Monogamy 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!