What is polyamory?

Although it is repeatedly mentioned as such, polyamory is not an alternative sexuality, but an alternative model of romantic relationships. People are described as polyamorous, or (abbreviated) poly.

The word is a combination of poly which means “more than one, many” in Ancient Greek and amor which is Latin for “love”. It describes people who (want to) live in a romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time while every partner knows of all other partners and every relationship is consensual for all connected individuals.

From the outset, a polyamorous lifestyle requires more time, energy and emotional labour than a closed romantic relationship between two individuals, simply because more than two people have to agree on things on a daily basis. In addition, in multiple relationships, questions and problems arise that cannot happen between two individuals, like, “Who sleeps in the middle?” or “Could you mediate between us?”.

Since our existing language does not include representations of polyamory, new terms are needed to describe these relationships. The idea of the heteronormative mainstream, the majority culture, is that a romantic relationship consists of two people. This is reflected in the language: A romantic couple always means two people, but a couple of friends can be any number of people.

Polyamory, however, needs more than one romantic relationship, that is, at least three people. Thus, individuals in a network of romantic relationships were compared to connected atoms, and termed a polycule, as a portmanteau of polyamory and molecule.

As soon as more than two people are connected over the romantic level, complexity increases by a certain factor, with every additional individual. The comparison to a molecule is therefore appropriate even beyond wordplay: In chemistry, over time, everything falls back to the next stable level that needs the least amount of energy. Networks of people tend to do the same, and as a result, the most common long-term stable polycules consist of the minimum amount of people, that is, three individuals. A polycule of three individuals may occur in two different forms which are named after their visible structure.

In the figures below, the letters stand for the individuals involved, and the lines with heart show a romantic relationship.

A triad or poly triad is a triangle formed out of the romantic relationships A+B, B+C, and A+C.
A further term is throuple, a portmanteau of three and couple, because, well, there are three couples.

A V includes two romantic relationships A+B, and B+C, but not A+C. The term metamour was invented for the relationship between person A and person C, from meta which is Latin for “over something” and amour which is French for “a lover”. So metamours share a meta-love, over person B who connects them. The actual intimacy between metamours is not defined, except for the absence of a romantic relationship, and differs in individual cases: Some are best friends, while others barely know each other.

I, the author of this blog, am biromantic and I live a polyamorous lifestyle: I have a girlfriend and a boyfriend who are a couple as well. Together we form a romantically closed triad (= We are three people, and we all do not pursue any further romantic interests).

For all networks that consist of more than three people, there are no special terms, at least none I am aware of, other than polycule in general. However, because the poly philosophy especially attracts academics, who like to show off with scientific notation, people often describe the form of their polycule with an angular letter of the Latin or Greek alphabet.

Apart from these principles, there is not “the one way” of living polyamory, which does not mean that all polyamorous lifestyles work, that is, produce loving, stable, long-term romantic relationships. Some strategies never even produce more than parallel short-term relationships.

The poly community – part 1/4: What it means to be poly

When a person is in a romantic relationship, but maintains sexual connections with others, it is common to conceal the latter in the mainstream. The basic rule of a polyamorous lifestyle is the exact opposite: Every partner knows of every other partner, and other people with whom their partner has sex. Secret connections are forbidden.

All around the world, the so-called poly community promotes this polyamorous lifestyle. They offer regular meetings, discussion groups, parties, Facebook groups, and, in many cities, preferred hangout spaces. The community itself emerged in the US during the early 1990s and filtered into Europe in the course of the 2010s. This is why, in 2019, most ideas and beliefs still originate in US communities and come to European cities in books or over the internet.

Here and there, people from a specific social class happily adopt the poly philosophy: Academics in their 20s or 30s, who earn an income of their own, who like to experiment with social expectations, and live in a bubble which has allowed them to face little consequences of their own actions so far – so, mostly Bobos (to-be).

