Eilidh and Chris are in a polyamorous relationship. They sat down with Twenty Something Humans recently to explain what it was all about.
So, how did you guys meet?
Eilidh - Chris and I have known each other since we met over a coursework deadline at university - nearly seven years ago! The next year we were flatmates, but were also hooking up. Since than, our relationship yo-yoed through many forms: we’ve been ‘just friends’, friends-with-benefits, and even in a conventional, monogamous relationship. There were also times when we were apart and in exclusive relationships with other people, but still close friends.
Chris - We’ve always been close, and wanted to be together, but it took time to settle on a style of relationship that met each of our needs. We both wanted to feel secure in our relationship with each other, without being restricted by it. I think we’d been together for about 4 years before we discussed “polyamory” in earnest, and actually had an opportunity to give it a shot. Sometimes, the name you give something can actually change it.
How do you come to consider it individually?
Eilidh- My current situation is that I am in a relationship with a guy, who is also in a relationship with another girl, and I am also free to be involved with someone else if I want. I believe that being in a relationship doesn’t have to limit our freedom to explore any other relationship.
To be honest, I had never seriously considered the different kinds of non-monogamous relationships until a few years ago. Almost every example of a relationship I knew was a conventional, monogamous one, and I thought that was the only way to do things. But I knew that it wasn’t working for us, and eventually one day we started discussing polyamory. The word comes from the Greek and Latin meaning “many loves”, and the idea is that a person in a polyamorous relationship is involved in more than one romantic relationship at a time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.
Polyamorous relationships take many different forms but in ours there are multiple independent relationships, so although my partner has another girlfriend, I’m not romantically involved with her.
Chris- My experience of non-monogamous relationships has two parts. There was a period where exclusivity in relationships definitely looked like the norm, but felt pretty arbitrary, and I was making fairly inconsistent efforts to push my relationships in a more non-monogamous direction through language/labels (e.g ‘I’m looking for a casual relationship’). This lasted about three or four years, and looking back, I probably hurt a few people along the way by not communicating clearly what I was looking for.
Then, I got a bit more serious in my approach. I started talking around the ideas of non-monogamous relationships with people who I was romantically interested in, and I spent more time trying to consider the repercussions for me and for my partners. This shift in my thinking was helped by a huge shift in context (moving around the world), but I’d obviously been approaching it for a while. Not long after I moved, I was lucky enough to meet someone else who had also been considering it, and I’ve been in an open relationship since then.
What do you see as the biggest positive of this style of relationship?
Eilidh- I love the level of openness and honesty and the potential for shared joy that leads to. For example, if I meet someone that I like, it isn’t a source of secrecy or guilt in my relationship, but instead we can share in my excitement. I would hate to think that our relationship was something that limited any of the people I was involved with.
Chris- Variety. If I said “we can be friends and do fun stuff together, but only if I’m your only friend”, you’d think I was weird and overly-possessive. Without deliberately bashing monogamy too hard, I have no idea why people are satisfied only having romantic experiences with a single person. People are individually fascinating and individually beautiful! The more we all get to experience that, the more we can grow as people. If you’ve ever had a relationship that felt “stale”, I imagine you’re feeling the lack of what I’m trying to describe.
What is the biggest the negative?
Eilidh- Having more than two people in your relationship does complicate things. It requires a lot of good, honest communication and if there are already problems in your relationship you can bet that something is going to happen to bring these problems to a head.
Chris- Managing expectations of time spent together. This is very dependent on the personalities involved, but it’s important to communicate what your desires and expectations are of how much you see each partner. If you’re not clear about this, you can hurt people in very obvious ways. If you want different things, you’ll need to work out if it’s worthwhile. If you end up seeing one partner a lot more than another, you can exacerbate insecurities. Also, relationships are time consuming, and people should consider this before they try have more than one.
Do you think ‘sharing’ a partner with someone else is healthier than exclusively seeing one individual?
Eilidh- I don’t think that either way is ‘healthier’. I think that you can have healthy relationships of any kind, and whether they’re monogamous or not doesn’t change that. I think the relationship orientation is just personal preference.
Chris- When you say “healthy”, I hear “a good thing to do, given who you are”. If someone has issues sharing food, or worries about their partner’s colleagues, I think relationships of this kind might cause them stress, and could cause issues with trust in future relationships. It’s going to force this stuff to the surface in a way that isn’t conducive to improving it.
But, if you (figuratively) get off on the idea of your partner enjoying spending time with someone who isn’t you, I think it can have really positive lasting effects on the way you see people and relationships generally. Also, it can really improve your communication in relationships - there are so many opportunities to explore about parts of yourself and each other you otherwise wouldn’t. Generally speaking, I think that practicing any egalitarian behaviour is inherently healthy. It teaches us empathy; it lets us practice love.
Some people would look at your situation and think, “Wow, this guy has done really well for himself.” Do you think that often the male is seen as the winner in these situations?
Eilidh- I think that some people might confuse this idea of polyamory, with polygyny. Polygyny is a form of plural marriage when a man has more than one wife. It is still a part of many cultures and religions and is often associated with misogynistic attitudes. However, in our relationship there is no reason the man should be seen as ‘the winner’, as we have all chosen to be involved in this relationship and we are all equal in our freedom to see other people. To be honest, I find that attitude quite offensive to me. If you are portraying the male as ‘the winner’, then the female is ‘the loser’ or ‘the victim’. I definitely don’t see myself as either of those things.
Chris- Yeah, I do. As I understand it, this is just a big messed-up patriarchal social hangover and there’s not a whole lot of conscious thought behind it. It’s just people trying to fit their experiences to their existing beliefs about relationships and gender, and all you can do is gently encourage them to question their assumptions, and then try to move on to better conversation.
There was actually one occasion where my girlfriend’s friend found out that our relationship wasn’t monogamous, and he immediately inferred that I was “taking advantage of her”. She asked him how it was possible for this to be happening in one direction but not the other, and I honestly think it was the first time he’d considered it that way. There’s nothing inherently one-sided about it non-monogamy that benefits guys more than girls, and I think people assuming there is perpetuates the wider issues that are actually imbalanced.
In regards to public reaction, is this something that you would openly tell people about or is it more of a private aspect of your life?
Eilidh- It’s difficult to predict how people will react, so it’s generally not something I bring up right away. I think that it’s an idea that most people still don’t know much about, so sometimes they judge, or jump to conclusions about our motives for being involved in it. It can be hurtful when someone (especially a friend) is negative about such a big part of your life. But I’ve found that mostly people are very open-minded, and curious.
Chris- It’s not something I’d ever try to hide if it came up, but I am a bit selective about volunteering it - some people jump to pretty negative conclusions, and if it’s the first thing they know about you it can be hard to get past their existing beliefs about non-monogamous relationships. (I still haven’t told my parents, but that’s mostly because the awkward pause would be doubly weird over Skype.)
How does this shift in relationship expectations change the way you view your future?
Eilidh- I’m actually not sure about this one. I think my introduction to polyamory came at a time when I was questioning a lot of the conventional ideas I used to have about my future (living together, marriage, kids). Although a lot of people who are in polyamorous relationships do still get married and have kids, it could complicate things. I’m pretty sure that there would be a way to make it work if we really wanted to!
Chris- I’ve spent more time thinking about this recently, and some time discussing it with partners. I’m someone who isn’t sure they want to have kids, but I think it could complicate things in that area. In the US, for example, grandparents are able to sue for custody in certain circumstances, including cases where children are raised by parents living in a polyamorous arrangement. I also wonder about how many people will try to keep this model of relationships going past their 20s, so the odds of meeting people who are keen will probably get slimmer.
How do you keep feelings of jealousy or insecurity at bay?
Eilidh- I don’t believe you can only love one person at a time, so I don’t believe that my partner loving someone else affects his love for me. Being confident of that, and trusting that my partner wants to be with me means that I’m not jealous very often. If I am then I think about how happy the other relationship is making my partner, and remember that he still loves me, then it’s hard to stay jealous! If I still feel jealous then I try and think about why I’m feeling that way, and then work through it myself, or talk to my partner about it. I think that it’s important to accept that most people will get jealous sometimes, and you have to be willing to discuss it when it does happen. Occasionally, jealousy is justified and a sign that there is something actually wrong in your relationship.
Would you like to add anything else?
Chris- If you’re in a relationship and you earnestly feel attracted to someone else, please don’t jump to feeling bad about it. There’s no strong evidence that exclusivity has always been the norm, or even should be considered normal. People will feel the way they feel, and trying to ignore this isn’t rational.
If you feel like it’s something you’re strongly drawn to, have a conversation with your partner. You might be surprised how common it is, and how uncomplicated and fun it can be once you stop assuming monogamy is more “right” than anything else. Don’t be scared to challenge what other people call normal. Who knows what normal will be in a hundred years.