Polyamory: Rebooting Our Definitions of Love and Family

Angi Becker Stevens doesn’t need you to understand her family to accept it as equal.

Originally appeared at Role/Reboot

When most people think of long-term, multiple-partner relationships, the only thing that comes to mind is probably patriarchal, religion-based polygamy of the Sister Wives and Big Love variety. In actuality, however, there are a sizable number of people living in far more egalitarian polyamorous relationships: folks with two or more romantic partners, in all imaginable combinations of genders and sexual orientations. And while many people associate the whole idea of polyamory with a free-for-all, no-strings-attached approach to relationships, the reality is that many of us in polyamorous relationships are committed to multiple partners, living together as a family, and even raising children.

There is no firm agreement even amongst polyamorous folks as to a precise definition of “polyamory.” But the basic idea is that identifying a relationship as polyamorous implies at least the potential to simultaneously love multiple partners, as opposed to relationships that are “open” in a strictly sexual sense. And it is continually surprising to me that people, in general, seem far more able to accept the possibility of sharing a partner sexually than they are able to accept the possibility of having multiple loves. It says a great deal about our society’s rigid definition of romantic love that people are able to somewhat easily accept the concept of sexually open relationships—and even dishonest infidelity—while insisting that it cannot be possible to actually love multiple partners simultaneously. Frustratingly, I have been told on more than one occasion that what I share with my partners cannot, by definition, be love, as if anyone can define for others what love is and what it is not. These attitudes strike me as incredibly reminiscent of a society that—30 years ago—viewed same-sex relationships only as a deviant sexual behavior. And yet dismissal and disapproval of my relationships often comes from those who support LGBTQ equality, who claim to be open-minded and progressive.

Currently, I am in two relationships, both of which I consider myself committed to for life. My husband and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage—15 total years as a couple—this year, and we have an 8-year-old daughter together. My boyfriend doesn’t live with us yet, but we have plans to all live together in the not-so-distant future, and there’s been much talk of adding more children to our family as well. My daughter is well aware of the nature of my relationships, which I do not keep hidden from anyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people raise concerns about the well-being of children in polyamorous families. Some seem concerned that the kids in these situations are growing up with inappropriate ethics, which is a lot like warning same-sex couples that their children will grown up thinking it’s OK to be gay. I’m thrilled that my daughter, and any future children I might have, will grow up knowing that there is more than one way to form a loving relationship. Other people seem convinced that the children are somehow being exposed to sexuality in an unhealthy way, just one of many sentiments that betrays a fixation on the sexual aspect of any alternative relationships. My daughter sees the same kinds of affection between my boyfriend and I that she sees between her father and I; in other words, the kind of affection that’s completely appropriate for 8-year-old eyes. And still others worry about a lack of stability for children in polyamorous homes, a concern which strikes me as particularly ironic in our 21st century world of oft-divorcing parents and blended families. If we find it acceptable for single parents to date, to bring new love interests into their children’s homes and lives, is it such a stretch to imagine that non-single parents might conceivably be able to do the same thing, without any greater or less risk of instability?

From my perspective, being in a polyamorous family has a lot to offer both children and parents. Children benefit from having additional trusted adults who care for them, parents benefit from sharing the burdens of parenting among more than just two people. And while I would make no claims that polyamory is inherently and necessarily revolutionary with regard to gender roles, there is something to be said for the possibilities it opens up in that respect. When we shift away from families with one mother and one father, it can become easier to also shake up the roles and expectations associated with those labels. I believe in the sentiment that it takes a village to raise a child, particularly if women are to function as equals in society while also caring for young children. Multi-parent households are certainly not the only way of more equitably dividing parental tasks, but they do offer one model for doing so.

Aside from concerns about children, questions about my relationships often revolve around the more practical concerns: How do you deal with jealousy? How do you divide your time between two partners? Isn’t there an excess of drama? I’m happy to have those conversations with people, and to point them to excellent resources that already exist on such topics (I highly recommend morethantwo.com as a starting point). At the same time, I do not want acceptance and validation of my family to hinge on whether or not people are able to understand and relate to every bit of the inner workings. After all, how many of us will ever truly understand any relationships other than our own? What I want, quite simply, is for people—especially those who would claim to be progressive—is to understand and accept that relationships like ours can and do exist, quite happily. And I think it’s possible for people to accept that even if they think we’re strange, even if they cannot comprehend wanting a life like ours.

