Ten years ago when I opened my marriage I settled on calling myself polyamorous. It seemed there were a lot of categories to choose from—swinging, polyfidelity, emotional poly, intentional family—all of which fell under the term “ethical non-monogamy,” which I personally found rather clinical and clunky. I labeled myself polyamorous because it’s direct translation—“loving many”—was exactly what I wanted. My husband and I also called our new open status “more amour”. Although we still adored each other after twenty years of marriage –our sex life was fairly dormant. When I came up with the more amour idea my husband’s first enthused words were: “Nice out of the box thinking!”
But as time passed and our open relationship evolved into something entirely different and unexpected—me with my new boyfriend, my husband and his new girlfriend, and all our kids living under pretty much one roof—I was told I no longer qualified as poly because my husband and I were still rather dormant sexually.
Not that I cared what anyone called me—what we were doing was liberating. It was exciting to make up our own rules and agreements. But to have some people in my poly community not consider me poly left me with a nagging insecurity. If I couldn’t do traditional marriage right and now I wasn’t doing polyamory right, where did that leave me? Who were my people? Who was there to support me?
After ten years of exploring openness and having “more amour” in my life I am here to tell you—it’s all good. As long as all parties are in agreement and it’s consensual—it doesn’t matter what you call yourselves. There are possibly infinite ways to set up your relationships—and they are equally valid. The way you set up your relationship(s) is personal and unique to you and your loved ones:
• Polyamory characterizes loving, romantic, and/or sexual relationships that happen consecutively with multiple partners.
• Ethical non-monogamy is a blanket term for all forms of transparent, consensual personal relationships in which some or all participants have multiple marital, sexual, and/or romantic partners and in which clear boundaries and agreements are observed
• Swinging is ethical non-monogamy usually involving a couple going to parties or dates together. Romantic love attachments are usually not a part of this lifestyle and swingers tend to be closeted i.e. not disclosing their lifestyle outside of their swinger community
• BDSM dates are playdates that involve bondage and discipline, roleplaying, fetishes and other BDSM activities, based on similar tastes in kink. These dates do not generally develop into committed relationships.
• Emotional polyamory characterizes romantic love relationships that don’t involve sex.
• Polyfidelity defines a group of polyamorous people who choose to be sexually active and romantic only within their group. The group is not open to others.
• Chosen family or intentional family is a group of people who have consciously decided to make themselves a family due to shared values, principles, and life vision and not necessarily by birth or marriage.
When I first opened my marriage, to me “polyamory” meant innovation in relationships. For me it was about getting to have more love, out in the light of day with no hiding or shame. It also meant thinking outside of the box, making it work for everyone involved—including (and especially) our children. To me the word exudes choice and the space to positively evolve.
There are people who “own” the word and want it to have specific parameters. And so that’s why I’ve come to love the phrase “ethical non-monogamy”—it’s so vague. Because if I have to put myself in a box it may as well be a big box with lots of elbow room. Ethical non-monogamy includes many different open, honest non-monogamy. The most important quality is that the people involved do so by their own free will–these relationships are consensual.
What does consensual mean? Why is consent so important?
Consensual relationships are based on agreements. No one opens a relationship on his or her own—it takes all parties involved to come to agreement. And not just in the beginning, but at all steps and stages of a relationship. It’s absolutely essential to check in and confirm: “I am still saying yes” or “This is no longer agreeable to me.” I sometimes get e-mails from people who write, “I am in an open relationship but my spouse doesn’t know about it.” Hmmm, that doesn’t sound like a consensual open relationship to me! That sounds like you hijacked your marriage—Newt Gingrich style.
Ethical non-monogamy has clear boundaries and parameters. As part of my pro-sex feminism and consensual philosophy—I cringe when I hear cheating in a relationship being equated with “open marriage” or polyamory—because both of those are based on a foundation of consent. Even thinking of ethical non-monogamy as “legalized cheating” is a misnomer. If all parties involved are consciously agreeing– how is that cheating? Cheating involves lying and betrayal—exactly the opposite of ethical non-monogamy. But in this mononormative world sometimes it is more understandable and less frightening to hear someone has cheated as opposed to an open relationship. If you are cheating– at least you are trying to be monogamous—which is considered the absolute correct state!
But in my ethical non-monogamous community we are united in questioning the idea that monogamy is the right choice for everyone. I love the fact that people in my community candidly share all the different ways they “do” their relationships. And the general attitude is–as long as there is conscious consent there is no right or wrong.
I think its fine to have distinct definitions, but let’s utilize definitions with the intention that they are quick categories, sound bites to give information and possible broad directions —and not as an endpoint or static choice. Categories and glossaries can help us be more informed of the possibilities and ways to have more authenticity in our lives. But don’t let labels confine or limit you; if your relationship has outgrown a definition, create your own love lexicon.