Demystifying Polyamory

Polyamory: loving and being involved with more than one person at once. I learned about polyamory shortly after I turned 23. I had just entered into my first serious relationship, and despite feeling overwhelmed by the experience of falling in love, I also didn’t feel ready to commit to one person and one relationship.

As a late bloomer, I had only been sexually active for a few years and was too excited about sex, queerness and dating to feel attracted to the idea of monogamy. At the time, my friends were passing around The Ethical Slut by Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton, and it seemed like half the people I knew were trying out versions of polyamory, non-monogamy and open relationships.

This book presented me with a whole new framework for relationships outside of the monogamous norm. Some assumptions challenged in The Ethical Slut are: one person can meet all the needs of another, jealousy cannot be overcome, love is finite. Easton and Hardy go on to present the idea that people who are ethically non-monogamous require a high level of self-awareness, and need to continually interrogate feelings of jealousy that arise in relationships. Finally, they highlight the importance of communication and lay out several communication techniques that may be useful to people who are practicing non-monogamy, though I found that they proved to be useful in all of my relationships.

I have always valued self-awareness, communication, and challenging the norms of socialization, and the framework presented in The Ethical Slut resonated deeply with me. When I made the decision to practice polyamory at age 23, a part of me thought that it was a phase, that maybe I would find “the right person” and enter into a monogamous relationship. After practicing poly in different ways for the past four years, I’m now confident that it isn’t a phase, but rather an identity and a lifestyle that influences whom I date, how I see the world and how I imagine my future.  

When I made the decision to practice polyamory at age 23, a part of me thought that it was a phase, that maybe I would find “the right person” and enter into a monogamous relationship.

People arrive at a polyamorous lifestyle in different ways. For me and my first partner, J, it was firmly rooted in a hierarchical heterosexual relationship, meaning that our relationship was primary and all others were secondary. We tried a lot of things together in our first year together, from group sex to swinger’s clubs, hotel takeovers, play parties and kink parties. After about a year of dating one another exclusively, we decided to try dating other people on our own.

This process proved to be incredibly challenging. Despite the reading we’d done, the conversations we had and our commitment to non-monogamy, many issues cropped up at the beginning. Incorporating other people into a relationship brings up all sorts of questions, from little things such as, how much notice did we need to give the other before a date? To major ones like, how do we treat other partners in an ethical way?

After several false starts, we sat down over a drink to iron out the rules of our relationship. There were so many at first, everything from 1) practice safe sex to 2) no sleepovers with other people and 3) no dates with others at our favorite movie theater. When talking to other partners about their experience of opening a relationship, this is quite common at first. It’s scary to let go of the framework that we are taught from birth and to trust that allowing your partner to love and be loved by other people will, in the end, grow your love for each other.

It’s scary to let go of the framework that we are taught from birth and to trust that allowing your partner to love and be loved by other people will, in the end, grow your love for each other.

We practiced poly this way for several months, but in the end it was too hard for us to make the transition from monogam“ish” (mostly monogamous) to polyamorous, and we broke up. When that relationship ended, I was still involved with people who identified as poly. I found myself left with two choices: figure out how to be poly in my own right, or give up the partners that I had and try to figure out monogamy.  

By this time, I was already dating my other partner, M. M had a long-term partner of about six years, and they had been practicing polyamory for at least three. When J and I broke up, I suddenly found myself practicing a new type of polyamory, called solo polyamory. Solo poly is when a person who identifies as poly is dating or single, but not in a primary relationship.

M and I continued to date, and become more involved, but I also dated a number of other people. I dated couples as well as single folks, some who identified as poly and some who didn’t. While I enjoyed dating lots of people, I sometimes found it to be a little lonely. I often felt that everyone else had a primary partner, but I did not.

Several months later, J and I got back together, but things were different. We both had been dating other people, and while we loved each other immensely, neither of us felt that our relationship was more important or more primary than those we had with other partners. Thus, I began practicing nonhierarchical polyamory. In this configuration, one partner is not more important than another.

J and I also had considerably less rules in our relationship now, because we no longer felt this need to “protect” the relationship. The only remaining rules were a commitment to safe sex and accountability to each other. Nonhierarchical poly is one of my favorite types of polyamory, and it has worked best for me over the years. I experienced intense growth in my relationships and in myself as I learned to trust that my partners loved me, and I loved them, regardless of who else we were dating.

Nonhierarchical poly is one of my favorite types of polyamory, and it has worked best for me over the years.

Of course, there are some practical complications to nonhierarchical polyamory. In my experience of living with partners, and of my partners living with other partners, I’ve found that a certain degree of primacy is required. In nonhierarchical relationships, live-in partners are not necessarily more important or more primary, but in the daily minutiae of life, those relationships often necessitate more communication and rules because, in addition to being partners, you are also roommates.

When J and I lived together, it was incredibly difficult to work out a schedule that allowed us to have other lovers over at our place. Live-in partners work around this issue differently, and some are comfortable having lovers over for play while the live-in partner is home, but we never quite worked that out. The logistics of living together while practicing polyamory were truly impressive. If he wanted to have someone stay over, I would need to coordinate that I could stay with M, which meant that his partner also had to be staying at another partner’s place. In this situation, there were at least 6 people’s schedules involved, sometimes more.

In this situation, there were at least 6 people’s schedules involved, sometimes more.

Scheduling is truly one of the most difficult parts of polyamory. There are a fixed number of hours in the week, and no matter how many people I want to date or how much time I want to spend with current partners, it can be a lot to manage. However, this challenge can also create beautiful opportunities to come together in a community of lovers and metamores (your lover’s lover). Just last week I had M over for dinner along with my new sweetie, C, and two platonic partners. The week before that I shared breakfast with C and her partner and child.

What I couldn’t have known about polyamory when I opened The Ethical Slut in 2013, was that it would radically change what I imagine for myself in the future. For example, I’ve always wanted to be a parent, but that vision for the future no longer means that I am marrying one person and creating a family with two parents and one to two children, the standard nuclear family.

Instead, I imagine a poly family with multiple co-parents. Some might be lovers of mine, some are lovers of my lovers and some are deeply committed platonic relationships. I also imagine that these relationships will change over time. Lovers will become friends and friends may become lovers, and new people will join our community.

One of the things that has been liberating about polyamory for me is the understanding that relationships change, and that’s not something that should scare me. Instead, I feel excited about a future with my current partners, and excited about the new partners all of us have yet to meet.

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