It seems quite a few people are doing it – with more than one person. As relationship norms shift, the acceptance and popularity of polyamory is growing. So what is it really like to have multiple partners?
“People have been non-monogamous, and practising polyamory, for as long as there have been humans,” says Dr Heath Schechinger, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Before you dismiss the notion as promiscuity slapped with a fancy label or as a neat excuse for the philandering type to justify a wandering eye, consider this: the fourth most popular relationship Google search in 2017 was ‘what is a poly relationship?’ The short answer? It’s the practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships with the consent of everyone involved.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to define polyamory by what it isn’t. It isn’t a series of orgies. It isn’t polygamy (which is illegal in many places, as that entails being married to more than one person, and overwhelmingly involves men with multiple wives, not vice versa). It isn’t simply an open relationship whereby you live largely monogamously, save for the occasional one night stand after a couple of after-work drinks. “This is different from the quote-unquote player, who is deceiving people or who wants his cake and to eat it too. Part of it is there is an emphasis on being ethical and consensual, so that there is no hiding and no deception,” says Schechinger, noting that current data, although scarce, does suggest a fairly equal split in men and women who choose a polyamorous lifestyle. “There will be people who say it is just something that guys want, but that doesn’t fall in line with the data.”
Current figures suggest that around four to five per cent of the US population is in a consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationship (a term that encompasses polyamory as well as swinging and open relationships), and more than one in five people have indicated that at one point they have been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship. “The CNM community is just as big as the LGBT community combined, and in terms of the number of people that have ever practised CNM, it is about as common as the number of people who own a cat,” says Schechinger, who is leading the first consensual non-monogamy task force.
The real figures could be higher. With millennials and gen Z shunning labels, welcoming non-traditional lifestyles and, in general, demonstrating greater acceptance and open-mindedness about everything from gender stereotypes to who (or how many people) they bed, polyamory is increasingly prevalent. “Our culture is more open, we have more time and knowledge about it, we are less stigmatising and becoming more aware of diversity-related issues. I see this as just being another wave on that social justice or diversity-of-awareness trend,” says Schechinger.
Even screen stars like Nico Tortorella – the heartthrob of the Stan series Younger – has made no secret of his polyamorous relationship with Bethany Meyers, whom he married earlier this year. In a piece she penned for LGBT publication Them, Meyers shed light on their arrangement: “Most think we planned this and one day decided we would be multiple-love kind of people. We didn’t. It’s just the way our relationship developed over 12 years. We became polyamorous without ever really trying, and we let each other go so often; I guess we finally realised it’s the reason we are impenetrable. It’s hard to break something that bends.”
At the heart of this movement is a big heart. It seems that for the poly community, love isn’t a zero-sum game in which loving someone deducts love from another. Soccer superstar Ronaldinho, who propelled to god-like status in his native Brazil, reportedly has two live-in girlfriends. And going some way to easing the stigma of the notion that loving, or at least having feelings for more than one person, is simply human nature, the potential catches on The Bachelor and, more recently, The Bachelorette have been issuing roses to multiple people since the program first aired in 2002.
It’s a lot to wrap your head around, particularly from the perspective of a traditional secure monogamous relationship – all the more so if the idea of polyamory was floated to you in said buttoned-up union, as was the case for relationship coach Dr Elisabeth Sheff. “It was hard for me to understand how he could envision a life together without what I saw as recognisable commitment and without monogamy. He didn’t want to get married. He didn’t want to be monogamous, but he wanted to be together. I thought: ‘What? How? What are you talking about?’ explains Sheff, who, despite eventually breaking up with her partner, began studying polyamory and has since penned three books on the subject, her most recent titled The Polyamorists Next Door. “It turns out that I’m not polyamorous myself. But it can work well for other people. It isn’t for everyone, in fact, I would say that it is only for a minority of people. I would think that other forms of non-monogamy that have less emphasis on interaction and emotional sharing are probably a lot easier to manage.”
The other glaringly obvious obstacle in all of this is, of course, jealousy. Are you on board with the fact that the person you love is dating someone else they genuinely love, even if you’re doing it too? Some polyamorists in fact experience ‘compersion’, which is often described as the opposite of jealousy – the feeling of being genuinely happy for a loved one who is in love. “We’re not sure if people experience less jealousy because they are naturally drawn to polyamory, or if polyamory helps reduce jealousy, or if it is a combination of both,” says Schechinger. The takeaway? If you’re the type who has ever skimmed your significant other’s texts, then polyamory probably isn’t your jam. “If you have that high level of jealousy receptors, then perhaps don’t do consensual non-monogamy, because it’s going to hurt you like hell,” echoes Sheff.
For others, however, uncovering polyamory has been more of an ‘a-ha’ moment. Gender diverse Eve De Zilva discovered polyamory after attending sex-positive workshops at university. “I just thought: ‘That is so for me!’ I get to live my life to the fullest and connect with as many people as possible,” she explains. She has various partners on the go, while her live-in partner of five years, Tom, has just celebrated his one-year anniversary with another woman.
