Written by Paula Brečak for Self Studies
Someone - name it society, religion, or patriarchy - built a box and put love in it. Said: “Here is love, inside this box of rules and boundaries. Anything outside of it is perversion and lust.” But here we are, peering out of the box, realizing there is love beyond it, finding out that love can and does exist outside of the norms set up by society, religion, and patriarchy. We could call it modern love, though there is really nothing modern about love itself. What is modern is our acceptance of love forms beyond the social norms. These norms dictate that love should be between one man and one woman, registered in a marriage, and should last a lifetime. More and more people are questioning this model, and more and more people are living their love outside of it by engaging in various forms of consensual non-monogamous relationships.
Non-monogamy is not foreign to our society, although we like to pretend it is. The most common form of non-monogamy in Western societies is cheating. To differentiate themselves, those who practice non-monogamy openly and consensually often utilize the terms ethical non-monogamy or consensual non-monogamy. This sort of naming, however, could be contested, since it implies that non-monogamy is unethical and non-consensual by default. While cheating is the most widespread type of engaging in non-monogamous relationships, the default that we should push for in love and relationships, monogamous or not, should be honesty and trust. As this article showcases several forms of non-monogamous dynamics, it includes precisely those that hold up honesty, trust, and consent as their main pillars.
Relationships, of whichever type, are ultimately defined by the people involved. While love has been pushed within the box of heteronormativity and compulsory monogamy, it would not be correct to say that all monogamous relationships are identical. In the same sense, it is not the easiest to present types of non-monogamous relationships, their rules and parameters, since it is only the people within the relationship who can really set these. However, there are some broad strokes within which the researchers, literature, and pop culture have framed non-monogamy.
Let us start off easy and as most people often do when they begin exploring non-monogamy - with an open relationship. This dynamic still takes monogamy as a default, but allows it little tweaks. At the heart of the relationship is a couple and the openness of the relationship is exhibited by them being intimate with other people. While this sounds straightforward, it is often not. Open relationships can take infinite forms and can mean anything from “we kiss other people while traveling separately” to “we have casual threesomes and go to sex parties and swing together” or “we each have regular sex with a friend”.
The staple of the open relationship is that it is only the sex that is open and the couple often stay emotionally monogamous. This can be tricky, because how can you guarantee not to fall for someone, especially if you are being sexual with them? For this reason, people in open relationships can set boundaries that aim to prevent an emotional bond from forming with someone else. These can include having sex only with strangers, avoiding kissing, or not having sex with the same person twice.
But what happens if, regardless of all the boundaries and precautions, someone still falls in love? We could go down numerous paths of possible scenarios, but one of the possible solutions is to perhaps become polyamorous.
Polyamory literally translates to many loves. Fundamentally, that is exactly what polyamory is. It holds that (some) people are able to be romantically involved and love multiple persons simultaneously. And if they do, polyamorous people embrace this experience and thrive, basking in love, intimacy, and closeness coming at them from all sides. While people in open relationships aim to inhibit love from forming, people in polyamorous relationships welcome it. Polyamory sees love as an inexhaustible resource and believes that feeling love can only produce more love to be felt and spread amongst partners.
Polyamory does a very good job at challenging heteronormativity and compulsory monogamy. It de-centers the couple and centers the community within which everyone can connect with anyone else. That being said, there are various polyamorous styles which emphasize connections and dynamics in different ways. Hierarchical polyamory creates a hierarchy amongst partners and would often mean that there is one or more primary partners, while all other partners come in secondary (or tertiary). As polyamorous people believe that love is broad and encompassing, hierarchy is not really about who you love more. Instead, it is about who you share most of your life with and who you perceive as your life partner. Non-hierarchical polyamory dismisses such hierarchisation and aims to establish the same dynamic amongst all partners, regardless of living arrangements or the longevity of a relationship. There is no prioritizing one relationship over others.
While polyamorous relationships can mean being a part of multiple couples at the same time, they can also mean forming a throuple or a quad - a relationship including three or four (or more) people where everyone is involved with everyone else. You can keep your various partners completely separate, or form one big close-knit group in what is termed kitchen table polyamory, where all partners gather together at the metaphorical kitchen table. And this is only scratching the surface of what a polyamorous dynamic could be like. When we allow ourselves and each other to fall in love and closeness with multiple people, ways in which we can shape those relationships only multiply.
Modern love is not about new forms of love being invented. It is about creating space for all the love that is already here, but has been ignored and shunned. Non-monogamous relationships decenter the couple as the only space that can hold love, passion, and intimacy. They deconstruct the box in which love has been put, and show there are really no set rules to how our relationships should be. We are the ones who get to decide the form our love and relationships take. So if the only defaults were honesty, consent, and trust, what would your relationship look like?
Where does polygamy fit?
Sometimes polygamy is used as a synonym for polyamory or non-monogamy. While polygamy is surely one type of non-monogamy, it is a category completely detached from open relationships or polyamory. Polygamy refers specifically to multiple spouses and is found in traditional non-Western societies. Polyamory, on the other hand, directly challenges traditional norms and is found in Western societies, where having multiple spouses is currently illegal. While polyamory and polygamy both belong within non-monogamy, they have evolved out of very different reasons and social dynamics.