May 23, 2010 Leave a comment
I wanted there to be fixed lines, clear rules and no ambiguity. I wanted polyamory as experienced by my interviewee Janelle, to be an orderly, bloodless thing. The notion of meeting someone that I want to spend the rest of my life with is very important and dear to me. So the chance that I could finally stumble across someone willing to have me and then potentially have the entire thing blown apart by infidelity freaks me out so much that I think I started searching for some foolproof way to avoid it. And polyamory was supposed to be my ticket to paradise. But what Janelle described was anything but neat and tidy.
I met Janelle nearly a year ago and over the course of time became aware that she’d been in an open relationship with someone I knew. So when I decided to do a post about polyamory I had to get in touch.
Janelle’s first foray into open relationships happened in her early twenties. She met a man she thought she might like and basically wanted to suss out if he was single or not. It turned out he wasn’t, but then he explained to her that he wasn’t really into monogamy anyway. While they never dated, through that first man she met one of his polyamorous friends and that’s how she was fully introduced to the concept. She wasn’t necessarily big on the idea of an open relationship at the time, but most of her relationships after that were “porous” if not entirely open; sometimes because she was being cheated on; sometimes because she wasn’t interested in being monogamous. As it happens, Janelle also describes herself as “pan-sexual” which means she likes women, men and all the permutations in between. So, being in open relationships works for her given the fact that one gender may not work for her all the time.
It was some time before she had her first officially open relationship, which occurred nearly a decade later. At that point she went looking for a relationship in which polyamory would be a definite part of the mix. While she and the man she eventually met and dated for a year were monogamous for the major portion of their time together, they did eventually open the relationship. By the end, however, Janelle was heading towards more openness and her partner was heading the other way and this difference of priorities didn’t last long. Also, she and her partner had specific rules around what they were and weren’t to do with other people and she broke those rules. She ‘fessed up when it happened, but over time these confessions put too much strain on the relationship.
That’s one of those inconvenient things about open relationships—if you break the rules of your particular open relationship, you’re still cheating. When we did the interview Janelle was in a new relationship which was also open. She and this man have since parted ways, but at the time I asked her how that was working. And she said the one word I was hoping not to hear: jealousy.
Despite the fact that Janelle was fucking other men, it still irked her that her beau fucked other women sometimes. Especially if she wasn’t keen on the woman he happened to be fucking. Which was the situation when we sat down to talk.
When asked how one copes with the jealousy, Janelle said it was mostly about dealing with the emotion on her own and not making it her partner’s problem. The jealousy, as it is for people in any kind of relationship, was mostly about her own insecurities and fears around losing the relationship, and not about anything he was specifically doing. During the interview, she fretted about her new love getting it on with some girl down at the pot rally that they’d attended earlier in the day.
I had imagined that polyamorous folks would all have an unworried Buddha-like zen about the whole thing, but not so much. I kind of figured that while I might not be cut out for polyamory with my jealous and possessive streak, other people were just naturally suited to it. Instead it would seem that even people who prefer to be in open relationships have to work at dealing with all the same destructive shit that monogamous people do.
One of the things I wondered is if there are really a lot of people out there who want to be in poly relationships? For the answer to this I turned to an e-mail exchange I had with a man who answered my ad on Craigslist. Tom is 30 and he’s been in six relationships concurrently, each averaging about six months in length, in just three years. He’s never felt like he had any trouble finding women who were open to the idea of an open relationship. I have to admit I found this kind of surprising given that I’m a woman and I know how my brain works. I certainly wasn’t socialized to think of an open relationship as an ideal and I sort of tend to assume that my experience is that of most women. Apparently I’ve been wrong twice in one blog post.
When I first started writing this post, the Hot Docs documentary film festival was in town and I stumbled upon a film about polyamory called Quandrangle. I don’t want to give anything away because some of the power of the film is the element of surprise and it’s definitely worth a watch, but I will say one thing about it: the situation and the outcomes depicted in the film were rather messy. So while lately I just keep making the flip remark that some people just aren’t cut out to be monogamous and that those people should be in open relationships, I realize it’s just not as easy as that either.
This whole connecting with other human beings thing is pretty dangerous no matter what kind of relationship you have—perfectly monogamous, imperfectly monogamous or polyamorous. Perhaps there’s a lot more to be said for remaining single.
Further reading and watching that might interest you:
The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Catherine A. Liszt
The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton
Daddy’s Girls directed by Lilly Sheffy (a film about a man who maintains relationships with several women who don’t know about each other…sort of)