I don’t know that there’s any way to offer a universal definition of romantic love; I certainly don’t claim to be up to the task. What I do know is that my partners, while vastly different from one another, share several important qualities. They are my two best friends in the world. They are both men I can sit up all night talking with. They are both men who support and embrace my feminism. They are both men who I laugh with almost every single day. They both make me feel loved, respected, and desired. And I can say with as much certainty as it is ever possible to have about such things that I am madly in love with them both, and want to live the rest of my life with them both by my side.

As is the case with same-sex relationships, I have never heard a real argument against polyamory that is not ultimately rooted in either religious belief or in some abstractly socially conditioned notion of what constitutes a “real,” “natural,” or “healthy” relationship. People ask: Why should one be entitled to have more than one partner? But it never occurs to anyone to ask why we shouldn’t be entitled to such a thing—assuming, of course, enthusiastic consent from all individuals involved. I don’t long for a world in which monogamy is obsolete. But I do long for a world in which we can see the value and possibility of many different ways of forming relationships, and in which we can each freely form our own decisions about the kind of family we’d like to create.

Angi Becker Stevens lives in the metro-Detroit area, where she is an active member of The Organization for a Free Society. Her writing on feminism and other forms of social justice has appeared in such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. Her first collection of short fiction will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books.

Read more from our special “Polyamory” section.

—Photo Peter Kaminski/Flickr

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Comments

  1. As the author pointed out, she has a husband and a boyfriend. Are the husband and boyfriend romantically/sexually engaged with each other? Curiously, she doesn’t mention whether or not that husband and boyfriend have girlfriends or boyfriends of their own, apart from her. Nor does she mention whether they are allowed to within the structure of the relationship. If they move in together, can the husband and boyfriend bring in additional women or men at a later time? Who will actually father the next child, assuming that plan is actually carried out?

    • Hi Reese, thanks for reading. No, my partners aren’t romantically/sexually involved with each other. Neither has other relationships at this time, but they’re both 100% free to have other relationships if they choose. It’s certainly not impossible that our family could expand to include others someday; that’s a decision we would all make together when and if there are other relationships that reach that level of seriousness. My boyfriend would father any future children we might have.
      It’s always difficult to address every single point people might be curious about when trying to write a brief piece on polyamory, but I appreciate your questions.

      • Thanks for your response. Your answers have me confused, though, because you called this a polyamorous relationship. For the woman it is, but I don’t see how it is from the others. I see the woman as in two relationships, one with the husband and one with the boyfriend. But, as you said, the boyfriend and husband are not in a relationship with each other. Both men are in “open” monogamous relationships since they are free to have other relationships, but at this time have only the relationship with the woman. Maybe this is what you meant since you are writing from the woman’s perspective, not the husband’s or the boyfriend’s.

        • Well, I can tell you that in polyamorous communities/writing about polyamory/etc., it’s absolutely common practice to refer to relationships just like mine as polyamorous relationships (there’s even a specific name for them–a “V” relationship–and I would say they’re among the most common configurations for folks who identify as poly). So, this is how we poly people ourselves tend to use these labels, and I would generally think it’s up to the members of a given group/community/orientation to determine for themselves how to identify.

          To me, “monogamous” implies not just happening to circumstantially be with only one person; it implies a commitment to remain with only that one person. When there was a period of time in which neither my husband or I had other partners, we both still defined our relationship as polyamorous because we were both absolutely free to date and potentially fall in love with others. And to me, that’s what these labels are really about–identifying the terms of the relationship. The terms of a monogamous relationship include an agreement that neither partner is free to pursue relationships with others. The terms of “open” relationships are often that people are free to pursue sex with others but not love. And by my definition, a relationship is polyamorous when the people in that relationship are free to pursue loving, romantic relationships with others.

          Beyond that, I’m certain both of my partners would agree that it’s not as if they feel themselves to be in monogamous relationships, while only I am dealing with being poly. While they might not be involved with other people right now, in a lot of ways we are all in this together. We’re planning a future and a family together. Their lives are both much different than they would be if they were in traditional, monogamous relationships. And it feels a lot more accurate to say that we are all in a polyamorous relationship than it would feel to say that I’m in one kind of relationship while they’re in another.