Since Austria, the country where I live, is largely rural and conservative, the members of this educated class (and those who want to be a part of it) are drawn to the more independent life in the cities, to the capital Vienna and the city Graz, where most of the university students live. Consequently, the poly community in Vienna has the most members, and an excellent network with the community in Graz. The same people are also attracted to other alternative subcultures, such as left-wing activism, poetry slams, the queer community, Gothic events, Goa festivals, and BDSM spaces. Therefore, in such comparatively small cities, poly-curious people keep running into each other at numerous such events.

I spent my leisure time of more than a whole year (August 2014 – December 2015) almost exclusively in the poly community in Vienna: I went to meet-ups nearly every weekend, participated in activities during the week, and, in the end, also organized a few events. However, to curious people, I can only issue a warning : If you care about your mental health, don’t go to the poly community!

The poly community presents itself as an alternative, even rebellious lifestyle, in contrast to the mainstream: The people and the community say that they have liberal worldviews, are more tolerant, sexpositive, open to new ideas, and, above all, open to an honest approach to alternative forms of sex and love, which most people in the mainstream claim don’t exist, or at least not in a healthy way. This especially includes multiple simultaneous romantic relationships , that give the poly(amorous) community their name.

But under this liberal surface, a very different picture gradually emerged.

Contrary to their message, the poly community does not even have the slightest insight in how to enter and maintain a loving romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time. Worse still, the most widespread ideas and beliefs are destructive strategies: When people try them in everyday life, they do not add strength to their romantic relationship(s), but accelerate a separation instead, regardless if there are two, three or more romantically involved individuals. I have termed these distinct beliefs heart farts, which make up the polyology, a portmanteau of poly and ideology.

In addition, the community itself fosters highly problematic group dynamics:

Polyamory.at, a central website for the poly community in Austria, describes the common aims of poly events:

It’s definitely not a place to look for partners or try out pick-up lines.
[It] is for everyone interested in polyamory; whether it’s your first time talking openly about feeling polyamorous or your concerns about opening your relationship, you have lived for years in a polycule and want to hang out with other polyamorous people or fall anywhere inbetween.

Source: Richard und Sky (2019) Polyamory.at – Detailed descriptions of poly groups in Austria [Online]. Available at https://polyamory.at/english/english-descriptions (Accessed 29 October 2019).

This, however, is not true. While everyone claims that poly meet-ups and events are about discussion, support, and friendship, and not about looking for partners or pick-ups, in reality, nearly everyone does the latter. You may now wonder why this is a problem because a successful pick-up, or a new romantic partner usually makes people happy. The problem is, however, that the people doing it conceal their intentions and gaslight this fact whenever it becomes obvious, which turns almost every poly-event from the safe space it promises to an unsafe space with unfair behaviour as the norm, scheming, and sometimes even abuse.

Examples:

This is visible in the widespread slutshaming in which all sexes participate equally: Most people in the poly community who identify as “poly” distance themselves from “swingers” at every opportunity. The conversation doesn’t even need to be about the lifestyle: It’s enough for someone to talk about an erotic experience just for fun, or unfulfilled sexual wishes, with a person or people in whom they do not have a romantic interest. An accepted topic of conversation, you might think, in a “sexpositive” subculture, and for people who pursue alternative forms of sex and love.

This is, however, not the case. Usually, someone promptly states that polyamory is not about sex (especially not here at this meet-up!), accompanied by nods of agreement or even annoyed reactions from the bystanders which aims to silence the person who was speaking, and devalues them in the view of the group.

Anyone who makes the mistake of talking about swinging openly or asking questions about it receives a very obvious put-down, in the form of usual sexnegative responses: “Swingers clubs are unhygienic.”, “You’re going there? Gross.”, “Eww!”, etc. – based solely on rumors, of course, since they have never visited a swingers club, just like people in the mainstream.

People who simply want to have sex for fun are thus portrayed as inferior, on the often stated grounds that polyamory is just about love. You might argue that people could communicate this in a friendlier way, but that someone who seeks sexual encounters and not a romantic relationship is clearly in the wrong place in a community that took its name from the desire to have multiple romantic relationships.

Well, not quite.

