"Poly" is Real and It's Closer than You Think

Nicholas A. Natale, PhD

You may be brushing up against an iteration of the new sexual revolution without ever knowing it.

 In the day-to-day routine of life, in hushed tones spoken at work, and in marriages you would never expect, “poly” relationships are on the rise.  More individuals and couples are subtly morphing their traditional marriages into what’s called “polyamory.”

 My desire here is to bring awareness about polyamorous relationships and to describe some of the presumptions behind the choice that requires consideration when interacting with individuals in poly-type relationship. 

 Polyamory is not as straight-forward as you may first think.  It is a small but growing option considered by some as a viable alternative to the traditional marriage relationship. Essentially, it is a lifestyle in which a person, with the consent and support of one’s spouse/primary partner, may have more than one romantic relationship.

 Polyamory is distinguished from infidelity by the presence of open communication between spouse, partners, and lovers about the existence of each other and the nature of the relationship(s) in their lives.  Polyamory also differs from “swinging” in that, swinging typically emphasizes consensual, recreational sex with others in a party-like setting.  Polyamory is primarily a relationship-focused approach rather than a sexual-focused approach.  In such relationships, various emotional, physical, and sexual needs of the individual are met by a number of persons and relationships. 

 As you can imagine, arranging such a relationship between individuals takes a great deal of social skill, patience, openness, and trust.  In fact, these attribute provide support for choosing this lifestyle.  It is often observed that members of the polyamory lifestyle tend to gain a lot of practice at communicating their needs and negotiating arrangements that are satisfactory to all involved.  Since the 1970s, social researchers have noted that individuals in polyamory relationships report:

  • An increase in personal freedom
  • Greater depth of social relationships
  • Varied sexual exploration
  • Strengthening of spousal bonds
  • A sense of being desired
  • A feeling of belonging
  • Added companionship
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Intellectual variety
  • Consensual, honesty-based living

 Don’t be surprised if you are met with evidence of the strength of the marital bond that’s required in order to participate in such a complex relationship.  It’s not fantasy.  Couples and friend groups across the country are experimenting with and opting for some form of poly-relationship over the traditional marriage and/or traditional forms of sexual relationships.  Furthermore, they espouse that it is a satisfying and healthy alternative to the more restrictive, monogamous relationship of traditional marriages.  It has been my experience that proponents of this lifestyle will often point to examples of polyamorous relationships from the biblical text as a form of blessing their choice.

 TYPES OF POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS

 Polyamory takes a variety of forms.  Each form is adaptable to the particular desires, needs and agreements of the individuals involved.

 Primary-plus: A couple in a primary relationship (married or not) agrees to pursue additional relationships individually. 

 Triad: Three people develop a committed intimate relationship. The commitment level is equal between all three.  Triads are most often formed when an existing relationship expands to include a third person.

 Individual with Multiple Primaries: Think of a V configuration.  One person resides at the base of the V as the pivot point.  That person relates strongly to both partners.  However, the additional partner(s) do not relate strongly, if at all, to each other. 

 Intimate Networks: Intertwining connections between what is called “erotic friends” who have relationships of varying degrees of intimacy, intensity, and commitment.

 Poly-dating among Singles: Dating relationships which differ from traditional forms of “playing the field” in that the single individual is explicitly not searching for “Mr./Ms. One and Only” and generally makes full disclosure of intimate relationships. 

 Poly-mono: One partner is polyamorous while the other remains oriented towards exclusivity. 

 I have met with a number individuals and couples who are part of varying degrees of polyamorous relationships.  In addition, they are members of mainline churches in their respective communities.  They identify as Christian and regularly attend services.  I’m confident that you have as well. 

 A tight-knit group of high school friends who begin comparing and sharing sexual experiences between them.  Traditional forms of boyfriends/girlfriends relationships are very loosely observed within the group.   Often changes in partners are kept within confines of the members of the accepted group.  Sexual experiences are discussed openly. 

A husband openly requests of his wife permission to pursue other individuals as lovers of the same and opposite sex.  Permission is given in order to keep the peace, keep the family together, and to preserve discretion needed for appearance’s sake within the community. 

