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Monday, January 24, 2011

Lifestyles of the Polyamorous

Lately I've seen the following question come up in more than a few conversations. "Is Polyamory a lifestyle or an orientation?"

Let's first take a look at the dictionary definitions from the good folks at Merriam-Webster:
Definition of LIFESTYLE
: the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture

Definition of ORIENTATION
a : the act or process of orienting or of being oriented b : the state of being oriented; broadly : arrangement, alignment
a : a usually general or lasting direction of thought, inclination, or interest b : a person's self-identification as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual
: change of position by organs, organelles, or organisms in response to external stimulus

Often I look at the two words, as they relate to sexual or relationship issues, as follows:

Lifestyle = Implies a choice was made to follow a particular way of living that one enjoys.
Orientation = Implies an inherent predisposition by a person in which choice was not involved.

As an example: One could choose to be a vegetarian for health reasons despite a fondness for meat. In that example vegan is their lifestyle, carnivore is their orientation. (Strangely, in this example the two seem somewhat contradictory).

Back to the question, is polyamory a lifestyle or an orientation?

My impulse is to answer that polyamory is a lifestyle. Assuming orientation is an inherent sexual preference, someone may be bi-sexual, homosexual, or heterosexual yet still be polyamorous. Those same people could also be monogamous, enjoy open relationships, or prefer the swing community which to me emphasizes poly being a lifestyle or choice, sexual preference being an orientation or inherent.

Interestingly enough I actually believe that for me, and others, polyamory is an orientation. I was involved in poly relationships before I knew what poly was. I've tried being monogamous and although I can do it, I don't enjoy it and feel something is lacking. For me, polyamory is natural and inherent. As much so as my sexuality.

On the flip side of the coin, I believe there are people out there who have chosen polyamory. It isn't something that came to them naturally and they have had to learn how to be poly. For them I would call polyamory a lifestyle.

Now let's test my definitions and theories on Swing. Can someone be bi-sexual, homosexual, or heterosexual and exist in the Swing community? Of course. Can those same people choose not to be in the Swing community? Of course. Sounds like Swing is a lifestyle as well.

But this is where I think it gets more complicated. Orientation, for our purposes, typically refers to sexual orientation. Those who chose to live a Swing life do so because sexually they enjoy multiple partners. Emotionally, they often remain exclusive or monogamous. This would suggest Swing is more of an orientation due to the sexual focus.

Polyamorists on the other hand prefer multiple relationships which usually include sex, but aren't typically specifically created for the purpose of sex, and emotional components. Though this doesn't suggest polyamory is an orientation, it doesn't suggest it is a lifestyle either.

I quoted someone recently as saying "Polyamory is a lifestyle, Swing is an orientation". I really liked that quote and thought it explained a lot of the differences between the two, as well as the continued animosity between those groups. I've also come to realize it may be an over-simplification based primarily on the common sexuality found within each group. That can be proven if you remove sexuality from the definition of both Swing and Polyamory, which seems to render the quote pointless as sex is a basis for the definition of Swing. That would indicate Swing is an orientation, Polyamory is a lifestyle.

What does all of that mean? Not much really. I find the conversation interesting and stimulating because it helps define terms. Intellectually it is a bit of a challenge but beyond that does it mean anything? Probably not. People will live their lives as they see fit, definitions be damned. And whether Polyamory is a lifestyle, an orientation, or simply a deviation doesn't change its valuation.

What's your vote? Polyamory; lifestyle or orientation? What about Swing; lifestyle or orientation?


  1. What a fascinating discussion! I agree with you, that it depends on the person.

  2. Carla,
    One of the many that seems to fascinate me endlessly! LOL

    Thanks for commenting :)

  3. Can it be both?

    Let’s use myself here. Before we fell into polyamory, I would have never considered it a viable choice. In fact, I didn’t know it existed. I was so into what we are taught a relationship should be.

    So, considering that I knew nothing of alternative lifestyles other than a bit on same sex, could I have been oriented for poly and not known this? I don’t believe so. I lived very happily monogamously. Wouldn’t I have felt that something was missing if I were oriented this way?

    For me, I feel it is a lifestyle. I choose to live my life polyamorously. Since I was happy monogamously, I feel that I could be so again. Though I will never feel that is the only way to love and live again.

    I do know people that poly would be considered as an orientation. They’ve always had poly inclinations and have struggles with what society says a relationship should be. It never fit what they felt one should be.

  4. Lovingmorethanone,

    Excellent point, maybe Polyamory is both a lifestyle AND an orientation.

    The only downside to that I can see is the human brain, or mine anyway, likes things nicely defined. Having something that can be one of two things usually leads to someone trying to find a way to categorize the something into a single definition.

    Pondering that leads me to wonder if the inability to define polyamory as either a lifestyle OR orientation has something to do with social hesitation accepting polyamory, i.e. most people just don't know what to do with it when it comes to classification mentally.
    That might make for an interesting article :)

    As always, thanks for the wonderful comments!


  5. I think there's a bit of comparing apples and oranges going on. You've used sexual needs as the measure of orientation vs lifestyle; but that assumes sex as the important measure. If you use love/connection/relationships as that measure, than the results are switched, right? Polyamory would be an orientation, and swinging would be a lifestyle. Of course, if you separated it further, poly being about love, and swinging being about sex (narrow definition, I'm just taking the distinction a step further), than you could argue that BOTH are orientations, I think. The dialogue is interesting and useful, but I think ultimately we can never agree on one definition as there is so much overlap and nuances in both communities. I find I'm always better off explaining what I do (life long relationship with a man who has another girlfriend as well as a wife) than labeling what I do.

  6. walkietalkieooo,

    I agree, there is very possibly an unfair comparison. I struggled with that several times while writing the article. Where I ended up was that most people use "orientation" as a reference to inherent sexual preference. The other piece was that "Swing" is defined by sexuality. That is why I used 'sex' as the measure. At the same time, Polyamory focuses less on sex and the word "lifestyle" seems to focus less on sex. Toward the end of the article I even tried to remove "sexuality" from the equation, though without much success.

    My honest feeling after writing the article was that I tried to make fair comparisons though you are right, they aren't perfect. What I realized was the question; "Is Polyamory a Lifestyle or an Orientation" doesn't appear to be a fair (viable?) question. Almost like someone asking "Is the sky green or yellow?" Neither answer is correct.

    Not only do I agree that explaining what we do is best, I hesitate to accept labels from people anymore because they don't mean much. At the same time, the fact that the Polyamorous community stands under the umbrella label "Polyamory" while at the same time disagreeing on what Polyamory is amazes me and makes me wonder if communications could be improved by labels that were actually useful.

    Thanks for the interesting comment!

  7. Good point.

    Should we label? Is labeling important, and if so, who defines the labels? Is it possible to look at it as an and/both situation rather than an either/or?

  8. Thanks for posting this, as I constantly have to deal with different aspects of the question.

    It seems there is a need for people to label, even if it is not necessary or accurate. Still, many feel compelled to do this. And so, even though it would be ideal to not have to deal with this, fortunately and/or unfortunately we do.

    So what are my two cents? Well, I think that if we are going to use terms or labels it would be good if we were in alignment on what they mean. For example, if we started talking about the label asian and for you it meant one subgroup of americans and i believed that this referred to a group that came from Asia we would have a hard time really talking because we will be talking about two different things.

    So the first thing is to have an agreement, even for just the argument's sake, about the terms we are talking about. That way we can focus on our points and not go back and forth about the topic.

    The next is look at the possibility of and/both vs. either/or. For example, you can be both celibate and monogamous or even bi-sexual and monogamous, just as you can be a monogamous or polyamorous swinger.

    So it might be more interesting to discuss and look at this possibility in addition to struggling with having to force people into artificial distinctions/categories.

    Or it might be interesting to explore why we even feel the need to put people into a category or make people choose.

  9. Julio, thanks for the comment(s)!
    By the way, the blog is set so that I have to approve comments before they post which is why you weren't seeing them right away. I have it set that way because when I set them to auto-post I don't get notified of comments. And I like responding to those who take the time to comment :)

    Exactly! If we can't agree on what a label/term/word means then we will have a very hard time communicating!

    The and/both vs. either/or question is an interesting one and I don't disagree in principal. In practice though, I think we would have the same problem I talked about in the article. We would have to agree on the words meaning first. i.e. If we can't agree on what celibate and monogamous actually mean, putting them in an and/both vs. either/or seems like it would be even more difficult.

    Exploring the reason behind categorizing people is a whole other, probably huge article!

    Thanks for the thoughts :)

  10. In order to achieve this, you need to define your environmental principles; you need to understand what you want to do, why certain things are important to you, why others simply do not fit in your life.

    lifestyle definition

  11. Thanks for the comment Chris :)

    I'm not sure how environment principles would help me realize Lifestyle vs. Orientation but as it would apply to polyamory in general, I certainly agree.

    Good comment!