Four common misconceptions about Polyamory

Welcome, reader, to post #2 in my series of posts on non-monogamy, where I am going to tackle some of the most frustrating misconceptions that I have encountered about polyamory.

For the sake of brevity, I am going to assume that everyone reading this article has some understanding of polyamory/non-monogamy. If that is not the case for you, please pause and take a few minutes to read my article titled “Choosing Polyamory: my journey exploring alternative relationship styles. It gives a much more detailed explanation of what polyamory is, different ways it can look, and some of the reasons why I choose to engage in it. Once you’ve done that, come on back here if you want to learn more!

As someone who has dabbled in non-monogamous relationships for many years now, I have had my fair share of conversations with people who are curious about alternative relationship structures. Because I have lived in mostly liberal bubbles, a lot of the people I interact with are at least familiar with the concept, but many have had no real contact with poly people in the wild. Throughout these conversations, I have discovered that there are a lot of misconceptions about polyamory floating around and would like to take some time here to address some of the most common ones I hear. 

So, in no particular order, here are four of the most common misconceptions about non-monogamy that I have encountered. Many of these are things that I myself used to believe and have come to think very differently about throughout my experiences. If you also have any of these misconceptions, I hope my words will help you rethink the ways in which you may be incorrectly judging your polyamorous friends and their relationships. And if you have any that you think should be added to the list, please feel free to share them in the comments so I can address them in a future post!

1. “Polyamory is the same thing as polygamy, right?”

This one basically just comes down to a misunderstanding of the actual definitions of these two words. But I wanted to address it because it always gets my hackles up when people use these words interchangeably, probably because I know there are so many negative connotations that go along with the term polygamy and the contexts in which it usually applies.

The definition of polygamy is “the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time”. Technically there are two distinct forms of polygamy: polygyny is one man with many wives and polyandry is one woman with many husbands. On the surface, it seems very similar to polyamory. But in reality, most cultures that tolerate polygamy really only accept and practice polygyny. Most people’s understanding of polygamy comes from shows like “Sister Wives”, “Big Love”, and “Escaping Polygamy”, all of which feature relationships where men are able to have as many wives as they like, without the women being granted the same freedom.

While I find polygamy in those situations to be quite problematic, I can actually see how legalizing polygamy would be great for a lot of poly people. The illegality of marrying more than one person can create really challenging situations for people who have more than one committed relationship and would like to be legally tied to two or more people. Think of all the benefits that being married allows people to have, and then imagine having to choose which one of your long-term partners gets to have those benefits with you and which ones don’t.

In any case, I hope I have made it clear that polygamy and polyamory are two distinct things. I suppose one man with many wives could technically fall under the umbrella of polyamory. But if the women in the relationship are not allowed the same freedoms to explore outside of the marriage, then it is not a form of polyamory I am interested in.

2. “Being polyamorous means you are less committed to your partners or are just afraid of commitment in general”

I love the way that Dan Savage approaches this response to polyamory. He tells the story of a man who found out that Dan and his husband were “monogamish” (a term I absolutely love) and stated that he was simply “too committed” of a person to have sex outside of a relationship. When Dan pried a little further, he found out this man had been both married and divorced no less than three times! So, according to this man, being with one person at a time is a better marker of commitment, even if all three of your marriages have ended in divorce, than a couple like Dan and his husband who have been together for over 30 years but occasionally invite other people into their sex lives??? 

I am in no way taking a dig at divorce here. I am simply trying to demonstrate that being a serial monogamist does not automatically make you better at commitment than someone who is polyamorous, in the same way that being polyamorous does not automatically make you less jealous than a person who is monogamous. I suppose if your definition of commitment involves being with one person at a time, it would be easy to view polyamory as the ultimate non-committal relationship style. At some point along the way, many of us learned to conflate the term “commitment” with “monogamy”, but commitment is about so much more than saying “I do” and it has nothing to do with the amount of partners you have. 

To me, commitment means being willing to put time and energy into nurturing each relationship, choosing to stick around when things get difficult, tackling challenges together, and working as a team to create meaningful relationships that benefit everyone involved, whether that is two people or ten. It’s not about blindly sticking with someone until the bitter end, no matter how bad things may get, but does involved some degree of not just cutting and running when things get hard. While some people prefer to commit to only one romantic partnership at a time, others may find they have the capacity and the desire to be committed to multiple relationships at once. For an extrovert like me who feels like she has so much love to give, the latter  is a very appealing option!

Neither approach is better than the other and neither is more or less committed than the other. As I like to say, it is the people in the relationships and not the relationship structure themselves that make them what they are. A relationship is committed if the people in the relationship are committed to each other, regardless of the number of people that includes.

I have watched some of my friends in polyamorous relationships navigate some extremely challenging situations in which they managed to stay connected and respectful of each other throughout. Any one of them could have easily backed out at any time and said “This is way too much work for me, see ya!”. But they stuck in there and worked through some really difficult shit together and are learning to renegotiate their relationship boundaries and hierarchies in a way that benefits everyone. Polyamory can be so much fun and so enriching for the people involved, but it can also take a hell of a lot of effort and emotional labour and if that doesn’t show real commitment to each other, then I’m not sure what does.

