The Bigger Picture
As I write this article, I'm getting ready for a date with a married man.
I can imagine his wife, who knows all about me, helping him pick out something to wear to impress me.
I’m polyamorous (or poly). It’s been a slow evolution, and for the longest time I thought of myself as an everyday girl who wanted to date a guy and play with extra people in the bedroom. Looking back, I see polyamory is one part of a full spectrum of Ethical Non-Monogamy. It’s only recently that I’ve felt able to embrace this part of myself.
I’m currently dating a woman long distance, and a couple of men who are also Ethically Non-Monogamous (ENM). In the non-monogamous world almost every relationship is unique, which can be really confusing at first, but it allows for a beautiful range of self-expression and self-awareness, and for some, the most satisfying relationships imaginable.
Many monogamous people conflate any kind of non-monogamy as cheating, because they still view the world through monogamous colored glasses. Cheating on a partner involves lying and betraying a trust that was established according to the boundaries and expectations of the relationship. In an ENM relationship, all partners involved agree in advance that having sex with more than one partner is groovy, and they may specify more boundaries from there. A partner can still cheat on their non-monogamous partner if these agreements are broken, and it still hurts like hell to be betrayed.
To give you a bigger picture of the complex world that is poly culture, I started asking my lovers, and even the stranger sitting next to me on a recent flight, what they thought about polyamory. I was amazed at some of the misconceptions out there.
“OH YOU KNOW, THOSE PEOPLE JUST WANT TO HAVE ORGIES,”
says the guy from the airplane.“If you don’t define the relationship, you know, The Talk, is it cheating? And I think non-monogamous people don’t have The Talk.”
One of my partners who is very new to the lifestyle said, “I always thought poly people would be flaky. You’re dating someone and all of the sudden they ditch you because some other person they liked would call. I thought poly people are sex-crazed, and if they can’t commit to one person, they can’t commit to anything.” This comment really made me chuckle, coming from one of the most reliable and productive guys I know.
Let’s untangle these misconceptions and welcome the many facets which ethical non-monogamy can show itself as, to give you a better idea of the unique ways a shocking number of people are defining their relationships these days.
FIRST OF ALL, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ETHICAL NON-MONOGAMY AND POLYAMORY?
Think of Ethical Non-Monogamy, or ENM, as the big umbrella under which polyamory exists. ENM also includes other ways of relating that are outside the usual 2-person system. The most important part that tends to blow monogamous people’s mind’s is the ethical part.
With ENM, the non-monogamy is specifically sexual. Some ENM couples are swingers, or go to sex parties and share partners together, but who never see their other lovers beyond the bedroom. Another example of an ENM relationship might involve a monogamous spouse who falls in love with a non-monogamous person who is completely transparent, honest and communicative about their non-monogamous ways. Before vows are said, everyone knows what they’re getting into and is enthusiastically consenting.
So how is poly different from ENM? Polyamory comes from the Greek, poly = many, amory = love. These many-loving people may be in relationships that has nothing to do with sex, but all about emotion and connection.
In fact, the myth about all poly people being sex-crazed is blasted by the numbers of asexual people in the poly community. Asexual people, often referred to as ace, aren’t into sex. They form deep loving commitments and connections, but they don’t have much of a sex drive to speak of. Some asexual folk love cuddling and kissing and intimacy, others not so much. What sometimes occurs, is that an asexual partner may fall in love with someone who still desires sexual connection. If these two are poly, hooray! The sexual partner may find another lover (or two) who satisfies their sexual needs, and the ace partner may fall in love with other (non-sexual) partners as well.
For me, as a bisexual woman, polyamory allows me to express the fun range of my queerness by allowing for relationships with men and women.
Many people also identify as demi-sexual, which means they are only sexually attracted to people who they have an emotional and romantic connection with. For these folx, a purely sexual ENM partnership would feel hollow and unsatisfying. Polyamory would potentially be a better fit, since it’s more about love than sex.
I know, it’s a lot at first. Consider that we’ve had the unspoken agreements of monogamy pounded deep into our subconscious since we were kids watching Disney movies. There is a very specific, one-size-fits-all demand from our society, and deviations from this norm can boggle the mind. We’re supposed to fall in love at first sight with our significant other, or otherwise know instinctually from the beginning that we have spotted “the one” (big shout out to all those Disney princesses who know prince charming .5 seconds before the love story goes into overdrive toward happily ever after). Then it’s marriage, babies, and the white picket fence home. When we retire at 65, we can finally enjoy our lives, until we get so old our kids take care of us.
WHAT IS IT ACTUALLY LIKE TO BE NON-MONOGAMOUS?
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty— how the hell does one open a relationship? Or what if you’re currently single and want to be ENM?
First things first. Get ready to talk to your future partner(s) and do some self-reflection about all those unspoken agreements we mentioned.
ENM life surprised me with the overabundance of communication. I thought it would NOT be hot to talk so openly and frankly about sexy stuff. I used to think, isn’t part of the fun the mystery? Will we or won’t we?
Here’s a text thread from the first time I hooked up with one partner:
This is not the kind of sexting I had imagined when I jumped onto the non-monogamy train, but this kind of crystal-clear communication has turned out to be more the norm. Surprisingly to me, the fact that my date knew I wanted to have sex didn’t kill the mood.
In my experience, it’s best to have the conversation ASAP with your potential or existing partners. When I meet someone new, I bring my polyamory up on the first date, in case they missed it on my dating profile. If you’re not poly but could imagine that you’d like to explore playing with others in the future, I think it’s a great policy to mention it sooner than later. It’s a sexy way to open up to your partner about your desires, and when you’re ready to explore others it won’t be a huge surprise that might may the other person feel like there’s suddenly something wrong going on in your relationship.
If you’re getting started, GO SLOW. There is so much to un-learn from the reigning norms of monogamy, and so much to learn at the same time. You’ll want to strengthen your self-awareness big time, and work on considerately communicating your evolving needs to your partners. Definitely read some books from our recommended resources, and follow all the ENM people you can find on the socials to help strengthen your sense of community. You are not alone.
DO POLYAMOROUS RELATIONSHIPS WORK?
Despite popular opinion, not every open relationship has ended in burned bridges and heartbreak. Although there are no clear stats out there, you probably have at least similar odds for a successful ENM relationship as the 50% odds of success of marriage in the US today.
If you’re curious about ENM or polyamory, take a good hard look at the unspoken agreements you’ve probably been living with in relationships, and consider which ones make sense to you and which ones don’t. Talk about these agreements with your current or future partners. This lifestyle is not for everyone, and it’s as challenging as monogamy. What matters in the end is being true to yourself and honest and loving with those you love.