So, what’s the deal with Polyamory?
A monogamous but open minded, journalistic look at the relationship type (it’s not a psychology)
This is a cross-post from my new website Curiosity Crossroads.
I like to have discussions — about real topics and issues. I like to get past stereotypes, myths and stigmas as much as possible, to take a critical but fair look at things and try to move the issue forward in a positive way.
Earlier this week I went to a discussion group about polyamory (hosted by Toronto based organization “I’d Tap That”, a sex-positive resource for young people). I am not currently poly, nor am I sure it is right for me, but I am curious and trying to gain a better understanding (pro tip — don’t rely on popular media for this). I wanted to learn more about it from people who are more experienced and knowledgeable. I happen to have a few friends who are poly and they were hosting so I attended. In this post, I will share what I learned and what insights I gained. Spoiler alert — more universal life lessons in this one!
This one is long, so buckle up!
I have been monogamous my whole life. It was only about a year ago that I decided I wanted to be open to the idea of something else. But as I’ve learned, you can’t change your mental programming over night. Technically, what I did a year ago was not so much open my mind to the idea of polyamory, as make a conscious decision that “OK, I’m no longer going to view “casual sex” as inherently negative. It was more a thought of “I won’t feel guilty or ashamed if I sleep with someone I’m not in a totally committed relationship with”, rather than “I am going to actively seek opportunities to sleep with multiple different people at the same time”.
So I am writing this post as an attempt to honestly examine the concept, and not necessarily as a cheerleader for Polyamory. But I may come off as highly supportive if I don’t see many negatives.
As I told the group, my first experience with polyamory was kind of an accident. I was 21, I met a girl through a friend and we hit it off. We had both just been spurned by someone we liked (not the same person), and bonded over that. She told me she was actively seeing 2 guys, one was her high school sweetheart who had moved far enough away for school that it became a long distance relationship, but they were best friends. The other guy was local and was the “bad boy” that she craved. She told me I was kind of like a mix, corruptible, but also reliable. What I figured out after a couple of weeks though, was that I was definitely #3 to her, I was the bottom of the totem pole. Not that I didn’t matter, but that I was the newest so had had the least amount of time to form a strong connection. We spent a lot of time together, but still I didn’t feel important enough for my liking. I guess I felt like if I wasn’t there anymore, it wouldn’t be a big deal or feel like a loss to her, and that feeling sucked. After a month, she decided to make a big change, she “cut everyone loose”, including her high school sweetheart, she said she needed a clean break to figure out who she was by herself. By this point I had managed to figure out a few ways in which we weren’t super compatible (she was much more outgoing than I was for one), so I wasn’t super bent up over it, but the experience did sour me to the idea of being anything other than the VIP to anyone in the future.
3 years ago, I met a woman in a night school class who I thought was attractive and funny. I started talking to her, and developed a bit of a crush. I found out at the end of the semester that she had noticed me too and was in an open marriage. She actually brought me to a private space that her husband owned one night (he wasn’t there), and this is no joke — to play ping pong (well, I took it literally, because I can be very naive sometimes) — and she made it very clear she wanted to have some fun, but I couldn’t go through with it.
So, this has been a bit complicated for me and I haven’t really had positive exposure/experiences with it, so going to a friendly discussion group to get a sense of how positively it can go, seemed like a valuable opportunity. I find people often have one negative experience with something and then for the rest of their lives, they shut it out as a possibility, when they just needed to experience it under the right circumstances, and they might even go on to turn other people off of it without them even giving it a chance themselves. This is a real problem in fetish/kink circles because that whole thing is very misunderstood (I’ll get into that another time, I’m no expert there either)
So, I told the group the story from above (not including the married classmate part), and told them how it had taken me years to figure out that polyamory wasn’t the villain in my situation, I had gone into the arrangement without asking really any questions, and no one had explained anything to me, I was totally flying blind. Partly my fault, partly the girl’s, and partly just a youthful mistake that really didn’t hurt anyone seriously or lead to serious consequences all considered. Polyamory is definitely something you don’t want to go into blind. And this was a big point from last night as well — don’t go into it for the wrong reasons.
I would say that 3/4 of the attendees were currently or had been polyamorous at some point. What seemed to be the case was that poly couples face many of the same problems monogamous couples face — ie lack of, or ineffective communication or honesty, jealousy, people changing and no longer being as compatible or fulfilled by each other. Sometimes it is just a matter of things running their natural course. Not everyone is destined to be together with the same person forever. It depends on many factors and how badly the two people want to work through and make it work.
What is Polyamory?
