What are poly relationships? And do they work?
- Polyamory means being open to intimate relationships with multiple partners
- Research suggests it’s practiced by up to 5% of Americans
- It’s not as much to do with sex as you might think…
One of the most commonplace problems with long-term monogamous relationships is the tendency to stray. An estimated 20 to 40% of divorces cite infidelity as the main impetus behind the break-up, with the revelation that a partner has been unfaithful having killed all trust in the relationship.
But what if this obstacle could be removed? What if both parties in the relationship happily accept that they will both be interested in other people? Furthermore, what if from the beginning the relationship consisted of more than the expected two people?
It’s an idea which may seem too radical or implausible to many of us, but for some it’s the only way to be. Polyamory is the practice – or, at least, the openness to – enjoying intimate relationships with more than one partner at the same time. Research suggests around 4 or 5% of people in the United States are in poly relationships, and that plenty more are curious about it.
Poly celebrities have helped popularise the lifestyle
Poly relationships might not be anything new, but the practice has been discussed more widely in recent years. With recent pushes for greater acceptance and rights for people across the LGBT spectrum, some have argued that poly lifestyles are also overdue for being re-appraised and accepted by the mainstream.
The exposure of poly relationships has boosted in recent years in part thanks to some celebrities who are known to have embraced the lifestyle. Actress, singer and filmmaker Bella Thorne (above) has spoken openly of practicing polyamory, declaring it to be “a really fun experience… I love loving two people at once.”
Thorne admits the idea has initially shocked some lovers: “At first they’re like, gasp, ‘How do you even do that?’ And then we talk it through and they’re like, ‘Wow, that actually sounds kind of beautiful.'”
It might well be a beautiful experience for some – but is it necessarily something that all people should consider? Well, before we tackle that thorny question, let’s make sure we’re clear on just what constitutes polyamory.
Polyamory isn’t the same as an open relationship
It’s easy to assume that polyamory is simply the new buzz word for what back in the 70s was popularly known as ‘swinging’ and/or wife-swapping – ie open relationships, in which both parties in a couple are free to enjoy liaisons with people outside that relationship.
However, while polyamory is frequently mentioned in the same breath as open relationships, the two are not quite the same. After all, an open relationship hinges on the assumption of a conventional two-person union which both parties will return to – which (if speculation is to be believed) is the case with one of Hollywood’s premier power couples, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
By contrast, polyamory can equate to a wide possibility of permutations. One person might be in two distinct relationships with two people at once; three people might be in an equal relationship with one another; or it may amount to even more people in various romantic connections.
However, where people in an open relationship might have flings at the weekend but come home to their main life partner the rest of the week, poly relationships are about sharing your life with more than one partner on a full-time basis.
Poly relationships aren’t just about sex
Let’s not be coy – for most of us, preconceptions about polyamory are rooted in scenes of multiple-partner sex acts we’ve seen in fiction. By extension, we might come to assume that all poly relationship amount to an endless display of hedonistic indulgence.
This isn’t necessarily so. A Women’s Heath exploration of poly relationships found that sex is often low on the agenda, and in fact might occur less frequently than in monogamous relationships; as one polyamorous person notes, “We probably talk more than we have sex… There’s a whole lot of communication that has to happen for polyamorous relationships to work.” There are even plenty of asexual people in poly relationships.
Similarly, it might be assumed that those who embrace the poly lifestyle do so out of an aversion to commitment. Again, the opposite is typically true, as polyamory means committing to more than one person.
We might also assume that polyamory is most widely embraced by men, with fantasies of living out some Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion lifestyle – but needless to say, this too is pretty far removed from reality. In fact, according to one polyamorous podcaster, “nine times out of ten, [pursuing poly relationships] is the woman’s idea.”
Can poly relationships work for everyone?
It should be quite clear that the poly life is not for everyone. After all, many of us struggle to even keep on top of one romantic relationship, so having to divide our attention between multiple partners simultaneously will sound too much like hard work.
It can be even rougher if break-ups ensue. As psychologist Elizabeth A Sheff notes, “If things go wrong [in a poly relationship], the consequences are not limited to the people directly involved but can ripple outward through several levels of relationship.”
But even if all involved in a poly relationship find it works for them, there is the matter of how the world around them will react. Poly people who are open about their lifestyle are often faced with prejudice and ostracised by family and friends. There can also be serious legal complications: in the US, poly relationships are not legally protected, and being openly poly may lead to struggles finding employment or getting an education.
It’s also risky for a pre-existing couple to try out polyamory in the hopes of spicing things up. Elizabeth Sheff warns of what the poly community calls ‘unicorn hunting’; typically a straight couple seeking out a bisexual woman to fulfil their fantasies. Not only does this almost never work out, it typically winds up ending the previously monogamous relationship for good.
Essentially, poly relationships need what any relationship needs to succeed: mutual affection, trust and understanding. If you’re able to maintain that with more than one person, then perhaps polyamory is right for you. However, for a great many of us, the downsides may outweigh the potential benefits. But as with any other new venture in life, only you can know your own heart, and only you can decide whether it’s the right path for you. Just be sure that everyone concerned is on the same page, and enter into it in a spirit of openness and honesty.