Vocabulary words: Couples & polyamory

Hello fellow explorers:

Is it possible to refer to a “couple” and have that mean someone who is polyamorous?  Does the idea of “couple” necessarily imply monogamy and exclude polyamory?  What are your thoughts?  Check out the post behind the cut, for more conversation about the meaning of words, and what it means to be polyamorous and single, or polyamorous and part of a couple, or just polyamorous!

The other day another friend let me know of a couple new resources for Bay Area Poly folk (and other non-monogamous people) looking for lower cost therapeutic groups.   I posted a brief note to my Weirdness Events list letting folks know.  The ad contained this section:

> This group is open to primary couples of all genders and orientations,

as well as individuals in couples who wish to attend without their

partner(s). This is sex-and dating-free space.

Chai from Santa Cruz, who runs the Santa Cruz Polyamory Yahoo! group, wrote back to me, saying:

I don’t know the organizers of these events, but I have to throw in my two cents that it’s always a red flag for me when people advertise poly events and use the word “couples”.

The word “couple” implies two. It is absolutely an expression of mono-normative exclusivity. The implication is that people form couples and then later add a person or persons in less than equal relationships to become “poly”.

To me, it seems these people don’t even know what polyamory is. I have to wonder how good these can presenters be if they can’t grasp such a simple concept.

The word “couples” is used twice in this description below of the events’ target audience. I am not included. I am not a couple. I am not *in* a couple. I have more than one partner. I am poly!

Happy New Year! May all your poly wishes come true 🙂


Given that the Weirdness Events list is an events list and not a discussion list, I suggested to her that we could discuss this topic over here, and let people know of the discussion over there.  Chai kindly agreed.  So I’m posting the question here, and will post my answer in the comments.  Anyone (especially Chai!) would be welcome to answer with their musings.

Thanks for your contributions to the discussion here!


13 thoughts on “Vocabulary words: Couples & polyamory

  1. tenacious_snail

    “Am I welcome?”

    When I see a group meeting that I think might be of interest to me, one of the things that I check is the various things that might make me feel like I’d be welcome, as well as things that make me think I might be excluded. Sometimes, I end up making judgments that are more about my mood, and my ability to read a description with generosity, or if I’m stuck in a place of fear.

    A therapy group is something that I’d be more likely to seek out if I’m feeling vulnerable, in need of help, feeling like I need more [relationship] skills, etc. As a result, I would probably be more tentative, or more likely to avoid going because I wasn’t sure if I would be welcome, than I would be if I were looking at a listing for a social group or an activity group.

    Yes, ideally, I could call and ask, but if I’m feeling depressed, lonely, or excluded, I’m a lot less likely to be able to do so, and to let my fears of exclusion or unwelcomeness make a decision for me.

    I think that also means that if I’m feeling self-confident, solid, or able to provide some sort of leadership or guidance, that I might to take on asking event organizers if they are aware of how their words may be taken, so that they can clarify things for folks who aren’t in a place to advocate for themselves.

    1. dawnd Post author

      T_S, I agree that whether or not you FEEL welcome (irrespective of whether or not you ARE) is certainly something to consider. A very good point indeed.

      (My understanding of the OP through back channel communication is that she’d be quite open to feedback in how she can improve this sort of thing. So maybe if folks here might be willing to gently let her know, it wold be valuable and well received.)

  2. Zoe

    In my work I refer to any dyad as a “couple”. To me a couple does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship. I’ve worked with father/daughter couples, parent/child couples, work partnerships, etc. When advertising for a poly group I generally put “couples and moresomes” or “poly families” but if I were to just put “individuals and couples” I would by no means be excluding the others. Especially given that this person put “including without their partner(s)”-seems to me that they are quite clear that multiple primary partners is an acceptable relationship style. If I were going to go myself I might check in with the leader just to make sure they were not indicating that they only wanted to work with a maximum of a dyad in a given group.

  3. dawnd Post author

    Hi VR: Thanks for your comment. Sadly, my inexperience with WordPress just trashed my comment in response to yours. Well, perhaps this is good, since I’ll be forced to be more succinct!

