Alex Sanson is nervous. She is hosting a dinner party this Friday, and wants it to go well, because her lovers are coming – all of them. “Cooking for one person you fancy is hard enough, but three of them is even more stressful!” says Sanson, who has brown hair, an open, friendly face and a bookish air..
Sanson is polyamorous, meaning that she has multiple romantic and sexual partners, all of whom are aware of the others’ existence. Currently, the 28-year-old is in a “polycule” with three other people: William, Mike and Laura, all of whom are also dating the other members of the polycule.
Dinner-party jitters aside, things are going swimmingly for Sanson, who works in marketing. “There’s so much joy in being poly,” she says. “It’s lovely not to burden one person with all your stuff. You just spread it all out.”
Polyamory, also known as consensual non-monogamy, seems to be growing in popularity among young people, though with no definitive figures it’s hard to know how much of this is a matter of increased visibility. It comes in many shapes and forms, from open relationships (where in layperson’s terms you “cheat” on your partner, but they are aware and do not mind, and do the same to you), to solo polyamory, where you identify as polyamorous, but are not currently in multiple relationships. But all those involved reject monogamy as stifling, or oppressive, or simply not to their taste.
“It’s not as complicated as people make it sound,” Sanson insists. If you are unsure whether polyamory might suit you, try this simple thought experiment: does the thought of your partner in the first flushes of romantic ardour with another person fill you with contentment, lust, indifference, or murderous rage? If it’s the last one, best to swerve polyamory. (There’s a term for the warm feeling polyamorous people experience when seeing their partners with someone else: compersion.)
“I’ve had people saying to me, ‘You just want to fuck about!’” says 29-year-old Calum James, who identifies as a heteroflexible pansexual solo polyamorous relationship anarchist. What this basically means is that James, who is mostly straight, is not currently in a polyamorous relationship with a person or persons. If he were, he would regard it as no more important than non-intimate friendships, because relationship anarchists treat romantic and non-romantic relationships the same.
“I had one woman have a go at me, saying, ‘It’s an awful way to treat women,’” James says. “But people don’t understand it’s not just about meeting women and having *** with them. I want to build deep connections with people and see them regularly. I just don’t want those connections to follow the same rules as traditional relationships.”
James tried monogamy, but found it “suffocating”. “I never understood monogamy, even when I was a kid. I’d think, ‘I fancy three people in my class.’”
“The thing I’ve always disliked about monogamy and marriage,” Sanson adds, “is the idea of owning another person and them being your other half or somehow completing you, like you weren’t complete before you met them. What I love about polyamory is that I’m my own person and no one owns me. I don’t own any of you, either. We’re all free.”
Polyamory is having a cultural moment right now, with celebrities such as Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith speaking about being non-monogamous, and the BBC drama Wanderlust depicting a middle-class couple as they open up their relationship. As anyone who lived through the 1960s, or who is from the LGBT community will tell you, polyamory is not new: free love or non-monogamy has been practised for years. But polyamory is now being adopted by people who might have been monogamous five or 10 years ago, not least because the internet makes it easier than ever for poly-curious people to educate themselves about polyamory, and connect with like-minded individuals.
“Things are changing rapidly,” says Janet Hardy, the co-author of the polyamory handbook The Ethical Slut. “More people are getting the idea that it’s possible to be happy and healthy without being monogamous. What I’m seeing among young people is that they don’t have the same need to self-define by what they like to do in bed, or in relationships, like my generation did. Everything’s out on a big buffet, and they try a little of everything.”
Polyamorous people reject the end game of romantic monogamy, and disdain so-called “relationship escalators”: society’s expectation that couples will cycle through #putaringonit selfies, marriage and kids. Instead, they let their relationships flow whither the current takes them, relinquishing themselves to the whorls and eddies that change all romantic partnerships over time. In our increasingly precarious times, it makes sense that polyamory is popular. “Growing up, you’re bombarded by all this messaging about what the perfect relationship set-up is,” Sanson says. “You’re going to have a family and buy a house and do this and that. But a lot of that isn’t relevant to my generation.”
