There are a lot of things that leave me cold: wearing hats inspired by Pharrell, accented nails and partaking in twerking competitions are some. The rise and rise of open relationships, or polyamory, in certain spaces is another. Yet it seems that all the ‘woke’ kids these days are doing it – finding love in all the right places with all the right people.
Defined as ‘the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time’, polyamory is ‘a new way of loving’ that is gaining prominence with the increased exploration of sexuality, sexual interaction and sex in general. From Facebook’s “it’s complicated” relationship status to Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Grahams’s live-in situation, as people move away from more traditional models of ‘relationshipping’ we have begun to see that simply being married as man and wife is no longer the only option.
Now, at first glance this can be said to solve to some extent one of the great human paradoxes: the fact that many of us want to have a home-cooked meal plus we also want the sample platter. Simply put, we want to be in a committed relationship, but we also want to run free/sow our wild oats/sample the buffet of life.
The question that arises is: are we simply replicating the more traditional marital structure of polygamy – the practice of men (usually) taking more than one spouse – and putting a new veneer on it so that we can all jump on the bandwagon? My brother-in-law thinks so. His argument is that the same problems that come up with polygamy will come up with polyamory, as people are not ‘reinventing the wheel’.
“You just can’t square that circle,” he says.
To some extent I am inclined to agree with him. The whole notion seems stickier than a toffee-themed children’s birthday party. However, polyamory should not be mistaken for polygamy, which is often based on antiquated notions of religion and/or tradition and, of course, the all-powerful patriarchy which lays out the ‘roles’ of men and women.
In a polyamorous relationship, all the partners, not just the man, have the option to engage in other relationships. Even if polyamory is not for everyone, there are lessons to be learned from the notions at the core of the practice.
Relationship gurus all stress that communication is key to maintaining a happy, healthy relationship. However, introducing someone else into your relationship can be a logistical nightmare. Having interactions and engagements with various people can have you calling up your Google Calendar just to figure out when you have time to go to the bathroom. For that reason communication in a polyamorous relationship is a key priority.
Communication helps get to the core of many problems, regardless of the type of relationship, and means that neither party has to guess what is wrong, which wastes time and energy. Matters that would never previously have been actively discussed, such as the amount and quality of time spent together, now become hot topics. Communication also helps the parties involved in a relationship to be able to speak about uncomfortable topics such as jealousy, wants and needs, and even deal-breakers, which can help in other areas of their interaction.
Monitoring and evaluation
You must get your house in order before you invite other people in. Nothing will expose the weaknesses and imperfections in your relationship quite like introducing another person into it, no matter in what capacity it is.
The act of trying to do things differently will force you to evaluate a number of things about your coupling, for example, issues of where your jealousy might come from, or any trust issues and power imbalances within the relationship. This involves re-evaluating how you react to certain situations, why you engage with situations the way you do, or even how you think about something. For example, examining possible mistrust of a partner could lead you to realise that you have a general mistrust of people. Your romantic entanglements often give you the most intimate insight into how you engage with your fellow (wo)man.
Jealousy is pretty much standard in any relationship, to the extent that some people feel a lack of jealousy in their partner means that they do not love them. However, jealousy within relationships can be toxic.
While jealousy can help you explore negative feelings within your relationship, it is often rooted in something more than possessiveness. For example, it can come from past betrayal by a loved one, feelings of inadequacy that has its origins in childhood, or even mistrust that your partner has your best interests at heart, which might stem from a power imbalance within the relationship.
Even if you’re not bringing new partners into a relationship, when you decide to share an emotional space with another person you build something you want to protect. Self-reflection then helps you to understand yourself better by allowing you to look at how you engage in a whole host of relationships, from family to friends to work. This will in turn yield an increased understanding of your role in these engagements.
I have had some good, even great, experiences with polyamory, as well as some confusing ones. Some made me want to start a blog comprising entirely of heartbreak lyrics. I have noticed that some of the most effective examples of polyamory are by queer brown women who have, after tackling notions of love, sex, monogamy and ownership in heteronormative monogamous structures, decided, “Nah, let’s try something else, fam.” These women have produced examples of living and loving with communication and group reflection.
Taking stock of these considerations, I think the cool sex-positive kids doing this thing right may be onto something. Polyamory may not be reinventing the wheel, but it is reinventing the terms of how the power dynamics of patriarchy play out. It is a move away from ideas of ownership and of partners as objects that sometimes come with monogamy, towards viewing partners as actual peers who can be engaged with.
Love and engagement does not have to be limited and exclusive to be special. But it takes time and constant engagement – unpacking and unlearning and relearning. Even if you do not add extra notches to your bedpost, there are some things that can be learned from this new way of loving.