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Polyamory: a love story

Edited version appeared in Filament #5 (June 2010)

Let’s begin with a love story. Julie and Karl met at a party and became fast friends. They both liked boys and daydreamed they would meet wonderful men who would accept the special place of each in the other’s life. One day they kissed, and everything changed.

That was thirteen years ago. ‘We’d been sleeping together, just as friends, for two and a half years; we couldn’t bear to be apart. Then we realised we were in love. It was a surprise to us, but not to any of our friends!’ Julie laughs.

Now they’re engaged and thinking about setting a date for their wedding. They’re also considering how Karl’s live-in boyfriend Ben will be involved in the ceremony, not to mention Julie’s three significant others.

Julie, Karl and Ben are in a polyamorous relationship, meaning that they each have multiple committed relationships. Julie and Ben are not lovers, but enjoy a close friendship, caring for each other and being supportive of each other’s relationships.

‘No matter what shape our relationship is, we are life partners. We want amazing lives for one another, above the entity of the relationship and alongside our commitment to ourselves as individuals. He’s the person I want to marry – irrespective of whether we’re still romantically involved at any point.’

Julie was already embedded in her alternative approach to love and life when she came across the term polyamory. ‘I never quite understood the idea that there was only so much love that you could give or receive. At first I struggled when I found myself falling for more than one person. But I couldn’t deny the reality of what I felt, so I stopped trying. We were using the term open relationship, then came across polyamory, and it just made so much sense. Once I realised it was possible simply to love, without placing what seem to me like artificial constraints around the notion, I started exploring the idea.’

The origins of modern polyamory

Exactly who coined the phrase ‘polyamory’ is unclear, but it is generally attributed to Morning Glory Zell, American author, lecturer and Neopagan priestess. Zell’s article A Bouquet of Lovers in Green Egg Magazine in 1990, extends the notion of an open relationship to polyamory.

Zell advocated cultivating ongoing, long-term, complex relationships rooted in deep friendships, shared her ‘rules for the road’ and outlined her vision for the 21st century, in which polyamory will become, if not the norm, a norm:

‘Expanded families will become a pattern with wider acceptance as the monogamous nuclear family system breaks apart under the impact of serial divorces. In many ways, polyamorous extended relationships mimic the old multi-generational families before the Industrial Revolution, but they are better because the ties are voluntary and are, by necessity, rooted in honesty, fairness, friendship and mutual interests.’

Why is monogamy ‘the norm’?

Derek McCullough and David S. Hall are Unitarian Universalists - a theologically liberal religion that supports a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality in 2003 they identified the two main tenets underpinning monogamy’s social dominance: Firstly, it is ‘natural’, and secondly, it is the only moral state approved by God. They point out that these arguments are ‘essentially the same reasons given by the fundamentalist right for their condemnation of homosexuality, namely that it is unnatural and immoral.’

First published in 1997 and updated in 2009, Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy’s book The Ethical Slut is arguably the most up-to-date and influential book on consensual non-monogamy, which includes useful practical guidance. Like McCullough and Hall, Easton and Hardy take monogamy to task: ‘Lifetime monogamy as an ideal is a relatively new concept in human history, and makes us unique among primates. There is nothing that can be achieved within a long-term monogamous relationship that cannot be achieved without one.’

New rules for relationships

There are no hard and fast rules, and many polyamorists resist definition in the same way they resist the confines of monogamy.

Julie refers to the relationships she has built with Karl and Ben and her significant others as a family. In poly-speak, it’s a geometric network. Julie is Karl’s primary; Ben is his secondary. Together they form a triad, or a vee, and their relationships beyond the vee form a web, or circle, or tribe.

It’s common for polyamorists to define their relationships in terms of one relationship being the primary, another the secondary and so forth, where perhaps the primary is always asked about new relationships, but not all play this way; some consider each relationship entirely independent. Similarly no two webs look the same.

Take Mark. Until his early twenties Mark’s relationships were monogamous, but today he has three partners: Rebecca, Esther and Jo. Jo has two other partners, while Rebecca has a husband and boyfriend. Esther has long-distance friends who are also intimate partners, when proximity permits.

‘Rebecca started as a friendship with some attraction,’ the thirty-two year postgraduate student explains. ‘I met Esther through Rebecca and other mutual friends, and my relationship with Jo began as an online friendship nearly a decade ago. There was chemistry when we met in person, and our affection deepened into love. We got engaged about a month later.’

Rebecca raised polyamory, and Mark said it took him a couple of years to get his head around it. ‘I had to be sure I had the emotional balance to be in a relationship with someone who was also in a relationship with someone else. ‘I don't think that romantic love is any different for me than it would be for any other person, regardless of how many people I share it with,’ he continues.

‘It's a deep, abiding affection for someone, where I care about her emotions, needs and goals in life, where I want to share in that life and be a significant part of it for a long time to come. It's something that's worth cherishing, working at and even fighting for when times are tough.’