I asked this question last night, I tried to get a solid definition, but was essentially told it can mean different things to different people. I suppose on a very base level, it can be thought of as the openness to, and ability to form emotional (and physical) bonds with more than one person. That is to say you can have your Primary Partner (which could be the person’s actual spouse, but not always necessarily), and then they can have other non-primary partners (the term Secondary Partner is frowned upon so I’m not going to use it beyond this sentence) with whom they may simply go on dates with, snuggle with, or also have sexual relations with. Every couple/partnership is unique and different and terms have to be agreed upon by the people involved.
Regarding having a primary and one or several secondary partners, one friend commented “while this may be most common, many poly people don’t have a primary relationship at all, or alternatively, consider themselves to have equal Primary relationships with multiple partners.”
The way I am loosely looking at it, is that poly partners (especially if they are non-primary) are kind of like a step between close/good/best friend, and dedicated lover. I guess it’s similar to friends with benefits. It’s someone who you really care about (and likewise), and also are attracted to, and the relationship with them can go a bit (or a lot) further than what a typical friendship allows for.
Looking at the word itself, it translates to “many” and “love”. Take that for what you will. I know many people say they love lots of different people, close friends, partners, family, but it’s a different kind of love. You might even say that polyamory is an evolution of loving relationships? Though some believe polyamory is more natural than monogamy.
Sometimes… One just isn’t enough
One notion I have heard in regards to poly is that it allows you to get all your needs met. I think we can all agree that no one is perfect and no one can possibly fully satisfy every need and desire that we each have as individuals. Sometimes sex drives don’t line up, sometimes you might have one major hobby in common but a lot of hobbies not shared?
Some of the people in attendance last night commented to the effect that they had personally been cheated on, or know people who had been cheated on, because they felt they needed more than they were getting, and that was the only way to get it. This is not to suggest that every instance of cheating is for this reason, nor that polyamory is the defacto solution. But perhaps polyamory can help, if the people involved are open to it. A friend of mine was telling me that she was in this situation with her now ex-husband, that he was perfectly happy with their marriage, but she wasn’t, and she tried to get him to consider opening the marriage, and he refused, and eventually there was no other option but to separate.
It is also possible that one person might only be seeing one partner, and that partner might themselves have multiple other partners. Not everyone who is poly is seeing multiple partners.
As I said before, I am still very monogamously minded (probably mostly due to nurture and societal conditioning towards it), and last night really helped me tune into my thoughts and feelings. I’ve not been especially lucky in love (but I haven’t given up yet!) and have tried to open myself up to additional opportunities to improve my chances. I do think I have been able to pick up a lot things about relationships by way of external observation, but am also fully aware that there are some things you just can’t know (such as how you will feel or react in a given situation) without actually being in a relationship. To use an analogy, I’ve done all the recommended readings for the relationship class, but haven’t quite passed the test yet. In regards to polyamory, what I have determined is that I need to establish that I can be in a healthy, committed, ongoing relationship (say, at least 6 months) and successfully work through problems and difficulties with one person, before I even think about trying to date multiple different people at once.
Here is a quote from a friend of mine re: “one person can’t satisfy all your needs”:
I focus more on the fact that I cannot possibly hope to meet all the needs of any person. In this way, it’s not about what I’m getting, but about what someone else is getting. I am doing my partners a disservice by forcing them to date only me, and so, in order that they might appreciate me for the things I can give them instead of resenting the things I can’t give them, I work from a polyamorous model that lets my partners be fulfilled and that does not force me to be anyone’s “everything”.
It can be seen as almost egotistical to insist on trying to be one person’s everything. Ultimately, you are likely to just frustrate both yourself, and them. As they say, “you should not try to change a person, you should love them for who they are”. This seems like somewhat an extension of that. It’s one thing for a person to want to change themselves to be more like what their partner wants or needs, but expecting, or demanding that isn’t necessarily practical, or even healthy. You can also see the argument for the fact that, if you let your partner go and get what they need (that you can’t provide) from someone else, they will appreciate you more. In polyamory, this seems to be what both sides are doing.
As always, consent is critical, and in some poly relationships, there is a thing called “veto power”, where either partner can veto someone that their partner is interested in if they don’t feel good about it. Of course there is potential for a jealous partner to abuse this power, but for those who use it responsibly and appropriately, it can “save so much drama” as one attendee put it.
Speaking of consent, that’s a whole can of beans. In short I will say, do your homework, understand what consent means, implies, and under what circumstances consent is negated or impossible (such as under the influence). It’s almost certainly more complicated than you might think. Here is an article that can help.
Assumptions, Myths and Stigmas
One thing we all talked about was being “open” or “out” about poly. Several of us said we are only out to friends for the most part, that we can’t talk about it at work, or even in some cases with our families. Depending on the type of work you do, you may or may not be able to be more open. Poly is still very misunderstood (even as someone who has read about it and talked to people about it, I still learned things last night), and as such, reactions from people who have a low shock tolerance will probably not be so great. A few people commented that friends of theirs couldn’t accept it and it made them really uncomfortable. Sometimes friends would even completely detach and stop being their friend anymore. That’s such a shame, but it tells you that even though we’ve come a long way, we’ve still got a long way to go as a society.