In the course of most poly events, most straight men usually flirt with and try to pick up one woman after another, so that at the end of the evening, successful matches leave together to enjoy their pick-up at “your place or mine”. And no, most of them don’t form a relationship afterwards. This is exactly what swingers do, with the difference that they do it openly and honestly, and talk about in a truly sexpositive way, without shaming anyone. The poly community, however, sees the same behavior not only as a negative trait, but actively denies it and shames dissenters (while continuing their pick-up culture for all the world to see).

The funny thing is that, despite the focus on relationships between multiple people, more than two people who leave together remain the exception: In the course of one year, with two or three poly events per week, I witnessed several pick-ups between one woman and one man every evening, between two women two times, between two men one time (although about a third of men in the poly community label themselves as bisexual), and between more than two people three times. I didn’t visit all poly events in the area, and I didn’t notice everyone, of course, however, this statistic already shows hardly any difference to going out in the heteronormative mainstream.

Unfortunately, the toxic dynamics do not stop there. The few people who genuinely seek like-minded people for discussion and support, without an ulterior motive, don’t find each other, but likely run into disappointment, too:

The majority of people who regularly go to poly events complain about the lifestyle of monogamy and the heteronormative mainstream, which serves as a common enemy, and thus brings different people together. Most of the time, the conversation revolves around past failed relationships, and unfulfilled desires for sex and/or love with other people. The shared stories about similar feelings, experiences and problems create an atmosphere of acceptance and being heard, a new experience for the participants, who have always been blamed and shamed by their “monogamous friends” for talking about sexual and romantic wishes that the latter suppress.

Now, the “solution” to these problems is “being poly” or that someone “has always been poly”. The latter claim explains all problems of a failed relationship by a fundamental incompatibility with a “mono” person, which allows the person telling their story to refuse any responsibility for potential or obvious misconduct (such as a secret affair). The numerous declarations of “I am poly” and “Us Against the Monogamists” create the warm and welcoming feeling of belonging to a community. Those who never got lucky in the mainstream even feel that they found a social circle where they finally belong.

What the identity behind “I am poly” actually looks like in everyday life, however, remains vague in all conversations. The only shared attribute seems to be that someone is open to multiple parallel social connections that include sex. Unfortunately, there is an unpleasant reason behind this observation: Almost every person means something different, when they say they are “poly”. The blogger Oligotropos also observed this confusion in his local poly community in Germany, and I think he described it well:

  • There were lovers who cohabited with each other like in a traditional closed marriage albeit with multiple mates.
  • Quite a number of other people on the other hand saw themselves as members of far-flung and multi-branched relationship-networks.
  • Some others lived excessively all alone and joined chosen mates only at festivals, workshops or especially arranged weekend-meetings. At times there was the proclamation of the inevitable congruency with free or universal love.
  • Whereas other Polyamorists seemed to practice something that was very similar to Swinging,
  • and a number of people even joined in parallel or serial flings and affairs in the ubiquitous name of loving-many.
  • And the emphasis on the expression of individual sexual freedom seemed to be at the forefront of the general thinking in many quarters anyway.

But nonetheless all of the aforementioned folks called themselves proudly participants in the polyamorous lifestyle – accentuating the very fact vehemently and noisily, especially in order to distinguish oneself from the next neighbour, who was claiming exactly the same privilege for himself…Those pervasive differences of opinion appeared to reduce the promised characteristics of honesty, responsibility and commitment – which once motivated myself to the crossover to Polyamory – to mere negotiable footnotes.

This highlights that the poly community does not use a clear definition of the word polyamory,

If you’re familiar with queer vocabulary, you might ask why this is a problem, because like many words in alternative subcultures, polyamory can be treated as an umbrella term, that is, a word for different lifestyles, for the purpose of uniting diverse people to a common cause. Without such a word and identity available, it is much more difficult for the same people to create a community and team spirit.

However, in order for the positive effects of an umbrella term to actually happen, three things must take place first:

  • All individuals involved must know how their definition differs from others,
  • There must be an open discussion about these different definitions. Through discussion, the participants can
  • formulate common aims, which in turn create team spirit, which produces a sense of belonging and solidarity among the group members.

