By its most basic definition, polyamory is the practice of engaging in more than one simultaneous romantic relationship, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. But one of the most awesome and also the most challenging things about polyamory is that there is no one way to do it. Unlike traditional relationships, there is also no simple social script to follow, no built-in notion of what it means to be someone’s girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse. Stepping outside of the normal model forces everyone involved in poly relationships to communicate very clearly about what their desires and expectations are within in the relationship. By its very nature, polyamory resists a simple and singular definition.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that sometimes debate rages about what the word “polyamory” means. Personally, I’m not a big fan of trying to tell other people how they can and cannot identify themselves. At the same time, though, I do think there’s a point at which it matters for a word to have a clear meaning, especially when people are fighting for acceptance and awareness of a particular identity. Some people use the word “polyamory” as a catch-all to include all kinds of (open and honest) non-monogamous practices; others feel it should be reserved only for those maintaining multiple serious, committed relationships, and should never include “casual” sex. Myself, I tend to favor more expansive definitions rather than restrictive ones. But there is a place where I feel a need to draw a line in the sand.
By my definition, “polyamory” means that there is at least the possibility of non-monogamous relationships becoming something more than strictly sexual. I don’t think that means all relationships must necessarily be of the emotionally intimate, committed variety in order to claim the label “polyamorous;” just like people who are ultimately interested in monogamous relationships, people in poly relationships are human beings with a wide range of sexual/romantic interests and desires–we’re not all just looking to fall madly in love and settle down at all points in our lives. The only type of non-monogamous relationship I’m willing to exclude from the polyamory camp is the kind of relationship where people are only permitted to seek sex–not love–outside of their existing relationship.
It’s important to be clear, though, that excluding some kinds of relationships from the definition of polyamory doesn’t mean that I think they’re somehow inferior, they’re simply a different flavor of non-monogamy. Plenty of people have arrangements like this, where they’re allowed to be sexually non-monogamous but not to develop any romantic emotional attachments to their other sexual partners. I’m all for such arrangements as long as they work well and are fulfilling for everyone involved; I’m strongly supportive of any circumstances where people manage to negotiate the relationship terms that work best for their particular needs and desires. I certainly don’t believe in privileging any one form of non-monogamy over any other–we should all be allies in advocating for the ability to form relationships however we see fit. But I also believe it can be useful to acknowledge and identify the differences in our various non-monogamous practices while still being respectful and supportive of one another.
The bottom line, I suppose, is that if someone you know or are interested in becoming involved with identifies as polyamorous, you can’t simply rely on an assumption about precisely what that means. Personally, I’m in two committed, long-term relationships, neither of which I see as “primary” over the other. In poly-lingo, our relationship is called a “V” with me at the vertex and my two partners at the ends; the word “triad” typically refers to situations where all 3 folks are romantically involved with one another. Some poly folks have “closed” agreements–often called “poly-fidelity”–that that they will not date or become intimate with others outside of a committed group of 3 or 4 (or more). Some maintain a “primary” relationship–often a marriage–as well as other “secondary” relationships which are emotionally attached but less central to their lives. And these are just a few common examples. Ultimately, if you want to know exactly what polyamory means to someone in your life, the best thing to do is ask. I can’t speak for all of us, but I can’t imagine any poly folks would be offended by a genuine attempt at deeper understanding.