Here’s why being in a polyamorous relationship can work (even though mine didn’t)
Polyamory, literally meaning many loves, is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and informed consent of everyone involved. – ZAPoly.
I met him at a party.
One of the very first things I found out about him was that he was polyamorous (a great thing about people in the poly community is that they’re very forthcoming about their way of life) and the next few hours were spent talking about everything from Nina Simone to Star Wars.
Then we kissed and it felt right. Like something just clicked. Even though I knew that he wasn’t monogamous, that he probably had another girlfriend or two (in fact, he had a wife, but more on that later) and that this was just going to be some fun with someone I thought was cool, I was hooked.
And, before I knew it, we were in love.
A month after we first met, I met his wife and her girlfriend. It was perhaps a bit odd at first, but we became good friends very quickly.
Then we became a family, the four of us, and it worked quite well. There was a lot of support and love in our little group and we did what we could for each other when we had the means.
But, unfortunately, sometimes love is not enough and my relationship with my partner dissolved after 14 months together. It was sad to end it, but it was best for both of us.
And, although I probably won’t become involved in another polyamorous relationship because I’ve realised that I prefer monogamy, I still think polyamory is beautiful and rather misunderstood.
So, since my polyamorous relationship didn’t work, I went in search of someone whose relationships did.
Meet Anie*, a 35-year-old NGO adminstrator from Cape Town who lives with her husband, Jeffery*, her partner Stuart* and his wife, Betty*.
Anie says that while she has never personally been comfortable with being monogamous, she does “…have a deep aversion to cheating. So, in my late teens when I began to date, I was monogamous. I soon discovered that I never fall out of love, love just changes.”
She tried an open relationship when she was about 20, but it didn’t work out because her partner at the time was uncomfortable. “Swinging and sex without love and emotions never appealed to me,” says Anie.
Luckily, she found a more understanding partner in her husband, Jeffrey, who she’s been with for 15 years and married to for 13. “When Jeffery and I started dating, we were already best friends and had discussed the way, even when totally in love with my partner, I was still attracted to (physically, emotionally and mentally) other people and saw nothing wrong with what was natural for me.
He and I spoke about it and decided to take things slowly, first with me (and him, if he chose to) flirting with others, then kissing. When we got married we vowed to be honest and ethical with each other, but never 'forsaking all others'.”
But how did they know that what they were looking for was a polyamorous relationship? Anie says that while they were still looking for a non-monogamous option that would be comfortable for both of them, they stumbled upon many options that focused heavily on sex without intimacy or attachment, but what they both wanted was an option that provided them with even more love and intimacy similar to what they already had with each other.
“This is not to say that we didn't love each other enough, we just see love for partners in the same way as love for children. The more children a parent has, the more love they can give. Same thing for romantic partners. The more love you give the more you have. There is no such thing as too much love.”
The answer came to them not long after they were first married. A new friend described a previous relationship where he was involved with both a man and women at the same time and called it polyamory. “It was a light-bulb moment. That night we spent hours on Google looking at all the information. The more we read, the more it resonated with us,” says Anie.
One of the biggest concerns when choosing this lifestyle is telling your friends and family. Should you tell them? When should you do it? And how? How will they react?
Anie’s parents were not happy with their lifestyle choice when she and her husband came out to them. They thought it would be dangerous for their marriage and Anie’s mother said she would give it 10 years, while her father refused to talk about it at all.
But things started to change in 2015. “About a year ago my family started to ask questions. Supportive questions, as they had seen how happy we were with our extended link of partners. This was just over ten years after we told them about it. They began to worry less about us, not just our relationship, but our general well-being as individuals. They began to be grateful for the support we got from our partners. They have accepted my partners as part of my family, if not of theirs yet.
"Although while I have been dating my one partner now for over 3 years, they don't want confirmation that we are together, they prefer not to have definitive proof. It's still a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but mostly they are used to it by now.”
“My father has even defended polyamory when it was wrongly referred to as ‘ethical cheating’ in the media. He got very upset because it is not in any way cheating. Cheating implies a lack of honesty and ethics. It's like calling an open book exam cheating. It's simply not the same thing,” says Anie.
Anie is openly polyamorous with her family and friends, but has to be careful of who else she reveals her private life to. “Most people are supportive because they see how happy we are. I can't be completely public because one of my partners can't be open with his family without there being major repercussions.”
About three years ago, Anie, Jeffrey, Betty and Stuart all decided to live together after much discussion. This may seem odd to many people, but Anie says it’s not that different to the way many South African families live. “Having more than 2 adults in a home is very common. Within the relationships we are all aware that there needs to be clear communication around when we spend time together.
