Saturday, December 7, 2013

ISO Simple Terms for Complicated Relationships

Dear Viny,

I have a lexical problem. I am a happily married man who is in a relationship with a happily married woman who is not my wife. Talking about a monogamous relationship is easy; talking about a more complex situation is hard. 
Do I have a wife and a girlfriend? Do I have a first wife and a second wife? Do I have a primary partner and a secondary one (ew)? 
I refuse to say that I'm "polyamorous," both because it conjures images of key parties and orgies, and because it's linguistically absurd. Unfortunately, there is no better word for my situation. 
You're used to addressing these issues; is there any linguistic shorthand that you've found useful in talking about situations like this?

-Lacking Vocabulary


Dear Lacking,

I hear you, brother. Terminology is tough. Out here on the fringes of polite discourse, lexical lawlessness runs roughshod over the plains of smooth speech, and neologisms brawl in every corner saloon. What's a relationship pioneer to say?

According to the nice folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, polyamory is “the fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.” For the record, I have no problem with this definition.

However, words don't come with their OED tags securely attached. This is why, for you, the term “polyamory” conjures images of key parties and orgies, neither of which feels like “you” to you; whereas for me, the term conjures up images of Renaissance Faires and riding crops, neither of which feels like “me” to me. I've been OED-definition polyamorous for over fifteen years, and I still sometimes balk at identifying myself as poly – probably because I really don't know what other people are going to think I mean when I stitch that Scarlet “P” to my chest.

If you can't stand “polyamorous,” there's always “ethical non-monogamy” or “consensual non-monogamy.” The problem with these terms is that they are even more polysyllabic than “polyamory,” which in common parlance gets mercifully shortened to “poly” with little loss of explanatory power. Also, there is no simple way of turning them into adjectives: you might as well tell your friends you are “pretentiously non-monogamous.”

You can say you are in an open relationship, or an “alternative” relationship (less clear, but has a certain cachet). But again, there is no corresponding adjective you can use to label yourself – and everyone needs a label, right?

So, how about a new term? At Burning Man this year, I heard someone say she was a fan of “freestyle” relationships. I'm kind of hoping it will catch on. It's like “free love,” only more stylish. And since it's borrowed from swimming terminology, it implies a certain amount of healthy exercise. (Relationships require work, you know?) Best of all, you can be a “freestylist” without signaling allegiance to any particular camp – at least until there get to be enough freestylists out there to start forming a camp of their own, with its own particular set of rules, not to mention a whole lexicon aimed at distinguishing camp insiders from camp outsiders.

As for what to call your people...well, let's just say that three years ago, I wrote a post on this topic (A 'Sweetie' by Any Other Name) in another blog, in which I came to no definitive conclusions. And I'm still stumped.

I recommend adopting whatever terms appeal to you. Have some fun, and don't worry about whether you're making any sense to other people when you say stuff like, “Yeah, I'm taking the whole postmodern harem out to dinner,” or, “My honey takes tango lessons every Tuesday with one of her love buddies,” or, “Darling, did I mention that my paramour, my metamour, his pet, and their pal are all going to be joining us for cucumber sandwiches and tea this afternoon?”

Marmalade and RĂ©moulade,


  1. Non-residential life partner?

  2. I love your turn of phrase in the first paragraph. Who am I kidding ... in all the paragraphs. Keep 'em coming!

  3. Love this, I completely agree with you. I identify as polyamorous and I have absolutely no idea what mental images other people have when I say that word. It's always interesting to hear people's responses.