Still, being polyamorous isn’t just a carefree romp. It requires you to unpick the messy yarn of human emotion, and that most familiar knot of all: jealousy. Perhaps the biggest myth of all about polyamorous people is that they don’t feel jealousy. “Jealousy is a part of human nature,” says 27-year-old William Jeffrey, a member of Sanson’s polycule. “You still feel it. But I’ve found with every jealousy I’ve ever had while being polyamorous, I’ve been able to trace the jealousy back to an insecurity about myself. When I figure out what the insecurity is, I can overcome it.”
A responsible polyamorous partner accepts the other person’s jealousy. “When I started dating someone else, my partner Laura expressed that she was feeling jealous,” says Mike Scoins, 28, also in the polycule. “So I told her: ‘I acknowledge your feelings. Can we unpack the fear that is underlying your jealousy?’ In this instance, it was something along the lines of: ‘Do you still care about me?’ When you provide reassurance that, yes, absolutely, I do still care, the jealousy dissipates.”
Is jealousy only ever the result of insecurity? “I’d say that’s too simplistic a view,” says Hardy. “I don’t think there’s one emotion you can call jealousy. I think jealousy is an umbrella we put over all of the emotions we find difficult that we want to quell by changing someone else’s behaviour.” In her introduction-to-polyamory workshops, Hardy asks participants to write a thank-you note to their jealousy. “It exists for a reason. Jealousy tries to protect you from something.”
Can you really vanquish the green-eyed monster with introspection and communication alone? “Some people are more prone to jealousy, and some people are less prone to it,” Hardy says. “If polyamory sounds unpleasant, don’t do it! There are no merit badges here.”
“I don’t really experience sexual jealousy,” Scoins muses. “My one experience of jealousy was when my then partner had two tickets for a ball and didn’t give me one.”
There’s a joke about polyamory: it didn’t take off until Google Calendar was invented. The polyamorous people I interview effortlessly manage packed schedules. Jeffrey, for instance, will meet once a week to play a Buffy the Vampire Slayer role-playing game with Scoins and the fourth member of their polycule, Laura Nevo. He also has a weekly date night with his live-in partner, as well as seeing Sanson and Nevo once a week.
While shows such as Wanderlust depict polyamory as a tumescent bonk-fest, in reality polyamorous people spend most of their time doing the deeply unsexy business of talking about their feelings. Sanson credits polyamory with giving her more emotional self-awareness. “Polyamory has allowed me to be more introspective, think about the motives behind what I’m doing, identify emotions more accurately and be explicit about how I’m feeling about things.”
Polyamory tends to unnerve people, affronting expectations of traditional romantic monogamy. It’s harder for polyamorous people to date: apps such as Tinder or Bumble don’t have options for non-monogamous people, for instance. When James writes in his Tinder bio that he is non-monogamous, he experiences a “significant dip in matches”. And when he tells prospective romantic partners he is polyamorous, it rarely goes down well. “One date told me, ‘I was really interested in you until you told me that.’”
Last New Year’s Eve, James went to a party in Sheffield, where he lives. When he walked in, heads swivelled. “They all went: ‘Is that the polyamorous one?’” James is weary of having to defend his way of life, and rightly so: consenting adults shouldn’t have to justify their *** lives to judgmental strangers. “Some people don’t recognise that what’s not right for them isn’t not right for other people,” he says. “I try to point out that it’s not harming anybody if it’s all open and honest.”
And monogamous people can learn from polyamory. Twenty-three-year-old Aliyah, who uses they/them pronouns, was polyamorous, but is currently in a monogamous relationship. They credit polyamory with giving them a healthier outlook on monogamy. “The way I was taught monogamy wasn’t healthy,” Aliyah says. “I’d have this constant paranoia of being cheated on.”
Polyamory made them better at monogamy. “I learned that monogamy doesn’t have to be as strict as we conceptualise it growing up,” they explain. “Before I felt that deep love should only be reserved for romantic connections. But being polyamorous taught me I have so much love for my friends, and that doesn’t have to be explored in a sexual context.”
As polyamory becomes more visible, it won’t be seen as such a tear in our social fabric, but as an ordinary and unremarkable thing. This will be down to the efforts of a new generation who are normalising their freedom to live and love how they want, without nose-wrinkling or head-shaking.
“My dad said to me to me the other day, ‘I’m worried about your emotional wellbeing, because you’re building relationships with these people,’” Sanson laughs. “And I was like, ‘I know! That’s the whole point.”
