Most people grow up with the same gold standard for romance and relationships—monogamy, a.k.a. having one exclusive partner at a time, and ultimately one to last forever.
The model is remarkably widespread, depicted in everything from children’s stories to blockbuster films. Around the world, people are fed the dream of finding “the one,” with whom they must develop an always-happy and everlasting relationship.
“If you don’t do that—if your relationship breaks down, if you get married and divorced—you’re made to feel like you’ve failed, rather than that the model is not adequate,” said Jonathan Kent, a UK-based journalist who wrote the book A World Beyond Monogamy: How People Make Polyamory And Open Relationships Work And What We Can All Learn From Them, which was released as an e-book on Feb. 14 and will be out on paperback next month.
While monogamy is easily and concretely defined, polyamory covers a wide range of relationship arrangements and agreements. Polyamory is predicated on ongoing relationships that tend to be as much emotional as sexual, and is a subset of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), an umbrella term that covers different forms of non-monogamy, including swinging, open relationships, and being monogamish. According to Kent, no two polyamorous relationships look alike.
In his research for the book, the journalist spoke to CNM academics and activists, as well as around 40 people of different ethnicities, religions, sexualities, and backgrounds from around the world who practice polyamory or some form of CNM. In the process, he questioned the nature of commitment, intimacy, and relationships at large, and found that there isn’t just one way to be polyamorous.
For starters, people get into polyamory for a number of reasons.
“There are quite a few people who think that they have always felt this way. It’s never made any sense to them why you should be devoted to one person in particular,” Kent told VICE.
Other people find themselves in polyamorous relationships because they happen to like having multiple sexual partners, sometimes because sleeping with just one gender, let alone one person, doesn’t quite encapsulate the totality of their sexuality. Some people turn to it because they want friendships without set boundaries, meaning they are able to flow into more physical or romantic spaces with some of their friends in different situations.
But polyamory is not always about having more, or hotter, sex. According to Kent, most of the polyamorous people he interviewed for the book stayed in their relationships more for the romance and emotion than for the sex.
When people hear about polyamory, many might imagine threesomes. But few will consider the possibility of three, four, or even more people sharing the responsibility for mundane things like cooking and washing dishes, as well as sharing more abstract things like emotional support and belongingness.
“We need to belong, or the vast majority of us do, and I think that sense of belonging is one of the powerful attractions of consensual non-monogamy—because people find themselves in something bigger than themselves,” Kent said.
“We need to belong, or the vast majority of us do, and I think that sense of belonging is one of the powerful attractions of consensual non-monogamy—because people find themselves in something bigger than themselves.”
Seen in this light, polyamory is not just about the relationships one has with multiple lovers. It’s also about the relationships one has with their lovers’ lovers, and even their lovers’ lovers’ lovers, all of which contribute to a greater sense of belonging.
One might imagine that knowing your lover’s lovers would foster jealousy, not belongingness. But that’s not always the case.
The opposite of jealousy is “compersion,” which social psychologist Dylan Selterman, who was interviewed for Kent’s book, said was one of the things that surprised him most about how polyamorous relationships work.
Much of compersion is about transcending feelings of jealousy. Kent explained: “If you know that you’re not being belittled by the fact that your partner is having sex with other people or is romantically involved with other people, you can actually get to a place where you take pleasure in your partner’s pleasure with somebody else.”
Having multiple partners, however, is not to be mistaken for an inability to commit. A 30-something event organizer from London who goes by the name Eunice in Kent’s book has three partners. They have been with one of their partners for eight years, and the other two for around 12 to 13. Kent said that Eunice put it this way: “People accuse me of not being able to handle commitment. Far from it—I like commitment so much that I just want more of it.”
“People accuse me of not being able to handle commitment. Far from it—I like commitment so much that I just want more of it.”
Committing to one relationship can seem difficult enough for a lot of people, let alone committing to several. This could change, however, when you reconsider the way you think of relationships. Some people think, for example, that there isn’t much of a difference between meeting someone to watch a movie and meeting someone to have sex. Both can be intimate, and both can be important relationships.
