Among the many ways to do relationships, polyamory stands out in many people’s minds as an ideal version of perhaps unattainable freedom. But for polyamorous people, it’s a practical kind of freedom that exists in a context of deep intimacy.
Most polyamorous people stress the importance of communication, knowing limits and needs, and hashing out a relationship that fulfills the deeper desires of all involved. Openness and accountability are values most polyamorous people aspire to.
While some see poly as their orienta- tion, others use it to describe how they structure their relationships.
The thing most polyamorous relation- ships have in common is their capacity for multiple honest loves.
There are other kinds of non-mo- nogamy: open relationships, swinging, polygamy and, of course, cheating, but these are distinct. While some open relationships overlap with poly, “open” is often used to describe sexual activity outside a couple.
“I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation because there was finally a label for this stuff that I was already doing,” says Sheng, who is 33 and the founder of PolyWinnipeg, a local group that holds monthly talks and events. “I’ve been doing non-monogamy pretty much my entire dating life.”
Sheng’s style of poly involves separate relationships that can be described as “Vs.” The relationships are called this because one person is linked to two or more other partners, but those partners aren’t linked romantically with each another.
“I like it when everyone can be comfortable with each other and spend time with each other, but it’s not particularly important to me to do the big happy family style of poly,” they say.
For the most part, they’ve consid- ered themselves a solo poly person, highly valuing their independence and autonomy.
While this is one form of polyamory, there are more closely knit relationship scenarios that others—like Kyle, a 24-year-old Winnipegger—aspire to. Kyle’s polyamorous roots began about a year ago when he entered a triad relationship, joining an existing couple. Although it didn’t work out, he learned a lot.
“What I found from that was, as a person who identifies as bisexual, having a male and a female in the same relationship with me really allowed me to pursue both halves of myself.”
He describes it as feeling complete and is looking for a three-person relationship in the future. “It’s kind of like a monogamous relationship except that it has a requirement for one more person,” he says.
Kyle’s also open to being part of a quad—a four-person unit—and the idea of a poly family appeals immensely. He sees the benefits as being an abundance of support and intimacy.
I first learned the word [polyamory] seven years ago, and it was kind of a revelation…
He describes watching a movie with his boyfriend at home while their girlfriend went on a date. She’d come home and tell them how it went, and if it wasn’t good, they’d support her. “We’d give her a big hug, and we’d make some more popcorn, and we’d start another movie,” he says. “It felt good to encourage my partners to go out and find more people.” He felt a sense of both liberation and comfort in this safety net.
Mitra, who helps run a polyamory group in Edmonton, has identified as poly for more than five years, since she was 25. And she didn’t get into polyamory on purpose. “I had actually thought that I would choose monogamy,” she says. But when she fell in love with a poly man, she began to ask herself some questions. She realized poly seemed more difficult to do in the world, but the inconvenience didn’t outweigh the emotional benefits.
“My life partner and I have a very open approach where we don’t give each other permission to do anything. We are free to do whatever we wish,” she says. With a foundation of open communication, respect and consideration, Mitra has the freedom to allow whatever develops romantically and sexually with anyone else. She also avoids the use of terms like “primary partner” because it implies other relationships would be secondary. Her life partner lives with his wife, and they’re Mitra’s neighbours. Mitra also has other partners.
Part of polyamory’s beauty is its insistence upon openness regarding desires. It’s certainly not for everyone, but the skill set polyamorous people need to develop to be successful can benefit any relationship. Communication, learning the specifics of your own needs, desires and boundaries, and hearing those of a partner deeply are skills that cultivate intimacy. Learning to negotiate agree- ments and create realistic expectations are useful for anyone. Understanding jealousy triggers is good work as well. All of these are necessary for good poly relationships, and too often in default monogamy, the work to build these connecting skills is left undone.
As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rulebook goes straight out the door
Tips to a happy poly life
“I think the one thing that people should remember is not to make any assumptions,” says Mitra. Because polyamory is so different from other social norms, you can’t assume what the other person thinks, believes or wants. She warns that even if people think they’re not making assumptions, they probably are. That’s something to be conscious of.
Kyle has a similar tip. “It’s all about communication. As soon as you enter into a poly relationship, the entire rule- book goes straight out the door. There are no rules because we didn’t grow up with any kind of media to guide us through this kind of process. So if you’re really not comfortable with hashing out exactly how you feel about everything, then it’s going to end badly. Talking, talking, talking about everything is vitally important. There’s a lot more risk involved, but there’s a lot more reward too. Poly relationships can be explosively fun, but they can also explode.”
Kyle suggests defining the power structure of a relationship from the get-go: is it equal partners, primary/secondary, or something else?
Sheng advises knowing your own needs and desires, being able to set boundaries, and understanding what you can control and what’s not appropriate to control. It’s also important to remember that polyamorous people are not more enlightened or superior. That assumption is untrue and obnoxious.
What to watch out for
A bad first experience with poly doesn’t mean polyamory isn’t for you, says Sheng. Although it’s OK if it isn’t. They recommend learning from other’s mistakes and remembering to do what feels right. “Don’t let anyone tell you there is one true way to do polyamory,” they say.
Sheng’s seen people put up with things they would never tolerate in monogamous relationships and advises new polyamorists-to-be to keep themselves safe. “I see a lot of particularly young bisexual women who are targeted by couples who are looking to date as a triad, and who get treated horrendously badly,” Sheng says. Don’t put up with anything that ignores your instincts and invalidates your experiences. If you feel there’s something wrong, there probably is. Polyamory does not equate to finding a way to accept being unhappy. Abuse can come in any relationship and it can be confusing for a new poly person to untangle and navigate the forms that abusive manipulation can take.
Whether new to polyamory or not, having a support of other polyamorous people can be valuable.
The PolyWinnipeg group has a Facebook page that lists events and other items of interest for local poly folk. The group holds regular PolyTalks as well as social events like potlucks and games nights. There’s a high representation of queer and trans people, and events are usually free and held in queer and trans-friendly locations, says Sheng.
The Winnipeg Polyamory Discussion Group on Yahoo!Groups is devoted to discussing the emotional, social and political issues related to being involved in mature, ethical, non-monogamous relationships. Its emphasis is on the Winnipeg community, and the group is inclusive of all styles of poly, all genders and all sexual orientations.
Seeing deep, heartfelt desires materialize because we are able to express them should be something anyone can do. Whether that looks like polyamory, monogamy, or something else, the lessons from polyamory can lead us all deeper into our own personal versions of freedom.
Minx also hosts the popular Polyamory Weekly podcast, which is kink-positive and pansexual, and can be found at www.poly- weekly.com.
Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships, by Tristan Taormino
Part advice and part interviews with polyamorous couples, this book covers several styles of non-monogamy, including polyamory, swinging and poly for single people. There’s a companion blog at www. openingup.net.
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy.
The authors dispel myths and cover all the skills necessary to maintain a successful and responsible polyamorous lifestyle.
Veaux also runs www.more- thantwo.com, with links to many excellent resources.
–Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance writer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice, especially when it comes to other trans-people.