It’s interesting. We don’t cap our platonic relationships at just one, right? We don’t go hunting for our one true friend match, and then, when we find that person, forsake all others for them and ask that our friend do the same. Chances are, you’ve got many friends, each nourishing you in different ways: the afternoon movie buddy who’s up on all the off-kilter, indie flicks; the friend who’s always down for a few drinks and a good time; your go-to for a good heart-to-heart. Sure, some are probably closer to you than others, but point is: We don’t limit ourselves to one nonromantic connection. Why then, with romantic relationships, is the default move to pair up and close off?
Discourse around the inevitability of the “relationship escalator” comes up often in polyamory and non-monogamous circles. It’s the idea that in traditional, monogamous relationships, you hop on the escalator, and then, well … you’re on it. It’s taking you and this one other person up and up at a steady pace, and as you ascend, you hit the milestones: cohabitation, engagement, marriage, kids. And to change direction or, God forbid, get off, would cause quite the disruption; some people might even get kicked in the face.
Polyamory practicing people tend to adhere to philosophies around freedom, autonomy and a greater sense of control over self. They allow space to explore connections and for relationships to progress and evolve in ways that are, perhaps, more organic. While there are typically still rules involved, they’re house rules. That’s not to say that they’re aren’t monogamous couples also shucking societal standards for a design that’s unique to them.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what polyamory actually is, because there are plenty of misconceptions. First: Polyamory is not swinging, where a couple goes to a sex party, perhaps, looking to hook up with (usually) random people. Second: Polyamory is not the same as polygamy, where a man (usually) has multiple wives. Third: Polyamory is not the same as an open relationship, where one or both partners in an otherwise committed twosome have a hall pass of sorts, which allows them to have sex with other people under certain circumstances.
Rather, poly folks are often after the emotional connection and intimacy – they’re just open to getting it from multiple people. Sure, sex is often involved, as it is in many romantic relationships, but it’s not the main motivator. And within polyamory exists many different shapes and formations. The word “polyamory” is a mashup of “poly,” from the Greek word meaning “more than one,” and “amor,” the Latin word for “love.” And is there ever such a thing as too much love? After all, Dionne Warwick told us it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
An Emerging Alternative
These ideas aren’t new, but polyamory does seem to be gaining visibility in recent years and inviting spirited conversation, particularly around what it means to be poly and a person of color. Red Table Talk – The Facebook Watch series from the Pinkett-Smith family – released an episode on multiple partners a couple years back, which garnered over 4 million views. They summoned a “throuple” (you may hear it called a “triad” in poly circles) to the table for a conversation, and we learned that Willow Smith’s ideal relationship arrangement would wedge her right between a man and a woman.
More recently, the first feature film from queer and Asian director Marion Hill, Ma Belle, Ma Beauty, explores polyamory in the South of France and features a Black, female lead as one in a group of reunited former partners. The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year to high praise, nabbing the Audience Award in the NEXT category. It hits American theaters on Aug. 20.
Cincinnati carpenter and handyman Reggie Parker has been practicing polyamory since around 2015. Before then, he says, “I would say I was non-monogamous, unethically. I used to listen to my uncles a lot. And the formula that I saw that they had with their women was, you know, they would just have a woman or a wife and have someone else without them knowing – and that was kind of how it went. So, it took me until I was in my adulthood to figure out, OK, there’s a term for unethical monogamy, and then polyamory. OK, so this is how you’re supposed to do it. You know what I mean? Everyone is supposed to be in the know.”
Parker belonged to a BDSM-kink community, and he says it was that network that introduced him to the idea of polyamory. “And that tends to happen when you are involved in those arenas of life, alternative lifestyle, they all kind of co-mingle,” he says. “I kept seeing these people in my circle, and by having conversations and meeting their poly families, I’m like, ‘OK, so first of all: You’re Black, and you do this, and you’re open, and everyone is cool? Like, it blew my mind.” The 45-year-old says he learned how to be open and honest about what he wanted his life to look like, and, along the way, he gained the courage to stand firm in his convictions. “I’m an adult.”
A philosophy that’s commonplace in the polyamorous community is the idea of relationship anarchy. In short, the ideology says that no relationship (romantic or otherwise) should be bound by any rules not agreed upon by the parties involved. To be clear: Not all relationship anarchists are poly, and not all poly people are relationship anarchists. Though, some of the core principles overlap. As explained in a 2018 The Cut article, the core, shared tenets include being: non-hierarchical (not ranking romantic partner[s] as necessarily more important than friends); anti-prescriptionist (there are no built-in prescriptions about what a partnership must look like); and often, non-monogamous.
“For me, what that looks like, in terms of relationship anarchy, is not having the assumption that one needs to be married, one needs to be monogamous, one needs to have some sort of definition at all on a particular relationship,” says psychologist J. Oni Saniyah, Ph.D., founder and director of Integrated Empowerment Group based in Ann Arbor. “There can be freedom and expansiveness to relate to people in ways that feel natural and organic, that honor the sovereignty of all the people involved.”
Saniyah also recently founded Liberation Centered Healing, LLC. As a married, Black, queer woman who also practices polyamory, she says her work is meant to fill the gaps she says she saw with regard to practitioners who share her identities. At Integrated Empowerment Group, specifically, she says, “We really focus on integrated ways to address mental health, focusing on an intersectional feminist liberation perspective. And, so, we work with queer folks and BIPOC folks, both exploring non-monogamy and polyamory, and also people who are involved in kink or BDSM.”
