Choosing polyamory: my journey exploring alternative relationship styles

Nine years ago, I decided to go climbing at the Circuit bouldering gym one night and happened to strike up a conversation with a lovely man with a sweet smile and a blonde man-bun. We ended up going out for a drink that night and as we started talking about relationships, he told me that he was polyamorous. This was a concept I had heard of before but knew very little about and certainly had no practical experience with. I was skeptical, but I decided to give it a try because I liked the guy and was curious to explore something new. 

We dated for about eight months and eventually ended things amicably when I moved to New Zealand, but have since become best friends. The relationship was great, but also challenging and required a lot of growing pains and self-reflection. I was learning how to navigate a completely new and foreign relationship structure mostly on my own. These days, I have many friends and poly communities I can reach out to for support, but at the time, I had no one to talk to who had any familiarity with the subject other than my boyfriend and his other partner. After that experience, I decided that, while I appreciated the concept of polyamory and felt like I had gained a lot from experimenting with it, it was also really hard and not something I wanted to continue doing. “I’ve tried polyamory and it is just not for me”, I said.

Famous last words.

Somehow, despite trying my best to avoid it, non-monogamy of various forms has continued to find its way into my dating life. Time and time again, I would meet some guy, have a connection with him, and then, surprise!, he would turn out to be polyamorous. It was becoming apparent that there was a large amount of overlap in the Venn diagram containing the circles of people I was drawn to and the people who were exploring polyamory. I liked men who were emotionally intelligent, community oriented, independent, open to new experiences, introspective, and many other traits that seemed to often mix quite well with the ideals of polyamory.

Since it seemed like it wasn’t going away, I kept giving polyamory a try, learning a little more about myself and about the philosophy, the logistics, the struggles and the benefits of open relationships each time. As I continued to experiment with both polyamory and monogamy, over time, I became less and less reluctant and more and more curious about and comfortable with the many alternatives to the traditional relationship mold. 

Nine years later, I find myself no longer yearning for a strictly monogamous relationship in the way I used to. While I do deeply desire a committed partnership with someone, a person to build a life with and maybe even grow old with, I no longer believe that having a romantic life partner is mutually exclusive from having romantic/sexual/intimate relationships with other people. After nine years of resenting the fact that so many men I wanted to date were polyamorous, I’ve been surprised to find that I have reached a point where I am not only ok with but actually desire non-monogamous relationships for myself. Exactly what form those non-monogamous relationships will take will depend on the connection between me and each of my partners and what we decide to create together. 

It has been both a daunting and exciting realization, to come to this point where I enter into new relationships telling people that I do not want to be with someone who is only interested in monogamy. To be completely honest, I am intimidated by the time, effort, and emotional labor I know it takes to be successful at managing multiple concurrent relationships. Most of my poly dalliances have involved dating someone who is already in a primary relationship. I don’t have much experience building a committed and open relationship with someone from scratch and I know it requires a huge amount of dedication and patience. But I am also excited at the prospect of being able to create and nurture numerous loves and leaving myself and my partners open to explore the myriad romantic connections we will surely continue to discover throughout our lives.

What is polyamory?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with polyamory, allow me to back up for a minute and attempt a simple explanation of what it means to me. Polyamory (also called non-monogamy) is an umbrella term for relationships in which the people involved have some form of intimate relationship (often sexual, but not always) with more than one person. Some people prefer the term non-monogamy because it can be easier to describe what it is not than what it is, since it can look so different for everyone. I tend to use polyamory and non-monogamy interchangeably. Some people also choose to add the word “ethical” on to the front, referring to “ethical non-monogamy” or ENM. Personally, I dislike that addition because it implies that non-monogamy in and of itself is unethical and we need to qualify that we are doing it in an ethical way. Monogamous folks don’t feel the need to call it “ethical monogamy”, so why should we? Anyhow, I digress…

Basically, it is a relationship structure that does not take the traditional monogamous form that has become so common in our culture today. Other poly people may define it slightly differently, or use different terms, but that is what polyamory means to me.

