On June 24th’s episode of Red Table Talks, Willow Smith introduced mom Jada Pinkett Smith and “Gammy” Adrienne Banfield Norris to the idea of polyamory — the practice of being in a relationship consisting of more than two people, or openly being in several relationships at once. Having listened to Smith’s open-minded stance on the pitfalls of monogamy, we talked to experts about what polyamory actually is and how it works.
“I think this is the scariest thought that people just shy away from,” Willow said of the practice of polyamory. “[It’s feeling like] the person that you love is falling in love with somebody else. That insecurity and fear just eats us alive.”
Willow expressed her belief that monogamy doesn’t offer enough freedom for individuals to explore what they may want out of life and an intimate relationship. In her opinion, the jealousy, fear, and restrictiveness attached to monogamy —which she notes is historically rooted in ownership and monetary exchange —may be outdated and can be used as yet another way to oppress those involved — specifically, women.
“That insecurity and fear is something that we need to overcome, and something we need to evolve out of and transmute that into something new and different that can actually be healthful and make us love more and more freely,” Willow said in her discussion with Jada and Adrienne. “Monogamy, I feel, actually inhibits you from learning those skills of evolving past those feelings of insecurity.”
Upon bringing up polyamory as an alternative to monogamy, Willow said polyamory allows people to “create the kind of relationship that you want for your life and for yourself.” To her, polyamory is an evolutionary step into a new norm for human connectivity and relations.
To better understand polyamory, we talked to Dedeker Winston, a relationship coach who works with individuals and couples exploring non-monogamy, co-host of the Multiamory podcast, and author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know about Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love, as well as Courtney Watson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and sex therapist with a private practice in Oakland, California.
“People forget or are not taught that non-monogamy is our history,” Watson tells O.school regarding societal fear or uncertainty surrounding polyamory. “Before there was monogamous marriage, there was polyamory.”
Is Polyamory Different From Polygamy?
So, no. Polyamory isn’t the same as polygamy or swinging, as mentioned in the above Red Table Talk episode. “In Latin,” Winston continues, “polygamy means ‘many spouses’ and refers to the practice of being married to multiple people, which is currently illegal in the U.S. Swinging most often refers to a couple choosing to engage with other people sexually, but with a minimum of emotional or romantic engagement with anyone outside their relationship.” And by the way, if you’re into swinging (and your partner is too), that’s totally okay!
What Does Polyamory Look Like?
Polyamorous relationships can take many forms, such as a “throuple,” a three-person romantic relationship, or a “quad,” a four-person relationship. You could practice solo polyamory, meaning you don’t have a primary partner and date others with multiple partners. You could have multiple, concurrent dyad (two-person) relationships, or you could have a primary partner while being involved with other people. Some poly relationships are simply emotional rather than sexual. As you can see, there’s no one way to be poly.
Both experts agree that the poly relationship structure can have an incredibly positive impact on the individuals involved, especially when it comes to learning how to better communicate. In fact, individuals who are currently in a monogamous relationship and are interested in the poly lifestyle could potentially benefit emotionally from the shift.
“The communication that is required to have a healthy poly relationship could definitely improve monogamous couples' relationship,” Watson tells O.school. “Many times [monogamous] folks either are not talking about what they really want or do not have good practice in navigating their communication styles and compromising.”
However, turning to a poly lifestyle should never be used as a way to deal with issues between monogamous partners. “Opening up a monogamous relationship can damage it when people turn [to] polyamory to run away from the problems in their current relationship,” Watson says. Not dealing with those problems head on before inviting other people into the situation is only going to heighten the frustration and complicate the root issue.
And once an individual successfully enters into a poly lifestyle, they must understand the continued success of their relationships depends on the work they put into them. “When folks open their relationship they still have to feed both the former relationship and the new ones they are building.”
When in a poly relationship, “Communicate more than you think you need to,” Winston says. “Be more honest than you think you need to. Be kinder than you think you need to.” Watson adds that joint calendars, flexibility, clearly defined boundaries, and adherence to those boundaries are also keys to success.
“There is still a long way to go,” Winston says about society’s warming toward the idea of polyamory, “but I see our culture shifting to allow for a wider range of voices and experiences to exist. I think people are waking up to the fact that the rigid model of compulsory heterosexual monogamy works for some, but not for everyone.”
And if, like Gammy, you still have a hard time understanding poly relationships, Watson explains that “Polyamory doesn't take from or destroy monogamous relationships, its is just a different relationship configuration...It is just another option for love.” And, hey — if monogamy is your thing, then you do you.
By using her public platform to share her positive thoughts and opinions about non-monogamous relationship structures, Willow is helping to normalize less mainstream relationship options. The more we talk about these types of structures, the less pressure we feel to conform to the societal norm of being in a conventional relationship.
Monogamy works for many people, but if you’re thinking about polyamory, know that there are benefits and drawbacks just like in any relationship dynamic. At the end of the day, it’s key that you learn about what different types of relationships look like, so you can make the best and healthiest decision for yourself and your lifestyle.