This article first appeared in Critic Issue 3, 2017.
Our world is different to that of our parents. While they were the first generation to pioneer the internet and begin the information era, we were born citizens. While they were the generation that maintained tradition, we are increasingly challenging old ideas. Ideas about what constitutes love, what constitutes marriage, and even ideas about what constitutes ownership.
Take a look at our entertainment options: we stream our favourite shows on Netflix, we listen to our favourite artists on Spotify, and we play our favourite games on Steam. We share our cars with Uber and our homes on AirB&B. We are starting to realise that we have more to gain by sharing and collaborating in an interconnected world, yet we seem to still be possessive when it comes to love.
After all, it is significant other, not others, it is boyfriend, not boyfriends, and it is partner, but never partners. We are fixated on the idea of ‘the one’. But, for a lot of us, we’ve been around the block. Monogamy hasn’t turned out as fulfilling as society said it would be.
And maybe that’s okay.
When we start to let go of the monolithic expectations of finding our soul-mate, or ‘the one’, we can start to question it. We all want different things and in different ways. So why don’t we communicate in a more open and honest way? If we’ve started to slowly change our view of what constitutes love, marriage, and ownership, then what is left but to ask ourselves about alternatives to monogamy?
For Josh this alternative was polyamory. Polyamory, a fusion of the Greek word ‘poly’ for many and the Latin word ‘amore’ for love, is the idea that people can love and date multiple people at the same time. Coming from the tail end of a bad breakup, where he had discovered his ex’s infidelity, Josh found himself questioning the idea of monogamy. “Because even while in a monogamous relationship I found myself interested in other girls.” For Josh this had been a point of guilt. “You’re told by the church to love and be faithful only toward your partner, otherwise that is cheating.” The more committed Josh found himself in his prior relationship, the more he felt himself being controlled by what was expected of him, and the more he felt fear that his partner would leave him for someone else. “What if she met someone who she loved more than me?” Josh would ask himself. “I started to realise that I was letting fear control my life instead of love.”
While initially angry at his ex’s behaviour, as Josh came to understand his own polyamorous tendencies, he came to forgive her. “Not everyone is meant to be monogamous and I think that’s okay.” Once Josh accepted this idea he began to look into polyamory. Describing it as ‘open source relationships’, Josh views polyamory as a network of interconnected people who are able to trust and support each other. Instead of only having just one partner to fulfil every need, you have multiple, so long as all parties consent and are informed. “If you view monogamy as a single line, then polyamory is a network of lines that go wherever you want.” Polyamory provided a definition for something that Josh had always felt, but had been afraid to say out loud.
While the prospect of managing multiple relationships at the same time seemed daunting, Josh views it as a way to grow and overcome past trauma. “Everyone craves intimacy and love, but we’ve commodified it. You’re only allowed to share it with your partner.” Polyamory through Josh’s eyes exists as a way of bringing people up, instead of putting them down. “It’s about being able to trust your partner to the extent that they can be there for other people.” Josh views relationships not in a zero-sum sense of one person winning at another person’s expense, but as a way for both people to win – if your partner is happy, doesn’t that make you happy as well?
Of course, understanding something on an intellectual level is one thing, but being able to put it into practice emotionally is a whole other story. When we grow up chasing the idea that there is a ‘one’ it is hard to undo some old habits. Sometimes, sex is like a Pixar movie: you wind up with feels when you least expect them. Instead of ignoring these feelings and hoping they go away, in order to change, you have to be willing to confront them. That is why the polyamorous community stresses open communication. Different people have different levels of behaviour that they will be comfortable with. Ellen and Peter, having been together for three years and polyamorous for one of them, refer to their relationship as ‘hierarchical poly’. Ellen and Peter are the primary partners in this relationship with each of them having secondary partners, akin to attaching rooms to a pre-existing house. “It sounds kind of mean to call it secondary,” Ellen admits, “but it’s more to set where the boundaries are. Not that I ever would do this, but if I was feeling lonely and Peter was out with one of his lovers, I could ask him to come home and be with me instead and he would, and his lover would understand.” The ‘primary’ status signifies priority and emotional commitment.
For Ellen, the primary/secondary label also served as a way to openly communicate to her lovers what the expectations were of the relationship. “I think a big part of polyamory, and non-monogamy in general, is responsibility. You have a responsibility toward your lovers not to abuse their trust or to give them false expectations.” This sense of responsibility was reinforced by Ellen’s horror stories of dating multiple people. “One of my lovers was a friend of my primary partner, so I discussed the idea with him [Peter] first to make sure he was on board. Peter was all for it, so I discussed boundaries with his friend. I told him that I didn’t want anything serious, that Peter was my primary partner and that wouldn’t change.” Like many in the polyamorous community, Ellen is remarkably open and forthcoming about her private life. “So we started sleeping together, and there was a big honeymoon phase for a few weeks, but then he started getting possessive.” Ellen ticked off a laundry list of problems that began to emerge, “he would tell me to break up with Peter and commit to a relationship with just him, he would get controlling about what I could and couldn’t do and if I refused to do what he wanted he would get angry.” Ellen felt as if she had done something wrong, “I thought I had clearly explained to him from the beginning that this wasn’t a serious relationship, but I think he only heard what he wanted to hear.” Around this point, communication between Ellen and her lover broke down, “I would try to talk to him about it, but he would brush me off, saying that I was a bitch for toying with his heart.”
In trying to gain a new lover, Ellen had permanently burned a bridge and it served as a valuable lesson. The experience made Ellen realise the responsibility needed for polyamory. “You have to be careful with how you treat your lovers because you can bring up those feelings of insecurity and jealousy and fear of abandonment that we all have.”
Talking with Ellen shed a lot of light on the ethics of polyamory. “People think that polyamory is just something for hedonists who want to bang everything, but I think that [idea] is doing more harm than good.” Ellen views polyamory as a lifestyle and philosophical choice. “I love my mum to the ends of the earth and that doesn’t take away from the love I have for Peter. Love is a choice, it is something that you can choose to give and keep giving and its only limit is what you place.” After all, we don’t enter life with a finite quantity of love that we must carefully ration across our lives. The love we feel for one close friend does not subtract from the love we can feel for another. How each friendship functions differs from person to person; we have different boundaries and expectations depending on the closeness of the friendship. If we can accept that idea in our platonic relationships then why, asks Ellen, can we not accept that idea with our lovers?
Rather than being some kind of all you can bang buffet, polyamory seems to be more about people talking earnestly about their relationships. Instead of an Eyes Wide Shut-esque mask party, I found myself in a bagel shop talking to a woman called Fea. Fea has never identified with monogamy, so for her polyamory serves as an important part of her self-identity. In a way, polyamory can be seen as an extension of how interconnected we’d become. In our digital age the internet has bridged the limits of physical distance. “Historically people were likely to have not moved far from the village where they were born, and therefore their world-view, their beliefs, their career path and their options for partnership were limited.”
Having grown up in Dunedin, Fea went traveling after graduating. “Now we live in a world where we have so many options in life. We can keep in touch with people on the other side of the world with ease. There are seven billion people in this world, that’s gotta make for a lot of compatible partners out there.”
In talking with Fea, I realised that we exist not as solitary islands, but as interconnected ecosystems. We all have different needs, which are met by different people. “I am usually seeing a few people at a time, and each of those partners and relationships will be hugely different,” Fea explained, “So I might have a lover who I have a very intense emotional relationship with. That person I write letters to and stay up all night talking to. At the same time, I may be dating someone with whom the connection is really physical.” Instead of having to choose one person at the expense of another Fea decided “Por que no los dos?” Why not both? Polyamory enabled Fea to accept that with open and honest communication and informed consent she could have multiple significant others.
We live in uncertain times. Tomorrow is promised to no one. Many of us are beginning to question the way that we approach love, marriage and ownership. We are starting to realise that relationships don’t have to end with marriage and kids and a house in the ‘burbs, that loving someone is not owning them, that nobody is perfect and that that is okay, and that it is okay to let a relationship run its course. After all, open communication, honesty and addressing jealousy aren’t exclusive to certain relationships. Polyamory and monogamy exist as two sides of the same coin because we are all capable of giving and receiving love. So why don’t we start by being honest with each other? Instead of having to choose between one person and another, why not both?