This study contributes to the literature by analyzing laypeople’s definitions of polyamory and showing the distinctions between definitions of people in CNM and of people in monogamous relationships who are unwilling to engage in monogamy. As mentioned above, there is a potential link between the usage of limited or incomplete definitions and stigma and negative impacts on people in CNM relationships (both in their personal lives and when seeking out medical or therapists’ help). Seeking out laypeople’s definitions helps to decenter academia and institutional, medical, and educational systems as the sole or main producers of knowledge about lived experiences as well as the social power associated with it.
Overall, we noted that laypeople conceptualized polyamory in terms of it being an Emotion, Behavior, and Potential. Furthermore, people in CNM relationships tended to focus their definitions on Interpersonal feelings, with more nuanced answers than people in monogamous relationships who were unwilling to participate in CNM, whose replies focused more on sex or on being “allowed to” have multiple relationships.
As noted previously, when referring to one possible definition, a study evaluating the general population’s understanding of polyamory suggests most people do not have a comprehensive understanding of polyamory (Rubel & Burleigh, 2020), and definitions of polyamory are varied and contested. In this study, we sought to understand what themes different respondents would mobilize to create their definitions of polyamory, rather than starting out with academically-derived or activist-derived definitions.
Most people in the sample would fit into the category of having a “basic understanding” of polyamory, as categorized in Rubel and Burleigh’s (2020) study, which leaves out the topic of consent. This is relevant, as it can point toward a lack of distinction between “cheating” in monogamous relationships and CNMs, which can affect how people perceive, and thus react to, CNM relationships. As explored above, there seems to be added moral condemnation of “cheating” in monogamous relationships in comparison to that in CNMs (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016); however, that is not always the case (Anderson, 2010). If the distinction between “cheating” and CNM is not clear to laypersons, people might, consciously or unconsciously, associate the two and negatively evaluate CNMs. Moreover, based on the issue of consent, a less nuanced definition of what CNM encompasses might also make it harder for laypeople to empathize with CNM relationships or to consider them equally valid.
Although there are some similarities between our results and Rubel and Burleigh’s (2020) literature-derived definitions, the themes that emerged from our analysis present a tripartite approach that clearly illustrates separate but connected dimensions of conceptualizing relationships.
In our study, laypeople used answers that could arguably fit the categories— stemming from academic and activist work—these authors put forward, such as identity, belief, status, and agreement. However, the current study’s participants rarely presented them using those terms, with the exception of mentions of polyamory as a relationship status. Very few people in our sample defined polyamory as an identity; the most represented meaning defined polyamory as a relating Behavior. To this, the closest analogue in their study was the aforementioned “relationship status.” A sizeable minority of participants also characterized polyamory as a possibility, which in the definitions collected by Rubel and Burleigh (2020) is closer to a set of beliefs, especially among people already involved in CNM relationships—however, a possibility more directly frames the way people conceive of a given relationship. Polyamory as a relationship agreement was also not common in our sample; however, this might be because of linguistic ambiguity in Portuguese, which suggests that in further studies, definitions based on relationship status and relationship beliefs might be more effective than those based on relationship agreements and identity.
Thus, our study shows that academic and popular-literature structuring of definitions can benefit from being critically reconceptualized from laypeople’s approach. Moreover, the study shows that laypeople from our sample conceptualize relationship dimensions differently from academic and popular literature and also value them differently. Likewise, when addressing relationship structures, academics, educators, and health providers should consider how people who relate to CNM in different ways can perceive their own (and others’) experiences in disparate ways and prioritize different dimensions of their relationships.
