- Justin Lee
- The rules are simple: Don’t have sex with someone for the first time before hanging out with me and telling me about them, and don’t sleep over without letting me know.
Amy sits with a styrofoam box of potato skins, legs crossed in front of her. "I'm mopey," she explains in between nibbles. She has recently been dumped.
Fortunately, she's got a pretty amazing boyfriend to help her get through it.
Robert is "a peculiar animal," she says happily. "He rubs my back when I'm sad." Amy and Robert won't be using their real names for this profile: the couple is open about its status with many people, but not quite ready to be out as polyamorous in print.
I've met Amy in their shared apartment, a spacious suite in a Cold War-era north end apartment complex. Robert isn't in right now---he's on a date with a new lady-friend. Amy will stay in with her cat, explaining how she and her boyfriend decided to start dating other people.
It started when Amy was chatting with a friend who had become poly with her own boyfriend. At first, Amy said, she thought it was an awful idea. "I'm a pretty jealous person," she says. But that night after a few drinks, Amy came home to Robert. "You know, Drunk Amy," she jokes. "I was like, we should try being polyamorous!"
Polyamory is the state of having romantic relationships with more than one other person at the same time. Polyamorous people are quick to distinguish themselves from swingers or couples in open relationships--- situations where usually, members of a monogamous couple have casual sex with other people. And they're not cheating on their partners---these relationships lack the secrecy of an affair. Rather, polyamorous people develop full romantic relationships with more than one person, and prioritize honesty with all parties.
When Amy sobered up the next morning, the two of them still thought it was a good idea. They got a copy of Opening Up---canon reading for people new to polyamory---and jumped right in, starting with small steps. First they made out with different people at parties. Then they started dating other people, but they'd check in nearly constantly with each other, requesting permission to send the next text message, go on the next date or have the next hookup.
Eventually that got tedious---and they got more comfortable with the dating-other-people thing anyway. So now they only have two rules: "Don't have sex with someone for the first time before hanging out with me and telling me about them, and don't sleep over without letting me know."
The hard part about being poly, Amy says, isn't her boyfriend---it's the way her friends react. Some of Amy's friends won't stop worrying about her. "They'll ask, 'Whose idea was that?'" she says. "They immediately assume that Robert has pressured me...because he wants to fuck other girls."
But that doesn't mean they have any intention of stopping. Amy says the shift in their relationship has allowed them to be more honest and have more fun with each other. When the two were monogamous, she remembers, they didn't even talk about other people who they found attractive. Now she feels like Robert is an even closer friend. After his first date with someone else, she remembers, "I was super excited." When he came home that night to tell her about his evening, "it was like, girl talk!"
It's only been six months, but Amy says the experience has forced her to confront her own jealousy and insecurity: "It's been liberating and terrifying at the same time."
Amy and Robert aren't alone. While official numbers on polyamorous people are hard to come by, it's a movement with growing visibility in once-conservative Nova Scotia. The Halifax Polyamory facebook group has over 60 people, and regular potlucks happen in the city for polyamorous people to meet each other. And on Sunday, April 14, Venus Envy held a seminar on lessons in non-monogamy--- a discussion not just for the newbies, but geared towards people who've been non-monogamous for a while.
NOT ALWAYS EASY
Do you think your schedule is too full and your partner or friends want to talk about their feelings a lot now? Imagine juggling multiple lovers and a variety of egos. The constant communication and emotional work can often mean that there's no more sex than in a monogamous relationship, either.
But for some polys, the freedom to love is worth more than the drawbacks. "There are no models, really," Amy says. Her relationships can be whatever she wants them to look like.
Many polyamorous people say they're drawn to this idea of emotional plentitude---the idea that there's enough love for everyone---and the rejection of ownership. Elisabeth Sheff, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University, has studied polyamorous relationships since 1997. She says that people are drawn to polyamory because they don't want to dump all of their emotional and sexual needs on one person.
