Here’s the final blog post that I’ve written for TINO (so far- I’m about to write another one). This is a surprisingly special one as I’ve had about a dozen people leaving comments on the website talking about how relatable they found it after experiencing so much shame and social backlash. I find it very humbling and very wonderful to provide a small space where the discussion of an unspoken, but apparently common ideal can be shared without retribution. If you haven’t read it already, I hope you enjoy the article.
Polyamory is the idea of having multiple partners at the same time. It is a form of “ethical non-monogamy”- that is to say, it is a consensual choice to not be limited to having only one romantic partner at a time. It is entirely different from non-ethical non-monogamy (i.e., cheating, or having multiple partners without their informed consent). A lot of stigma exists against people who choose to live a polyamorous lifestyle, and this article is intended to have a brief look into what it means to be polyamorous and debunk some of the myths surrounding it. Polyamory isn’t for everyone, and that’s fantastic! We’re all different, and I’m not trying to promote one thing or the other: I just want to share some information about different ways of relating to people. I feel this is especially important for issues that are largely unspoken, because they are so misunderstood. This blog post is for anyone who wants to learn more about another perspective on relationships.
As I said, polyamory is an ethical form of non-monogamy, and it literally means “many loves”- it basically refers to being in a relationship with more than one person at a time. It is distinct from “monogamy”, which means having only one romantic partner in your life at a time. Perhaps like me you thought it didn’t exist in the Western world, but polyamory has always existed, and will continue to exist wherever people want to connect to one another. Like any other sub-culture (e.g. your local queer community, or your group of anime/manga fans), it is likely that there is a polyamorous community living in your area, doing their own thing and being part of society without threatening its structural integrity in any way. It’s always been there, and your life probably hasn’t been adversely affected by its existence.
I’d like to make it clear that I am not challenging the virtues of monogamy: it is and has always been a meaningful way of relating to people. However, this doesn’t inherently make it ethical: depending on your social values, certain relationships can be seen as harmful. For example, most people would consider it non-ethical for a brother to start a sexual relationship with his sister. Similarly, there is non-ethical non-monogamy: for example, having multiple partners who don’t know about each other. Simply put, cheating and infidelity have literally destroyed lives. What I must make clear is that I’m not saying that polyamory is better than monogamy or vice versa, but that our understandings of what is acceptable and what is taboo is due to value-laden social and cultural conditioning. What’s important is not whether you’re monogamous or non-monogamous, but whether or not you act ethically in the way you relate to people.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
I’d like to put forward a bizarre idea: all of us are polyamorous.
Think about the people in your life that matter to you. Not just romantically, but as friends, neighbours, community members, family, distant acquaintances. You have a relationship with every single one of them. Some of them are really great to talk to about topics that you share a passion for. Others give warm hugs when you feel low. Some of them are excellent tennis partners but lousy friends, while others are really amazing to have sex with. When we use the word “relationship”, we tend to think of it in a romantic way, but it literally means how we relate to one another. And in that sense, you most definitely have multiple important relationships. This is essentially polyamory. And although polyamorous relationships aren’t necessarily based on romance, this is largely what I’m going to focus on for this blog post.
Bizarre idea number two: you can romantically love more than one person in your life.
Have you ever had a break up with someone you loved? I remember when I had just turned fifteen and I broke up with my first serious girlfriend, V, after nearly two years. Although I was still relatively young, my love was profoundly real, and it hurt deeply when our relationship ended. I swore that day that I would never love again, that I would carry the pain of the separation in my heart like a knife every day. I’m still not completely over her, but fortunately time has a way of dulling the pain and I’ve since renounced that vow. It allowed me to meet my current partner, Beth, who I can scarcely imagine being any more perfect for me.
My point is that even though you love or have loved someone, it’s possible to eventually love someone else. But what would have happened if I had met Beth while I was dating V? What if I discovered that I loved Beth, even though I was currently in a relationship with someone else? According to monogamy I’d have to choose between two very amazing people, and that choice would forever change the way that one of them would relate to me. Why is it okay to fall in love after you’re broken up, but horribly wrong to fall in love while you currently have a partner? As I’ve mentioned before, we rarely choose who we fall in love with, so why is it frowned upon so much?
Let me first say that every relationship is different. Just like every couple has rules and understandings that they know innately (leave the toilet seat down, don’t pester him before he’s had his coffee, when she’s studying she’d appreciate a little quiet etc.), every polyamorous couple/group/constellation has different ways of relating to one another. There are an infinite number of relationship possibilities.
- Sasha might be seeing both Ben and Ivan.
- James might be sleeping with Madeline, but also enjoy cuddling and flirting and kissing Natalie without ever intending for it to go further.
- Bei might be seeing Adam, Michael, Zoe and Andrea and be sleeping with all of them. But Adam, Michael, Zoe and Andrea are not in the slightest bit interested in sleeping with each other- they might have their own relationships outside of the one with Bei, or they might not.
- Cathy, Jacque and Mikael might all act in the role of parents for their children, who all sleep in one big bed together.
- Any potential combination of more than one human being relating to another in a romantic way, regardless of whether sex is involved, is a kind of polyamorous relationship. How “romantic” is defined is up to the people in the relationship.