Furthermore, in contrast to the specialist definitions collected by Rubel and Burleigh (2020) in toto, the definitions given by our respondents demonstrate a lot more nuance. The following reasons clarify this argument: (1) Besides distinguishing between romance and intimacy, respondents also brought up affection, love, and compersion; (2) cohabitation is shown to coexist with, but be separate from, relationship structure and duration, meaning that typical hallmarks of committed relationships were put into question when laypeople from our sample defined polyamory; (3) the ethical dimension goes beyond consent, incorporating other elements such as knowledge, respect, honesty, and political and moral frameworks like feminism; (4) there is an element of recognition of potential conflict when polyamory as a potential is framed in light of external constraints acting upon the polyamorous subject (be it from relationship dynamics, e.g., preexisting hierarchies impinging on relationships, or from mononormative contexts, e.g., when people have to cope with professional or personal discrimination).
Familiarity with the concept might help explain some of these results as well as the sample’s characteristics (younger, more educated participants vis-à-vis the general population). Even so, it would support our hypothesis that more exposure and more visibility of CNM relationships can lead to more acceptance, as stereotypes are replaced by more nuanced understandings of these relationships.
Most responses had a single definition of polyamory, while a significant minority gave broader definitions with great latitude for different relationship structures and possibilities, such as open or closed relationships, relationships based on agreements, rules or the absence of them, and sexual or platonic relationships; some even mentioned polyamory as an umbrella term for other forms of CNM relationships, such as open relationships or relationship anarchy. While people might have given shorter answers for brevity or comfort (e.g., when typing on a smartphone), within the multiple and contested definitions of polyamory, it seems most people tend to adhere to just one; here, we observed a tendency for people in CNM relationships to have a broader understanding of possible multiple layers of definition than the average population.
Overall, these definitions paint a complex picture of what polyamory represents, reinforcing the contested nature of its definition (Kean, 2018; Klesse, 2005, 2006). This complexity comes from the three abovementioned dimensions (Emotion, Behavior, and Potential) and the detail in which they go, which is often absent from other more widely circulated definitions. It also shows that polyamory cannot be seen to be representing a specific thing but rather a constellation of different approaches to Behavior, Emotion, and Potential.
Since there were some observable differences between the in-group and out-group, we posit that some of this added complexity and nuance (more common in the in-group) can be related to personal experiences and attitudes around emotions and intimacy and personal experiences, attitudes, and/or literacy about CNM. It might also reflect access to, or participation in, cultural shifts like “designer relationships” (Michaels & Johnson, 2015), where relationships are seen as a blank slate meant to be co-created by those involved in any type of relationship, thus attempting to counterpoint mononormativity. Likewise, as we will explore below, different facets of polyamory and how it is understood can be strategically deployed to counteract and reinforce stigma and social acceptance.
This also shows that when the naturalness of monogamy is contested, these dimensions become more apparent and are more problematized. If we argue that experience and literacy can be fundamental in shaping definitions and understandings of polyamory (and other CNMs), relationship literacy (Trahan, 2014) and positive media representations become paramount to counter the stigma against CNM (Cardoso, 2020; Town, 2020), since monogamous people are less likely to have that experience (even indirectly through friends and family) or literacy.
Our study shows that people in monogamous relationships unwilling to be involved in CNM see polyamory as sexual, more so than their non-monogamous counterparts. Furthermore, they focus less on interpersonal feelings, especially intimacy and affection; this means, they see polyamory as more instrumental and less embedded in meaningful relationships. This might be one way that stigma appears in our sample and may be explained by social identity theory, more precisely by intergroup conflict (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). According to this approach, people do not identify with out-groups and may discriminate against them to promote intragroup cohesiveness, cooperation, and positive attachment. In this study, our definition of out-group refers to monogamous people who are unwilling to be involved in CNM. For this group, it may be the case that polyamory is defined by specific characteristics that are less favorable for monogamous people to promote in-group favoritism, that is, group members favor their group to the detriment of other groups. This possibility is in line with the results found by Sizemore and Olmstead (2018) with emerging adults, who found that participants unwilling to get involved in CNM presented a more mononormative approach to relationships, that is, the idea that monogamous relationships are better than the others and “CNM was, by default, less serious, only about sex, unsafe, less loving, less romantic, and less committed, and that such relationships were less meaningful” (Sizemore & Omstead, 2018, p. 1428).