    I disagree that I’m “missing something important.” I just don’t see the original ad-poster as definitionally failing to include either groups of more than two, or singles. See the comments from seve and from yoyoangel, who both get at more of the idea that I was trying to convey, and do it better in some ways.

    I also think that a lot of this is getting at the oft-discussed question of whether polamory is a behavior (something you do) or an orientation (someone you are). I certainly don’t personally use the “definition of ‘poly’ that says someone is poly only if they are actively involved in more than one relationship.” I see polyamory as more of an orientation. Just as it’s possible to be monogamous but single, or even monogamous and celibate, I also think it’s possible to be polyamorous and involved in 0, 1, 2, or n relationships. I have, however, heard cogent arguments the other way.

    I also disagree with your (and Chai’s, apparently) assertion that the ad necessarily shows “bias” on the part of the group leader. The fact is, we do not know their intentions or reasons behind limiting the group to “primary couples.” For all we know, their supervisor might only do couples work, and therefore can’t legally supervise them in other sorts of work. Or maybe they’re using exercises that require the people to have a certain kind of intimate knowledge of one another, and it’s just not appropriate to include singles in this group. Maybe they’re already planning another group for “poly singles.” The fact is, we don’t know. And to accuse them of “bias” without knowing this is, IMNSHO, a bit prejudiced (in the sense of to “pre-judge”) in itself.

    Now that said, it could also be that someone just ported the copy from some GLBT couples group, without much considering the poly implications here. And if so, the appropriate action is probably to gently remind them that the language employed is not inclusive of some groups they probably really want to include. I certainly don’t want to encourage or support unthinking couple-normative languaging, anymore than I want to unnecessarily alienate someone who might turn out to be a great resource in the important area of support for polyamorous people in the (still largely mono-oriented) therapeutic community.

    The other thing I think is being brought up here is the question of whether a group facilitator (of any event, not just a therapy group) has the “right” to limit their group to less than the entire human race, and what constitutes a “fair” way to make that limitation. Is it ok to limit a group to “women”? or “under-40’s”? or “people that can afford my fee”? And if one is ok (e.g., “only women”), but not another (e.g., “only couples”), why is that so? Is that really “fair”? That’s another pretty big can of worms, and might require its own post. ;^)

    Ultimately, I’ll reiterate what I said in my original post over in my Events list. I don’t know these folks personally, and am relying on the word of another community member (whom I trust) that they’d be good people to work with. And more importantly, not everyone is a good fit for everyone anyway, so YMMV and you should do your own due diligence. And feel free to let me know if you have good experiences one way or another, so I can expand my lists of resources. :^)

  4. TheNorm

    Another word that can be confusing is ‘single.’ In general usage it means someone that may be available for a relationship so it’s reasonable for a poly person, who is open to a new relationship, to ask if they actually mean un-attached monogamous people.

    I got in a hell of an argument on a list where someone announced a party for ‘single’ people. I could not pin them down as to what they actually meant. They kept repeating ‘single people’ and refused to address the issue. I finally got angry enough to drop off the list.

  5. TheNorm

    In a general sense I would think “couple” just means ‘two of us’ and would be perfectly reasonable language if only two of you happened to be present.

    In the more specific sense that is the focus of this thread, I suspect that it’s largely a matter of poor prose. It’s certainly a challenge to figure out just what they mean which is, after all, the definition of poor communications.

    I think ‘family’ is a fairly usable noun for a poly group greater than two. Even though it has the potential to be somewhat confusing (Do you mean the kids and Grandma too?) If you use “poly family” it should be a bit clearer although it lacks the advantage of not telling people more than they may want to know. In this specific case I think it would have been the right term to use.

  6. VR

    Dawn, you’re still missing something important. They are not just failing to include “groups of more than two,” they are failing to include _individuals_ who do not consider themselves to be part of any “poly group.” A person who is casually dating several people might consider themselves poly even if they don’t think of themselves and any one of their partners as “a couple.” In particular, the way the ad is phrased seems to suggest that the group is open only to people who consider themselves to be in “primary” couples, whether or not they attend in company with their primary partners.

    I think you may also be using a definition of “poly” that assumes someone is only poly if they are actively involved in more than one relationship. I don’t see why anyone thinks such a definition makes sense; if someone is open to the possibility of dating more than one person and would happily do so given the opportunity, they are poly whether or not they are actually doing so at the moment. In this, too, the ad shows bias, in that it excludes poly people who are not currently in any relationships.

    A better way to phrase the ad might have been “This group is open to individuals, couples, and other poly groups of all genders and orientations” — unless, of course, the hosts actually wanted to exclude those not in primary relationships in hopes that this would make the group less of a meat market (which they could probably go about in a better way.)

    1. dawnd Post author

      HI VR: sorry if I overwhelmed. Obviously I failed at “shorter”! ;^) Tried to address everything all at once, and probably should not have. Still getting the hang of this.

      Best wishes, and hope to see you around again anyway!

  7. seve

    As a member of Fetlife, Babn and okcupid I find that more time is sepnt on definitions than on anything else.

    A couple is 2 people, it implies nothing, just that its 2 people.

    I am poly, I like meeting new people, I like getting to know someone and I enjoy intimacy as its fun one to one, in 3 or more arrangements.

    We are all different but couple to me says ‘bring a friend’ and that’s always a good idea for a new group – isn’t it ?

    I’m happy to go alone but not all are as confident as me.

  8. yoyoangel

    I’m poly, and in multiple 1-1 relationships (I mean, each of my relationships is between me and one other person; I’m not in any triads or quads etc.).
    I describe groupings of me-plus-one-of-my-partners as ‘a couple’ – for example, “Delta and I went to the dinner party as a couple”; “Echo and I have spent plenty of time together at parties lately but we’ve been missing out on couple-time”.

  9. dawnd Post author

    So here are my thoughts.

    I agree that this post (by an MFT intern, in the process of gaining their hours for licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist) shows a couple-centric view of the world. It’s my experience that most therapists who aren’t themselves polyamorous or in some other way non-monogamous, usually don’t quite “get” the idea of polyamory at first. My guess is that this person was trying very hard to indicate that this is not a “cruising” space, so don’t expect to come to therapy and find a new partner. And they indicated that they aren’t limiting the group to, say, straight couples, which is a good start. However, they failed to specifically *include* polyamorous groups in the discussion, which does seem odd for a group supposedly aimed at those interested in polyamory.

    But does the *failure to include polyamorous groups* of more than two actually *exclude polyamorous people*? I don’t think so. My perspective is that every relationship, including polyamorous or other multiple-partner relationships, is made up of dyads–interactions between two people. Imagine a triad, a relationship including three people: Ann, Bob, and Chris. We can count at least three dyads in this relationship: Ann = Bob, Bob = Chris, and Chris = Ann. Each of them is a couple, although each of them is not *only* in a couple. Each in this example (assuming they identify as polyamorous; if you’re not polyamorous, substitute whatever non-monogamous relationship style you prefer here!), each individual is polyamorous (has more than one relationship) and each couple is polyamorous (has a relationship with more than each other). The triad is also polyamorous (there are more than just two people involved).

    Note that it is possible for there to be a “primary couple” where only one of those two is involved in a relationship with a third person. That would make one of the two people polyamorous, but not the other. It could be argued either way whether the “primary couple” was polyamorous. Certainly the other couple (between one of the “primary couple” and the other person) is polyamorous. The triad is definitely not polyamorous, and it could easily be argued that there is no triad, since they are not all involved with each other. Most people would probably call that arrangement a V. (Franklin’s Xeromag site — http://www.xeromag.com/fvpoly.html — has a great poly FAQ that covers some of these definitions)

    All of that said, I definitely support gently informing therapists and other folks offering courses for polyamorous and non-monogamous folks to think carefully about being more inclusive. If you’re offering discounts, don’t offer one only for couples; offer one for “moreples,” or say that each person gets a discount if they bring a friend–doesn’t matter if you’re more than friends. ;^)

    Really, we poly (and other non-monogamous) folk can’t afford to scare off the therapists and other professionals who are at least *trying* to fill this need. They just need some help becoming more educated.

    And that said, if you’d like to talk to a counselor with some actual life-experience as a poly person, drop me a line (dawnd(at )dawndavidson [dot]com. I do in-person and phone sessions (or Skype if you’re out of the country). ;^)


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