Polyamory ends up the butt of many a lazy joke across popular culture. You know the one. It’s the “open relationship” that is really just an acknowledged denouement before an inevitable breakup. Or worse, it’s the poor excuse for one partner’s cheating or the pitiful delusion of the betrayed. Why does non-monogamy get such a bad reputation?
Simply put, monogamy gets a privileged status in our society, and sexual exclusivity is heralded as sacrosanct. But equating polyamory with infidelity is not only patronizing and supercilious, it is verifiably wrong.
If we want to play semantics, “infidelity” is a fancy word for disloyalty, and “cheating” is simply breaking the rules. When someone cheats at a game, they are breaking the rules to gain an advantage that is otherwise forbidden. Similarly, when one cheats on a spouse, that person has been disloyal to the agreed-upon code of conduct. More importantly, there is a conscious deception by the cheater because he or she wants a sexual encounter that is prohibited within the relationship.
When it comes to polyamorous relationships, there is no deception necessary because sexual and even romantic exclusivity is not the fundamental premise of the relationship. A common mantra of polyamorists is “to have many loves and to love many ways.” Thus, partners are encouraged to seek out new experiences with new people because every individual has something unique to offer. You might even learn something that you want to share!
It may sound like a recipe for jealousy and tragedy, but polyamory actually requires a self-awareness that can often be ignored in monogamous relationships. For one, it requires each partner to reflect on themselves and accept that they–like all people–are not perfect, nor is life particularly accommodating, and thus no one can possibly meet their partner’s every need all of the time. But it also grants each individual the freedom to acknowledge their own needs, as well as the permission to pursue them without fear of betraying themselves or their loved ones.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t rules to non-monogamy. Some polyamorists freely embark on many relationships, sometimes keeping a primary partner. Sometimes these primary partners put restrictions on who or what is allowed, often requiring approval before the external relationship can be pursued. There are even closed polygamous relationships, where three or more partners agree to be sexually exclusive with each other. Some even include swingers under the non-monogamy umbrella, though others specifically differentiate swinging from polyamory because of swinging’s focus on sex.
If you think about it, that really puts all relationships on a spectrum from monogamy to polyamory; it just depends on the rules you feel most comfortable adhering to and imposing on someone else. The key component to any relationship–however you define it–is free and open communication. So long as both partners are honest and up front about their intentions, no cheating can actually take place. Even one-sided polyamory such as cuckolding or polygyny are not cheating so long as everyone involved is willing and informed.
If polyamory doesn’t sound like something you’d be okay taking part in, that’s totally fine! You’re not a prude for knowing you’d be uncomfortable in that kind of relationship. But nor does it make polyamorists into philanderers and rakes. After all, in this world where sexuality is expanding beyond what would have been possible only 20 years ago, doesn’t it seem just a little silly to denigrate those who just want to share theirs?
Sorry if we ruined your favorite joke.