Polyamory Has Taught Me a Lot About Life (and Myself)
Having multiple partners isn't just fun. It also takes confronting hard truths.
You may have read recently that Willow Smith has come out as polyamorous. As the young cultural icon herself explained, polyamory—sometimes called consensual non-monogamy or ethical non-monogamy—is an arrangement between a couple that they can become romantically and sexually involved with other people.
I have been in a poly relationship for seven years now. When I first raised the possibility of seeing other people with my long-term male partner, I was in my early 20s and we had been together for three years.
Monogamy Doesn't Make Sense
I argued that the central promise of monogamy is a lie and that by buying into it we degrade our own critical thinking and shrink the possibilities of our lives. The promise of monogamy is that that if you form a contractual agreement with your partner that you will not have sex with or act on any feelings of attraction to another person, then the two of you are saved from loneliness, despair and jealousy. You will be together as partners and comrades, and the agony of dating and the terror of singledom will no longer be the scourge in your life that it once was.
A cursory glance at separation and divorce statistics makes for a salutary lesson in this regard. High incidences of infidelity are a reminder that monogamy does not come easily, and anthropological arguments suggest that it may not even come naturally.
My partner and I discussed how many other harmful ideologies are passed down to us by way of tradition, like white supremacy, misogyny, hatred of fatness, hatred of poor people and the imperative to define ourselves by what we buy and what job we have. We pride ourselves on dissecting these ways of thinking, assessing the evidence and coming to our own conclusions. Why should monogamy be any different?
These conversations were fraught and frightening. “I want to see other people” is a very difficult thing to say and an even more difficult thing to hear. We have been trained to believe that this means we’re in jeopardy, that our relationship must be failing and that we are no longer attractive or lovable. My partner’s masculinized ideas about owning the rights to my body came to the fore, since it was the thought of me being with men, not women, that hurt him so much.
But ask yourself, what diseased notion of love would have us believe that by forbidding someone from making meaningful connections with other people, we can prove that they really love us? In fact, it is by knowing that we are free to choose anyone else at any time, and yet keep coming back to each other, that shows a real connection—one based on freedom and trust, not fear and control.
In what other realm of our lives would a monogamous arrangement be acceptable? One of the great joys of our friendships is the variety of people we can know and learn from and share with. Indeed, research shows us that a diverse social life is a core predictor of longevity. It is the variety in our diets that protects and vitalizes our health. It is the range of music, the different styles of art, the diversity of our book collection that enriches our lives.
And yet, despite knowing all this, when he first told me that he had been with another woman I was gut-wrenchingly devastated. I sat down on the floor, the wind knocked out of me. I cried and then felt deeply embarrassed by my reaction. I felt rage at him (How could you do this to me?), I felt fury at myself (Why have you invited this onto yourself, but also, why aren’t you woke enough to deal with it?) and I felt anger at a cultural context that had taught me to have this reaction.
Jealousy of a partner is a poison which has been drip-fed into our cultural diet through every romantic comedy we have seen, every news headline of an “INFIDELITY SHOCKER,” and all the archaic religious hangings-on of the sanctity of marriage, rooted in women as property.
Our Relationship Has Room for Multiple Partners, but Not My Ego
Two years ago I met my girlfriend. One of the key draws of a poly relationship for me is that I am queer, and being in a straight-presenting relationship felt like a loss of something important to me. She’s seven years younger than me, and I’m in my late 20s, so the age difference is sometimes quite palpable.
It is difficult to understand if some of the problems we encounter are because of our poly arrangements (she also has a boyfriend), or because of our age difference (I am frustrated at her childish tendency to manipulate and play the victim rather than to communicate with confidence and clarity) or because our personalities are simply not compatible (I am emotionally aloof and do not tolerate anything that feels like manufactured drama).
I am jealous of her boyfriend. This is ridiculous because I have a fiancé and a shared history with him going back a decade. My girlfriend and her boyfriend spend a lot more time together than she does with me. She tells me how much she loves me and how special our relationship is. I feel the same way about her. I continue to be jealous of her boyfriend.
I think things like, “If you love me so much, why did you ask your boyfriend to go to the seaside with you instead of me?” I think things like this despite the fact that if she had asked me, I would not have gone, because I was too busy with work. She knew this, which is why she didn’t ask me. I am ridiculous and pathetic. This is quite a fun and refreshing realization in a contemporary moment that is obsessed with projecting toxic positivity and a veneer of performed self-esteem.
Polyamory Isn't the Answer
I was a strange and bookish child, like Wednesday Addams but blonde. When I was eight years old I started writing an instructional guide on the meaning of life. This pensive tendency has stayed with me into my adulthood and has led me to experiment with many different things in an effort to understand what is going on, why I feel so weird and what to do about it.
Drugs are not the answer, travel is not, solitude is not—neither is company, working, writing, illustrating or performance art. Polyamory isn’t the answer either. Perhaps though, they are all little pieces of the answer and, just as the core message of polyamory teaches, we need variety to make a good life.