Suggested publications: Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Cleo
Angie* was introduced to Ray* by a co-worker. She didn’t know much about him at all, but sometimes when she was waiting to cross the road in the mornings on her way to work she would see him kiss a woman goodbye at the front of their workplace. Angie just assumed that the woman was his girlfriend, and thought no more of it.
At work their paths crossed more often, and their conversations were quite professional until one day Ray cracked a joke and made Angie laugh. Their friendship developed and she found herself talking about her own relationship problems when they’d go for walks in their lunch hour. One day, Ray said, “You do know that I’ve got a girlfriend, don’t you?” He went on to say that he was still married and living together with his wife and children, and that his wife knew about his girlfriend. Ray explained that they were in an open, polyamorous relationship.
When Ray got a message from his wife, Liz*, saying that she had arrived at her lover’s house to engage in some afternoon delight, Angie finally understood. She found this confronting, but also liberating. Hearing that two adults could have an honest and open relationship with such a high level of communication was astounding to her.
Angie and Ray’s relationship became closer and eventually they found themselves in a physical relationship. Ray told her that he openly discussed their relationship with his wife, and of Liz’s positive reaction to the events. A week later, Angie met Liz.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Polyamory means many loves, and it is the term used to describe the practice of ethical non-monogamy. In our modern society, monogamy is still considered the most common way of cohabiting. Honesty is sacred, and infidelity is one of the lowest blows anyone can deliver to their partner. But there are people in our society who live in a different world. These are the non-monogamous amongst us, who believe that they can love more than one person at once and be ethical, open and honest with their significant other.
Shane, webmaster of the Australian polyamorist website polyfelity.org.au and practicing polyamorist, believes that we are all able to love more than one person at once. “I can love my parents, I can love my kids, I can love my siblings; why can’t I love someone outside that nuclear circle? Sure, I love all of the aforementioned on different levels, but it is still love.” Shane is quick to point out that polyamory is not swinging, as they are decidedly different. “Swinging is about sexual gratification – the enjoyment of sex without the emotional attachments involved in a romantic relationship. Certainly friendships can develop from swinging but from my experience they never go any further than a mutual enjoyment of sexual encounters.”
Shane inherited a polyamory mailing list from an e-friend and went on to form the PolyOz website in 2001. Currently there are nearly 700 members on the mailing list and over 500 on the website – and 65 % of members are women. “It seems women are more open than men. Yet although those figures sound impressive, the actual numbers of active members would be far lower – most likely below 100, combining the mailing list and the website. I have found the Australian Poly Community quite backward in coming forward. They are very reluctant to submit articles and reports so that others can learn about our lifestyle and what is happening within the community as a whole. I have attempted to bring it together in a central location that can refer people on to local autonomous groups.”
Questioning society’s rules and defending their romantic choices are part of the polyamorist’s life. “Who made up the rule that you can only love one person?” Shane asks. “I can’t really pinpoint where monogamy actually evolved or why. If we go back to the Old Testament, polygamy [the practice of a man having more than one wife] was rife. Several cultures throughout the world still embrace polygamy, although there are few cultures where polygyny [or polyandry, where a woman has more than one husband] exists.”
In June 2009, an Australian Institute of Family Studies report stated that 20% of couples cite infidelity as the main reason for divorce. Jones points to the divorce rate and single parent families as an example of monogamy gone awry. “One should perhaps be questioning as to whether the nuclear family as it has existed for the past how many centuries is still a viable model for the 21st century. Combine that with the economic pressures of today and the nuclear family model is on shaky ground. I really believe that human emotions are something that we can never really control fully, and why should we fight them? Isn’t it better that I openly admit and embrace my love for someone else rather than hide it away and end up having a sordid affair?”
Shane and Michelle met on a dating website after Michelle divorced her abusive husband of 17 years. Michelle says they clicked because they both had children with disabilities. “On his profile, he was totally open and honest and said he had a girlfriend but was looking for friendship, company, relationship. I thought about it and felt we could become a great support for each other as we have the added pressure associated with caring for our children with disabilities. We met and it felt like I was coming home. I knew he had a girlfriend but was that enough of a reason not to see what could come from this intense feeling? In the end, what I saw as positives far outweighed my idea of Helen being a negative.”
