Values within polyamory

Polyamory, the lifestyle or choice of having multiple mutually aware and consenting loving relationships, often requires a degree of negotiation and individual choice to reach a solid basis for relationships. In negotiating the terms of polyamorous relationships, practitioners emphasize values within polyamory, as opposed to referring to predetermined rules and roles.

The values discussed here are ideals often referred to in articles and discussion on the subject. As with any ideals, their adherents sometimes fall short of the mark; however, major breaches of a polyamorous relationship's ideals are taken as seriously as such breaches would be in any other relationship.

Common values associated with polyamory by its practitioners

Unlike other forms of open relationship such as swinging, polyamorous relationships involve an emotional bond, though the distinctions made between swinging and polyamory are a topic open to debate and interpretation. Many people in both the swinging and polyamory communities see both practices as part of a continuum of open intimacy and sexuality.

Fidelity and loyalty

Most monogamists define fidelity as committing to only one partner (at a time), and having no other sexual or relational partners during such commitment.

The poly version of this is polyfidelity, a specific form of polyamory defined by a lasting, sexually exclusive commitment to multiple partners. But some polyamorists define fidelity as being honest and forthcoming with their partners with respect to their relational lives, and keeping to the commitments they have made in those relationships, rather than basing it on sexual exclusivity. This can be read as the same definition used in monogamy: If fidelity means honoring the agreements you have made about the relationship, then fidelity in the context of monogamy means you've agreed to be monogamous, and honor that. Others prefer to emphasise loyalty, sometimes defined as the ability to rely upon the other person's support, care, and presence.

Polyamorists generally base definitions of 'commitment' on considerations other than sexual exclusivity, e.g. 'trust and honesty' or 'growing old together'.

Trust, honesty, dignity and respect

Most polyamorists emphasize respect for all partners. Withholding information—even a "Don't ask, don't tell" agreement—is often frowned upon, because it implies that partners cannot handle the truth or trust those they love to keep their commitments. A partner's partners should be accepted as part of that person's life rather than merely tolerated.

A relationship that requires deception, or where partners are not allowed to express their individual lives, is often seen as a poor model for a relationship. The trust in a polyamorous relationship is that they love (or care about) you, and will come back, and will treat you and your relationship with them honestly and appropriately, as something of value and to be respected.

As part of this, dignity is often taken as a key value in a relationship. The idea here is that each partner will support, and not undermine, the other, and (where relevant) will not use a secondary relationship in a way that deliberately harms or destabilizes the other party or other relationships.

Communication and negotiation

Because there is no "standard model" for polyamorous relationships, participants in a relationship may have differing ideas about how that relationship should work. If unaddressed, such mismatched expectations can be extremely harmful to the relationship. For this reason, many polyamorists advocate explicitly deciding the ground rules of a relationship with all concerned.

In contrast to some other forms of negotiated relationship (e.g. the prenuptial agreement) polyamorists commonly view this negotiation as an ongoing process throughout the lifetime of the relationship.

In more conventional relationships, participants can settle on a common set of expectations without having to consciously negotiate them, simply by following societal standards (a husband and wife are expected to support one another financially, for instance). Because polyamorous relationships cannot rely on societal standards as a starting point, much more within the relationship must be chosen along the way by talking and by mutual respect and understanding, rather than assumed.

Polyamorists usually take a pragmatic approach to their relationships; they accept that sometimes they and their partners will make mistakes and fail to live up to these ideals. When this happens, communication is an important channel for repairing any damage caused by such breaches.


People in conventional relationships often agree not to seek other relationships under any circumstances, as they would threaten, dilute or substitute for the primary relationship. Polyamorists believe these restrictions are in fact not for the best in their relationships, since they tend to replace trust with possessive prohibitions, and place relationships into a framework of ownership and control. This reflects cultural assumptions that restrictions are needed to stop partners "drifting", and that additional close relationships would be a serious threat or dilution of that bond.

Polyamorists tend to see their partner's partners in terms of the gain to their partner's life rather than the threat to their own. The old saying "If you love someone, set them free; if they come back, they are yours -- if not, they never were" describes a similar type of outlook. For this reason, many polyamorists see a "possessive" view of relationships as something to be avoided. This takes a great deal of trust. (A simple test of success: would seeing one's lover find another partner be cause for happiness [compersion] or alarm?)

Although non-possessiveness is an important part of many polyamorous relationships, it is not as universal as the other values discussed above. Alternatives include arrangements in which one possessive primary relationship is combined with non-possessive secondary relationships (common in open marriages), and asymmetrical relationships in which "ownership" applies in only one direction.

See also

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