What I Learned When I Got Polyamory 'Wrong'

Illustration: Anna Sudit
The Greek gods did it; bonobos do it; every time I go to a festival, every other performer seems to be at it. Polyamory has become a buzzword and more couples I know are intrigued. And no wonder. It’s exciting.
However, having been polyamorous for several years, when couples say to me, "We want to give it a go [insert some fact about bonobos]" and ask my advice, I often give the complete opposite of what they are expecting.
Rather than: “Great! Do it! It’s life-changing! You will never feel more liberated and in charge of yourself!" I often say: “Why? What do you think will happen? Have you even thought about the consequences? What are your intentions?"
For many, this reaction is a surprise. They expect me to be far more chilled, like a doobie-smoking Liza Minnelli Yoda. But no. Stepping from monogamy into polyamory is something worth taking considerable thought over. Despite the chilled vibes that many experienced poly couples give off, chilled is what polyamory definitely is not.

Chilled is what polyamory definitely is not

It is a convulsing, emotional, rocky road of elation, extreme highs and extreme lows. It can be amazing, but it can be destructive – physically and mentally.
I have always spoken positively about the innovative ways that polyamory can shake up the power dynamics in relationships, in our attitudes towards sexuality and gender, and reformat social power structures, arguing how these shifting changes can greatly benefit women and their place in society.
However, idealism aside, this is not always the case.
Any relationship is hard, but polyamory is harder. Much harder. Not just because you have more people to manage (that is one of the simpler things to take into account) but crucially the practice of non-monogamy requires a huge amount of self-love, knowledge and trust in yourself that sometimes is hard to fully grasp.
You’ve got to walk before you run. The way my partner and I went into polyamory was as a full-on sprint, which, two years later, caused our muscles to snap. We took things for granted and naively overlooked hazards – not out of stupidity, but out of unawareness and youthful inexperience.
For the sake of anonymity, let’s call my partner Dartanion (for reasons I don’t want to justify). When I first met Dartanion, it was electric, and within the first year we were discovering and unfolding each other like a Rubik’s cube. Every day a new joyous thing would be discovered. 'Oh, he does that when he is thinking.' 'He burps when he’s tired.' We were developing a language, working out the ways to read and translate the words between us. We trusted each other. We were in love. We had found ‘the one’. With this liberal and open-minded attitude, and our opinions towards heteronormativity, sexuality and the patriarchy, the concept of non-monogamy and polyamory came to light. We thought if any couple can do it and make it work, we can.
In truth, it is a slow movement from non-monogamy to seamless and honest polyamory. And the way we did it, naively and enthusiastically, although super fun, was also the reason we eventually broke up.

Within the space of six months we were already meeting new people, dating and bringing friends into our relationship

Within the space of six months we were already meeting new people, dating and bringing friends into our relationship. With that came a change. Imagine you're trying to learn French. You're getting there on Duolingo, then suddenly you decide you want to learn Korean too. Then German. All exciting and brilliant and equally perfect languages in their differences, but it’s a lot for your mind to take. You can’t remember all the verbs. It's too much. You should have waited 'til you were fluent in French before deciding to take on another language.
That is effectively what happened with us and our relationships. We were on different emotional linguistic journeys. In a year, I was speaking Dartanion, Chloinian, Hannahian and he was speaking Elfin, Pixie and Markian.
One thing I never fully considered was that I was not mentally ready for polyamory. I thought it would make my attitude to relationships more chilled, open, relaxed and easy. What I thought would free me and liberate me, actually put significantly more pressure on my shoulders.
I put too much pressure on myself to totally embrace the manifesto for polyamory. When Dartanion first properly fell head over heels in love with someone else, and they were lovely and kind and fun and suited to Dart, I was relaxed and happy, and gave the impression of complete calm. But was I? No. I was stressed, I had my own shit on. I definitely wasn't jealous or angry, was I? Definitely not. That would get my poly badge taken away. If I showed jealousy then I had failed. What was wrong with me? These feelings should have been expelled from my body by now. I was one with the world. Full of energy and love for ALL.
I wasn’t. I was angry, I was jealous and I felt left out. I wanted to be included in the party. I couldn’t join in. The jokes were different, the language was hard to translate. I felt on the periphery. So I let them go on, and I carried on in my world, drifting further out, feeling like I had lost my best friend.
In any relationship, the goal is eventually to be two strong trees side by side, not overshadowing each other and getting in each other’s sun, but teammates. In the growth spurt of emotions we were both suddenly enduring together – falling in love, heartbreak, more love, anger, misunderstandings, honest mistakes, selfish ones – we leaned on each other to hold each other up, slowly crushing each other. We weren’t a couple based on strength and independence but on need.
After two years, we decided we loved each other but weren’t ‘in’ love anymore. We were friends but the romance had simmered, and we went our separate ways. Would this have happened anyway? Perhaps, but jumping straight into bed with the concept of polyamory definitely sped things up.
Since then, I’ve been lucky to be loved and to love several brilliant people, for short periods of time and for several years. That relationship taught me so much.
Dartanion and I are still friends. I am happy they are happy. Now I am in love and in a relationship with someone so kind and delicious that they make me feel like I am constantly ovulating. I don’t say 'the one’ anymore but my hand naturally searches for theirs, and the moment it’s there, I feel home.
I still define myself as poly, but polyamory is about keeping an open mind. It’s an attitude, not a job description. Though I may be in one single relationship currently, that may not always be the case, because the integral part of polyamory – the vital thing I learned when my first relationship failed – is that patience is key.
Read More Like This

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series