Polyamory — Committed Intimate Relationships with a Limited Number of other People

Explore polyamory: forming intimate bonds with multiple partners. Soul Searching discusses its rise amid shifting views on sexual lifestyles.

Is it conceivable that you could form intimate relationships with a limited number of other people? That's called polyamory. In conservative worlds, this kind of sexual expression seems limited, debauched or may even hint at a mental disorder but research psychologists are noticing an increasing openness to alternative sexual lifestyles — at least in the more progressive corners of the modern-day Western world, like Australia, Canada and the US. This episode of Soul Searching informs you of the differences between polyamory, polygamy and promiscuity.


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Polyamory is a word with one of its parts coming from the Greek language and the other from Latin. No, it doesn't mean two parrots kissing in a cage — it literally means 'many loves' and describes consensual, ethical, and responsible nonmonogamy (non.mo.nog.a.my), typically the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships where individuals may have more than one concurrent partner, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. A growing number of my clients have disclosed that they aspire to the practise of polyamory. Is this a sign that the world is rapidly losing its morals and slipping deeper into sin or is it an emerging trend of human sexual interaction? Some believe that polyamory should be classified as a relationship practice or approach to relationships, others believe that it should be seen as a sexual orientation or a type of gender identity. To fully unravel this sexual proclivity, we must first determine what the differences are between polyamory, polygamy and having an affair before we cast any judgement on the idea. A thorny part of this investigation demands that we ask the pertinent question as to whether nature meant for us to mate for life or whether we are naturally hardwired to have freer sexual expression? Are frequent one-night-stands intrinsically part of polyamory? What are the differences between wholesome, robust relationships, promiscuity and sexual addiction? And, how does all of this tie into the common spiritual advice given about intimate relationships?

The Bible says that God conducted the first arranged marriage after He used one of Adam's ribs to make a woman. It all sounds a bit convoluted to me: God creates adult Adam afresh from the elements of the Earth somewhere outside the Garden of Eden. I presume that Adam had all his reproductive organs functionally in situ at the time even though he wouldn't have had the foggiest idea what to do with them. God then transports Adam to the Garden (we don't know how) to act as its groundsman under certain employment terms and conditions, like not eating fruit from two very specific trees. It seems that Adam spent quite a lot of time on his own, wandering about nakedly, naming things. After an undisclosed period, God takes pity on the poor, lonely man, anaesthetises or hypnotises him, surgically removes one of his ribs and clones it into a lovely, full-grown, unblemished, naked woman, Eve, long hair and all (she needs the long hair to modestly cover her breasts). Bloody Hell! Poor Adam! This is seriously radical! Why not simply create Eve afresh as God had done with Adam? And then, what a crazy thing for God to say to them as he introduces this couple to each other: For man shall leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and they shall become a new family. Adam and Eve must have stood there utterly confused, whispering to each other, "What the hell is a father and a mother? Do you have any clue because I certainly don't?" Furthermore, why clone Eve and unite her with Adam only to call them 'one flesh' as some translations do? Duh?! Anyway, God had authoritatively laid down the law regarding marriage: one man, one woman, in perpetuity (remember that Adam and Eve had no concept of death at this stage so this would have intentionally bound them for all eternity), without exception, full-stop. Based on other Biblical prohibitions, and the fact that Adam and Eve's children were only born after their expulsion from Eden, it is safe to assume that they did not engage in recreational intercourse inside the Garden. God placed those parts of their anatomy there as instruments of procreation and not as toys for recreational purposes (the Jehovah's Witnesses by the way, ban masturbation on these grounds). It must have been very confusing for this couple to watch the birds and the bees without indulging in those practices themselves. Had Eve conceived a child before her expulsion, the possibility would have opened up for an untarnished, sinless lineage and that would have negated practically every purpose the Bible has. It was only after God's majestic plans fell apart, ending in Adam and Eve's dismissal from Eden when, I presume, this couple discovered their gender purpose and set about raising a family. Well, it wasn't too long after this when polygamy popped onto the scene. Although Adam and Eve had many children, we only know the names of three of them: Cain, Abel and Seth. Cain's son Lamech took two wives. Then, a bit later on in Biblical history, some of the angels popped down from Heaven to screw about with the earthy women. God needed a reboot to resolve a hung system and organised a flood. It killed off everyone except the faithful but we know that the strangest of sexual desires still lingered somewhere in the hearts of Noah and/or his family and sexual experimentation flared up again soon after the floodwaters had subsided. It appears that God's ultimate creation, mankind, was fatally flawed from the outset and even God looked as if He'd given up in exasperation, relaxing His strict rules about 'one man, one woman' by tolerating and regulating polygamy all the way through to Jesus' time. With all these shenanigans and goings-on, I don't know why God lost His temper so badly and went so ballistic, raining volcanic lava down on a gay-friendly city, just because a couple of blokes fancied Lot's angelic guests and invited them around to their place for tea. Anyway, God seems to have calmed down a lot since then and takes a much softer stance towards people's sexual behaviour in the New Testament, no more capital punishment for things like: committing adultery between a man and a woman; having sex with your father's wife; having incestual sex; and, having sex with a woman who is menstruating.

