What the Heck is Polyamory: Part 1 – What?

Published: August 29, 2013 • Updated: June 21, 2016 • by rigel

This article is part of a four-part introduction to polyamory: Part 1  – WhatPart 2 – WhyPart 3 – How (Structures), and Part 4 – How (Getting Started).

Often when reading our blogs or looking at our classes, the term polyamory gets brought up. Since many of our readers are those just starting their journey,  we’re sure many of you are secretly asking yourselves “What the heck is polyamory?” Well, that’s a pretty involved question, but we are going to do our best to explain it as simply and painlessly as possible.

Polyamory is a compound word derived from the Greek word for many and the Latin word for love. Polyamory then is literally many loves.  The definition of polyamory depends on who you ask. Wikipedia’s definition is “The practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.” My personal definition adds “romantic” to Wikipedia’s unmatched wisdom.

Helpful hint: both “polyamory” and “polyamorous” are often shortened to “poly.” Humans are lazy.

Polyamory is a subset of non-monogamy, but it is differentiated from other forms of non-monogamy (such as swinging) by the romantic component.  Remember the “amory” part? Sex without a romantic relationship isn’t polyamory. (On the other hand, a romantic relationship without sexual attraction can be hard to distinguish from a good friendship). Exactly what level the relationship has to rise to before calling it “polyamory” varies from person to person.

While I’m harping on the romantic relationship component of polyamory, I want to clarify that nothing is saying that there is anything wrong with sex or play without a romantic relationship (with the knowledge and consent of all parties and proper precautions of course).  No strings attached sex is fun and marvelously simple. Everyone gets hung up on the sex part of polyamory but anyone who has practiced it will tell you that after you get over the cultural norms sex is the easy part. Relationships are work, and balancing multiple relationships even more so.

Just as important as defining what polyamory is would be to define what it’s not. So here is what polyamory is not, along with a few common myths about polyamory:

Polyamory is not cheating

Webster’s dictionary defines cheating as:

“to deprive of something valuable by the use of deceit or fraud”

Polyamory requires the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. Need I say more?

If only one partner knows about it, it’s not polyamory 

I feel like after reading the definition this should go without saying, but it doesn’t. You would be surprised how many times I’ve heard a (usually new) person say “We’re in a polyamorous relationship, it’s just that my wife/husband/partner/significant other/life mate/other miscellaneous term of endearment doesn’t know about it yet.”

No, that’s not polyamory, that’s cheating, which brings me to my first myth:

If you already have multiple partners you can’t cheat

Refer back to the definition of polyamory. No, seriously.

That’s right, monogamous people don’t have a monopoly on cheating. People in a poly relationship can cheat by violating the agreements they have made with your their other partner/s. What might this look like?

  • You have agreed to get approval before starting a relationship with a new partner, but don’t.
  • You have agreed that sexual activity up to intercourse is OK, but intercourse is only OK with your primary. You have intercourse with someone else anyways.
  • You have agreed that you can have sex with anyone you want, but they are required to provide a current STD check first. You have sex with them without the check.

If you bring on new partners, your original relationship is doomed. Doooomed!!!

If you bring on new partners, your original relationship is doomed. Doooomed!!!If you bring on new partners, your original relationship is doomed. Doooomed!!!I hear this myth a lot; it seems everyone has a friend who has a cousin who tried some form of open relationship after which their primary relationship imploded.

You know who I almost never hear this from? People who have actually had an open relationship.

That’s not saying that open relationships can never cause problems; I suspect a lot of these stories come from relationships that were already on rocky ground beforehand, which is a horrible idea by the way. More on this in the “How” post.

My wife and I been together for eight years and married for six, and if anything polyamory has actually strengthened our relationship. It’s amazing how having a new relationship can make you appreciate the things you have grown to take for granted in with a long-term partner.

You were dating….. but now you’ve broken up with them. See? Poly doesn’t work.  Na na na na…..

I’ve gotten so tired of hearing this that I’ve started telling people the next time they break up with their significant other I am going to tell them it happened because they are monogamous. Not only is this line of thinking irritating, but with 50% of first marriages (marriages!) ending in divorce in this country, it’s funny in a sad kind of way.

Polyamorous or no, relationships go one of two ways: A fraction of the time you find a special person or persons that you keep forever, but most people don’t find that the first (or second, or third, or tenth) time around. Most of the time the relationship eventually transitions to something else. It might be friends, it might be enemies, but at some point the romantic part of the relationship ends

We’ve had poly relationships that have ended for a variety of reasons: lack of commitment, family priorities, maturity, even drug use. You know what we have never had? A had a relationship that ended simply because of the structure of the relationship.

Those interested in this subject can read this paper produced by the NSCF for psychologists. It includes studies that indicate that polyamorous relationships tend to end for the same reason as monogamous relationships. Go figure.

So now you that have a better idea of what polyamory is, it’s time to learn about the “why” and “how.” Keep an eye out for our next two blog posts on these topics.

Do you have specific questions about polyamory you want answered? Ask them here, and we will either answer them in the comments or include them in the other posts. 

Want to learn about polyamory and more? Check out our events.  

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