Polyamory is the practice of having multiple, loving relationships, with the knowledge and consent of all concerned.
The term “polyamory” is a recent addition to dictionaries. The first recognized use of the term was in the form “poly-amorous”, in an article by Morning Glory Zell, an advocate of responsible non-monogamy.
Definitions of polyamory can vary from one dictionary to another, but people practicing polyamory all agree on two specific components. Polyamory involves multiple simultaneous romantic, loving relationships, and it requires the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.
Types of Polyamory
Based on this definition, polyamory includes not only privileged Western “hippies” who reject social controls on their relationships, but also devout Mormon and Muslim polygamous marriages, relationships in which one or both partners have affairs or concubines (with the knowledge and consent of their partner), and cases where people manage a mismatch of sexual desire by one partner going outside the relationship for additional loving sexual contact with their partner’s permission.
Polyamorous partners may not even have sex at all, because romantic love and sex are two different things. Polyamory is about “amour” – love – not sex. Of course, most people enjoy having sexual contact of some kind with their romantic partners, at least occasionally.
Polyfidelitous relationships are sexually exclusive, or "closed", relationships between three or more people. Devout Mormon and Muslim polygamous marriages are polyfidelitous. Many polymorous people choose this type of polyamory for personal, secular reasons. A polyfidelitous family can have any number of members. Not all members have a sexual relationship with all other members, but all members refrain from having any sexual contact outside the polyfidelitous group.
A "triad" is a relationship between three people, in which there is a sexual or romantic connection on all three sides of the triangle. For this reason, triads are not possible if all three people are strictly heterosexual. Triads work when all three members are gay or lesbian, or if at least two members are bisexual. The most common form of triad in the present day is a man together with two bisexual women, because open bisexuality is currently more common among women than among men.
A "hinge", or "V" relationship is one in which a person has two concurrent sexual/romantic relationships, and the two partners are not romantically or sexually involved with one another. They may be friends, even very close friends, or "chosen family", and they may live in the same house, but they are not "partnered" with each other.
When a larger number of polyamorous people have interconnecting relationships, it is referred to as an "intimate network". For example, A is dating B and C, B is dating D, C is dating E and F, and D is dating F. In an extended community of polyamorous people, the network can become quite extensive. A new person meets C, gets involved, and the, over time, meets A, B, E, and F. The chances are pretty high that the new person will find at least one of those people attractive, too.
Because of the extensive nature of intimate networks, it is not usual for all the members of a network to live together. For introverts, who prefer to live alone, this type of polyamory can relieve the pressure they would feel to live with a partner at all. The intimate network becomes of form of extended family, with members coming together to help with moving house, or in times of sickness. "The partner of my partner is my brother" is an informal way to describe the nature of relationships between network members who are not personally involved with one another.
Some communities are specifically founded with polyamory as part of the design of the community. In modern times, there have been famous experiments such as the Oneida Community, a Christian commune founded in the 19th century in Oneida, New York by John Humphrey Noyes. Additional communities based on the same plan were established in four other nearby towns. Within the community, any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Noyes referred to this as "complex marriage". When Noyes attempted to pass control to his son, the community fractured, and in 1879, complex marriage was abandoned. Around 70 couples solemnised regular marriages, and the commune restructured into a corporation, which continues producing silverware today.
There are many other historical and current examples on the Wikipedia Polyamory page.
The Tamera community in Portugal is also founded on principles which include non-possessiveness and "free love". The founders viewed freedom of love and sexuality to be a key component in the social, ecological and ethical foundations for a sustainable Earth.
What makes these intentional communities polyamorous is that although they frown on exclusive or possessive relationships, they encourage loving and co-operative relationships, with the consent of all concerned.
Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon. It is theoretically possible that two relationship anarchists could mutually agree to adopt all the norms of a conventional monogamous marriage, but it is, in practice, unlikely.
In hierarchical polyamory, an individual categorises their partners, using terms such as primary/secondary/tertiary. In general, the relationship with a primary partner will be prioritized over the relationship with a secondary partner, which will be prioritized over the relationship with a tertiary partner. The nature of the prioritization can vary dramatically. In some cases, primary partners have the right to "veto" relationships with secondary and tertiary partners if they feel those relationships are damaging to the primary relationship. In other cases, primary partners have no special rights or privileges; the "primary" nature of the relationship is because they have more shared commitments, such as cohabiting, coparenting, being in business together, merged finances, and so on.