3. “People who are polyamorous must have really high sex drives” and “Polyamory is unsafe because people have multiple sexual partners”

Both of these assumptions about the connection between sex and polyamory are wrong. Sure, people who are polyamorous can certainly have higher sex drives, but so can monogamous people. While there are surely some folks who choose to become polyamorous because they desire sexual intimacy with more than one person, there are also lots of folks who are more focused on the possibility for multiple close, connected relationships. 

For me personally, choosing non-monogamy has little to do with my sex drive. Sure, I enjoy sex and like the idea of being able to be more open with who I connect with sexually, but that is not my main motivation for being polyamorous. I more resonate with the idea of being able to remain independent in my relationships, of choosing how I want to spend my time and with whom, of exploring being in love with more than one person concurrently, of having and nurturing multiple romantic relationships. Having sex with multiple partners is a part of that, but there is much more to being romantic and intimate with someone than the act of sex itself.

That is not to say that there are not people out there for whom sex is the main motivation. One of the awesome things about polyamory is that it can allow for couples with a mismatched sex drive to both have their needs met in different ways. If one person wants sex a lot more often than the other and can seek that sex outside of the relationship, it can allow both partners to have the amount of sex they want without either person feeling coerced or rejected. And maybe the partner with the lower sex drive craves more emotionally intimate relationships with others and they are free to seek those as well. As long as each person is clear about what they are looking for and communicates that clearly with each other and with their other partners, needs can be met in a way that works for everyone. 

Because we are taught that we all have one true love and should be happy and content having sex with just one person for the rest of our lives, many of us have come to believe that wanting to have sex with more than one person is somehow deviant or makes one “highly sexual”. It’s even worse for women, as men are expected to want to have lots of sex and “spread their seed” but women who want to have lots of sex are labeled as “slutty” and “promiscuous”. There is nothing wrong with either men or women for wanting lots of sex and there is also nothing wrong with wanting very little sex. Both are completely normal and healthy ways of being. And besides, who is it that gets to decide what constitutes “a lot of sex” versus “very little sex”? The trick in relationships is to find ways in which each person feels loved, satisfied, and has their boundaries respected, regardless of the relationship structure.

As for the sexual health aspect of this misconception, I get a real bee in my bonnet whenever people assume that being poly automatically means you are at a high risk for STIs. I mean, if you compare anyone who is only having sex with one person to anyone else who is having sex with multiple people, then sure, the risk is inherently higher for the person with multiple partners. But I know plenty of single people who have sex with near strangers without ever bringing up the topic of STI testing or birth control with them. And yet, when those single people find out that I am polyamorous, they are the ones asking me if I worry about one of my partners bringing home an STI.

Yes, you do have to be more careful and communicative about your sexual health when you have multiple partners. But most of the poly people I know are very on top of getting tested regularly, using condoms with other partners, and having conversations about sexual health before becoming intimate. Many couples even have specific boundaries set around these activities. That doesn’t mean all poly people are perfectly on top of these things, but neither are all monogamous people who happen to be single and sleeping with more than one person, or  people who are in supposedly monogamous relationships but are actually cheating on their partner.

4. “Only people who never get jealous can be polyamorous”

When I first began exploring polyamory, I thought it was a bad thing to feel jealous. I thought it was an “unenlightened” emotion and that I needed to get to a point where I had no attachments and no ego and never felt jealous. But here’s the thing – jealousy is a totally normal and common human emotion and it is not inherently wrong to feel it. It is how you deal with and communicate your jealousy to your partners that really matters. 

The behaviour I have a problem with, and have seen in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, is using jealousy to control a partner’s behavior. For example, if you start dating someone who has a close friend that they spend a lot of time with, and you feel jealous of that person, some people will ask their partner to end that friendship because it makes them uncomfortable. I have witnessed this scenario multiple times throughout my life and have seen important long-term friendships ended over a new partner’s jealousy. It frustrates me that someone would ask this of their partner, and it frustrates me even more that the partner would go along with it and end a meaningful relationship to appease someone they may have just met.

In my first post on polyamory, I wrote about jealousy and the ways in which polyamory encourages me to look inside and dig beneath that emotion to the feelings underneath. Because feeling jealous, whether your relationship is open or not, is usually about more than just your partner’s behaviour. It may stem from feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, trust issues, lack of connection, and so many other things. Sure, it may be that your partner is acting inappropriately and/or crossing a boundary you have set, but it may also be indicative of  something you need to explore within yourself and your relationship. 

Unfortunately, I think many people see acting out due to jealousy as a sign that their partner truly loves them because they can’t stand the thought of them with someone else. But getting angry and trying to control your partner is not a sign of romance, it is a sign of not being able to deal with one’s emotions in a mature and intelligent way. Of course it is hard to see the person you love being intimate or romantic with someone else. But just because it is hard does not mean you should do whatever you can to avoid that emotion. 

Jealousy is something that can be communicated, shared, and worked through together. There are so many ways to deal with jealousy that do not involve blaming your partner and making them responsible for your emotions. Experiencing jealousy does not mean that an open relationship is wrong for you, but I do think you have to be willing to examine your jealousy and deal with it in a mature and open way.

More misconceptions to come…

This post was originally called “Six common misconceptions about polyamory”, but I finished writing four and realized I had already filled up way too many pages. Plus, I know there are many more than six ways in which people misunderstand non-monogamy. So I will leave it here for now and tackle more misconceptions in a future post! I hope this has given you some things to think about and please do share if you have any thoughts about what I have written or other misconceptions that you may have encountered!