In my line of work, I get a lot of questions that are phrased like this:
- “Am I not polyamorous if….?”
- “Does XYZ make me less polyamorous?”
- “If polyamorous people do XYZ does that mean they can’t still call themselves polyamorous?”
And while I can honestly say I don’t mind answering these questions, and many of them have led to interesting discussions and essays, the answer has so far always been no.
Someone is yet to ask me a question where I can say, “Okay, yes. That clearly means you aren’t polyamorous.”
Something like this: “I think people should only have one romantic partner at a time, and to do otherwise, even with the consent of everyone involved, is immoral, inadvisable, and something that I not only wouldn’t do myself but think no one else should ever do. Does that mean I’m not polyamorous?”
Okay, yes, that would make you not polyamorous.
But no one has asked me that yet.
And many inquiries I’ve gotten have been more in the way of seeing if there are any hidden qualifiers for polyamory. A few recent examples:
- Do you have to stay friends with all your exes if you call yourself polyamorous? (Answer: No)
- If you feel guilt after your first consensually non-monogamous encounter, does this mean you’re not cut out for polyamory? (Answer: No, it’s called first night effect and has happened to plenty of people who went on to be happily polyamorous in the long term.)
- Does having a parallel style of metamour management make a person less polyamorous? (Answer: No. It has a name for a reason, it’s a fairly common practice, some do this, some don’t.)
In Gaming Terms, Polyamory Isn’t Linear, It’s a Sandbox, an MMORPG
Polyamory is “the practice of participating simultaneously in more than one serious romantic or sexual relationship with the knowledge and consent of all partners.” I’d also add to this definition that you can consider yourself polyamorous even without current participation. You can identify as polyamorous if this is a relationship style that you prefer even if you don’t currently have more than one partner (or any partners at all, you can be 100% single and polyamorous).
Polyamory isn’t one specific way to do relationships but a wide open paradigm that contains many, many ways to manage relationships within it. To use a gaming metaphor, it’s not a game with linear progression where you have to go through stages in a sequential order and typically only in a certain way (by reaching the goal posts without falling in pits or whatever, classic 8-bit Mario style).
Instead, it’s a sandbox-style game, where you can roam between areas completing tasks in any style that makes the most sense at the time. Kind of like an MMORPG where if you can find a group, you can then go and tackle whatever obstacle y’all feel like tackling at the time. And your party composition can be whatever you want. If you want to take on a camp with 6 healers (instead of a more traditionally balanced party like a tank, a few DPS types, a crowd controller, and maybe one healer), then you can go and do that. It’s a bit funky, but if you can make it work and everyone’s having fun, then go you! You did something cool.
In fact, polyamory is such a broad overarching category of relationship styles that there are even popular subtypes with their own communities (centralized online but sometimes with local real life presences as well) and practices. A couple of these polyamorous genres are solo polyamory and relationship anarchy.
It’s worth noting that people do quibble over whether relationship anarchy in particular taxonomically is a true subset of polyamory or merely a related overarching philosophy, a cousin. However, relationship anarchists do regularly have a large presence at polyamorous conferences and in polyamorous groups and seem to function in a way that’s close enough to a subtype for horseshoes and hand grenades. (I don’t lose any sleep over which one it is, and I would suggest that you not as well.)
There’s No Certification Process for Being Polyamorous
Anyway, there’s no hidden qualification for being polyamorous. In official terms, you mostly just have to be open to having multiple ongoing romantic and/or sexual relationships without being a huge cheater pants about it.
But that said, there’s no certification process. No test you have to pass before you can call yourself polyamorous. And literally anyone can use the label. Now whether it’s a helpful label or an accurate one, sure, that’s another question. And the person who thinks non-monogamy (even with consent) is THE DEVIL could theoretically call themselves polyamorous but to do so would cause more misunderstanding than not. So they probably shouldn’t.
But there is no Polyamory Card Office. No governing body that oversees usage of the term. No one issues you a license. And no one can take away your polyamory card because you practice polyamory in a way differently than they do by shrieking, “That’s not poly!” at the top of their lungs in real life or in a forum.
Misappropriation of the Polyamorous Label
That said, I do know that sometimes people would like it if there were some sort of verification process. While gatekeeping can be an obnoxious and tedious phenomenon, it’s often attempted by folks who are well-meaning. Who want to keep alternative communities safe from people who would infiltrate them from the outside and take advantage of vital trust systems that can have devastating consequences when abused.
As it stands, it’s entirely possible for someone to pop up out of nowhere who is actually a Cheaty McCheaterpants and claim they’re polyamorous with a parallel polyamory style of metamour management but actually have not informed their other partner that they’re seeing other people or want to. That kind of non-monogamy is non-consensual and a horrible use of the polyamorous label. And it’s widespread enough that Playboy did an article on it that Polyamory in the News featured.
In the Polyamory in the News writeup, Alan reveals that he’s long viewed misappropriation of polyamory as the “greatest threat to the future of our movement,” but adds the following assessment:
I think the threat is receding. The actual precepts of modern polyamory — ethical, honest, equal, and respectful toward everyone involved — are becoming widely recognized in society. Stories like this, which address the problem head-on, are part of why.
