Is Polyamorous an Identity or a Relationship Style?

Definitions, opinions, and how to spot manipulative polyamory.

I’ve identified as polyamorous since 2007. Like many open relationship nerds at that time, I read The Ethical Slut and Opening UpThen I created a blog, found fellow polyamorists, and discussed infinite love, identity, and language ’til LiveJournal went out of style.

While it’s hard to claim expertise on something as expansive as polyamory, it is something I spend a good bit of time reading and thinking about in the context of modern Western, particularly American, relationships. Recently, a discussion about polyamorous being an identity vs. a relationship style caught my attention.

The concept of polyamorous as a relationship descriptor has never clashed with my understanding of polyamorous as an identity. A person can engage in polyamorous relationships and they can also be a polyamorous person regardless of their relationship status, in my opinion.

I’d argue the current definition still allows for this.

The meaning of polyamorous

pol·y·am·o·rous (adj): characterized by or involved in the practice of engaging in multiple romantic (and typically sexual) relationships, with the consent of all the people involved. Oxford Languages

While I like this definition of polyamorous (sometimes shortened to poly or polyam) overall, it’s amusing that it leaves out the word ‘simultaneous,’ which is pretty important to the concept of polyamory.

Many people engage in multiple romantic relationships over the course of their lifetime. Most just do it one partner at a time, not simultaneously. In fact, just 1 in 9 Americans has tried polyamory — simultaneous, romantic, consensual relationships — at some point in their lives.

Simultaneous connections are a key definer of polyamorous relationships, so it’s important to note the omission. Besides that, it’s a decent definition with enough ambiguity to leave room for the infinite possibilities polyamory contains. It also clarifies that these relationships are consensual and typically sexual.

Is polyamory a sexuality?

Polyamorists will tell you it’s all about love until their voices are hoarse — yet everyone seems to think polyamory is all about sex.

Sex is certainly fun. But you can be sexually nonmonogamous without being polyamorous. It’s honestly a lot less work. 10/10 recommend.

Being polyamorous involves loving, pursuing love, or desiring love with more than one romantic partner at a time, and all of the effort that comes with that. This often happens parallel to, but distinct from, pursuing multiple partners for sex. Thus, polyamory is not a sexuality.

There is a bit of a rallying call for legally categorizing polyamorous as a sexual orientation. I understand the sentiment. Polyamorous people do need similar discrimination protections such as the ones currently afforded to people of all sexual orientations in the U.S.

But that’s a whole other post, and one that requires this post’s exploration to really grasp. So for today, I’m just hoping to show you how polyamory is more like a romantic orientation than a sexuality, and why that matters.

Relationships that are not (necessarily) polyamorous

Photo by Angela Roma

Sometimes to better understand what something is, it’s helpful to know what it isn’t. At the risk of gatekeeping, let’s explore some examples of relationship structures often confused with polyamory.

Please note that while many practices on this list can be, become, or overlap with polyamorous relationships, most tend to treat sex and love in a way that wouldn’t be considered polyamory at a glance. Some are considered ethical or consensual nonmonogamy when done a certain way, but others (like cheating) certainly aren’t.

Disclaimer: As always, exceptions exist and talking to people will tell you a heck of a lot more than lumping humans into categories. Please don’t use this list to tell someone whether or not they’re polyamorous.

