Welcome to part 2 of my existential musings about relationships and the ways we ‘meet and mate’ nowadays. For the backstory, read part 1. To jolt your memory, here’s where I left off:
But if I didn’t want marriage or monogamous partnership, what other choices did I have? What was there in the multifarious, shady world between casual sex and marriage?
Polyamory – poly what?
Polyamory is much more widely known now, but a couple of years ago it wasn’t, at least in my social circles and life experience. Until Week 2 of chatting on dating sites, I remained ignorant of the term, when I stumbled across a captivating young guy on OK Cupid.
It’s not that he was ‘good looking’; it’s that he was unusual and proud of it. Andrew’s profile announced his ‘poly’ status right from the get-go and his photo enthralled me. He was wearing funky sunglasses and black lipstick, a nerdy guy dressed in a pink tutu in a crowded festival setting. I fired off a jaunty message and not long afterwards he replied. Fantasy Mind loved the idea of developing a friendship with someone so openly rebellious, which felt like a breath of fresh air from my defiant past.
And so began my introduction to polyamory – ‘poly’ or ‘polyam’ for short. If you think you already know about poly, bear with me – it’s not all about the ‘hipsters’ and fucking around, although in certain circles there can be a very high level of promiscuity. The way I see it, behind polyamory there’s a genuine notion of questioning the status quo – and I’m all for that.
Let’s look at what it’s not: It’s not religious; it’s not polygamy; it’s not sexist or favouring men or women (poly can be adopted by any adult); it’s not ‘swinging’ and certainly it’s not just having casual sex with whoever takes your fancy.
According to the ‘bible’ of poly, Morethantwo, polyamory is:
“…the fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, especially in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.”
You might not know that the fabulous French early feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, spent a lifelong polyamorous relationship with philosopher John Paul Sartre that she termed “the one undoubted success in my life”.
The Guardian writer, Laura Smith says that, “in terms of longevity, they had about half of us beat: their relationship, which allowed for affairs while they remained essential partners, lasted 51 years until Sartre’s death in 1980.”
Emer O’Toole, also in The Guardian, adds to the list of what poly is not, “It isn’t a disregard for the agreements you share with people you love. And it certainly isn’t positioning monogamous people as more blindly traditional or less emotionally evolved than you.”
Boy, did I have a lot of questions for Andrew. My mind was buzzing with excitement.
Ethical non-monogamy – is there such a thing?
Andrew was 30 at the time, and had been living as a bisexual poly guy for a decade. It wasn’t something he’d decided on lightly and it certainly wasn’t an easy path. During our first two-hour meeting under a shady canopy in my city’s public gardens, I politely drilled him for information.
I was fascinated by poly and its potential as a viable alternative to monogamy. Andrew patiently explained the basics and directed me to some very useful reading (The Ethical Slut is a great starter). Although he’d had short periods of monogamy, Andrew identified most strongly with poly. His deepest emotional relationships were with women but supplemented by those with men. He had a long-term female partner of two years, as well as regular male and female ‘playmates’. Andrew felt it was important to be open about poly, even in his workplaces.
This brings me to the common topic of jealousy. Yes, invariably people raise it, and yes, dealing with it takes a lot of time and energy. The problems of and solutions to jealousy were, I discovered, a good way to think about poly.
Taking care of everyone’s feelings and being open, fair and inclusive was complex; mind-bogglingly difficult for a lot of people to comprehend.
As I listened to Andrew recounting his previous decade of countless romantic experiences with both women and men, older and younger than he, I marveled at his maturity, ethics and empathy.
In fact to me, poly almost seemed beyond the grasp of your average emotionally ravaged, insecure, volatile human.
Andrew described to me a common insecurity – being left out – that lonely feeling when your lovers are all busy with their other lovers but you’re sitting home alone nursing a hot chocolate in front of the TV. There is no easy fix; poly takes guts and honesty to make it work. It’s about freedom and giving people you care about respect.