‘I always struggled with monogamy’: the insiders’ view of polyamory
Chiara Giovanni, 24, is in a relationship with two people. Her partner Aditya Sharad, 23, is monogamous.
Chiara: I always struggled with monogamy and found it quite restrictive. Even though I was super-happy in my relationships, I wasn’t able to be monogamous and faithful. I decided to take a different tack. When I met Aditya I thought, I love this person and want to make them happy, and I need to do this differently. So I was open from the start.
Ninety per cent of polyamory is talking. Sometimes I think, I want to watch a movie! I don’t want to talk about our relationship again. But it’s important to be able to express your fears, rather than waiting for the worst thing to happen.
I definitely think more people would be polyamorous if they knew what polyamory was, and that it wasn’t just a phase, but valid and long-term and serious. Right now, I’m setting up a time for Aditya to meet my other partner, who is based in the US. They are both super-nervous and really want the other person to like them. It’s really cute.
Aditya: At first, when a partner says, “I don’t think conventional relationship settings are working for me,” it’s hard to hear. While Chiari and I decided it would be a polyamorous relationship, I’m not a hugely social person, so it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to have multiple relationships. At the same time, I have a wonderful relationship with Chiara, who I really love. So I thought, let’s give this a try.
Jealousy is never the main feeling. Something may trigger the jealousy, but it’s not a primary feeling. You’ll be feeling insecure about something, and that’s what the jealousy is about. You have to communicate about your feelings, and accept you’re not going to be given all the time and attention in your relationship.
I do feel fulfilled. I wouldn’t have chosen to be poly myself, but I value Chiara. We have a joyous and uplifting relationship. So it’s not like her being polyamorous is a necessary evil. I’m just invested in what allows us to lead a life together, and what is important to her, and makes her happy.
If you’d told me about polyamory eight years ago I’d have been like, “What, really, that works?” But it does. You need to be intentional about it, but it can work.
Laura Nevo, 30, is part of a four-person polycule, along with William Jeffrey, Alex Sanson, and Mike Scoins.
I started polyamory as an experiment. I had been in monogamous relationships all my life, and when I met my partner Mike he was honest with me. He said: “I like you, but I’m going to carry on dating other people.” I thought, fair enough. I did some research into polyamory and began to date multiple people. In previous monogamous relationships, I’d cheat on my partners and feel guilty about it. I didn’t want that to happen again.
I’ve been dating Mike for two years and William for one year. I also hang out a lot with Alex, and there are other people I may have *** with. It gives me a lot of happiness to see my partners together, like William and Mike for example. It’s nice to be able to be happy for someone else, without having to be a part of their happiness.
Recently, I had a challenge because one of my partners became involved with someone I really didn’t connect with. I’m trying to work through that and not bottle things up. I used to suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem, but I’ve found that polyamory helps me a lot, as I have to really figure things out.
When someone new comes into our polycule, I’m extra careful of things. I think, how can we deal with this new person? How can we make them comfortable? Because it’s not nice to feel left out.
Being polyamorous has felt freeing for me. It has allowed me to meet people I wouldn’t have considered as partners before. I’ve been playing more on the gender spectrum. If I were to go back to monogamy one day, I think the experience of being polyamorous would make me more accepting of people and different types of relationships.
Andrea, 30, believes in ‘free and independent agency’
Coming out as non-monogamous is a very slow process, because it’s so hard to bring yourself to a point where you know that the other person might terminate the relationship. Some choose to cheat, but I wanted to be open to the person I loved.
When I came out as non-monogamous to my girlfriend at the time, she basically said: “I didn’t sign up for this. Why can’t I have the person I met back?” That really hurt, because I never wanted to cause her pain. But I can’t help being myself. We tried to make it work, but eventually we parted ways, because she was monogamous and I wasn’t. Everything else in the relationship worked, so that was really painful.
It’s important to be open and communicate about anyone new coming into the scene. If I’m at a party and I meet someone I want to bring home, I text Anita, who I have a romantic and sexual relationship with, and let her know. And my secret tool is Google Calendar. If I’m on a date and Anita wants to hang out, she can just check my calendar for the next available slot.