A few years ago I made a friend who told me his was polyamorous and I genuinely had no idea what he meant. I’d come across the idea of polygamy (more than one wife, generally not viewed very favourably in western society) but really as far as I knew it, a relationship was always two people, that was what was normal and that was what worked. For some people, being monogamous isn’t something they’ve ever felt comfortable with and they see this as part of their identity, a form of sexuality. For others, it may be a lifestyle that they choose to be a part of. The rather amazing and comprehensive map below shows some of the various forms non-monogamy (by Franklin Veaux, click to expand).
One of my friends is a poly activist and through a lot of in-depth conversations with him and my own experiences and explorations, I’ve come to a place of questioning how we arrive at ideas of what a relationship ‘should’ be. Some of the ideas he and others have espoused to me have definitely challenged some of my previously held views. In the same way that we might be brought up to think that a relationship should be between a man and a woman, of similar age (perhaps the man can be a little older, but not too much), race and background, but may later go on to reject or adjust these views to include more diversity of experience. Similarly, I wonder if notions of monogamy just something I’ve swallowed from my upbringing and taken on, without ever really considering? (note – I’m not expert on this topic, these are merely my own thoughts and reflections and no doubt they don’t reflect all of the complexity of different forms of non-monogamous relationships)
Love doesn’t run out – This was one of the main ideas I’ve heard people using, and it rings very true for me. Is love a finite resource? And if I love one person, does that mean I don’t have any left for others? Indeed, I have a lot of friends and family members that I love. The presence of others doesn’t seem to impact on how much I care about these individuals or the quality of our relationship (provided others don’t actively interfere). So I do believe it’s possible to love more than one person, and that I’ve often seen that in romantic/sexual love as well as the more platonic So it seems very possible that you can fall in love with more than one person at the same time, so what happens then? I guess traditionally (and as is often part of the plot of the cheesier of soap operas), you have to (often painfully) pick. But what if you didn’t have to? It feels quite a strange notion to consider that you could love two people (or even more) without it being a conflict, which to me feels quite freeing.
Can you really expect one person to fulfil all your needs? In a monogamous relationship, everything you want in a partner has to come from one person. No I’ve come to think about it, that is quite a lot of pressure on someone, to be everything you want and need. How many times has someone seemed to tick so many of the boxes, but not quite? When that happens you compromise, perhaps agree that you can’t have absolutely everything you want, or you break up. In a non-monogamous relationship that wouldn’t be necessary, different partners can satisfy different needs without being in competition with each other.
Cheating – I’m often taken aback by how widespread and common infidelity in relationships is. Often it seems to be secret one-offs, where the guilty party returns to their unknowing partner and continues with everything as normal. Often people break up over this too. I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign that more people want more than their monogamous relationship, though they’d rather do it in an underhand way that actually admit that they want to see people other than their partner. If ‘cheating’ is already allowed, it perhaps removes some of the potential for discord and relationship breakdown.
Maybe monogamy doesn’t work – Poly is often slated as something that ‘just doesn’t work’. It causes drama, jealousy and it all ends in tears. However, last time I checked, monogamy wasn’t faring too well either. Like I’ve already said, cheating is hugely common, as are break-ups and divorce. When a couple breaks up, no one jumps to assuming that this was because monogamy in itself doesn’t work. Poly couples break up just the same as any other, but this is often taken as ‘proof’ that the concept is inherently flawed.
So why aren’t more people polyamorous? In many ways it sounds like a good deal. For a lot of people it’s not a choice, it’s just how they are. For one thing, it seems to take a lot of organisation and good time-management skills (Googlecalendar to the rescue) and a lot of attention to managing jealousy and insecurities that may arise (though these often exist in monogamous relationships too!). It’s a form of sexuality/relationship that isn’t very well known and it does come with quite a bit of stigma attached. You might expect to have to explain your situation repeatedly and not always get a very positive response back. From my own, admittedly brief, dalliances in non-monogamy I found it really challenging to tell other people I saw more than one person. Their reaction often ranged from disapproval and concern to straight-out confusion. People tended to assume it was a non-consensual or secret arrangement, that I was messing my partner around or that I was greedy or selfish. I wonder if as a woman also there is the additional stigma around wanting more and taking charge of your own sexuality (whereas a man with many female partners is seen as a bit of a pimp). Although, despite these frustrating reactions, on occasion I did detect a bit of curious envy in others; “Is she really allowed to do that? And could I?”
So what have I come up with? I understand the rational for being non-monogamous, but I don’t think it’s for me. Much like a heterosexual who can see all the benefits of being bi, but can’t just will themselves to be attracted to people of the same sex, being poly isn’t who I am. I wonder if I were to become seriously involved with someone who identified as poly, I might consider it, but I don’t think it’s something I’d actively seek out. I find something secure and comfortable about the exclusivity of being in a couple, though I’ll admit that probably has been shaped by my upbringing, the media and fairytales (I blame alot of my sentimental romanticism on this also). Not to mention that I experience enough insecurity in one relationship as it is, and I’m far too disorganised to be able to juggle my time between more than one partner! I struggle to maintain a relationship with just the one. However, I do salute people who are being true to themselves and pursuing a non-normative relationship in a world that isn’t always very friendly towards difference and diversity. Love is, after all, love, however you form and shape it.