Hi! I’m John, and I’m happy to be joining the team here at Poly Chicago. I’ve been namelessly referenced a few times as “Caroline’s husband,” so whatever you may think of that guy, that’s me.
Caroline has already told much of the beginning of my poly story. This is more or less the version I break out at parties and Meetups whenever I’m asked how I came to consider myself poly. I enjoy talking about it, and using my favorite line about “getting on a plane monogamous and getting off the plane poly.” But it’s not the full story, and it doesn’t capture why identifying as poly is important to me.
It’s so easy to think of polyamory in terms of sex (“now I can sleep with anyone!”) or in terms of dating (“now I can have a girlfriend!”). And when I first started exploring poly, I thought of it more or less in those terms. I realized early on that sex-centric, swinger-type relationships weren’t going to be my style, but my first poly relationship looked very much like all of my previous monogamous relationships had looked. We went on a couple dates; we hooked up; and soon we were using words like dating and boyfriend and girlfriend and seeing each other nearly every day. If we hadn’t each been married, it would have been indistinguishable from any other relationship I’d had, and for the first few months this partner was the only polyamorous relationship I had besides Caroline.
This is a model that I think is particularly typical for newbies who find poly the way we did. I have a new-to-poly-friend who says she can’t date anyone else right now because she already has a boyfriend (in addition to her husband). I half-jokingly refer to her as biamorous. And of course, while it’s true that for many people this is a first step on a journey to eventual polyamory, it’s equally true that there are plenty of experienced folk for whom this model is best long-term, too. I think that’s a great solution for them, just as I think monogamy is a great solution for others. But even as I was involved in my own biamorous relationship, something about the model still didn’t feel right for me.
I started thinking about some of the less traditional relationships I’d seen – people who were perfectly content having friends with benefits, say, or having an intimate relationship with someone they might only see once a month or less. I’d never seriously considered any of these relationship styles because as a monogamous person I had to just choose one, and the more socially typical life-partner-with-kids model had always appealed to me more. But as a poly person, it made perfect sense that different relationships could fit different models. Indeed, if we’re being honest with ourselves, they should.
This was a freeing idea, and as I explored it more fully I came to the same conclusion that lots of other poly people have: that the best way to decide what form a relationship should take is to let the relationship dictate what form is most natural for it. Deborah Anapol is a particular champion for this idea (when I read the introduction to her most recent book I think I started cheering), and it’s wonderful. But there’s a logical extension of this idea that I think polyamorous people don’t talk about nearly enough.
One of my best friends in high school was a girl named Erin. From the early days of our relationship, we somehow were able to connect on a deep level despite lacking the tools to communicate about it the way we can now. We rocked out to George Michael together, we laid with our heads in each other’s laps while we studied, we walked to a city park at 1AM to swing on the swings and talk about life. And when someone once asked us whether we were dating, Erin and I laughed together for five minutes straight. We had an obvious attraction and love for each other, but even without discussing it we both found the suggestion that it might be sexual absurd.
Our poly community generally frames polyamory in terms of sexual freedom. We find kindred spirits in nonmonogamy, and swinging, and kink. Obviously in some ways this makes sense, and of course sex positivity is a crucial aspect of our movement. But in other ways I think it does us a disservice. Polyamory absolutely involves sexual freedom, but to me it’s not about sexual freedom. It’s about the freedom to let our relationships become anything they want to become. Sometimes, that’s about sex. Sometimes it’s about nothing but sex. And sometimes it’s about falling in love with someone you would never think to kiss in a million years.
I think of Erin as my first polyamorous relationship. Plenty of people would disagree with that assessment because it was nonsexual; those same people would point at me today and say that I’m only in one relationship, my marriage with Caroline. And if they drew my poly web, I’d only have one connecting line. But to me, the point of being polyamorous isn’t to have sex with everybody. It’s to allow my relationships with the people I love to blossom and be intimate in the way that best fits us.
Erin and I were both single when we met; we had the freedom to have any kind of relationship we could imagine. When I was in a monogamous marriage, I lost that freedom in two ways. First, I couldn’t have had that relationship because very few marriages would be comfortable with the emotional intimacy, or the quantity of time, that Erin and I shared. But more importantly, I couldn’t have had that relationship because I didn’t have the freedom to let my relationships grow in whatever way was most natural to them. Somewhere that relationship would have hit an arbitrary boundary- or we would have worried that it might – and a shared intimacy would have been lost.
I have more than one friendship today that looks much like my friendship with Erin. I have regular, intimate, one-on-one time with these friends; we’re physically intimate in nonsexual ways; and my being poly has opened these friendships up to a shared emotional intimacy that wouldn’t be possible if I were monogamously married. I may not be “dating” these friends, but when I think of my poly web in my mind, I include them. And when I do inevitably start another sexual relationship down the road, I will work to ensure these relationships don’t suffer as a result. Because they’re really poly relationships too, and they’re no less important or committed than the sexual ones.
This, to me, is the extension of Deborah Anapol’s idea: if being polyamorous means giving our relationships the freedom to be anything, it also means giving them the freedom to not look like our expectations of polyamory. Or, for that matter, to veer into polyfidelity, biamory, or even monogamy. This freedom is at the heart of what polyamory is about. And it’s why, no matter what my relationships look like, I will always think of myself as poly.