What’s the story with polyamorous relationships?

Although we seem to be much more comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity than we used to be, there still seems to be very much a fixed idea in society as to what a relationship should look like....
Although we seem to be much more comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity than we used to be, there still seems to be very much a fixed idea in society as to what a relationship should look like....

Gender, sexuality, polyamory and relationship fluidity

We live in times when it is apparent that there is gender fluidity in society. People can identify with the male or female gender, but may not identify with the gender into which they were born. Moreover, some people may identify with no gender, or decide that they are going to subvert the whole idea of gender itself (becoming a ‘genderqueer’). Similarly, sexuality is also much more fluid than it used to be. Gay and lesbian relationships are much more commonly accepted in society, as is bisexuality, and most people are accepting of the idea that sexuality may change across a lifetime, and even in different situational contexts. For example, men who have sex with other men may act in a heterosexual manner in other aspects of their lives and may not identify with a positioning as being gay.

Although we seem to be much more comfortable with gender and sexual fluidity than we used to be, there still seems to be very much a fixed idea in society as to what a relationship should look like. As a culture we do not consider that people should always be married to pursue a sexual relationship (although now increasingly more gay and lesbian couples wish to get married) but we have a fairly set idea about how people should conduct themselves in terms of sex and intimacy. One of these expectations is that people should devote themselves to one partner. This is known as monogamy. There is also an expectation that it is only possible to start a new relationship when another relationship has finished. So people can have multiple relationships over a lifetime with different people, but the societal expectation is that these relationships must occur at different times in a person’s life.

For many of us, when attempting to pursue a monogamous relationship we are conflicted at certain periods of time. We may love, and lust, after the person that we are with, but we may also have desires for other people at the same time. Evolutionary biologists, and cultural theorists, share the view that actually monogamy is quite an unnatural state of affairs in human evolution and society. Even if we haven’t experienced such dramatic feelings of love for another whilst in a monogamous relationship, we can sense these feelings when a relationship ends and in the transition to a new relationship. It is impossible to gauge the point at which one relationship ends and another begins as love, and lust, simply do not work like that. Given that monogamy looks a little strange, some brave pioneers have started to experiment with a new form of relationship that previously was only the domain of a number of fringe religious groups: polyamory.

What is polyamory (poly)?

Poly, as a prefix, means more than one, and in polyamorous relationships people have an intimate, often sexual, relationship with more than one person at the same time. This is very different from an open relationship where there is often no commitment to the other partners outside of the core relationship. Sometimes, polyamorous relationships may transcend barriers of sexuality. For example, a man may be in a polyamorous relationship with both a man and a woman. This type of relationship is sometimes additionally known as a polysexual relationship.

There are three main features of polyamorous relationships.

Firstly, the relationship should be consensual. That means that each partner in a relationship must consent to the whole relationship network in its entirety. This means that each partner should know, and consent to, intimate and sexual activity between the people in the relationship. This may lead to rather complex negotiations when there are multiple people (more than three) involved in polyamory. In a polyamorous household or relationship network, where many people are members, there may be a need to discuss the relationship, and conceptions of consent, at regular intervals.

Secondly, the relationship should be ethical. That means that each member of the relationship should act in such a way not to harm other members of the poly relationship. Each person who comprises part of the relationship must be careful not to hurt the feelings of the other parties. This can occur when there is a ‘splitting’ of a couple from an original poly relationship.

Thirdly, the relationship should be non-monogamous, by definition, and this should be a responsibility of every member of the group. They should not become jealous of other members of the relationship, and not monopolise their time.

The complexities and joys of a poly relationship: my story

The same types of complexity of a conventional, monogamous relationship exist in poly relationships. People can feel the same emotions of love, lust, jealousy, joy and paranoia as can occur in more ‘conventional’ forms of relationship. However, things can also work out very neatly. This was very apparent to me when I, for some time, became part of a ‘poly’ household.

I will say from the start, that there were complexities in the poly household that I found myself as part of. Although it was a conventional household in many ways (in terms of the members working, doing chores, and relaxing watching television) it also had a very strong BDSM and fetish orientation to it. The household comprised a man (Steve) and two women, Tina and Rhiannon. Steve, Tina and Rhiannon all shared a poly relationship but Steve and Tina were dominant partners, and Rhiannon was their house ‘slave’. When I met Steve, Tina and Rhiannon at a fetish club and they explained that they were looking for a slave boy to help Rhiannon with her chores and to sexually service Steve and Tina. I was very happy to join this arrangement, as I had been looking for something like this for some time.

The advantage of it being a BDSM setting was that those of us who are involved in the scene have a very strong understanding of protocol and what it means. That helped in terms of it being a poly relationship as it was clear that the levels of sex and intimacy with Steve and Tina were set (whatever they wanted) whereas with Rhiannon there was only to be sexual activity if Steve or Tina wanted to see it occur between us, and we were never allowed to achieve orgasm together (or we were to be punished). This may seem complicated, but in actuality it was a very happy poly household and one that worked for a long period of time until I decided that it was time for me to go travelling.

So, whatever your sexual orientation or kinks, do not feel that you need to simply copy monogamy when you decide to have a relationship. There is plenty of room for more polyamorous relationships in the world.

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