Dealing with issues

‘Poly people have the same issues as everyone else,’ says alternative relationship coach Frances Amoroux of Sydney, Australia, who started offering services to polyamorous people six years ago. ‘How do I communicate? How do I find time for my partners? Poly people have to learn how to be authentic, open and honest. And you have to be well organised!’

‘There’s a high level of emotional intelligence in the poly community,’ Amoroux continues. ‘If you’re not a good communicator, and you find communicating in a monogamous relationship challenging, then treble it when you add another person.’

‘You’re not a sex addict or a weirdo if you’re interested in building a meaningful life with more than one person,’ says Amoroux. ‘There are other people doing it, and doing it well.’

Like Mel. Mel is a 33-year-old book store worker with a penchant for craft and sewing. She has a husband - her primary - and a boyfriend - her secondary. Mel lives with her husband, while her boyfriend - who has two other partners of his own - lives in another city, and visits when he can.

‘They are brilliant, good-looking and charming,’ Mel says of her two loves, ‘but they have very different personalities; one is pushy and thick-skinned, while the other is sweet, passionate and calming.’

Mel likes the variety her two partners bring. ‘They are like night and day. Each needs a different facet of me, and replenishes another part of me. It works.’

Is monogamy dead?

Many poly people have tried monogamy and concluded it’s not for them. So is monogamy dead?

‘Monogamy is not dead,’ replies one, ‘but the common justifications for monogamy are becoming less relevant. We now live longer, control our reproduction and are less bound by religious and inheritance laws.’

‘Far from it!’ laughs another. ‘While society seems to be warming up to other options, there will always been people who feel monogamy is the right choice for them.’

A third, ‘Monogamy is dead only in the sense that many monogamous people cheat.’ This may be true: according to the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, approximately 50 percent married women and 60 percent of married men will have an extramarital affair at some time in their marriage.

Not all those who try polyamory decide that it’s right for them, and like any group, there are polyamorists whose practice might be considered by others to not live up to the ‘high level of emotional intelligence’ Amoroux spoke of.

‘I met a guy who was quite publicly polyamorous,’ says Tania, who has also concluded polyamory is not for her. ‘He’s popular; lots of girls like him. We started seeing each other, but he was always out hunting. He had a turnover of six women in the few months I was with him.’

Tania found trusting her polyamorous partner challenging. ‘He said he used condoms with all the girls, except his favourite. After a while he told me I was his favourite and asked if we could not use condoms. I was worried about safety and asked him to have STI tests, which he did, and he came back clean. But for it to work, I had to believe I was the special one.’

‘I’m open to polyamory, but I realised I didn’t want to be one of six mistresses. It ended when I met somebody I wanted to give monogamy a go with. When I told him, he said my new partner was a lucky guy. I still see him around; we’re just friends now.’

Similarly, some ways of practicing polyamory, when observed over time, look more like serial monogamy, but with new relationships being ‘tried out’ when the current relationship gets tired. Hence it seems that a small number of people attracted to polyamory are simply trying to avoid being alone.

Polyamory commentators tend to agree that if you think making one relationship work is tricky, managing two (or more) is even more complex. Poly people joke that swingers have sex, polys have conversations.

Managing jealousy

Frances Amoroux says, ‘We all have self esteem issues, but if you don’t feel fairly good about yourself, you’re going to suffer in a polyamorous situation. The jealousy is going to be overwhelming.’

Many polyamorists work hard to unlearn jealousy by embracing choice, trust and equality of free will. The poly community coined the term compersion to describe the opposite of jealousy: taking pleasure in knowing your partner is experiencing pleasure with another.

‘The willingness to own your emotions is important,’ says Julie. ‘In a monogamous relationship, it’s very easy to blame the other person. When you’re involved with more than one person, and you’re feeling jealous or insecure, you have to figure out what is going on with you. The jealousy isn’t what wrong; it’s a symptom of something.’

Negotiating the system

Polyamory might be catching on socially, but the issue of multiple partners and legal protection remains fraught. Dr Gloria Brame, prominent American polyamorist, clinical sexologist, kinkster and author, considers sexual rights a fundamental human right, and is pushing for the legal recognition of multiple relationships.

‘I have absolutely no legal status as being in a relationship with my female life-partner, although we have cohabited for seven years now,’ Brame blogs. ‘She can't add her Master to her insurance policy as long as he is legally married to me.’

Things are changing, but clearly there’s a way to go. Where we were once heavily sanctioned by institutionalised patriarchy and hetero-centrism, we are now freer to shape our lives and loves in ways that are meaningful to us.

‘New forms of families are evolving now and will continue to evolve, not to supplant the nuclear family but to supplement it,’ Easton and Hardy write in the conclusion to The Ethical Slut. ‘We want to set you free to invent the society you want to live in.’ Write your own love story.