Experts in Philly describe mysteries of polyamory: When one lover isn’t enough

  • May 14, 2012

By Stacey Burling

You think a romantic relationship between two people is hard? Try polyamory.

A panel of experts at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in Philadelphia last week said that open relationships between more than two people can work, but it requires a lot of talk about rules, boundaries, and time spent with various lovers.

William Slaughter, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who has been treating polyamorous patients for about five years, said they need to have very good communication skills and be especially good at “mentalizing” or understanding others’ emotional reactions. He and Richard Sprott, a psychologist at California State University East Bay, and Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who recently left Georgia State University, talked about what to expect from polyamorous patients. Such patients often complain that they have to spend too much time educating their therapists, Slaughter said.

The session was a lesson in vocabulary words you’re unlikely to see on the SAT. Word one: polyamory itself. It means having more than one intimate sexual and/or emotional relationship at the same time with the knowledge and consent of everyone participating. It’s different from swinging, which involves brief outside sexual relationships that are not emotionally intimate.

The most common presentation, the panel said, is a couple that considers their relationship primary, while each may also have secondary relationships with other people. Sometimes all the relationships are considered equally important or all secondary.

Sheff said she knows of one group of seven, but that’s unusual. “When they get larger than quads, they’re a moresome,” she said.

Jealousy is, of course, a frequent problem, but the polyamorous also have words for an opposite concept. Being happy that another relationship is enriching your partner’s life is known as compersion or frubbliness.

Enough vocabulary for now.

Sheff and Sprott believe polyamory is increasing. Sprott said younger generations are less insistent on monogamy than their parents. He cited research that found that 29 percent of lesbian couples, 29 percent of cohabiting straight couples, and 47 percent of gay couples are not monogamous. Among married couples, 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women cheat at some point in the marriage. He said there is no way to know how common polyamory is.

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