20 Years of Polyamory: The Introduction
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It’s now been right at 20 years that I’ve been polyamorous. For the first 6 years or so, I didn’t know the word polyamory, but once I heard it, that clearly described what I was trying to do. In that 20 years, I’ve been a teenager trying (and failing) to date polyamorously, been single, been married (and then divorced). I’ve had moments where I felt pretty smug about my poly experiences and then I’ve had moments where I felt like I was utterly failing at poly. I’ve had times where I was dating several different people at once and times where I wasn’t interested in other people at all. I’ve been in the middle of jealousy expressed violently, and I’ve seen compersion at its most wonderful.
Through it all, polyamory has never been far from the center of my identity. The last time I tried to have a monogamous relationship, I was 16. Polyamory is part of me – a non-negotiable part – and I wouldn’t dream of going without it. Most of my friends are poly. My ideals about poly seep into my decisions about seemingly unrelated topics. Poly permeates my life.
20 years sounds like a nice, big, round number, so I thought I’d celebrate by looking back at my polyamorous experience and my thoughts on poly in general. Let’s start at the beginning!
Just in case you’re brand new to the topic, how about a definition or two of polyamory?
Wikipedia calls polyamory “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved”. That definition works for me. The “intimate relationship” part is important – having friends isn’t necessarily poly. Typically, romance or sexuality are required to veer into poly territory. The “knowledge of everyone involved” part is important, too. Cheating isn’t poly.
My personal definition of polyamory is somewhat narrower and broader at the same time. I like to say that polyamory for me is an openness to letting each individual one-on-one relationship develop however the two participants want it to. This means that if you’re open to the possibility yet never actually do fall in love with or fall into bed with another person, it may still be poly. It also means that people in closed relationships that contain more than two people are not what I think of as poly.
Lots of people have other slighly different definitions, and I don’t often desire to quibble over them. Polyamory is an umbrella term, and since it describes something outside the norm, I’m happy to get as many people under the umbrella as want to hang out there.
A lot of people come to poly hesitantly. Maybe they’re always cheating in monogamous relationships and want to try being open instead. Maybe they’re part of a community with a high poly demographic (Paganism or BDSM, for example), and they decide to give it a try, too. Many people come to poly kicking and screaming: their partner decides to be poly, and they kind of get dragged along.
For me, becoming polyamorous involved two lightbulb moments.
The first was when I was 14 years old. I’m white, and I was dating a black guy in a small, conservative, hateful little town. Since neither of our parents approved of our relationship (nor did many of our friends), the only times we could really “date” were stolen moments where we’d sneak out of somewhere together. One day, he suggested to me that since we couldn’t really see each other all that often, we might as well be seeing other people the rest of the time. I agreed, and we did.
It was such a small little conversation, you wouldn’t think it would be all that momentous. But it was a revelation for me. I remember exactly where I was standing when the lightbulb went off. It was so obvious. Why wouldn’t I do whatever I wanted to do in the times we weren’t together? Why would being with him mean I couldn’t be with other people? Why would dating him mean only him? And while the force that kept us apart was specifically race in this case, weren’t there all kinds of ways in which we were different people who should be going about different things? Wasn’t there more me than just who I was when I was with him? And shouldn’t I explore all that, too?
I wouldn’t have put it into so many words at the time, but this was the beginning of the idea that people in relationships can have separate interests and that a romantic partner can’t be (and shouldn’t be) all things at all times. After that one tiny conversation, I never again wanted to be in a sexually/romantically exclusive relationship.
After he and I broke up (he went off to college), I tried and failed to have non-exclusive relationships with other guys. I just couldn’t talk anyone else into it. I had a lot of dates that ended at the first date when I tried to explain what I wanted. At age 16, I started a relationship that would last for two years where I agreed to be monogamous. In terms of monogamy, this was a huge failure. There were a handful of guys I really wanted to have sex with that I managed not to with great effort. One was while I was off on a tour of Europe – what better time to sleep with other people than when you’re off cavorting in another country! But, no, I didn’t. Then, finally, I fell madly in love with another guy at school. And when I say madly in love, I really mean falling off the deep end – he, Preston, would eventually become my husband.
But during high school, this was tragic. I loved my boyfriend – he was the first guy I really loved, the first I considered a “future” with, and the first guy I had sex with. But I also loved Preston, my second lover, and every moment we had together was wonderful for the love and attraction yet terrible for the cheating.
Somewhere in there was my second lightbulb moment. This one was less about logic and more about feeling. I could feel my intense, consuming love and desire for Preston, and at the same time could feel that it in no way diminished my love for my boyfriend. I had an intense, visceral understanding that it was possible (wonderful, even!) to be truly devoted to two different people. It followed that it made no sense to deny any of this love. Ever.
Eventually, I fessed up to my boyfriend and attempted to have an open relationship with both him and Preston. This was a losing proposition. The idea was too strange, and my boyfriend and I struggled and fought over it bitterly. We broke up, and I vowed to never again be in a relationship that asked me to deny something wonderful.
With the exception of that one relationship, all of my serious relationships have been poly, and all of my adult relationships have been poly. Preston and I were in 100% agreement that we had no desire to be monogamous. I never had to struggle to “make” myself poly. After Preston and I moved to Atlanta in 1998, almost everyone we met (through Paganism) was poly. So I never again had to try to convince a lover to be poly, either. I realize that this is a somewhat unusual occurrence, and makes my story a bit easier. From that first light bulb moment, then reinforced by the second, polyamory has been a downhill ride for me. When I hear of other people’s struggles with poly, I am sometimes unsympathetic. I’m not uncaring, I’m just coming from a different place. For me, polyamory is the clear, obvious, uncontested right thing to do.
Read the whole 8 part series:
Issa is a wild and rebellious mama who wants to live a carefree life where that little anxious voice is put on mute. How about you? As a writer she feels successful if just one other person feels any comfort or inspiration from what she’s written.