A wife no longer feels attracted to her husband.  She has no desire to be sexual with him or anyone else.  She wants to know if anyone else out there could “get her fire going again.”  But she doesn’t want to have a secretive, destructive affair or keep her husband from pursuing his sexual desires with others.  Instead, they agree to pursue other lovers openly and even introducing them to and seeking approval of their spouse before going too far. 

 Have you encountered polyamorous relationships?

 TALKING WITH POLYAMOROUS COUPLES

 A couple of things to consider when you discover someone you know is in a poly relationship.   

 Think before you speak.  Think through your response to polyamorous relationships more broadly than simply disagreeing with it from a biblical perspective.  What are your own feelings on the subject?  What biases from your own relationship do you bring?  Consider the reasons behind why a couple may enter into a poly relationship? 

 Listen with respect.  Make time to listen for understanding to their reasoning behind their choice and the particular form of polyamorous relationship they are in or what has been proposed.  If you get the opportunity to discuss this form of relationship with someone, they are entrusting a great deal with you and taking a significant risk of destabilizing a set of complex agreements between several people. 

 It’s not about sex.  Ensure to not group everyone who may identify as poly with the same broad stroke or let your own fantasy life get ahead of you.  There are numerous forms of poly relationships beyond what was introduced here.  In addition, it's not simply a "sexual thing" for everyone involved.  It’s more complicated than you think. 

 Don't jump to conclusions.  Despite your objection to their choice, their choice does not represent a deficiency in their capacity to form a healthy relationship with others.  In addition, despite popular belief, it rarely stems from abuse or some deficiency in their ability to form lasting emotional bonds. 

 ARE THEY ON TO SOMETHING HERE? 

 One significant aspect of polyamorous relationships is the desire to have emotional and physical needs met by a number of individuals.  A traditional monogamous relationship is perceived as insufficient.  The concept of relying on a single individual to meet all the emotional and physical needs of a person throughout one’s lifetime seems naive and unrealistic.  It's recognition of the difficulty to have all of your needs met even within the best growing, striving marriage.  

 I happen to agree with them in this regards: it is impossible to rely on anyone to meet all emotional and physical needs met by your spouse.  It is naive and unrealistic to think that one person, even your God-given spouse could.  Your spouse can not meet all of your needs.  If you are looking for him or her to do so, you will be severely disappointed.  However, that's true regardless if you have one partner or several.  Relying on others to meet all of your needs leaves you wanting.  Polyamorous relationships are not the answer either. 

 Mark and Debbie Laaser, in their book Seven Desires: Looking past what separates us to learn what connects us, provide an excellent picture of what it means for those in committed relationships to look to Christ for the complete fulfillment of your needs.  It is true that every one of us possess deep emotional and physical and spiritual needs.  The need to be heard and understood.  The need to accepted.  The need to be affirmed.  The Laasers present seven basic needs of everyone that speak to the heart of healing deep seeded pain.  It is an amazing book and I have used it for years with clients in my practice.  I commend it to you wholeheartedly. 

The singular point made by the Laasers is that Christ, through his work on the cross and resurrection, is the ultimate provider of our needs, not other fallen individuals including our spouses.  Recall the words of Christ recorded in Matthew 11,

 “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

And again to the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12), Jesus spoke of the all sufficiency of Himself,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

 Even so, I am grateful that our spouses can be used by Christ to meet our emotional and physical needs through Christ.  We look to Christ with grateful hearts that he has placed someone with whom we can share our lives and very souls with everyday.   

 POLYAMOROUS OR POLLYANNA?   

 At the end of the day, polyamorous relationships tend to be more "Pollyanna" than anything else.  Often presented as the higher evolved form of relationships in our day of sex-positive and self-aware freedom, our approach to interacting to polyamorous individuals and couples will be more God-honoring when we do so in an informed and respectful manner.

 I would love to hear your thoughts. 

 For more information on this subject, feel free to contact Dr. Nic Natale at nicnatale@palmettocounseling.com.  Learn more about Nic Natale and his practice at nicnatale.com or @natalephd on Twitter. 

 A portion of this paper was adapted from the article, What Psychology Professionals need to Know about Polyamory Relationships.