Polyamory is often defined as the practice of engaging in multiple romantic or sexual relationships with the consent of all the people involved.
I think that while that definition is a reasonable one, it doesn't convey the way that polyamory has, for me, opened up an entire new spectrum of potential relationships, of new ways to relate to other people.
Our 'monocentric' or monogamously oriented culture offers a fairly simple view of relationships. The path is laid out for us clearly by our friends, families and the media. We are expected to meet someone, fall in love, go on a few dates, move in together, settle down, get engaged, get married and live happily ever after. Some poly folks refer to this as the 'Relationship Escalator'. Once you are on the Relationship Escalator, a 'successful' relationship is defined as one that ends in marriage, and ideally children. According to this mythos, any relationship that falls outside this track is deemed a failure. For many polyamorous people, however, this is not the case. 'Success' in poly relationships is defined by the people in that relationship, and not necessarily by outside culture.
Just as the greeks had several different words for love, polyamorous people may find that they experience different kinds of relationship with different people. Certainly for some people, poly can offer opportunities for sexual exploration, but for others it can allow the building of close familial bonds, simply with more people. For yet others it can mean creating dispersed networks of long distance loves, and for some of us it means there is space for all of the above: Everything from occasional encounters and romantic but non-sexual friendships, all the way through to deeply committed live-in partnerships. The difference, for poly people, is that our relationship model doesn't tell us how to structure those relationships.
Some Different Styles of Polyamory
Some poly folks prefer to structure their relationships so that they still look very much like the Relationship Escalator model, only with more people in it. These people will still expect to meet someone new, fall in love, date for a period, and then consider adding that new partner to their existing household, before possibly making some sort of long term commitment or raising children together. In other words, it looks a lot like monogamy, only with more people. This is the version of polyamory most often seen in the media, since it is easier for those outside the community to understand and relate to, but it is far from the most common poly relationship structure.
More common in the polyamorous communities that I know is for poly people to form dynamic 'clusters', 'pods', 'polycules' or 'tribes' of interconnected singles, couples and smaller groups. Each relationship within that cluster may have different expectations. Some may be 'primary' style relationships with expectations about cohabiting, shared finances and child rearing (or as I sometimes call them 'Indoor Cat' relationships), some may be 'secondary' or 'satellite' relationships, or ('Outdoor Cats'), with romantic or sexual attachments but fewer shared commitments. Others may sit outside of those expectations entirely. Some poly people may share their living space with people who are not sexual partners, but who are still committed parts of their lives. Some folks may also choose to co-parent with people they are not romantically attached to, or with partners they are not cohabiting with, or pick and choose what aspects of a 'conventional' relationship structure they do and do not apply to each relationship.
Many polyamorous families with children are indistinguishable from the 'blended families' we are seeing more of in our society as a result of divorce (except usually less acrimonious!). Conversely, some monogamous divorced couples are nowadays choosing to build lifestyles that look remarkably similar to poly households, with ex spouses choosing to carry on house-sharing and co-parenting whilst dating other people. Labels, shmabels, eh!
Another, newer, phenomenon in the world of polyamory is the Solo Poly movement. Solo Poly people tend to live alone or cohabit with friends or roommates rather than with partners, and do so intentionally. Their relationships may be committed or not, sexual or not, romantic or not, independently of whether they are cohabiting with their partners. There is an excellent and more informative post about what Solo Poly is and is not here at http://solopoly.net/2014/12/05/what-is-solo-polyamory-my-take/
Where I personally stand is somewhere between those latter two styles of polyamory. Preferring something more akin to relationship anarchy to hierarchies, I like to let each of my relationships find its own level – looking for spaces to fit the people in my life rather than people to fill the preordained spaces. I tend towards the solo poly end of things philosophically. I prefer to keep my finances separate to those of my partners, to always have my own room and my own space. My relationships do not generally follow the Escalator model (several of the most important people in my life live in entirely different cities!). However I am not opposed to sharing living space with one or more partners, assuming we're compatible in that way, and I love the idea of one day building my own poly 'village' which I could share with lots of my partners and metamours. Experience has taught me that life rather often takes me in directions unexpected, however, so there is little I rule out, these days!
How Poly Can Make Different Kinds of Relationship Possible
For me personally, polyamory has made possible a number of relationships that simply could not have worked out in the world of monogamy, or at least with 'standard' relationship expectations.
Take my longest standing partner, for example: We're chalk and cheese in many ways. He is obsessively neat and ordered whereas I love my creative chaos, he loves to have the TV on all of the time whereas I find that it drives me nutty after only a short while, he wants to be interacting all of the time we're in the same building whereas I am more introverted and need to be left alone sometimes to work, or to think. He loves living in the city, whereas I'd rather be outside it these days. There are many ways, big and small, that we are not well suited to share space with each other, yet we have shared a deep, abiding and supportive love for the best part of a decade, have looked after each other financially, physically and most importantly emotionally. We have met each others' parents and colleagues and are firmly established as fixtures in each others' lives, but living together? The way I like to see it is that we love each other enough not to try to squeeze ourselves into that ill-fitting box.