          • Yes, I am sure your partners are both very aware that their relationships are much different than they would be if they were in a committed monogamous relationship with you. You calling it a polyamorous relationship does not really seem accurate because you have three people with very different situations involved. There is a significant contrast between you, the center of the ‘V,’ as you call it, and the two men, the outer points. To say that you are all in one relationship seems deceptive. The mere fact that they have to deal with this other man in your life does not put them into a “relationship.” They have no affiliation to each other, sexually or romantically, only to you.

            • I think it’s quite a stretch to say that people who are planning a future of living all together as a family have “no affiliation” with one another. The fact that there’s no romantic relationship between two individuals in the “points of a V” configuration doesn’t mean that there’s no relationship of any kind between them. People in such situations are all a family, just as people in blended step-families are all one family even when they are not all directly related to one another in the traditional sense.

              I’m really just wondering, though, why it matters to anyone outside of the situation how we choose to identify ourselves. A whole lot of polyamorous folks in arrangements identical to mine (or, as identical as one relationship can ever possibly be to another) identify themselves as being in a polyamorous relationship. Shouldn’t we be the ones who are allowed to decide how to identify? And at the end of the day, the whole point isn’t really to squabble over the finer points of what labels we choose to use. “Polyamory” is a useful term to those of us in these relationships because it helps us form communities and raise awareness and connect with others, but the word means different things to different people, and every relationship is ultimately unique. The point is the content of the piece above: that this is my family, and I would like for people to accept that even if they don’t fully understand it. I appreciate engaging in discussion, but to be hung up on the label I choose to use seems to really be missing the forest for the trees.

            • Reese – all three of them are involved in a relationship where “loving more than one” is accepted. Hence, polyamory. If my wife has another partner and I’ fine with it, I have a poly relationship with my wife, because “loving more than one” is accepted in the relationship – wether or not I too have another partner.

              As Angi says, this terminology has long been common in the poly community. The V is one of the most traditional poly relationship forms.

            • I am polyamorous whether I have zero, one or multiple partners. If I hypothetically happened to choose a monogamous relationship _structure_ (not that I can see myself wanting that), I would still be a polyamorous person who happened to choose a monogamous relationship structure (and I would make sure that the monogamous partner knew that I was a polyamorous-thinking person choosing to behave in a monogamous way). My partner(s) feel the same way. My boyfriend who does not yet have another serious relationship, considers himself in a polyamorous relationship because he is allowed to pursue as many additional relationships as he wants. He gets along extremely well platonically with my fiance (we all live together) and they consider each other best friends.

        • I don’t know of anyone who would tell a bisexual person who was in relationship with one particular gender that they weren’t bisexual they were orientated towards their partners gender. Or a single person who chooses to only have sex in a long term committed relationship that because they were currently not sexually active that they were asexual.
          Both of these men have all the additional communication that occurs in a polyamorous relationship, and while they might not have a sexual relationship, they still have a relationship with each other.

  2. I just really wanted to write in and thank you for sharing this piece.

    I often have a hard time engaging in discussions of polyamory. On the one hand, I think it is terrible that anyone would try to drive a wedge between individuals who genuinely love each other.

    But on the other hand, I know that I am built to be monogamous. This isn’t a judgment about anyone except for myself: I am what I am. This makes it difficult when people promoting polyamory acceptance step over the line and begin to attack monogamy directly (as I have seen happen both on this site and elsewhere). This tendency is understandable, given the many attacks on polyamory, but still difficult to hear given my own preferences. This piece manages to ask for acceptance without crossing the line, and I appreciate that.

    I genuinely hope that we can all be happy in our romantic relationships, and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you again for a thoughtful piece.

    • Thanks, Mike, I really appreciate your comments. I absolutely believe that plenty of people are “naturally” monogamous and are legitimately more fulfilled in monogamous relationships. I just hope we can eventually get to a point where we are all free to choose whichever is most authentic for each of us.

  3. In my experiences with polyamory, someone always gets hurt. Usually either the partner of whomever had the idea, or the 3rd wheel.

    I do believe that it can work, but if you’re just looking for a little something on the side (as most people usually are), then these entire relationships tend to blow up in your face.

