Think about your partner. Think about the way they make you feel. You know everything about each other — every freckle, every wrinkle, the meaning behind every noise they emit. This is your person through and through.
Now imagine them kissing someone else.
Is your heart in your asshole? Even imagining it can feel too painful.
This is the monogamous lifestyle. A lifestyle predicated on trust that you and your partner will be with each other and no one else. For most of us, this is the only romantic arrangement that makes sense. Any alternative is perceived as casual, noncommittal and not “serious.”
Try telling that to a member of the polyamorous community. Polyamory (not to be confused with polygamy, which is usually wrapped up in a religion and takes agency away from women) is a lifestyle wherein individuals are open to having multiple romantic relationships and all partners are aware of one another.
“Love is not a real-world limit: The mother of nine children can love each of them as much as the mother of an only child.”
Polyamory isn’t my thing, and it may not be yours. But for more than a million people in the US who identify as poly, it’s not only their “thing” — it’s their lifestyle.
For members of this community roughly the size of Dallas, what exactly does it mean to be poly? How do polyamorous folks lead lives that, from an outsider’s perspective, appear to violate traditional relationship norms?
Our Western conceptions of faithfulness are shaped by monogamy. We are tethered to the idea that you cannot love more than one person — that there’s no way Ben Higgins could possibly love both JoJo and Lauren B. (And look how that turned out for those little conservatives.)
According to Dossie Easton’s book “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures,” this idea of faithfulness can be completely removed from sex: “A lot of people describe having sex with only one person as ‘being faithful’. It seems to me that faithfulness has very little to do with who you have sex with. Faithfulness is about honoring your commitments and respecting your friends and lovers, about caring for their well-being as well as your own.”
I think most of us don’t have a problem with this definition — we just tack on “and you only have sex with that one person” to the end. We have been trained to believe that if our partner shows love to someone else, it means the bond we share is somehow weakened — less special because it’s expanded to include another person.
And yet there are examples of polyamory all around us. Parenthood is a great example of one’s ability to love multiple people equally and faithfully. Easton writes, “Love is not a real-world limit: the mother of nine children can love each of them as much as the mother of an only child.” So if parental love can be polyamorous, why not romantic love, too?
Permutations of poly
There is no one right way to lead a polyamorous lifestyle. From the number of partners one may have to the level of involvement with each individual partner, you can build your dating life to meet your own preferences.
Darren,* a member of the polyamory community in Salt Lake City, says he enjoys being poly for its flexibility. “It’s very customizable,” he says. “I like to tell people that it’s like Build-A-Bear. You can kind of build your relationship how you would like. I classify myself as an ethical non-monogamist or that I’m in open relationships or poly relationships. I’ve never had anything that’s been super strict hierarchy.”
Darren is not using the term “hierarchy” here in a sexual sense, in which I’m the bad boy and you’re the mister who spanks me. (But, hey, if you like that stuff, good for you! No judgment!) He’s talking about relationship hierarchy, which is the idea that one relationship in a polyamorous arrangement might carry more weight than others.
Take Jennifer and her husband, for example. They’re members of the New York poly community. “My husband has a long-term girlfriend,” Jennifer says. “I have a couple of partners that I date on a more casual basis.”
Jennifer says that because they are married and live together, her poly life has a default hierarchy. She says, “I know some people who do away with all relationship hierarchy, and in my case that doesn’t totally make sense. And so there are things that my husband and I share that we don’t share with other partners. Like if we have children, we will be the two parents of the children. We’ve never invited anyone to move in with us. That kind of thing.”
Being poly requires a certain level of meticulous time management. Theresa, a member of DC’s poly community, uses technology to schedule time for her various partners. “Google Calendar is your friend,” she says. “It is your best friend.”
Let’s talk about sex
So if I’m poly, I can bone anyone I friggin’ want, right? …No?! What?!
Many people think that when you enter into multiple polyamorous relationships, all the rules of infidelity go out the window. But that is wholly untrue. As Darren puts it, “Any time you are deceiving a partner or going around somebody’s back or not being fully truthful, that’s cheating. You don’t get a pass for any sort of weird, lying behavior just because you identify as poly.”
Being poly means opening yourself up to having more connections in your life. It does not mean you get to lie, hide your other relationships or sleep with whomever you want. Or as Theresa puts it, “It’s just people trying to have the most healthy, rewarding relationships that they can, in a way that works for them and their partners.”
Poly people are human — they eat, drink and shit just like the rest of us. So how do they not freak the fuck out when their wife/husband/partner says they’re going to spend the night at their other partner’s apartment?
Let’s take a step back for a second. If you’re in a relationship or have ever been in one, you’ve probably watched your partner experience joy from doing something they love. For instance, I’m sure my wife is overcome with glee whenever she watches me eat a sandwich in under two minutes. Eating like a monster brings me happiness and I feel so lucky to have found the woman who wants to celebrate that each and every day with me. I love you, honey.
So, anyway, if you’re a good partner, you beam with pride and joy at the sight of your partner’s happiness. In these instances, you are practicing a poly-coined term, “compersion.”
Compersion refers to the positive feelings one may gain from their partner’s joy. In a poly context, the joy comes from witnessing a partner’s excitement and happiness with another partner. It’s considered the opposite of jealousy.
To combat jealousy, Theresa says she tries to look inward and get to the root of those feelings instead of lashing out. Theresa believes that “jealousy is really rooted in a sense of instability or insecurity.” We can all learn something from the way she makes an effort to understand those feelings:
“It’s usually a self-reflective process, but it often requires a conversation, either with the person or the people who are inspiring the situation or feelings. A lot of times there are assumptions about people’s intentions and that starts to go awry very quickly.”
This deep, introspective curiosity regarding one’s own emotions is a cornerstone of the ethical poly community, promoted by members and by poly resources like MoreThanTwo. The poly emphasis on honest communication — both with yourself and partners — can be applied to any relationship, regardless of its practitioners’ lifestyles.
Love is love
While a polyamorous lifestyle isn’t for everyone, the tools poly people use to communicate and connect with their partners are useful for anyone in any interpersonal relationship. I hope to practice compersion more often in my own life, always finding joy in my wife’s joy. I hope I will continue to work on myself through a series of vulnerable questions. I hope I can be as communicative with my wife as the members of the poly community are with each other. And we can all hope to be as organized as Theresa.
At its heart, the poly community is about making connections, communicating and falling in love. Can you say the same thing about your life?