The word polygamy stems from two Greek words: poly (meaning many) and gamos (meaning marriage). So, polygamy literally means 'many marriages.' It's a de facto term for three distinct subdivisions: polygyny (po.lyg.y.ny) (one husband, multiple wives — the usual polygamous configuration); polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands — practically outlawed in every country of the world); and group marriage (where there are multiple husbands and wives). On a lighter side, I bet you don't know the meaning of autogamy (the pollination of a flower by its own pollen), cryptogamic (primary division of plants that have no true flowers or seeds, like ferns, fungi and algae), and lastly, homogamy (describing a marriage between people from similar sociological or educational backgrounds). Anyway, back to polygamy! It's illegal in many parts of the western world and in France where it is the cause of much friction and debate as Muslim numbers rise in the country. The Mormons call it 'plural marriage' and its practice has been controversial, both within Western society and the church itself. The Mormons defended the practice as a matter of religious freedom, while the federal government aggressively sought to eradicate it. China takes a neutral stance regarding polygamy and Ancient India did not prohibit it. It never gained popularity there, nor did it become a major cultural practice. Polygamy however, is commonplace throughout Africa in African cultures — Jacob Zuma is polygynous (po.lyg.yn.ous) with six or seven wives, I can't determine the exact number. A 2013 survey concluded that 83% of women in South Africa are not in favour of polygamy. Whilst it is still legally recognised in the country, it is becoming less common as western and modern lifestyles replace cultural and traditional beliefs.

In her article, The Polyamorist Next Door, published on the website www.psychologytoday.com, Dr. Elisabeth A. Sheff says that it is a form of ethical nonmonogamy rapidly gaining popularity in the US. The difference between affairs and polyamory is that there is negotiated access to additional partners outside of the traditional committed couple in the case of polyamory but in the case of cheating, the relationships are secret and without the other partner(s)' knowledge and consent. Many people prefer the simplicity, security and exclusivity of monogamy (one-on-one relationships) as it can be quite intense, and it takes time and devotion, to maintain polyamorous and polygamous unions. There is also a misperception that swinging and polyamory are the same thing. That's not true. Swinging tends to focus on sexual variety and puts less emphasis on emotional intimacy among those outside the core couple. Some swingers, in fact, negotiate arrangements that prohibit emotional connection or even repeated interaction with the same outside lover. I was somewhat surprised a while back to learn of several swingers' clubs that are popular and well frequented by what I thought were stereotypical Afrikaans conservatives. Polyamory also differs from polygamy in that not all polyamorists are married. Sheff, who is an expert on polyamory, says that it is a form of nonmonogamy in which women and men establish emotionally and/or sexually intimate relationships with multiple people at the same time. The partners all know about each other, and are often friends or chosen family members. While occasionally it translates as group sex, most often polyamorous people interact sexually in pairs and save the group thing for socialising. The primary geographical centres of polyamory are: Australia, Canada and the US. Most polyamorists are white, middle or upper-middle class, highly educated people who work in information technology, education, or health care. Some live together, usually in groups of two to five, and others live alone or with roommates. Women in polyamorous communities tend to be either bisexual or heterosexual, and the majority of the men are heterosexual with a few bisexuals.

In another part of her article, Sheff speaks about the morality of polyamory. She describes that one of the common arguments against polyamory is that it is immoral. While polyamory does not fit conventional morality any better than other forms of consensual nonmonogamy, it does provide adults and children with clear ethical guidelines. Contemporary social mores cast monogamy as right in the sense that it is essentially and eternally good, the only morally correct option in a world of increasingly casual debauchery. Nonmonogamy, in contrast, can strike many people as deeply wrong. Ironically again, cheating can seem more benign than polyamory because at least cheating fits a monogamous model: Cheaters 'lose control' and 'give in' to lust but then have the decency to feel shame and remorse, confess their sins and vow never to stray again (at least until the next time they lose control). Infidelity is thus a moment of weakness, certainly not something to be coolly negotiated, scheduled, and conducted in front of the children. Desiring sex with others makes psychological sense, many people feel attracted to new people even when they are already happily partnered. Polyamory is unabashedly non-monogamous and more directly challenges conventional morality with its brazen rejection of sexual and emotional exclusivity.

Ethics and morals are two different things: Ethics investigates the questions 'What is the best way for people to live?' and 'What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?' Morality is the differentiation of intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are deemed proper and those that are not. Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion, or culture, or it can derive from a standard that a person believes should be universal. Hence, polyamory may be morally bad (depending upon the standards and principles applied, like scripture) while being ethically okay because it the 'best way to live' for certain people under certain circumstances.

