Despite recent advances for marriage equality, the rights and protections associated with that ancient institution remain reserved for pairs. Folks whose romantic and sexual relationships include more than two are still widely scorned in popular culture, so much so that same-sex marriage campaigns often emphasize that the couples they represent are “committed.”
But commitment is not the sole purview of monogamy. For those who practice polyamory (and it does take practice), the challenges inherent in holding space for and communicating with more than one person are outweighed by the opportunities for personal growth — and, to be fair, getting laid.
THIS IS WHAT POLYAMORY LOOKS LIKE
Take Kyra Fey, 42, and her partner Earthquake, 54 (not their real names). The couple is currently laying the groundwork to open up their relationship. Because each has been in a polyamorous relationship before, they know that ethical non-monogamy takes work.
“I understand why Kyra Fey is seeking another primary partner, and that it may take a long time for such a relationship to arise, with lots of dating and possibilities between now and then,” Earthquake says. “Nevertheless, we have already made plans to adjust our lives to include this person.”
These adjustments may include taking stock of one’s needs, talking about boundaries, and, eventually, sending out a signal about the change in relationship status.
“I don’t think I could be in a monogamous relationship anymore,” Kyra says. “As I’ve explored my sexuality I’ve learned that I have needs that by definition cannot be met by a single person.”
While others may describe their diverse and diverging needs in vague terms, for Kyra it’s clear and specific.
“My kink requires me to be poly,” she explains. Because she identifies as a dominant-leaning switch, Krya says she wants both a full-time submissive partner and an occasionally dominant one.
Whether connected to kink or not, polyamory appeals to a desire for freedom, wholeness, connection, and growth. Contrary to popular (and contrasting) images of free-loving hippies and religious zealots with a harem of sister-wives, polyamory can elevate both commitment and equity.
OPENING UP TO INFINITE POSSIBILITIES
Jake (a pseudonym) is 34 and currently considers himself “single.” But he is involved in a matrix of relationships, ranging from deep friendships that occasionally get physical to “flovers” (between a friend and a lover) and lovers with whom he shares physical and emotional intimacy.
“I don’t think I can ever be fully monogamous for a long period of time,” Jake says. “I’ve seen mine and others’ ability to love multiple people, and it’s transformed me for the better.”
Unlike those who hold out for their “one true love” or put their partner on a pedestal, polyamorous folks don’t expect their partner be their everything. This frees them up to act on other chemistry and connections while taking the pressure off to be all-providing.
Rachael Palmer and Devon Chase
“In general most people don’t expect one person to fulfill all of their needs in a particular area. No one expects a person to have just one friend who takes care of all of their non-romantic needs,” Kyra says. “Yet our culture demands that we do that for romantic love and for sex — and that romantic love and sex must be with the same person.”
Polyamorous relationships can take many forms and may shift over time. Rachael Palmer, 32, and Devon Chase, 30, have been married/partnered for seven years and each has casual secondary partners in addition to their primary relationship. Devon’s current secondary partner also has a primary partner and family of her own.
“The nature of our polyamory has changed a lot since we first got together,” Rachael says. “We used to only date people together and that came with its own set of rules that changed with who we were dating and, again, what made us both feel safe. For example, originally we would only date/sleep with people together and we wouldn’t interact romantically with said date without the other person around, but as we got more comfortable that changed, too. Now we date people together and separately.”
CONTROL VS. SAFETY
Though people often cite jealousy as the reason they prefer monogamy, those who practice polyamory are not immune to its effects, nor do they expect to eliminate it completely. Instead, poly folks strive to recognize, understand, and address jealousy within themselves while creating and maintaining healthy relationship boundaries to protect their physical and emotional safety.
“I do experience jealousy. I think there is a common misconception that if you are practicing non-monogamy that you don’t,” Rachael says. “For me it’s all about allowing myself to feel jealousy but taking my time in thinking about how I want to react to it. The end goal [is] to eventually not experience it, but until then I tend to try and work through it on my own. It has really forced me to rationally focus on my emotions and desires, which has led to a lot of personal growth and a strong focus on emotional self-care.”
As a result of that self-reflection, Rachael has the tools to identify and assert her needs, working with Devon to establish boundaries that respect and affirm them.
“Boundaries for me have a lot to do making sure you and your partners feel safe within the relationship — the relationship they are having with you and the relationship they in turn have with your other partners,” Devon says. “It’s all based on love, intention, communication, and treating everyone in the situation with tenderness.”
Because even if you aren’t sleeping with — or even hanging out with – your partner’s partners, you’re still in a relationship with them on some level. Which is why, even when straight folks practice ethical non-monogamy, there’s something inherently queer about it.
LGBTQ … P?
In some ways, polyamory seems like the next frontier of relationship politics. A bill that would have allowed children to have more than two legal guardians made it to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk in October, only to be vetoed over concerns regarding unintended consequences.
While the bill wasn’t presented as a measure to protect poly families, but rather to prevent children from going to foster care when a biological or stepparent could take custody, it is a step toward recognizing diverse family structures.
“I know some amazing triads and communal relationships that I believe deserve the same legal protections and responsibilities to property, hospital visitations, and taxation as dyads,” Jake says. “If I end up in such a relationship, I would certainly hope to be able to visit my beloveds should they be sick and have the ability to make important legal decisions with regard to them.”
If Jake’s call for relationship protections sounds familiar, it may be because many poly-identified folks are also queer. A 2012 internet survey of 1,100 polyamorous individuals conducted by a researcher at Simon Fraser University found that 68 percent of poly women and 39 percent of poly men identified as bisexual (3.9 percent and 2.9 percent identified as exclusively lesbian and gay, respectively). The survey — which is the largest of its kind to date — may not be a representative sample, but it reflects anecdotal perspectives.
“We’ve already had to step outside of our social programming in order to express our queerness — gay, kink, trans, fill in the blank,” Jake says. “That gives us the experience of being able to face our fears and embrace ourselves more fully in order to reclaim our sexuality, our power, and our identities while shedding guilt and shame.”
Despite that increased openness, however, many people are still closeted about their polyamorous lives. Coming out as queer may be challenging enough for friends and family to understand without throwing multiple partners into the mix.
While Jake doesn’t think his parents could wrap their minds around polyamory, Rachael decided it was important to share that part of her life with her family, for the sake of her partners and simply to clear the air.
“I think for people who don’t know much about polyamory it is easy to assume that my primary and I are having problems and that’s why we are sleeping with other people, when in actuality it’s the opposite,” Rachael says. “We fuck other people because we want to be together for a long time and indulging our fantasies and desires keeps us happy and healthy.”
ETHICAL SLUTTERY: POLY RELATIONSHIPS EXPAND THE REACH OF LOVE AND SEX By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly