A popular New Year’s resolution is to be more loving. Jasper Taylor looks into the lives of the people that take that quite literally.
Terisa Greenan is 44 and an actress. She lives with her husband, her boyfriend and down the road lives her other boyfriend, Matt. He lives with his wife, Vera, whose boyfriend is Terisa’s husband. Confused? This is polyamory.
Many people have misconceptions about polyamory – that it was dreamt up by an aggravated guy who couldn’t act on his office crush because of the restrictions of monogamy or that it is just a ‘posh’ form of ‘swinging’.
The reality of polyamory is very different though. It goes a lot deeper than just sex. Polyamory is a lifestyle based around relationships with multiple partners in an open, honest and non-possessive way. The emotional fulfilment comes from not limiting themselves, or their partners, to one significant other.
It seems that this way of living is internal to some people, Terisa being one of them. ‘It’s been an idea in my head for a very long time. Since my early teens I’ve thought that only one partner was limiting and stifling, and also that having multiple partners could be viable.’ But one of her partners, Matt Bullen, has only been polyamorous for five years. ‘I thought there was something very workable and enjoyable in consensual sexual variety and sharing.’ His wife of sixteen years, Vera, said she thought it would ‘enrich my life, and the life of my spouse’.
So far, it appears the ‘newbies’ to polyamory haven’t been let down. Matt and Vera have been with their new partners (Terisa and her husband) for three years now and are still enjoying the varied nature of their lifestyle. Matt said, ‘It has hugely enriched my romantic and social life. It has made it possible for me to savour and enjoy my partners, who are so different in so many ways.’
They all live in Seattle now, although Matt grew up in England, and have two separate households. Matt, Vera and their son live in one house and Terisa lives with her two other partners. Monogamy was never an option for her. ‘Polyamory gives you a sense of total security and freedom in your relationships that I don’t think is possible in monogamy. It encourages you to give your partner freedom and relinquish control.’
Dr Sue Johnson, the Director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, had a different opinion. ‘We are programmed to “prefer” monogamous relationships. Polyamory is no alternative at all as it sets up competing attachments. Essentially it goes against our need for secure bonds where we know we matter and come first and someone will come when we call.’
Currently, there are more than 500,000 ‘poly’ households in the U.S. but, like most things in life, poly comes with its problems too. Matt highlighted some of these, ‘Poly relationships can feel like they are constantly changing. Sometimes, it seems that every half-day brings a new challenge and that can be tiring.’
Polyamory is often challenged on the grounds of jealousy. Many people would shudder at the thought of their significant other even sharing a passionate kiss with someone else, let alone passionate sex. So, is jealousy an issue in polyamory? ‘There is always some element of jealousy’, said Terisa, and Matt backed this up, ‘Yes, but it is usually very specific and temporary’.
Jealousy in poly, it appears, is very similar to that of any other kind of relationship. ‘I am more jealous or envious if my boyfriend is on a date than if my husband is,’ says Vera, ‘as I feel that my boyfriend could more easily replace me with someone new.’
Given the situation though, jealousy as an emotion is easier to deal with than if, say, a husband cheats on his wife and breaks that bond without consent. Matt talked about how jealousy is dealt with when it arises. ‘The best approach is to try and identify what you’re jealous of very, very specifically. Once this is clear, the talking really needs to start. If you can trap the exact nature of this jealousy, it can be pretty easy to handle and negotiate. Often the ‘sufferer’ just needs genuine reassurance.’
Practical challenges also emerge through poly. For Terisa, ‘Scheduling is one of the most difficult aspects of poly and an ongoing, dynamic challenge.’ The solution? ‘You try to meet everyone’s needs, and your own. You ask if they are getting everything they want from you, and if they aren’t, you adjust. You try to do what works for everyone as an individual.’ Matt added his own tip, ‘What’s far more important is to become content with the exact ‘shape’ and constraints of each relationship.’
The child in the middle of all these relationships must be considered though, for he has not specifically chosen to be involved in this lifestyle choice. There will be an impact on his childhood, but Matt and Vera, his parents, believe that the impact is a positive one. ‘Children grow up loved by many caring adults in poly households,’ says Vera, ‘and get more of their day-to-day needs met.’ Terisa agrees too, ‘It helps a child feel more supported and loved having more than two loving adults in his/her life.’
Dr Johnson does not agree though, ‘Growing up in any household where close relationships are ambiguous and unclear will likely impact any child, evidence says that one or two main bonds are essential for optimal child development, and loss or change of attachment figures is very difficult for kids.’
Ultimately, polyamory is a matter of personal taste. It is clearly better than cheating in a monogamous relationship although it is not enough to suddenly announce a state of polyamory, as it takes a lot of work. A joke is often shared in the poly community that ‘polyamory’ is inherently wrong – a word should never mix Latin and Greek roots.
Follow Matt Bullen’s polyamory blog at http://matt-bullen.blogspot.com/