The poly community, however, is already lacking the first step. Most people simply assume that the people they talk to have the same understanding of polyamory, so that hardly anyone talks about different meanings – most people in the poly community do not even know that there are different meanings. This leaves people who are curious about the poly philosophy, and even self-identified “polys” uncertain about their own identity. People can justify all kinds of beliefs on the confusion that emerges – or at least not refute them – since it is never clear what people are talking about.

Examples:

When a group of people shares their experiences in the mainstream, and the individuals are delighted about the acceptance they receive, it is never clear whether someone who uses “monogamous” as a slur is talking about “a sexual connection with only one person” or “a romantic relationship with only one person”. The fact that this ambiguity produces a problem sometimes shows itself in the form of absurd statements: Although we are a very visible polycule of three people, poly people sniffed at us for being “monogamous” on two occasions, the minute we mentioned that nobody of us will pursue further romantic interests.

The second step, an open discourse on polyamory, is thus repressed from the beginning. If someone nevertheless tries to clarify ambiguities or to shift the conversation to start a discussion, by asking questions such as “What do you mean by that?” or “What does this look like in everyday life?”, they will only receive confused looks, and occasionally even angry snaps, regardless of whether the conversation was about monogamous or polyamorous issues. In fact, to inquire about meaning and implementation in real life is perceived as a disruption, because it reveals that there is not as much common ground in the community as all participants would like to believe.

Because of the very different wishes and objectives – and their obfuscation – the feeling of the poly community as a real community is, in most cases, just big talk. People who seek the benefits the community promises, such as support for a struggling relationship or a talk among friends, will quickly discover indifference where they had seen interest, and rejection from what looked like a potential friend. The respective individual probably had a different understanding of polyamory the whole time which could remain hidden long enough by the use of too inclusive language.

Oligotropos draws the same conclusion:

Even so it became distressingly apparent to me that at the dawn of the 21st century the mere term “Polyamory” was no longer consistently employed by its users. Therefore, the general term wasn’t any longer suited for congruent communication and to a much lesser extent qualified concerning the convergence of like-minded people or even community building.

Source: Oligotropos (2019) Entry 1 [Online]. Available at http://www.oligoamory.org/gb/2019/03/09/blog (Accessed 29 October 2019).

The poly community – part 2/4: The polyamorous falsehood

The heteronormative mainstream generates and reinforces the patriarchal construct of monogamy, i. e. the monogamous falsehood. Its main idea is that sex and love are to take place only between two people in a romantic relationship. As a consequence, if a couple enters a romantic relationship together, it is automatically sexually and romantically closed. This is a stop sign to other individuals who feel attracted by a person of this couple, sexually and romantically.

Being automatically “sexually closed” as a couple can be considered a general problem, since all patriarchal constructs and false ideas about human sexuality are generated and perpetuated by this automatic preference.

The automatic preference “romantically closed” does, however, make sense, since the new couple can thereby keep themselves to themselves at the romantic level and thus build up mutual trust and bonding behaviour, which is the basis of a loving, stable romantic relationship.

The poly ideology, however, does not only reject the problematic principles, but rather all principles from the heteronormative mainstream. As a consequence, a completely new patriarchal construct has been generated in poly communities – which I termed the polyamorous falsehood. It is a modification of the monogamous falsehood – which is interesting due to the observation that poly communities all over the world consider monogamy to be their nemesis.

The patriarchal construct of monogamy, for comparison:

  1. Desires and wishes at the sexual level and the romantic level are the same thing.
  2. If someone is sexually attracted to another person, a desire for intimacy at the romantic level will always be a part of this attraction.
  3. As long as the romantic relationship is healthy for both persons involved, it is not possible to fall in love with someone else.
  4. As long as the romantic relationship is healthy for both persons involved, it is not possible to desire another person sexually.

The polyamorous falsehood and its monogamous counterpart have the first two beliefs in common. Only the third belief of patriarchal polyamory is a new invention:

  1. Desires and wishes at the sexual level and the romantic level are the same thing.
  2. If someone is sexually attracted to another person, a desire for intimacy at the romantic level will always be a part of this attraction.
  3. If someone falls in love with a new person, while in an existing romantic relationship, a new, additional romantic relationship must be pursued due to these feelings. The romantic partner in the pre-existing romantic relationship has to approve of and support this development under all circumstances.

If the polyamorous falsehood is applied in real life, its consequences look like this:

  1. Desires and wishes at the sexual level and the romantic level are the same thing.

One person within a romantic relationship is sexually attracted to another person and would like to pursue sexual fantasies with him/her – the respective person is recognized as sexy, hot or very beautiful.

  1. If someone is sexually attracted to another person, a desire for intimacy at the romantic level will always be a part of this attraction.

This person confuses – mostly unconsciously (!) – his/her own wishes due to the above patriarchal construct:

“Just sex” cannot be the case, since a sexual attraction to another person will automatically be linked to a desire for romantic intimacy with this respective person. In addition, the constant necessity for secrecy gets more and more annoying. Is it impossible to just be open and honest about this?

After that, the person starts to develop a crush on the individual who he/she is sexually attracted to at the time. The justification of this falsehood is more creative than the one in the heteronormative mainstream:
Casual sex (= swinging) is supposed to be not just “eww”, but an emotional cold and mechanical experience. Only sex together with romantic activities like in a romantic relationship could be really fulfilling.

The third belief, however, is different from the monogamous falsehood:

  1. As long as the romantic relationship is healthy for both persons involved, it is not possible to fall in love with someone else.

This belief has been deconstructed: To fall in love with another person, while in an existing healthy romantic relationship, is entirely possible. Moreover, if it happens, it is primarily unrelated to the decision whether the existing romantic relationship is desired by both persons involved. However, instead of developing a working non-patriarchal construct, the deconstructed belief has been replaced by a new belief system:

If someone falls in love with a new person, while in an existing romantic relationship, a new, additional romantic relationship must be pursued due to these feelings. The romantic partner in the pre-existing romantic relationship has to approve of and support this development under all circumstances.

The origin of this new belief is the following: The heteronormative mainstream allows only very narrow ways to pursue sex and love. The “solution” of the poly ideology is the polar opposite – an allergy to all limitations, whether these make sense or not. The basic tendency is thus – contrary to the heteronormative mainstream – “romantically open”: Everything is possible; new people can be added to any romantic relationship or polycule just because one person falls in love. Some poly people consider only their leisure time as a limiting factor for new relationships, while others exclaim “the more, the better” and add every new crush as a relationship to their pre-existing couple / polycule.

A further expression of this “romantically open” space of the poly community is the so-called cuddle group: Several individuals, who have just met, start to exchange romantic activities. They embrace, cuddle, caress and kiss each other – sometimes for hours. From time to time, the people in the cuddle group change position, so that everyone can cuddle with all persons involved. Pretty often, the whole cuddle group falls asleep on one another. These activities (including falling asleep together), suggest a largest intimacy between the persons present at a unconscious level – the intimacy of a committed romantic relationship. However, as already mentioned, most of these individuals have just met or they are only acquaintances. Sometimes they don’t even know each other’s first name. Thus, at a conscious level they are almost strangers, but at an unconscious level they communicate the deepest intimacy possible. That’s why it is not surprising that these people have a higher risk to develop mental issues due to this incompatibility.

The poly community – part 4/4: What is Lovebombing?

The punishment of unwanted behaviour until it is refrained from is not the only way a social group can control its members. A second, just as effective method is Lovebombing: The desired behaviour is excessively rewarded by using exaggerated affection and exaggerated positive attention towards the person over which the group wishes to obtain control.

These forms of affection are based on secondary motivations: The aim is not support or friendship, as the affection would suggest, but an attempt to get the targeted person to exhibit a desired behaviour. The targeted individuals don’t usually notice this at first and feel accepted and welcomed by the group. In general, the desired behaviour, however, is of use to only particular members of the group and either not useful or even harmful to the targeted individuals. If a targeted member wants to act upon impulses that go against the group philosophy, or shows actions which are not exploitable for the desired purpose, the seemingly positive attention is used as a threat:

“We really value each other in this group. You do value us, too, don’t you?!”