"The idea that one can lay claim to someone else and what they can do with their body and their emotions is repugnant to these folks," she explained in the Seattle Met, a news outlet for one of the hipster-est cities in North America.
In Canada, polyamory is legal, although marrying multiple people is not. John Ince was a lawyer representing the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association during the hearings over the landmark constitutional case related to polygamous religious abuse in Bountiful, BC. "Basically, they"---polyamorous people---"can do whatever they want, as long as they don't call it marriage," he says, of the case results. "There is no problem with two people cohabiting with a third person with whom they're not married. That's legal in Canada."
But property and family laws are up for interpretation when it comes to polyamorous claims. Rollie Thompson is a professor of law at Dalhousie. He has two major recommendations for polyamorous people who are committing to more than one other person. The first: don't get married. "Our laws ascribe all kinds of rights and obligations to people who are married. People who are not married, there are no such presumptions, as a consequence there's more freedom to how you arrange things," he says.
Secondly, get as much as you can in writing. "The more intentional you are about committing things to paper, the more likely if things go south you'll end up where you want to be instead of where the law sends you," he says. But, he adds, "you are in an area of the great unknown here. We can give the best advice we can but...if there's a disagreement it's hard to predict how this will turn out."
While polyamory may be all about sharing love, it comes with some rough misconceptions. Out of all the polyamorous Haligonians talked to for this story, only one was willing to share their full name. The rest---even those who are out to friends and some family members---fear anti-poly attitudes in the workplace or from the general public, or their partners do.
Their fears aren't unfounded. A Tennessee judge declared polyamorous mother April Divilbliss an unfit parent in 1999, after an MTV reality show featured her long-term relationship with two male partners. And in 2010, a St. Louis woman was fired from her job at a local non-profit after they found she was blogging about her polyamorous sex life.
But that hasn't stopped people from exploring new structures of relationships. It just means that they're a bit more hesitant to talk to the media about it. Like Myriam, a professional in her late 30s, and her lover Alex---two people committed to staying poly as they date each other, even when it hurts.
MYRIAM & ALEX: AN S/M POLY INTERACTION
Myriam is at work, but her computer is all play. She's pulling up her boyfriend's Google calendar. Upping the ante of their S&M dynamic, Alex has asked her to start organizing Alex's schedule.
Myriam is Alex's top. She tells Alex what to do, and they like it that way.
But when she opens the calendar, she sees a night marked off---"busy." Myriam may be in control, but that's not going to stop her sub from saving that day for someone else.
Myriam sees red, but she can't quite point to her emotion. Is she jealous? She shouldn't be. After all, isn't this is what they agreed upon?
Because polyamory is an umbrella word for so many different kinds of relationships, there's no one way for people to do it (See "Many names for love" sidebar, page 8). For some people, it means forming a triad or quad (a set of three or four lovers, respectively). For others it means having multiple partners, like three boyfriends or a boyfriend and two girlfriends, who may each have boyfriends and girlfriends of their own. Lovers can form a smooth, closed circle that fits them like a ring, or an ever-expanding web, branching out past the borders of their own expectations.
Today, I'm sitting with Alex and Myriam, talking about what dating looks like for them. For these two, being poly means that Alex has multiple long-distance lovers and casual flings, and one other intense relationship---with George. "I don't have anybody I'd consider a partner, other than Alex," Myriam says to me, the couple sitting in her living room.
Alex interjects. "You go on dates!"
"Yeah, it's dating, but I don't have partners other than Alex."
Polyamory isn't always easy. It can be a constant array of scheduling issues and emotional discussions, making sure each partner's needs are being met. Emotional needs change and aren't particularly easy to control.
When Myriam and Alex met, the two were both polyamorous already. Myriam had discovered polyamory about a year earlier, after dating a woman who introduced her to the idea, and never looked back. Alex is a trans man who prefers the pronoun "they." The 25-year-old has always had a non-monogamous approach to relationships---since high school---but gave it a name only about two years ago.
Since both parties knew how polyamory worked, their connection felt carefree. Alex and Myriam were dating, with the freedom to also date other people.
But when the two introduced a level of sub/Dom power play to their relationship, Myriam began coping with a new tide of jealousy.
"I thought it was just going to be a sex thing," Myriam says. She and Alex started with light domination and eventually began to make their daddy/boy role play a part of their everyday lives. It became an "incredible opening of my heart," says Myriam. "I had never felt someone trust me, like, 'I want you to help shape me in some way.'"
The new intimacy, however, made Myriam feel possessive---not a great combination while she was being asked to exert more control over the life of her submissive.
Myriam had quit smoking, and the smoking cessation drugs were not affecting her well. "I felt defenseless," she remembers. Planning Alex's life felt like a big step for her, but she was ready to take it on.
That's when she learned that Alex had set some pretty clear boundaries about how they were going to spend their time and when they'd be visiting George.
"I was hurt for two weeks. Can you imagine being hurt for two weeks and still dating this person?" Myriam asks. "If I could have left work early, I would have."
Meanwhile, Alex was growing increasingly exhausted with trying to share time with both Myriam and George.
Myriam knows that George is important to Alex, and that Alex has other lovers, too. "It just happens that the one part of Alex's life I can't control is the one part I want to."
It's been a slow-burning point of contention for Myriam.
"I don't know what her problem is!" Alex says. George is not just a lover---he's also a confidante and friend who understands Alex's gender identity. Alex has no intentions of neglecting that relationship.
And Myriam doesn't want that either. "I feel like I'm growing up a bit as a poly person," she explains. Myriam met George for the first time recently, at an event with a whole bunch of friends---Alex was her date that night---and she hopes that they'll hang out again. "I'd ideally be on really great terms with George and we could take care of Alex together."
As they negotiated the boundaries of their own relationship, Myriam and Alex found some support from the leather community. At a club night at a local gay bar, she saw a pair of leathermen and ambushed them with questions. "I just said, 'you guys look like leatherpeople---I want to hang out with you!'" Myriam's new role models told her that keeping her jealousy in check could make her a better Dom.
"The leatherdaddies say I have to get over my jealousy," she explains. "They talk a lot about 'taking care of the boy.' And part of taking care of Alex, is knowing that Alex needs other people."
It may have its ups and downs, but the two have no intentions of closing their relationship. For Myriam, reverting to monogamous relationships again would feel like a step back.
"If monogamy is like high school, polyamory is like grad school," she says. "I want to untangle what are the things that are wounding me so much...Alex going on a date with somebody they love should not hurt me."
Rather, Myriam hopes the moments that hurt her will help her probe her own insecurities. There are a few she's become pretty aware of. As a queer woman of mixed race, seeing her boyfriend date a white dude gives her some intense, perhaps even academic moments of rage. "Alex is dating a white tall gay man---the epitome of privilege in our society, holding something I hold so dear," she says. "Having my lover date the dominant oppressor? Fuck! You can see it in my face."
Still, Myriam and Alex continue to spend time together---setting aside their disagreements when they can, and talking about them when they have to. "Believe me," says Alex, "there's plenty of other things to do."
And for Myriam, who self-identifies "as a dyke," the concept that she has a boyfriend who is also in love with another man has provoked her to reexamine her own sexual identity.
"I always thought that dykes want to date dykes, that's part of what makes you a dyke. And fags want to date fags," says Myriam. "But maybe sometimes fags want to date dykes. Maybe sometimes, dykes want to date fags."
Lately, stories like Amy's have been covered by media outlets to make polyamory a little more digestible. But as Myriam and Alex's connection shows, polyamory doesn't always fit into easy categories, like "straight couple opens up their relationship" or "two married people looking for a third." Being poly can be as simple as having a mindset that rejects the idea of monogamy---whether you have someone to be monogamous with, or not.
SHAY: POLYAMORY, SOLO
Shay's approach to relationships has always veered away from the one-on-one. But Shay didn't always have the right words to express that.
It was the night of Shay's prom. Holding a pair of heels in one hand while weeping profusely, Shay was fighting with the boyfriend at the Toronto harbour.
