I am polyamorous. I am in a committed relationship with my live-in partner (or house-spouse, as we prefer), and we place upon each other few – if any – limits to what amicable, sexual and even romantic relationships we form and cultivate elsewhere.
As of the time of writing, my partner has a second boyfriend, and we both have several relationships with what might a tad reductionistically be called “lovers”.
Most people might have heard the term “polyamory” and have a general idea of what it means (“open relationship, right?”) – but few people have met someone who is openly “poly”. This is because a lot of people who live their lives as I do are met with scepticism, distrust and even disgust and out-right slut-shaming when they talk about it openly. Or accusations of trying to force it on others.
I am – as a straight, white man – only ever met with fascination when I talk about it, of course. So, while I have your attention and fascination, I hope you will let me demystify polyamory a bit.
The first and maybe most important thing to note, is that polyamory is not a monolith. “Polyamory” is an umbrella term that covers all sort of things with differing philosophies and lifestyles.
It might exclusively pertain to the sexual: such as having an open relationship, i.e. allowing for (at least certain) sexual relations outside of an otherwise traditional two-person relationship; or participating in “swinging”, which is when couples or groups of couples meet to have sex alongside each-other – sometimes also with partner swapping and even orgies.
But these are only the stereotypical expressions of polyamory – which many polyamorists, including myself, only view as nominally polyamorous without a similar approach to love too. The more interesting and appropriately labelled forms of polyamory – if perhaps less salacious on the face of it – are the ones pertaining to unorthodox approaches to love and relationships. Such as three or more people forming a relationship and a family together, with everyone as equal partners in love and life. Or maybe several couples who live together where they form a family together, but only some intermingle in sex and love. Or maybe relationship anarchy, where everyone is free to form as many strong or weak ties to as many people as they wish – whether they call themselves [gender]friends of not. Or a “primary” couple who establish a life together while also allowing for “secondary” partners.
There is a diversity of polyamorous relationships so great and sometimes complicated that I could not possibly cover much of it in this article. I will therefore focus primarily on the underlying philosophy of my own experience with it, which I find to be somewhat universal for polyamorous couples at least in its essence.
Polyamory 201 – Deconstructing the Dogma of Relationships
Many people have misgivings about polyamory. “It’s perverted”. “It’s unnatural”. “It might be fun for a bit, but after a while it’s all going to come crashing down.”
I must admit that I too have had all of these misgivings. I mean “polyamory”?! Geez. It is quite the salacious indulgence just on the face of it. “Poly-“ Greek for “many”, and “amour” Latin for “love”: “Many loves”. Preposterous! But I have to admit that even through my misgivings, I got curious early on. Because although many have decried it, a lot of people seem happy with it. So, I tried it for a while, and I found that I rather liked it. Even though I still feel slightly icky with the concept of coupling a Greek prefix to a Latin word. Properly, it should be “polyerosi” or “multiamory”, or something, but the former sends the wrong message and the latter sounds like an arsenal with very diverse weaponry. And neither is as catchy or easy to say as “polyamory”.
For let us now dig in deep and answer some questions. Isn’t monogamy what’s natural? Don’t you get jealous? Did you really get cucked by your girlfriend? If you really love someone, you won’t want someone else. What about STDs? What about time and resources? What about children?
To answer these questions: No. Sometimes, but that’s besides the point. Hehe, yes, technically. That’s not a question. STDs exist, yes. Yeah, what about them? STDs exist, yes.
To take this more seriously, no, monogamy is not natural – or if it is, we are fucking bad at it! People cheat on each other more often and more commonly than we like to admit. And even when we do not cheat on each other, we lust after other people and sometimes even fall in love with someone other than our partners. Now, we are socialised to think that this means that there is something wrong with our relationships (or with ourselves) if we are not a 100% committed to our partner in heart, body and mind. “If you really love someone, you won’t want someone else”, right?
But what if I told you that it is perfectly possible to be in a in a happy and committed relationship and still be attracted to other people? To be perfectly happy and stable with your partner and still fall in love with someone else?
The former should be rather obvious. That people watch pornography to masturbate is commonly accepted and tolerated, and although some might not like to think too much about it, it’s only a short logical leap from your partner being attracted to people in porn to being attracted to people in their lives. The latter, that you can fall for and love more than one person at a time, is not so obviously true, even though it should be. We tell our children and sometimes even our extended family that we love them all equally – that love is not a zero-sum game. If we have enough love to freely pass it around to our children, our siblings, our parents and grandparents and sometimes even cousins, uncles and aunts and nieces and nephews and friends – why should it be any different with our romantic entanglements? The obvious truth is that it isn’t. Romantic love most often has a sexual dimension that familial love (hopefully) does not have, but it is otherwise not too dissimilar. No one would ever shame someone for wanting two kids or two friends, now why should wanting two romantic partners be any different?
But what about jealousy, you might ask. Well, jealousy never exists in a vacuum. It is usually the result of personal insecurity, fear of losing your partner or lack of trust. These are natural and common things to be worried about, but I personally find it baffling how we just let the resulting jealousy rule our romantic behaviour! It is perfectly possible to be jealous of a friend’s new friend(s), but we do not then turn around and declare that that is not only acceptable but also the natural norm, and that “poly-friend-y” is not for everyone. Also, young children sometimes become jealous of their new-born siblings, but we explain to them that there is room and love enough for them both. Yes, we are not accustomed to thinking in these terms when it comes to romantic relationships, but the underlying structure is the same as with family and friendships, and I would strongly recommend at least acknowledging this, if perhaps not following it to its logical conclusion.
