This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
Polyamory is the sometimes challenging, often liberating, and almost always unpredictable practice of having multiple simultaneous intimate, sexual relationships with different people. It’s becoming more popular. New dating apps cater specifically to non-monogamists, and more mainstream apps are beginning to include features for those seeking a polyamorous relationship. There are meetups and munches, conferences and communities.
Types of Polyamorous Relationships
On a practical level, different people do polyamory in different ways. Many of them have their own subcategories. Solo poly folks enjoy relationships without any expectation of merging their lives in many of the ‘traditional’ ways such as living together or combining finances. Kitchen table polyamory denotes constellations where everyone involved – partners, lovers, metamours – is able to sit down at the same table and enjoy each others’ company. Relationship Anarchists prefer to eschew all unnecessary hierarchy among their partners, whereas others will name a primary partner who always has priority among other lovers, or describe themselves as “monogamish”.
The common factor among all of these ways of approaching relationships is the belief that romantic love, sexuality, and partnership don’t have to be confined to only one other. And why should they? We don’t treat any other form of love this way – we love friends, family members, and pets without any fear that loving more than one will cheapen the love we have for others. We understand in this context that love is not a finite resource.
A (Brief) History of Polyamory
According to Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan (well worth a read), the ‘traditional’ approach of only having one partner at a time only came into being around 10,000 years ago – quite recently, in relative terms. Before this we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in tribes, enjoying promiscuous sex and not worrying about which children belonged to whom. Sexual intimacy was enjoyed playfully and openly, as a shared resource, strengthening bonds within the group.
The advent of agriculture brought a huge cultural shift, and with it came an incentive to know who our children were so that we could be sure they inherited the land and wealth we had begun to accumulate. And so we began to marry.
The “default settings” we’ve mostly been living ever since – the narrative of dating, then agreeing some form of exclusivity, moving in, and finally marrying – is a reassuring script to be able to fall back on. Engaging in polyamorous relationships forces me to eschew this progression and really feel into what I want, both in my life generally and with each new person I meet. Do I want hierarchy, or as little of it as possible? How much energy do I want and need to spend with the people closest to me? How much intimacy do I want with each person? This process is both liberating and occasionally exhausting.
What Does Polyamorous Mean?
There are clearly other things that define polyamory, besides simply the practice of having multiple relationships at once. For me it signifies a throwing out of this script: I no longer have to go along with the main narrative I’ve been exposed to my whole life about what relationships “should” look like. I can take each relationship on its own terms and define it however I like, and I get to create something new with every new person.
Perhaps this means only seeing them once a month or so with limited contact in-between, or perhaps they become a close friend who I catch up with often and can rely on. Maybe they’re in another country and we enjoy intimacy when we’re occasionally sharing physical space, or maybe we move in the same social circles and share many mutual friends and lovers.
How Polyamory Works
A polyamorous relationship is therefore built on an awful lot of honest communication, and a willingness for everyone involved to process their own desires and fears. I need to be truthful not only with myself about what I really want in my relationships, but I must be able to communicate this to those I’m in relationship with, too – even if they are casual lovers, even if what I need to say might end the relationship.
Fear, too, needs to be recognised and welcomed. So many of us grew up learning that we must jealously guard our partner, that any attraction to third parties threatens – and may necessarily end – our relationship. We learn to find safety and security in monogamy, but this is false.
Monogamous relationships can still end for all sorts of reasons, and remaining exclusive to each other doesn’t really protect against any of the things we fear. The only difference with polyamory is that we make these fears explicit.
As Willow Smith said recently:
“That insecurity and fear is something that we need to overcome and something that we need to evolve out of and transmute that into something new and different that can actually be helpful and make us love more and more freely… Monogamy, I feel, actually inhibits you from learning those skills of evolving past those feelings of insecurity and jealousy.”Willow Smith
Polyamorous relationships, when done successfully, force us to confront the things we’re scared of in a much more immediate way than monogamous commitments. Perhaps I feel anxious if I know that my partner is on a date with another person, scared that I will be abandoned – even if there is no evidence to support this. Bringing this up when we’re next together, naming it and acknowdging it as part of my experience can help to remove its power. Perhaps there’s something my partner is willing to do to help, even if it’s as simple as offering reassurance.
