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Can you love two (or more) people at once? Why and how polyamory works for some

Sharing is caring, or so they say. But when it comes to love and relationships, that doesn't quite hold true. Being exclusive with your significant other, after all, is what defines most romantic relationships, which is why infidelity inflicts a unique type of pain from which one may never be able to recover — trust issues and all that jazz.

We are warned against being played for a fool by two-timing SOBs and encouraged to treasure these supposedly "rare" people who still believe and commit to a monogamous relationship.

However, there are a handful of relationship experts like Dan Savage who find monogamy "ridiculous" and has written extensively to explain his reasons.

Men in most of recorded history have always had "concubines and whores", he said in a Big Think interview, and "instead of deciding to allow women to have the same sort of freedom and leeway that men did, we decided to let men have the same limitations, impose the same limitations as women and put monogamous sexual commitment at the heart of all relationships, all long-term commitments, all marriages and we have watched."

Lucia O'Sullivan writing recently for The Independent cites research done by psychologist Ashley Thompson in further knocking monogamy from the pedestal.

Quoting the research, O'Sullivan reports that "individuals in supposedly monogamous relationships are also less likely to practice safe sex when they cheat (putting their primary partner’s health at risk) than are those in [consensual] non-monogamous relationships."

She adds, "If we can admit to ourselves that a fleeting attraction, or more meaningful connection, with another partner might not irreparably harm our primary relationship — and indeed might supplement it — then our relationships might survive longer and better."

Everybody, meet "polyamory". It's a kind of a relationship that allows one to have two or more significant others at a time. Says Shin, a 27-year-old graphic artist who has been polyamorous for three years now, "It allows me to sort of feel love from different people. And it makes me feel like my partner does love me a whole bunch. I get to have fun with people I like."

Despite his status, he's an advocate of practicing safer sex.

"I always use protection, and my partner is very adamant to the point she has dumped people who do not, and I will always insist, though I have never really dated a woman who would be okay with me having sex with them without a condom on," Shin disclosed.

Shin talks more about the realities of "living the dream" and we learned that there's a lot more to it than having the freedom to sleep around.

How do you (and your partner) define polyamory?

It’s sort of like an open relationship, but with way more emotions involved.

Open relationships are when two people are together, but can sleep around with multiple partners. But with Polyamory, I would say it’s more like you choose to love and be involved with several people at a time.

I don’t want to emphasize the sex part of it, mostly because that is what people tend to focus on too much. There are asexual polyamorous people out there, who thrive on the energy from being in multiple relationships at once. I guess I’m trying to distinguish that it isn’t really about the sex, but it is a factor.

Who initiated the conversation...and how did that go?

My partner and I started exploring open relationships first. The reasoning she gave me was sound, where we were both young (I was 24 at the time, she was 19).

We loved each other, but can’t realistically expect not to meet people through the years that we would be interested in seeing. I had these hang ups at the time about infidelity, but this allowed me to sort of engage in our relationship with my partner without the fear of the lies and the deception, which is really what hurts more than people just playing around with their genitals.Trust, so important.

We decided to give [open relationships] a try, but there was a sort of tense conversation where I felt like I wasn’t enough and had all these insecurities. She explained to me the mindset where it wasn’t that she was looking to replace our love, but rather it was us getting to experience different kinds of relationships. No one is better than the other, everyone just has different strengths and personalities.

She was the first one to initially start dating around, and I kind of was busy with my own things at the time. It wrecked my nerves at the time every time she would go out with people, but she showed me how they didn’t really affect how she felt for me. She would still want to see me and reassure me of how much she loved me, so it broadened my understanding of how you can be invested in multiple people at a time, and not just physically.

Eventually, I tried to see if there were people out there open to the idea of seeing me. I would usually be upfront about my open relationship, and well, some people weren’t okay with it, and some people were. I then started exploring. Eventually from an open relationship setup we felt like we could handle having a polyamorous setup, allowing ourselves to be engaged with other people in a relationship way, and we’ve been at it ever since.

How upfront are you about your polyamorous status with people?

I start with it when I introduce myself to someone on dating apps. With people I meet elsewhere, I usually try to get to know them first. If I am interested, I’d just ask if they’d be cool with it.

What kind of rules did you set for each other, if any?

One rule we both agreed on was we would always use protection when engaging in sex with other people. We regularly get tested too so that we stay safe and only engage with other people who are willing to get tested and use protection.