For the truth is, that healthy polyamorous relationships do not try to avoid jealousy – they try to deal with its underlying causes. Personal insecurities? That shit is not healthy anyway and needs to be acknowledged and worked on. Afraid of losing your partner? Well, holding on too hard and restricting your partner too much might end up feeling suffocating and thus have the opposite effect (“grass is always greener” and “forbidden fruit”, right?). Don’t trust your partner? Then why the fuck are you with that person anyway.
While I think that the underlying reasons for jealousy should be acknowledged and worked on, I recognise that taking the next step of opening a romantic relationship up to other sexual and romantic entanglements might not work for or be of interest to everyone. But I hope that I have at least made it seem less foreign and unnatural.
Now what about STDs? Use condoms and get checked often, which you should do anyway, even if you’re in a monogamous relationship (at least once in a while, just to be safe). What about time and resources? Yes, there is a question of logistics and practical limits to how many partners you can maintain. But that is true of any relationship. There is (or at least should be) a practical limit to how many children and close friendships you can possibly have. What about children? Now, that is a can of worms that I do not want to go into here, other than to mention that the most important thing for a child is to have a stable and loving home, and that there is more than one way to provide that.
Polyamory 301 – a Case Study
One of the best lessons I have learned from being in a polyamorous relationship is to communicate. Given that there is no cultural “script” for how to be polyamorous, there is bound to be some stumbling around and stepping on some toes in the process. Being open and honest about your actual needs and wants is important in all relationships and learning to communicate well is not exclusive to polyamory, of course. But the difference is that you are kinda forced to communicate better more quickly and to a greater extent in a polyamorous relationship. My partner and I have been forced to have quite a few conversations about rules and lack of rules, often adjusting and refining them as our real needs and wants have been gradually revealed both to each other and to ourselves. It would be an entire article in-and-of itself just to go through the journey we have had so far, but I will at least describe our current relationship dynamic and our attitudes towards love and sex and relationships:
I should perhaps start by mentioning that we both wanted a polyamorous relationship from the very beginning (although we did not know to call it that back then). Neither of us talked the other into anything, just to avoid that unhelpful stereotype.
I myself do not get jealous – or I have yet to experience it, at least – so I do not care much about what my partner does, as long as she is safe and responsible and happy. My partner does get jealous, and it took a while and several dozen conversations to figure out the reasons that triggered it. We initially thought it was “normal” jealousy that we tried to confront, but that did not fit the lack of pattern, as she was also sometimes neutral towards my “lovers”, and other times even happy about them. We then thought she was more comfortable when she knew them personally, otherwise she did not want to know too much. Turns out she is just uncomfortable not knowing what’s going on. So now I keep her up to date, not always directly about who I am seeing, but at least that I am seeing someone.
And while on the subject of jealousy, do I not fear losing my partner to her other boyfriend? Or she me to one of my “lovers” or perhaps a future love interest? The answer is no, but most likely not for the reasons you might expect.
I have already mentioned that holding on too hard is not healthy, and that restricting the behaviour of your partner might increase rather than decrease the risk of losing them. It might seem counterintuitive, but we both very much think it less likely that we will lose each other while operating polyamorously. Forbidden fruit cannot really exist the way we operate, and it is hard to believe that the grass is always greener when you can freely jump the fence. But yes, it is possible that one of us could find someone we would rather like to live with in a faraway city or something, thus making it hard to continue our current relationship. If that is the case, it would be sad, but we both
ultimately want what is best for the other person. If that is being with someone else, then neither of us feelwe can legitimately deny the other a better match and a better life.
But losing your partner is a risk that exists for monogamous relationships too. The only difference I see in this between a “poly” and a “mono” relationship, is that the former is better equipped to handle those situations. Both because this problem would arise more rarely, for the reasons argued above, and because in poly relationships, we are more used to operating with and communicating about romantic feelings towards other people.
As for our relationship structure, we have currently fallen into what is sometimes called “hierarchical polyamory”, meaning that we are de-facto operating with a “primary” relationship of her and me, with her other boyfriend as “secondary”, and I suppose our other friends-with-benefits being “tertiary” or something. I am, however, not trying to flex my “primary” status towards my partner’s other boyfriend’s “secondary”. It is simply the result of her and me living together; we are not opposed to including someone else in our relationship and home in the future, we just do not know what that might look like.
As any couple, we make sure to spend enough time together. Her having a second boyfriend whom she is also spending time with is not impacting my time with her, just as spending time with friends in a “normal” relationship is not problematic. The same goes for our “lovers”.
Otherwise, we have trained ourselves to talk about problems and hick-ups as soon as they arise, sometimes even before we know what is troubling us and why. We also realize that our needs and wants might change over time, and thus our “rules” or attitudes are always subject to review. To put it somewhat poetically, relationships are conversations that never end and never should. It is as much a process as a state of being, for humans never stagnate, so if we allow our relationships to do so, they are doomed to fail.
Today, we are happy “sleeping around” and having romantic partners other than each other, and – although we find it unlikely – we do acknowledge that this might change in the future. If it does, we will talk about it then and together decide what to do and what not to do.
As our relationships and we ourselves change, we will discover and confront the potential consequences as they come. As any and every healthy relationship should.
Written by Emil Olai