  • Polygamy, polygyny, or polyandry. These are marriage structures permitted legally in some parts of the world. None are legal in the U.S., though some Americans may partake in spiritual and/or social rituals that bond them to multiple spouses without legal recognition. These marriages may or may not involve romance or be consensual depending on the circumstances, so they may or may not be examples of polyamory.
  • Swinging. Swinging is when romantically partnered people, typically couples, swap partners for sexual activities and/or engage in group sex. Sometimes single people are invited into these activities. Swinging is often sex-focused, with couples wanting to keep feelings out of it. Occasionally people develop feelings anyway, and that can turn into polyamory if everyone’s okay with it.
  • Casual sex, no strings attached. If you have an arrangement that involves sex without an emotional connection, that’s totally cool — it’s just not polyamory. Polyamory is generally about love. If you fall in love with multiple casual partners, that could potentially become polyamorous if everyone consents.
  • Friends with benefits. This one can get pretty poly depending on the friendship. If you love your fwb (friend with benefits), have more than one of them (or another romantic relationship), and everyone is aware that others are romantically involved, that might be polyamorous. If you keep emotionally distant from your fwb’s, though, it’s probably not.
  • Cheating. Polyamory requires acting honestly from a place of love and the consent of all involved. Cheating does not fit these criteria.
  • Sneaky links. See ‘Casual sex’ and ‘Friends with benefits’ above. If you’re sneaking around to be with someone behind another partner’s back, it’s probably not polyamory. That is, unless you’ve clearly and without coercion established some kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell (DADT) policy with your partner that allows for emotional connection with others.
  • Side things. Is your ‘main’ partner aware of and comfortable with you having romantic side things? Are you pursuing love or in love with all people involved? It’s only polyamorous if you answered yes to both questions.

As you can see, polyamory has a distinct focus on love, honesty, and consent. Because we tend to have sex with our romantic partners, it certainly happens, but sex without love generally isn’t considered polyamory.

More on what polyamory is and is not…

Photo by nappy

Another important thing to note: some of the situations on the list above describe finding new partners in addition to an existing partnership. If one of these situations evolves into polyamory, not all partners are necessarily romantically or sexually involved with one another.

For example, let’s say a woman has both a husband and a new boyfriend, and all three of them are aware of those relationships and comfortable with them. That doesn’t automatically mean that the husband and boyfriend are in love, that they have sex, or that these people all engage in threesomes together.

Being polyamorous might look like a woman who loves both her husband and boyfriend. As a result of that love, she likely has sex with each of them, but love is usually the priority.

This hypothetical triad might have threesomes, or they might not. The men may come to love each other as friends (or romantic partners, if they’re so inclined), but it’s not required. The men might never even meet each other.

Whether they do or don’t, it’s still a polyamorous relationship because the woman has multiple, simultaneous, loving relationships where everyone involved knows what’s going on.

Polyamorous relationships can take many forms

  • A group of friends that spend a lot of time together may find that they’re all falling in love with one another. They also might naturally develop a kitchen table polyamory relationship style, talking through things as a group.
  • A frequent traveler may have loving relationships with individuals in various cities who are all aware that other lovers exist — a more solo polyamory arrangement.
  • A heterosexual swinging couple may decide they’re interested in unicorn polyamory and seek out a bisexual woman they can both love and have sex with.
  • That couple may practice hierarchical polyamory, where established partners are ‘primary’ and new partners are ‘secondary’ when it comes to needs being met.

These are just a few of countless possible ways to ‘do’ polyamory. The possibilities are only limited by our imaginations. But we’ve gotten a little off track here; let’s get back to our initial question.

Is polyamorous an identity or a relationship style?

Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca

In this post so far, I’ve mostly used the word polyamorous to refer to relationship styles.

There’s an increasing insistence in conversations about nonmonogamy that that’s the only appropriate use. Polyamory is a ‘type of…relationship’, WebMD says. It’s a ‘relationship model’, not an orientation, Dan Savage asserts in episode 751 of his Savage Love podcast.

That’s because practicing polyamory is a choice, so the popular argument goes. Many people, perhaps most, would love to be ethically nonmonogamous. Humans are socially monogamous, not biologically, after all.

Monogamous people, presumably, choose not to act on their biological desire for multiple partners because it would hurt a serious romantic partner, make a family unstable, or bring on some other social struggle. (In this economy?)

Yet, many polyamorists describe feeling compersion at their partner’s love for other partners.

[Compersion] is the sympathetic joy we feel for somebody else, even when their positive experience does not involve or benefit us directly. Thus, compersion can be thought of as the opposite of jealousy and possessiveness. What Is Compersion?

