- Marco_Piunti / Getty
- Polyamory is not a legally protected status, like being straight or gay. You can lose your job for being polyamorous. Courts can use it against you in child custody proceedings.
- Polyamory and non-monogamy take many different forms.
- For instance, egalitarian polyamory means not having a primary partner at all, and there are many asexual people who are polyamorous.
About five years ago, Cameron Mckillop was talking to a friend at work, when an older woman came up to them and abruptly put an end to their conversation.
“[She] loudly told the other girl to stay away from me or I’d take her back home and make her another one of my wives,” Mckillop told INSIDER.
“The friendship never really recovered, and after that most of the women in that class and then on the call floor wouldn’t interact with me. Also, the older lady would always look daggers in my direction whenever I was near her.”
Mckillop is polyamorous, which means he has multiple partners. Polyamory and other types of non-monogamy are an alternative to what Amy Gahran, a writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado, calls the “relationship escalator.”
When people say they are “in a relationship,” they are generally referring to being one of a couple. They progress from the initial spark, to dating, to having sex, becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting married, and so on.
“That was so hammered into me from everything I saw around me that it didn’t occur to me that any other model was viable,” Gahran told INSIDER. “But as young as 12 or 13 I was imagining relationships that worked in very different ways.”
But although awareness has come a long way in the 20 years Gahran has been in the non-monogamous community, there are still misconceptions. And these misconceptions can lead to judgment, abuse, and even legal problems.
“Being polyamorous in particular, or otherwise consensually non-monogamous, at least in the US, is not a protected status,” Gahran said. “It is something you can get fired for. It is something that can jeopardize child custody arrangements, it can complicate divorce proceedings, it can complicate people’s ability to get access to jobs or education.”
Is having a primary partner ethical?
Gahran now lives as a solo-polyamorist, meaning she has more than one lover at a time, but leads an independent life and doesn’t consider herself to be part of any couples. She also practices egalitarian polyamory, which means there are no primary or secondary partners in her relationships.
“The first thing that I notice as a solo-poly person, is the presumption that polyamory equals couple plus,” Gahran said. In other words, that polyamory starts from a couple who opens up their relationship.
“And it may be anything from a casual relationship to a ‘third’ who moves in with them and joins their relationship,” she added.
“Notice these words – whose relationship? The point I’m getting to there is that a couple plus implies hierarchy, that polyamory is mostly by and for previously established couples who want to, for whatever reasons, have adjuncts to their relationship.”
Many people are fine with this set up, she said, but it’s not the only way that polyamory works.
Author and relationship coach Dedeker Winston currently has two partners and a third person who she’s just started seeing, and she doesn’t consider anyone her primary partner.
“There’s definitely an ongoing debate around whether or not hierarchy in relationships is ethical,” she told INSIDER. “Can one person dictate what I am and what I’m allowed to do in another relationship? Is it possible to put caps on how close a person is allowed to get to another person? It starts to bring up a lot of these questions.”
At the moment, Winston spends part of the year with her partner Alec, and part of it with Jase, who she and her other friend Emily host a podcast with called Multiamory. A man with two women talking about polyamory often gains a lot of attention, because people assume they must be a triad.
When they describe what’s actually going on – that it’s more complicated and more interesting than that – they lose interest.
“That tends to be what the media wants to gravitate towards,” Winston said. “Consequently, that means a lot of people’s conceptions about polyamory is either it’s a more destabilized version of married monogamy, or it’s these people who want to have threesomes all the time, or a guy who just wants to have a harem.”
These things definitely exist, she added, but it’s certainly not representative for everyone, and that can get frustrating for people in the non-monogamous community.
For example, there are many asexual and demisexual people who consider themselves polyamorous. These are people who don’t really consider sex part of how they form romantic relationships, or don’t feel sexual desire whatsoever.
“Polyamory allows them to get a variety of their needs met, but also have partners who are still sexual people,” said Winston. “People tend to assume it’s a kinky thing and you’re just having a bunch of sex, but clearly it’s not, because there are a lot of people who have no interest in sex who are still flocking to this kind of relationship structure.”