Misconception Round up:
- Polyamory is not natural (actually, it might be more natural)
- Polyamory is seen by many people as sexual deviance. Poly is simply a relationship structure/dynamic, not a mindset. It is the person’s psychology that might be deviant, which means you have to judge people’s actions individually, to determine whether or not the person is deviant
- Polyamory is NOT the same thing as polygamy.
- Going poly is just a way to get to have lots of sex (this might be true for some, but it’s not true of everyone).
- Being poly doesn’t make you a slut (male or female). If anything, it means you have full agency over your sexuality and sexual choices, which is actually a good thing.
- Poly couples experience many of the same issues as monogamous ones (jealousy, trust and communication issues, mismatched sex drives or interests)
- Poly may help alleviate actions of infidelity, but not necessarily. It’s more the psychology of the person, and not the relationship arrangement (ie poly/monog)
- Being poly increases your chance of having all your needs met, and the same for your partner. This can potentially lead to both of you being happier and more fulfilled and thus better enjoying your time spent together
- Polyamorous people simply “refuse to commit”, are flaky, picky, fence sitting, or it’s “just a phase”, etc. — these are all matters of perception and you may need to be more open minded about it
- If you are dating someone who is poly, and who has a “primary partner”, you don’t have to feel bad about ditching them or breaking up, because they’ve “got someone to fall back on”. Polyamorists don’t care any less about their partners than monogamists. They simply spread the love around a little more
Final Thoughts (aka the Jerry Springer Moment)
For me right now, I don’t know that poly is a fit. But it’s not Poly, it’s me. I definitely see the merits in it though, I see that it can and does work very well for others who communicate and negotiate it properly. Hopefully this post helped some people see things from a different perspective and maybe if one of your friends or someone you know is Poly, you can understand them a little better and be more accepting and supportive. Heck, maybe you are now interested in exploring polyamory yourself. Just remember — do it for the right reasons — honest ones. As with many things, it comes down to personal responsibility and being in tune with yourself. If you’re feeling unsatisfied in a current relationship and think this might help, talk to your partner about it. Either they’re down and you both win, or they’re not down, and while that sucks, it might mean you have an opportunity to seek out what you really want, so that’s something. Ultimately, no relationship will likely work without trust, respect and good communication — poly or not.
EDIT — Oct 26, 2013
I was reading a thread on FetLife about whether or not people should list themselves as “single” when in an open relationship and technically “available”, and one person asked “aren’t polyamory and open relationships two separate things?”. The next reply put into words how I think I feel (but hadn’t concisely articulated in this post thus far):
“I am looking for a primary partner. I only do open relationships, not polyamorous relationships. As in, I am not okay being someone’s secondary because I really only fall in love with one person but I am okay being someone’s f*** buddy who is already in a relationship” (permission acquired to share this quote)
So, there’s a little more perspective on the issue.
- What polyamory is, and what it isn’t
- A Bouquet of Lovers — Strategies for Responsible Open Relationships”
- 5 Myths About Polyamory
- Is Polyamory a Choice?
- Why I’m Still in the Poly Closet
- Polyamory and a Sports Metaphor
- PolyFamilies — Polyamory for the Practical
- World Polyamory Association
- The Human Awareness Institute (HAI) — a poly-friendly organization that hosts local relationship workshops
- Tribe.net Message Board
- www.samanthafraser.com — Life coach, advocate, consultant, author, producer. Author of “Not your mother’s playground”.
- www.askmiriam.ca — Miriam is a recent convert to Polyamory, she writes about her experiences and answers questions on her blog, she doesn’t call herself an expert, as she has only been poly for a couple of years.
- The Polyamorous Misanthrope — a Poly blog
- To Be a Slut — the blog of Caitlin K. Roberts (sex educator)
- www.authenticsexualyou.com — the online home of Sexuality Empowerment Coach Heather Elizabeth. Within these pages you’ll find her articles, musings, and the occasional rant on topics around sexuality, connection, authenticity, love, relationships, dating, jealousy, self esteem and more.
- I’d Tap That — A sex positive resource from young people (and young at heart)
- “Ask a Poly Questions” FetLife.com group (requires registration to view) NSFW/18+
- www.meetup.com — features polyamory groups in different areas, search for one in yours and you can attend a no pressure discussion and ask questions yourself.
- “MODERN LOVE: For polyamorists, three or more is never a crowd. Believing that humans aren’t designed to be monogamous, they spread the love around.” By MONICA HESSE. THE WASHINGTON POST. Reprinted in the Toronto Star. Feb 21, 2008. — http://www.thestar.com/living/article/305282