Over the past few years, polyamory has become a more widely known term and practice. And perhaps inevitably, certain misconceptions and misunderstandings about what “polyamory” means have become widespread as well. It would be unfortunately difficult to say which among these misunderstandings is the most common, or the most hurtful to polyamorous folks. But there’s one in particular that I’d like to discuss: the idea that “polyamory” means “committed couple who have casual partners on the side.”
There has been much talk about “open marriage” and “open relationships” in recent years, with some even paradoxically dubbing non-monogamy “the new monogamy.” In this open-marriage conception of non-monogamous relationships, there is still a central, committed (often legally married) couple, who allow one another to engage in purely sexual (or at least quite casual) outside relationships. Generally, any discussion about the benefits of such practice revolves around how it strengthens and/or reinvigorates the central couple in question. I want to be perfectly clear that I don’t see anything wrong with strictly sexual non-monogamy so long as it’s genuinely fulfilling and consensual for all involved, including the outside partners. But for those of us living in polyamorous families, it can be incredibly frustrating when people use those concepts of open marriage to make assumptions about the structure of our relationships.
Because we live in such a monogamy-centered society, it makes sense that many people can only conceive of non-monogamy in what ultimately still amounts to monogamous terms. There is a common misconception that a polyamorous relationship is really no different from an open-relationship agreement: one committed couple, with some lighthearted fun on the side. But the word “polyamory,” by definition, means loving more than one. Many of us have deeply committed relationships with more than one partner, with no hierarchy among them and no core “couple” at the heart of it all. To me, this notion that there must be one more important relationship, one true love, feels a lot like people looking at same-sex couples and thinking that one person must be the “man” in the relationship and the other must be the “woman.” After all, both of these misunderstandings result from people trying to graft their normative conceptions of love and relationships onto people who are partnering in non-normative ways. It seems that it is somewhat easy for many people to acknowledge that humans are capable of loving one person and still enjoying sex with others (assuming, of course, that the terms of their relationship make such behavior acceptable). But it is much harder for people to think outside the fairy-tale notion of “the one” and imagine that it might be possible to actually romantically love more than one person simultaneously.
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