I didn’t quite know how to feel when I unintentionally found myself at one end of a polyamorous relationship. I was startled, to say the least, although I did not quite understand why. Don’t get me wrong, I have, for a long time, firmly believed that loving, consensual relationships of any shape or form should be accepted and welcomed in society. But at the same time, it was an unexpected surprise to be told by someone I had just started seeing that he had a girlfriend. Amidst my confusion, I felt the need to tell a few friends about how I was now involved in a polyamorous relationship. For the most part, the responses were neutral, if not supportive. But one of my friend’s responses in particular stood out from the rest.
“That’s messed up,” my friend said abruptly, after sharing my experience with him.
“Not when there is consent on all ends of the relationship,” I argued.
“Nah, it’s still messed up.”
My friend’s strong reaction to polyamory – or more crucially, his reaction to a so-called deviant relationship form – spoke to a broader issue of how some forms of love and relationship structures are valued more and seen as more legitimate in society at-large. It left me wondering where does this stigma come from, and why are so many people in our society averse to the idea of polyamory?
Monogamy dominates the representation of relationships in media. People who partake in more than one committed relationship at once are largely nonexistent in mainstream media. This has not only resulted in the absence of the term “polyamory” amongst common knowledge, but it has also worked to spread misinformation among those who have heard of it, of what it truly means in practice.
In order to clear up these misconceptions, and to learn more about polyamory, I interviewed two people who identify as polyamorous: Jocelyn Beaudet, a student at Concordia University, and Jane*, a student in U1 at McGill, studying linguistics and Sexual Diversity Studies. Each person I spoke with helped me clear up misconceptions of polyamory that run rampant in our society. They shared their experiences of polyamorous relationships, and the difficulties they’ve encountered in a society where monogamy is understood as the only natural way that intimate relationships should form.
Much of the misunderstanding surrounding polyamory seems to stem from not knowing the actual definition. According to the best-selling novel The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, polyamory is “being openly loving, intimate, and sexual with many people.” Jocelyn’s working definition of polyamory also resonated with me, where he described it as “the foundation of ethical non-monogamy where you have defined relationships with more than one person at the same time. By relationship I mean full-time, accessible, functional relationships that are both emotional and physical.”
People engage in polyamorous relationships for different reasons. In Jocelyn’s case, monogamy just doesn’t feel right. “It’s not necessarily because of neediness, or as the comments go to say, you’re just not happy with this person. It’s just this void of emotions that one person cannot realistically fulfill.”
By this “void”, he is referring to the emptiness felt when there are hobbies he wants to share with his partner, that are not of interest to them. “The gap that exists […] is so wide [that] even if you love someone in their entirety and they love you back, there’s still that feeling [that occurs] when you’re single and you wish you were with someone.”
When I asked Jane why she chose to be polyamorous, she answered simply, “Freedom.”
“It’s not about [dating multiple people], it’s about being allowed to. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do with my body, and [vice versa]. I don’t want to tell anyone who to love or who to be with. I think they’re allowed to be whatever they want.”
The idea of polyamory, and forming intimate relationships with multiple people, goes directly against the normalized monogamous narrative we’re so often bombarded with in mainstream media and day-to-day interactions. Women are particularly subject to the policing of their behaviour, bodies, and relationships. If a woman engages in multiple relationships – as a polyamorous woman would – she’s subject to being pitted as a ‘easy’ or a ‘slut.’ The motive behind this type of policing is incredibly insidious and deeply embedded in our society. The omnipresent promotion of monogamy as the be-all-end-all of relationships is in directly relation to promoting the livelihood of the patriarchal capitalist state. As such, polyamorous people often face accusations that aim to villainize their relationship practice in opposition to ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ monogamous relationships. These accusations of polyamorous people being cheaters, and unfaithful to their primary partners, of being ‘greedy’ in terms of sex and desire for intimacy, or to being in multiple relationships purely for intercourse, need to be put out of their misery.
Polyamory is not cheating
Upon asking Jane what one of the most common misunderstandings of polyamory is, she said that many people think that it is cheating. In Jane’s words, polyamory is “making sure that every partner in the relationship is aware of what’s happening.” Therefore, cheating has nothing to do with it.
Unfortunately, many people who are introduced to polyamory have trouble wrapping their minds around this concept. Whenever Jane shares her relationship issues with friends, “the one thing that comes back [even] if it has nothing to do with the issue [is that I] ‘slept with other people’ […] and that’s what made things go bad in the relationship.”
