polyamory

Are Some People Just Slapping the “Poly” Label on Their Cheating?

This article was originally published in Playboy.

Image courtesy of Playboy. 

“I’d been spending time intimately with someone on multiple occasions when I learned he had a girlfriend,” says Melissa Vitale, a New York City-based publicist. He said that his relationship was open and that he was “ethically non-monogamous.” As it turned out, Vitale’s lover’s girlfriend was not aware that he was sleeping with others under the false label of ethical non-monogamy. “I later found out that he was full of shit. He’s just a small man who cheats on his beautiful girlfriend,” Vitale says.

New York magazine reported in 2017 that 20 percent of Americans had practiced polyamory at some point in their lives. As a side effect of the normalization, are more people not only misusing the term, but using it as an excuse for bad behavior—therefore stigmatizing non-traditional relationships and stomping on the hard work advocates have done to help normalize such relationships in the first place?

Anyone who has spent time on a dating app recently has likely noticed a rise in people identifying as ethically non-monogamous and polyamorous. The Latin translation of polyamory is “many loves,” and polyamorous people don’t just have sex with, but date and love more than one person. Polyamory is a form of ethical non-monogamy, but the two words are not interchangeable. Ethical non-monogamy is an umbrella term for open relationships formed on consent, trust, and honesty, and includes polyamory, swinging, and relationships in which a couple is emotionally exclusive but occasionally sleeps with others.

We see non-monogamy within “monogamous” relationships in the common practice known as cheating. Some people who cheat get off on the secrecy and sneaking that accompanies seeing someone behind their partner’s back. “Sometimes people get off on lying, that is their fetish,” says sex therapist Dr. Denise Renye. If you’re in an open relationship and wish to integrate secrecy into your sexual encounters, you can consensually negotiate that with your partner. “Most things are possible as long as consent is present. If the consent is not present, this completely clashes with the principles of ethical non-monogamy,” Dr. Renye says.

However, some folks seem to have attended Burning Man once, learned the word “polyamory,” stuck it on their Tinder bio, yet continued to date in a manner that involves non-consensual lies and secrecy. When they’re called out, they throw up their hands and say, I told you that I was poly! “They are attempting to sugarcoat their cheating styles. I do not necessarily think that people always know what they are talking about,” says sex educator Jimanekia Eborn.

Some folks, such as Vitale’s lover, may use words like “ethically non-monogamous” to cover up bad behavior. Others may simply be brand new to the poly lifestyle and in need of an education. “Do you even know who you are? Or do you know what kind of relationships actually work for you? You can also be hurting yourself in the process,” Eborn says. If you’ve serially failed at monogamy, it’s an exciting time when you learn about other options. You may feel eager to update your dating profile and embrace a new lifestyle. However, first, you have to do your research. To start, what kind of open relationship do you want? Do you want a relationship with a “primary” partner, with an option to sleep with other people? Do you want to date other people? Or do you want to be “solo poly,” in which all partners are on an equal playing field, and there’s no hierarchy?

Zachary Zane, a New York City-based writer, dated a woman who identified as poly, but did not live by its principals. “She would start dating someone new and completely forget about her previous partners. While all of us in the poly world cut a partner some slack when they start dating someone new and are in the midst of NRE [a poly expression for new relationship energy, or the giddy rush of joy you experience when you first start seeing someone], she never seemed to get over the NRE—until she found someone new and then forgot about her previous partner(s) all together,” Zane says.

It does not feel good to have a partner drop you the moment they meet someone new. You can avoid such misunderstandings by taking the time to think about what you’re truly looking for: one partner, multiple partners, or just multiple partners until you fall in love? Polyamory means many things to different people. For some, their relationship format changes depending on circumstance and partner(s). For others, it remains rigid and feels more like an orientation.

