Book Review: What Does Polyamory Look Like? By Mim Chapman

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

Psychologist Alice Kahn Ladas introduces “What Does Polyamory Look Like?” as “delightfully lighthearted, inclusively descriptive, and relevantly self-revealing,” and I agree with this assessment. For anyone interested in learning about open relationships – possibly to practice them, counsel people in them, or understand friends or family in them – this book offers a helpful overview of the basic forms this lifestyle can take.

The first two chapters contain simple introductory material about polyamory, which the author defines as “a lifestyle based on the belief that it is not only possible but also perfectly normal to love more than one person at the same time.” In distinguishing polyamory from swinging, Chapman writes that the former allows more freedom to develop emotional intimacy with others while the latter emphasizes sexual intimacy. This distinction may not be universally accepted (I’ve seen polyamory used as the umbrella term under which swinging falls, for instance), but it’s the author’s right to define terms as she’ll use them throughout her work. She also mentions that polyamory is not the same as polygamy (which has connotations of ownership) or promiscuity (which implies indiscriminately having sex with everyone). Rather, the common themes underlying polyamorous relationships are honesty, communication, emotional intimacy, egalitarianism, and compersion, regardless of how much of what kind of sex you want to have.

Although the word “polyamory” itself is fairly new, dating back only a few decades, Chapman argues that the concept is far older. She draws examples from different time periods and cultures to illustrate her point, even labeling the Biblical characters Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as a polyamorous triad and arguing that “Christians, Muslims, and Jews all owe their heritage to polyamory!” I’m not sure I’d  run that idea by a really conservative religious person, but it does help put things in perspective if you’re open-minded enough to think through the implications of such foundational myths containing references to non-monogamy.

Chapman was prompted to write this book clarifying how poly arrangements are structured by her realization “that the difference between the dreams and goals of two people with different visions of polyamory can be just as far apart as the difference between two people whose dreams are of monogamy and of polyamory.” The patterns she presents are intended less as strict categorizations than as a vocabulary that may be helpful for people attempting to elucidate their relationship goals and styles.

A quick discussion of her taxonomy will illustrate this point. Using the acronym POLYS, Chapman attaches a different relationship structure to each letter. P stands for Plural Poly Pairs, wherein a couple agrees on who else they can be intimate with or pursue. This tends to be a good model for independent folks, or people whose primary partners aren’t meeting all their needs. There are drawbacks, too, which Chapman discusses in detail for this and each of the other models, using anonymized examples to demonstrate how these dynamics can work. O stands for the Poly-O Family Circle, an egalitarian group marriage. L stands for the Loving Poly Triad and the Non-Triadic V, both of which feature three people interacting either equally or through one person who acts as a hub. Y is visualized as Sensuous Networks, Webs, or Tribes (prefaced by a “Yikes!” in order to maintain the alliteration and highlight the complexity). In this model, the simpler arrangements listed thus far link up into networks that can be quite flexible and amorphous, determined less by group consensus like the Poly-O model and more by the wants and needs of the people most closely linked to one another. Finally, S stands for Sensuous Poly Snakes, in which a chain of relationships evolves, usually among a close group of friends/lovers, where A is with B, who is also with C, who is also with D, and so on.

In the final two chapters, Chapman discusses how to explore your dreams and choices, and how to craft rituals and celebrations for non-monogamous families. She concludes with a list of resources such as books and websites to help interested parties learn more. On the whole, the book is full of concrete examples and suggestions that might prove helpful, or at least thought-provoking. The author’s use of mixed-gender pronouns and relationship arrangements is LGBTQ friendly, and she also expresses openness to other non-traditional relationship elements such as kink and BDSM. She discusses important issues such as safe sex, communication etiquette, and legal issues like shared property, which all relationship-goers really ought to be aware of. In fact, the relationship configurations described in this book are not exclusive to non-monogamists; even monogamous couples and friendly social groups have certain patterns of interacting with their significant others that might be helpfully elucidated by pondering the material here. Thus I recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in developing richer interpersonal relationships, polyamorous or not.

What Does Polyamory Look Like? is available on Amazon.

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • Anonymous

    Added this to my Amazon Wish list – definitely interested in reading this and emailed your review to a friend of mine