As Gahran puts it: “A lot of people want to focus on who are you f——.
“Who I’m having sex with is only one way that I’m intimate and interdependent with other people while maintaining my own home base, while keeping my feet under me, while being resilient,” she said.
“If you want to think really, really, really hard about relationships, take sex and/or romance out of the picture, then you have to consider why people are really connecting with each other.'”
There are many different ways to be non-monogamous
The way polyamory and non-monogamy does often work is like with constellations or polycules, which refers collectively to all of the people who are in a relationship with one or more other members of the group.
For instance, Winston is dating Jase who has another partner, but Winston is only friends with her. Jas e’s partner is also seeing someone else.
“It becomes something that’s hard to translate into a written media without having to get out a whiteboard,” Winston said.
- Unicornland / YouTube
There are also polyaffective families, which is a term coined by Eli Sheff, an academic expert on polyamory. This is the idea of maintaining a relationship outside of intimate relationships with everyone else you’re connected to – exes, co-parents, mutual friends, your partner’s other partner, and anyone else.
One partner in a polyamorous relationship may also identify as monogamous, and those are called poly-mono relationships. There isn’t any hard data on how successful this tends to be, Winston said, but there are some rather robust online communities of poly-mono people who are happy.
“I find with working with people, that tends to require both partners being really unconditionally understanding of the other’s needs,” she said. “I’ve also spoken to a number of monogamous people in poly-mono relationships who have come to terms with it and actually feel quite satisfied with it. That’s definitely not everybody but it seems like it is possible.”
Then there’s solo-polyamorists like Gahran, who foster connections with people and focus on strengthening them. She said she never sees dating as a numbers game.
“I’m out there meeting a lot of people and talking to a lot of people and I like to see how we will connect in various ways,” she said. “I just try to keep an open mind about it, and sometimes those relationships end up being sexually intimate, romantically intimate, very deeply emotionally intimate, and that’s good.”
Right now she has two lovers, but also has people in her life she considers her family of choice, including her former spouse.
“These were all relationships that developed and evolved gradually, over time, because I let them be what they were going to be and so did the other people involved,” she said.
Being open is good for awareness, but it can be dangerous
When Mckillop faced discrimination from a colleague at work, he said he wasn’t broadcasting his non-monogamy at all. He had just decided to be open about it, and “people tend to notice when you say ‘my wife’ and then ‘my girlfriend’ in quick succession.”
But really everyone is open about their sexual preferences when they mention someone they’re dating, their wife, their husband, or even the fact they have children.
“You mentioned that you’re married, do you think people don’t assume you’re f——?” she said. “Realize all the ways that the escalator and especially monogamy are privileged in this society. And don’t try to inadvertently stigmatize people who aren’t riding that escalator and give them room to speak their truth and be safe about it.”
Although people are a lot more open-minded than they once were, being polyamorous isn’t always safe. For instance, the biggest legal challenge can be child custody, said Winston.
“There has been, at least within the states, some really unfortunate precedents set for a grandparent or someone reporting parents as being unfit parents because they are polyamorous,” she said.
“Nobody is having sex in front of the children or anything like that. It’s just a very normal relationship. But you get judges who don’t know, they freak out, or they assume you’re into this weird kinky thing and you must have anormative values which means you must be an anormative parent, which must mean it’s a dangerous situation for your children to be in.”
That means people can choose to keep their private lives hidden because the risk is losing their child.
“But then secondarily, there [are] also reasons why people get really frustrated when they don’t feel like they’re being accurately represented,” Winston said. “These representations influence the assumptions that people make, you know … And consequently, that informs public opinion about things and that ends up informing things like social awareness and actual policy.”
After his experience, Mckillop said he hasn’t closed up about being polyamorous. If anything, he’s more open about it than he used to be.
“I wanted to change people’s minds … I don’t hide it at all these days. Unless I have partners who are not ‘out’,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’ve been around long enough to have an opinion on how people used to be … I think in general right now people are respectful even if they don’t understand.”