Saniyah says, in her mind, the connection between polyamory and anarchy is strong. “In general, I’m very much a liberation-focused person. So, I’m interested in radical freedom, expansiveness and, like, bodily autonomy and agency, and the ability to intentionally choose the types of ways that I move through the world, including my relationships,” she says. “I’m like, fuck the system; it’s an act of resistance to me.”
A Complex Community
Poly-practicing or -interested people still have to wade through a sea of misconceptions and offensive, if not harmful, opinions. And if you’re Black or queer – or Black and queer – that’s an extra layer of gunk. Saniyah says most of her clients belong to the LGBTQ community, and about 60% are polyamorous or practicing some version of non-monogamy.
Clinical therapist and relationship specialist Ashley Turner says most of the clients she sees at her Farmington Hills-based private practice, Alleviate, LLC, are Black women, many in the polyamory info-gathering stage. “There are a lot of double, triple minorities,” Turner says. “This idea of being Black and practicing polyamory, it gets complex. Because you have a lot of people of color and Black people, specifically, who carry a very negative connotation about polyamory.”
Let’s be real. Black folks aren’t likely to mince words, and we ain’t always the most open-minded. Turner looks ahead to a more progressive and graceful world, but, in the meantime, she says, “You’ve definitely got to have a big sense of security and confidence within yourself to be able to face whatever types of judgments you might get, whatever type of difficulties that you might face. It is going to be another battle.”
Saniyah says some of her clients are coming in to discuss issues directly related to polyamory, and others just happen to be poly but have other stuff to unpack. Some issues don’t discriminate by relationship type – like jealousy. Folks new to polyamory may step into it thinking that if they’ve chosen this relationship style, then jealousy is not allowed, or if it does seep in, that they’re expected to stuff it down and rise above.
Jealousy is a natural, human emotion. Yes, even among super woke, poly people. We’re products of our environments, and, resist as we might, we’re viewing the world through monogamy-colored glasses. When Parker from Cincinnati and I spoke in early June, he had recently separated from his primary partner of five years. The reason, according to him: jealousy, or more specifically, miscommunication around feelings of jealousy. For them, he says, the separation means they’re no longer primary partners, but they’re still involved.
Parker says polyamory has been a great teacher on the subject of jealousy, despite the stumbles. “‘Jealousy’ is a very important word, especially when you’re talking about non-monogamy and polyamory,” Parker says. “Most people who are not in the know assume that, because you practice this lifestyle, there is not jealousy, that ‘jealousy’ is a dirty word. And one of things that I’ve probably learned in polyamory, one of the bigger things, is that that’s not the case. In fact, polyamory has taught me how to admit when I was jealous. That’s the first step: admitting that you feel a way, and then taking the processes to communicate that to your partner. Because that’s not something that I practiced in monogamy.”
Being a Black, heterosexual man who grew up around other straight, Black men, the idea that feelings of jealousy are valid and normal, and, most importantly, OK to discuss with your partners, was a revelation for Parker. “There’s this idea in polyamory called ‘compersion,’ and what that means is that you’re happy for your person being happy with somebody else,” Turner says. That’s ideal, perhaps, but if you feel some type of way, it’s OK to lean into that. You may come out stronger on the other side.
The lessons may sneak in unexpectedly, but what also attracts polyamorous folks to this lifestyle is a sense of community and the idea of a chosen family. It’s not unusual to hear of intertwined polycules (a community of non-monogamous people) buying a house together and cohabitating as a community, raising their children as a village.
Parker says, “One of the reasons that I decided that I wanted to be polyamorous is because I had a dream of having, like, a cooperative kind of living space, with not only my romantic partners, but people that I know that are like my adopted family,” Parker says. “I get that ideal, believe it or not, from my grandparents on both sides of my family. Naturally, they had a lot of kids, but, more importantly, they had adopted family who would always seem to be around, people who were not our family, but were ‘cousins.’ So, I grew up wanting to be around a lot of people that I decided was my family.”
These ideas can get complicated. We get it. Here are a handful of common polyamory-related terms and their meanings.
Solo Polyamory: Someone has multiple intimate relationships, but has an independent or single lifestyle. They may not live with partners, share finances or have a desire to reach traditional milestones or intertwine lives.
Anchor Partner: A long-standing and, typically, logistically entangled romantic relationship. This person may also be called a “primary partner” or “nesting partner.”
Metamour: Sometimes shortened to “meta,” this person is a partner’s partner, with whom you are not romantically involved.
Hinge Partner: This is the mutual partner of two metamours who are not involved with each other.
Polycule: A network of interconnected non-monogamous people or relationships.
Parallel Polyamory: Multiple relationships run in parallel but do not entwine or overlap.
Kitchen Table Polyamory: In this situation, members of the polycule are cozy enough with one another to hang out or break bread.
Garden Party Polyamory: Metamours are comfortable enough with each other to co-mingle occasionally at, say, a partner’s birthday party, but they’re not exactly friends.
There’s no way we could cover it all. Here, psychologist J. On̄i Saniyah, Ph.D. shares her favorite books on polyamory and non-monogamy.
Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy by Jessica Fern
Love’s Not Color Blind: Race and Representation in Polyamorous and Other Alternative Communities by Kevin A. Patterson
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy
More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux
Battling The 8-Armed Octopus of Jealousy (workbook) by Reid Mihalko