Call the average person a slut, and they’ll take it as an insult. As Sarah Andrews [not her real name] knows, that term is often hurled at polyamorous people, but as far as she’s concerned, if people are going to look at polyamory with hostility or suspicion, it’s their loss. Frustrated by the jealousy and possessiveness she’d encountered in monogamous relationships, Andrews was looking for a new approach when she and her husband decided to open up their marriage a couple of years ago. She now considers it one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
Embracing polyamory, says Andrews, 30, has helped her become a better person by making her appreciate the importance of being her own best partner and changing her perspective on other women, whom she used to regard as romantic rivals. Despite its many positive aspects, she believes polyamory — broadly defined as having multiple sexual relationships that all partners know of and consent to — is still widely misunderstood.
“Usually most people are like ‘Oh, so you guys are a bunch of sluts, and you just like to screw everybody and it’s just a giant orgy all the time,’” she says. “And sure, that’s part of it, I’m sure that there are polyamorous people who have all kinds of awesome, promiscuous sex all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not how it is for everybody. Sex is only a really small part of polyamory — for most people it’s about relationships.”
That polyamory involves more than just sex, however, also surprises many couples when first opening up their relationship. Calgary sexologist Trina Read says many couples who experiment with polyamory have been together for 10 to 15 years and want to add “spice” to their relationship, but often find the flavour isn’t what they expected.
“What people discover when they go into open relationships, their first thought is there’s going to be all this sex. What they don’t realize is it can be very complicated, because it’s dealing with human emotions.”
That doesn’t mean polyamorous relationships are doomed to fail. The make or break factor, Read says, is communication, because while having lots of sex is appealing, talking about it is hard enough in a single relationship, let alone multiple relationships. Polyamory can also improve communication because such relationships naturally require a degree of openness that might not exist otherwise.
“When couples have done the work — and it is a lot of work — they often enjoy a better relationship,” says Read.
So is it indeed the case that the more, the merrier? Grant Shiels, 42, thinks so. He’s belonged to an “open triad” with two female partners for the past three years and also has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys a more distant relationship. He prefers polyamory to monogamy since unlike past instances where he had a single partner, there’s less pressure on him to compromise on his needs. The benefits flow both ways, he notes, since he also demands less of his partners.
Making room on his calendar for three people is a challenge, Shiels acknowledges, but he disputes the common argument that, love being a finite commodity, polyamorous people will inevitably get less of it from their partners. Finding the time for his partners may be difficult, but finding the love isn’t.
“Sometimes I use the analogy of, if I were to have only one child, that would be great, I would love that child unconditionally and unreservedly — but if I had three or four children, would that change anything? In fact, I would say I’m blessed even more for having that much love and dynamic in my life.”
That said, Shiels maintains polyamory isn’t so very different from monogamy in some ways. There were lots of threesomes in the early days of his relationship with partners Elle and Sam, but while the sexual attraction remains strong, much of what they do together now is considerably more staid.
“After a time period, we kind of joked that we were like the old married poly couple, when the three of us are laying in bed, and the two are reading a book, one’s playing on the computer,” he says. “It’s not quite as taboo or erotic as people might think, we become like any people, except there’s three of us.”
How much poly people are “like other people,” however, is a matter of some dispute within the poly community itself. Dan Savage, who coined the term “monogamish” to describe generally faithful couples who are still open to flings, maintains it’s something people do rather than something they are. While this argument was hardly new, Savage drew an angry response from readers who say being poly is as much a part of their identity as being gay or straight.
While acknowledging both sides of the debate, Tiffany Sostar, 30, argues polyamory and monogamy are relationship orientations, but believes they exist on a spectrum.
“Some people are definitely monogamous, it would be very challenging for them to be polyamorous. Some people are definitely poly and would really struggle with monogamy. And a lot of people are in the middle, sort of analogous to being bisexual, whereas they’re capable of having both styles of relationships.”
Sostar embraced polyamory a few years ago, drawn to it by the ideas of personal autonomy and abundant love, believing, like Shiels, that such love needn’t be limited to one other person. She currently has one “anchor partner” — a term she prefers to “primary partner” because that suggests a hierarchy — but the couple have agreed that they’re free to pursue other relationships as they wish, provided they undergo STI tests before joining any new relationships, use protection with new partners, and keep each other informed.
Although polyamory isn’t for everyone, she acknowledges, and it’s not necessarily better than monogamy, the openness to new relationships works for her. Where she finds freedom, however, others see indecisiveness, a frustrating if familiar experience.
“I am also bisexual,” she says, “and one of the stereotypes is it’s what you do until you find the person you want to settle down with. But that’s not the case. Just like I really am bisexual, I really am polyamorous, and I will be poly, I think, for the rest of my life.”
When it comes to acceptance, though, Sostar recognizes she’s comparably fortunate. As a university student, she’s not at risk of being fired, and while her family initially struggled to understand her being poly, they’ve since come around. Society as a whole is also becoming more tolerant, she says, but she regrets that some people can’t see having multiple partners as just one variation — and an equally valid one — of the ways of love.
“Lots of people are polyamorous and find that it works really well for them. It would be nice if that was understood and accepted rather than marginalized the way that it currently is.”
If you’re interested in finding out more: Poly 101: Introduction to Polyamory takes place on January 27th, 7-9 p.m. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.