How to Make Polyamory Work
For the first installment of The Talk, a new column that interrogates the current state of sex and relationships, we explore how and why people with different relationship structures make them work.
Monogamy isn't dead, and polyamory is alive as ever. This year, OkCupid created a feature for couples who are linked and looking; Mo'Nique started a new podcast chronicling her open marriage; and Showtime aired a reality series titled Polyamory: Married & Dating. When we talk about "being open," relationships morph from systems into spaces—ones we must design and navigate.
For the first installment of The Talk, a new column in which I assemble a small group to interrogate the current state of sex and relationships, we're discussing commitment models—the ones we follow and the ones we want to destroy.
I sat down with three friends to explore how and why people with different relationship structures make them work. Art writer and editor David Velasco, essayist and woke woman Charlotte Shane, and poet and social worker Jasmine Gibson are exploring and evolving in their open or monogamous relationships. For our conversation, we used a model that is tried and true: Over brunch, we sat together and opened up about opening up.
David Velasco: The vocabulary for this stuff is always so tough for me. Even the term "relationship" feels inadequate—as if "my relationship" is the only one I have, or as if all the other relationships I have in my life are somehow lesser.
I've been with one of my partners for twelve years now. From the get-go, we were basically open; we didn't like to call each other "boyfriends." We think we're two people who love each other and enjoy each other's company. We have another partner who we've been seeing together for a number of years. Figuring out how you define that has been an interesting process. Relating to this idea of "relationship models," I don't want to personally set any at all.
Ana Cecilia Alvarez: "Model" is a playful word in that way; it implies a system but also something for people to emulate, something to be followed.
Velasco: There is a very useful book for all of this. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, in the 90s—heaven to a young queer figuring his shit out. There, I found this exceptional book called The Ethical Slut. One of my partners recently downloaded the audiobook. The authors, Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, narrate it. Their voices are so soft and therapeutic, and they describe every possibility and potential in a nonjudgmental way and have great rules for negotiating conflict. One of my favorites is practicing having regular arguments with your partners. You just yell at one another in gibberish, so it gets it out of your system.
I've had conversations about monogamy and whether that would be interesting to try out for a while. There's something erotic about that arrangement.
Charlotte Shane: That would work great for gibberish sex talk too! Right now, I am in a relationship that, to my knowledge, which I think is complete, is monogamous. And that feels quite new for me because I remember being a kid and not understanding any ideas about sexual purity. Wouldn't you want your partner to be good at sex, and isn't that only going to happen with experience? I wish that in our culture—and it might be shifting toward this anyway—the default was open relationships, and monogamy was the exception.
I think most relationships are a professed monogamy with a lot of affairs. In most open relationships, it seems like the participants aren't weighting sex with so much commentary on the quality of their bond in the same way that monogamous relationships assume. But the thing about affairs, which is what I think is ultimately most hurtful, is dishonesty and the element of independence.
Jasmine Gibson: I was in a monogamous relationship once before college, and it didn't work. When people ask me how an open relationship works, they either say, "That must be so hard," or they say the opposite, "Then no one must get mad." People can cheat on people in open relationships.
Alvarez: People assume that in open relationships there's either more conflict or none at all.
Gibson: An open relationship isn't harder than any other relationship model, really—or easier. There are still politics that you have to live within and abide by.
Alvarez: I am open, but I am not sure to what degree my partner and I have ruled out not being open. We're open to trying monogamy someday.
Gibson: I think of relationships as fluid and temporary. They can break off, or they can lull and mutate into something else. There have been periods when my partner and I wanted to just see each other, and other times when we've both been with other people. It's when we start creating boundaries that we get into trouble. "Us" is a weird, fluid, stretchy thing. That gives me peace of mind.
Velasco: I've had conversations about monogamy and whether that would be interesting to try out for a while. There's something erotic about that arrangement.
Gibson: I think monogamy is erotic in the same way we eroticize the lone cowboy, this symbol of American exceptionalism. This idea that there is just one person who responds to all your needs, that there's only one person strong enough to fulfill whatever your desires are. It's so erotic because it's so dark. Monogamy shows how we think about productivity. It assumes we can only be productive with one person. I've had people ask me how I get anything done—write and go to school—if I am always fucking. People are always surprised I can be productive and anything of value can come from a relationship like that.
Velasco: What about the pleasure of jealousy?
Alvarez: I hate to admit it, but I feel motivated by other people being into my partner.
Velasco: What makes admitting it uncomfortable?
Alvarez: With openness, I have to accept my real self versus my ideal self. My ideal self is very chill, and cool, and affirming, and curious—but not in a controlling way, just in an empathic way—and encouraging, and deeply secured and satisfied. My real self is insecure, fearful, and bratty.
Shane: I know what you mean about your ideal, intellectually mature self and then your emotionally real self. There's a really potent mix of fear and insecurity that can be a huge turn-on. Even though I am monogamous, I still hurt myself in the same ways that I did when I was open. I still make my boyfriend tell me everything about his past relationship and then feel shitty.
My only performance art idea is to invite everyone I've ever slept with to one room and just leave them there.
Gibson: My ex was married, and I told him, "I need to know about this woman!"
Alvarez: To me, they feel like intimate strangers. If anything, we have some similarities because the same person fell in love with us. My only performance art idea is to invite everyone I've ever slept with to one room and just leave them there.
Velasco: I feel like I've been in that room! One of my partners—I hate the word "partner"—I like "lover." One of the people with whom I am in love, a prior person that he was in love with is a good friend of ours. Once, we three went to Argentina together. On the plane, there was an incident where this family—a man and woman and child—wanted to sit together, and somebody outside of their party was trying to badger us into moving. This person emphatically argued, "They are a family." My lover's former lover replied, "We're family too!"
Velasco: I've never slept with him; it's not that type of thing at all. But if I have an idea of the world I'd love to inhabit, it includes as expansive an idea of family as possible.
Alvarez: This makes me think of co-parenting or fantasies of living in communal spaces where everyone's fucking everyone.
Gibson: My partner and our two lovers have playfully talked about living together in a house and co-parenting a baby. We thought that's the best way for a child to grow up—having healthy relationships with adults where who mommy or daddy is matters less than how much love the child receives.
Velasco: One of my lovers lives in the same building as me, but on a different floor, and the other lives a short bicycle ride away. I love the idea of communal living—the idea of being in proximity to everyone I love, friend and lover and in-between. Now that I am getting older, the question of children comes up more. I can't imagine a more complicated negotiation. I already think relationships are so complicated. But kids are a next-level complication.
Alvarez: It's funny. I don't have any procreation fantasies, but if I were interested in imagining new ways of people relating to and caring for one another, why wouldn't I want to be a parent? Though I agree, this relationship stuff seems like kid stuff compared to having kids.