But is it for me?
I started to think deeply about poly, given my new lease on life after marriage and questioning of all things ‘relationship’. I began to wonder whether I could do this poly thing and make it work for me.
Around me, all over the western world people were starting to feel the same way. A 2016 study in the US revealed that 21% of adults had been in an open relationship, and over in the UK, a 2015 survey revealed that 48% of British men and 30% of women were interested in one. (Michael Baggs, Does anyone believe in monogamy or should we have open relationships? BBC Newsbeat 17 Feb 2017) Apparently at least 5% of Americans are now involved in polyamorous relationships.
Ongoing discussions with Andrew were fuelled by my years of pent-up qualms and frustrations. My mind was buzzing with ‘what if’s. But poly, he admitted, was certainly not for everyone.
Peak interest in poly seems to be late 20s-early 30s although when I joined a couple of poly Facebook groups in my city, I saw that a handful of people in their 40s and 50s also identified as poly. It was a depressingly small ‘community’ in my small city. There were several of couples looking for a third, poly solos and people with established ‘polycules’ (or harems).
I discovered terms like unicorn hunting, traid and hinge. I learned a lot about the politics of polyamory, but best of all, I stumbled upon RA – relationship anarchy. The key axiom for RA is that ‘love is abundant and every relationship is unique’.
RA questions the idea that love is a limited resource that can only be real if restricted to a couple.
People who follow RA do not rank and compare people and relationships. They consider each relationship to be independent, between autonomous individuals. Then and now, I relate to all of these statements! I have come to view RA as the relationship philosophy that best aligns with my conscience and my desires.
The myth of love’s scarcity or finite nature is something we are raised to believe in our (Western) society. I think of this as a miserly approach to love and certainly I can’t imagine anyone saying to a parent of multiple children, “how could you possibly love more than one?”
We take it for granted that, as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, we have enough love to go around, that we can love more than one child or friend at a time, that the human heart has an infinite capacity for love.
Can we take non-monogamous relationships seriously?
So why, then, do some people question the authenticity of non-monogamous relationships? Why is a poly relationship considered not quite ‘real’ or ‘serious’?
Carrie Jenkins argues that non-monogamy isn’t considered ‘romantic’ – “what gets called ‘romantic’ isn’t just about classification, it’s about marking out those relationships and lives we value most.”
Author of Morethantwo, Franklin Veaux, challenges the notion that ‘if you love someone, you shouldn’t want anyone else’.
“Many people believe that a person who has multiple loves can’t give their ‘whole heart’ to any person. The belief goes that if you love one person, you can express your love wholeheartedly, but if you love multiple people, your love is divided up and is therefore not as deep… Don’t think of the contents of your heart the way you think of the contents of your wallet; it doesn’t work like that.”
Learning about poly and RA finally gave me the vocabulary and ideas to challenge all those notions and judgements that had filtered down to me for decades.
It was everywhere I looked; the value-judgement that monogamy was the only way to live, the only system under which a relationship could be conducted.
Esther Perel writes at length about monogamy and relationships, and she offers boundless wise counsel. She says so succinctly of conventional monogamy that it’s this very model of love and sex that’s behind the exponential rise of infidelity and divorce. (More on this topic coming soon!)
“We ask one person to give us what an entire community once provided – and we live twice as long. It’s a tall order for a party of two.”
Elf Lyons in The Guardian/Observer says that “polyamory is the most empowering way of loving that I have encountered. It gives women more autonomy than other relationship models ever have… I believe that it could be the huge relationship revolution that the feminist movement needs.” Elf Lyons, A New Way to Love: In Praise of Polyamory, 23 July 2017
Autonomy is good – yes? And boundless opportunities to love and be loved? But is life really like that, I wonder. In Part 3 of this series, I will raise the uncomfortable topic of ‘the double standard’. (Oh, and I’ll reveal how that wonderful little book Little Miss Shy Goes Online Dating ends!)