Loving one or loving all?

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Reducing the stigma on polyamory

By Mercedes Deutscher, News Editor

If you would have asked me two years ago to define polyamory, I would have either shied away or given some semi-ignorant answer. I had simply not been exposed to polyamory, or what it represented.

My interest in polyamory began early this year. My then-boyfriend and I bumped into some friends that we hadn’t seen for a while. While catching up with them, they explained to us how they were in an open relationship. My boyfriend, not fully understanding the concept, asked more. My friend used a simple explanation, which still rings vibrantly in my memory: “I have so much love to give, I cannot simply contain it to one person.”

Fast-forward to present day—as a single woman with several ongoing prospects—the idea of seeing myself as polyamorous is becoming more of a reality. Being a romantic who enjoys being intimate, I find those needs best fulfilled by multiple people.

Although polyamory is a clear concept to me, it is still confusing to many of my friends and to the general public. Even recently, when I told a friend that I may start considering myself polyamorous, he struggled with the concept.

My friend, like many others, has previously considered or currently considers polyamory as a means to enjoy casual sex without commitment, or as an “excuse” to sleep with other partners while in a romantic relationship. Let me state it clearly: This is not what polyamory is about.

So what is polyamory? If you break the word down at its essence, the root words poly (many) and amor (love) come together to signify “multiple loves,” or the practice of having more than one relationship at a time. Yet, even at its basic definition, it becomes an umbrella term for so much more.

Polyamorists reject the concept that in order for love to thrive, two partners must be emotionally and sexually exclusive to each other. That being said, just as there are no exclusive partners, there are no exclusive definitions to a polyamorous relationship. So what kinds of polyamorous relationships are there?

One kind of polyamorous relationship can involve both an emotional and sexual relationship with multiple partners equally. For example, Partner A is in a relationship with Partner B and Partner C. There may be different relationships within the group, such as a relationship between Partner B and Partner C. However, there also may not be, and Partner B and Partner C are simply both in a relationship with Partner A, but not with each other. In the latter situation, Partner B and C would be considered each other’s “metamours” (partner of a partner).

A polyamorous relationship may not require equity in levels of emotional and sexual commitment. Sometimes, people may be involved in a “polycule,” where there are primary and secondary partners. The primary partner is a partner who receives the most attention (emotionally and sexually) and priority in a polycule. The secondary partner enjoys these things as well, but not with the same level of commitment as the primary partner.

Another example of varying equities in polyamorous relationships includes partners serving different purposes. Some partners may share both an emotional and sexual relationship, while others may share either a sexual but not romantic relationship, or a relationship that is romantic, but non-sexual.

With numerous potential dynamics within polyamorous relationships, the question of jealously arises. What crosses the line between an open relationship and infidelity? What is reasonable or unreasonable jealousy?

Ultimately, the biggeset factor to be considered in a polyamorous relationship is communication. Without communication, the relationship is likely to fail. If Partner A wishes to bring a Partner C into the relationship, it should be done by communicating with and gaining the approval of Partner B.

It doesn’t matter what level of relationship is being pursued, but it should always be communicated with all partners involved, not only for the sake of trust and avoiding overbearing jealousy, but also for the purposes of sexual safety.

As for jealousy, it is natural for people to become jealous over a significant other showing attention to others. This is why communication and honesty is so important in a polyamorous relationship, because as a partner, you should never feel isolated or cheated on. If you are someone who cannot bear the thought of your significant other enjoying other romantic and/or sexual relationships outside your own, perhaps polyamory is not for you. It is important in a polyamorous relationship to set rules and boundaries so that no one gets hurt along the way.

Many confuse polyamory for polygamy. It’s important to separate the definitions, because they are not the same. Polyamory covers relationships with multiple partners. Polygamy refers to marriages with multiple spouses.

Polygamy involves elements of polyamory, but tends to receive a negative reputation and is considered taboo. This is because polygamy is associated with female oppression and has a strict religious context. Some polygamous marriages are forced. For example, there have been cases of women being forced heavily into a polygamous marriage. This severely harms the polygamous dynamic.

The question of polyamory and polygamy leads into a discussion of legality. Only one quarter of the world allows for legal polygamous marriages, and many of the countries that do allow polygamy are developing countries. It stands that governments in developed countries, including Canada, often view polygamous marriages as an outdated and barbaric practice.

Even countries that do allow polygamous marriages often do so due to a religious or cultural context. Often, these same countries do not recognize same-sex marriages, thus making it impossible for there to be any same-sex unions within polygamous marriages.

By stigmatizing and restricting polygamous marriages, many people in polyamorous relationships face consequences. Those in long-term polyamorous relationships often cannot receive the legal benefits that a monogamously married or common-law couple can. Some situations involve two partners getting married, which can make other partners feel emotionally and legally isolated—especially if the relationship is not a polycule. Additionally, if something happened to a partner, such as illness or death, only one of their partners can gain legal control or benefit of the situation.

Should a person try to marry multiple people, it can have severe legal consequences. Bigamy, the act of entering into a marriage while already being legally married to someone else, is considered a criminal offence in most developed countries. Those who are accused of bigamy in Canada—according to Section 291 in the Criminal Code of Canada—may face imprisonment of up to five years. In other countries, the punishment for bigamy varies from fines to imprisonment. In these situations, the second marriage is usually voided.

Legal problems for those in polyamorous relationships grow even more complicated if any of the partnerships result in children. A child born or adopted into a polyamorous family may receive equal care and support from all members involved, whether or not they were biologically parented by them. According to family law, a child can only have up to two guardians, which can make issues such as parental consent or travel problematic.

Visibility of polyamorous relationships has improved in recent years, and is becoming less stigmatized by society as a whole. Social media and dating sites allow users to identify as a person in an open relationship and to openly identify their different partners. Resources have begun to open for those who identify as polyamorous; including a Vancouver based organization by the name of Vanpoly, which hosts forums and events with a goal of increasing visibility and decreasing stigmas associated with polyamory.

With same-sex marriage becoming increasingly legalized and recognized throughout the world, many have begun looking towards polygamy as the next breakthrough in marriage equality. It is interesting and hopeful to see if and how both polyamory and polygamy will be addressed in the next decade or so.