If someone had asked my teenage self if I thought I’d be an a serious relationship by age twenty, I’d probably laugh and change the subject. But now, a month from my twentieth birthday, I’ve been in my first and only relationship for over two years, and I believe I have much to owe to the fact that the relationship has been open since it started.
At the beginning, I wasn’t sure that I’d do much more than go on a couple dates with the man who now shares half the rent of an apartment with me. I knew he was in a very long-term, long-distance relationship with someone else at the time, and I knew they were polyamourous, but I didn’t know how well I could handle being involved with someone who was in love with someone else. To be sure, in two years there have been a fair share of stumbles and awkward conversations as we felt our way around what worked, but it has, for the most part, worked.
When telling people that I’m in an open relationship, I’m often asked, “What does that mean, exactly?” From having met and talked with other polyamourists, I know the arrangements and configurations of relationships are nearly endless. Some couples have ‘tiers’ of relationships (primary partners, secondary, et cetera). Some are open to the idea of their partners sleeping with others, so long as they’re willing to share. While I know that monogamous relationships also have their own sets of rules, implicit or explicit, the strictness and specificity of those rules in polyamorous relationships range so widely that it would be absurd to say “‘x’ is how a polyamourous relationship should work.”
In my experience, the first mental images of polyamoury conjured up by people unfamiliar with the idea lean towards either religious polygamy, as ‘popularized’ by shows like Sister Wives and Big Love, or a free-spirited communal group-love. I admit that the latter was an idea that circulated in my mind for a while – did I have to date both of them? As it turned out, I was essentially a fourth addition to a linear arrangement of partners. My relationship with my boyfriend is entirely distinct from his relationship with his girlfriend, and that in turn is separate from her other serious relationship. What I initially feared might be some kind of sexual free-for-all turned into a deeply intimate commitment to one man, with an allowance that I might someday make deeply intimate commitments to other people and still be with him.
For the better part of a year, I barely considered dating or sleeping with other people, but the fact that the option existed was hard to ignore. When friends complained of being attracted to people outside their relationships, or of their fear of commitment to a single person, I couldn’t help but feel a bit smug. Once I did eventually decide to try having casual sex with other people, I found myself empowered by the ease with which I could let those people walk in and out of my life, demanding nothing and sharing only the time and intimacy I decided to share – all within the security of knowing I was loved and cared for.
Of course, I was not without issue – another question I’m frequently asked about my relationship is some variation of ‘How come you don’t get jealous?’ or ‘Doesn’t it bother you to have to share?’
I’ve heard many times, from people in various types of relationships, that in monogamy, a bit of jealousy is healthy, and in polyamoury, it’s unhealthy. This dichotomy terrified me. Jealousy and insecurity plagued me like it does many in their late teens, but I felt particularly burdened with the idea that I was supposed to strive to get rid of those feelings to satisfy the terms of our relationship.
I couldn’t fathom a way to just be rid of my jealousy, to suddenly overcome and not mind at all that someone might occupy a more important part of my partner’s romantic life than me. The struggle in my relationship wasn’t about trying to get rid of jealousy, but rather confronting the things that made me jealous in the first place. Sometimes jealousy isn’t about covetousness or spite. Sometimes it’s about a genuine, though misguided, fear of losing someone important, and that fear was what I had to deal with, not the symptomatic jealousy that resulted.
I’ve grown in immeasurable ways in the last two years, and while not all those ways are explicitly connected to my relationship, there are things that would be entirely different if I hadn’t learned to be a polyamourist. I wouldn’t have explored half the number of kinks I now frequently enjoy, and I’m not sure I would have come out as queer, or as genderqueer. I believe the freedom to experiment coupled with the assurance that I was not unlovable made all the usual, tumultuous self-discovery of late teenagehood a much better experience than it would have been otherwise.
I also believe that it doesn’t work for everyone. I have met ex-polyamourists, who found that trying to juggle commitments with multiple partners, struggling with deal-breaking envy, working out the rules of their relationships, or any other number of factors made things too complex, or too painful, or otherwise unworkable. Some polyamourists, like the authors of The Ethical Slut (frequently hailed as the how-to guide of open relationships), suggest that many or most relationship problems could be solved with polyamoury, and encourage all to rethink the monogamous concept of love ingrained in all of us since childhood. As much as I have come to love the feeling of having my options open, if I had become involved with a less patient or compassionate person, or if I hadn’t had help getting over my feelings of inadequacy, or if I hadn’t awkwardly blurted out my feelings at inopportune moments and ended up having painful but necessary conversations, I might have decided a long time ago that polyamoury was not for me, and left it at that.
Some people emotionally require polyamoury, the same way some people are naturally monogamous. On the other hand, I followed a learning curve between the assumptions I had been taught to make, and the reality of admitting and being okay with the fact that I, and people I love, can be interested in multiple people. Learning to pursue those interests in a way that doesn’t hurt me or my partner has taken time, too, and naturally, the easier-said-than-done heart of all good relationships is communication.
It might turn out that at thirty years old, I’ll be in a serious relationship with one person, or two, or three, or none. Whatever the case, I’m certain the experiences I’ve had with polyamoury will have formed a good foundation for a willingness to explore and share those relationships if I have them, and to know how to take care of myself if I don’t.