When I first pitched this piece to NYLON, I framed it as a “tongue-in-cheek piece introducing the reader to polyamory.” It’s safe to say that I was in a pretty light place—work was okay, I felt good about my personal life, and, creatively, juices were flowing. As soon as I attempted to write though, a million mental and emotional barriers sprung up. First, I actually Googled what “tongue-in-cheek” meant. The words “insincere” and “sarcastic” were the first two to pop up. Fuck that, I thought; being insincere on this matter is the last thing on my mind. What I was trying to achieve instead was a warm yet much-needed approach to continue the conversation on what I call open love, better known as polyamory.
The first question I am always asked about polyamory is: “How does it actually work?” There’s no easy answer. Open love does not look any one way. It could entail a situation where there is a pair of primary partners who may date people together as a couple or independently of one another. It could be a fairly equal dynamic with three people, who may even have a connection that is not sexual but romantic in some sense. It could also consist of two people who are polyamorous but desire to be monogamous with each other. Honestly, the possibilities are endless, because we connect with people in so many different ways.
Do not get open relationships mixed up with multiple one-night stands or affairs. Open love requires time, care, consideration; it should make you feel uplifted, cared-for and seen—even if eventually shit hits the fan. The dynamics of an open relationship are all about checking in, communicating, and constantly adapting. Inwardly, individual participants have to work on possession issues, jealousy, personal insecurities and come to terms with what their idea of ownership in intimacy looks like. It is possible to claim each other as exclusive partners in polyamory, too, if you want to be claimed that is. Part of the balance is about finding a partner or partners who share or want to share a similar vision as you do, as well as recognizing your ability to value your partner’s or partners’ needs, too.
The most easily understood way I have described open love to monogamous friends is this: You have friends that you like to go to bowling with, and you have friends you’d prefer to stay in and watch the latest episode of Atlanta with. You also have friends you see once a year and ones you see every day. Each connection houses its own space in your mental and emotional sphere, right? This perspective can be applied to romantic connections as well.
When it comes to talking about my relationship preferences, I prefer to use the term open love, because, to me, “polyamory” sounds sterile for a concept that is emotional and spiritual. I also often steer away from technically correct terms when it comes to sexual orientation identifiers; terms like “bisexual,” “lesbian,” or even “feminine” feel way too limiting for me because my personal identity and preferences are pretty fluid.
When I first told friends I was dating a cis man after being with a cis woman, many people’s responses were along the lines of, “Oh, are you sure you like men? I thought you were a lesbian!” This was disheartening since at no time had I declared to be a lesbian because I don’t exclusively date women. In fact, I have zero preference. I appreciate that I am growing, exploring, and gently self-defining, and love feeling free to do so. So the term that I currently find inclusive is “queer.” That said, while I generally reject specific labels for myself, I also appreciate how language is steadily becoming more nuanced, and I recognize how equally important these identifiers are for others.
What’s been most interesting to me about coming out as a believer in open love, as opposed to coming out with my identification as being queer, is that having real conversations around open love have been tougher and the subject of much more judgment than was the case when I came out as a cis woman that doesn’t exclusively date men.
I remember talking with a queer woman in her 40s as she recounted stories of family members reasoning her preference to date women was because she “hadn’t met the right man” or “hadn’t had the good D yet.” At the time, I laughed at the audacity of such statements, which suggested that the primary reason a woman would want to date another woman would be because the dick she was getting wasn’t good enough. The concept of challenging someone who explicitly tells you who they are is so alien to me; how someone self-identifies their preferences is non-negotiable.
But while many people are getting better and better at respecting other people’s sexual and gender orientations, the rejection of monogamy is still very difficult for lots of people to understand. (Need proof? Check out the comments on this recent New York Times piece on open relationships.)
Telling people I believe in open love, and to hear “are you sure you just haven’t tried monogamy with the right person yet?” as a serious response is as laughable as telling a lesbian that they’re only lesbian because they haven’t been penetrated with the right penis; as if there ever was such a thing as the right penis.
For me, open love is my existence. It is what enables me to see every human connection as individual and essential; not as a substitute or something that can be easily disposed of but rather as something that is unique and stands on its own. I have the capacity to love and be with more than one person, and the fluidity of this brings me joy, but I am still discovering how open love navigates in our existing communities and social structures. This journey can feel like a solo one, and, in those moments, I remember this: “When you are born in a world you don’t fit in, perhaps it’s because you were born to create a new one.”