On this week’s episode of “Red Table Talk,” Willow Smith – daughter of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith – opened up about being polyamorous.
“It’s about being able to have the freedom to create a relationship for yourself,” she said on the show, to the confusion of her grandmother Adrienne Banfield-Norris.
“With polyamory, I think the main foundation is the freedom to be able to create a relationship style that works for you and not just stepping into monogamy because that’s what everyone around you says is the right thing to do, ” Willow Smith said. “I was like, how can I structure the way that I approach relationships with that in mind?”
With the help of a diverse group of polyamorous guests, “Red Table Talk” broke down myths and stigma associated with non-monogamy. We talked to experts to further drill down what it’s all about.
“If (people) believe it can only end in unhappiness, well, many unhappy polyamorous people end up in my office, it’s true,” said Sheila Addison, a family and marriage therapist, “as do many unhappy monogamous people.”
In case you missed:Willow Smith has a very open talk with her mom and grandma about polyamory, ‘throuples’
What is polyamory?
Polyamory means “multiple loves” – a word coined in the late 20th century, with Greek and Latin roots.
“It usually describes a particular approach to (consensual non-monogamy) that prioritizes ongoing emotional and sexual connections with multiple partners,” Addison said. It’s not to be confused with polygamy, aka “multiple wives” – something typically associated with religious or cultural practices, she said.
In the U.S. it dates back at least to the “Free Love” and transcendentalist movements in the 19th century, though it grew popular with the counterculture and sexual liberation movements of 1960s and early 1970s, according to Adrienne Davis, vice provost of faculty affairs and diversity at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I believe one could say that it is in a third wave today, with many people practicing it, especially on the West Coast and Pacific Northwest,” Davis said. According to a 2016 study that sampled U.S. Census data from single adults, 20% of participants reported engaging in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lifetime.
Kitchen-table polyamory and more terms explained
There are many different terms associated with polyamory, including:
- Consensual or ethical non-monogamy. These terms are synonymous and ways to describe polyamorous relationships. Polyamory is a type of consensual non-monogamy, per Psychology Today.
- Solo polyamory. This is when “polyamorists have multiple relationships but do not become intertwined with the other people,” Davis said.
- Kitchen-table polyamory. A family-like bond between partners is encouraged. The web of all these relationships is referred to as a “polycule.”
An example of kitchen-table polyamory is seen in action on “Red Table Talk.” Gabrielle Smith, an ethical non-monogamy educator who practices solo polyamory, appears on the episode with her boyfriend Alex Vicenzi. He is married and also has other romantic partners; Smith is friendly with his wife, and they all spent time together during the holiday season.
And another:Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith talk ‘swooning’ over women in candid ‘Red Table Talk’ clip
A brief history on monogamy
The idea of life-long or serial monogamy is embedded in most cultures. Historically, “women are more stigmatized for having multiple sexual partners at the same time, or across their lifespan, than men are,” said Addison.
Monogamy has also been favored for biological reasons, according to Gabrielle Usatynski, a psychotherapist in Colorado.
“Many polyamory advocates propagate the myth that monogamy is a ‘mere blip’ on the screen of human history which arose recently as a result of industrial capitalism and isolated suburban living,” Usatynski said. “But the truth is that humans have been pair-bonding for hundreds of thousands of years in order to ensure survival.”
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Are polyamorous relationships just ‘about sex’?
“It still sounds to me like the major motivation is sexual,” Banfield-Norris said during the episode, still trying to learn.
Smith said that’s not the case.
“Let’s say you’re not the kind of person who has wanted to have sex all the time, but your partner is. Are you going to be the person to say just because I don’t have these needs you can’t have them either?” she said. “I was introduced to it through a non-sexual lens. In my friend group, I am the only polyamorous person and I have the least sex.”
Some people are in for sex but others are for emotional intimacy or a combination of the two, Davis said.
Addison added: “Some people who are asexual and/or aromantic may identify as polyamorous as well, but their descriptions and boundaries around their relationships are going to be personal and self-defined in those cases.”
Trust is key for polyamorous relationships
“I did things that I said I would never do when I was in my fits of jealousy,” Smith said of her pre-polyamorous life. “That made me realize just how much I need to step back and work on myself.”
Experts agree the one thing that is needed above all else in polyamorous relationships is trust.
“Trust is paramount,” Davis said. “That rests on setting the norms … and then strong and transparent communication about needs, which may evolve. Talking through jealousy, rather than trying to suppress it, is key.”
Addison said jealousy should not be viewed as an obstacle.
“Stop thinking of jealousy as something to ‘combat,’ she said. “It’s an emotion. Thoughts may not always make sense, but emotions always do. Emotion is the smoke that says there’s a fire somewhere.”
Usatynski added: “Telling someone to combat jealousy is a bit like telling them to step out the window and ‘combat’ the force of gravity.”
Effy Blue, a relationship coach, suggested ways to combat jealousy during the “Red Table Talk” episode:
- Calm yourself.
- Figure out what’s triggering you.
- Talk to your partner.
- Meet needs yourself.
- Recognize compersion (joy for someone else’s joy that doesn’t have to do with you) versus jealousy.
Davis said polyamory can be sustainable and has inherit benefits for some people.
“Many people are not emotionally or physically satisfied by one person for their entire lives,” she said. “I cannot think of any non-religious reason why people should be satisfied only one person.”
What if I am still skeptical about polyamory?
That’s OK! Just because someone else does it doesn’t mean you have to.
Usatynski is a skeptic and thinks most people aren’t well-suited for the practice.
“I believe that polyamorists have a lot of ideas about what they think they should be able to do in relationships and what they think of as an ‘enlightened’ relationships, but that these ideas fly in the face of basic evolutionary and neurobiological science,” she said.
She adds that most people would feel threatened if their long-term partner wanted to be emotionally or sexually intimate with someone else, and that when push comes to shove polyamorous relationships are difficult to maintain – especially when kids and the regular chaos of life are involved.
“Quite frankly, it all falls apart under the stress, demands and responsibilities of modern life,” she added.
Don’t scoff at the idea of it completely, though.
“Many purported monogamists would be better served by openly embracing polyamory,” Davis argued. “When we look at the numbers of so-called monogamists who seek additional relationships, it may be the case that monogamy is not the majority orientation we believe it is.”
Jada Pinkett Smith just wants her daughter to love herself.
“As long as you are learning to have the greatest love affair with Willow, I’m OK with whatever you do,” she said on “Red Table Talk.”
Banfield-Norris echoed a similar sentiment: “As I’m sitting here I’m recognizing it’s not really all that important for me to understand … it’s important that I be able to listen without judgment and let you do your thing.”