What having multiple partners is really like
IT SEEMS quite a few people are doing it - with more than one person.
As relationship norms shift, the acceptance and popularity of polyamory is growing. So what is it really like to have multiple partners?
"Humans have been non-monogamous, and practising polyamory, for as long as there have been humans," says Dr Heath Schechinger, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Before you dismiss the notion as promiscuity slapped with a fancy label or as a neat excuse for the philandering type to justify a wandering eye, consider this: the fourth most popular relationship Google search in 2017 was 'what is a poly relationship?'
The short answer? It's the practice of maintaining multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships with the consent of everyone involved.
Perhaps it's more accurate to define polyamory by what it isn't. It isn't a series of orgies. It isn't polygamy (which is illegal in many places, as that entails being married to more than one person, and overwhelmingly involves men with multiple wives, not vice versa).
It isn't simply an open relationship whereby you live largely monogamously, save for the occasional one-night stand after a couple of after-work drinks.
"This is different from the 'player', who is deceiving people or who wants his cake and to eat it too. Part of it is there is an emphasis on being ethical and consensual, so that there is no hiding and no deception," says Dr Schechinger, noting that current data, although scarce, does suggest a fairly equal split in men and women who choose a polyamorous lifestyle.
"There will be people who say it is just something that guys want, but that doesn't fall in line with the data."
Current figures suggest that around four to five per cent of the US population is in a consensual non-monogamous (CNM) relationship (a term that encompasses polyamory as well as swinging and open relationships), and more than one in five people have indicated that at one point they have been in a consensual non-monogamous relationship.
"The CNM community is just as big as the LGBT community combined, and in terms of the number of people that have ever practised CNM, it is about as common as the number of people who own a cat," says Schechinger, who is leading the first consensual non-monogamy task force.
The real figures could be higher. With millennials and gen Z shunning labels, welcoming non-traditional lifestyles and, in general, demonstrating greater acceptance and open-mindedness about everything from gender stereotypes to who (or how many people) they bed, polyamory is increasingly prevalent.
"Our culture is more open, we have more time and knowledge about it, we are less stigmatising and becoming more aware of diversity-related issues. I see this as just being another wave on that social justice or diversity-of-awareness trend," says Schechinger.
Even screen stars like Nico Tortorella - the heart-throb of the Stan series Younger - has made no secret of his polyamorous relationship with Bethany Meyers, whom he married earlier this year.
In a piece she penned for LGBT publication Them, Meyers shed light on their arrangement: "Most think we planned this and one day decided we would be multiple-love kind of people. We didn't. It's just the way our relationship developed over 12 years. We became polyamorous without ever really trying, and we let each other go so often; I guess we finally realised it's the reason we are impenetrable. It's hard to break something that bends."
At the heart of this movement is a big heart. It seems that for the poly community, love isn't a zero-sum game in which loving someone deducts love from another.
Soccer superstar Ronaldinho, who propelled to godlike status in his native Brazil, reportedly has two live-in girlfriends. And going some way to easing the stigma of the notion that loving, or at least having feelings for more than one person, is simply human nature, the potential catches on The Bachelor and, more recently, The Bachelorette have been issuing roses to multiple people since the program first aired in 2002.
It's a lot to wrap your head around, particularly from the perspective of a traditional secure monogamous relationship - all the more so if the idea of polyamory was floated to you in said buttoned-up union, as was the case for relationship coach Dr Elisabeth Sheff.
"It was hard for me to understand how he could envision a life together without what I saw as recognisable commitment and without monogamy. He didn't want to get married. He didn't want to be monogamous, but he wanted to be together. I thought: 'What? How? What are you talking about?' explains Dr Sheff, who, despite eventually breaking up with her partner, began studying polyamory and has since penned three books on the subject, her most recent titled The Polyamorists Next Door. "It turns out that I'm not polyamorous myself. But it can work well for other people. It isn't for everyone, in fact, I would say that it is only for a minority of people. I would think that other forms of non-monogamy that have less emphasis on interaction and emotional sharing are probably a lot easier to manage."
The other glaringly obvious obstacle in all of this is, of course, jealousy. Are you on board with the fact that the person you love is dating someone else they genuinely love, even if you're doing it too? Some polyamorists in fact experience 'compersion', which is often described as the opposite of jealousy - the feeling of being genuinely happy for a loved one who is in love.
"We're not sure if people experience less jealousy because they are naturally drawn to polyamory, or if polyamory helps reduce jealousy, or if it is a combination of both," says Schechinger.
The takeaway? If you're the type who has ever skimmed your significant other's texts, then polyamory probably isn't your jam. "If you have that high level of jealousy receptors, then perhaps don't do consensual non-monogamy, because it's going to hurt you like hell," echoes Dr Sheff.
For others, however, uncovering polyamory has been more of an 'a-ha' moment. Gender-diverse Eve De Zilva discovered polyamory after attending sex-positive workshops at university.
"I just thought: 'That is so for me!' I get to live my life to the fullest and connect with as many people as possible," she explains. She has various partners on the go, while her live-in partner of five years, Tom, has just celebrated his one-year anniversary with another woman.
She's met Tom's other 'plus one': they even hang out. "I really get along with her and we are all new to polyamory and don't have a lot of role models, but it's exciting to problem-solve together and figure out what's best," she explains.
That starts, she says, with altering your perception of a textbook romance. "When you have a network of people who are polyamorous, they don't usually want or need to be someone's everything, so it works really well."
Ditto boundaries and the line between supportive BFF and loving partner. "It affects the relationship in the way that we care about each other's reality, as a friend and as a lover. But we also try not to get involved where it isn't relevant, that's for sure."
Read the full article in Vogue Australia, on sale now, or at vogue.com.au.