Tell people you’re polyamorous and a few common questions will almost certainly be coming your way. I know this because I’m polyamorous – by default, if I’m honest, rather than some deeply held philosophy. My wife of 15 years, in addition to being my wife, has other partners. I also have another partner, of four years, who (to date) seems to have no interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with anyone other than me. Go me!
Which segues nicely into the first thing non-polyamorous people are likely to ask you:
What are the rules?
Easy. There are none, except for those set by the people involved. “How-to” books such as More Than Two and The Ethical Slut offer some valuable frameworks and considerations for polyamorous and non-monogamous relationships, but that’s about as far as it goes. And even if there were pre-existing rules, who wants to be the person trying to enforce them?
Not me. Polyamorous relationships are as varied as any other straight, gay, lesbian, asexual or wholly platonic relationship. I’ve read as widely as I can on the subject and the advice I’ve found most useful comes not from the literature on polyamory but from the motto for the annual Meredith music festival: Don’t be a dickhead.
Do you get jealous?
No, never. OK, I’m lying. But the fact we have the word “compersion” – for the joyful sensation associated with seeing your partner enjoying a happy romantic or sexual connection with someone else – suggests that, in fact, some people can operate with only minimal or passing feelings of jealousy. In my case, jealousy has triggered everything from spontaneously smashing the tiles on my bathroom wall with my fist to panic attacks that haven’t just given the impression I’m dying – I’ve been convinced I really am dying, my lungs collapsing under the heavy existential fear that I’m going to be left alone, subbed out for someone fitter, happier, more productive.
Multiple partners … so you think you’re really hot, then?
Um, see above.
Polyamory, unlike consecutive monogamous relationships and their hidden affairs, gives a unique opportunity for real-time, in-your-face A/B testing. While your new partner or partners, high on new relationship energy, may be primed to respond to your carefully crafted selfies enthusiastically, your longer-term partner or partners may not. They’ve seen you, they know you and, miraculously, they still want to be with you.
What about STIs?
Yes, they exist – with problems ranging from all sorts of undesirable genital conditions to Aids to infertility. But condoms can definitely assist, in much the same way as wearing a face mask and washing your hands for 20 seconds can help amid a deadly pandemic. Are any of those precautions foolproof? No. But they help.
Do you split your time equally between partners?
More accurately, in my experience, you split your time completely between partners. Forget about those quiet moments to yourself and the good old days of feeling bored to tears by your own company. You might tell yourself you can fall in love with 10 people and maintain meaningful relationships with them all, and the first part of that might be true. I doubt there’s a limit to the number of people you can fall in love with simultaneously, or how many can fall in love with you. As for having time to maintain those relationships, you can tell yourself whatever you want; Google Calendar, and your all-pervading exhaustion and irritability, will tell you otherwise.
Do you feel in control?
OK, nobody’s ever actually asked me this, but I’ve asked myself on numerous occasions. And the answer every time is no. Because the hard-to-swallow truth is that none of us, in any meaningful way, has any control over anything. You might disagree but you’d be wrong – you really don’t.
And that’s maybe the toughest and most beautiful lesson polyamory has to offer. If you truly love somebody and choose to set them free, they may not come back to you, but the reality of it is liberating: they were never yours in the first place.
• Poly, a novel by Paul Dalgarno, is published by Ventura Press on 2 September