Polyamorous relationships are becoming the norm, with ‘thruple’ relationships showcased everywhere from 2017 hit film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women to Netflix’s The Politician. But what is polyamory, and can you really love more than one person at a time? Stylist investigates.
Six years ago, when a friend told me she was in relationship with a married couple (a man and a woman), I nearly choked on my espresso.
The three of them made a ‘thruple’, apparently, although as individuals they were ‘polyamorous’, a term first bandied about in the swinging 60s.
At its most simple, polyamory means being able love more than one person at once, usually in a romantic and/or sexual sense.
Flash forward five years and my friend has ditched the couple and dates just one person at a time whilst I’m the polyamorous one, currently in two relationships simultaneously. How on earth did all this happen? I explore the full story in my memoir, but here’s an overview. In 2016 my Civil Partner, B, and I admitted after eight years together that we didn’t entirely want, nor believe in, the benefits of lifelong monogamy.
The admission felt both crushing and liberating, all at once. We still loved each other deeply and felt committed to one another as people, yet also wanted to explore sexually, maybe romantically, with others. For a while we felt quite doomed. Both of us had had affairs before, and didn’t want to lie anymore; it was disrespectful and destructive and, for me at least, made looking at myself in the mirror hard to handle.
But what did it mean, to want someone else as well? We didn’t know much else other than the socially conditioned norm – that just having such romantic desires for someone else, let alone acting on them, probably meant that our time as a couple should come to an end. This felt wasteful and short-sighted. Why should we throw away all we had built over the years? We still loved and fancied one another – we just also fancied other people. What if there was a different, more suitable, paradigm? Could we try to allow each other the freedom to pursue other connections, whilst also remaining together as a couple? Perhaps that was ludicrous, but shouldn’t we at least give it a try?
Venturing into the world of polyamory didn’t just feel much better than having illicit affairs, repressing our sexual curiosity or splitting up. It also made us right on trend!
The more we read about polyamory, the more we realised we weren’t alone. A recent US study showed a fifth of the population engages in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) at some point. CNM, for the uninitiated, refers to any kind of non-monogamy that is ethical, involving the agreement and consent of all involved. Polyamory is a sub-section of this, specifically including the possibility of being in love with many people, and sometimes involves blended family set-ups, or multiple partners living in one home. It’s not the same as polygamy, which is based on a heterosexual relationship and involves two genders, and refers to having more than one husband or wife at the same time.
Over the last five years, numerous UK-based websites and online communities have popped up, including Polyamory UK, supportive community groups on Facebook, and London meet-up groups for poly-friendly people. One recent addition to this area is Alethya, a London-based research, service and technology company. Alethya offers talks and workshops that encourage people to think about dating, friendships, family, and romantic as well as sexual relationships, with an awareness of how our backgrounds and cultural and social experiences intersect with our expectations and needs.
“Non-monogamy and monogamy might suit the same person at different stages and we believe it is important to move beyond a false binary of being one or the other,” says Alethya co-founder, writer and speaker, Anita Cassidy. “I love the freedom of letting a connection find its own level and form rather than having to fit it inside a pre-labelled box.”
But why this recent spread of obvious interest in different kinds of CNM? Eli Scheff, one of a handful of global experts on polyamory, has some suggestions.
“Firstly there’s women’s access to birth control (now they can have sex for fun in a way that only men used to be able to do), and then there’s having their own money (making them much less dependent on men for their wellbeing) and longer life-spans,” she says. “These all make monogamy much more difficult to sustain for such a long time. More recent shifts that have encouraged this trend include expansion of sexual norms and values to spread the ‘hook-up’ culture beyond universities to the larger social world, and the resulting need to negotiate monogamy instead of assuming that you are monogamous just because you hooked up with someone.”
But the biggest reason of all, according to Scheff, is the advent of internet communications: “Now people can find support and information online, find partners on social media and dating apps, and find meet-ups to check out their local non-monogamy scene.”
Perhaps our heightened interest in personal growth and emotional awareness also have something to do with it? Pushing ourselves into new territory and taking emotional risks can often enhance self-awareness and understanding. “Being open in my relationships has helped me to address my insecurities and develop confidence,” says Cassidy. “My ability to handle difficult feelings has increased and I’ve brought more wonderful people and pleasure into my life.”
Daniel Sher, a clinical psychologist and sex expert at The Between Us Clinic, agrees that polyamory can be both complex and rewarding. “It offers us an opportunity to interrogate beliefs about our nature which many take for granted,” he says. “It also helps hone our communication skills, because it is only through utter honesty and transparency that a polyamorous relationship can truly work. For some, it is an enlightening and fulfilling experience, for others it can be extremely challenging and hurtful. Most often, it is a matter of both – but then again, isn’t every real relationship?”
Ah… a real relationship. I think what he means is one that goes beyond the lusty best-behaviour stage and into a more challenging phase where true natures start to show. It’s in these more long-term relationships that we begin to experience some of the universal human tensions that make us crave monogamy on one hand and, on the other, make us fairly unsuccessful at it.
“Control, for many, means choosing either security or freedom. The fact is we need both,” writes psychotherapist, author and general relationships rock star, Esther Perel. “Because we desire the security of belonging – whether to a person, a job, or a community – and the freedom to explore other options, we often find ourselves acting out of our internal contradictions. Some of us come out of our childhood needing more protection; some of us come out needing more space. And these needs continue to fluctuate throughout our lives.”
For some, polyamory is an extraordinarily life-affirming choice, allowing both of those needs – security and freedom – to be met. For others, it becomes a beehive of anxiety, buzzing with insecurity and self-doubt. I’ve experienced both of those aspects of it at different times. There are also logistical and energetic challenges involved in trying to see enough of two partners and work and socialise and keep fit (and and and) - just exhausting.
Telling more traditional types about it can be incredibly difficult too; ‘coming out’ as polyamorous to friends, and in particular my family, has at times felt like having a very tenacious tooth extracted without any available anesthetic. Very few people are apathetic about it, either. Rather, the subject tends to polarize opinion with CNM regarded either as a ‘Peter Pan’ style choice reserved for hypersexual types whose fear of commitment is as destructive as their libido, or they consider it a rational, grown-up lifestyle choice, grounded perhaps in political (or even pseudo spiritual) principles, as much about maintaining independence of thought as it is anything more carnal.
The reality is far more emotionally messy, of course, and the main reason for that is (yes, you guessed it) the jealousy. Trying to remain rational about someone you love/desire/have strong feelings for, having sex with someone else, isn’t just ego-crushing, but often feels unnatural. Emotions are by their very nature full of irrational charge, after all, and although it’s possible to feel passionately towards someone without feeling you have a claim on them in some way, it also takes humility and a practiced ability to self-soothe.
So, is the future of relationships open? It remains a deeply personal choice, and one that can change depending on circumstances. There is certainly value in making space for more discussion, however, says psychologist, Sher.
“Talking about non-monogamy gives us the chance to make conscious choices to control those urges [if we wish] and choose intimacy rather than unconsciously acting on those impulses because we felt that we were not allowed to have them in the first place.”
Perhaps it’s not so much about open or closed relationships, but about conscious and unconscious choices.