The first time I ever heard the word ‘polyamory’, it was very late at night. I was about 15, and I was watching a program on YouTube about people who have sex with animals. A very fat woman with long curly red hair was gushingly describing her sexual relationship with her horse as a ‘polyamorous relationship’. She also had a husband – an American human like her. They found love through their rare and taboo common experiences with animals. If someone had whispered into my ear at that moment that I would myself be in a polyamorous relationship in the not too distant future, I might have been a little bit intrigued, but also felt pretty sick before the questions set in.
If the mystery voice could have told my computer screen-blue brain that, as well as being in such a situation, I’d also consider myself (mostly) sane and (questionably) intelligent, I’d say it was all lies. Considering that in the next few years, I would gradually come to learn about alternative love situations via other people’s judgmental, vague and stereotyped knowledge of Mormonism, Islam, hippies or gay people, I’d say it would sound even more unlikely. That’s because, until I had experiences of my own to go off, the majority of what I’d heard about alternative love concerned misunderstandings of either archaic – or even plain non-existent – practices of marginalized social groups. What I want to share with you are some of the reasons that exploring myself and society through polyamory has been one of the healthiest challenges I can imagine.
I love talking about polyamory with anyone with any degree of understanding or experience with the topic. I love watching its treatment in the media, listening to people’s reaction to it, reading the history of it and thinking about the contention it raises. From my 17-year old brother, to older friends who the topic has come up with, the first question or statement is always around jealousy – "I couldn't do it, I'm too jealous” – or simply the assumption that polyamorists are just mega horny sociopaths. The way I treat such assumptions is by explaining that, for some of the people who are involved in polyamorous relationships, it’s a practice interconnected with the exploration of mindfulness.
Those who follow basic meditation or yoga might be familiar with the concept of mindfulness as paying attention and monitoring your thoughts and body to be more aware and accountable for your thinking and actions. As far as jealousy and other hot emotions and concepts like obedience, truthfulness and trust that we might consider important to love and relationships are concerned, mindful assessment and training can be used to identify how useful or important they actually are.
In the long course of many years, many failures and even more very awkward explanations, I've come to see jealousy as a constructed tool that can manipulate another person into protecting your stake in them. Once you can begin to treat an emotion or reaction as a construct, it becomes very easy to simply dismiss them as an unhealthy habit rather than a fixed, stubborn state, and reassess your actions. How useful is it actually to feel the stinging pain of thinking you're being undermined by another's presence or influence on someone you're romantically interested in? The most empowering byproduct of this kind of thinking is something I’ve found foundational to mindfulness: you don't actually have to take your thoughts seriously at all.
Jealousy legitimizes the monogamous mantra of individuals being able to completely fulfill one another's emotional and physical needs. It’s a way of saying ‘why are you challenging my ability to fulfill your needs by paying someone else attention?’ Hey, some people may need that. I just think it’s unnecessary pressure. It's been repeated several times to be from polyamorous people that they find it useful to treat jealousy as a playful, affectionate but not harmful gesture with their partners.
Jealousy is just an easy example of a practical aspect of polyamory that can be messy and difficult to talk about. These are the kind of things I want to talk about, in as far-removed from mediocre airport-self-help-manual fashion as possible. I want to present them in short, clear pieces that hopefully raise some more questions and challenges. Ultimately, I want polyamory to be considered as a more legitimate choice that can be empowering, functional and above all, just as romantic and liberating as more conventional situations.
Image by E. Simms Campbell, via Tom Simpson.