More and more young people are abandoning monogamy in favour of open relationships. But is it really that easy to turn your back on jealousy? And what about all the admin?
Alex Sanson is nervous. She is hosting a dinner party this Friday, and wants it to go well, because her lovers are coming all of them. Cooking for one person you fancy is hard enough, but three of them is even more stressful! says Sanson, who has brown hair, an open, friendly face and a bookish air..
Sanson is polyamorous, meaning that she has multiple romantic and sexual partners, all of whom are aware of the others existence. Currently, the 28-year-old is in a polycule with three other people: William, Mike and Laura, all of whom are also dating the other members of the polycule.
Dinner-party jitters aside, things are going swimmingly for Sanson, who works in marketing. Theres so much joy in being poly, she says. Its lovely not to burden one person with all your stuff. You just spread it all out.
Polyamory, also known as consensual non-monogamy, seems to be growing in popularity among young people, though with no definitive figures its hard to know how much of this is a matter of increased visibility. It comes in many shapes and forms, from open relationships (where in laypersons terms you cheat on your partner, but they are aware and do not mind, and do the same to you), to solo polyamory, where you identify as polyamorous, but are not currently in multiple relationships. But all those involved reject monogamy as stifling, or oppressive, or simply not to their taste.
Its not as complicated as people make it sound, Sanson insists. If you are unsure whether polyamory might suit you, try this simple thought experiment: does the thought of your partner in the first flushes of romantic ardour with another person fill you with contentment, lust, indifference, or murderous rage? If its the last one, best to swerve polyamory. (Theres a term for the warm feeling polyamorous people experience when seeing their partners with someone else: compersion.)
Ive had people saying to me, You just want to fuck about! says 29-year-old Calum James, who identifies as a heteroflexible pansexual solo polyamorous relationship anarchist. What this basically means is that James, who is mostly straight, is not currently in a polyamorous relationship with a person or persons. If he were, he would regard it as no more important than non-intimate friendships, because relationship anarchists treat romantic and non-romantic relationships the same.
I had one woman have a go at me, saying, Its an awful way to treat women, James says. But people dont understand its not just about meeting women and having sex with them. I want to build deep connections with people and see them regularly. I just dont want those connections to follow the same rules as traditional relationships.
James tried monogamy, but found it suffocating. I never understood monogamy, even when I was a kid. Id think, I fancy three people in my class.
The thing Ive always disliked about monogamy and marriage, Sanson adds, is the idea of owning another person and them being your other half or somehow completing you, like you werent complete before you met them. What I love about polyamory is that Im my own person and no one owns me. I dont own any of you, either. Were all free.
Polyamory is having a cultural moment right now, with celebrities such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith speaking about being non-monogamous, and the BBC drama Wanderlust depicting a middle-class couple as they open up their relationship. As anyone who lived through the 1960s, or who is from the LGBT community will tell you, polyamory is not new: free love or non-monogamy has been practised for years. But polyamory is now being adopted by people who might have been monogamous five or 10 years ago, not least because the internet makes it easier than ever for poly-curious people to educate themselves about polyamory, and connect with like-minded individuals.
Things are changing rapidly, says Janet Hardy, the co-author of the polyamory handbook The Ethical Slut. More people are getting the idea that its possible to be happy and healthy without being monogamous. What Im seeing among young people is that they dont have the same need to self-define by what they like to do in bed, or in relationships, like my generation did. Everythings out on a big buffet, and they try a little of everything.
Polyamorous people reject the end game of romantic monogamy, and disdain so-called relationship escalators: societys expectation that couples will cycle through #putaringonit selfies, marriage and kids. Instead, they let their relationships flow whither the current takes them, relinquishing themselves to the whorls and eddies that change all romantic partnerships over time. In our increasingly precarious times, it makes sense that polyamory is popular. Growing up, youre bombarded by all this messaging about what the perfect relationship set-up is, Sanson says. Youre going to have a family and buy a house and do this and that. But a lot of that isnt relevant to my generation.
Still, being polyamorous isnt just a carefree romp. It requires you to unpick the messy yarn of human emotion, and that most familiar knot of all: jealousy. Perhaps the biggest myth of all about polyamorous people is that they dont feel jealousy. Jealousy is a part of human nature, says 27-year-old William Jeffrey, a member of Sansons polycule. You still feel it. But Ive found with every jealousy Ive ever had while being polyamorous, Ive been able to trace the jealousy back to an insecurity about myself. When I figure out what the insecurity is, I can overcome it.