And so, after all the introspection and discussions and reading up, you're polyamorous now. Fantastic. More power to you! You've even managed to get into a bunch of relationships and you're basking in the glow of New Relationship Energy, experiencing Compersion, and your only enemy seems to be a shockingly busy Google Calendar.
This is the life, eh?
Well, it turns out those pesky polyamory recruiters leave a few things out of those glossy brochures. But now that you've signed up, cadet, might as well go for full disclosure. Buckle up.
Congratulations, You're a Polyamory Ambassador
Unless you somehow manage to live in a place where polyamory is the norm, (send me your address!) many of the people you meet will not have seen another polyamorous person before. You're not just a curiosity — your conduct reflects on the poly community as a whole.
People may discover polyamory thanks to you. People who were poly all their lives but didn't know it may finally realise. People who have been secretly practising polyamory may come out to you, or to their friends and family.
Alternatively, you can put people off poly, you can make polyamorous people swear it off forever, or you can make them become closeted: ‘oh, you're poly like That Person? I see...’ (judgmental mode: engaged)
Which one would you rather be?
Case in point: I spend most of my time in a country where polyamory is close to non-existent. A decade ago I started writing articles about it (they were met with scepticism and ‘but we do this already’ from people cheating on their spouses and not getting the difference). Then, all of a sudden, wave upon wave of poly people start to come out of the woodwork. Turns out some unscrupulous or uninformed person has been telling people polyamory is having all the sex with all the people you want and ignoring the desires of your partner.
Now, poly people are ‘those cheating bastards’, or at best a synonym for ‘swingers’ or ‘unethical sluts’, or ‘inconsiderate bastards’. Identify as polyamorous and you risk that, unless you carry your soapbox with you at all times (mine's inflatable) and miss no chance to explain what polyamory is to you (and perhaps demonstrate it).
You're a Living, Breathing Polyamory FAQ
And you start to realise some people can fixate just a tiny bit.
‘So, do you have threesomes every night?’ ‘No, we don't. We don't even live together.’ ‘You must have a pretty big bed!’ ‘In fact, we just had one threesome in the beginning, but it was just out of curiosity.’ ‘Do you like to watch the girls together?’ ‘No, they're not in a relationship with each other. I'm in a relationship with each of them.’ ‘How do you manage to perform with two ladies every single night?’
People will sometimes ask stupid questions, and if you're lucky they'll understand the answers. They might ask intelligent questions you hear all the time. Variations of ‘how do you deal with jealousy?’ are at the top of that list for me.
Since you're already a polyamory ambassador, you can't just tell people to go fuck themselves gently with a chainsaw. I mean, you can, but please don't — what if you're talking to a genuinely curious proto-polyamorous person?
There's a whole activist movement out there arguing that non-queer people shouldn't ask stupid questions of queer people because it's a sign of non-acceptance, they should just somehow know the answers. I disagree. Let people ask questions. Acceptance can only come from understanding. It's our responsibility to help people understand.
But do troll cretins like the one above, because you deserve to have your fun too.
You Thought Missing One Partner Was Bad?
Ah, the joy of having multiple partners! The support network! All that sex! (sometimes) All the variety! All your proudly perfect time management!
And then you go on a business trip. Or all your partners are somehow unbelievably busy for a week or two. Or you enlist in the army. Or it's your turn on the ISS. Or the nice people in the big clean building realise you're missing and somehow find you.
The loneliness will be worse than ever. You'll be missing multiple partners all at once. All the little traits that make them unique, all the things they add to your life will be missing. It will actually hurt. If you've had to learn to live with missing one partner, just you wait.
You know how somehow (and this is part of the magic of polyamory) feelings tend to amplify when you're in multiple loving relationships? Yup, this will happen with the hole these people leave in your life when they're not there. You'll be sleeping in the foetal position a lot more. There may even be tears.
I'm writing this on a plane after a measly ten days away from both partners, and the agony is almost palpable. Call me overly emotional if you want, but humour me and brace yourself anyway.
Polyamorous people like to talk about compersion. Some of us will define is as the ‘opposite of jealousy’, a unique, powerful feeling of empathic glee you get when a person you love is enjoying themselves with others. It's not sexual, it's purely emotional. And you get it even when you're not even there watching it.
Those of us that define it as the opposite of jealousy are completely wrong.
