or not, date outside or not, how do poly relationships of various types form?

Polyamorous Relationship Formation & Rule-Setting

There are a bazillion ways to be poly.  Some people like hierarchy, some detest it.  Some like to set a lot of rules about who can spend time with whom, who lives where, and when sex with others is okay.  Others are much looser and pretty much go with the flow.  But either way, thinking about how poly relationships form does put a spotlight on the way my definition–poly as multiple relationships, open as freedom to explore outside relationship(s)–focuses on present structures.

If you’re in multiple relationships, you had to get there somewhow.  Now I imagine that there are plenty of people who practice polyfidelity and came to it after they were already in multiple relationships, so that doesn’t present problems.  But what if you’re polyamorous, but aren’t comfortable with a partner exploring outside the relationship?  How do new relationships form that way?

I suppose this varies, and isn’t all that unlike the way monogamous relationships form.  Some people get to know a person, date a little, declare commitment, and then have sex.  Some people get to know someone and ask that person to form a monogamous relationship before anything romantic or physical has even happened.  Some people date a lot of people for a while, then form a relationship.  Some people have sex with one person for a while, then decide to put a label on it.  There are many ways to skin this cat.

The situation is similar with polyamory, and it comes back to that question of chaos vs. conrol.

A big part of figuring out what kind of non-monogamy works for you is figuring out your needs when it comes to control, negotiation, and knowledge of a partner’s other relationships and dalliances.  I found out when I started practicing polyamory that I just don’t do jealousy.  I’m rarely bothered when a partner meets someone new, and I like having freedom to follow my romantic or sexual impulses when an opportunity unexpectedly arises.  However, I also enjoy talking to my partner after something like that happens, and so I’m happiest in a relationship where talking about others is a comfortable, natural thing.

(As an aside, to show that I’m human, I did get a little jealous when my current partner of two years started dating one of our friends a couple of months after she started dating me.  It had more to do with time than anything, as this was my partner’s fourth partner and we didn’t have much phone/online time as it was.  But the jealousy faded quickly, and I later declared a huge crush on this person myself.  Fortunately, she was flattered, and we’re great friends and she doesn’t mind at all when I flirt with her.  I call that a communication win.)

I found that my need for control was pretty much limited to knowing that I’m safe.  That means I practice a much more extreme version of safer sex with my partner than most people do, and it means that we actively make sure we get enough time with each other on the phone and online.  It also means that I need to know that I can always call if I’m really in a bad place, and she’ll take a moment away from husband and kids to talk with me and help me breathe.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  There’s nothing wrong with finding that a partner having sex outside the relationship makes you jealous, and deciding that you need to meet someone new before sex happens, or before a new relationship happens, or that you just need to sit down and have a talk first.  In some cases, an actual veto policy works, or stricter rules on things like time and space restrictions.  I don’t think any of these things can be tied to one relationship style, because they’re so personal.

A Polyamorous Paradigm Shift

So all of this is well, good, and practical.  But I have some more thoughts about polyamory, and those tie in with my politics and how this relationship style can actually adjust the way we see the world.

Whatever the actual structure of your relationship, the great thing about these non-monogamous relationship styles is that they do tend to lead to communication and personalized negotiation.  Navigating the various options can teach you a lot about yourself and your comfort zone.  I learned that I’m not jealous and that my fears resided in safety concerns rather than in disliking promiscuity.  I also learned to be more comfortable with “casual” or one-off sex, because communication and negotiation apply to that, too.  Poly ended up being a great practice of “know thyself,” and that’s not limited to poly–even if you decide that you’re monogamous in the end, asking these questions of yourself is a very healthy practice.

In my mind, though, there is something radical about poly, in that it creates a paradigm shift.  There’s already a narrative about open relationships in the dominant culture, whether we call it “dating,” “boys will be boys,” or something else.  I knew about open marriage before I knew about polyamory, because even though it’s “a little weird,” it’s not all that unusual in our culture.  There are media references to married couples with “arrangements,” and the word “swinger” does come up occasionally in everyday conversation outside of poly circles.

I find it a little ironic that people freak out so much about those of us who are openly polyamorous, because it seems much less “scary” for someone to be in multiple committed relationships with boundaries, negotiation, and communication than for someone to go to the bar all the time and hook up outside a relationship.  Neither of these things is intrinsically better than the other–you might find that what’s right and safe and comfortable for you is frequent, casual sex.  But it is interesting that polyamory happens to be the more deviant option.

The thing about polyamory is that as a culture, we’re so used to seeing a single couple at the center, and all things radiating out from that point, as Minx describes open relationships.  Multiple partnerships, possibly of different types and formations, destabilize this neat center with any sexual openness, conflict, attraction, or cheating happening outside of it.  We’re taught that men sometimes cheat on their wives, but we’re not taught that husbands sometimes get along great with their wives’ boyfriends.

Polyamory requires skills that we don’t learn in school.  We need to learn how to express attraction to our partners, talk about it, and navigate new relationships without compromising existing ones.  We need to ask tough questions about our emotional, sexual, and relationship needs, and sometimes we need to be creative with how we structure our “poly flowcharts.”  We probably didn’t learn in school, or at home, how to decide who spends Thanksgiving with whom when our relationship circle is a web of ten or fifteen people in various configurations.  We probably didn’t learn how to meet our new partner’s partner and what degree of relationship we’re comfortable having with that person.  We learned to assume that someone has one, and only one “number one” in their lives, so we don’t know how to talk about relationships in a way that doesn’t presume monogamy.

I love that polyamory can be destabilizing in this way.  I enjoy the “inside baseball” that comes with talking with other poly people.  I don’t exactly feel like I’m a part of the broader poly community, which includes within it a lot of misogyny, a lot of heterosexism, a lot of transphobia, and a lot of disdain for childfree people.  But I do feel like there’s a community of people like me, some of whom I haven’t met yet.

I find that those of us who do see polyamory as a paradigm shift, who embrace its queering influence, tend to move in a lot of the same circles.  My polyamory absolutely relates to my queerness, to being non-binary gendered, to being kinky.  There’s a lot of play with language going on–learning to stop using the language of a single “significant other” is similar to learning not to say “opposite gender” or not to ask whether a woman you just met has a boyfriend.  All these things are about getting away from assumptions.

In shifting my own relationship paradigm to incorporate polyamory, I’ve also been learning to shift my values on promiscuity and sexual openness.  If no relationship structure is inherently lesser, then promiscuity isn’t less valuable than a committed relationship, either.  Getting back to those core values of communication, negotiation, personal honesty, and creativity, we can all find radical ways of relating that bring our best selves to the fore.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on November 25, 2011, in relationships and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for writing this. You very eloquently express much of what is important to me about poly relationships. Kudos.

  1. Pingback: Polyamorous « Vibrational Land

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