Polyamory: loving without limitation

A symbolic representation of polyamory

Illustration: Shen Scott

 

DISCLAIMER: A previous version of this article was erroneous. We apologise for any offence caused and have corrected the article. 


  

JARED DE CANHA

 

For the majority of people in conventional, monogamous relationships, the thought of entering into another relationship at the same time would be considered infidelity. For many, there is no way of having a romantic relationship with more than one person at a time without being accused of having a wandering eye. Enter polyamory, a relationship orientation which allows participants to engage in more than one romantic relationship at a time.

 

The word “polyamory” is derived from Greek and Latin and loosely translates to “many loves”, denoting a romantic relationship which involves more than two people at the same time. Polyamory, as described by the website of umbrella organisation South African Polyamory, is a relationship orientation where there can be multiple intimate relationships at a time, provided that all of the parties involved acknowledge and consent to this.

 

In an article published by The Guardian on 25 April 2015 titled “A tale of two lovers (or three, or four): the truth about polyamory”, written by Emer O’Toole, the question of defining polyamory is addressed. According to O’Toole, who leads a polyamorous lifestyle herself, it is easier to define polyamory by excluding what it isn’t from the definition. “Polyamory isn’t cheating, lying or having a disregard for the agreements you share with the people you love, and it certainly isn’t positioning monogamous people as more blind traditionally or less emotionally involved than yourself,” O’Toole explains. Others disagree with this, explaining there is a clear and simple definition of polyamory. Cherie ve Ard and Franklin Veaux define it as the practice of honestly, responsibly, non-possessively and ethically loving multiple people simultaneously, by consciously choosing how many partners one wishes to have and rejecting the social norms of loving only one person at a time.

The foundation of a healthy polyamorous relationship, according to the South African Polyamory organisation, is good communication and honesty. Rules are established in these relationships and are not much different to the rules present in a traditional monogamous relationship, except for the fact that more than two people are involved. Rules are unique to each polyamorous relationship, as there are many relationship models for polyamory.

 

Polyfidelity is one model possibly closest to a typical monogamous relationship. In these relationships, agreement is reached by the group not to seek any more relationships than are currently active. According to the Veaux, no one in a polyfidelity relationship may take an “outside lover”, because this constitutes cheating in the same way it would if the relationship was monogamous. “Cheating, if anything, is a more serious offence in a polyfidelity relationship than in a monogamous relationship because if you cheat, you are betraying more than one person’s trust,” Veaux explains.

 

In other polyamorous relationships, however, the participants involved may take “outside lovers” under certain circumstances, which often is only allowed if the “outside lover” is approved by all of the parties involved beforehand and if that person understands the nature of the polyamorous relationship they are entering into. The rules of these relationships can be quite flexible, as long as they are made by all of the parties involved. The individual relationships within a polyamorous network may also be complex. One model includes a primary couple, often spouses, who have secondary relationships with “outside lovers”. However, it is important to note that these relationships are not of secondary importance or that these secondary partners are less valued or contribute less. These secondary relationships are referred to as “secondary” only because there is less involvement in the partners’ daily lives than in a marriage, by comparison. These relationships simply have different parameters and goals in comparison to the primary relationship.

 

The terms “polyamory” and “polygamy” are often mistakenly used interchangeably, and while both lifestyle choices involve non-monogamy or multiple relationships with different partners, the difference between the two is that polygamy involves having multiple spouses, while polyamory, despite having married members who practise this lifestyle choice, focuses less on marriage and more on multiple loving relationships. Polyamory also focuses on the ethical practice of non-monogamy, where individuals of both sexes are equally represented in the relationship and where both have the right to take additional partners. Opposingly, polygamy has historically been seen as unethical non-monogamy as only the male or female are given the right to take multiple spouses. Today, however, this is not necessarily the case.

 

Polygamy itself has a well-documented history in the East and in Africa. In his research on the Cape Malays, Prof. du Plessis from the University of Cape Town documented the practice of polygamy in the Muslim faith. A similar practice has also been observed in the Hindu faith, where a Hindu man is permitted by his religious code to take on a second wife if his first wife is unable to produce a male heir, subject to the consent of the first wife. Polygamous marriages have also been a vital component in the cultures of many African communities, and this is why polygamous marriages are recognised in terms of South African customary law.

 

When asked to account for the alleged increase in cases of polyamory, in light of the well-documented history of polygamy, Dr Glen Ncube, a professor in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at UP, explained that this perceived increase in cases of multiple relationships was not actually an increase in new cases, but an exposition of pre-existing practices in our society brought to light through the rise of social media. Dr Ncube also suggested that the history of the practice of polygamy in African customs and traditions is still relevant today if, for example, one considers the polygamous lifestyle choice of our current president, Jacob Zuma. Dr Ncube also stated that more tolerance is now afforded to models differing from the staunch monogamous model established in the West in the past few centuries. How tolerable others are of polyamory is, however, debated as witnessed by the fact that polyamorous relationships are not yet afforded the rights that monogamous relationships have.

 

In a 2010 article written by Dr Deborah Anapol titled “Love without limits: the upside of polyamory” published in Psychology Today, Dr Anapol examines the benefits associated with a polyamorous lifestyle. One such benefit is that polyamory helps individuals to become emotionally stronger and more emotionally stable. Dr Anapol explains that, “Because multiple-partner relationships are inherently more complex and demanding than monogamous ones and because they challenge the norms of our culture, they offer other valuable learning opportunities, including lessons about loving yourself, about tolerance for diversity, and about speaking from the heart and communicating clearly.” Dr Anapol also believes that polyamorous relationships may be beneficial when it comes to raising families, and said that, “Multiple-adult families and committed intimate networks have the potential of providing dependent children with additional, nurturing adults who can meet their material, intellectual and emotional needs. More adults sharing parenting can mean less stress and less burnout without losing any of the rewards.”

 

In addressing the other side of the coin, Dr Anapol has also examined the disadvantages of a polyamorous lifestyle in her article, “The downside of polyamory”. The first issue which was identified is the fear of social disapproval and discrimination, which emanates from the difference this lifestyle choice has in comparison to the well-established monogamous model. Other difficulties which Dr Anapol identified as inherent to this lifestyle choice include the prevalence of jealousy, time demands, and the emotional complexity of interacting intimately with multiple people. There is also an increased risk of exposure to STIs due to the number of partners involved in this lifestyle.

 

However, many polyamorous individuals are quick to point out that because their relationships focus on honesty and responsibility, jealousy and STIs are not an issue for them. Honesty facilitates the ability to voice your feeling of jealousy, uncover the source of it and make amends as well as communicate about STIs and protection against them. This is why good communication is important in any polyamorous relationship. Many studies actually point to a lower rate of STIs in polyamorous relationships than in monogamous ones. Some polyamorous individuals explain that feelings of jealousy are forgotten in light of the joy they experience while experiencing another’s joy, often felt when seeing their loved ones experience love from others. This feeling is known as compersion, and is contrary to feelings of jealousy.

 

South Africa has a closeted polyamorous following, with a number of organisations across the country such as South African Polyamory and University of Cape Town-based group, Poly-A-Non. These groups have regular events where pertinent issues can be discussed in the safety of the polyamorous community. These groups also aim to facilitate growth and understanding of polyamory.

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