What does polyamory mean? Aleksandar Savić on a phenomenon which is not as new as you might think...

The human community is a living organism. Over time, this swarming mass called "society" has evolved, and with it its notion of human relationships. And yet, few kinds of relationship have intrigued mankind as much as love. Why do we find it so fascinating? Is it because it fills us with the desire to care and be cared for? Because it suppresses egoism in favour of altruism? Or just because the word sounds really good in French? Whatever the reason, the words of the poet and philosopher Novalis have not lost their power: "What is the eternal secret? Love!"

Now, just as we thought things couldn't get any more complicated, we come to a new term: polyamory. The word is derived from the Greek term poly meaning "several" or "many," and the Latin amor, which means "love." So, there you have it, many + love = many loves. This looks so simple when depicted as a formula, but if we take into account all the trouble we have in explaining a love (I'm creating grammatical chaos here, but bear with me!), how are we supposed to define multiple loves?

Illustration by Kunti Berzinska
Polyamory: a complicated love story

The very term "polyamory" is debated. Just like any other abstract term which relates to the very essence of one's intimacy, it is defined according to the attitudes of the people who define it. According to the Polyamory Society (polyamorysociety.org), polyamory is "the non possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously." Critics, on the other hand, claim the very opposite - that this is a practice which diminishes love, undermines relationships, and thus weakens the very fabric of society as we know it. Sometimes, it is even compared with promiscuity, which was the sexual norm in primitive societies before the appearance of early forms of marriage. Here, it is crucial to highlight an important factor in understanding polyamory. Unlike promiscuity, which indeed meant sexual relationships with many partners but had reproduction as its main goal, polyamory is all about the feelings, i.e. creating an emotional bond among partners.

As Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers University, says, love has three main aspects – lust, romantic love and the feeling of attachment. "But these three brain systems aren't always connected to each other. You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner, while you feel intensive romantic love to somebody else, while you feel the sex drive to people unrelated to these other partners. In short, we're capable of loving more than one person at a time." Basically, this is how polyamory works.

Loren Davidson's poem sums up polyamory:

Many Loves

I love the ocean,
I can stand by her shore for hours
Savoring her sighs
As her soft wavelets lap at my toes,
Fascinated by the mystery of her changing faces
Masking her eternal constancy.

I also love the hot wind
Blowing westward,
Thrusting wide the door between autumn and winter,
Making me sweat
And lick dry lips in anticipation.
She is not gentle
But rips away my illusions
Like the leaves the tree no longer needs.

Loving the wind
Does not mean I love the ocean less.
Each evokes a different part of me
And brings me different lessons,
And my love for them would not diminish
If I also loved the fertile forest.

As we go deeper into the significance of polyamory, the logical thing to ask ourselves is why these forms of relationship have such negative connotations in everyday life. Despite its hippie associations, polyamory actually has its roots way back in human history. Ancient societies were quite familiar with the custom of having relationships with several different people. Exotic tales of wealthy highborn princes courted by consorts and concubines may be the favourite setting for clichéd adventure stories, but beneath the surface, they represent just one of the forms of polyamory. Such relationships were able to exist without too much of a problem until the rise of a new religious and ethical model. Christianity brought with it a completely new ideological discourse, which promoted different values. Over centuries, these Christian values have put down roots in the European mentality, and monogamous relationships and marriage are a standard even among people who are not religious. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," warns one of the Commandments. Enough said. Even though one cannot compare polyamory with common adultery, the deviations from monogamy are automatically frowned upon, since they break with the social pattern which has been created under the influence of Christianity.

Over the last couple of decades, polyamory has been transforming from a social phenomenon into an organised movement. There are societies of polyamorous people all over Europe, ranging from Denmark and the Scandinavian region, all way to the south of the continent. In their quest for a place under the sun, they have launched numerous internet sites and blogs where people can find out about the lifestyle of the polyamorous: for example, there's at least one major polyamory website in the Netherlands, an English site which aims "to focus on the British and European perspective" and a forum site bringing polyamorous people together in France.

polyflagsmallThe poly-flag is one of several symbols of polyamory. Others include the parrot (parrots are typically called "Polly" in English) and a combination of a heart with an infinity sign, representing infinite love.

These groups are also doing their best to strengthen their social structures, holding meetings all around Europe - and of course, there's the obligatory facebook page to keep people up to date about meetings in their home countries. Such strategies help bolster the confidence of the polyamorous community, because they also allow them integrate themselves better into society. However, prejudices against polyamorous people are still a major problem.

I suppose I could finish with that woolly rhetorical question – "Will we be able to overcome these misconceptions?", or "What are we to do in order to integrate and accept the polyamorous people into society?" But I won't. Everyone has his or her own ways of dealing with this matter. We can hope, on the other hand, that European society will not only become able to tolerate these kinds of differences, but to embrace the diversity they have to offer.

NEXT ISSUE 01.04.2018