This strongly reinforces my natural hope. When it comes to educating the world about polyamory, I’m a much newer kid on the block relative to Alan, but we both agree on this. And that to me is a very good sign.
“Polyamorous” Is Not a Password that Indicates a Person Is Safe or a Good Person to Date
Still, I think sometimes people want polyamory to be a password that indicates that a person is safe, a good person to date, and will want roughly the same thing out of relationships that they do. All of these desires are understandable, but there are no identity words that really function that way, as a blanket guarantee.
The Ethical Act Is Contextual, Requires Complex Calculation, and Some People Are Bad at the Math
It’s an easy leap for some to make, perhaps because polyamory is sometimes also known as “ethical non-monogamy,” a label that’s intended to distinguish it from cheating. But does this mean that you can automatically trust every person who identifies as polyamorous? Hell no.
As we’ve established, there’s no certification process. Anyone can call themselves polyamorous.
And even in circumstances where a person views their own behavior as ethical, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will as well.
It certainly doesn’t help that what’s ethical can be contextual. Differentiating the course of action that’s right from the one that’s wrong can require complex calculations. And frankly, some people are bad at math, so to speak.
The number of ways that people can err is unlimited. But here are a couple common ones that appear with high frequency.
Forgetting to Count Yourself
One common “math error” occurs when people forget to fully consider themselves or their own needs. In essence, this is very similar to when you’re first learning to count how many people are in a group, and as you point and count aloud the visible folks you can see, you forget to add yourself to the final total.
Forgetting yourself in your ethical math can lead to a number of devastating consequences. One of the possible bad outcomes involves people pleasing to a degree that leads to healthy self-sacrifice. Caring what other people think is fine, but it’s important to be specific and carefully select our reference points. People pleasing when left unchecked can lead to overcommitment and a string of broken promises and resentment. And supporting the wrong person can lead you to inadvertently aid a person who will do others great harm. All shoes step on doormats — clean and dirty. Passivity forfeits your moral agency.
But people pleasing isn’t the only risk when you forget to count yourself. A lack of self-awareness is also found in those who actively do others great harm. They are quick to externalize blame. Since they don’t appear in their own problem space, they never fully entertain the possibility that they may have at least partial responsibility for anything negative going on.
Not Transposing the Image You’re Viewing
Other folks have a hard time truly taking the perspective of another person and exercise wild double standards depending on whatever role they’re currently standing in. This is a lot like how if you’re standing opposite someone and exactly imitate their movements, you are in fact doing everything they’re doing backward. You may think you’re both moving your left arm, but the person across from you is actually moving their right.
It’s why actors and doctors are so careful to specify “stage right” or the “patient’s right.”
You can’t get someone’s perspective simply by standing on the outside and looking in and coding that one for one. Effective perspective-taking requires some mental transposition — and sometimes it requires time travel to another point in your life when you were standing in a similar position. And even once you’ve twisted around the mental puzzle, it requires empathy to really see things clearly and dissolve any protective cocoon of self-serving bias clouding your ability to understand.
And these are both errors committed by well-meaning folks who are trying to do the appropriate calculations required to behave ethically. These are simply bad math.
They don’t account for any acts of conscious malfeasance or selfishness.
The Polyamory Card Office Is Permanently Closed
So it’s bad news and good news both, I suppose.
The bad news is that anyone can claim a polyamorous identity. It’s not a password. You must do your due diligence to determine if someone is right for you, regardless of their stated relationship orientation. Polyamorous does not necessarily equal good person or good partner for you. Sorry. It sucks, but it’s true.
The good news is that there’s no one stopping you from claiming the polyamorous label yourself. You’re not limited to preset templates. You get the freedom to work with the people you want to date and customize the kind of relationships you want to have with them. Because there’s a wide range of different ways that you can conduct yourself and still be polyamorous. People who scream, “That’s not poly!” at you are probably wrong (with possibly the exception of the few scenarios I’ve outlined above where you generally think non-monogamy is terrible or you’re a cheating player who doesn’t give anyone the straight story).
And a person being “more” or “less” polyamorous based on some list of hidden qualifications is a weird, weird concept that I wish would just stop being a Thing (but probably won’t, because social comparison is always a Thing). Poly-er than thou attitudes, too, will likely always persist, much to my chagrin.
But I’m here to tell you that anyone who tries to revoke your poly card or waves one sanctimoniously in front of your face is full of it. There’s no Polyamory Card Office. They probably printed that off on their bubble jet. They’re no more certified than you are. (Indeed, even years of experience are no guarantee that someone knows what they’re doing or that they’re good to people.)
I know it can be hard to keep your cool in the loud infighting that tends to plague online communities (a lot of people’s first introduction until they can find or build a real life polyamorous social circle) but try not to worry so much about if you’re “poly enough” — and focus more on whether you seem to be doing right by the people in your life.
As always, that’s something I’m happy to help you sort out.