What happens to the argument of hurting a romantic partner when that partner feels joy for your polyamory? What happens to the argument of unstable families and social struggle when evolutionary biologists and anthropologists say children — and human societies — thrive when there’s communal caretaking?

Perhaps most importantly…

Why is anyone looking for reasons to suppress love?

It’s probably because they’re focusing on the wrong thing: the very distancing, socially stigmatized, biological imperative — sex.

Exploring polyamory as an identity

Photo by Los Muertos Crew

If you’re making an honest attempt to understand polyamorous identity, it’s important to listen to poly-identified people. When you do that, you’ll hear it again and again: it’s not all about the sex!

When someone identifies as polyamorous, it could mean many things. They could be:

  • currently in a relationship where they and/or their partner(s) have other romantic partners
  • interested in being a part of such a relationship
  • actively pursuing a polyam relationship with or without a current partner
  • open to being in a polyam relationship someday, but perhaps not seeking one right now
  • seeking a ‘secondary’ position in someone’s hierarchical polyamory structure
  • unexpectedly falling in love with their spouse’s other partner
  • in love with multiple people and not having sex with any of them
  • developing romantic feelings for more than one of their friends
  • exploring polyamory as a philosophy on love through lived experience
  • …or a combination of these or a number of other things

Whatever the case, claiming polyamory as a personal identity implies that it’s an important part of who someone understands themselves to be. A romantic orientation, if you will, that may be inborn and unchangeable or perhaps curated by experience and malleable.

When I say I’m polyamorous, I mean that I recognize a capacity within myself to be in love with more than one person at a time.

How much control does a person have over who they fall in love with?

If the answer is “only so much,” what does it mean when a person is capable of being in love with more than one person at a time?

How to spot manipulative polyamory

Photo by cottonbro

It’s important at this point to acknowledge that some people do use polyamorous identities to manipulate others. When we start asking how much control we really have over something as powerful as love, some unfortunately take the opportunity to cede responsibility for their actions.

If someone in your life is leveraging a polyamorous identity to get what they want despite causing people they (supposedly) love distress, remember that polyamorous relationships require:

  • multiple partners
  • love
  • consent

Acting without consideration for a partner’s needs isn’t very loving. Forcing a partner into a polyamorous arrangement ‘because it’s who you are’ isn’t consensual.

Consent is voluntary. ‘Poly under duress’ isn’t polyamory if a partner’s consent was coerced.

Mono-poly relationships are complicated. So are polyamorous relationships where one parter is uncomfortable with a new lover entering the structure, or there are people struggling with jealousy, or shifting dynamics make things especially difficult.

As many ways as there are to do polyamory, there are exponentially more ways for conflicts to intersect and grow. Because of that, it’s impossible to write out a comprehensive how-to for handling manipulation in polyamory. A polyam-friendly couple’s therapist or sex coach would be better suited to teasing out individual nuances in a relationship and addressing conflict.

If your polyamorous relationship was a requirement rather than a co-created structure that resulted from honest, loving conversation and ongoing communication, it may be helpful to set some time aside and evaluate whether the relationship is healthy for you.

Is polyamory a choice?

Photo by Matheus Ferrero

I didn’t choose to have the capacity for multiple loves: it’s simply there. I can’t change it. That makes me polyamorous.

I do choose to honor that capacity by letting people know when I love them through my actions and words, even when I’m already in love with other people.

I also choose to talk about this capacity early on when meeting potential partners. I choose to enter relationships with people who are informed and whose participation in the relationship is voluntary. We have conversations about issues that inevitably arise (as they do in any relationship, polyamorous or not) and we work to create ongoing consent by figuring out what works and doesn’t work for us.

Is it hard sometimes? Sure. Sometimes I really want to be in a relationship with someone who just can’t do polyamory. It hurts when I can’t make that concession. To do so would require closing off much of my capacity for love, a very intimate and important part of me.

And that’s just no way to live.

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Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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