Describe your ideal relationship, go!
Now take a few moments to think about it – I mean really ruminate. Ruminate the crap out of it. You probably have pretty clear ideas of what constitutes a “healthy” and an “unhealthy” relationship.
But how many of those characteristics are what you truly want versus what society is telling you to want?
Many people are altering the definition of a healthy, successful relationship through polyamory.
I find the idea of polyamory fascinating, for so many reasons. Since moving to Seattle, countless people have told me they identify as poly. Many of them right off the cuff, without preamble or an established friendship between us. It almost feels like a badge of progressive liberalism.
Prior to moving here I couldn’t have named a single friend who labeled themselves as such. Of course that doesn’t mean I didn’t know anyone, but nobody was open about it if they were.
A few months ago, when a guy I was dating suggested we have a polyamorous relationship, my immediate reaction was: NO! I have enough problems finding one person to date – I don’t find myself physically attracted to that many people. Plus, I am an only child, from a formerly single mother. I don’t share!
But I really liked the guy. So I decided to think about it, really try to imagine it. I read articles and listened to podcasts and tried to understand the logic.
Honestly, the commentary was fascinating. I love challenging societal norms, trying to assess how I really feel about something versus my initial judgments or what I am “supposed” to think. It’s difficult game, because our society shapes such a massive part of our personality and ideals, the depths of which we’ll never truly know. Nowhere is this more obvious than preferences in sex and relationships.
Challenging those norms is a huge aspect of polyamory.
I can’t say what I learned converted me. I don’t believe sex equates love, but it certainly does require a high level vulnerability for me and I can’t let just anyone in.
Thankfully, the guy understood and we’re now in a monogamous relationship. But the small glimpse of this world I had known so little about made me want to get a closer, albeit still outsider, view. So when a friend told me a married couple we knew, Sarah* and Lewis* were polyamorous, I was eager to learn more.
Lewis had enthusiastically agreed to talk to me, and it just so happened the day I followed up with him for an interview he was coming home from mushroom hunting with Sarah and her boyfriend, John*. Would I like to talk to all three of them?
So we sat down for sushi.
It really struck me how comfortable they all were with each other. Sarah sat across from John, giggly and flirtatious. Things were clearly still new between them. They told me had been on a total of about seven dates spanning the past month.
She sat next to Lewis and they occasionally exchanged loving glances. All three talked freely about other partners as well as each other. Sarah occasionally looked down and turned a little red, but at no point was anyone uncomfortable enough to change the topic.
After we selected an absurd amount of fish and veggie filled seaweed, I started off the conversation with questions relating to what I had learned from my prior research. Polyamory is all about rules and communication.
So I was pretty surprised to learn Sarah and Lewis didn’t have rules. In fact, the only “rule” they brought up was safety. Not I need to know where you are at all times so you don’t end up in a ditch safety, as I initially thought (although that is important), but safe-sex safety. It’s pretty easy: Sarah and Lewis can eschew the condoms, but its rubbers all the way with other partners, along with regular STD testing.
Communication is important for any relationship.
But in a poly relationship, as Sarah put it, “Open and honest communication is paramount.”
“Its sort of like if something feels weird or uncomfortable we bring it up and try to adjust, sort of like on the fly, which is good,” Lewis said. “I think that’s part of it for me. Part of the ideal is not having rules.”
Although they began discussing polyamory from the beginning – Lewis brought it up on their very first date – they did not start off rule free.
Over the past five years they’ve had seasons of monogamy as well as limits on frequency in seeing other partners.
It wasn’t until the past year or so that they figured out how to be truly comfortable in their polyamory, stemming from an accident in India that nearly took Sarah’s life.
Since recovering, she has loosened a lot the restrictions she initially felt.
“[I’ve] been constantly getting more and more comfortable with it and finally leveling out to where he’s been since we started dating,” she said.
It took John three to four years to be really comfortable in his poly lifestyle as well.
“I think that must be the learning curve to unlearn everything you think you know and re-learn relationships this way,” he said
Apparently determined to find the (non-existent) limits, I asked if they had restrictions on partners in their home. Lewis looked at me, dead serious and told me no one else could have sex in his bed. Sarah and John laughed hysterically.
“It doesn’t happen a lot. It just happened this morning,” Lewis explained. “That’s why I said that.”
When they first moved into their house, Sarah has asked they restrict sex with other partners to the guest bedroom, but eventually stopped caring.
Besides, Sarah told me laughing, they Airbnb their entire home out to strangers. Countless people have done untold things in there. It’s not exactly a marital sanctuary.
Okay, okay. No rules. I get it.
“In a relationship I feel like oftentimes rules are put in place to protect feelings that don’t need to be protected. They’re just protected because of tradition, because it’s uncomfortable to push those boundaries,” Lewis said. “So for me the lack of rules is important specifically because it’s gonna cause me pain. Those are the instant response mechanisms that I want to push through.”
Which makes sense. Attaching a lot of regulations to something that is supposed to be fighting the expectations of society seems fairly illogical.