This reinforces the idea that monogamous people contribute to stigma about CNM and that this is the outcome of their own intergroup experiences and of how their social identity is reinforced by considering other groups as less valuable. Thus, the lack of direct and indirect experience with CNM as well as identarian reinforcement might be the reason for formulation of more simple definitions given in our sample by people in monogamous relationships unwilling to engage in CNM; this further affects the understanding regarding stigma against CNM people and relationships.
While there were few derogatory comments in which polyamory was framed as unacceptable, they mostly depicted polyamory as just sexual and not true love, resulting in its status as “lesser than” and as one that originated from the out-group. This is in line with existing qualitative research with laypeople on stigma about polyamory, with what we here term in-group participants contesting definitions of polyamory that connect it to sexuality to avoid stigma, especially regarding promiscuity (Kean, 2018; Klesse, 2005, 2006).
There is some evidence that people in CNM relationships are subject to dehumanization, that is, people do not attribute human specific emotions and behaviors to them. This can be glimpsed in our sample, as monogamous people unwilling to engage in CNM mentioned Intrapersonal feelings, such as love and intimacy, with negative connotations (i.e., the lack of love as definitional). This lends weight to the hypothesis that people who are not in CNM relationships tend to acknowledge less of these characteristics in polyamorous relationships than the people who live them; these findings agree with the results in Rodrigues et al. (2018). Another concurrent interpretation is that the out-group tends to ontologize romantic love or intimacy in ways that explicitly preclude the inclusion of polyamorous relationships (Cardoso & Ribeiro, 2016), thus not incorporating these attributes in their conception of polyamory.
This perception of polyamory as “lesser than” might contribute to polyamory being stigmatized and polyamorous individuals being subject to minority stress, even when polyamory is concealed. This has been corroborated by studies on this specific aspect (Conley et al., 2012, 2013; Séguin, 2019).
Many people defined polyamory as a concrete relationship or concurrent feelings for multiple people while not mentioning consent; this agrees with the results reported by Rubel and Burleigh (2020). While the limitations of our study make it impossible to clarify this, these people defined polyamory as having multiple partners while maintaining a monogamous agreement, thereby equating polyamory to infidelity or cheating or viewing it as an excuse or justification to engage in unethical behavior. Such a view adds to social stigma associated with CNM, conflating polyamory and cheating and ignoring the importance polyamorous people place on consent and responsibility (Perez & Palma, 2018).
Conversely, people in CNM relationships in our sample tended to include more detailed understandings of dynamics that surround consent (e.g., knowledge and respect). This lends strength to the idea that it is important to socially and experientially situate those who produce knowledge about lived experiences (Haraway, 1988). Moreover, it supports the idea that academics and scholars should pay close attention to opinions of polyamorous people when constructing their definitions. This study contributes toward this goal by showing the many different dimensions laypeople use to conceptualize polyamory. In addition, the study shows that their definitions can and should serve as the basis for academic work.
Lack of attention to polyamorous people’s lived experiences might unwittingly contribute toward promoting stigma by occluding features and dimensions that polyamorous people consider fundamental. This does not mean that out-group definitions should be discarded, as they can serve as an indicator of lacunae in literacy, visibility, and experience of a person, which might help inform knowledge production and empirically-supported health and education initiatives, some of which have already been flagged (Davidson, 2002). We note that significant contributions have been made in this aspect by altogether replacing the theoretical frameworks used to address these issues, namely through the concepts of “gender, sexual and relationship diversity (GSRD)’” by Barker (2017) and “Sexual Configurations Theory” by van Anders (2015), which reconceptualize how we address intimacy and sexuality by not departing from a normative or central position, from which “Other” positions would be constituted.
People who suffer stigma have to face the task of managing social expectations. Although polyamorous relationships are often closeted, even concealed stigma can lead to psychological and physiological health implications (Conley et al., 2012, 2013). Our data shows people in CNM relationships tend to present definitions that seem shaped as if trying to avoid sexual stigma and embrace social norms by minimizing the salience of the sexual dimension of polyamory. Additionally, they also appear to be trying to assert a social and political critique on monogamy as a system, offering new ways to express affectivity and develop relationships out of normativity’s bounds, expressing the will for a politically engaged approach to relating (Cardoso, 2014, 2015).
Simultaneously, attempts at inclusivity of asexual polyamorous people can also be misconstrued as attempts at downplaying the role of sex in polyamorous relationships (Scherrer, 2010). Since romantic discourse is usually sex-normative (i.e., it assumes that sex is part of a romantic relationship), questioning a normative dimension of sexual and intimate norms might unwittingly reinforce others.
In this study, a convenience sample was used and, therefore, is not a complete representative of the Portuguese population. As such, some sampling biases are present, namely, the snowball sampling starting from the researchers’ social networks might be connected to higher levels of familiarity with the concept. However, it should be noted that at the time of the survey, most of the sample population was not in a CNM relationship and that a significant number was, furthermore, unwilling to be in CNM relationships.
Due to the characteristics of the overall project from where these results originate (pertaining to statistical analysis), the survey only encompassed people who identified as men or women (regardless of them being cisgender or trans).
The people in our sample also had a higher rate of high-education status than the Portuguese average (52% vs. 15%, according to the National Statistics Institute [INE, 2016]) and were younger than the Portuguese average population (32.19 vs. 41.83, according to INE, 2013). Moreover, the sample likely included a higher representation of LGBTQ people. Till date, no national study has been conducted to verify the demographic distribution of sexual orientation and/or identities, but in other western countries, the LGBTQ population varies in the single digits: 3.4% in the U.S. (Gates & Newport, 2012) and 2.5% in the UK (Geary et al., 2018). In our sample, over 30% of participants identified as LGB. Some studies on the U.S. population show that although non-monogamous behavior has no association with education, it does have an association with sexual orientation, with LGB people being more likely to have had a sexually non-exclusive relationship (Haupert et al., 2017; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], 2015). To the best of our knowledge, although the prevalence of non-monogamous relationships in Portugal has not ever been measured in a representative sample, and thus no comparisons can be made, this sample has a significant number of people currently in non-monogamous relationships. In this study, the answers given were mostly short, and the survey methodology does not allow for follow-up questioning and ambiguity clarification, since there was no interaction with us.
The use of “consensual non-monogamy” is not without conceptual problems, as it still marks monogamy as the default assumption; however, it has been used as an umbrella term under which many communities recognize themselves. Therefore, in the present context, we considered it to be the least-bad term to use and preferable to using a term that draws no self-recognition from large swathes of the population we are addressing, even though it may ironically contribute to maintaining the centrality of monogamy.
There is no way to guarantee that participants did not research definitions online while answering the survey. Thematic analysis is a qualitative research methodology. This methodology is based on a constructionist epistemology, as language and meanings are constructed and contested by those who use them. Therefore, even conflicting or contradictory themes can be generated. We strived for a bottom-up generation of themes, giving precedence to terms and meanings present in the sample. Moreover, as Braun and Clarke remind us, and in line with Taylor and Ussher’s argument, there is an “active role the researcher always plays in identifying patterns/themes, selecting which are of interest, and reporting them to the readers” (cited in Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 7, emphasis in the original). We have studied CNMs and polyamory in the past and are familiar with current literature on the topic. As such, some of the themes might be influenced by each of our prior research interests.
