PHOTO: Katarina Wolnik Vera
Text: Alejandra Misiolek
Inspired by Valentine’s Day, I have decided to write something about a topic that has not received enough psychological attention and is becoming more and more frequent in psychotherapy sessions.
Polyamory or polygamy, also called consensual non-monogamy.
Do all these terms mean the same thing?
According to the RAE (The Royal Spanish Academy) Polyamory is “erotic and stable relationship between several people with the consent of all of them”.
Polygamy, on the other hand, according to the same linguistic source, is the “state or condition of the person, especially man, who simultaneously has more than one spouse.”
Although the “especially male” part doesn’t convince me, I understand that in most cultures, it is the man and not the woman who marries multiple people.
If we do further research, according to Wikipedia,
Consensual non-monogamy (CMN), (or also ethical non-monogamy (EMN)), refers to the practice of non-monogamous intimate or sexual relationships that differ from infidelity because of the mutual knowledge and consent of those involved. Wikipedia defines polygamy as a condition in which the various participants are not part of a single marriage. Forms of consensual non-monogamy include swinging, polyamory, open relationships, and infidelity fetishism.
Thus the term NMC seems to encompass all the other terms. In other words, it is a form of infidelity without it being infidelity because it is consensual.
This is where I would like to stop and talk about what is infidelity and why and what it means that something is consensual.
First of all, what about infidelity? Why does it affect us so much if someone is unfaithful? Is it “normal” to feel jealousy or is it a result of our insecurities? Is monogamy biologically justified or is it cultural? Polygamy is frequently justified as more natural because in prehistoric times human beings were more promiscuous.
Infidelity, according to an article in La Vanguardia, reflects cheating within the couple due to a rupture of the explicit or implicit pacts of the relationship. Therefore, infidelity is not always sexual or emotional. Another important point to highlight is that agreements in couples are not always explicit. There are many agreements that we take for granted, because that is what is usually done in our culture, or even things that we take for granted because that is how we used to act in our family. However, what is not explicit is subject to confusion and interpretation by each person.
On the other hand, implicit agreements often mean that they have not been well thought through and assimilated but assumed and sometimes people “promise each other fidelity” without thinking what it means for them and if they really agree with this concept.
Infidelity is defined as cheating, therefore it implies lying or not being transparent, knowing that to the other person it means a trespassing of what is understood as acceptable and safe limits.
Here appears another very important concept: security, treated in Jessica Fern’s book from the perspective of attachment in non-monogamous relationships, and by Esther Perel and Stephen Mitchell from the more psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic perspective – do we always look for security in couple relationships?
On the one hand, it might seem that security is challenged in non-monogamous relationships because many people understand security as a guarantee of possessing the other person as if he or she belonged to them forever – which is more illusion than reality and more pathological than healthy to assume that we can possess someone forever. But many couples seek security in this illusion, even if they assume it only implicitly.
And what is security if not that? Security has much more to do with the secure attachment that we co-construct in relationships and do not take for granted and with the ability to depend on others in a healthy way, where the possibility of the relationship ending is not interpreted as abandonment or something that would necessarily imply “end of the world”.
On the other hand, we cannot pathologize jealousy and, as the author of the book “Polysecure” comments, it can be an indicator that something requires our attention. Polyamorous relationships are more complex and above all, since they are not based on anything pre-established and implicit, they require talking, talking and talking with our partners about feelings and needs and, in some cases, “rules” need to be established.
And in reference to the question of whether we always seek security in relationships:
Both authors (Perel and Mitchell) emphasize the importance of the balance between the known and the unknown, the possessed and the unavailable, the secure and the insecure, so that a couple can last in time while maintaining passion, love and commitment (according to Sternberg’s theory of love)
Can we desire something we already have? The answer is no. And desire is what is most often difficult to maintain in long-term relationships and what causes us to look for people outside our relationship, those who bring us novelty and those we “don’t have”. But it is about finding a balance in the same desire also because living constantly chasing something unattainable would keep us in a constant tension.
Esther Perel, in her book The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity, shows examples of couples where infidelity or cheating took place and how different it can be in each case, even taking relationships to another level and improving the quality of the bonds. In conclusion, infidelity is not “bad”, it depends a lot on how and at what moment it happens. However, cheating, which greatly affects the feeling of trust, so important in relationships, is what hurts the most and what can lead to the breakup of a relationship, which is not always repairable.
Therefore, we could conclude that consensual non-monogamous relationships are a solution for many couples. However, the key is in the word “consensual”. Why?
Consensual means that both partners agree to this decision. Unfortunately, in my clinical experience, this is often not the case and what occurs is an apparent agreement by one partner. For fear of losing the other person, out of a desire to appear modern and self-confident, out of not knowing oneself well, out of fear of being judged, or out of a desire to explore sexuality with other people without understanding well what it implies and what part of oneself comes out of it.
In conclusion, non-monogamous relationships, in order to work and to bring us something valuable, require a lot of self-knowledge and self-awareness, ability to talk about emotions with others, self-confidence and ability to relate from secure attachment. If any of these ingredients are missing, they can become a source of suffering and painful ruptures. In addition, it is worth questioning the concept we have of romantic love since, according to psychotherapist Nilda Chiaraviglio, polyamory lived from the concept of conventional romantic love may be impossible.
The subject of polyamory and non-monogamy is one that still requires much exploration, debate, study and trial and error, as well as openness, not only individual, but also cultural
- Perel, E. (2017). The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity-A book for anyone who has ever loved. Hachette UK.
- Mitchell, S. A. (2003). Can love last? The fate of romance over time. WW Norton & Company.
- Fern, J. (2020). Polysecure: Attachment, trauma and consensual nonmonogamy. Thorntree Press LLC.