The difference between the levels of relationship in hierarchical polyamory has been illustrated with an example:
Your boss tells you that you will be promoted, which means you need to move to another state to head up the operations there.
Your primary partner says "Congratulations! When do we move?"
Your secondary partner says "Congratulations! When can I come visit?"
Your tertiary partner says "Congratulations! I sure will miss you."
In practice, of course, even a primary partner may have deep ties to a community, through work, family, and so on, and it cannot be assumed that a primary partner will automatically drop everything in their life to move to another state. It may be that a primary partner needs to stay put, and a secondary partner has more geographic flexibility, and can more easily relocate. The final outcome may just as easily be that the primary relationship becomes a long-distance relationship, and the secondary partner becomes the cohabiting partner after the move.
Some hierarchical polyamorists have one and only one primary partner, which produces an arrangement similar to an open relationship. Others are happy to have multiple primary partners, who are all considered co-equal.
In solo polyamory, an individual chooses not to enter into many shared commitments with any lovers, and may even refrain from calling a lover a "partner", or referring to their connection as a "relationship". This may be a healthy choice of an introvert, who prefers to live alone, and wants to spend small amounts of quality time with selected individuals. It may also be an unhealthy way to avoid intimacy, and the challenges to the ego which arise when navigating life with other people whose opinions must be considered as important as one's own.
Some Tantric practitioners choose solo poly as a way to avoid being caught up in the distractions of the householder existence, but still being able to maintain intimate connections for their Tantric sexual practice.
Polyamory in Tantra
Traditional Tantric texts make it clear that Tantra has never been bound by the norms of society, and sexually exclusive marriage was no exception to Tantric taboo-breaking.
Some Tantrics renounced all forms of material responsibility and devoted themselves to their Tantric study and practice full time. Others maintained a traditional householder lifestyle, and practiced Tantra privately. The Kashmiri Shaivist texts, for example, were primarily written for householders seeking to attain the high states of consciousness which were believed to be reserved for saddhus and hermits.
The traditional texts make it clear that if a Tantric was practising left-hand Tantra, with actual sexual intercourse as part of the practice, the Tantric partner should not be their husband or wife. The ideal Tantric partner was described as someone healthy, someone the Tantric did not find sexually attractive, and someone with whom the Tantric would be unlikely to form a mundane emotional bond. Washer women, for example, members of the "untouchable" caste, were considered ideal Tantric partners for Brahmin men.
Tibetan Tantric texts contain many stories of gurus telling a disciple that the time had come for them to start practising sexual Tantra, and nominating a Tantric partner who would be suitable for them. Traditionally, Tantric relationships would only begin after years of dedicated practice and preparation, usually in celibacy.
Modern neo-Tantra has a different take on polyamory. Neo-Tantra focuses on practising rituals as part of a long-term relationship, choosing partners who are sexually attractive, and working to maintain the sexual attraction for the long term, and developing very emotionally intimate relationships. For neo-Tantrics, polyamory is an expansion of love from one relationship to many. Attachments are not seen as a significant barrier to practice, unless they lead to possessiveness and jealousy.
Modern Westerners, the key audience for neo-Tantra, have no patience for years of celibate practice, followed by Tantric sexual rituals with someone they don't even find attractive. As a result, many Western seekers fall by the wayside, losing sight of any spiritual objective to their Tantric practice, and focusing instead on attaining material pleasures in this world.
This dynamic has contributed to Tantra's poor reputation in the West, as it can be seen as a "spiritual cover" for sex addiction, promiscuity, and even abuse of power.
It is important to remember that polyamory is practised in Tantra as a way of accessing impersonal, unconditional love, and transfiguring one's Tantric partner as an emanation of the Divine. It is a gateway to higher states of consciousness, through transcending our lower impulses of possessiveness and hedonism.
Personal Accounts of Polyamory
More Than Two by Franklin Veaux
Downloadable .pdfs on polyamory, jealousy, and relationship skills by Franklin Veaux
More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert
The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton
Opening Up by Tristan Taormino
The Polyamorists Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff
Love in Abundance by Kathy Labriola