Polyamory: Rebooting Our Definitions Of Love And Family

When most people think of long-term, multiple-partner relationships, the only thing that comes to mind is probably patriarchal, religion-based polygamy of the Sister Wives and Big Love variety. In actuality, however, there are a sizable number of people living in far more egalitarian polyamorous relationships: folks with two or more romantic partners, in all imaginable combinations of genders and sexual orientations. And while many people associate the whole idea of polyamory with a free-for-all, no-strings-attached approach to relationships, the reality is that many of us in polyamorous relationships are committed to multiple partners, living together as a family, and even raising children.

There is no firm agreement even amongst polyamorous folks as to a precise definition of “polyamory.” But the basic idea is that identifying a relationship as polyamorous implies at least the potential to simultaneously love multiple partners, as opposed to relationships that are “open” in a strictly sexual sense. And it is continually surprising to me that people, in general, seem far more able to accept the possibility of sharing a partner sexually than they are able to accept the possibility of having multiple loves. It says a great deal about our society’s rigid definition of romantic love that people are able to somewhat easily accept the concept of sexually open relationships—and even dishonest infidelity—while insisting that it cannot be possible to actually love multiple partners simultaneously. Frustratingly, I have been told on more than one occasion that what I share with my partners cannot, by definition, be love, as if anyone can define for others what love is and what it is not. These attitudes strike me as incredibly reminiscent of a society that—30 years ago—viewed same-sex relationships only as a deviant sexual behavior. And yet dismissal and disapproval of my relationships often comes from those who support LGBTQ equality, who claim to be open-minded and progressive.

Currently, I am in two relationships, both of which I consider myself committed to for life. My husband and I will be celebrating 10 years of marriage—15 total years as a couple—this year, and we have an 8-year-old daughter together. My boyfriend doesn’t live with us yet, but we have plans to all live together in the not-so-distant future, and there’s been much talk of adding more children to our family as well. My daughter is well aware of the nature of my relationships, which I do not keep hidden from anyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people raise concerns about the well-being of children in polyamorous families. Some seem concerned that the kids in these situations are growing up with inappropriate ethics, which is a lot like warning same-sex couples that their children will grown up thinking it’s OK to be gay. I’m thrilled that my daughter, and any future children I might have, will grow up knowing that there is more than one way to form a loving relationship. Other people seem convinced that the children are somehow being exposed to sexuality in an unhealthy way, just one of many sentiments that betrays a fixation on the sexual aspect of any alternative relationships. My daughter sees the same kinds of affection between my boyfriend and I that she sees between her father and I; in other words, the kind of affection that’s completely appropriate for 8-year-old eyes. And still others worry about a lack of stability for children in polyamorous homes, a concern which strikes me as particularly ironic in our 21st century world of oft-divorcing parents and blended families. If we find it acceptable for single parents to date, to bring new love interests into their children’s homes and lives, is it such a stretch to imagine that non-single parents might conceivably be able to do the same thing, without any greater or less risk of instability?

From my perspective, being in a polyamorous family has a lot to offer both children and parents. Children benefit from having additional trusted adults who care for them, parents benefit from sharing the burdens of parenting among more than just two people. And while I would make no claims that polyamory is inherently and necessarily revolutionary with regard to gender roles, there is something to be said for the possibilities it opens up in that respect. When we shift away from families with one mother and one father, it can become easier to also shake up the roles and expectations associated with those labels. I believe in the sentiment that it takes a village to raise a child, particularly if women are to function as equals in society while also caring for young children. Multi-parent households are certainly not the only way of more equitably dividing parental tasks, but they do offer one model for doing so. 

Aside from concerns about children, questions about my relationships often revolve around the more practical concerns: How do you deal with jealousy? How do you divide your time between two partners? Isn’t there an excess of drama? I’m happy to have those conversations with people, and to point them to excellent resources that already exist on such topics (I highly recommend morethantwo.com as a starting point). At the same time, I do not want acceptance and validation of my family to hinge on whether or not people are able to understand and relate to every bit of the inner workings. After all, how many of us will ever truly understand any relationships other than our own? What I want, quite simply, is for people—especially those who would claim to be progressive—is to understand and accept that relationships like ours can and do exist, quite happily. And I think it’s possible for people to accept that even if they think we’re strange, even if they cannot comprehend wanting a life like ours.

I don’t know that there’s any way to offer a universal definition of romantic love; I certainly don’t claim to be up to the task. What I do know is that my partners, while vastly different from one another, share several important qualities. They are my two best friends in the world. They are both men I can sit up all night talking with. They are both men who support and embrace my feminism. They are both men who I laugh with almost every single day. They both make me feel loved, respected, and desired. And I can say with as much certainty as it is ever possible to have about such things that I am madly in love with them both, and want to live the rest of my life with them both by my side.

As is the case with same-sex relationships, I have never heard a real argument against polyamory that is not ultimately rooted in either religious belief or in some abstractly socially conditioned notion of what constitutes a “real,” “natural,” or “healthy” relationship. People ask: Why should one be entitled to have more than one partner? But it never occurs to anyone to ask why we shouldn’t be entitled to such a thing—assuming, of course, enthusiastic consent from all individuals involved. I don’t long for a world in which monogamy is obsolete. But I do long for a world in which we can see the value and possibility of many different ways of forming relationships, and in which we can each freely form our own decisions about the kind of family we’d like to create.

Angi Becker Stevens lives in the metro-Detroit area, where she is an active member of The Organization for a Free Society. Her writing on feminism and other forms of social justice has appeared in such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. Her first collection of short fiction will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books.

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