People who identify as polyamorous are not just in it for the sex. They take respecting partners’ feelings and schedules very seriously. While they may have casual hook ups, they also often have deep romantic connections.
But what exactly makes a partner a boyfriend or girlfriend?
“There are some people I want to talk to everyday and find out like ‘what’s going on in your life?’ and I’m just that invested… it can happen really quickly,” Sarah told me. “And there are other people where I may really enjoy spending time with them and it’s fun and exciting for different reasons but that level of spark is not necessarily there or they’re involved in other relationships that are taking up most of the time that’s available.”
While she counts John as a boyfriend, she doesn’t label the two other people she’s seeing as such.
All three seemed to agree that someone is a boyfriend or girlfriend if they feel emotionally invested in their well being, talking frequently and spending time together often.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about that,” Lewis told me. “Classifying someone as a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ is hard, because it’s not an actual term.”
He suspects as polyamory becomes more popular (or at least more visible) a distinction will need to be made, because those terms imply monogamy.
“I think the point is, for me, boyfriend or girlfriend kind of approximates it well enough,” Lewis said. “And if somebody is close enough for me to really care, they’ll know what it means.”
Finding healthy partnerships can be difficult.
Even in a city as open and embracing of polyamory as Seattle.
Could you look into the eyes of your partner, guilt-free, after sleeping with another? Would you be able to become friends – or at least friendly – with your partners’ partners?
Those are the true hallmarks of an ethical, healthy polyamorous relationship in John’s eyes.
All three of them have found themselves with partners who may identify as ‘poly’ on OKCupid (the easiest way to meet people, hands down), but have little to no experience living it. Jealousy and disrespect of partners’ schedules tends to ensue and relationships blow up.
Jealousy remains an issue for even the healthiest and most open of poly couples. All signs lead me to believe jealousy is human nature and not something that can be deprogrammed with time.
But John considers it healthy. He has been polyamorous for seven years, interspersed with periods of prolonged, mutual monogamy, and jealousy has never gone away.
Fits of rage, however, are not healthy. Sarah used to experience them, letting her jealously build up to such great heights she’d want to end everything. These days she finds her jealousy manageable and she and Lewis are able to work through it.
I can relate to this. While I do not consider myself a jealous person, I am an introvert. I will occasionally let something stew inside me until I have built it to epic proportions in my head, all the while not saying a word, until I boil over.
But that is an issue that can happen even in monogamous relationships and avoidable with honest communication. My biggest concern in considering polyamory is turning relationships into a competition.
My boyfriend is naturally extroverted, meets a lot of people. He can have sex with people he likes on a superficial level.
And that’s fine.
I can’t. I need a strong spark with somebody for sex to sound remotely appealing. Date Three is way more fun than Date One. And I’m okay with that.
Unfortunately, I can easily see myself turning dating into a competition, going out with people simply because my boyfriend is. Sleeping with people I don’t care about because “that’s what I’m supposed to want,” despite knowing I don’t. Until I can accept that he would be sleeping with far more people than me and be okay with that, polyamory is off the table.
Lewis had remained rather quiet on the subject of jealousy. And just as I thought it had come to a close, he piped up.
“I have an example, that we haven’t spent a lot of time discussing, but its sort of there, in terms of where my jealousy is,” he said, looking over at Sarah. She looked back at him curiously.
“[Sarah] is into submission. Not like, hardcore, but it’s definitely a thing.”
She turned red and looked down, giggling awkwardly before he continued.
“She sees me as not only somebody who’s not a dom, but as somebody – this is what I feel like – could never be a dom. And if I try to fill that role for her, it’s just too phony and can’t really happen.
“So then when she’s with guys who … more naturally fulfill that role, then I get a twinge of like ‘well shit’. Partially because it’s something that I don’t do and that I feel like she’s not willing to grow with me on or showing that much interest. Maybe that’s unfair of me to say, that she’s not showing interest, cause I haven’t been pushing it tremendously…” he trailed off.
Sarah continued to look at him, lovingly calculating his words as he looked at me and finished his thought.
“Also that it’s her sort of primary way of being sexual, from the way she describes it. So not only am I missing out on something, but I’m like missing out on the thing for her,” he said. “So that’s… there’s some stuff in there about that.”
I took a moment to let that sink in. While everything they’d said made sense to me, and seemed logical up to this point, this contribution made me understand exactly why a polyamorous relationship may be the healthiest approach of all. The above easily could – and probably would – be an eventual relationship breaker if they were monogamous.
Expecting to get everything out of one person is a pretty ridiculous notion. Love, sex, companionship, inspiration, myriad mutual interests. I can easily acknowledge that. I don’t think it is impossible, but it is certainly a tall order.
But one of the best things about polyamory, as Sarah told me in response, is there isn’t a limit to what you get to try and explore.
You don’t need to try and find everything you desire in one person. Nor do you need to compartmentalize people into what they do provide you with.
“The difference between monogamy and polyamory for me is the option of sex,” John told me. “Because otherwise, literally everyone is my friend.”
And everyone knows a relationship is better when you consider your partner your best friend.
But where is the line drawn?