If the targeted individual continues to display behaviour other than that desired, all forms of attention by other group members are withdrawn at once. Most of the time, manipulation strategies such as Lovebombing develop and stick within a group unintentionally and unconsciously. Only particular individuals who are experienced in power dynamics can use this method on purpose to control a group, which, however, they only succeed to implement if there are enough toadies within the group who unconsciously accept the manipulator as a parental figure.

Everyday life with my polycule became stable and pretty much drama-free briefly after we decided to romantically close our polycule, and thus no longer fell prey to the polyamorous falsehood and its energy-draining dynamics. We now share the occasional misunderstandings and conflicts of every healthy relationship.

When I shared the good news of my closed polycule with my (supposedly) good friends and other (supposedly) nice people that I knew from poly events, the atmosphere of the poly meet-ups and events I attended changed drastically. Many people stared at me in an annoyed fashion, some even pointed fingers at me and my partners while giving us nasty looks and whispering to each other. People who had used to greet me enthusiastically suddenly pretended they didn’t know me when I talked to them.

On several occasions, we faced even open hostility: People were trying to actively separate us as a triad or even as couples in order to restore our previous romantically open behaviour, that is, our availability for romantic suitors. We were told several times not to sit together, not to “show so many public displays of affection” (because it was “triggering” – of course…) while the same people had never complained or even expressed happiness about similar displays by other people. My girlfriend and I were subjected to special treatment by straight men who presented as “Prince Charming”: As soon as our boyfriend stood a few metres away, they basically jumped to stand between us. One guy with whom I had been in a few cuddle piles crept up on me to suddenly hug me from behind (which was new) seconds after Nemo had gone to get drinks, apparently as a “This is mine”-gesture towards my boyfriend.

Most straight men acted in a particularly hostile manner towards my boyfriend – not only by the usual microaggressions, but also by derogatory remarks. They apparently perceived him as the only reason why I was no longer romantically open, and, as a consequence, did not join cuddle piles any more. The fact that my girlfriend and I had also made the decision for a closed polycule – which we mentioned repeatedly – was obviously uninteresting to them. We think this was because of their (partly) unconscious misogyny that is rampant in the poly community: “These are two bisexual women. Why are they talking so much instead of pleasing me?”

In the course of my year in the poly community, there had been regular poly events and private gatherings to which I had always been invited, and where people had been asking me in advance “whether I was going again.” When I asked to bring along Maitri and Nemo as my “plus 2”, my partners were not invited. I received the feedback, however, that if I liked to come alone, that would be fine – to an event of a community about multiple romantic relationships. Hosts from other gatherings just stopped notifying me when new events were scheduled, because, as I found out later, they had decided that I “did not fit the concept”.

Due to these experiences, we stopped going to poly events for entertainment and only continued to attend a workshop which we had already frequented before we became a polycule. Shortly after we attended as a triad, however, the workshop, previously with a free choice of seats, suddenly had a lottery system to allocate seats to people. “We want to avoid the same people always sitting together”, the workshop leader remarked while looking at us. Naturally, the couples at the workshop had always been sitting together, without the same leader opposing this in any way.

Some (supposed) friends approached me to convince me that my new relationship status constrained my “freedom” and suspected my decision to be closed was a result of blackmail or coercion by Maitri and, above all, Nemo. For me, this was the most revealing moment: Precisely those people who had complimented me for a year (and were now dropping me like a hot potato), wanted to persuade me that Maitri and Nemo, who had reciprocated my feelings without games, had been fair from the beginning, and had cared for me when I had been ill, were somehow oppressing and exploiting me.

So it became obvious that none of the people I had seen as fellow nice polys or even friends because of their (supposedly) benevolent actions over weeks or months, had actually meant their affections seriously. Instead, I had fallen for Lovebombing, that targeted me as a young, attractive, liberal woman to provide free attention and sex to cowardly straight men who did not want to give the same in return.

I have since left the poly community , and I can only advise anyone to withdraw from this extremely toxic environment as soon as possible!