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It is a testament to the ‘otherness’ of polyamory that when I begin to write this article my computer refuses to acknowledge it as a word.
Of all the diverse identities within the queer community, polyamory (or ‘poly’) has perhaps benefited least from popular culture, leaving the general understanding of polyamory threadbare and largely negative.
“You get two great loves,” proclaims Charlotte in an episode of Sex and the City. But I don’t think Charlotte meant at the same time.
“Polyamory is described as ethical non- monogamy — that is, non-monogamy with the consent and knowledge of all involved,” writes Irish author Emer O’Toole*. At the heart of poly is the concept that people have an infinite amount of love to give and that people can fall in love with any other person. It’s terribly romantic, when you think about it.
“I think we’re definitely conditioned towards monogamy,” says Ayesha Kaak, an ANU PhD candidate, whose research centres around the intersection of consent, language and the BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism) community.
“One of the things I’ve realised is that I even do friendship differently, I think a lot of poly people probably do,” says Megan Munro, an artist and social justice advocate. Like Ayesha, Megan refuses to see poly as a competition between partners. “I don’t have a ‘best friend’ and I don’t really have ‘a’ group of friends — I just have friends, so I think I have the same approach to friends as I do to my intimate relationships — they just ‘are’.”
“I think that’s the same concept that people have in poly as in, ‘I’m with this person because they have whatever qualities and they’re not competing with [my other partner] because they have different qualities’. I just like them both.”
“It’s about seeing people as whole individuals, defined by their individual qualities, not as competitors in some sort of race.”
The idea of loving someone — multiple someones — as individuals is a wonderfully comforting idea, but for most people it’s easier in theory than in practice.
The more I talk to people about polyamory, the more I realise it’s just as much about the effort you put in as it is about the love.
Perhaps as a reaction against the media’s negative view of polyamory as being either a carefree, hippy lifestyle or an arrangement that young women are ‘tricked’ into by their lothario boyfriends, modern polyamory is quick to assert itself as value driven, based on pillars of trust, respect and communication.
“Ideally, you’d have those in a monogamous relationship as well,” says Siren Vandoll, a student and sex and sexuality educator. “But our culture has so ingrained these roles and guidelines like ‘don’t [talk about feelings] to your wife, she’ll see you as less masculine’ and ‘don’t say that to your boyfriend he’ll think you’re nagging him’ that those lines of communication become less easy to establish. Having to break down that social programming is a huge challenge for men [coming into the poly community].”
Entering into polyamorous relationships requires something many couples struggle to establish — constant and deep channels of clear communication. Verbal contracts are usually necessary for setting guidelines and boundaries in poly relationships to make sure everyone is comfortable, and sometimes even physical contracts are drawn up. Siren believes that polyamory can be anything you make it — as long as you communicate.
“We’re almost lucky as modern polyamorous people [because] the constructs haven’t been developed yet,” explains Siren, “we don’t have a poly nuclear family so it gives you that freedom to make your own rules, which I find really liberating.”
Writing a community’s own rules can be liberating, but it can also mean you find yourself inadvertently breaking other’s rules in the process.
Siren, Megan and Ayesha have each felt the sting of judgement for their polyamory in Canberra at some point, as society refuses to allow it a spot at the table when it comes to discussing sexuality. Unlike the LGBTQQI* (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, and Intersex) community, which has a much larger community voice and representation in Canberra, polyamory is still too much for many members of the community to process.
“I would love to be able to go out with both my male partners and my female partner and not have it be ‘odd’ and not get looks and be judged for it,” says Ayesha. “Or if I’m out with one and see someone that knows me primarily through one of my other partners [not] have them think that I’m being unfaithful.”
“There’s something about the dedication to honesty and emotional work involved in poly that fosters self- knowledge, trust and compersion,” says Emer O’Toole.
If you haven’t heard of compersion before (neither had I), feeling compersion means to feel happy in your partner’s romantic happiness, whether that be with you or someone else.
It reminds me of one of those words like Boketto (Japanese for staring vacantly into the distance) or Torschlusspanik (German for a feeling of panic that your chances in life are diminishing as you age) that are described in other languages but we don’t have an English word for. Turns out we do. Or perhaps it’s simply that it hasn’t been co-opted for use in monogamous couples.
I tell Ayesha this and she’s thoughtful.
“I think that’s a shame because it’s such a brilliant idea,” says Ayesha.
Compersion in the most logical sense means that you’re comfortable with how your partner relates to their other partners and that you are able to find a balance between communication and jealousy.
“Compersion is held up as the golden standard of ‘how you will feel if you are good at polyamory’,” explains Ayesha, “In and of itself jealousy isn’t such a bad thing, it’s what you do with it that makes it a good or a bad thing.”
What comes up again and again is the way all three talk about other people’s poly relationships.
“It’s not the way I do [poly] but some people might,” they all say at different points in the conversation, eager to distance themselves from judgement. It’s clear that polyamory probably benefits somewhat from its relatively fluid cultural definition — the rules aren’t written in stone so people make their own.
I’m reminded of various definitions of what constitutes cheating; is kissing cheating or just sex?
Is flirting with someone okay? What about just thinking about another person in a romantic sense? It’s hard to think that everyone would draw the same line in the sand, and it’s no different for poly people and their partners.
“I don’t necessarily think that if you don’t have overwhelming compersion you’re ‘bad at polyamory’,” says Ayesha. “You don’t have to be overwhelmingly happy that your partner is happy with their new partner, you just have to be comfortable with it.”
Regardless of one’s personal feelings towards the concept of ‘sharing’ a partner with someone else, many would happily agree that the concept of love as ‘finite’ is untrue. And if love is infinite, so too might be Canberra’s capacity to accept the poly community as part of the diverse fabric of our city.
* www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/apr/25/ polyamory-more-than-one-lover-emer-otoole
Author’s note: Polyamory is different to polygamy, which is defined as having multiple legally married husbands or wives or being legally married to multiple people at the same time.
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