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12 March 2024

Open relationships won’t save you

Polyamory is much more complicated than its cheerleaders will admit.

By Jane Smith

Sunday evening. I am at a sex party in the London nightclub Fabric, having a threesome with two women. It has been going on for hours when I decide to call time. I take off my suspenders, put on my jeans and peel the privacy sticker off my phone’s camera. Then I go back home to my boyfriend, with whom I share a mortgage and household chores, and tell him about the party.

As I am sure is obvious, I am in an open relationship. I had been with my boyfriend James exclusively for eight years when I asked to open our relationship. I was 26, working in media, James was 28, working in finance. Initially, we had a traditional relationship and lots of casual sexual encounters with clearly outlined rules. This was very feasible.

Six years on, I feel like I’m in multiple “real” relationships, with people who have never met, which – as any of the vocal critics who have never been in polyamorous relationships will tell you – is normally the point at which someone says: it’s them or me. Increasingly, people are taking another route: them and me and then some.

In January New York Magazine’s cover featured a photo of — inexplicably — a cat polycule. The picture of cats representing a group linked through their sexual and romantic relationships sat next to a headline which promised readers a ‘Practical Guide’ to Polyamory. The ‘threesome’ dating app Feeld has reported a 50 per cent increase in monthly active users year-on-year since the pandemic. There has been a 300 per cent increase in people Googling non-monogamy since the pandemic.

The hype around polyamory and open relationships over the past few years has led lots of people who aren’t psychologically suited to it to think it’ll save a sexless relationship. Of course, trying to fix relationships with more relationships is not going to work. I have made it work for six years but far from being a romp of butterflies, unicorns and doing as I please, it’s been an anxiety-provoking time in a land without maps.

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I’d just finished the washing up and James, my teenage sweetheart, was playing a computer game when I set down the idea. It wasn’t unexpected: he knows I am bisexual and had been craving experiences he cannot give me. I loved him and didn’t want to lose him, but I wanted more sexual freedom. He agreed. Or perhaps he acquiesced. In moments of guilt I think of the saying: there are two people in an open relationship: The one who suggests it and the one who cries themselves to sleep at night.

I read up and researched. I learned the terminology. There’s a “secondary” (I never refer to partners as secondaries but it’s a slightly demeaning word for a lover who ranks lower than the “primary” partner), then there’s “fluid bonding” (a repulsively corporeal term for having sex without a condom) and “unicorn hunters” (a term for a heterosexual couple who are seeking an elusive third person willing to join). 

I found poly Facebook groups and forums dominated by far-left ideologies and gender constructivist views. There are recalcitrant people who believe in a communist idealist version of polyamory that one day everyone will be enlightened enough to adopt this lifestyle. I suspect not. 

I read up on the history. In Genesis, Lamech (a descent of Cane) married two women; historians suspect that back in the 1700s, the great-great-great-great-aunt of Princess Diana, Georgina Cavendish was in a polyamorous triad with her husband William Cavendish, the 5th duke of Devonshire, and Lady Elizabeth “Bess” Foster. She simultaneously took other lovers but the triad lasted for a quarter of a century. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had something of an open marriage. 

Emma Goldman, born in 1869, was an activist who lectured about “free love”. Simone de Beauvoir once described her open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre as “the one undoubted success in my life”. In 1997, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy wrote the canonical The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities, in which they described concepts such as compersion: “The feeling of joy that comes from seeing your partner sexually happy with someone else.” 

Eventually, I go out to meet someone. I dress up, James compliments me before I leave. I come back and lie next to him in our silent double bed. We are shocked. I can still smell the other person’s perfume in my hair. I feel guilty and sorry. He goes to sleep. I can’t sleep. In the morning we discuss this new method and define the rules. We agree: never have sex with friends, never bring anyone back to our home. We agree with the arrogance of promising each other we absolutely will not fall in love with anyone else. 