The opposite of compersion isn't jealousy, it's a dark, weird sort of anti-compersion. Having your partner's heart broken by someone else will rend you to pieces in a typical polyamorous amplified way. And you'll have to be the strong one.
So what do you do? Will you or nill you, you reach out for that support network. You're being strong for your heartbroken partner but seeking some energy and support from your other partners. If they're even a tiny bit empathic, they'll feel your pain. And they'll feel your partner's pain. The pain starts to swirl around the poly group in multiple feedback loops.
It isn't pretty.
And you'll be getting it from unexpected sources: the way your partner's other partner (whom you may not have even met yet!) feels will affect your partner. His sadness will get to you. Your sadness will affect your other partners, and theirs. Positive and negative feelings will propagate across the poly group.
Surprise! Even More Heartache
But wait, we're not done yet. Sometimes you'll be the person having your heart broken. There'll be break-ups and failed relationships, and you'll fall in love with mono people who'll reject you because of your ungodly polyamorous ways, or try not to and fail.
Common sense might say that horrible (but necessary) period of grief at the end of a relationship will be lessened if you still have one or more partners left, right?
The pain gets lessened temporarily by your other partners, or your close friends, but it's ultimately your process to go through. And because you have more partners, you're statistically more likely to go through it more frequently than if you were monogamous.
It's not just the grief, either. The whole process will still take place, at the same speed as before, and at the same intensity as before. You'll have the anger, the grief, and you'll even get the weirdly desperate rebound stage. Sometimes much to the bewilderment (or amusement!) of your other partners.
You're a Minority Now
Many polyamorous people are already queer, but this can be a shock to some. Yes, you're a minority now. What's worse, you're not a minority because of your racial background or your sexual preference. Those are very visible things and even though they're still discriminated against, there is outcry for this to stop.
Not so with people who like to have multiple partners. Early on you'll have to decide whether you want to be in the closet or out.
Choose to be a closeted polyamorist, and you've just found out part of what it feels like to be in a secretive, persecuted group.
If you choose to be out, you'll have to explain yourself a lot more (see above about being an ambassador and living, breathing FAQ). Everyone knows what's different about people of race, and everyone knows what it is gay people do that makes them different. Not so obvious with polyamory.
You'll face a lot of negativity. I've been accused of being a patriarchal bastard oppressing women (I'm queer, and I'd love to oppress some men too, but thanks anyway dahling).
One of my partners was once accused of being programmed by the patriarchal bastard (ç'est moi) to think it's okay for her boyfriend (ç'est moi) to have multiple partners, but not for her — and she was told that by her date.
You'll be told you're a fence-sitter. That you're just another man-child or entitled princess with commitment issues. (fun fact: polyamorous people commit more, not less) That you're greedy. That you're taking more ‘perfectly good single people’ off ‘the market’ than ‘you deserve’. Even if those same people are free to pursue other relationships too.
You'll meet partners' parents and friends and be ‘just a good friend’. You'll meet partner's parents and friends and your other partners will have to be ‘just good friends’.
There'll be lots of WTF moments. If you're lucky. If you're unlucky, it could be worse.
You're a mathematician now
So you're having a quiet drink with your best friend. They're monogamous, but let's not hold it against them. You're chatting about relationships. All of a sudden, ‘Alice who's Bob's girlfriend is married to Steve, who just got together with Andrew’ is becoming a bit hard to keep track of, and diagrams start getting drawn on napkins. (this is why I like to be out to bar staff — sometimes you need a lot of napkins, a pen, and maybe an overhead projector)
The diagrams you're drawing are called graphs, and what you're indulging into is a bit of light graph theory. You may need to start picking up some terminology.
Don't sweat it, before long you'll know the difference between a vee and a triangle, and that four people can be in up to six relationships. (draw the graph!)
Before long, you'll be referring to people as ‘nodes’ and relationships as ‘edges’, and you'll be talking about fully connected graphs and what not.
It really does help if you're already a mathematician or a computer scientist. Or maybe if your friend is one. Hell, even the bar staff may start discreetly googling ‘degree sequence’.
But if they come to you with a sheet of prepared questions, you're doomed.
I've shed more tears as an openly poly person than I otherwise would have. And while being happily partnered with multiple people, too.
Does it have negatives? Oh yes. So does every way of conducting your love life.
Would I personally change it for something more acceptable, ‘simpler’, or more mundane? Never.
So if you're polyamorous or considering it, be aware: there are rough times ahead. But it's totally worth it.