I’m Coming Out As Polyamorous (And This Shouldn’t Be a Big Deal)
I haven’t been entirely closeted about this. I’ve supported polyamory theoretically, spoken about it publicly and positively, come out selectively to people I thought might be open to the idea, and talked about it here and there online. But I’ve never really come out and said “Hi, I’m Avory, I’m polyamorous, and this is as important a part of how I negotiate relationships as being queer.”
The reason I’m doing so now is that poly comes up a lot in the media, and I think most people wouldn’t have a problem with it if they understood a little bit more. So I’d like to offer myself as an example—not as the only or best way to do poly, but as one possibly more palatable version to act as a conversation starter. I want to be clear that I absolutely support those who have different life experiences—individuals who have had many sexual partners, those who are married and want legal polygamy, those who came to poly because they were tempted to cheat—but that’s not me, and I’d like to share my story, too.
I found out about polyamory long before I claimed it as an identity. I came to accept it fairly slowly, and once I did accept it for others, it was a while before I saw the applicability of poly to my own life. There was a transition period where I said I’d be happy in a poly or a monogamous relationship, before I applied the poly label to myself.
I’ve always gone about sex and relationships in a relatively cautious and selective way. I’ve had fewer than ten sexual partners in my life, a fairly even mix of relationships and briefer encounters. I never felt the urge to cheat, really. Honesty has always been my #1 relationship value and as a monogamous person, I always said that I would rather know if a partner wanted to cheat or did it. I didn’t initially come to poly as a way to have multiple relationships. I simply didn’t have a problem with a partner having more than one relationship.
Over time, the way I practice poly has changed. I was in two relationships simultaneously for about a year. I also had one very positive encounter outside of those relationships, which both partners supported. I talk explicitly with my partners about whether we’re all comfortable with being “open” as well as poly, what we need from each other to make our relationships work, and what we need to do to be comfortable from a safer sex standpoint. Recently, one of my relationships transitioned smoothly back into friendship. But one constant for me in polyamory is that it’s always been mostly about recognizing the variety and fluidity of relationships.
People have all kinds of relationships: sexual, friendship, romantic, official, unrequited, etc. etc. In my life, I’ve been held back by expectations plenty of times—it’s not appropriate to flirt with a friend, or it’s wrong to admit a sexual attraction to someone you don’t want to date, or the word “love” must have a specific meaning that begins and ends along with an official relationship. If you have sex with a friend, you can’t say “I love you,” because that means something. If you end an official relationship, you can’t love that person or have sex after the relationship is over. Many, many expectations. And many of them, frankly, are bullshit.
I think that most of these lines we draw in the sand are artificial, and don’t reflect the nature of how humans relate with one another.
In modern society, especially among liberals and progressives, we allow a lot of things. It’s not generally a problem for someone to date several people at once as long as a name isn’t put to those relationships yet. Friends with benefits is an accepted term. Casual sex is expected, especially for young people. Cheating, though not condoned, is considered a normative behavior. Our standard relationship scripts incorporate cheating, breaking up and getting back together, being caught in a love triangle, and even (though a bit more fringe) open relationships and marriages where the participants have one committed romantic relationship but also engage in additional outside sexual relationships.
These scripts do not, however, include polyamory—the practice of having multiple acknowledged romantic relationships.
This seems kind of silly to me. Why would an official relationship be the line we cannot cross, something so strange to experience with multiple people that it is not only condemned but considered weird or freakish?
I suspect that, like many relationship topics, it has something to do with marriage. Over time, as romantic relationships other than marriage came into acceptance, we started to recognize the concept of a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend” as a kind of audition for marriage, as well as the concept of an unmarried long-term lover or partner. Although these relationships are not the same as marriage, they are similar enough that we want them to have a particular meaning.
This is the same obsession with meaning that we hear in the same-sex marriage debates. I’ve heard plenty of moderate democrats say that they have no problem with same-sex couples recognizing their relationships, but that the word marriage means something. This sanctity of marriage argument carries over to other romantic relationships in softer form.
We expect that when someone has a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, or partner, it means something that everyone around us can identify and understand. With the official relationship comes benefits—social recognition, being part of the couples’ club, giving the relationship itself a public dimension. Couples get invited to parties as a unit. People talk about “single people” and “people in relationships” as separate societies with collective understandings. And I suspect that some monogamously coupled people, at least on a subconscious level, are uncomfortable with polyamory in the same way those opposed to same-sex marriage are uncomfortable with an imagined slippery slope. If we allow people to enjoy these benefits with multiple partners, where will it stop? Will the importance of my monogamous relationship be diluted?
I think this attitude insults our collective imagination. People have relationships in so many different ways that it seems very arbitrary to leave out those who want their friends and family to recognize more than one significant romantic relationship. If we can recognize friends, roommates, and family members as significant, why not additional partners?
I’ve always liked the phrase “ethical non-monogamy,” because it focuses on the importance of honesty and communication in relationships—the point from which I’ve always approached polyamory. If you’re not sure about polyamory, or it doesn’t sit right with you, I encourage you to get back to the question of values. Using your values as a baseline, consider the example of a person who has multiple romantic relationships where all parties involved are aware of the relationships and communicate about what they mean. There may be disagreements, fights, and jealousy—polyamorous people are just as human and monogamous folks, after all—but honesty and communication are core principles of the relationship structure. Considering this example in the context of your personal values, does polyamory feel like an unethical outlier?
Of course, if the answer is yes, there’s nothing I can do. You feel that I am unethical or immoral, and that’s your decision to make. Or, you may feel okay about this hypothetical, but when presented with examples of how others do polyamory, feel uncomfortable again. That’s your right. But if you found yourself having a kneejerk reaction at the top of this post, when I declared that “I identify as polyamorous,” I would encourage you to go past that initial response and ask yourself why. You may be surprised at what you learn.
A few resources for my inevitably shocked friends and family: