It was several days after my birthday, and my best friend and I walked up the creaky wooden stairs into my boyfriend’s apartment. As we walked through the door, I noticed it was quiet and dark. “Isn’t someone supposed to be home?” I thought.
A dozen faces sped toward me screaming “SURPRISE!” I stood in disbelief, staring at my friends and loved ones, and I could feel a wide grin take over my face. I spotted my boyfriend coming toward me with open arms, sweeping me up into a fierce hug.
“You have no idea how long I’ve been planning this,” he said, laughing with relief and happiness. I pulled him into a deep, sweet kiss of gratitude. Through the frenzy of hugs and happy chatter, I saw my secondary partner, who had driven hours up to the city to stay the weekend and be a part of the surprise. Thrilled that he was there, I kissed him lovingly.
I turned my head and rested it on his chest as my eyes found my boyfriend’s gaze near the front of the room. He stared at me adoringly as I was being held by my other partner, and my eyes silently sent him waves of joy and love. I felt so immensely cared for — the combination of being held by one man I adored and receiving space to enjoy myself from the man I loved. This was pure happiness…
I was raised to believe that there were only so many ways I could behave when it came to love. I was told no sex before marriage — wait because the right man will eventually sweep you off your feet. I was told cheating is wrong but if your husband does it, work on your marriage anyway. I was told not to dress too provocatively, and that I should only be with one person — anything else wasn’t moral.
These social rules governed the way I looked, felt and interacted with others. But when you don’t know that it is your birthright to love and express your emotions in whatever way your heart desires, how is one supposed to discover that there are infinite choices?
I certainly didn’t know other choices existed until I came to New York City. It was here in this bubbling melting-pot city of various cultures, lifestyles and artistic innovations that I stumbled across the world of polyamory almost five years ago — and it has forever altered the way I see myself as well as my connection with others.
Polyamory — Greek for “loving many,” is the practice of being in multiple emotionally invested relationships with the full consent of all parties involved. In this non-monogamous lifestyle, I learned that certain freedoms my partner and I gave each other actually brought us closer. I learned of numerous ways to connect romantically with someone that don’t involve sex. I rediscovered the value and intimacy of a single kiss. I learned that my heart feels genuine love in numerous degrees and variations for all the special people who have been in my life.
I exposed myself to situations that provoked my deepest fears of abandonment, betrayal and jealousy. I lived through them, and came out the other side with a deeper understanding of my heart and myself.
Although modern polyamory may be a new concept for some, there are many cases of consensual non-monogamous ideals and traditions in history. There are those who even present arguments that human beings are biologically wired to be with multiple sexual partners, as is noted in the recent book, Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. But whether or not we are truly wired to be promiscuous, human beings are undoubtedly sexually curious by nature.
An Internal Revolution
It is ironic that we live in a society that is slowly catching on to the idea of “loving many openly” over “loving many in secret” but that still calls women sluts for using birth control. Women’s sexuality has been transformed into a commodity that corporate marketers use to push us into consumption. In short, we are made to feel deeply inadequate because our bodies do not meet society’s standards of beauty. Our sexuality has been labeled and put in a neat little box for us, and to venture outside these boundaries is to be ostracized.
And yet, as my curiosity got the best of me, I found myself questioning every ideal about love and sex that I thought was truly mine — but really wasn’t. It was this realization that finally gave me the courage to break free. As co-authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy write in their book The Ethical Slut:
“In his lectures to young communists in Germany during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, psychologist Wilhelm Reich theorized that the suppression of sexuality was essential to an authoritarian government. Without the imposition of antisexual morality, he believed, people would be free from shame and would trust their own sense of right and wrong. … Perhaps if we were raised without shame and guilt about our desires, we might be freer people in more ways than simply the sexual.”
Discussing which rules I wanted to follow in my relationships gave me a greater sense of freedom, empathy and empowerment — not just in my connections with others, but also within myself. I was an equal on a team, a life adventurer — not a subordinate or a passive participant. For the first time, I truly felt like I was living out subconscious curiosities that were coming from the deepest recesses of my heart.
Exploring polyamory encouraged me to seek wholeness on my own, as opposed to feeling whole thanks to my relationships or other external factors. People screw up. They let you down, they change their minds and they break promises — so even if you are receiving genuine love from various relationships, your priority should always be to love yourself no matter what happens. It’s also okay that partners can’t meet every need you have — they aren’t supposed to. Taking responsibility for one’s own happiness is a lesson that spans a lifetime.
This responsibility actively forced me to pay closer attention to the choices I made on a daily basis. My emotions became deeper, more alive — I began to have a conscious awareness of myself that I never had before. This sensitivity still resides within me today, even as I continue this journey of self-exploration without my former partners.
A Double-Edged Sword
While polyamory has ideals that promote fairness and equality, there are those who get involved with this type of connecting for the wrong reasons.
One of the biggest challenges I tackled within myself was learning to communicate with partners more than I ever had before, and standing my ground. Many women struggle between pleasing their partners and listening to what their hearts really tell them, leading to the sacrifice or repression of their feelings more often than is healthy. It takes courage to say no to a loved one who does things that hurt or upset you. However difficult it may be, this type of communication clears the air and ensures that no one takes your kindness and love for granted. Having boundaries is sexy. Being walked all over isn’t.
Polyamory isn’t for everyone, and this article certainly isn’t a call for everyone to embrace it as the main model for relationships. After all, no one way of relating is “better” than another. The importance here lies not in having multiple partners, but in the freedom to mold and create how we connect to each other from the most platonic to the most intimate of ways.
Do you want to create a loving environment with multiple partners that allows for a husband and a boyfriend? Do it. Do you want to nourish and build a relationship with a single partner, but still have lots of cuddle buddies? Go ahead. Do you feel as though you need these options (or anything and everything in between) available to you at different parts of your life? Find a partner who is just as flexible as you — they are out there. The point is to design your own safe space where you can express intimacy and love with whomever you want and not have outside forces dictate the “right” or “wrong” way to do this.
As women, we have long battled these forces — manifested as sexist political debates, cultural norms or even friends and family who don’t understand us. By taking control of our hearts and sexuality and seeking others who are like-minded, we can take control of the most precious gifts of self-expression and sharing we have. And perhaps this will lead to other personal revolutions that inspire rebuilding the kind of world where love truly has no boundaries, we no longer feel the pull of popular repressive ideals — and we answer to no one but our highest selves.