“A lot of us have been trained from the mainstream model to not ask tough questions about what realistically are you looking for, what are you available for, and what does your model for this kind of relationship look like?” says sex-positive psychologist Dr. Liz Powell. If you’re in a period of your life in which you want to be poly, but feel you may end up in a monogamous set-up one day, one argument is that it’s better to just identify as single. However, as long as you’re honest, you can identify however you want.

The plus side to identifying as open or poly, even if you may not always be that way, is the transparency. If you tell multiple partners that yes, there are others, and no, it won’t just be you right now, you don’t have to worry about hurting feelings with false pretenses. However, if you’re dating other poly people, you do have a responsibility to talk about what that word means to you. While it can be flexible to you, it may be a lifelong lifestyle to another, and vice-versa.

Any relationship, but especially relationships that involve more than two people, demand honest communication. That communication must begin with yourself, so you can clearly express your needs to other partners. That being said, dating is messy, and it takes trial and error to know what works best for you. The hard truth is, that while yes, there are some bad apples intentionally misusing words like “poly;” hurt feelings, learning curves and miscommunication are part of all relationships—including ethically non-monogamous ones.

“We’re reaching a point culturally where there are enough people being non-monogamous that folks are starting to use that label inappropriately, and that’s going to happen with any label,” Dr. Powell says. There’s a term known as “poly preaching,” which refers to poly people taking on an enlightened attitude that they date the way that humans are meant to—that it’s more intelligent than monogamy. While that is true for some, it doesn’t mean that poly people don’t mess up. And they should be allowed to.

“I think non-monogamous communities sometimes like to think of themselves as these like beautiful utopias full of enlightened people, who never have relationship drama. They only have relationships made completely of love and free of jealousy and fear. And that’s just not real. I’ve been non-monogamous on and off for 18 years, and I still have issues sometimes. We are all imperfect, messy humans,” Dr. Powell says. The key to being an ethical messy person, and not a harmful one, is honesty.

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Are You Radical Enough to Be a Relationship Anarchist?

Read my latest for GQ. Illustration by Alicia Tatone.

When I first heard the term “relationship anarchy,” I found it infuriatingly pretentious. “Simmer…the fuck…down!” I thought. Anarchy is a fine and dandy concept, but let’s be real: Very few of us are actually living as imposed-authority-is-no-good anarchists, even in Trumpland 2018. Those who do identify as anarchists are too often leftist bros who had their girlfriend iron an anarchist patch onto their denim vests. Yes, I said it. So when I heard about relationship anarchy, I assumed these dudes had gone to Burning Man, learned about polyamory, and begun identifying as relationship anarchists as another way to use supposed self-reliance, leftist politics, and feminism to excuse their commitment issues and desire for multiple girlfriends. As I learned more about relationship anarchy, I came to see that it has its perks, even if the label is a little bit over the top. So, what does it mean?

RA uses anarchist concepts to deny hierarchy within relationships and forgo imposed expectations. Relationship anarchists don’t apply different values to their relationships: A relationship that is sexual doesn’t take priority over a relationship that is platonic. For a relationship anarchist, an intimate friendship, a sexual partner, and a roommate may all have equal weight and importance.

Additionally, relationship anarchists take things as they come and have no set expectations, unlike monogamous relationships and even most polyamorous ones: In polyamorous partnerships, there’s still an assumption that if you’re in love and partnered with someone, when you wake up tomorrow, they’ll still be there and accountable for you. Relationship anarchists don’t have that, but they’re not devoid of commitment. They just believe that all parties involved have total freedom and flexibility in what that commitment looks like.

Relationship anarchy is a label used by some polyamorous people, but not all relationship anarchists identify as polyamorists. “Hierarchical poly” is what most of us think of when we consider polyamory: In a hierarchical poly situation you have a primary partner, which is a relationship that may even appear monogamous to outsiders, but you also have secondary partners. “Solo poly,” in which all sexual partners are given equal standing, is probably the relationship format closest to relationship anarchy. However, relationship anarchy is not the same as solo polyamory, because RAs reject sex and romance as an inherent aspect of their partnerships (a solo poly person would probably not put their platonic roommate on the same pedestal as their sexual partners).

