My ex-husband and I had a relatively amicable divorce, and when he had started dating his new girlfriend (now wife), a mutual friend and I went to their house for dinner. Our friend was originally from San Francisco and conversation turned to talk of polyamory, that multiple-partner non-monogamy the Bay Area is rife with. My ex-husband's girlfriend stared at us in bafflement. She was from Nebraska, and had never heard of such a thing. "Polyamory?" she said with uncertainty. "That sounds like a made-up word for slutty."
"Polyamorous" is a made-up word (it was first used in the early '90s), but it's not a made-up concept. People across cultures have been loving more than one person at a time, engaging in multiple-partner relationships, and having open and varied sexual play for thousands of years. Even the whole European concept of "courtly love", which our modern ideas of romance are based upon, is a fundamentally polyamorous expression. After all, courtiers were supposed to feel this newfangled romantic love for people other than their spouses.
In modern practice, there are two main types of polyamory: First, there's what's known as a hierarchical model, where there is a core partnership (often known as "primary" partners), each of whom may date or engage in sexual contact with people outside that relationship. Hierarchical poly practitioners often negotiate strict rules of contact to ensure there are no boundary transgressions — such as loving a secondary partner more than feels acceptable to the primary partner. Non-hierarchical polyamorists, in contrast, believe in maintaining a number of separate-but-equal relationships, which can manifest as anything from dating a few people at once to living in group marriages (a group of three might be called a "triad", while a group of four is often called a "quad"). Every polyamorous relationship relies on open discussion of rules and boundaries; there is a running joke among poly people that you always spend way more time talking about your feelings than you do having sex with your multiple partners.
Even with all the discussion, this relationship model may not work for everybody — no matter how much they might want it to. I spoke to a few different people about their experiences with polyamory and nonmonogamy. Their stories reflect the wide range of emotions that accompany these complex relationships; no one story is the same.
Karen is in her early 30s. She lives in Toronto with a male partner, whom she has been dating for over five years, and has a woman she considers her life partner, whom she has been close to for approximately three years. She also has other relationships, including a serious boyfriend who lives in the United States, and both her live-in partner and life partner have other relationships as well.
"Monogamy has never made sense to me, at least as a relationship structure (although I know it works well for other people). Emotionally, it makes no sense to me to think that my love for one person diminishes my ability to love others. I also hate the idea that while I might be emotionally close to a range of people, the fact that I only have sex with one person would be the defining feature of my relationship.
"Before I heard about poly, I remember reading about women like Simone de Beauvoir and Frida Kahlo and knowing that brilliant women, at least, could have relationships that worked differently. And, I remember vaguely thinking that maybe if I could manage to be brilliant I would be 'allowed' to do what made sense for me. For a long time I tried to be in monogamous relationships, especially after early attempts to negotiate open relationships failed, because they felt like the only option available to me. But, they made me feel angry and resentful. When I learned that 'poly' was a thing and that I wasn't alone — and didn't have to be some kind of bohemian genius to make things work — it was a tremendous relief.
"Poly feels like it's really central to who I am, and it's tightly interwoven with other aspects of my identity. Poly for me is strongly tied to the importance I place on individual autonomy in the context of healthy communities. I know that means that in the future — as in the past — there are people who I might love who I just can't be with, because poly won't work for them. That's sad. Sometimes that's heartbreaking. But, it's also unavoidable.
"There are a heap of benefits. Having the freedom to explore new feelings with people, being able to be honest with my partners and lovers (and allowing them to be honest with me), feeling like I'm connected to a web of love and care. There are also so many small moments of joy: cooking a meal for my partners or being excited to hear about a partner's new love."
Rina is an engineer in her mid-30s living in San Francisco. She was in a polyamorous relationship for five years with a married man that eventually ended after she realized that her partner's relationship with her was interfering with his stated desires to have children with his wife.
"I considered myself poly for about six years. My first impressions were very exciting and adult. I was introduced to the concept by someone I had just met. He had a partner, but explained they were in an open relationship. I believe my reaction was something along the lines of "Yahtzee!"
"In the abstract, I think it makes sense. Love does not need to be limited, and it's possible to love more than one person at the same time. It was never the concept I had issues with, rather it was the often tragic implementation of it. The reality is that time is finite, and energy is finite, and babies and cultural markers of commitment (from marriage to words like "partner") are finite. I have yet to see anyone truly carry on a polyamorous relationship that hasn't disintegrated into drama or been reduced down to a monogamous partnership over time. It's just too much damned work and I, for one, would rather spend my time swimming or devoting myself to a great job or starting a family rather than processing and debugging a complex relationship arrangement for the rest of my life. I came to recognize that for me, poly was a way of dating and boosting my ego, maintaining social connections, and deflecting codependent tendencies in myself.
"I have yet to see anyone pull it off without major doses of drama and bullshit and ego and pain. Harsh, but true. Some poly relationships last a while (like my five year one!), but in the end, in my experience, they all crash and burn. And, when poly relationships crash and burn, it's exponentially more ugly because of the blurred lines and emotions involved. It's also a lot of work and overhead, and takes a lot of time to maintain poly relationships effectively for any period of time. And, that shit gets really tiring."
Ben lives in New York and is in his late 20s. While he has been nonmonogamous with a partner, he has never been in a polyamorous relationship.
"My earliest exposure to poly was gay couples in "open" relationships. I thought it was a great way to remain committed to someone while not feeling restricted sexually to one single person. However, I got the impression that most of the members of those couples were simply "shopping around" for someone better than their current partner while avoiding the loneliness and isolation of being single.
"My views on what constitutes polyamory and its theoretical framework have changed, and I gradually came to see it as a legitimate method to challenge the heteronormative frameworks that dictate our lives, frameworks that approve and privilege certain relationships over others. In that theoretical sense, I would be more likely to engage in polyamory. But, I don't know.
"There are still a lot of misconceptions about the idea, and I'm sure I still have a lot myself, but it's something that I would be willing to try — with the right person, at the right time, in the right situation. I don't think it's for everyone, and I'm not even sure how to not feel jealous about the idea of my partner loving and/or having sex with other people, but those are my possessive issues that I need to work on before considering being committed to even one person to start with. Going into a relationship starting off poly and negotiating the idea when you're in the thick of monogamy are two very different scenarios.
"Poly involves a lot of communication and scheduling, so much so that I'd think it'd be hard to even realize if you're in a relationship—or if you are, what is it? Perhaps the ambiguity of where things could go or progress or how to get more "serious" would bother me."
Reprinted with permission from Refinery29. Want more?