Apr 112014

A symbol for polyamory: Heart with infinity symbolMonogamy is the practice of having only one sexual, romantic, or intimate partner in one’s life. Non-monogamy, is any practice where more than two people are sexual, romantic, or intimate with each other. Though non-monogamy is an ancient practice which continues to be traditional in many societies and cultures worldwide, in the West it’s a minority behavior. Since the 1970s a particular form of non-monogamy has been emerging: polyamory (lit: “many loves”). Polyamory (“Poly”) is the practice of more than two people involved in a loving, emotionally intimate relationship where sex may or may not be involved.

Outside of that basic definition, polyamory varies widely. Polyamory can involve any number of people in any configuration. Everybody does not have to be involved with everybody else. For example, three people in a polyamorous relationship could be in a V style (i.e., persons A and B are involved, and B and C are involved, but A is not involved with C) or in a triangle relationship (i.e., persons A and B, B and C, and A and C are all in relationships). Polyamory relationships can be “open”, where new partners and relationships are welcomed, or “closed” where they are not. New relationships may be restricted to being only sexual, or not at all sexual. And polyamory relationships may be deemed more or less serious through tags like “primary” and “secondary” relationships.

But how does all this relate to health? Well, it sorta does and it sorta doesn’t.

The factor that likely pops into most minds first is sexually transmitted diseases/infections. How many times have we all been counseled to be monogamous to reduce our risk? I see that message everywhere. But it’s an incomplete message. Research is scarce on poly health, but I’m of the believe that a closed poly relationship is no more risky than a monogamous relationship. Whether a poly relationship is open or closed, safer sex techniques (including the use of barriers and regular STI testing) reduce the risk of STI spread.

More insidious are effects on mental health… but not because of polyamory alone. Polyamory itself, while taking more emotional energy than monogamy, can be incredibly fulfilling and provide abundant psychosocial support. Being poly in a non-accepting environment, however, can be very stressful. And we all know what happens when there’s additional stress. High levels of psychosocial stress are associated with: a) higher levels of depression, anxiety, self-medication via substance use, obesity, eating disorders, non-suicidal self injury, PTSD, and b) lower levels of exercise and healthy eating.

Adding an extra wrinkle: it can be very difficulty for poly-identified people to get mental health support. Finding a poly-friendly therapist (especially one covered by insurance) can be an exercise in frustration. Many mental health care professionals simply don’t understand. Others are downright discriminatory. As one poly person expressed: “I’ve had a mental health ‘professional’ refuse to even try to understand the poly nature of our family and insist that I needed to get out of the relationship before he would ‘treat’ me.” (Source)

So what’s a poly person to do? Take care of yourself. If you’re in an open relationship, be familiar with the various STDs and how they are spread, and practice good safe sex. Do what you can to take care of your mental health — exercise, eat well, get some stress relief in there too. Consider getting in touch with a local poly organization or sex-positive group. They can be invaluable for social support and finding resources when you need them.

And as always…  Stay healthy, stay safe, and have fun!

  2 Responses to “Polyamory and Health”

  1. Great article, and well overdue as to seeing this problem addressed. I’ve had a couple of GYNs who didn’t bat an eye. That felt really good. Of course, I have to tell anyone I am consulting about the health of my woman parts, so it’s understood that at an annual visit why it’s important to get a STI panel done.

    I really do find it distasteful to get involved in a poly definition debate. But my thoughts on your definition is that you are approaching polyamory as happening between more than two people who are all in romantic relationships. Your definition does not include people in dyadic relationships who also have relationships with others with the full knowledge and consent of all involved outside that relationship . My spouse’s gf is a great friend, and I enjoy her company, but the two of us aren’t in a romantic relationship like she and my spouse are. We are metamours, i.e. sharing the same partner. All that’s needed for such relationships to be healthy is that there be mutual respect between her and me, which we have.

    There are many people I know with this fom of poly relationship. It works especially well for monogamous couples who want to open up.. It also works especially well when the partner outside the relationship is getting any unfulfilled needs they might had met via their own primary or nesting partner relationship. There are plenty of exceptions, i.e. outside partners who are happy being a single polyamorist and establishing a few relationships with people they see regularly.

    Thanks for considering!

    • Anita,

      I’m really sorry you felt put off by the way I attempted to explain poly. It’s true that the basic definition I provided does imply an “everybody involved with everybody” style, but I feel like I did include the V-style relationship you describe in the next paragraph where I described variations (i.e., V vs triangle for a three-person structure, open vs closed, equality vs primary/secondary). Is there a better way (perhaps vetted and OK’d by sections of the poly communities) that you feel I can summarize poly in one sentence? I’ll gladly edit this original post and future communications if so. 🙂

      To me, poly is any relationship structure where there are more than two people “in the picture”, and where love and the sharing of love is emphasized. Another way I might try to phrase it might be “love-focused non-monogamy”, but I haven’t tried using that phrase either among poly or mono folk so I don’t know how well it communicates what I’m trying to communicate. It’s been a while since I’ve had heavy contact with poly communities.

      Hope this clarifies – I did not at all intend to exclude V-style (or N-style or…) relationships! Rather, I mean to provide a one-sentence summary of poly, then some brief discussion of various popular poly patterns, before jumping to the discussion of poly health.


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