Last summer I was taken on a date to the Proms. I’ve never understood classical music; it’s always felt alien & perhaps a bit too bourgeois for working-class me. But seeing that conductor dance, sending ripples & waves across the orchestra, I felt my heart swelling open. This wonderful date was with someone I’d only recently met, & my wife had wished me luck as I’d left earlier.
How is this possible?
Polyamory to me is way of conceptualising love, sex, relationships & the balance of power. It’s a set of values, a philosophy & a way of life based on respect, boundaries, trust, safety, openness, honesty & effective communication. It is an important part of my identity, as are the terms queer & femme.
Monogamy is a social construct & not an innate way of being, despite what society would have us believe. I do not believe there is “the one”, a single person who completes us. This is a cultural myth. No matter how compatible we are, no one person can meet all of our emotional, intellectual, romantic, sexual & spiritual needs.
I have no other half; I am already a whole person.
We may connect to someone emotionally & romantically but not sexually. Or we may only connect with someone sexually. We may love someone deeply but not share their values or want to become pair bonded & intertwine our lives. Being poly means we value the connections we have for what they are, rather than measuring them against society’s ideal of what a relationship should be.
I realise that many people prefer making a monogamous commitment & if that works for them, wonderful! Polyamory is not inherently better than monogamy, nor is it a more evolved way of doing relationships (despite some poly folks looking down on mono ones with contempt). But I believe monogamy should be actively chosen, negotiated & worked at, just as poly is, rather than being taken as a given.
There are lots of ways polyamorous people choose to structure their relationship models, such as hierarchically or egalitarian, open or closed to within a triad or group, & solo poly. I am married so I fall into the former category, where I have a primary & tertiary partners.
Being polyamorous for me is about embracing positive sexual/romantic expression & exploration. This is why my wife is happy for me to be doing all this. She is not interested at this stage in having other sexual or romantic encounters. But she is open to it in the future. And like me, she rejects enforced monogamy & is in favour of personal growth, fulfilment, fun & exploration. She knows the traumas I have experienced throughout my life, & she wholeheartedly supports my need to heal & take ownership of my sexual selfhood.
My wife & I do not need sexual exclusivity to feel secure. Sexual exploration outside of our relationship is not a threat to the solid foundation we have constructed. It doesn’t negate our emotional, spiritual & romantic connection. In fact, the level of openness we share about our thoughts, feelings & desires, including for other people, gives our connection depth & authenticity. I love her more for respecting my autonomy, for overcoming her insecurities about abandonment, for caring more about my desire to be fulfilled as a person than she does about wanting me all to herself.
That to me is love as a verb.
We are lucky in that my wife doesn’t have a jealous bone in her body. We have always been able to tease each other about little crushes & flirty blushes. So that was a good starting point for us.
Even so, we have worked hard to be where we are. It has been a slow process of opening our relationship up after a period of default monogamy. Although I’m certainly not recommending this for every polyamorous couple, the 3 years of default monogamy helped us both to feel safe & secure in what we have.
Over our period of default monogamy, we have expanded this openness. We began by talking about how this or that hypothetical would feel. About feeling attracted to someone. Then me actually having a date here & there. Then kissing someone.
All the while I have been checking in to see how it feels for her, letting her know I could adjust the pace, demonstrating that I would always respect her limits. This is how we have built trust. I have showed her that I won’t abandon her, that she is my priority. I have reassured her that this isn’t about anything lacking in our connection. And as time has gone on, it is clear that my other relationships don’t detract from ours.
Sometimes it has felt excruciatingly slow for me, & has involved a lot of restraint, but it has been worth it for what we now have.
I initially wrote all this as an email in response to a jealous lover. So I was explicit about this point: I find being dominated, possessed or owned incredibly erotic in a sexual context, but I do not do possessiveness as an approach to relationships generally. Being polyamorous is about letting go of jealousy, shame & guilt. These are just feelings that don’t need to be acted upon. They can be acknowledged, felt, worked through & transcended. We can resist ascribing these feelings the power they possess in heteronormative culture.
How this works in practice is, if a fear or insecurity comes up, it can be discussed in a supportive way, with each partner taking responsibility for their own feelings & behaviours.
Experiencing a pang of jealousy is fine. Attempting to control someone else’s behaviour because of it is not. Neither is pointing the finger by saying “you’re making me jealous.” Or shaming another person for their human desires.
While my primary relationship is currently imbalanced in that only I have other partners, this is not one-sided for me. I want all of my partners to be autonomous & to have their sexual & other needs met. To do what feels right for them, whether that is seeing other people, or not. To be happy & fulfilled as people.
I wouldn’t want to prevent a partner from doing something they want, then have them resent me for it!
I have had two lovers this year want me to only see my wife & them, which has felt just as limiting as monogamy would. That’s partly why I wanted to write all this.
Doing polyamory requires a high degree of emotional intelligence & maturity. It involves being or becoming skilled at negotiation & healthy boundary setting. The ability to practice self-care & self-soothing is also essential. Polyamory is not the ‘easy’ way, it’s not a matter of having your cake & eating it too. It’s definitely not a free pass to do whatever I want & fuck whoever I want. It’s careful, considered & ethical. It requires a lot of hard work & personal development, but the rewards can be tremendous. And it is definitely not for everyone!
I am far from perfect at any of this. I am working on issues around establishing, reasserting & respecting boundaries (both my own & others); assertiveness & having a voice; balance & sharing power in relationships; feeling a right to have my needs met; & resisting the urge to give more than I have at the expense of my well-being.
It has been on an incredible journey of self-discovery the past few years. For both of us. So far I have had a strong connection with a “part-time boyfriend”, where I have really started to heal trauma in my body. I’ve found there is only so much work I could do in the therapy room, & that a more profound level of recovery has been in practice with a beautiful, boundaried & safe person. I’ve had an intense roller-coaster ride with a short-term girlfriend. I found myself in an unhealthy dynamic with a sexy dom lover who I’ve ended it with. And I’ve experienced how light it feels to share the emotional labour of boundary holding with a tender butch Sir, how deep a connection can be built with good before, during & aftercare. I have learnt & grown indescribably as a result of all of these relationships through the highs and lows.
While it has certainly been challenging at times, all of this new sexual & emotional energy has fed into my connection with my wife (what polyamorous folks call NRE or new relationship energy). It has actually nourished us, reinvigorated us, taken the pressure off & made us value the depth of our connection even more.
We are now at the point where my wife happily gives outfit advice for dates & gets excited when I meet someone new that I fancy. She is my very best wing-man. This is what poly people call compersion.
I am so grateful that our relationship has not only survived, but is in fact stronger than ever as a result of our decision to open up. For it is always a risk. I’ve learnt that love, when held too tight, can be smothered, but in a gentle grasp it can grow infinitely.
– by Nic
Autostraddle’s Poly Pocket series on how different people do polyamory