The term “relationship anarchy” was probably coined by Andie Nordgren, a Swedish activist who wrote the relationship anarchy manifesto in 2012. Nordgren explains that “love is abundant, and every relationship is unique.” Nordgren suggests that love is not a finite resource and asks you to “customize your commitments” and design your own relationship responsibilities based on desire rather than societal pressure. It sounds like it takes incredible trust, maturity, and a ton of work. But, then again, so do all successful relationships. I’m in a monogamous relationship, but I believe that we all have a lot to learn from the tenets of polyamory, from how polyamorists navigate jealousy to how they examine what binds you and your primary partner together beyond than sexual exclusivity (i.e. true love). And even if the name “relationship anarchist” makes your eyes to roll back into their sockets when you come across one on Tinder, you might be more of relationship anarchist than you think.

For instance: My boyfriend is my intimate partner, my bringer of orgasms, my trusted friend, and the person with whom I’m planning a shared life with. But I also have a best friend who lives next door to me and occasionally even spends the night in my bed, even though we don’t hook up. My other best friend is a woman I used to date and still love, but who is no longer a romantic or sexual partner. Likewise, my boyfriend has close and intimate friendships with people whom he was once sexually involved with. Despite our commitment to one another, we also give each another room for those other intimate relationships. Are we relationship anarchists tricking ourselves into believing we’re monogamous based on imposed societal structures?

The answer is no, but also sort of? In the relationship anarchy manifesto, Nordgren states: “Don’t rank and compare people and relationships—cherish the individual and your connection to them.” For many people, a commitment to a primary or monogamous partner best suits their desires and needs. Those people might read about “customizing their commitments” and feel that they have already done that by entering a monogamous relationship. But other people may read the relationship anarchy manifesto and feel like they’ve finally found a sensible way to balance all their relationships.

Whether you enjoy your relationships without hierarchy, or if you love the romance of committing yourself to one person who comes before everyone else, there’s one line from the relationship anarchy manifesto, in the section named “Trust is better,” that’s so soothing that I have to share it: “Choosing to assume that your partner does not wish you harm leads you down a much more positive path than a distrustful approach where you need to be constantly validated by the other person to trust that they are there with you in the relationship,” Nordgren writes. A toxic relationship trap many people fall into, which I am certainly guilty of, is assuming that my partner is going to betray me at some point. It’s a cynical, nasty, jealous place to be in. Could my partner truly love me, never wish me harm, and have my best interests in mind? That’s a really nice mindset. Relationship anarchists don’t disregard commitment; they just go about it very differently than monogamists do. Whether you think of your friends as being separate from your romantic partner, but not someone you’d walk down the aisle for (in relationship anarchy, it’s totally chill to marry a platonic partner), or want everyone to have the same power, imagine how healthy your relationships would be if you assumed that the people who loved us had our best interests in mind. Now that is radical.

VICE – THE POLY LIFE iPHONE APP HELPS POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE ORGANIZE THEIR BUSY SEX LIVES

I’ve got some more sex tech for you. Or, in this case, both sex and love because it’s an app designed for poly families. Unlike swingers or those who practice an open relationship, polyamorous families both date and love multiple people. I interviewed the family behind The Poly Life for VICE, click the link to read the Q&A in its entirety.

They’re still trying to reach their financial goal to make the Android app happen, so calling all poly Droid users, click here!

What advice do you give newcomers to the community, who could benefit from the app?
It’s not easy. If you’re not a good talker, polyamory isn’t for you. It’s a lot of communicating with each other, especially if we start dating someone new. Jealousy and making assumptions were our biggest hurdles —they still creep up. Jealousy is a bitch. When we were swinging, it was purely sexual with little jealousy for either of us because we always went home together at the end of the night. But when you start talking about having feelings for someone else and spending alone time with them, that was a swift kick in the ass. Understanding that we didn’t love each other less, and the other partner more, was our biggest struggle.