Most of us only date one person at any one time. Sure, we might have eyes for other people while in a relationship, but we refrain from acting on those feelings because, well, that’d be cheating.
But there are some among us who have more than one partner. And they’re not cheaters—they’re just polyamorous
Polyamory is the practice of being emotionally involved with more than one person at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved. This distinguishes it from another kind of open relationship, swinging, which allows sex outside the primary relationship, but not love.
Those in “poly relationships”, as they’re commonly known, tend to view their relationships in equal terms rather than assign labels like “primary” and “secondary”. Also, sex may be involved in a poly relationship but it isn’t always the case.
Even if you don’t know any polyamorists—or “ethical non-monogamists”, as they usually prefer to be known—you probably know a friend of a friend who is. Heck, if you use dating apps, you’ve probably come across quite a number of them.
But just how does polyamory work for these people? After all, if you’ve always been a monogamist, the concept might be tough to wrap your head around. For most of us, the mere thought of our partner seeing other people is enough to raise our blood pressure. So just how do “poly people” manage emotions—both their own and their partners? And how do they see love?
Then there’s the practical issue: given that they have to divide their time and attention across more than one partner, how do they build meaningful relationships?
We got Edward*, a 32-year-old polyamorist in Singapore, to answer these questions. Edward was in a monogamous relationship for nine years before it ended in divorce, and he now practices polyamory and dates several people at the same time. He has a “committed life partner” who also practices polyamory, and they’ve been together for three years.
Why did you start exploring polyamory?
Some time after my marriage ended, I started dating an ethical non-monogamist. She explained that every new romantic partner allowed her more possibilities of self-discovery. Plus, she felt that one person was not required to meet all her needs. After some discussion, I agreed for our relationship to be non-monogamous. We lived together and shared finances for a year, and in that time, I had five other concurrent relationships.
It was during this period that I discovered that I was also a relationship anarchist. A relationship anarchist understands conventional social constructs of all relationships (platonic, sexual and romantic), but interacts with others according to their own mutual understanding of relationships. It’s a direct response to how society says that love and sex are what make a relationship “important”. For many relationship anarchists, all kinds of relationships can become important when a mutual commitment is formed.
How do you tell new potential partners that you’re polyamorous?
I usually meet new people via dating apps or at a bar. I also meet them through work. If it seems like there’s a chance a new person and I may date, I will most likely have already revealed that I’m ethically non-monogamous. For example, my OkCupid profile states that I’m seeing someone and that I’m a relationship anarchist. This helps to filter out my matches.
In any situation, if I exchange numbers with someone and it seems like we’re heading for a date, I’ll first discuss how I’m ethically non-monogamous. What’s more, if we’re already connected on social platforms such as Instagram, they’d have already seen photos of my life partner. I don’t try to hide information about her.
How do you manage jealousy in your relationships?
I’d say the jealousy my partners have had was due to preconceived notions of love, sex and commitment. Many people feel that jealousy is “proof” of how important someone is to you. But if we delve deeper into it, jealousy happens when you think you “own” your partner, just as how some children want to “own” their parents’ interactions.
I personally don’t get jealous. I don’t feel like I “own” my partners, and their physical and emotional interactions with others aren’t for me to restrict. They are the ones sharing their life with me. I also don’t feel insecure in my relationships, but when I do feel some sort of concern, I try to process where it’s coming from.
Also, all of my partners are ethically non-monogamous, so there’s a bit more understanding all around. It doesn’t mean that all of them have multiple relationships, but by extension of consensually dating me, they’re participating in ethical non-monogamy. I don’t start a relationship with expectations of what it must be, and I’d say that when I have a connection with someone, the person is usually open to having some kind of relationship with me.
I experience “compersion” a lot. It’s the feeling of joy when another is experiencing joy, particularly when seeing a partner take pleasure in another relationship. When my partners are having a good time, I feel happy for them.
How open are you with your life partner about your other relationships?
I discuss all relationships that are forming with her. I share with her about new friends I’ve made and if I’m attracted to someone new. I also discuss any stimulating conversations I’ve had, and let her know when there is someone I want to spend more time to get to know. The same goes for my partners. They share a lot with me and we sometimes talk about the difficulties of the other relationships or interactions we have.
I’ve never seen relationships as barriers. Relationships should be freeing. Because when we’re in a relationship, it’s about sharing our own lives, not “owning” the other. My life partner has also met some of my other partners. For example, she met someone I’ve been seeing for the past six months. The three of us had dinner together so they could meet and get to know each other. We’ve also hung out together a few other times. However, I wouldn’t say they’re [close to each other] because their lives otherwise don’t cross.
In your opinion, can love be “shared”?
I’m against the idea that an individual has a limited quantity of love to “share”; that having had more than one sexual partner somehow diminishes the love you have for somebody, or that it reduces the quality of the sex. I’m also against the idea that jealousy should rule our lives and interactions, and that a “good” relationship is defined as a “long” relationship. I don’t agree that a romantic commitment is only “real” when there’s exclusivity.
For this reason, I’m against some relationship ideals that I consider toxic. I refer to this sometimes as “toxic monogamy”. To me, a toxic monogamous relationship looks something like this: one person meets every possible need we have, and both of us do whatever is needed to protect the longevity of the relationship. If it involves isolating other parts of our lives, so be it. If we happen to be attracted to someone else, it means our love isn’t true and we’re horrible people.
Personally, I don’t compare monogamy and polyamory. I’ve never seen them as conflicting, because to me, relationships exist on a spectrum. I do believe healthy monogamy can exist. But sometimes, when people disagree with polyamory, it’s because they have different beliefs as to what makes a relationship.
For example, lots of people don’t like their partner to have a platonic relationship with an ex. This is based on the belief that individuals in a romantic/sexual relationship own their partner and have the right to put restrictions on their other kinds of relationships.
How do you spread out your resources across several relationships?
I don’t feel I have to juggle my time or face any difficulty in how I spend it. Any partner and I can recognise that there are moments where we will spend time with other people, and that doesn’t mean it’s eating into “our” time because that time was never meant to be for us. The people I see usually understand this.
When we do miss each other, we take the chance to celebrate that sort of feeling. If we feel like we want to spend more time with each other, we talk about how to make it work. I don’t have a favourite partner as I don’t see people as things.
Is there a local polyamorous community?
There is a local ethical non-monogamist group and I’m a part of it. The community functions just like any other meet-up group of friends. We make time to come together and discuss relationship topics as we recognise how rare support and knowledge is. There have been some monogamists that have attended our gatherings as they’re curious about ethical non-monogamy or about a topic we were discussing. These topics include jealousy, long-distance relationships and online dating.
Do you think you’ll stop being a polyamorist one day?
I highly doubt it. And I highly doubt I’ll ever stop being a relationship anarchist. If I do get back into a monogamous relationship, it’d be because that’s what I and a particular partner want in a relationship together.
I’m not sure if I’ll get married again. If I do, I’ll discuss with my partner how we want it to be. If either of us want it to be changed, we’ll discuss why. A desire for change should not be viewed as a bad thing. It gives us the possibility of something new to be shared.