I get asked a lot of questions about polyamory and ethical non-monogamy. Not just by people who write into my column: by curious family members, by friends of my parents, by people I bump into in my local pub. As a lifestyle choice it’s becoming increasingly well-known, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly well-understood.
I write about poly a lot here on Fuck.com. Over the eighteen months or so that I’ve been here, I’ve written about excrutiating poly jargon, the real meaning of relationship boundaries, how to be a better secondary partner and the mistakes that most poly people seem to make - to name but a few. You know what I’ve never covered, though? The basics. So here it is: the official Fuck.com Polyamory 101. This could get a bit long, so you might want to go make yourself a cup of tea first.
It’s remarkably difficult to come up with a conclusive list of all the different ways that people run their relationships, though god knows plenty of people have tried. The way I see it is this: all relationships have rules. Different relationships have different rules. ‘Non-monogamy’ is a good catch-all term to use as an umbrella for all the different kinds of relationships whose rules don’t include “you will have sex with me and only me”.
Even that’s an oversimplification. Really every relationship is a special unique snowflake that is a law unto itself, but that’s not a useful thing to put into a listicle, so:
● One very common model is to have a “primary relationship”, which is the full-on relationship escalator experience with mortgages and priorities and all that good stuff - in addition to which you may both also have “secondary relationships”, which are often marvellous fulfilling endeavours just so long as everyone is okay with the idea that you’re never going to move in together and make tiny escalator-shaped babies.
● Not everyone does it this way, of course. There are plenty of people who practice what is sometimes called “non-hierarchical polyamory”, wherein they have multiple escalator relationships - they might live with more than one primary partner, or be raising a child who has more than two parents, or have commitment ceremonies to enable them to be married to more than one person in spirit if not in law. People whose relationships function in this way may or may not be “polyfidelitous”, which means that they don’t sleep with or date other people outside of their existing partners.
● The “relationship anarchy” crowd reject all traditional relationship models, believing that every connection you have with a person should be allowed to find its own level away from rules and labels. They don’t necessarily think of a relationship that includes sex as being intrinsically different from one that doesn’t, for example; by removing the boundary between ‘platonic’ and ‘romantic’ they can judge each bond on its own merits. I’ve been kind of harsh about this lot in the past because they tend to get a bit insufferable, but there’s something to be said for it as a core philosophy.
● There’s also the open relationship model, wherein people are allowed to have casual sex or go to swinging parties or whatever outside of their otherwise relatively conventional and monogamous relationship. This works well for huge numbers of people, but isn’t really in the remit of this article; it’s usually not considered to be “polyamory”, which focuses more on ongoing relationships.
● Then of course you’ve got the very large number of people who have done more than one of these things in the past, will probably do more than one of these things in the future, and mostly just make it all up as they go along depending on what seems best at the time. Because that is how humans work. I myself fit into this category, as does nearly everyone I know.
Many of these relationship models are sometimes called ‘ethical non- monogamy’, the flip side of which is of course unethical non- monogamy. Other things I won’t be covering here include cheating, manipulation and ‘don’t ask don’t tell’.
I don’t know a single poly person who hasn’t heard this a hundred times. It’s the first thing anyone ever asks, and it’s almost always followed by the immortal “well, that sounds like a lot of fun for you, but I couldn’t handle it”.
The thing is, it’s been a long time since I was last entirely convinced that ‘jealousy’ is really a thing in and of itself. I’ve got a more in-depth article about this coming to Fuck.com soon, but the basic gist of it is that jealousy can usually be traced back to a core problem that isn’t “you slept with someone else” - it’s more likely to be something like:
● “You broke the rules and boundaries of our relationship and I’m feeling betrayed.”
● “I feel like we’re not spending enough time with each other, and I think it’s damaging the state of our relationship.”
● “My self-esteem is in a bad place right now, and I’m worried that you don’t find me as attractive/interesting/intelligent/kinky/whatever as I’d like to be.” Sometimes people in polyamorous relationships get jealous, sure - but it tends to be for a reason like one of those, and if your response to it is “so you’re never allowed to see that person again” then you’re treating the symptom rather than the cause. It’s much healthier to look at the root of the problem and see what you can do about it.
People sometimes talk about “being poly” as though it was an orientation in the same way that being gay or bi is. I’ve touched on this before in an early edition of my Dear Abi advice column; I’m not convinced those people are right. The trouble is, when we talk about ‘orientation’ in a broad sense, we’re really talking about at least four different things:
● your sexual orientation
● your romantic orientation
● your preferred relationship style
● your intrinsic sexual preferences
I am bisexual, homoromantic, polyamorous and submissive. All of those things are extremely important to me and inform the decisions I make and the way I live my life - but they’re not the same as each other. Talking about polyamory as though it is an orientation in a straightforward sense can lead to straight cis people appropriating queer culture and dominating queer spaces, which isn’t helpful or appropriate; it has also been used as justification for abuse and cheating in existing relationships, because “I can’t help it! You have to respect my orientation!”
I think people are resistant to the idea that polyamory isn’t an orientation because they think that will devalue the perceived importance of it in their life. I’m not sure that’s true, though; I’m also a vegetarian and a writer, and people are perfectly capable of understanding that those are intrinsic parts of my identity that aren’t going to change without needing to think that they’re genetic or whatever.
Which is really just a long-winded and SJW-sounding way of saying: “This is a complicated subject by which I am inordinately fascinated, and it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s more to it than there seems to be at first glance.”
Long as though this is, there is of course a lot I’ve left out - I’ve barely touched on solo poly, or poly parenting, or how to broach the subject with your more traditional family members, or any one of a hundred other things that are well worth discussing. If you’d like to know more, I would shamelessly recommend that you keep following my articles both here on Fuck.com and over at our sister site Fetish.com; I write about this stuff a lot. There are plenty of other places to get information too, though:
● The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy is generally considered to be the seminal work on the subject, and it was certainly amongst the very earliest. Having been published twenty years ago some of it is now a little dated, but it retains a dear place in my heart - and in the hearts of many of my people. It’s absolutely still worth a read.
● Crowdfunded success story More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert is aiming to be sort of a modernised Ethical Slut. Much like its spiritual successor they take themselves a bit more seriously than I tend to take anything, but then I’m British; maintaining a dry, detached sense of humour about almost everything is our national pastime. It’s a good book, and it comes with my recommendation.
● If you don’t want to read an entire book, there’s also a lot of good stuff on their main site.
● If you’d rather do your learning in person, there are plenty of groups and events worldwide. If you can get to London I can recommend Polyday, whose website also contains some useful links and good information. To find out what kind of events are nearer to where you live, it can be worth searching for groups on Meetup.com or Fetlife. (Polyamory is not necessarily or intrinsically connected to BDSM, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t some pretty clear links between the two communities.)
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