Considering the study’s results and limits we consider that it is important to further investigate and deepen this area of inquiry. In our opinion, future study could depart from a social categorization perspective by considering people who identify and do not identify with CNM as well as their experience with CNM. This would help understand how current and past experiences with CNM shape people’s understanding of it. Furthermore, such studies need to be replicated in different cultural contexts, to better understand and capture the sociocultural and historical variance and situatedness of how certain descriptors are appropriated by different cultures and how ideas travel, both physically and temporally.
Furthermore, the layperson’s definitions of polyamory should also be collected in different cultures and countries, to establish potential cultural differences between how the seemingly same relationship structure or identification is perceived and how that connects to the lived experiences of it, as well as with experiences of discrimination. To overcome some of the limitations described in this study, criteria for in-group and out-group should be established a priori, and different forms of conceptualizing in-group and out-group status should be deployed to better understand the best approach to differentiate between the two.
Given the aforementioned limitation regarding gender, encompassing a greater diversity of gendered experiences and analyzing responses as they connect to those gendered experiences will also be important. This will allow future studies to understand how discrimination operates differently for people who are socially disadvantaged in terms of their gender identity.
In addition, studies should approach stigma and stereotype reduction techniques and interventions experimentally, such as with exposure to inclusive media, education programs, and awareness-raising training for professionals and educators.
Understanding laypeople’s definitions of polyamory can contribute to a better understanding of perceived stigma and new strategies to avoid it. The definitions presented in this study can also orient definitions used in other studies, especially considering sex as a possibility instead of a central/defining characteristic of polyamorous relationships. Moreover, future studies with relationship structures that deviate from mononormativity can help understand such relationships and the way monogamy operates as a social system; the studies can also help understand underlying assumptions by offering an explicitly contrasting perspective and positioning some traits usually associated only with monogamy as being also present in other relationship types.
This study shows how polyamorous relationships can be seen as offering a wide range of intrapersonal and interpersonal emotions that are valued by the participants in a variety of ways, rather than always adhering to stereotypes held by monogamous people, such as the existence of a mandatory sexual aspect to polyamorous relationships, prevalence of the exact same emotions for all involved, or considering “designer relationships” as not possible or as inferior.
In our sample, monogamous people unwilling to engage in CNM often neglected aspects in their definitions that seemed important to participants in CNM relationships, such as informed consent, intimacy, cohabitation, and building families. Health professionals, educators, social workers, and other stakeholders who directly impact people’s lives in a professional or institutional capacity should be aware of these distinctions between how polyamory is presented by people in monogamous relationships or who identify themselves as monogamous and by those in CNM relationships or who self-identify to have interest in non-monogamies; this would serve as a way to not further stigmatize their non-monogamous patients and prompt monogamous people in different contexts (e.g., health services, community services) to question their assumptions and relationship dynamics. This includes making sure that they themselves do not internalize or project these stereotypical assumptions in clinical settings.
Academic debate understands polyamory as a contested term, thus reflecting the perceptions of laypeople, who also tend to not have a single definition of polyamory. When considering relationship diversity and relationship orientation, it is important to acknowledge that many modes of expressing this form of non-monogamy exist and that they encompass a broad range of behaviors and identities. This is important for clinicians, activists, policy makers, and others involved in situations that might impact public perceptions or experiences of intimate relationships.
Through our contribution, we hope to advance the debate on how to define polyamory and to bring awareness to often-relegated categories of experience that might, in fact, be central to the lived experiences of many polyamorous people. Furthermore, we hope to demonstrate that relying on only academic and specialist definitions might actually hinder research, education, and health intervention. By looking at laypeople’s definitions, we hope to have opened up a wider array of variables and salient elements that can be incorporated into discussions of relating, regardless of context. Additionally, we have illuminated how the conflating of theoretical cognates (e.g., love with intimacy or with romance) might be counterintuitive for many. Through the deconstruction of assumptions around what relating means (as it pertains not only to polyamory but also to any other relationship configuration), we hope to also facilitate the creation of better teaching and therapeutic resources, since more nuanced facets of people’s lived experiences can be explored autonomously.