Whichever way polyamorous relationships manifest, Kent said that two things are common among plenty of those that go well—the people in them communicate and negotiate.
With monogamy, he explained, there are fairly strong and well-set-out societal blueprints that are passed down through media and families. But polyamorous people, who stray from the path of monogamy, do not have that blueprint. Instead of going into relationships assuming the ideal of finding one person to satisfy all their wants and needs forever and ever, polyamorous people go into relationships with the understanding that they don’t necessarily share all the same desires, outlooks, and ambitions as their potential partners—and that’s OK.
“Not everybody wants to live together. Not everybody wants to have joint finances. Not everybody wants to have children together. Not everybody feels the need to have a relationship that takes precedence over their friends. Some people prefer having a long-distance relationship,” explained Kent.
This means that polyamorous people must communicate their wants and negotiate what they can get from each of their relationships, effectively designing relationships that work for them each time. This is something many monogamous people take for granted, precisely because they expect their one partner to satisfy all their wants and needs. In other words, it’s all or nothing, so there’s hardly anything to negotiate.
There is, of course, a bigger issue—non-consensual non-monogamy, or when people cheat. But Kent thinks this would be less of a problem if people realized that they had the option of consensual non-monogamy, that they can, in fact, acknowledge their different needs and urges, and negotiate a relationship with people who can accept those needs and urges, too.
A monogamous person, then, can become a consensually non-monogamous person. This also means a consensually non-monogamous person can also become a monogamous person. Neither is necessarily a permanent change. People who drift in and out of monogamy and CNM are called “ambiamorous,” Kent explained, meaning they adjust the types of relationships they are in depending on their partners and circumstances.
Of course, not all CNM or polyamorous relationships work.
Some polyamorous relationships end, Kent said, because one person realizes they want a monogamous setup. Others end because the people in them find that they aren’t compatible, not unlike how some monogamous relationships might end. One polyamorous set-up that tends to fail, Kent said, is when a couple, typically comprising a heterosexual man and a bisexual woman, goes “unicorn hunting” for another bisexual woman to love them both equally.
“That has its problems… [because] they’re shopping for a human toy rather than trying to build a relationship with a third person,” said Kent.
Similarly, couples in already broken relationships will probably not be able to save their relationships by adding more people. Kent was careful to note that there are always exceptions, and sometimes opening up a relationship could work, but people should be wary of looking at CNM as an easy fix.
“In the same way as some couples think, ‘Maybe if we have a baby then our relationship would be great,’” said Kent, “broken relationship, add more people, does not necessarily equal great relationship. It tends to just mean more mess.”
An important lesson to learn from this, whether you’re polyamorous or not, is that intimacy can sometimes be more about truth and honesty rather than fidelity.
In monogamous relationships, where partners expect each other to satisfy their every want and need, the wants and needs that the partner cannot satisfy often end up uncommunicated and repressed. This leads people to think that their partners do not know them sufficiently, because they end up keeping so much of themselves hidden, and, conversely, that they, too, might not know their partners enough.
“Intimacy is something that many of us really prize, that feeling of closeness to another. And it’s not just knowing them—it’s the feeling that one is seen for one’s whole self, and accepted as one’s whole self,” Kent said.
“If you’re not being honest with somebody, how do you know that they’re accepting you for your whole self?”
Depending on your disposition and where you’re at in life, all this can sound exciting and encouraging, or overwhelming and confusing. Kent, however, said that his book is not evangelizing for everybody to turn to polyamory as soon and as quickly as possible. More is not always merrier.
“Polysaturated,” he explained, is a term polyamorous people use to describe the feeling of having just about enough relationships to handle, with little room for any more.
For monogamous people looking to get into polyamory, Kent offered a piece of advice: “Yes, you can rush into the sweet shop and buy all the sweets. But, you know, you can have too many sweets.”
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Correction: A previous version of the article said Jonathan Kent’s book, A World Beyond Monogamy, was released last year. It was released yesterday. A previous version had also used “polyamory” and “consensual non-monogamy” interchangeably in a sentence but was since differentiated. We regret the error.