I have been in an open, polyamorous relationship with my partner Amanda for about a year and a half. The relationship began as open for somewhat coincidental reasons, but over its course, I have developed a respect for polyamory — an understanding of why it makes sense for me, and why, I suspect, I might want my future relationships to be open as well1. And it is not for the reasons that most people think.
For the first time in the course of the relationship, I’m currently being intimate with someone else. However, I was supportive of polyamory before I had taken advantage of its freedoms, even though Amanda was seeing other people reasonably often. The question is: why? Why would I put myself in such a position? Why would I allow Amanda to sleep with other people while she is with me?
The key lies in a word of that final question — “allow”. To me, a healthy relationship is founded on mutual respect. There are many relationships which are not, but I find the most fulfillment from a relationship which is a coming together of two whole people with respect for each other. Anything else, to me, is just a fling (maybe a long-term one). So, under the supposition that I respect my partner, what does it mean to “allow” something? More pointedly, what does it mean to “disallow” something?
Both allowing and disallowing suppose that I have the power to make decisions for her. It supposes that I am informed enough, without even being present, to make the judgment call about whether her actions were right. In a traditional monogamous setting, I have a wholly un-nuanced view of the situation — if she has slept with someone else, she has made the wrong choice, and I, therefore, have been wronged, and I (with the assistance of social norms) am the one who has decided that.
Let’s imagine a polyamorous situation to help get to the heart of this. Let’s say that she met a new partner, and asked me if it’s okay if she sleeps with them. I will not respond with yes or no. She has offered me the power (and responsibility) to decide the best course of action for her, and I feel it necessary not to accept it. In accordance with my values, I can’t accept that power for anyone but myself: it would be a disservice to us both.
However, I don’t mean to say that there are never any emotions that come with it, or that if there are I have an obligation to bury them. Indeed, I often get jealous and feel hurt when she is with someone else. But as a partner, I want to understand. Why did what she did make sense to her? How did she perceive that would affect me? — knowing that I am considered in her decision-making process is important to me. I will communicate how it actually affected me. Perhaps I spent the night alone feeling shitty — it’s important for her to know that, to take that possibility into account next time she makes a decision, and it’s important for me to understand that I am still alive and that we still love each other. But the key is that, because of respect, I give her the benefit of the doubt that she made the best choice she had — I just want to understand her reasoning, and probably be reassured that she still cares — which she always has.
There are certain “codes” that I see as being very powerful, as leading to a stronger and more aligned internal experience. One of these is honesty — I am committed to always being open & honest (in a more nuanced way than I have been in the past). This is not because honesty in itself is “right”, but because integrity (i.e. always doing what I feel is right) is a quality that is important to me, and I have found that honesty is a code that is easy to verify (i.e. it is easy for me to know if I am abiding by it), which leads to integrity. This is because if I do something which I feel is wrong, I learn that, because of my code of open honesty, I will need to tell someone that I felt what I did was wrong. And that pressure is huge — I can no longer keep it to myself, now I need to show others about my lack of integrity when it happens. This pressure very quickly causes me to start acting with integrity.
In the same way, I see polyamory as a code which is easy to verify, which leads to respect as a consequence, and respect for my partner is something I value. Jealousy happens — when she talks to someone I can tell she thinks is attractive, when she stays out later than I expected her, when she tells me she has or had a crush on someone. But I know that we are in an open relationship — we have agreed that being attracted to others, even to the point of acting on it, is okay, and therefore my feeling of jealousy cannot be instantly transformed into a feeling of righteousness and being wronged. Hence, I have to consider the larger situation — I have to see where she is coming from, I have to understand her and her choices, I have to know her better. And in doing so I understand her values, her wishes, her way of being, her way of relating to others — and such a deep understanding leads me to respect her. I have not felt such a deep respect for anyone else I have ever been in a relationship with, and I think the openness of our relationship has been a major factor in that.
Further, polyamory leads to more communication and strength in our relationship. Consider “cheating” in a monogamous relationship. Let’s say I am in a monogamous relationship with my partner and, in a flush of sexually-excited irrationality I slept with someone else. I still love my partner very much and want to be with her, and we have a good, mutually supportive relationship, but I just made a mistake. (The idea that I could sleep with someone else while still being in love with her may seem impossible to some; that idea is worth examining — consider these prompts: masturbation, past relationships, fantasizing.) The question is, do I share my mistake with her? If I do share, it’s very likely that the relationship will end by social contract — many consider cheating to be an unforgivable offense. I don’t want the relationship to end, because I still love her and want to be with her. If I don’t share, I turn one wrong into two, and eventually many — not only have I wronged her with my actions, I wrong her by lying once about it — and, as lies are, probably many more times to cover up the first one. So not sharing is incompatible with my respect for her, and sharing is incompatible with my love and desire to be with her.
Would it not be easier for everyone if I felt free to share my mistake, if I were not in this terrible bind after making it? With the roles reversed, what would it say about how much I care if I were willing to put my partner in such a bind? Letting go of the moral attachment to fidelity allows this situation easily to be a conversation — she can tell me how it affected her, I can understand that and that may inform my desire not to be so reckless again. Perhaps the conversation will reveal something about our relationship dynamic that needs attention, or perhaps something that is secretly making us both unhappy (one of the possible causes of sleeping with someone else). In that sense we can make a plan to repair it, or possibly we will mutually agree it is in both of our best interests to end the relationship, allowing us to be friends afterward, feeling sadness for our loss but not hurt and anger, because we both know that it was the right decision. In the case that the relationship does not end, the conversation may have revealed a deep problem which we are now on the road to solving, strengthening the relationship and bringing us closer. And maybe it was no big deal, and we understand that as sexual beings sometimes we just need to feel attractive and get our rocks off, and the relationship has not been harmed. All of these are preferable to an abrupt end due to an objective wrong, in which one person feels deeply guilty and the other feels deeply wounded.
There are things which I will only briefly mention: for example, it is freeing to know that a friendship/relationship with someone other than my partner can develop in whatever way seems natural, without worrying if every action has crossed the line. This freedom allows me to get closer to others in my life, even if their gender allows some sexual tension, which brings me more fulfillment and happiness. In my experience, even though I like this other woman a lot, it has not in the least diminished the love I feel for Amanda, and experiencing that helps me see that it is probably the same for her when she is with someone else. In fact, since she has asked me for more reassurance now, I am verbalizing why I love her more, thus reminding myself and strengthening my sense of love for her. Where does the idea that love is a finite resource come from?
These are the reasons why polyamory makes sense to me as a way of conducting myself in relationship. It leads to more honest communication (and therefore more integrity), more mutual understanding and respect, and ultimately a stronger relationship. I see traditional monogamy as a way to defend yourself from scary thoughts of abandonment, but the cost is a dynamic in which it is possible to justify a sense of ownership over your partner, controlling them and taking away their free agency. Is that really worth it?
1One reason is that I get to have future relationships without first ending this wonderful one.