For me the main difference in my relationships with my best friend, Crystal, and my boyfriend is sex. So how does Sarah differentiate her relationship to Lewis from hers to John?
“I guess for me, it’s … long term life goals and aspirations,” she said. “Like if I were thinking about having kids, I would be considering that with [Lewis].”
They haven’t talked extensively about children, but Lewis is excited about the telling their future offspring about polyamory.
Sarah added that the last three people she has dated say they don’t want their own kids, but would like to help raise a partner’s kids, which she hadn’t considered before.
As an only child who did not grow up around extended family, I love this idea. I think people are better-rounded humans when a community raises them.
She is firm in one sentiment regarding child rearing though. No fooling around while she is pregnant.
(John squawked ‘what?’ incredulously at this. I wholeheartedly affirmed, ‘fair enough!’)
Lewis’s family doesn’t know they are poly. Sarah’s family knows and is not okay with their relationship choices, but after her accident in India they realized Lewis truly was there for her, and that their marriage was real.
They had initially been concerned polyamory was all his idea, as if she’d been coerced into it, and she would be left home with home with the kids while he gallivanted about with other women, á la Don Draper.
How quickly we turn women into the victims.
But back to the line drawing…
Sarah finds the question of delineating friendships and romantic relationships interesting. Since leaving college she has had a difficult time finding friends she connects with on a deeper level.
“I guess for me much easier to get to know people really well and intimately when sex is part of the equation,” she said, frankly.
So it’s not about the sex?
“I mean it is, that’s definitely part of it but I don’t feel like I’m trying to find this balance between my sexual partners and my close platonic friends.”
Which is valid. Balance is a real issue for me. Sometimes Crystal and I have to schedule “dates” to catch up because things get so hectic and we don’t see each other for a while. And we live together.
But upholding my relationship with her is a high priority for me. I need to schedule time for her and my other friends in my life. Having a sense of community through friendships is something I have been valuing a lot more since moving to Seattle. But it takes time. And it never seems like there is enough of it.
Meeting people, finding and attending dates, cultivating relationships: massively time consuming!
So how does one find the time?!
I need alone time to not turn into a horrible human being. That coupled with work, social life and all the chores required for being an “adult” don’t leave a whole lot of free time.
“That’s a real thing, for sure,” John told me. He has capped his capacity for romantic relationships at three partners, “Which is holy cow, I have no personal life.”
When he first became polyamorous he got a little over-enthusiastic and took on six partners.
My jaw dropped at this. Six people. Six people! I’m not sure I could sustain six close friendships at once at the level of commitment he’s talking about.
He says he became a man whore because he hadn’t been in a past life. None of the relationships from that time proved sustainable and quickly learned his limit. Now he typically has two partners at a time.
John told us he takes dating seriously and doesn’t do long term hook ups where he sees a partner once a week or less. He’s in it for substance and quality, not quantity.
Sarah laughed and added, “He won’t even kiss on the first date!”
Lewis doesn’t put caps on his number of partners, but is not looking to have deep relationships in the same way. He has kept some boundaries with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want two relationships right now.
“The objective for me is really to like, keep life spicy and have really intense emotional connections with people, not to develop another secondary relationship,” he said. “I’m still trying to figure out what that means.”
Both men have had experiences where one partner was demanding too much of their time due partially to insecurities, causing them to start neglecting other partners. All three of them stress the importance of making enough time for partners so relationships have the chance to grow.
Time is important. In romance, time is everything. Not having enough of it with a partner makes it hard to be vulnerable, which is crucial for successful relationships.
+ + +
As our conversation came to a close I told them all I felt a little bit silly for wanting monogamy with my partner.
I don’t envision us walking off into the sunset as octogenarians. We are destined to break up. It is just a fact. He doesn’t believe in marriage and has no desire for kids. I am a crippling indecisive and the only concrete feelings I can attest to on the subjects are definitely not right now. Neither of us sees ourselves settling down here. So monogamy, perhaps, is a bit nonsensical.
But yet again Lewis surprised me.
“Actually that situation to me makes monogamy make more sense.”
“If you’re only gonna be with someone for a certain amount of time, you know, maybe the things about polyamory don’t apply as much,” Lewis said.
“Serial monogamy can be a healthy thing, depending on how people approach it,” John added.
“Like some people might be in your situation and seeing the end and fearing it,” Lewis finished.
I am not fearing or dwelling on the end, despite understanding its inevitability. That’s would be a terrible way to live. But of course it is easy to be mature and open minded on this side of the relationship.
Talking to the three of them made me finally understand the appeal of polyamory. I am supportive. As far as I can tell, when it is done well, it’s an extremely healthy approach to relationships. But with all that being said, it is still not for me. As of now, I think I am destined to be a serial monogamist.
At this rate, it appears the partners will be few and far between, but life changing and meaningful when they arrive.
For now my boyfriend and I are taking it as it comes. I am in a moony-eyed, emotionally and mentally stimulating, laugh-‘til-it hurts kind of love. I am happy.
For now, that is all that matters.
*Names have been changed.