    Take it from a 3rd wheel from a number of poly relationships.

    • 50 % of monogamous marriages end in divorce and many others are miserable or unhappy. There is no evidence that poly relationships fare any worse.

  4. Its strange to me that people can discuss polyamory and yet not bring up the elephant in the room….namely polygamy. Isn’t polygamy just a subset of polyamory. Doesn’t a defense of polyamory necessarily entail a defense of polygamy or as the mormons call it plural marriage. I am not trying to attack polyamory here because I have no problem with it or polygamy. But it seems to me that the left has attacked polygamy will simultaneously defending polyamory which doesn’t make sense.

    • Polyamory implies equality. If only one person in the relationship is allowed additional partners, it’s not polyamory, or it is only polyamory for the person who is allowed multiple romantic/sexual loves. A polyamorous relationship is one in which all partners are equally allowed to love more than one person.

    • Eric M. says:

      Polyamory seems to imply equal rights/freedom but not necessarily that everyone will do the same thing at the same time.

      Regarding polygamy, why aren’t those campaigning for same-sex marriage also pushing for the RE-legalization of polygamy? I am not campaigning for or against either but it is hypocritical to campaign for marital equality but oppose (gender-neutral) polygamy amongst consenting adults.

      You can’t be for same-sex marriage but against the legalizatoin of polygamy; otherwise, you are precisely what you oppose.

      • Possibly because to pick your fights? If you’re a gay man wanting to marry your same-sex partner, that’s probably what you’re going to campaign for. After all, not being opposed to something does not mean you’re willing to invest time in campaigning for it.

        It may also be a question of numbers, traditions, and the size of the leap. There’s a large number of established same-sex relationship, many of them with a structure similar to that of monogamous, heterosexual marriages. As these relationships fit right into the existing marriage model (except for the detail about gender), the suggested change isn’t very big, and since there’s many people in such relationships, lots of people are willing to invest in a campaign for it. Add to that the lgbt community has established organizations and a track on campaigning for equal rights.

        The poly community, in comparison, is far more diverse, and does not have the same history of vocal agitation, and even less tradition for campaigns for rights. Add to that the there’s so many different forms of poly, making it harder to campaign for just one simple set of changes to the established marriage model. In fact, a large number of people in the poly community *are* married under the traditional model, but have additional relationships outside the marriage. The result is that it would be far more difficult to organize the poly community to campaign for a polygamy (or any other change), and that the suggested change to existing marriage would be far more drastic that same-sex marriage.

        I’m quite confident that same-sex marriage is becoming an established fact in western society. It’s inevitable, and the horizon is short. Poly marriage, otoh, I don’t see that happening soon.

        • I would like to repeat this” After all, not being opposed to something does not mean you’re willing to invest time in campaigning for it.” in every thread about anything pertaining to women vs men and policies. So true. Not enough hours in the day to campaign for everything I want to support. Which is why I’d hope disparate groups could start working together.

          • The distinction is when a person who spends virtually all their time working for one gender’s issues claims to have “equal” concern for the other gender’s issues. That is obviously not true.

            So, now it is shown that they not only don’t have equal concern (which is fine – they have the right not to) but they are exposed as not even being honest.

            They would be better served by candidly admitting what they primarily care about. It’s obvious by their actions anyway. People may disagree but at least they can be respected for standing up for what they believe and for their candor.

            • Well – I think that in real life, it’s often a bit more complex. Many factors influence where you put your effort. I care deeply about lgbt rights, and about public city & traffic planning. Over the years, I’ve ended up spending more energy on the traffic stuff than on lgbt, but I don’t think it’s fair to say I care more about one than the other. It also plays in where I think I can make a difference, where I get a sense of achieving something, where what needs to be done match what I have to offer, and so on.

            • Eric M. says:

              It’s not nearly that complicated. The evidence is that on a daily and hourly basis we all prioritiize, starting with what is most important to us.

              With limited time and resources we do what is most important on our list of priorities. People do what they want to do, what they care about most, then second most, then third most, then fourth most.

              Eventually they run out of “mosts” and leave the things that are less or un- important to chance, or don’t even bother to try if it';s optional or they don’t care at all. That is how it works.

        • I see your point. My main point was not that they must actively campaign but that they cannot un-hypocritically oppose.

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