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Angel and her husband are a polyamorous couple from Canberra. Here's how it all works.

Polyamory, noun: the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one other person, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

From the Greek poly (many) and Latin amor (love).

One of the common responses many poly people receive when disclosing their relationship style is ‘Oh, I’ve never met anyone like that before!’ Chances are that you have. It is a growing movement, with a strong community in Australia. However, many poly people deliberately refrain from mentioning their relationships, often for fear of negative reactions. And this fear has, sadly, too often been justified, with many people being socially ostracised or belittled for their relationship choices.

what's it like to be polyamorous

Angel Hellyer. Image: supplied.

So, if you’ve never encountered polyamory before, here are the answers to the top five questions poly people get asked by their monogamous peers, according to a recent survey I conducted, in order of frequency.

1. How does that work?

This is the most common question, but it’s also the most complicated to answer. Each polyamorous relationship is different. People in polyamorous relationships are free to negotiate and agree upon the framework, structure and regulations of the relationship. This leads to myriad different circumstances and arrangements, depending on the needs and desires of those involved. The thing they all have in common is being open to having multiple romantic relationships at the same time. According to Maddie (19), “Poly allows each partner to give what they want, out of what they can give, to their different partners. It relies on a framework of consent, time management, and constant communication as to what partners want and what they can give.”

what's it like to be polyamorous
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"Poly allows different partners to give each other what they want." Image via iStock.

Polyamorous relationships come in all shapes and sizes. In some, a chain is formed where each person has another partner, who each has another partner and so on, often with branches involved where a person has more than two partners. In other relationships, there is a closed circuit where each person in involved with each other member of the network.

Like monogamous relationships, most poly relationships have rules or guidelines. Many have a ‘power of veto’ rule, where a member of the relationship must check with the other member(s) about whether they are comfortable with a particular person or situation, before engaging in any romantic or sexual activities. This both prevents negative situations and reinforces the importance of the relationship bonds.

Others poly couples or groups have guidelines that have been decided between all relationship participants. These could include a promise to always talk after an interaction with another person, not bringing other people into their bed, or not discussing any relationship issues with other partners. The key element is that these guidelines are openly discussed and agreed upon.

what's it like to be polyamorous
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There are always key guidelines and rules. Image via iStock.

Some polyamorous people have a ‘primary’ partner―usually a spouse or domestic partner―with other partners being ‘secondary’. This doesn’t necessarily mean the secondary partners are any lesser, just that there is a recognised primary relationship.

Importantly, polyamory is an identity, not a choice or a ‘phase’. A polyamorous person is still polyamorous even if they have only one or even zero current partners, just as a bisexual person doesn’t suddenly become straight when dating someone of the opposite gender.

2. Don’t you or your partner get jealous?

Jealousy is present in varying degrees in many poly relationships, especially early on.

There are some rare people who just don’t get jealous. Justin (33), found that “One of the hardest parts about being poly is explaining … that I am, in fact, comfortable with my other half having a [second] partner.”

Watch Mamamia talk to the Astrotwins about star signs and our relationships. (Post continues after video.)

However, most poly people, like most people in general, do experience jealousy. But it isn’t inherently damaging; it can be managed and, in some cases, eradicated.

A common reaction to someone coming out as poly is ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that, I’d get too jealous.’ As Daniel (33) commented, it sometimes seems that such people think the poly people is trying to recruit them (hint: They aren’t. You should be happy being however you are.). However, this reaction is potentially indicative of a deeper issue. People who react this way seem to assume that jealousy is normal, even healthy, in relationships, and should not be challenged. But it could actually be a red flag, a sign that maybe (regardless of whether a person is polyamorous or monogamous) they should explore what is making them feel that jealousy.

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Something I recognised very early after my husband and I realised that we were polyamorous and opened up our relationship is that jealousy is a manifestation of insecurity. But why was I so insecure? I knew my husband loved me deeply; that was never in doubt.

For me, my insecurity was a product of social indoctrination. I had believed from a young age that I needed an ‘other half’, a person who ‘completes me’. If a partner desired someone else, it must be because I wasn’t good enough. I was not secure in myself; my value was tied to my relationship with a monogamous partner.

what's it like to be polyamorous

"I know my husband loves me." Image via iStock.

But in polyamory, there is recognition that you can’t necessarily be everything for your partner. A person’s needs and desires are often too complex to expect one person to meet them all. It took me a long time, but realising this and confronting my insecurities made me learn so much about myself and grow as a person.

