On My Polyamory

by Joe

The following essay was slightly adapted from a letter I wrote to a woman who, after hearing about our relationship web from one of my partners, was having difficulty understanding what our relationship web was about, and who also felt somewhat threatened by the concept of polyamory.

As background, I am a bisexual man with two female partners, one of whom I am married to. My wife has no other partners, my other partner has one other partner.

Many people, when they first hear about my complex relationships, find it difficult to understand them. That is quite understandable, they are unlike the models of relationships that we are used to talking about: friend, lover, wife, mistress... none of the words, none of the standard societal models of these relationships describes my feelings precisely. This means descriptions of those relationships are by necessity long--I must explain the details before you can see the whole picture.

First, I believe it is important to understand that poly is short for polyamory. Poly means many. Amory refers to the concept of love. In its purest form, the word polyamory means having multiple loves. This is, in my opinion, the crux of understanding my own polyamorous nature.

Now, we could argue all day about what is meant by the word love, but for me what I mean when I say that I love them is that I respect them greatly, that I trust them deeply, and perhaps most importantly that I have some connection to their feelings, that I, for myself, want them to be happy, I care about them deeply.

Second, I believe that it is important to understand that polyamory does not necessarily require sexuality. My first polyamorous relationship lasted for fifteen months, and despite it being a real live relationship with love, romance, caring, and so forth, we never so much as exchanged a kiss until our last date. This was because doing so would have made my partner's husband (and for much of that time, my wife) uncomfortable. That lack of sexuality did not in any way keep that relationship from being incredibly important to us. Its loss was incredibly painful, and something which both that partner and I worked very hard to avoid.

Third, I believe it is important to understand commitment and what I mean by it in the context of polyamory. I was married, monogamously, happily, joyfully for about a decade. I had many close friends, and some of them I had come to discover had complex lifestyles. But I surprised myself one day by accidentally telling one of them that I loved them.... and the more I thought about it that night, the more I realized that I meant it.

I talked to my wife about that. I told her my feelings, that I loved this other woman, but that my feelings for her were stronger, that I had an immense commitment to my relationship, and that I would do anything she asked to make her comfortable. She said she was more than comfortable with my having feelings for that other woman--she understood that my feelings for her were unchanged. And, after a time, my wife volunteered that she was comfortable with my newer partner and I being more sexual.

This brings up the question of why she was comfortable with this, particularly since that is such an unusual point of view in our society. Those reasons are many and complex--but I think there are several points to understand. She is an independent woman who likes having some time by herself alone. She appreciates not being expected (by herself more than anyone) to have complete responsibility for my happiness. She likes the part of herself that can know how much I love her without jealousy, without insecurity. Those hints only touch the surface of a complex set of emotions and feelings that she has--but rest assured that she is comfortable with my other relationships, and with them being sexual..., and finds that as a whole poly is a benefit to her despite the fact that she has no other partners and wants no other partners.

Also know that neither I nor any of my other partners would ever have tolerated a situation with which she was not comfortable. That would be a violation of my internal commitment that my wife will remain the most important person in my life.

That in no way prevents me from having a strong commitment to my other current partner. She is a remarkable woman, and I would like very much to live my life having her in my life--I will sacrifice deeply to try and preserve that relationship because it is and will continue to be quite valuable to me. In theory, my relationship with my wife could conceivably come between us, but in practice that seems very unlikely. My wife has been essentially completely comfortable for years with the current situation, and there are no signs of that changing, nor have there ever been.

As an aside, the seeming contradiction many people seem to find between multiple partners and commitment/fidelity is not a contradiction in some other cultures. Many religions (e.g., Islam, historic versions of most of the Judeo-Christian religions, etc.) recognize some form of multiply committed romantic relationship as perfectly normal.

Fourth, I would like to rebut the assumption that polyamory means I have had, and will continue to have, a steady stream of partners. Nothing could be further from my desire. As wonderful as infatuation is, that excitement which energizes new relationships, even more beautiful and valuable is the quiet joy of deeply loving someone... and those feelings do deepen and broaden with time.

Fifth, I think it is important to distinguish traditional notions of polygamy from my version of polyamory. Traditional notions of polygamy often rely on the subjugation of woman. My notion of polyamory does not--all of my other partners have had other partners themselves, have had full control over who they were involved with, were not coerced into any relationships, actively wanted those relationships, and so on. And even though my wife has not had other relationships during our marriage, she would be welcome to if she wished to.

Compared to all the baggage that many people associate today with traditional marriage, my version of polyamory is far more egalitarian, more humane, as it relies on both partners being independent and in control of their own lives.

Sixth, it is impossible to discuss polyamory without someone bringing up the risks of sexually transmitted diseases. In the modern day world, this is completely understandable. The risks of STDs are extremely real, and it is in my opinion stupid to go around having unprotected sex with random people. Different groups have different ways of dealing with this situation, in my case, in general, there has to be pretty clear evidence that someone is STD-free before we have sexual intercourse. A great deal of responsibility does need to be exercised here, and I do.

I do tend to resent the implication that I ignore STD risks. I'm not a 'Don Juan'. In my entire life, I had a total of four sex partners, and in every single case I've exercised a great deal of caution. This hardly puts me in the category of 'dangerously risky'.

Seventh, I've heard people complain about the emergence of polyamory as a lifestyle, on the grounds that that will make it difficult for them to find the kind of partner they want (e.g., a monogamous one). First, I very much doubt it--poly relationships are difficult and in my experience most people lack the honesty and the communication skills necessary to make them work well. Also, many people find that issues of jealousy and insecurity to be more painful to deal with than to simply be monogamous. That's not true for me, but it is, in my experience, for most people. More importantly, I find such statements quite presumptuous--I should change the way my valuable relationships work just so that they have an easier time finding a compatible partner? I'm afraid I just do not agree.

Finally, I've heard people dismiss these types of relationships because it is felt that "they can't last". That is simply wrong. It is true that poly relationships are, in some ways, more difficult than monogamous ones. However, there are many examples of decades-old polyamorous relationships, I know of one committed three-partner 'marriage' that is fourteen years old this month and still going strong, and that is hardly uncommon.

Polyamory can and does work, at least for some people, at least for me and my partners. I hope that this essay will have made it a little more clear how that can be.

This essay is Copyrighted (1997) by the author (Joe), and is intended for use on the alt.polyamory web site. Other uses are prohibited without the permission of the author.

Comments, suggestions, or requests for permission to reprint? Write Joe at joe@bi.org.

Last revised: January 28, 1997