Poly can also allow child-free people to maintain loving and supportive relationships with partners who want children, people with mismatched sex drives to stay in happy and fulfilling romantic relationships with partners they are otherwise perfectly suited with, and people in long distance relationships to find local companionship without harming their existing relationship. It certainly isn't a fix for every kind of relationship problem – far from it, but stepping outside the expectations of monogamy can make some things that would be 'deal-breakers' in a monogamous relationship much less of an issue.
I want to make it clear here that polyamory is NOT just about dating 'enough' people to make sure that all of your 'needs' are met. Known to some as 'Frankenpoly', the idea of adding all of one's partners together to create some sort of gestalt 'perfect poly partner' is flawed and somewhat objectifying. There are some important characteristics every relationship needs to have in order to be a functional and healthy relationship in itself, and the most important of these are compassion and a healthy respect for each other as human beings – not as 'needs fulfilment machines' as Tacit has often put it.
Polyamory has made it possible, too, for me and many other people to experience different sorts of relationships with people one might not normally be compatible with. Including, for me, an incredibly sweet ongoing connection with a young man who is otherwise only into men, and a cheerfully intimate friendship with a cheeky chap who tells me he is 'awful at relationships' mostly because of the nomadic nature of his work, but has been consistently lovely over 15 years of extremely intermittent occasional dates (I suppose I could call this man my longest standing partner but we have probably only spent a week together over that entire time, pleasant as it was).
Poly makes it possible to be a small-but-good thing in someone's life, and vice versa, without having to put any more expectations on that particular relationship. It has enabled me to play more relationships by ear, to 'see where things go', without feeling under pressure to find the one 'perfect' mate. With a rather beautiful irony, that has also allowed me to meet and develop strong relationships with people who turned out to be much larger features in my life than I expected them to be, whom I would have automatically discounted if I had been looking for a monogamous partnership, simply because I didn't believe we would turn out to be as compatible as we actually are.
Non-sexual Relationships and Poly
I want to add in a note here about asexuality and poly. It is an assumption often made by people outside of the polyamorous community – and even some people within our community - that poly is 'all about the sex'. The first page I came to when looking for a good definition of the word described polyamory as 'the practice of having multiple sexual relationships'. I personally would argue that the focus of polyamory, for myself and most of the folks that I know, is much more about the loving than about the sexual aspect of the relationship. Also while I do not in any way define myself as asexual, I have had (and still have) some incredibly satisfying romantic relationships that did not involve sex.
So I want to make it clear that yes, asexual people CAN have romantic relationships, which can also be poly relationships (although they don't have to be) – there is a lovely long 'manifesto' about asexuality and poly here by a blogger I just found when I was looking for references for this essay: https://transpolyasexual.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/my-ace-poly-manifesto/ - and polyamorous people can have romantic relationships that do not include sex. That too is another type of relationship that I firmly believe would not have been available to me if I had been monogamous, thanks to ideas about 'emotional infidelity'. As a sexual person, I could well have have had to choose between the deeper emotional connection on the one hand and a partner I could sleep with on the other. I am incredibly grateful that, thanks to poly, I do not have to make that choice.
I am clearly not the only poly person with a sexual orientation to appreciate the non-sexual opportunities my nonmonogamous relationship model allows me, as this post by The Ferrett shows too. http://www.theferrett.com/ferrettworks/2015/01/a-nice-thing-about-polyamory/
And last but most assuredly not least, there is another, more familial form of love I have found through poly: the love that I feel for my metamours, or my partners' partners. We may not have sexual chemistry (although the complexity of my network within the UK has before now resulted in the invention of the term 'lolomylo' or 'lover's lover who is also my lover'), but we invariably have more in common than just our mutual partner. We may not always agree on everything, but at the end of the day we are connected, by the community we are a part of, by ideology and by our love for our partners. Some of my metamours are also close friends, many of them are activists and, for me at least, being a part of my relationship network very often feels like being a member of a league of superheroes.
Much like this, in fact:
What About You?
In conclusion, being ethically non-monogamous has offered me and those close to me opportunities to build many different kinds of relationships and to tailor those relationships to suit our lives, our needs and our selves. Has poly opened up new kinds of love to you? If so, in what ways? Are there any kinds of love that I missed?
With love (of various sorts!),
[Edit 2015/03/06: Minor changes. Fixed a couple of typos and added in a couple of extra hyperlinks. Made headings more obvious.]