Poly 3: Polyamory with Structure
- Polyamory – the non-possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously. Polyamory emphasizes consciously choosing how many partners one wishes to be involved with rather than accepting social norms which dictate loving only one person at a time.
- Open Relationship – a relationship in which the partners decide that they can have sexual relations outside of the relationship. Partners have agreed that they can have sexual relations independently of each other.
- Swingers/Swinging – A form of sexual encounter that usually involves a couple including others into the bedroom. There is usually no emotional attachment in this form.
These definitions are from More than Two, which is a site designed to help folks who want to begin exploring polyamory. It’s more comprehensive than my articles, and it also comes from the perspective of someone who is polyamorous. If you are interested in learning more than I’ve laid out here, please visit!
Today, I’m exploring the logistics of polyamory. I will cover topics such as rules/agreements and hierarchies. The people I interview, and by extension what I cover here, are just a few examples of what polyamory can look like. There are many different types of polyamory, and each relationship should cater to what the folks in that relationship need.
In addition to that caveat, there are other forms of non-monogamy such as open relationships and swinging (as found above). I don’t cover these extensively in this particular series, but I may in the future. I just have to meet more people who are in these relationships first.
Within a lot of polyamorous relationships, there is a specific hierarchy built in. I use the term cloud to describe a group of people connected through polyamorous relationships. I heard this term off-hand a long time ago and I can’t remember who or when. However, with clouds being changing structures, and not an offensive term, it makes sense to me. This cloud hierarchy allows partners to manage time in a healthy way and create clear boundaries. In these types of structures, it helps keep every one the same page and often makes for a healthier relationship.
When I discuss “two people” in a polyamorous relationship, I’m usually referring to two people who see each other as the primary partners in their relationship. For example, Harry and Minerva have a base relationship, which (from my perspective) branches off from them. They are the primaries in their cloud and much of their attention will be on each other. However, both Harry and Minerva have secondary partners that they will give a significant amount of attention as well. These are the main folks in this cloud, but there are others involved. Harry and Minerva also have couples they play with irregularly. It was my impression that these couples were for casual play and did not take a significant amount of time or energy from the primary and secondary relationships.
Epiphora expressed a problem with the wording of this system, because these words “can be divisive and hurtful.” However, she operates with these ideas in her relationships due to the ease of use. As she says, “I have a partner with whom I owns a home, and a partner who lives separately.” Because of this, there is an automatic line between the two relationships she is in.
Open Relationship Hierarchies
This labeling of multiple relationships is common in a lot of polyamorous couples, but it works differently for others. Open relationships, for example are usually based less on this idea of primary versus secondary.
In the case of Ginny, who travels around the country, sometimes with and sometimes without her boyfriend, the open relationship is set up in a Primary versus All Other Relationships. Ginny and her boyfriend Albus have only each other as a stable relationship. The other people who come in are typically for casual sex, or one night stands. This lack of an emotional commitment makes their relationship less of a hierarchy with steps and more like a…dictatorship? One relationship to rule them all?
I wouldn’t want anyone to feel misrepresented, so let’s just say that their relationship is Primary as compared to Casual Partners. This is typical of Open Relationships, but I do want to emphasize that every relationship is different. In order to be healthy, it has to serve the needs of the parties involved. If it’s unhealthy for one of the other, it’s time to reevaluate or let it go.
In a difference to idea of hierarchy, we have Ronnie and Cornelius. These two were in a relationship that was both physical and emotional, but both agreed that it was no more (or less) important than their other relationships. Both parties were free to find other partners emotionally and physically when they chose, without consulting the other.
This worked well because there was no default primary in this relationship. Both parties lived independently, unlike Epiphora’s situation. Because everyone was on level footing, it opened opportunities for both parties to explore relationships without explaining a primary.
There is no right way to structure a relationship with more than two people involved. In fact, there’s only one wrong way: If the relationship is structured without communication, consent and openness. (I talk about these things a lot. That’s a hint that they are very important.)
Everyone I interviewed had one unifying opinion on rules: This is a bad word. A lot of people look to polyamory because monogamy feels closed off. The word “rule” seems to have the same effect on relationships.
Harry uses very few “rules” and in his relationship, there are “agreements” instead. His reason is beautifully worded: “When you have rules, the trust is built on the assumption that your partner will follow them. With agreements, the trust is built on the assumption that your partner will do what’s best for your relationship.”
This is a remarkable idea, in my opinion. In this way, folks in polyamorous relationships are held accountable in a way that monogamous folks don’t think of often. When something goes wrong, it begins a conversation to fix something that one or both parties may have been unaware of. I will discuss this idea in detail in another post in this series.
With this said, there is a rule that most of the folks I interviewed enforced in their relationships: safe sex. Every couple has enforced the use of barriers (such as condoms and dental dams) in their sexual encounters. It’s a bit more complicated for someone in a polyamorous relationship to be fluid-bonded to a partner because the sexual environment is larger on a regular basis. None of my interviewees discussed being fluid-bonded, though I have met polyamorous couples who are.
The other common rule that comes up is communication. Harry and Minerva update each other on their whereabouts and who they are with. Harry describes this as a courtesy more than an “agreement.” Luna talked about this, and a few other agreements that had to do with honesty and respect of boundaries. These agreements run along the lines of informing each other of new partners, informing new partners of the primary relationship, and being open with issues and feelings.
Luna wanted me point out that openness and communication is important in any intimate relationship. A monogamous couple might break up because there was a problem wasn’t resolved, and resentment grew. This concept is emphasized so much in polyamory because there are more than two people involved, so there is more room for miscommunication. I know of one polyamorous cloud (involving four people) who met once a season to talk about the relationships and how everyone felt within them. It was efficient for all folks to get the support they needed and resolve conflicts that came up in between.
In short, it seems easy to over-extend yourself in a polyamorous relationship. This can put a strain on partners, and take away energy from other matters like work or hobbies. Many polyamorous clouds use a structure to ensure that all needs are met and all partners are fulfilled within the relationships.
This is the part three in a six-part series! Here are the rest!