By: Shannon Mullery
Most people probably have a general idea of what polyamory is – often, people give a cursory glance to non-monogamous relationships, in which the traditional rules of two-person dating do not apply. Polyamorous relationships have been long misunderstood by society as being less intimate, consensual or loving as long-standing monogamous relationships. When, in fact, many individuals who practice polyamory experience love in ways that are distinctly familiar, yet uniquely candid and tender.
SMEAR spoke with two poly-identifying students from The University of Texas to get perspective on the complex aspects of polyamory.
Henrik is a Mathematics and Rhetoric & Writing double major, originally from Corpus Christi, who describes himself as, “very involved in the co-operative movement.”
Elliott is a twenty-year old film student, who identifies as trans-masculine and queer.
Identifying with Polyamory
SMEAR: How important is being polyamorous in terms of your identity?
Henrik: I haven’t met enough other polyamorous people to know how much a part of their identity it is, but I feel it’s much more part of my identity than my gender or sexuality.
Elliott: I wouldn’t really consider it, like, a major part of my identity. Because it doesn’t really affect my life in many significant ways outside of like dating and that kind of interaction, so I wouldn’t consider it anything like on the levels of my gender, my sexual identity.
S: How did you discover polyamory and decide it was right for you?
H: I think my case is a bit odd-er. I’m still with my partner from high school, we’ve been together for six and a half years, and the first year and a half of our relationship, we were monogamous, and then we dated the same person because we just liked the same person, the same person was interested in us, we were like yeah sure. And that kind of opened our eyes, so we set some rules – not rules but like philosophy points on how we could go about dating other people and talk and let each other know about everything. And after a year of practicing this, I learned about polyamory and learned what we were practicing was very similar to polyamory.
E: Obviously there’s a lot of overlap between the trans community and the LBGT community and the poly community, so that’s kind of how I got into it, mostly online. And then when i came to Austin, it turned out like a lot of people in the LBGT community were also poly, so I was like oh, that’s actually something people do in real life... I guess I kind of realized I was poly right when I started college, so like two and a half years, I guess. Two years since I was in my first non monogamous relationship.
S: Why does polyamory sit right with you personally?
H: I find it weird that in monogamous relationships there’s such restriction on certain kinds of relationships. Like, assume that you were in a cis-heterosexual relationship, it’s this stereotype that the guy or the girl should be nervous about talking to the opposite sex, like it might make their partner jealous. Even if it’s not for sexual or romantic interest, it’s like you have to have this constant nagging of how you should interact with this person, it just feels restricting, it doesn’t feel natural. Monogamy just doesn’t feel like a natural rule applied to us. And so I just feel more comfortable interacting with people knowing that my other relationships in my life don’t care about how I go about interacting with this person.
E: I had been in a very long term, very monogamous relationship all throughout high school. I was happy in that relationship for most of it, but towards the end I started to realize that a lot of the issues we had were not necessarily because it was monogamous but because there are factors in monogamy that made me really uncomfortable. And just that I wouldn’t be happy being with one person my entire life – nothing to do with that person, but it just didn’t feel right anymore. So that relationship was kind of when I had that moment like, I shouldn’t do this again.
Misinformation and Myths
S: What are some of the most bothersome misconceptions you hear from people about polyamory?
H: There’s two different ones. One is that it’s just kind of like an open relationship, you just kind of sleep with whoever you want. Most people who are polyamorous are much more about being romantic with other people. The second is that people who say they are polyamorous don’t have any commitment to people, at all. And so there’s a lot of people who practice polyamory and maybe, in normal terms, will be dating someone and may be planning to do something next weekend, but then just go have sex with some other person and cancel the plans – that there isn’t a sense of commitment to polyamory. There is the same amount of commitment a monogamous relationship may have.
E: That all polyamory is cheating, basically. People assuming that if you’re seeing multiple people you must be lying about it or like sleeping around. Also that poly relationships don’t hold as much value in society. You can be in a poly relationship and still be, like, intensely committed to the people you’re with.
Open Relationships, Ethical Non-Monogamy, and Relationship Anarchy
Through the natural course of both interviews, ethical non-monogamy, open relationships, and relationship anarchy in contrast to polyamory came up - Henrik and Elliott both seemed very knowledgable about the philosophy of different forms of non-monogamy, as they explained to me their own identifiers.
H: Ethical non-monogamy is a non-monogamy that has ethics to it – my partner identifies as ethically non-monogamous, I identify as polyamorous. Another form of ethical non-monogamy is relationship anarchy. Relationship anarchy is very similar to polyamory, except you don’t hold that one relationship is any higher than the other, all relationships are equal and I don’t feel that that’s true – I feel that some relationships mean more to you than other relationships.
E: I guess the polyamory style I fall closest to is like relationship anarchy – not necessarily solo polyamory, because I don’t have any problem being in a relationship – but I just don’t find myself in serious committed relationships anymore. I just kind of hang out with people and let what happens happen, I guess.
S: Is there a clear distinction you would make between a polyamorous relationship and an open relationship?
E: Oh, definitely. It all falls under the category of ethical non-monogamy, but polyamory opens itself up more to emotional non-monogamy. Open relationships usually just mean you have a partner but it’s okay if you sleep with someone else whereas under polyamory you can have multiple partners, whatever that means to you. A square is a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t a square – everyone does things differently, but there is definitely a clear distinction in how you behave in them.
H: Definitely. To me there is kind of like a set of - kind of like a code of ethics, and if you’re not following them, you’re not polyamorous.
Basically, ethical non-monogamy encompasses a wide range of non-monogamous relationship structures, in which the people involved are honest with one another and everyone has a clear understanding of the agreed-upon terms. Polyamory falls under ethical non-monogamy, but not all ethically non-monogamous relationships are polyamorous.
S: How do you cope with jealousy in a polyamorous relationship?
H: At first, I kind of had jealousy issues, but I was never afraid that my partner was gonna leave me. It was more so jealousy out of like, I don’t think she’s spending enough time with me and she’s spending more time with other people. But the way we deal with it and the way polyamorous philosophy deals with it, you talk to your partner, you say why you’re jealous and try to get to the real cause of it and if it’s something that you’re just feeling, or if it’s the other person doing something that’s not fair in the relationship. Most jealousy comes from not feeling secure in a relationship, but if you do feel secure in a relationship, you’ll turn that jealousy into compersion – compersion is a term only used in polyamory, and it’s the opposite of jealousy that you feel if you see your partner with someone and you feel that they’re being happy with someone else in that relationship.
E: There’s definitely a really big issue within the poly community. People think like, oh you’re poly so you never get jealous – that’s not true. People get jealous and you can’t help it. But the way I personally experience jealousy in a poly relationship is different than how I remember it being in a monogamous relationship, because it’s not as intense, or like not as bad for me. Because, yeah, I still get kind of bummed out when someone I’m seeing seems more interested in someone else, but it’s a lot easier to remind myself that just because they’re interested in someone else doesn’t mean they’re not interested in me. I approach it from the viewpoint of like, I’m interested in other people, too, but I still care about this person.