Dr. Michael E. Price is also published on www.psychologytoday.com and makes some interesting observations about promiscuity (this is the practice of having casual sex frequently with different partners or being indiscriminate in one's choice of sexual partners). He mentions a book, Sex at Dawn, which proposes that human sexual nature is essentially promiscuous. The authors imagine that our hunter-gatherer evolutionary past was characterised by an absence of exclusive, committed relationships; males mated promiscuously with many females, and females mated promiscuously with many males. Because everyone was having sex with everyone else, like the bonobos (our closest primate cousins), there was no way for males to know which children were their own, or if they even had any children of their own. But that was okay, because nobody cared; 'paternity certainty' was a non-issue for ancestral hunter-gatherers. Instead of worrying about caring for and protecting one's own children, everybody in the group simply invested equally in all children. Price argues that this model does not match the evidence gleaned by Evolutionary Psychologists. They generally see people as having flexible mating strategies, adapting to promiscuous behaviour under some conditions, and more committed relationships under other conditions. I am a serial monogamist but were tiny bursts of mild promiscuity and polyamory between relationships. There is no doubt that, among the general population, promiscuity is almost universally considered a bad thing. But the researcher, Ellison, frequently cited for his work on the subject of promiscuity, needed a definition of promiscuity that entirely eliminated the stigma usually associated with it. He provided this template: a person is promiscuous if and only if (1) he/she engages in sexual intercourse, (2) he/she does so with a series of other people, (3) the other people are adults, (4) the other people are not directly related to him/her through marriage, and (5) his/her sexual intercourse with the other people is noncommittal. The difference then between polyamory and promiscuity hinges on the commitment or casualness of the sexual encounters and whether they are limited to a fairly small number of other people or with limitless other people. Polyamorists are polyamorists when they engage in committed sexual intercourse with a fairly small number of other people; whereas promiscuity is they engagement in casual sexual intercourse with a series of other people.

But let's take to the moral high-ground for a bit. Is not the principle of 'one man, one woman forever, with no exceptions' simply the way it should be and that any deviation from this norm be regarded as a mental disorder or bad choice? Is all deviant sexual expression not some form of addiction? The website www.webmd.com has a page on Sex Addiction. It opens with this paragraph, "You've probably heard of sex addiction, but you might be surprised to know that there's debate about whether it's truly an addiction, and that it's not even all about sex." Research Psychologist, Dr. Rory Reid speaks of sex addiction and makes this comment, "It is no more about sex than an eating disorder is about food or pathological gambling is about money." Sex addicts, in other words, are not simply people who crave lots of sex. Instead, they have underlying psychological problems — stress, anxiety, depression and shame — that drive their often-risky sexual behaviour. Reid and many other experts prefer the term 'hypersexual disorder,' rather than 'sex addiction.' As examples, Reid cites men who spend half their income on prostitutes, and office workers who surf the web for porn despite warnings that they'll lose their job if they keep it up. Despite the danger, they return to the same behaviours over and over, whether it's Internet porn, soliciting, ceaselessly seeking affairs, masturbating or exposing themselves in public, or any number of other acts. Frequently, a crisis convinces them to seek treatment, Reid says. They're caught in the act by a spouse, fired from their job, or arrested for soliciting sex from prostitutes. For some, the crisis brings relief from distress caused by their behaviour and constant fear of being discovered. Their world comes crashing down and some say, "I'm glad that I got caught."

The polyamorist blogger, Isaac A. Sanch, wrote this poem:

We recognise that relationships do not fit neatly into society's dictionary; undeterred by those who expect that our love is a confinement solitary. We choose far more to have in store with how we conduct our lives; in our hearts there's countless parts to nourish and to make us wise.

We recognise our boundaries, drawing lines, and knowing when to end; hard-earned self-knowledge is the linchpin on which it all depends. Everyone has their vision for themselves of how they wish to be treated; if you approach from an assumption please know you'll likely end defeated.

We recognise people for who they are, not for whom we wish them to be; determined to love in such a way that lets them feel free. In each of them is the playground of a universe all their own; we make the choice on such fertile ground that our hearts are allowed to roam.

We recognise the difference between such love and the resources used to express; assured that while first is infinite — in the latter overuse always brings duress. And the more that we try to do this, the more time moves by at extraordinary paces; but with work and care we build a life reflecting joy in our friends' and lovers' faces.

We recognise that companionship is a complex and changing thing; emboldened by the knowledge that impermanence is always in full swing. Trying not to take for granted the people so emblazoned on our hearts, we do what we can to create a place that's better for having done our part.

We recognise that the family is not some aspect of the chromosome; enshrined instead in the people whom we call our loving home. Parents, children, lovers, and our dearest friends: Each of you extends, this community that we gather around until we reach our ends.

Another blogger Andrea, writes this poem on the theme of polyamory. He titles it, Opia, which he defines as, "[a noun, symbolising] the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable — their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque — as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there's someone standing there, but unable to tell if you're looking in or looking out." Here's his four-line poem:

Eyes as dark as a night without stars

they all lay together that night

with lips of sin and lashes of gold

three of them set their muscles alight.

Adam Ford's polyamorist poem, Lipstick, reads:

You're gone

I wash my hands in our bathroom sink

I notice a speck of your lipstick

Reflected back at me

You asked me to check it

So I did

Now you travel to plant it on another

And mix it with another shade

Much darker than I would wear

Even in another life

You go with my blessing

Soon I will go with yours

We'll sleep alone, together.

All of this speaks to the increasing openness to alternative sexual lifestyles — at least in the more progressive corners of the modern-day Western world.

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