Within that umbrella, there are literally infinite relationship structures that exist. The people involved may or may not belong to a relationship hierarchy in which some partnerships are given more priority over others. These hierarchies may include multiple committed, long-term relationships, or they could involve only casual hook-ups outside of the primary relationship. People may choose to have close, meaningful relationships with their partner’s other partners (aka metamours), or they may operate more on a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ basis. Some couples create rules that they and their partners have to operate by (i.e. only when you’re out of town, no sleepovers, nobody we both know, no penetrative sex, etc.), or they may have an approach in which boundaries are shared and discussed but there are no prescriptive rules about what a person can and can not do. A person may even identify as “solo poly” in which they date multiple people but do not consider any one person their partner. 

I could go on all day with examples of how this could look, but the point I’m trying to make is that polyamory looks different for everyone and it gives people the flexibility to co-create a relationship that works best for the people involved. Of course, just like any relationship, not everyone gets all of their needs met all of the time and a lot of effort is required to ensure that all parties feel loved, respected, and valued. But ideally, polyamory gives people the freedom to connect with all of their lovers and partners in ways that feel fulfilling and meaningful to everyone involved. 

Releasing the need for control

At the end of the day, one of the biggest reasons polyamory resonates with me is that it challenges me to release my need to control other people when I feel uncomfortable. When I feel jealous of the way a partner is interacting with another person, polyamory challenges me to acknowledge those feelings and then look inside to examine where they are coming from, rather than placing the blame solely on my partner’s behaviour. Of course, everyone has the right to set boundaries and to express discomfort, but it is also important to examine the feelings underlying the discomfort.

I like that polyamory forces me to question and investigate the root of feelings like jealousy. Do I feel jealous because I don’t trust my partner? Is it because I am feeling insecure and afraid that my partner is going to leave me for this other person? Is it because our culture has taught me that the worst thing a person can do to their partner is to sleep with someone else? Is my partner acting in an inappropriate way that violates the boundaries we have both agreed to? All or none of these things may be true. But polyamory has taught me that jealousy can be shared and expressed in a way that acknowledges both the behaviour and the deeper feelings, rather than being weaponized and damaging the relationship. Sharing feelings like jealousy with a partner can be a great way to open up a conversation about the relationship and possibly even strengthen it. 

Of course, these ideals can just as easily be applied in monogamy. And for a long time on my poly journey, my plan was to take the lessons I had learned from polyamory and simply apply them to any monogamous relationship I had. I know plenty of monogamous couples who have lots of independence, great communication, and respect for each other’s autonomy. And I know plenty of polyamorous couples who are still attempting to exert control over their partner’s behaviour and other relationships. While each relationship structure may lend itself to one set of ideals or another, it is really the people in the relationship that make it what it is. 

Open conversations

Throughout this journey, I have participated in many conversations about polyamory and I generally enjoy discussing the topic with people, whether it’s with seasoned non-monogamists or people who have never heard the term before. I like sharing my perspective with people because I’d like to think I am contributing to dismantling the misconceptions that many people have of polyamory. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma and shame surrounding polyamory and I hope that having open conversations on the subject helps people to understand non-monogamy better and see that there is nothing shameful about it. 

However, as much as I appreciate these conversations, every now and then, I get a little tired of having to explain and defend the way that I choose to experience love and relationships. 

Ultimately, it is my decision whether or not to participate in such discussions and I always have the choice whether or not I want to answer the sometimes uncomfortable questions people ask about my love life. I am usually willing to engage because I want to be part of helping to move the needle forward and I understand that it’s a pretty foreign concept for a lot of people. I’m also a pretty open book and I don’t mind talking with friends or even strangers who are curious and eager to learn. But sometimes even well-intentioned people can leave me feeling judged or misunderstood and it can be a bit exhausting to feel like I have to prove that my relationships are just as legitimate and meaningful as theirs.

That is why I decided to write a series of blog posts on this topic, so that I have a place to direct friends to when they want to know more about the way I and millions of other people have chosen to live our lives. (That’s right, folks, MILLIONS. There may even be poly people living in your town, working in your office building, even camping next to you at Burning Man!!! I have no data on the actual numbers, but given the amount of poly people who are hush hush about it, it’s gotta be higher than any of us think). I originally sat down to write just one post called “Five misconceptions about polyamory”, but that quickly spiraled into at least four or five separate posts, so stay tuned because it turns out I have a whole lot more to write on the matter and lots more bad drawings to draw.

