For some, polyamory is a particularly confusing subject. But whether or not you feel polyamory is right for you, it is important to understand that is a genuine means of love and expression. To better understand what polyamory is, it's important to break down some facts and bust some stereotypes.
Polyamory is as complicated as monogamy. "Many people may hold a vague concept of what they imagine polyamory to be — an openness in relationships, an excuse to cheat, or a sexual free for all," sex educator, adult film performer, and activist Jessica Drake, tells Bustle. "The truth is, it just isn't like that. Polyamory is the practice of being in a sexual and or romantic relationship with more than one person at a time, and it comes with it's own unique set of challenges." Still, it's important to suspend judgement.
"People should be careful not to project their own understanding of love, desires and relational agreements onto others," clinical social worker and clinical sexologist Dr. Zelaika Hepworth-Clarke, member of the Board of Directors of the Relationship Equality Foundation, tells Bustle. Moreover, polyamory and ethical monogamy are not monoliths, and deserve to be understood as such.
"Just because polyamory is unfamiliar doesn’t mean it’s wrong," Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist, author, and resident sex and social behavior expert at Motorbunny, tells Bustle. "At the same time, just because polyamory works for some doesn’t mean it has to work for everyone (read: you)." And whether or not you're polyamorous, there's a lot you can learn about love from the poly community.
Here are seven little-known facts about polyamory, according to experts.
1. Polyamory Is Relatively Common
Because polyamory is not one group of people or even one specific set of practices, it can be hard to tell exactly how many people practice polyamory in the United States.
According to research published in Psychology Today, there are likely 1.2 to 2.4 million people practicing non-monogamy, and another 9.8 million allowing "satellite lovers" in their relationships (open relationships, basically). Another study, published in Vice and carried out by a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Match.com, showed that 68 percent of single people approve of polyamory, and six percent practice it. This research means that polyamory is more common than you may believe.
2. Polyamorous People Still Commit
Being non-monogamous does not mean being noncommittal. Polyamory does not make the difference between casual and serious relationships any less clear.
"One common myth is that people who practice ethical non-monogamy can’t commit," Dr. Hepworth-Clarke says. "Although there are people in general who have challenges committing (including monogamous people), there are also some people who are poly that might have issue with commitment, but most polyamorous people I know are in multiple committed relationships." Healthy polyamorous relationships, like healthy monogamous ones, avoid coercion, rely on communication, and have love and affection, too.
3. Polyamory Is Not A New Trend
Although a lot of media portrayals depict polyamory as a trendy relationship term, this is not accurate.
"Polyamory and ethical non-monogamy is not a new phenomenon or trend," Dr. Hepworth-Clarke says. "It has been practiced in many Indigenous populations. It can be found in different spiritual texts." While many historic practices of polygamy and polyamory have dissipated, it is clear that polyamory is not a new invention.
4. Each Polyamorous Person Has Different Dealbreakers
Like monogamous people, polyamorous individuals have to work out their specific relationship parameters with their partners.
"Each relationship can have agreements [...] of what people are comfortable, and specified dealbreakers," Dr. Hepworth-Clarke says. "What is considered cheating in one relationship might not be considered cheating in another." Just as what constitutes micro-cheating can be a conversation for monogamous couples, what constitutes physical and emotional cheating is conversation for polyamorous individuals.
5. People Can Change Their Minds About Being Polyamorous
It's possible for someone to want to explore polyamory, but decide it's not for them. This experience is just as valid as someone who explores monogamy, and decides to be polyamorous.
"People may feel like [polyamory is] a safer emotional option than a monogamous relationship, but the reality is, it may not be," Drake says. "It's important to always keep in mind that people's needs change over time, and communication about whether or not a polyamorous relationship is working for you and others should be an ongoing dialogue." Just like checking in with your partner is important in a monogamous relationship, it's important for polyamorous couples to continue to explore their expectations over the months and years.
6. Consent And Communication Are Just As Important In Polyamorous Relationships
What makes ethical non-monogamy ethical is the fact that it's rooted in affirmative consent. Healthy polyamorous couples are able to communicate their needs effectively so that the relationship can work.
"One key aspect of polyamory is consent, and the cornerstone of consent is communication," Dr. Tibbals says. "If a partner is polyamorous, but another partner is not aware of this, this doesn’t make the polyamorous relationship OK." Just because talking about monogamy versus polyamory with a partner may be difficult, doesn't mean the topic should be avoided.
7. Ethical Polyamorous Relationship Is A Choice Partners Make
To date, there isn't a significant amount of research to definitely prove whether polyamory is hard-wired or not. While many people feel very strongly that they are either naturally monogamous or polyamorous, getting into a relationship of either kind is an informed choice made between partners.
"I think it’s essential for people to understand that polyamory, and I specifically refer to it as ethical non-monogamy, is an ethical and informed choice, not something a person pursues only at the request of a partner," clinical social worker Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, President and Founder of the Critical Therapy Center, tells Bustle. "It is something that both partners have to feel comfortable with." And while a relationship between a monogamous and polyamorous person can be possible, any relationship agreement should be understood as an informed decision.
Whatever your inclinations are when it comes to relationships, it's important to understand that not everyone views love through the same lens. Knowing the basics of polyamory may help you explore your own relationships more, or simply help you understand other people's relationships in a more accepting way.