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On Open Relationships and Polyamory

Recently, a student in an open relationship hit on me. I didn’t reciprocate his advances. I really wasn’t interested in being the “other woman.” Well, I’m not sure what I’d be in this type of scenario. I assumed I would just be a sexual conquest on the side, though that could just be my ignorance.

This got me to thinking about open relationships and polyamory. Every time I turn around, I feel like more of my friends and peers are entering into open relationships.

I have one friend who practices polyamory with his wife. He is currently happily married with a baby daughter. Both he and his wife still sleep with other people.

Then I have another friend, still a student, who was in an open relationship for over a year. She fell in love with a guy who wanted his space, so despite her differing world views, she obliged. Eventually, the relationship fell apart.

Polyamory is a more recent term. Coined about 20 years ago, it was meant to have a more loving connotation. One issue polyamorists have with this term is that they believe promiscuous people just hide behind it. Another concern is that people who don’t practice polyamory will link the term to wild people with “pink hair.” According to an article published in The Guardian about polyamory, the former generally connotes Americans, while the latter applies more to those in the UK.

Polyamory—often taking the form of open relationships—seems to be a newer romantic model, and it is steadily growing among college-aged individuals. It’s a model in which a couple can go through the normal relationship motions, like going on dates, having intimate relations and even marrying and starting a family. These couples, however, skip the commitment stage altogether. This could mean either casual outside sexual encounters or even long-term relationships on the side. Sometimes there are unofficial marriage ceremonies for entire groups of people, though that seems to be less common.

Sometimes there’s a “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” But usually, successful polyamorists communicate about their outside love interests and report that the communication strengthens their bond.

To be fair, polyamory was first introduced in 1848 in the utopian Oneida Commune in which everyone was married to each other, and both men and women had equal say in government. The movement reached prominence in the 1960s and 1970s (not too surprisingly), but it faded with the HIV scare. Although experts claim the practice has increased again, there are not too many statistics to back up this evidence.

The little research we do have supports this claim. In 2009 The Daily Beast reported that a half million families practiced polyamory and that the practice already has blogs, podcasts and even an ezine called Loving more that had 15,000 regular readers as of 2009.

One perk of being in an open relationship in college is that it lets you explore more types. You get to date more freely and get to know different people. Many of the couples interviewed for The Guardian article said it was a great way to alleviate jealousy between the partners. I, however, imagine that I would be more jealous if I knew my boyfriend was out copulating with someone else.

The idea behind polyamory is that you should want your partner to be fulfilled both emotionally and physically, even if you’re not fully responsible for either. I guess that is a pretty beautiful thought. Polyamorists also claim that taking part in open relationships fits better with our biology, and I’ve certainly had plenty of people try to convince me that we’re actually hardwired to be with multiple people. I can’t find any research supporting or refuting this claim, so I guess the verdict is still out on that one.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just too old-fashioned when it comes to dating. I am not a fan of the hookup culture at Penn or at other schools. I much prefer to go on dates, and I feel like this is a hybrid of the old and the new. Yes, you can have multiple hookups, and now, yes, you can have multiple relationships simultaneously.

Sexuality is on a spectrum. I guess this is just part of that spectrum. I am a traditionalist, and I prefer things to progress linearly: I meet someone, we date, we get into a relationship and commit. But if you’re two consenting adults and polyamory makes you happy, then why not?