I am by no means an expert on this subject, but I have spent a large portion of my dating life exploring non-monogamous relationships of various structures, reading books on the topic, and being a member of social groups in which many people are in polyamorous relationships. My experiences in polyamory are just one of many and I am not claiming to represent the wide spectrum of relationships that fall under this umbrella. Even after nine years, I feel like I have really only begun to dip my toe in the pool of endless possibilities that exist in the non-monogamous world. But I hope that hearing my perspective will contribute to at least a basic understanding of how polyamory can look, and maybe even open some people’s eyes to relationship options they may have never considered before.

You’ve got options and chocolate is delicious

We are just barely scratching the tip of the iceberg here and as I said before, there will be more posts coming that dive a lot deeper into the various aspects of polyamory that I find interesting, rewarding, challenging, and worth talking about. And I want to be clear that I do not think everyone should be polyamorous, nor do I think monogamy is inherently bad. I do think there are many aspects of monogamy and the ways we have been brought up to view relationships that are toxic and don’t work for a lot of people. 

We have been brought up believing that two-person relationships are the only option and that you can only love one person at a time. If you are someone for whom monogamy doesn’t really seem to work, the message is generally that it is your fault and you just need to try harder at it. It is rare that we see positive examples of alternative relationship structures in real life or in the media. I believe it is totally possible to have both monogamous and polyamorous relationships in which both partners feel supported and independent, but only one of those styles is seen as “normal” and is presented as an option, despite the fact that many people would thrive in an alternative structure.

Allow me to illustrate this with a delicious analogy. Imagine growing up in a household where your family only eats chocolate in one form: Hershey’s kisses. Not only does your household only eat Hershey’s kisses, but everyone in your neighbourhood does, too. Even when you go to school and buy snacks at lunchtime, there it is, the only form of chocolate you’ve ever known: Hershey’s kisses. They’re sweet, they’re chocolatey, they’re delicious, and you grow up knowing that you love chocolate. Your best friend, however, is not really a Hershey’s kisses girl. They’re fine, but she’s just not that into them and assumes that maybe she just doesn’t like chocolate. She keeps trying to like them, because you seem to love Hershey’s kisses so much, but every time she eats one, she’s like “Meh, I don’t see the big deal”.

Now, let’s say you both turn 18 and you go off to college in another state. You go to the movies with your friends one night, thinking you’ll get some chocolate, expecting to snag some of those delicious Hershey’s kisses you always love. But you get to the concession stand and suddenly you see it – a wide array of chocolate in so many forms you never even knew existed. They’ve got Twix, Kit Kats, Mars bars, Oreos, Toblerone, and all the other delicious forms of chocolate you can imagine. Your world is blown open, you never knew there were so many different ways to eat chocolate, each one unique and delicious in its own way. You can’t believe you’ve lived your whole life up until now eating only Hershey’s kisses when there were so many other types of chocolate out there to explore!!! As for your best friend who thought she just didn’t like chocolate, she realizes that maybe she just doesn’t like Hershey kisses, but there are other forms of chocolate that she finds super delicious! Wow, what a great situation for both of you! Isn’t college great?

Of course, in the end, you may decide that you still like Hershey’s kisses best of all. Or you may decide that dark chocolate with salted almonds is really what does it for you. But the point is that you have options and you get to choose, and so does your best friend. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to stick with Hershey’s kisses, but wouldn’t you rather know that you chose them because you love them best, rather than because you weren’t aware of what else was out there? This analogy may get a little more confusing when we start to add other people and their chocolate preferences in, but mostly I just wanted to write about chocolate and this is my blog so I do what I want.

Hopefully what you got from this post and my convoluted chocolate analogy is that we all deserve to choose whether or not monogamy is actually the right relationship structure for us, rather than being forced into it because that is what is acceptable. I am grateful to that blonde-haired man for initially exposing me to polyamory all those years ago, because exploring it over the years has opened my eyes to the many options available to me and has given me that freedom to choose rather than blindly following a path that society laid out for me.

If this is your first time hearing about polyamory, I hope this and future posts will help you to see that there are other options out there. And if you are more experienced with non-monogamy, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with me, especially if they differ from your own! I look forward to sharing this journey with all of you and seeing where we end up.