By Lisa Autz
Photo by Robert Ashworth.
Two lovers tremble as they look deep into the darkness of each other’s brilliant eyes. The idea that the other might actually be the “one” enters in sublime whispers. Their lives, up until that point, were plagued by voids, lonely feelings that can now be momentously fulfilled by that one special person.
The once incessant lull now fills with the tender voice of Etta James singing, “At last, my love has come along.”
You’ve heard the situation time and time again. You discover your other half and your ability to melt into unity ensues. Marriage results. Before you know it, you will spend your life committed to that one other human.
Stern hetero-normative monogamy is one of those societal narratives engrained in the way we think. Examples are presented to us through Disney fairytales and iconic White House families. Our expectation for a lifelong companion is painted in a superficial story that often fails to account for aspects of human weaknesses, modernity, and, to some, our biological wiring.
Is it possible, then, for someone to override this social programming and break free from monogamy?
Polyamorists are those that participate in consensual non-monogamy. Involved individuals believe that their decision to defy relationship norms stems from an innate capacity to fall in love with multiple people at once. Unlike the swinger culture of plentiful, casual sex, polyamorists engage in committed and intimate relationships with multiple people simultaneously.
Their philosophy runs on the idea that “love breeds more feelings of love,” and that their defiance from societal pressures sets stage for alternative relationship choices.
Robyn Trask, a polyamorist and executive director of one of the first polyamory support organizations called Loving More, explains that she came to understand the lifestyle through a growing discomfort in monogamy. After analyzing her feeling, Trask came to realize that she could not be truly herself by committing to just one partner.
“Years ago, when I was in a monogamous relationship, I thought this was what I was supposed to do and had to do,” says Trask. “I was in love with two men and I didn’t know how to deal with it without hurting anyone.”
She reasons that if your partner does not know what is truly taking place in your heart, your relationship lacks an element of genuine intimacy.
Many polyamorists attest to a pain or “empty” feeling when conforming to conventional relationships. The desire to love beyond one person weaves into an often-complex interconnected web of lovers and spouses. The emotion and time management necessary to sustain multiple partners requires tools that might otherwise be gathering dust in monogamy.
Trask is currently in a polyamorous relationship with three different people. She explains to BTR that managing relationships can be a juggling act but her success in managing time spent with each comes from the openness each partner has with the others.
“For some people it is a bit of a hobby, but for me, two of my relationships are long distance, so it’s not that difficult to juggle them really,” says Trask.
She adds that when her partner Ben visits, he takes along another partner, and the three of them love spending time together.
Trask’s relationship is an example of the “hinge” sort; she acts as the “person in the middle,” where the other individuals connect through her–rather than see each other separately. Her case represents just one of the many varieties of polyamory. “Hinge,” along with a series of other terms, was coined during onset of the relationship movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
According to Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, an educational consultant and expert witness serving sexual and gender minorities, the exact origin of polyamory is not clear. However, the term ‘polyamory’ was coined during the sexual revolution of the ‘70s. Many of the other terms take root from leaders of the movement such as San Francisco’s Kerista Commune.
The commune claims on their website to be the inventors of the words ‘polyfidelity’ and ‘compersion.’ Polyfidelity refers to the loyalty to many partners at once, while compersion represents positive feelings people harbor when they acknowledge or witness their partner engaging in other intimacies.
So how can one adapt to such a radically different lifestyle? Is polyamory any more practical than traditional monogamy?
Dr. Sheff sat down with BTR to discuss some of the key qualities to a successful polyamorous relationship she discovered while writing her book, The Polyamorists Next Door. She also illustrates certain lessons monogamous couples can learn from the lifestyle.
“Honesty is crucial, and the ability to flex and change and grow,” explains Sheff. “In polyamory there is a framework that allows for change and a flexibility in interacting with your ex-spouse without flames going up.”
Adapting these attitudes are practical and can benefit in situations where children are involved, says Sheff. Jealousy and emotional insecurities still arise but they are addressed under a foundation of communication and honesty.
Rhoda Lipscomb, a psychotherapist, certified sex therapist, and sex coach, has been working with alternative relationships in her private practice for 7 years. Lipscomb tells BTR that the assumptions people make in monogamous relationships can lead to the jealousy and infidelity that couples often suffer.
“In polyamorous relationships there are more [factors] that needs to be talked about,” says Lipscomb.
She adds that if monogamous parties address problems the way polyamorous couples do, the shifted perspective could benefit their situation.
“It allows for people to develop and design their relationship as they see fit,” she reasons.
Establishing boundaries before hurtful events occur is an effective strategy, rather than the autopilot passivity that some monogamous couples ride on–especially in a culture that tropes the idea of monogamy but does not actually practice it. Recent research based on heterosexual, monogamous relationships in the US, showed that over the course of an entire relationship, chances of infidelity could be as high as 25 percent.
Evidence exists that the polyamory community is growing. Lipscomb explains that internet resources play an instrumental role in informing more people about the alternative options they can explore.
Though there is no exact consensus to date, estimates allege that about 5 percent of the US population identify as seeking intimacy outside of their relationship with their partner’s agreement. A survey conducted by the Loving More organization in 2012 also revealed that out of over 4,000 participants, 65.9 percent responded in favor of a law that would grant people the right to marry multiple spouses at once.
Some polyamorists support their choices with evidence that shows the human species as non-monogamous by nature. Although it’s probably a misnomer to say we are biologically wired to be strictly monogamous or non-monogamous, scientists say we do have responses in our nervous systems to suggest that we benefit from long-term relationships. The form of that long-term relationship–whether with a single party or multiple people–might be irrelevant.
Trask speaks from her experience being in committed, polyamorous relationships for most of her life.
“For me, deeper intimacy comes from being with more people,” she says. “Everyone has multiple love for people. The love for your dad and your mom and brother does not devalue the love you have for any one of those people. Intimacy isn’t sex; it’s emotional vulnerability and willingness to open up to people.”