Relating in this way also encourages me to become more self-reliant, which seems a little counter-intuitive in the context of having multiple intimate partners.
One of the first arguments many people make in favour of polyamory is how great it is not to have to rely on one person for all of their needs (and likewise not have them rely on us for everything either). The tricky side of this is that my partners are not always available to me in a way which I enjoyed in monogamous relationships. If a partner is spending a weekend with another lover, then they are unavailable to me for a couple of days. I have to know that I have a solid network of friends (platonic, romantic, or otherwise) in case I need company or emotional support. And in the worst-case scenario that no-one is around, I know will be ok on my own for a little while.
As someone who has a history of losing myself in another at the expense of investing time in friendships, this has been a helpful lesson to learn. It’s nudged me forcibly in the direction of finding and building my own communities.
Relating openly, practicing polyamory, means being able to own all of our jealousy, fear, and anxiety and discuss it with those we love, trusting that it won’t necessarily end our relationship. It means being able to grow through these challenges and learn how to really understand what we want and how to care for ourselves. And finally, of course, it means being able also to express the love and affection we have for all of the people we’re close to, in the ways it feels most authentic for us to do so.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about how ironically lonely it could be to have polyamorous relationships. Or, perhaps more specifically, even to be part of the polyamorous community. Not to mention how hard coping with that loneliness could be.
They agreed, and offered the observation that being on the edge of something can be lonelier than not being involved at all. It strikes me that if those of us who can theoretically have as many relationships as we want struggle with loneliness, it must be a function of something deeper than our connections with others.
I can see echoes of this all over my personal life: how much harder it is when most of my poly friends have relationships and I don’t; how I’d much rather know quite a bit about my lovers’ or partners’ other connections than letting my mind fill in the blanks; how much I struggle with the grey areas of being on the edges of relationship.
The thing is, it’s so easy to not be alone. Or rather, it’s so easy to take small actions that will temporarily quench the loneliness we feel, but that don’t have the depth or the connection or the commitment or presence to really feel satisfying. I am talking, of course, about posting on Instagram, swiping on Tinder, snooping on Fetlife… Whatever our particular preference for non-committal, at-arms-length connection.
I should be clear that it’s not necessarily the medium here that’s the problem. These channels can be extremely useful when used mindfully. But their ubiquitousness, their lack of friction, and the deliberate way they demand our attention create a situation where we can find it incredibly hard to get our needs really met, while believing we have over and over again.
I have one person in my life who is definitely not a texter. At first, I was a little disappointed at how uneasy I felt not to be in as frequent contact with him as I am with other people I’m close to. I could feel stories starting to play out in my mind about how it’s only me that they don’t text, and that there was something wrong with me. Because I didn’t want this to build to resentment, I decided to knock this on the head and bring it up with him.
After much hand-wringing over the best way to word it I blurted out,
“You’re a bad texter!”
Not my most eloquent moment. But it did start a conversation about our different communication styles, and for me it raised an issue that has bubbled away for a little while in my mind, about how I can tend to seek validation through less-committal forms of communication like texting and social media engagement. I’ve had friendships and relationships that have involved texting every day, and I remember noticing how obligatory this communication sometimes felt, how much more we had to actually talk about after giving ourselves, occasionally, some space from one another.
My bad-texting friend, on the other hand, prefers to call. This means that, every so often, we will commit to being present with each other throughout a conversation, the unspoken agreement being that we will say goodbye and end the exchange explicitly when either of us would prefer to be doing something else. I’m down for more of this style of talking.
I can remember when texting and MySpace were novelties. When most of my socialising happened in person or on a landline. I wonder whether I still had the same need for validation and reassurance then; I suspect it’s a need that has grown with these new communication styles, and the unwitting voyeurism that Facebook and Instagram coaxes out of us.
It would be easy for me to talk about turning your phone off more often, or deleting apps, or all the other methods for combatting this that so many people have said better than me before. While useful for interrupting habitual behaviour perhaps, these solutions feel like they are only treating symptoms.
How do we learn to be satisfied with ourselves, confident that we are enough, and able to feel secure without needing to seek validation through constant contact with others?
So How Do We Learn to Cope with Loneliness?