When discussing this topic with Rachel Costin, a university student in Toronto, she excellently explained it by saying that “cheating is going outside the boundaries set by you and your partners, [and] because seeing other people is outside the boundaries of a standard relationship, people automatically assume that it is cheating.” Those who think polyamory is cheating don’t understand that with a different type of relationship comes different rules and standards, and that the rules of monogamy do not apply to all relationships.
Polyamory is not about greed
Another common misconception about polyamory is that it is a greedy and selfish practice, as it is supposedly “taking more people out of the dating pool” as Jocelyn told me.
Jocelyn finds this idea to be ironic. “Monogamy is claiming someone as my girlfriend, my boyfriend, my partner.” Monogamy’s usage of possessive adjectives, along with utter refusal to create loving relationships with more than one person, has if anything, a closer resemblance to greed than polyamory.
Jane also made a couple of interesting comparisons herself. “If I work in one cafe, and I work in another one, that doesn’t mean I don’t do my job well in the other one, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like working in the second one or the first one. It just means that I work at two cafes. If I have two best friends, it doesn’t mean that I love one more than the other, it just means that I love them differently.”
People who take up more than one job are never accused of wanting more money, nor are people who have more than one really close friend accused of being greedy for more love and friendships. If this is so, why are polyamorous people still accused of being selfish for desiring love from more than one relationship?
Advice for polycurious monogamists
As someone who unexpectedly found herself in a polyamorous relationship, I constantly thought about whether or not I would be able to continue in a long-term polyamorous relationship. Growing up with the expectation that I would only be in monogamous relationships, I was unprepared for something so strange and new. I didn’t know if I could ever feel comfortable knowing that I was not the only significant person in a partner’s life. I also questioned whether it was worth facing the disapproval of my friends were they to ever find out the kind of relationship I was in.
Upon asking Jocelyn how people like me could give polyamory a shot, he recommended being honest to the people you intend to be with. Both Jocelyn and Jane agreed that as bad as it sounds, it is difficult to discuss openly about polyamory with friends, and in some cases, it might be better to withhold some information until you’re more comfortable with it yourself. Jocelyn said “[telling friends] what it’s about, why you’re doing it, and why you feel that way” can greatly help when sharing the details of your love life.
One other strategy that he said worked particularly well was taking both his partners and his friends for a night out. It was effective because his friends got the chance to see that there was no jealousy amongst Jocelyn and his significant others, and that perhaps polyamory is not so bad after all.
Polyamory at McGill
Talking to Jane, I asked her what it was like to be a polyamorous a student at McGill. Although there are many university initiatives that strive for safer space, Jane is still both directly and indirectly subject to judgement by both teachers and students. How accepted she feels in the McGill community depends on the person, program, or class being dealt with.
Some people are “totally understanding of [polyamory, while] there are others who just did not understand the concept. They only saw it as cheating.”
In regards to her experiences in class, she has sometimes felt marginalized as a polyamorous woman. “In Sexual Diversity Studies, [polyamory] is acceptable, but when you go outside of these things, the professors and TAs don’t acknowledge this kind of relationship.”
Jane told me an example of this tension, where her history professor told a joke about a roommate who maybe had a new sexual partner. In the end of the story, Jane felt it reasserted the norm that everyone should only have one partner. The prof had meant no harm, but the joke still left Jane feeling like the butt end of a bad laugh, and uncomfortable with her sexual identity.
If this situation were to happen in a group of friends at McGill or in a Sexual Diversity Studies class, she would not have been afraid to call someone out on their joke. But in a history class, she did not feel that calling it out would be either relevant or well received. Jane told me she wouldn’t have the support of other classmates that she would have in a class related to gender or sexual diversity.
To make McGill a safer space for polyamorous people and people who practice other forms of non-normative relationships in more than just a select number of classes, Jane agrees that the students and staff should be educated on the topic.
She thinks that most people “would just dismiss it, but it’s very important to make people aware of polyamory’s existence.” By teaching others about polyamory, more people would identify with this sexuality, since the term is rather unknown among the public. Besides the occasional judgement she has experienced at McGill, overall Jane finds that it is definitely better here than some other places in Quebec, where she has met people who are very strongly opposed to polyamory. Even so, McGill still has a way to go before becoming the welcoming space to alternative forms of relationships.
Polyamory is not about leading a promiscuous lifestyle, nor is it some innate greed for more love and attention. As in most monogamous relationships, polyamory is not just about receiving love. As Jocelyn put it, “It’s more about giving. We have so much love to give that only one person could not possibly be the target of all of it.” This idea of purity in our romantic and sexual lives that has been ingrained into our culture makes it harder for non-monogamous relationships to openly thrive.