In our culture, we tend to assume that people are monogamous. People generally have relationships with only one person at a time; those who have relationships with more than one person are assumed to be unattached and dating, or cheating. But there exists a third alternative. Polyamory is a lifestyle in which a person may have more than one romantic relationship, with consent and enthusiasm expressed for this choice by each of the people concerned. Polyamory is distinguished from infidelity by the presence of honest communication between partners and lovers about the existence of each of these relationships in their lives (Hymer & Rubin, 1982).
Not much is known by the psychology field concerning polyamory. Our textbooks on family functioning don't mention it, our diversity literature doesn't incorporate it, and many members of the polyamory community have reported encounters with therapists who are uninformed at best, or biased at worst, about this lifestyle. As a polyamorous woman who is also a psychology professional, I am in a position to try and bridge this distance between the polyamorous community and the psychology profession. This paper will aim to provide psychology professionals with a general introduction to the lifestyles and concerns of polyamorous individuals. It is hoped that this will enhance psychology professionals' understanding of, and ability to provide services to, polyamorous clientele.
I will begin this paper by describing the three main variations of polyamory and the benefits that polyamorous individuals reap from this lifestyle, followed by some demographic data about the prevalence of polyamory within our culture. Following this, I will present a summary of the research studies that have been conducted on polyamory to date. Therapists' views of polyamory will be examined, and empirical data on the psychological and interpersonal functioning of polyamorous individuals will be presented. A brief multicultural perspective will be included as well.
Next, I will describe some of the unique concerns that polyamorous individuals may bring to therapy. The position of this paper is that polyamory is a valid and healthy lifestyle; however, just as there are stressors associated with being gay or bisexual in a heterosexual society, so are there stressors associated with being polyamorous in a monogamous society. The final section of this paper will suggest ways in which a polyamory-aware therapist can help a polyamorous client to navigate successfully through these stressors. It should of course be noted that polyamorous individuals may seek therapy for reasons that have nothing to do with their lifestyle per se; however, the knowledge that their therapist is supportive of their lifestyle as a whole will facilitate a more successful therapeutic rapport.
Types of Polyamory
There are three main variations of polyamory. In the first, one relationship takes priority over others, as in a relationship that allows partners to include outside lovers (D. Corbett, personal communication, 3/17/99). Ties with the additional lovers are seen as a source of added joy and enrichment in the partners' lives (Peabody, 1982). There is a sense that sex and love are independent and sex should be enjoyed for its own sake (Ramey, 1975, p. 518). The original couple considers their relationship to be their primary bond, and it is the relationship that they each devote the most time, energy and loyalty to. The emotional bonds with these other lovers may be close or they may be casual, but they are not as strong as the bond between the original partners. One sub-type is the 'swinging' relationship, in which two or more couples 'swap' partners for a limited time under strictly defined circumstances. Another sub-type is the 'open relationship,' in which one partner's taking a lover does not need to occur simultaneously with the other partner's doing so.
The next type of polyamorous relationship is one in which two or more relationships are of comparable weight, but the person's partners do not have a strong relationship with each other. (D. Corbett, personal communication, 3/17/99). Each of these relationships are considered to be of importance in the person's life, and significant time and energy is devoted to each.
The third type of polyamorous relationship is the poly-family: an inter-relationship of 3 or more people, in which there is a strong relational commitment between all members (which may or may not include sex) (D. Corbett, personal communication, 3/17/99). The members spend significant amounts of time together as a group, and the well-being of each person is a significant priority to each of the others.
This is not an exhaustive list of potential polyamory configurations, but these are the main patterns upon which specific relationships are typically negotiated.