Complex, right? Well, maybe. But it’s not very different from being friends with two people who are fighting, or being part of friend groups that have completely different interests. You learn, subconsciously or otherwise, how to get on with the people that matter to you. Participants in complex constellations (my favourite word for referring to polyamorous groups) constantly negotiate their relationships and understandings of their roles in order to live harmoniously. And no combination of relationships is wrong as long as everyone gives informed consent (that is, as long as everyone understands what’s going on and is comfortable with it). If you and your partners have well-developed relationship skills, most potential difficulties will be possible to overcome with the intention to.
A DIFFERENT VALUE BASE
Love isn’t restrictive. It doesn’t bind people, and it doesn’t run out: it is free and accepting, without condition or restraint. Just because you love your boyfriend doesn’t mean you love your little brother any less, right? This, I feel, is the essential value behind polyamory. If I felt attracted to another woman, it doesn’t mean I’d love my girlfriend any less. And because Beth and I communicate freely, especially about the hard stuff, she would know that no one could ever replace her- no one could ever mean the same to me for the same reasons. Hopefully, if I was excited about meeting someone who nourished me, who provided for some need I had (someone to talk about my job with, or someone who made me feel especially attractive again) and made me happy, she would be happy for me too. As long as I wasn’t causing any damage to other relationships, and largely positive, happy, wonderful things were coming from relating to this other person, and Beth was totally fine with all of it, what would the real harm be?
This is not, absolutely not the same thing as cheating. All relationships are based on expectations. You might expect your neighbour not to use your spare key to help themselves to your sugar, just as you might expect your partner not to bring a new love interest home without talking to you about it first. Infidelity means breaking these expectations, which are different for everybody. If your partner understands that you would not like it if they had sex with someone else and then they do it anyway, that’s cheating. If you make it clear to your partner that you’re okay with them looking but not touching, and all you do is look, then that’s fine. If your partner is okay with you having one night stands, as long as you come back to them in the morning, that’s cool. These expectations are different to everybody, and it hurts just as much when someone betrays your trust, regardless of what you trusted them to do.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of polyamory, and that’s totally fine. Nobody should be forced to do anything that they’re not comfortable with. But this article is for anyone who is interested in learning a little bit more and getting a new perspective. I can personally see the potential in polyamory for solving or preventing a number of relationship troubles, not because anyone is doing anything “wrong”, but because the values we have as a monogamous society have drilled it into us that it’s tantamount to betrayal to be attracted to someone while you’re currently in a relationship. I find this kind of thinking unhelpful and limiting at best, and destructive and heartbreaking at worst. So while I’m not advocating everyone goes out there and hooks up with as many people simultaneously as feasible, I am hoping that anyone who has read this far gives a little thought to how their relationships could benefit by loving freely, not possessively.
A PERSONAL STORY
I’d like to end on a personal example of how one experience of polyamory enriched my life and my relationships. I was on holiday in Egypt and the UK, and I’d been away from Beth for almost a month. I’d spent the past fortnight with Arabic men and mostly middle-aged tourists, and so when I boarded a bus to tour the mountains of Scotland, it came as a surprise to see so many young people my age. Some chemical deep in my brain, consumed with longing for my girlfriend, latched onto the closest available girl who I found attractive. On those long bus rides I got to know Rachel quite well, and I found myself outrageously smitten by her. At the first opportunity I got, I emailed Bethwyn explaining how confused and guilty I felt to find infatuation so far from home. I talked about Rachel and how she made me feel, and I asked her very sincerely to let me know her reaction to everything I’d said and what she wanted me to do about it. The email I got in response still blows my mind.
Ever since we started looking into polyamory, initially as an assignment for uni, we’d had the idea at the back of our minds and had been mulling it over quietly. But now we were faced with a dilemma, and we had no idea how to proceed. Reading about it and living it are entirely two different things. Beth told me, with such love, trust and respect (all those wonderful ingredients of a healthy relationship), that I could enjoy flirting with Rachel without feeling guilty, and that I could enjoy her company while I had the opportunity. She thought she might be okay if, somehow, I ended up in a position where I might like to kiss her. But that was the line and she did not think she could process or accept any more than that without becoming upset.
After that my interest in Rachel plummeted. I was so overcome with how grateful and in love I was with Beth that I wasn’t even remotely attracted to the other girls on the bus. And although I’ve had crushes and fleeting attractions since, all of which have been accepted gracefully and lovingly, none of them have held a candle to my most wonderful girlfriend.
Although this story is, in a way, about the success of monogamy, the point I’m trying to make is that my relationship with Rachel (irrespective of the outcome) did not affect my relationship with Beth in a negative way at all. Indeed, it deepened the trust, respect and love I have for her, and I consider that a wonderful thing. When I stepped outside the artifice of internalised cultural values, I found that polyamory isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it has enormous potential in enriching relationships of every kind.
I hope you’ve found this article interesting, even valuable, and it gives you some ideas about how to improve your own personal relationships by looking at things from a new perspective. I wish you all the best.
A POST SCRIPT
For additional reading I highly recommend Easton and Hardy’s “The Ethical Slut” (2009), a highly engaging and well-written book. Don’t be misled by its title- it’s about reclaiming the right to express yourself as a sexual person, particularly in a polyamorous context. Although there is no such thing as an applicable step-by-step manual or instruction book for having a successful relationship (let alone multiple ones), it is a most excellent handbook to something so little spoken about in our societies today.