"Communication is actually key. We check in with each other via a WhatsApp group throughout the day and eat at least one meal together every day to have face to face conversations.”
So how do they handle any issues that may arise? They call a family meeting and sit down to chat. “If there is anything that we feel is important to discuss, from the mundane ‘who does the dishes?’ (a common problem) to how we are feeling, and more sensitive issues, we can ask to set a time as soon as possible to meet together. We all remember that we love each other when sitting down to talk.”
“We knew that space for each person was important, because we weren't 2 couples, but 4 individuals. We do our best to have separate spaces for each person. A place that we can go to be with ourselves. That is the thing people don't often understand about our relationships, we are people first. Independent individuals who choose to be together.
"Our other partners don't live with us, but are always welcome to our home. Very similar to family. We are not all involved with each other romantically, but we all love and care about each other. Time is the thing I crave most in my relationships.”
One of the most important things about being in a relationship is communication. When you’re in a multi-partner relationship, this becomes even more important. “There can never be too much sharing of one’s feelings and expectations. Polyamory refuses the "relationship escalator" – dating, and then living together, then marriage, etc. That isn't even an option in many polyamoros relationships. I have learned that my needs, my partners' needs and all our feelings and expectations are open for discussion. Nothing is taboo.”
Being polyamorous isn’t easy and it takes time and effort to do it effectively without hurting those around you. “And since it is all about people we love, we would rather not hurt anybody. Some might say that it isn't worth the effort, in which case they shouldn't do it.”
But Anie makes it all seem worth it when she says “I learn so much and gain so much from my multiple relationships, that the hard work is a fair price to pay.”
Anie says there are usually two kinds of people who have a problem with polyamory. Those who fear that their partners will be ‘stolen’ from them and those of the moralistic kind who will say polyamory leads to things like STDs.
So how does she deal with this sort of criticism?
“I like to remind people that I am not attracted to monogamous people. That there is not only one way to love. I am not interested in 'converting' people to polyamory. I am only interested in making sure that people who don't feel that monogamy is for them know that there is an ethical option, one that focuses on trust and honesty, without the pain of cheating.
"Most important in polyamory for me is being ethical. Ethical, to me, means not doing something that hurts others, even if I want to do it. It is all about not being selfish and being aware of others. Ignorance is not an excuse and breaking trust is not an option.”
“It's really difficult to make people understand when they already have fully formed opinions that they are unwilling to change. I usually mention that monogamy isn't for everyone, that history and current societies are full of non-monogamy. People cheat, break up with long term partners, if they fall in love with someone else, or many other forms of non-monogamy and serial monogamy.
“As for diseases, one of the most obvious ways to hurt someone is physically. Since I might be having sex with multiple partners, I have to be more cautious that those who have only one partner throughout their lives. That means the obvious – condoms, but also the less obvious. Before I start any sexual relationship I get tested for the following: HIV, Chlamydia, Syphilis, Herpes, Gonorrhea and I have a pap smear to check for abnormalities.
"I require the same of my partners. Even if all this comes out clean, we still use condoms, femidoms, latex gloves, dental dams (depending on the activity) and don't swap any sexual fluids (like on fingers and toys). I have also had the HPV vaccination. I feel everyone should have these tests before starting a new sexual relationship, whether you do one at a time or not.
“Telling your partners about other partners allows people to make informed decisions. They have all the information and can decide on the level of physical intimacy they are comfortable with.
“Also, polyamory isn't about sex, it's about love. Asexual people can be polyamorous. People can choose not to be physical with partners, loving relationships can be in any form. And polyamory allows relationships to develop at their own pace and in their own way.”
Anie is also part of a organisation called ZA Poly who provide support to South Africans (as well as people from other African countries) who either are in polyamoros relationships, or are interested in becoming polyamorous. They have their own website as well as a private Facebook page. The site has a great list of articles and books to read for those who are new to polyamory, or those who just want to understand it better.
So what does Anie want those who judge her lifestyle to know? “I'm happy. I'm not hurting anyone. I hope my partners are happy, and we talk honestly about our happiness often. I am not saying that everyone must be polyamorous. I'm not even saying many people need to be, but for those who are, let us be.
We don't think there is anything wrong with monogamy, but we also think that some people need to hear that there are other options, ethical and loving options. These are all my own opinions and that there are as many forms of polyamory as there are polyamorists.”
*Names have been changed
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