Shay had been cheating on him, and a cute girl in school had introduced Shay to the Toronto queer scene.
In tree-lined parks behind the local community centre, Shay met people who didn't care who made out with whom---people were comfortable with each other, and the vibe was positive. It was Shay's first introduction to what non-monogamy could look like. "There was no jealousy," Shay says.
It's a common assumption that monogamy prevents feelings of jealousy. But according to a 2012 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Review, that's not always the case. The researchers looked at gay men in monogamous and consensual non-monogamous relationships, and they found that the nonmonogamous couples had "lower" levels of jealousy, and they experienced jealousy "less noxiously."
Fast forward a few years. Shay discovered his genderqueer identity, travelled, moved to Halifax and developed some different relationships as a polyamorous person.
Shay is single and non-monogamous: with a few lovers on the go, no one is a primary partner. Now that Shay knows what he wants, Shay can be honest from the start.
That means that even the fighting is different. Shay tells me about how, while eating with a lover one evening, some choice words were brought up.
Shay had been at a party with a lover, A, where the two of them had seen one of Shay's other lovers. Shay went home with Lover B, even though Shay saw A seemed upset. In the kitchen, making a late-night snack together, Lover B called Shay out.
B said that she didn't want to be hurting other people by going home with Shay, and it wasn't fair of Shay to put her in such a position. Shay calls the moment "eye-opening."
Lately, Shay has been flying solo. His lovers live out of town, he explains---he might see someone for about a week every couple of months. Mostly, he spends time making art or working on political projects.
While some---usually straight---solo polyamorists feel that they're dismissed as "not really polyamorous," like they must only be dating around until they find monogamy, Shay hasn't found that attitude from people. Shay suggests that in the LGBT community, there might be less pressure from society to find a monogamous relationship.
Some people also accuse solo polyamorists of being afraid of commitment, a charge Shay swiftly brushes off. "I have lots of commitments," he says. "I commit to my friends."
BREAKING UP, POLY STYLE
Only four months ago, I was interviewing Amy at her place. Her partner Robert had been in her life for four years---through moves, job changes, and breakups with other people.
Today, as we sit in a nearby coffee shop, Amy tells me how her life has changed after the two of them recently split up. "I have decided to stay polyamorous," Amy says.
Seven months after they decided to try polyamory together, they parted ways. But the new partners in their lives---that wasn't the problem. "People either think you did it"---polyamory---"because you were trying to fix something that was wrong, or you broke up because it didn't work," she says. "If that had been the reason, I probably would reconsider."
Rather, Amy says, the time that they were poly together was great. In the last few months, though, things started to fray. "All relationships have problems, you know? They just end for organic reasons."
Being single and poly comes with new challenges. The biggest: "It's way harder to bring up!" She's careful not to let new lovers assume that because she's single, she wants to get into a serious partnership.
She has since had a few casual romantic interests, but her focus is on being alone for a while. "It's good to date lots of people, but it's also good to date no people," she says. She went to friends for support instead of leaning on the people was dating, because those were new relationships. "I wasn't calling them all the time being like, 'I'm sad.' We weren't there yet."
While she's dipping her toe in the water with new people, Amy's also ready to be alone for a while. This time, Amy is breaking up on her own.
Katie Toth is a freelance journalist and food-lover who lives shares life in a polyamorous quad with bacon, tater tots and fried cheese.
Many names for love
A glossary of polyamorous relationships
The state or philosophy of being in romantic relationships with multiple people at the same time.
A consensually non-monogamous relationship between two people, where they may hook up or have brief encounters with others outside the relationship.
A romantic partner who takes precedence over other lovers, whether because of life circumstances, commitments or personal history.
romantic partners or lovers who may be less involved or committed in one’s life.
A style of polyamory which eschews the idea of “primary” and “secondary” partners, where all lovers are considered equal but different.
A unit of three or more people who are all committed to being in a primary relationship with one another as a group. —KT