She’s met Tom’s other ‘plus one’: they even hang out. “I really get along with her and we are all new to polyamory and don’t have a lot of role models, but it’s exciting to problem-solve together and figure out what’s best,” she explains. That starts, she says, with altering your perception of a textbook romance. “When you have a network of people who are polyamorous, they don’t usually want or need to be someone’s everything, so it works really well.” Ditto boundaries and the line between supportive BFF and loving partner. “It affects the relationship in the way that we care about each other’s reality, as a friend and as a lover. But we also try not to get involved where it isn’t relevant, that’s for sure.”
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that, in general, polyamorous relationships are largely independent of one another, meaning that issues, arguments and the ebbs and flows of coupledom generally don’t sift through to the other relationships. It makes perfect sense then, that for many this often means compartmentalising each relationship via certain activities or shared loves. “Maybe your primary partner prefers the opera and you want to go on a two-week canoe trip, so you do the canoe trip with the other person while your partner goes with their other partner to an opera festival. Sometimes that kind of segmentation, where you’re getting different needs met, with different timing and different partners, works well,” Sheff says.
For the polyamorous, getting your kicks (romantically, emotionally) from a number of different avenues is like buying your wardrobe from Net-A-Porter, Reformation and Zara: all different, all good. “First of all, you have to be the kind of person who is willing to prioritise and to have relationships be a hobby,” says Sheff.
Author and sex coach Olivia Pavlov has worked out that a geographical divide supports her multiple loves. She discovered polyamory after divorcing two years ago. “I started dating and was meeting people who had this view of loving more than one person. I thought: ‘Wow! This is something that really sounds true to who I am and have been looking for since I was a teenager,’” she says. Pavlov, who is currently penning a tome on polyamory titled Abundant Love, has had a partner for over a year, as well as a handful of other relationships that have stopped and started within that time. “I’ve only had more than one partner in the same city for a small portion of time. I travel a lot, and so that might make it more feasible, since I have partners in different cities around the world. We’ll meet up when I’m in that city.”
While it may be easy to romanticise wooing lovers in each corner of the globe, polyamory presents some logistical obstacles. As Schechinger puts it, and as members of the poly community often concede, “our capacity to love may be different, but our time and resources are not.”
For the modern woman, the thought of juggling a demanding job, managing the kids’ weekend sports roster, running a household and maintaining any semblance of a social life, as well as not one, but two or even three partners, is enough to tap out of being tapped. “Something that people like to joke about is trying to navigate different people’s schedules,” says Schechinger, adding that scheduling and date nights are integral to a poly arrangement that works. Moreover, to lessen the time constraints, in many poly relationships there’s often a primary, or core, connection – the lover with whom you might spend Christmas Day – and various other peripheral relationships that are emotionally and romantically invested but may not extend as far as combining bank accounts or attending a cousin’s wedding.
Those within the community insist on ‘relationship choice’ and say that while monogamy may be the default, there are other options. “For some people, they’ll talk about when they were little kids, never having a single best friend but having different friends that they did different things with,” says Sheff. “Others try and try to be monogamous and just can’t: they can never do it. One of my favourite explanations was from a respondent who said: ‘It was just like trying to wear shoes that were three sizes too small.’”
But like many lifestyles that edge further away from the ‘mum, dad and 2.5 children’ stereotype, practising polyamorists may not disclose their arrangements to their families or colleagues due to the potential fallout. Alarmingly, Schechinger likens the difficulties “to being queer in the early 1970s”.
“I think if there is a model of people who are doing it, and doing it well, then we can say: ‘Look, the research suggests that people tend to be just as happy’ or: ‘Relationships last just as long’, ‘You’re not doomed or there is nothing wrong with you for wanting polyamory’, that it will make it easier for people to talk about it in relationships,” explains Schechinger.
It hinges on the idea that while we’re traditionally hard-wired to shut out feelings for anyone outside our current relationship (the barista, colleague, friend of a friend), it’s basic human nature to occasionally feel pangs of desire for others. “I really think that people who are monogamous could learn a lot from polyamorous tools,” says De Zilva, pointing to honesty as fundamental to all relationships.
“We’ve got to stop discriminating against that desire, that curiosity, to connect with other people,” says Schechinger. “We need to work with people to figure out what is good for them: ‘Does it feel most authentic for you to stay in this relationship?’ or: ‘Do you see yourself being with other people? What is this curiosity about? What do you think you’ll be happier doing: staying in this relationship and working through this, or being with somebody else or potentially talking to your partner about opening your relationship?’ All of those are viable options.”
That also means stamping out a host of misconceptions about polyamory. “First of all, that we don’t have any self-control and that we are greedy,” says De Zilva. “Also that we can’t be trusted, which is the opposite, because we are really all about honesty. And also that we don’t love each other. That love is displayed through jealousy and being possessive and just generally being someone’s everything – that’s just one way of showing it.”
In other words, love doesn’t come in a neat, heart-shaped form. “There is no rightness of fit in respecting people’s choice or biological disposition to live their lives in a way that feels congruent to them,” says Schechinger. “I think that we all stand to benefit from knowing there are options and that it doesn’t have to be that one-size-fits-all.”
*Some names have been changed.
This story was originally published in Vogue Australia’s November 2018 issue.