Poly only works when you recognize that you are not two (or more) halves coming together, but two (or more) wholes. ... This is the belief that every singular person has the potential to give themselves everything that they, on a basic level, need. And that when a relationship grows, it is not about what this person can give that I need, but what we can give each other that we want.” - Maddie (19)

3. Does that mean you all… *awkward hand motions*

Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the people and their relationships.

However, polyamory is primarily about love, not sex. Yes, there is usually sex involved, but not always. And yes, many polyamorous relationships are also sexually open, where the relationship framework allows for partners to sleep with other people with or without an emotional relationship. But polyamory is so much more than that. It’s about having romantic, emotional, deep bonds with more than one partner.

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Since we're talking about sex - what is the secret to having great sex? (Post continues after video.)

One survey respondent, Fiona, lamented that people often assume she and her two partners “all have a sexual relationship, even though they have been told the contrary.” Her male partner is often congratulated by his friends for having two women. Not only does she feel that this demeans the relationship, suggesting it is purely sexual, but there is no recognition of the emotional value of Fiona’s relationship with her girlfriend.

4. But aren’t you scared your partner is going to leave you for someone else?

This links back into jealousy, but it is deeper than that. If anything, I feel that polyamorous couples are less at risk of this happening. They are open to express emotions for other people and engage in other relationships without shame or deception.

An anonymous survey respondent noted that they are often asked “What if you fall in love?”, as if this was something to be scared of, that it was a sign that they would need to leave their existing partner. But that’s the whole point!

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The whole point is to fall in love! Image via iStock.

Love. Love is a beautiful, amazing thing. It causes incredible changes in our brain chemistry, lifts us up, gives us hope. But, as pointed out in one of the seminal books about non-monogamy, The Ethical Slut by Dossie Eastman and Janet Hardy, the human capacity for love does not have a finite limit. Each person has enough love to give to multiple people. We give platonic love to plenty of friends, or parental love to multiple children, but seem scared as a society about giving romantic love to multiple partners. In polyamory, there is recognition that giving love to another person doesn’t decrease the amount of love you have for your existing partner(s). As such, there is no need to be scared a partner will leave because they have fallen in love with another person.

There is a beautiful term in polyamory: ‘compersion’. More Than Two, a polyamory website by Franklin Veaux that shares the name of the book he wrote with Eve Rickett, defines compersion as “A feeling of joy when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship.” It is essentially the antonym of jealousy. Compersion is a wonderful, warm and fuzzy feeling. I get it whenever my husband tells me now much he loves another partner, or I see them cuddling or canoodling. I don’t get scared by that love, because I know he also loves me.

Speaking of love, check out these incredibly romantic love stories. (Post continues after video.)

Which leads to the final of the most common questions, which is also one of the most hurtful and insensitive responses polyamorous people get.

5. So you’re cheating on your partner?

NO.

No. No. No. No. No.

Can I be any clearer here?

Polyamory is not cheating. Polyamory is about having more than a single romantic relationship, with the agreement and consent of all involved. Cheating is unethical and involves deceiving your partner to have a physical or romantic relationship with another person, without your partner’s knowledge or consent. You cannot cheat if everyone involved knows what’s going on and has clearly expressed their consent and comfort with the situation.

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Justin uses an analogy to explain this to his non-poly friends: If you have a group of friends that you really like and get along well with, then get another friend, is that cheating on your original friends? No, of course not. In that situation, there is an expectation that becoming friends with other people is acceptable. In polyamory, the same is true of dating.

Feeling more informed?

what's it like to be polyamorous

Think about it: you can have many friendships. Image via iStock.

There are plenty more questions that inquisitive minds might have; however, because each polyamorous relationship is different and each polyamorous person has different desires and needs for their relationships, this is not exhaustive or necessarily reflective of all poly people’s views. Nonetheless, I hope that this has helped answer some of the fundamental questions for you.

Over the last few years, polyamory has started to become more recognised, with greater discussion of the topic and more public acceptance, but there is still a long way to go. I can only hope that, like the advancements in recognition of sexuality and gender diversity of the last few decades, some day poly people can be more comfortable being out and proud. I look forward to a time that our multiple relationships are recognised and cherished for the beautiful and fulfilling things that they are and accepted as part of the broad spectrum of human relationships.

Please note that some names have been changed at the request of those quoted.

Angel Hellyer is a Canberra public servant by day but tries to make up for that by keeping her personal life as busy and interesting as possible. She is a science geek, word nerd, literary crime fighter, gamer and connoisseur of fine food, wine and all the hedonistic things in life. Angel and her husband have been in a polyamorous relationship for 5 years.

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