What Polyamory Taught Me About Love

Illustration by Anna Sudit
My introduction to polyamory came when I was drunk and horny. Walking back to my house after a first date, arm in arm with a smart, attractive, olive-skinned punk girl, we burst in through the front door, giggling and kissing. There was a pause and she looked me in the eye, suddenly serious. “Before we go any further I need to tell you: I have a long term boyfriend. But I don’t believe in monogamy. I hope that’s okay.” “Oh, that’s fine. Totally fine,” I said. Truthfully, at that exact moment I would have accepted almost anything. But it really did feel fine. We went on a series of dates over the next few months; saw films together, cooked meals, held hands. Basically, did couple stuff. I often asked questions about her other relationships and she was happy to answer. When she talked about love and sex she was thoughtful and eloquent. She made me want to learn more. A door had been opened.

If there was a Theory of Polyamory 101, it would probably start with the principle that love is not a finite resource

If there was a Theory of Polyamory 101, it would probably start with the principle that love is not a finite resource, and so we should stop treating it as if scarcity applies. We know that love for old friends doesn’t decrease with making new ones, or that love for our brothers, sisters or children isn’t reduced with new additions to the family; but from an early age we absorb, unconsciously for the most part, the idea that romantic love exists in limited supply, is shared between a couple, and is tainted by any affections that stray elsewhere. If this idea doesn’t sit well with you, the alternatives suggested by mainstream culture are few and far between, consisting more or less of serial dating, empty promiscuity, or lonely death in a house full of cats. Hence the widespread habit of what we could call "monogamy by default" – not an active choice between a range of options, but the acceptance of the only game in town. In this context, polyamory is not so much a whole new game as an attempt to renegotiate the rules: it suggests that romantic love for one partner does not have to rule out attraction to another, or that the deep fulfilment and security of long term commitment should not banish away the excitement of new sexual encounters. All these things and more are up for discussion, provided it can be done in a transparent and consensual way. However, regardless of how much you support the theory, putting it into practice still brings a huge potential for jealousy, hurt and insecurity. It's not that polyamory is too good to be true, but it's definitely too good to be easy. When I first actively decided on polyamory as a lifestyle choice, I felt like I’d stumbled upon a way to hack the rules of relationships – to have all the benefits of romance, but without the inconvenience of compromise. It was just over a year ago, January 2015, and I was starting two new relationships at the same time. Both of these people were unique: creative, unconventional, attractive to me on many levels. But instead of being blissfully happy with these two wonderful partners, I felt like I was in a constant state of crisis: neither relationship felt stable, and after a short while, each one was constantly on the verge of collapse. It was as if two plates were spinning slowly at the end of long sticks, far apart, and I was caught in the middle, frantically sprinting between them.

It's not that polyamory is too good to be true, but it's definitely too good to be easy

Looking back now, I can see the mistakes I made, but I wanted to know if it was typical to struggle when starting to experiment with non-monogamy. So I called Mel Mariposa Cassidy, a radical relationship coach and self-described “queer polyamorous relationship anarchist” to ask about some of the problems that she helps her clients to address. One of the biggest hurdles, she told me, is being absolutely honest about the reasons for exploring open relationships in the first place: “You might be wanting to open up a relationship because you're not sexually satisfied by your partner, or you might open your relationship because you want to leave your partner and you feel like this is a safe way to do it. Some people explore polyamory because they want to consciously challenge the societal norms around monogamy and ownership dynamics in relationships, and jealousy and so forth. I try not to judge anyone’s reasons, but where I see problems is when people are not honest with themselves or their partners about it. Often people have core needs which aren't being met, and instead of really talking about those things they just decide to go and get them somewhere else.” The problem with having two partners is that running somewhere else is twice as easy. Unlike monogamy, it was no longer a choice between spending time as a couple or being alone; instead, the way that I spent my time back then became almost a contest, to be won by whoever was offering the better deal – emotional, social or sexual – on that day, week, or month. In hindsight, it's obvious that this was hugely unfair; and that ultimately I was not, at the time, the partner that either of them deserved. That same hindsight has taught me lessons, some of them hard to accept. That I have a tendency to be self-centred. That I can be unreliable at giving emotional support. That, maybe, counter to my best intentions, I am not always A Good Man. But it has also prompted me to focus on self-analysis and emotional problem-solving skills, and work hard to improve them – a process which is by no means over now.

When you start to add additional people into the relationship dynamic it gets exponentially more complex

"If you think about a relationship between two people, there's Person A and Person B and the relationship between them is like this third entity,” Mel told me. “So when you start to add additional people into the relationship dynamic it gets exponentially more complex. We often don't consider what our boundaries are, what's ok and what's not ok for us, because we grew up in the 'default world' where it's a very simple template to understand. As soon as we step out of that ... all these different possibilities start opening up, but you don't have the tools to deal with that level of complexity.” A year later and I’m on good terms with both of the people I was dating back then – in fact, one is still my partner today. But in the meantime there have been breakups, tears and long periods of silence. The details would fill an article on their own, but suffice to say that if you are not honest about who you are seeing, and when, and why, then it's just as possible to cheat on a partner in a polyamorous relationship as it is in a monogamous one, with all the loss of trust that entails.

Emotional wounds, if not cared for, grow into scars that mark both of you

To arrive where we all are now has taken work and self-examination. One of the greatest lessons I learned in the past year is that confronting difficult truths is one of the most important skillls you can have in a relationship, because few of the problems you encounter will disappear if ignored. Regularly 'checking in' on how you feel about things – one of the key skills in the practice of polyamory – is something that needs to be built into the structure of a respectful relationship, because it's here that you can nip any problems in the bud before they spiral. Emotional wounds, if not cared for, grow into scars that mark both of you, but almost all of these can be smoothed away if given a chance to heal. With its many opportunities for mistrust and bad communication, polyamory is difficult, complex, and by no means right for everyone. It can be met with incomprehension from friends and family, mistrust from potential lovers, and anger or resentment from partners. Even for those that it suits, the ride is often bumpy. In a world where so much of our value is defined by the ‘relationship escalator’, polyamory offers less certainty, fewer milestones or easy answers. But it also offers great potential for self-development, a fulfilling and varied love life, and the chance to learn, often through necessity, a set of emotional skills that are valuable in any relationship. It has strengths and weaknesses, plenty of problems and just as many solutions, but for me it's a choice that feels right. To borrow from Churchill’s words on democracy, maybe polyamory is the worst kind of relationship – except for all the others.

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