We agreed that we should be clear or honest about everything that the other person does, and we had to ask each other for permission for when it came to engaging in sexual activities with other people. We had to let them know at the time. 

At the start, we weren’t exactly smart about it and it caused a lot of frustration where sometimes. We [had plenty of fights about having permission and the power to veto] and we eventually sat down and reevaluated just how to approach this. We then discussed a healthier set up for us.

We eventually agreed to these:

  • We would still have full disclosure on who we see, what we do with them, and when we plan to see other people, because honesty is important and so is proper scheduling. We would see each other consistently as to not feel like we are being neglected.
  • We aren’t allowed to veto who the other sees, that we should trust each other’s judgment on who they see, but if we find out the other person is bad news, we can bring it up and discuss how to move forward, but it definitely should not be up to the other person who you are going to see.
  • We are free to engage in any sexual activities with another person without having to ask permission from the other, but should inform the other person as soon as possible, because well, I am a person who is the type who would rather know.
  • We can ask for reassurance when insecurity and jealousy seep into the mind.
  • Can’t date people in our friend circle. Just because it would be messy.

How do you identify, in terms of relationship status? Are you in multiple relationships? Just one? Is there a hierarchy of lovers?

My partner and I are each other’s mains. I am currently dating other people but it’s more casual because that is what they are comfortable with. Haven’t found anyone I have clicked with to call it a relationship yet. I tend to end up having friends I occasionally have sex with more than other girlfriends. She’s currently seeing one couple who are exploring polyamory, and dates around.

Have you had to deal with someone who had too strong an emotional attachment to you that you can't return or the other way around?

Not yet. It’s not a problem I’ve had, but I think it’s just more of who I am as a person where I only ever reciprocate a level of interest less than what I perceive as the other person’s level of interest, than it is with how our set up allows for it.

We can invest that much towards other people but more often than not, other people wouldn’t want to get too attached or have different goals they have oriented for themselves that would not allow them to really fully invest in someone like us who have other relationships happening. I mean there are other polyamorous people around, but that doesn’t mean I am attracted to them.

What stress, if any, does having multiple partners affect your primary relationship?

Juggling everyone, mostly. Trying to maintain multiple relationships is tiring as hell and can stress us both out. So we try to help each other through that.

We used to have a lot of issues with jealousy and insecurities about ourselves, but we’ve worked on those through reassuring one another, and, well, learning from the horrible mistakes we have made in trying out this relationship set up.

I never felt like leaving her for anyone else, for example, but with our shared history of hang ups with our previous partners cheating on us and leaving us for other people, her fear is rational because he was a real piece of shit. If anything, these things have brought us closer since we worked through a lot of the stressful stuff. It’s unavoidable and it only makes you stronger, I guess.

Do you recommend this to your friends or anyone?

Nope. I would help 'em out if they ask, but I feel like I’d rather just share my experiences and show that it is a thing that works rather than try and bring people over. It’s their decision. And it'd be hell of a lifestyle change, so getting into it is just too much commitment. Beware of the responsibilities, fellow humans!

Devil's advocating it here: Isn't this just glorified promiscuity?

You could say that if you want. I don’t really feel that offended by it, being promiscuous isn’t really that bad of a thing. I feel that the best thing we can do is hope that people to do it responsibly, say, without spreading any sexual transmitted infections, or deception, or hurting anyone.

This is a whole other topic of sexual positivity, which applies to this I guess. Personally, we aren’t really hurting anyone and seek to share ourselves with people who would be okay with it. It’s not for everyone, and we’re not saying it’s the proper way to have a relationship. It’s what works for us. I’d rather be in this than go back to monogamy.

Other thoughts? Things you learned from first-hand experience?

Polyamory can be abused. I ended up being that, where I sought to only benefit from it and not have my partner see other people, I was being selfish. And while I have fixed this and worked on myself, I do warn other people that being polyamorous does not make a person this angel of a thing, because there are people out there who would be kind of getting into it for the wrong reasons.

Same with open relationships. When a dude asks you to engage in open relationships, there is that perceived stereotype that guys only ever get into this stuff just so they can sleep around, and well, men are trash that way. So yeah, guess what I am saying is, be careful with people like that, but also be aware that like any dating scene, there are some good people out there. — LA, GMA News

The responses have been edited for brevity. Original photo from the open library of The British Library, available on Flickr.