What about the Green-Eyed Monster which lurks in everyone’s psyches? “Jealousy has been in the relationship at times and it has been managed by talking openly and honestly. I am not jealous of Shane having Helen as much as I’m jealous of the history that they share that I wasn’t a part of. I am in the situation that I am the newer partner but I live with Shane full-time so it is more about working out the dynamics of who does what when we are all together and setting up ‘ground rules’. It is about talking about what each of us feels we need and what we want to have for ourselves in the relationship.”
Does this type of relationship work for all the members? “Yes, it works for me and if anything I wish Shane had more time with Helen. I love seeing how happy he is when she is around and I do know it is not that he loves her more or less than me – it is also that she makes him happy and that makes me happy. I am secure in that I know how Shane feels about me, and Helen doesn’t take anything away from that. She is extra, not instead of.”
Dossie Easton, American co-author of the groundbreaking book The Ethical Slut is a practicing polyamorist, She has lived the polyamorous lifestyle and even raised a child with her many different partners, some more permanent than others. She has been in this lifestyle since the 60s. Easton prefers to use the term ‘slut’ rather than polyamorous. “We use that word very defiantly to open up people’s definitions of how powerful sexuality can be.” In her book, the word ‘slut’ encompasses all forms of open, honest and ethical sexuality, from swinging to open relationships to triads, quads and communities.
But how can we possibly love more than one person at once? “We all accept that we can love more than one child,” Easton states. “The truth is that there are a lot of different kinds of love and we have harnessed love, I think, to a very limiting carriage where the idea is that love is supposed to be the bond that makes it possible to work, share a mortgage and raise children with somebody, and sexual love is particularly supposed to be that, and it only supposed to be between those two and this is a romantic fantasy. What people forget about love is that there are many different ways that we can love somebody, and I can love somebody because we share a particular connection in sex; I can love somebody because I think they’re humorous and wonderful and crazy and far out; I can love somebody and look with a cool eye and say, ‘Oooh, you’d be an idiot to open a chequing account with this one!’; and I can love somebody who I would not want to live with, but I can still be their friend on a lot of levels.”
So does Easton believe that monogamy and marriage are becoming outdated concepts? Easton says, “Traditional marriage is really based in agrarian cultures, it’s based on hardship, it’s based on the fact that you have to band together and make ties that are highly committed or the children might starve and you’ll have no-one to take care of you in your old age.” Marriage in the traditional form was created when the mortality rate was high and old age was 40. In our modern society, we are making marriage stretch for 50 plus years because of our longevity, and there are questions around whether there is a natural time limit to our relationships. “People are much more vulnerable than they used to be, so most people can expect to have more than one, maybe more than two, major relationships in their lifetime… maybe even three or four. It is a form of polyamory.”
Serial monogamy, where we go from one major relationship to the next, could be a newer form of polyamory. Limerance, a term coined by American psychologist Dorothy Tennov in 1977, describes the feelings that everyone has at the beginning of new relationships. It is also called the Honeymoon Period. Many couples fall into the romantic trap, believing that when those feelings go that they’re no longer in love, and that their partner is not really their soulmate. Easton says, “We throw out relationships, quite cruelly, when what’s happened is they have simply become mature relationships and they’re not going to operate on passion forever. They are going to operate because people want to and because they share a lot in common and I see no reason why people can’t have long term relationships as long as they accept that those relationships are not going to be based on mad passion.”
Jealousy is the ultimate question for the monogamous, trying to understand the polyamorous concept. “Everyone experiences jealousy in their own particular way. It is a reaction to a stimulus that we have been taught by society, that we are supposed to have this reaction. Dr Deborah Taj Anapol, author of ‘Love Without Limits’, says that jealousy will be your teacher if you let it.” Jealousy is a question of ownership of your partner, and of your fears and worries projected onto your significant other. It is considered to be a useless emotion, one which polyamorists find they don’t often feel, or if they do they question their reaction to the emotion. This makes polyamory different to monogamy, as many polyamorists believe jealousy is a useless emotion, based on fear which can be conquered if you work through it.
Angie was very nervous, standing on the footpath as she waited for Ray and Liz to arrive. She was wondering what she could possibly say to her boyfriend’s wife. Yet once she climbed in the car and saw Liz’s beaming smile, she relaxed. Liz was genuinely happy to meet her husband’s lover. They went out for dinner and drinks, and talked like old friends, and Angie learned that the children were completely protected, that this was an adult situation and kept absolutely between the adults in the relationship. Angie is still in awe of Ray and Liz keeping it together so well, in a very regular marital situation dealing with everyday family issues, but with an open-mindedness that is so rarely observed in a regular, monogamous relationship.