--The truth about polyamory
At 19, Emer O’Toole had a boyfriend and a girlfriend – but no word for the arrangement. Now, like a growing number of people, she does: polyamory. She and her friends reveal what life is like with more than one lover
Last summer, at a friend’s birthday, a man sat next to me, explained that he’d heard I was polyamorous and asked if we could talk about it. He proceeded to explain that he’s a poly person at heart, but that his partner would never go for it: that’s why he cheated on her. I asked if he’d tried communicating about the kind of relationship he really wanted. No. He couldn’t. His partner was too traditional, too closed-minded. I asked how he’d feel if she became romantically involved with someone else. This was a moot point – she would simply never do that. Oh dear.
Polyamory is usually described as ethical non-monogamy – that is, non-monogamy with the consent and knowledge of all involved. But, of course, there are infinitesimal interpretations of that. Whose ethics? Which actions need consent? What exactly do we want or need to know?
Serial monogamy characterised my early romantic life, as it does for many people. By 19, I’d already had four “serious” relationships, each lasting between six and 18 months, and each pursued with the unwavering belief that I’d found my one and only true and lasting love (again).
However, around that time, I also had a period of polyamory. I had no word for it but, for a while, I was dating two people, who were aware of each other and who seemed content to date me anyway. “Emer’s got a boyfriend and a girlfriend!” my friends teased, remarkably cool about my queer polyness in an Irish town where the majority would have prescribed immediate and urgent exorcism. And, as lucky as it was that I managed to count some of the most supportive people in Galway as my besties, it’s also pretty interesting that I found my way to something resembling polyamory in the first place. After all, there’d been no signposts: I’d never seen poly relationships on TV or in real life.
Looking back, I wish I’d had a word. And more: some stuff to read – a copy of What Does Polyamory Look Like? or a poly web-comic such as Kimchi Cuddles. I lacked the tools I needed to communicate and behave in loving, respectful ways; to do poly right. And, unsurprisingly, I made a balls of everything. Like monogamy, poly needs work. But, perhaps unlike monogamy, it also helps to have some theory. You can’t just imitate the patterns you see around you.
This raises another question: why is polyamory becoming more widespread? If it takes so much communication to get right and if, having achieved something that works for you and the people you love, you have to deal with constant judgment by others, well, why bother?
I’m not trying to convert anybody (although a mass poly baptism does sound like a fun day out). And I know that when I talk about the potential benefits of poly, people can perceive it as an attack on monogamy: as if the statement “Poly people work hard to deconstruct the negative emotion of jealousy” is actually code for “All monogamous people are jealous arseholes”.
All the same, one obvious way to answer the question “Why poly?” is that it offers benefits that monogamy doesn’t (just as mono offers benefits that poly doesn’t). There’s something about the dedication to honesty and emotional work involved in poly that fosters self-knowledge, trust and compersion (poly-speak for happiness in your partner’s romantic happiness). I’m not saying that similar kinds of intimacy can’t be achieved in monogamous relationships; just that lots of poly people find the emphasis on honest, non-judgmental emotional communication a marked change from their previous experiences.
Another way to answer the question “Why poly?” is to look away from invidividuals’ choices and towards wider social structures. If you take the Marxist line that capitalism requires the nuclear family, because the logic of accumulating private property only really works if wealth is hereditary, then it’s interesting that we’re living in a time when the family is diversifying so rapidly. We have stepfamilies; gay families; single parent families; and – less common than any of these, but certainly on the rise – poly families. Perhaps these are not just the result of individuals’ choices, but a sign that the economic underpinnings of our society are in flux. Perhaps we’re in (or approaching) a period of late capitalism, and poly is one of the signs of this.
Enough philosophising! After my brief and unintentional period of poly as a teen, I returned to serial monogamy, endeavouring to make each relationship I embarked upon the relationship, experiencing all the exciting, loved-up highs and all the weepy, heartbroken lows. Jealousy – mine and others’ – was often an issue. Also, in two instances, relationships began when I was asked to be monogamous. I would have preferred something more open, but this wasn’t on the table. Each time, I caved to my partner’s needs, because I cared, and because I felt guilty for even wanting something different.
Near the end of my time in London, and coming out of a catastrophically awful breakup, I decided to stay single for as long as possible. I dated some great people, but my emotional needs weren’t being met. I talked about this with one of the aforesaid great people. “Maybe poly isn’t for me,” I mused. He laughed. “Emer, you’re not so much polyamorous as sleeping around.” Harsh, but fair.
Thankfully, I moved to Montreal, Canada: a city bursting with queer polyamorous anarcho-artivist yoga-vegans, where I am – at long last – the least out-there person at any party. Montreal offered me real-life models of poly relationships: of things working, not working and being worked on.
At the risk of sounding disgustingly smitten, my love life is pretty dreamy right now. I’m moving in with a partner for the first time ever, something I’d never seriously considered before. Love. It’s real! Even better, I could build this love without ending another very important relationship. Instead of feeling as though I’m living within a restrictive set of rules, guiltily desiring secret things, I feel as though we’re writing the rules together.
But that’s just me and I’m just one person. And since there are as many types of poly as there are poly people, I asked five friends if they would let me share their stories, too.
Layla and her husband Dylan met at university; they’ve been together for 15 years and married for 12. They have a child. They’re still besotted.
“Near the beginning of our relationship, we had a conversation where we realised that, though we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, romantic and sexual fidelity was just not that important to us,” Layla says.
Layla cheated on every boyfriend she’d had before Dylan. She was scared she’d do it again and mess everything up. Dylan had only had one serious partner before Layla and, partly because he’s a queer man, he felt there were important life experiences that he might miss out on. So they became monogamish. Over the course of a decade and a half, Dylan has experimented sexually all of twice, while Layla found that knowing she could have other loves meant she was less inclined to. In that time, she’s had two romantic friendships – not quite lovers, but more than just friends.
Layla and Dylan always talk when they have feelings for others, and they wouldn’t continue a flirtation without the other’s agreement. “We’re reasonable grownups,” Layla says, “and it works for us.” They don’t tell many people they’re poly, fearing judgment and even career repercussions. So now you’re part of the special club that knows.
“I’ve always had crushes on everyone,” Sage says. “I used to feel guilty about it.” She doesn’t any more. In her early relationships, Sage was cheated on. It was painful, but her reasoned response was, “Why don’t we make this an OK thing to do?”
She shifted into poly by degrees, not using the word at first, but feeling increasingly fulfilled in relationships where she could be loving yet independent. Sage is one of the busiest humans I know – if she’s not teaching free workshops on how to create urban gardens, she’s organising a feminist protest or rehearsing with her latest bandmates. This caused problems in previous relationships, and it makes sense that she’s gravitated towards partners who respect the time and space she needs to be herself.
Many poly people have a primary relationship and secondary relationships, but Sage doesn’t like the idea of hierarchies. She has two partners and many close friends. She thinks it’s important to remember all of the relationships in her life, not just the romantic ones.
Poly hasn’t always been easy for Sage. There was a period when she was going through some very difficult issues and her two partners (not her current ones) weren’t able to give her the support she needed. “When my mental health isn’t good, polyamory can add strain,” she says. Poly takes a lot of emotional work, after all, and sometimes you’re lacking emotional resources. “But then,” she muses, “it’s easier to maintain monogamous relationships when you’re in a stable place, too.”
The poly family
Yuli can’t talk about her partner without a kind of dazed smile. A parent to three small children, Yuli split with her ex just over a year ago, though things had been rocky for a while. Her new relationship has given her not just a new love, but also a poly family. She’s in love with Helen, who has a stable, happy and longstanding primary relationship. Helen’s primary, Sam, also has a secondary partner, Bea. It’s a poly Z.
As a separated parent with a full-time job, Yuli can use the extra adults in her life right now. She tells me about trying to throw a brunch for the Z in its entirety, only to find herself exhausted after a difficult night with the kids. Helen, Sam and Bea arrived, told her to sit down, cooked, served, cleaned and took the children to the park.
Yuli feels supported as a mother, a lover and a friend, and she sees in Helen and Sam a model of how well poly relationships can work. “I admire Helen and Sam’s relationship, without wanting it for myself. And it’s really nice to be in a place where I sincerely care about my metamour [polyspeak for your partner’s partner].” While she’s had non-monogamous relationships in the past, this is Yuli’s first genuinely poly experience and she feels happy, grateful and, you know, in love.
Kelly met Rowan at a dance party and asked her on a date. On the date, Rowan explained that she was polyamorous and asked if Kelly might be open to it. Kelly was hesitant, but she really liked Rowan. She read some poly literature and they talked about it a lot. But, soon, Kelly and Rowan were all wrapped up in buzzy new relationship energy and only had eyes for each other. When they finally got around to having crushes on other people, they communicated well, but Kelly was still nervous.
Then Kelly’s company transferred her to another city for six months – it was a great career opportunity, but a challenging prospect in terms of maintaining the health of a new poly relationship. Kelly knew Rowan had a crush on someone, but asked her to wait until she came back before allowing something new to develop. Rowan agreed but, a few months in, tried to renegotiate this boundary, confusing and upsetting Kelly.
Now that the pair are back in the same city, their relationship is a little shaken from the distance and the poly issues it raised. Rowan and her crush are developing a relationship, and Kelly has also started dating someone new. Kelly was surprised to find that Rowan, the more experienced poly partner, is feeling a lot of insecurity.
Does Kelly think long-distance and poly might be a recipe for disaster? “Not necessarily. If you had a well-established and stable primary relationship, it could even make things easier – you wouldn’t have to go weeks without intimacy.”
How does Kelly feel about poly now? “I like that my poly relationship is less co-dependent than past relationships – we both have our own friends and social lives. It’s been exciting transitioning from theory to practice. I realise now that it will take a lot more time and energy than I initially expected, but that doesn’t mean poly can’t work.”
“Poly is just really important to me,” Claire says. She’s been in poly relationships since her early 20s, with brief pockets of monogamy. And she’s loved Fred, her primary partner, for 15 years in various capacities. When they first got together, Fred told Claire he couldn’t do poly: it was monogamy or nothing.
It lasted four years. “I was strictly monogamous,” Claire says, “but couldn’t squish myself into a box small enough to make him feel secure. So, painfully, I broke it off. We didn’t see each other for years, and each grew up. I never stopped loving him and when we met again, the passion was just as intense. But this time, it was me who laid down the ultimatum: poly or nada.”
Claire knew that, otherwise, she’d end up resentful. “And, besides, there’s the greater principle that my body is mine.” As a queer woman, she doesn’t want to limit her sexuality. As a kinkster, she wants to attend play parties and remain part of the community. And as someone who’s been a sex worker at various points in her life, she wants sex work to remain an option for her. In short, she doesn’t think what she does with her body should be anyone’s decision but her own.
As their relationship deepened, Fred’s insecurities came flooding back. Despite being deeply in love, Claire and Fred aren’t sure they can reconcile their different needs. But they’re trying.
Let’s wish them well. Because that’s what poly is about: finding ways to love that work for you.
• Some names have been changed.
Originally Published in the Guardian
Saturday 25 April 2015 20.30 AEST