A few weeks ago, #truthchat tackled the topic of Polyamory. Matthew Bobbu, who practices polyamory, was gracious enough to answer a few of the questions asked during the live chat, but with the added depth of his personal experience with the topic.
What is Polyamory, and what is it often confused with?
Polyamory, from the greek “poly,” meaning “many,” and the latin “amor,” meaning “love,” is the belief in or practice of having multiple intimate, loving relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. There are as many ways of being polyamorous — or poly for short, as there are poly people (also described sometimes as polyamorists, though it’s not a popular term within the community), but ethical, honest, love-centric non-monogamy is what unites them.
Polyamory is most often confused with polygamy, but it differs in a couple of way: firstly, poly does not necessarily involve marriage, whereas polygamy does, by definition. A polyamorous relationship may become polygamous, if it is taking place in a culture where multiple marriage is legal, but in practice this is unheard of. Polygamy is also frequently associated with particular religions, such as the Mormon faith. Polyamory, on the other hand, has no ties to any particular religions — most poly folk tend to be atheists or follow some sort of paganism, though there are also a significant minority of Christians in the community.
Poly is also frequently mistaken for swinging. Though the two can overlap — poly people can also swing, so long as it’s done with full knowledge and consent. Some people have even found poly through swinging. The key difference is that swinging puts an emphasis on purely physical relationships, whereas poly is focused more on the romantic end of the spectrum: and it is definitelt a spectrum, with different relationships all fitting somewhere between the two. Often fluidly moving from one to the other with time and development.When and why did you decide this was the life for you?
Since even before I started dating in my mid teens, I never understood why having feelings for one person meant I was supposed to drop all the feelings I had for someone else. It didn’t make any sense that love should be limited to just one person, when I could clearly experience attraction to more than one person at once.
I spoke to a number of partners through the years about how I felt, but no-one seemed to quite understand — the myth of The One True Love seemed to be everywhere I looked.
The breakthrough finally occured when I was listening to a science fiction short story podcast, Escape Pod, and they introduced Cunning Minx as the narrator for the episode. Minx is the host of the Polyamory Weekly podcast, and when they described this as a podcast for “ethically non-monogamous people” I leapt out of my seat, rewound the recording, wrote down the link, and immersed myself in learning everything I could about polyamory. It turned out to be exactly what I’d been talking about for years, and even though it caused me a lot of trouble and heartache in the early years I’ve stuck with it ever since.
What are some of the hardest things about being polyamorous? Is there anything more uniquely challenging than a monogamous relationship?
The only major difference between monogamy & polyamory is that there are more people involved, but that does result in some interesting challenges.
The first challenge that everyone thinks of when considering polyamory is obviously jealousy. Poly people are by no means immune from jealously, or any of the elements that go to produce it– insecurity, paranoia, uncertainty, distrust, etc. Coping with the complex emotions that can come from sharing your love with multiple people is difficult, but the key to it is being responsible for your own emotions. Where mainstream culture would say “your partner is doing something that’s making you jealous, they should stop,” poly people say “I’m jealous of something that my partner is doing. We should talk about it and figure out what we can do to help me deal with this feeling.” It’s all about communication, communication, communication (something of a poly mantra).
Another challenge that often gets overlooked is that while love may be infinite, time isn’t. We only have so much time in a day, only so many days in a week, and managing your time so that you get to see all your partners can be tricky — especially if they have multiple other partners themselves! Online calendars are a frequent feature of poly people’s lives, to help deal with all this scheduling.
To me the question that polyamory seems to get too, is how people define love. What is love to you? And why do you think it’s so difficult for so many of us monogomous peeps to believe it possible to love more than one person at the same time?
That’s two very tough questions, both worthy of essay-length responses! I can summarise my understanding of love as the feeling that makes you consider peoples needs, wants and desires as having the same importance as your own, or higher — but that’s quite a pragmatic perspective. It’s far more complex, and the term itself is far too limited to convey it’s many different forms. The ancient Greeks had the right kind of idea with having different words for different kinds of love.
The question of how difficult it is to shake off the myth that you can only love one is, for me, a heavily sociological question. We have had centuries of dogmatic Christianity as the predominant influence on our culture, and that has left us with a legacy that is very much rooted in that morality. The idea that monogamy is the only way comes from its saturation of our culture; it’s everywhere, with very little challenge to it. Anything that deeply ingrained in you by society is difficult to dismiss, even when faced by reasonable and logical arguments.
Isn’t polyamory typically men who now legitimately have more than one woman?
The ides that there can be a “typical” form of polyamory is quite amusing for me. There are so many poly people, each doing it their own way, that to try to describe a “typical” poly set up is nigh on impossible.
The urban fairytale of the poly man and his many women is not without examples, but it is not the standard. Nor is it as the myth would have you think — this one man may well have many female partners, but they will usually have other partners of their own, too. In truth, polyamory is far more commonly a decentralised network of relationships of various kinds, than it is anything even resembling a web with one individual at the centre. Or it may be a closed group of just a few people who share their lives and love together.
What do you think it is that makes it difficult for people to understand polyamory?
I think I covered this one earlier.
During our #truthchat conversation on twitter, I kept hearing a respect for polyamory, but a concern about the logistics of the relationships. How is a polyamorous relationship work? Is everyone equal?
Different people deal with different relationships differently. That’s the beauty of poly — it is both communal and individualistic by nature.
For example, I have total equality with my relationships. That’s not to say I treat everyone the same, but I give everyone the same considerations, no-one has any rules set upon them by anyone else, and no-one is more important to me. All that differenciates my partners to me is how deep our relationship has grown — often something time-dependant. So my partner of over 2 years may get priority over someone I’ve just started seeing in a context where all else is equal. Then again, I may decide I’ve not seen my newer partner for a long time and that warrants their priority in this case.
Some people have primary partners and secondary partners, giving different people different significances in their life. I’m not a big fan of this approach, but then again everyone seems to have a slightly different definition of primary and secondary.
Really, the logistics of a poly relationship are worked out as the relationship develops, much as it happens in mono relationships: not every mono person sees their partner every day, some people go out with their friends separately and some have the same pool of friends. These are similar to the sorts of considerations that poly people have to deal with too, and there’s no one right way to do it — just whatever works for you.
What do you think about jealousy? Is that something that polyamorous people are impervious too?
I personally have never felt jealousy, but that’s definitely not to say that poly people are impervious. I think I covered this in an earlier question.
Any closing thoughts you wish people would consider when thinking about polyamory?
Polyamory is often cited by conservatives as an argument against gay marriage. They say “Well, if we let two men marry, then what’s to stop three people from getting married?” They might not intend it to be, but it’s a damn god question. What is to stop people who love each other from being together?