Roan Coughtry recently wrote about how we can find this sense of security in ourselves by being unapologetically ourselves: overcoming a fear of abandonment by never abandoning our own needs and wants. Allowing ourselves to be seen and heard. I certainly know that this is something I would like to be better at, and I wonder whether developing my capacity for being with the discomfort of asking for what I want might help me to feel more secure.
I’m also aware that it’s a fear of abandonment and loneliness that often prevents me from speaking my wants in the first place. It seems to me that the only way to break such a pattern is by changing my behaviour, and the only behaviour in this instance that it would be helpful to change would be to be more honest with others in speaking up.
There’s another piece to this too, though. A deeper questioning of what it is that we are asking others to do for us in our loneliness: to distract us? To reassure us? To hear our insecurities?
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with requesting these things, as long as we understand what we’re doing and speak about them honestly. A process of noticing what it is we want to be distracted from, what we need reassuring about, which insecurities we need to speak. Otherwise, our loneliness can overwhelm us and leave us chasing after something that never quite helps – such as more frequent and superficial contact with someone – because we’re unwilling to look at the real fears underneath it.
Last Valentine’s Day I sent messages to everyone in my life who I loved, who I wasn’t already in the habit of telling regularly, and told them so. This included family, housemates, close friends old and new. This is not a common thing for me to do. Sending those messages made me feel nervous; a fluttery kind of embarrassment around the vulnerability of being seen. And, of course, the fear of being laughed at, rejected, or ignored.
But those were platonic relationships. Easy! (Relatively.) What about lovers? What about those with whom we have no intention of jumping on a relationship ladder with? Or even those we do? How and when do we express love for those we’re sexually or romantically involved with, without giving anyone the wrong idea? How do we show our love when it’s so easy to have different definitions of love outside of conventional relationship structures?
Much of my personal journey recently has been involved with decoupling feelings from stories. The classic story heard when a partner or lover reveals their love is that of commitment, of escalation: I love you, I want to be with you forever, I want you to love me back. Perhaps it also involves expectations such as living together, getting married, or having children. But none of those things are actually love; they are stories that we tell ourselves when we hear “I love you.” Just as we might get caught up in stories of never being good enough if we feel frustrated over failing a small task, we can allow ourselves to conflate a spontaneous feeling with something much bigger, unintended, and unhelpful.
If we can learn to separate the stories from the feeling, then suddenly we are much freer to express love, as we feel it, with no expectations. As Carsie Blanton says, we can “allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.”
We can tell those we love that we love them, knowing that we don’t need anything in return from them. It doesn’t mean anything other than what it is. In my experience, instead of cheapening the love I have for others, I notice that focusing more of my attention on it allows it to grow and expand.
This can get us into trouble, though. Unless our beloved is similarly adept at letting go of stories as we are, we have potential heartbreak on our hands. We must take responsibility for our actions as much as our reactions, meaning here that we must consider how these words will be received. There are some people to whom “I love you” will always be seen as an escalation, or inextricably tied up with other expectations or consequences. Perhaps these are people we shouldn’t be dating. Or perhaps we can be more careful with our words. Can we express something else authentically that would feel less loaded to our loved one? Gratitude? Care? Feelings of safety, closeness, connectedness?
Perhaps, as well as being more free to express our love for those closest to us, we can expand our vocabulary too to include all of these things.
Another way to expand our vocabulary could be to clarify what our love does mean. For me, love happens in the present. I love this person for all they are, right here and right now, and I want to share this with them. I can explain that I don’t need them to reciprocate or do anything about it, that it doesn’t mean that I’ll be doing anything else about it either. That I just want them to know that they are loved.
A little clumsy, perhaps, to those of us who have grown up with rom-coms and over-simplified expressions of what love is and is not, and no role models to demonstrate expressing romantic love without the stories attached. To me, this feels like a new skill to learn: using more words, and becoming more comfortable with finding clearer ways of expressing what I feel. But it seems a very necessary skill, while we collectively navigate alternative ways of exploring relationships.
And as for my Valentine’s Day messages, I was not laughed at, rejected, or ignored. I received heartfelt responses of gratitude and love, and really felt for the first time how important a thing this is to do, with our lovers as well as our friends.