When you spend time sexually connecting with someone, with all that oxytocin flowing, promising you won’t fall in love is foolish. Of course, I failed. I have been seeing one partner, Oscar, for two years. The idealistic vision that love isn’t a finite resource doesn’t really answer awkward questions like: who gets my finite holidays? Who gets my finite night-times? What happens if someone wants children?

As our relationship develops, I find myself wanting to spend more nights with Oscar but instead, in the small hours I get a taxi home, worrying about leaving Oscar lonely, or, in more selfish moments, worrying about one day being replaced entirely by someone new who will be able to give all her night-times.

There are small heartbreaks of not being on a traditional “relationship escalator”. After enjoying a brunch with Oscar, followed by a run around Richmond Park, he was due to see his mother. What will you tell her you’ve been doing this morning, I ask? Nothing, he said. It hurt. It shouldn’t have.

There are other issues too. James likes to know where I am going but says he doesn’t need to know the specifics. Oscar doesn’t want to know any details about my extracurricular activities. I want to know everything. But sometimes the details make me feel jealous and insecure.

Monogamy has hacks and norms developed over centuries, polyamory does not. So during challenging times I take consolation from reading about successful and loving open relationships. But some of the previous examples from history fail to console me. Goldman for instance conceded she could not talk of “freedom” when she had “become an abject slave” to one love. De Beauvoir clearly suffered deeply from jealousy after Sartre’s proposal for “contingent love affairs” alongside their “essential love”.  

The incessant flow of personal accounts tend to focus on the joys of open relationships while persuading their readers that it’s a feasible lifestyle. Molly Roden Winter, the author of the book More: A Memoir of Open Marriage, was in Time magazine recently with a piece called: “Why I love my open marriage”. She writes: “I now see the landscape of my adventures in non-monogamy as a place of great beauty, splendid in its lack of societal constructs, a place that is purely my own. I carry this wilderness and a solid sense of home – my own True North – within me.” Whatever that means. 

Clearly, non-monogamous relationships are something of an elitist pursuit: opening a relationship requires the ability to risk domestic stability as well as a lot of time. Then there are differences in male and female mating behaviours that can lead to inequality and emotional difficulties. In evolutionary terms, the cost of sex for women is higher and therefore they are more choosy. 

Despite occasional forays into traditional media, polyamory remains an emotional challenge for anyone attempting it. There will always be innocuous, curious, follow-up questions when you mention you have multiple partners, a reminder your love is not normal. When work colleagues ask about my weekend, I never tell them the full truth, I just conflate two people into one.

It is not a legally recognised lifestyle within any Western country. Poly people do not have access to any of the legal privileges that married people enjoy when it comes to matters like child custody and property inheritance. Although it’s slowly moving into the mainstream, representation is still limited, pop songs preach about ‘the one’. As for poly songs there’s… “Mambo No 5”?

Yet I am not willing to give up on polyamory. My relationships bring far more joy than pain. Although it wasn’t initially his idea, my “nesting partner” James has enjoyed the benefits of independence and the thrill of occasionally joining in.

Sometimes I feel jealous when I think of my partners with other lovers but sometimes I find it counterintuitively romantic and exciting. The evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman explains this reaction in a way that makes sense: “It’s a deeply natural thing to see your partner flirting with or interacting with someone else who thinks that they’re attractive and it make you think more of your partner’s value. It makes you value them more or potentially take them for granted less.”

Opening a relationship is not a decision to be taken lightly. Nor is it the balm for all marital ills. Trying to save a broken relationship by opening it up is like trying to cure an anxiety disorder with wild swimming. It’s not enough, it won’t save you, despite what some would have you believe. It will add to your life. It’ll add STI tests and it’ll add more people to worry about being mugged on the way home. But still, it adds life-affirming connections which would be considered immoral within the confines of a monogamous relationship, and it is these connections which make it all worthwhile. For now.

[See also: No one asked for it]

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