Yohan’s Guide to Polyamory

  • What to Expect from This Workshop
    • This workshop will mostly be structured as a formal lecture and is intended to equip us with a wide arsenal of key concepts, examples, and practical tools for growing and taking care of healthy interpersonal gardens. I highly encouraging following this workshop with a participatory one in the form of discussions in small group where everyone can engage, share, and get feedback on their own experiences, insecurities, and difficulties regarding polyamory.
    • The workshop should be easy to follow but slightly overwhelming for people new to the entire polyamory thing. The folkx expected to benefit most from the workshop are those who are a little familiar with polyamory or who started exploring it recently. For you experienced polyamorous folkx out there, the workshop will likely not be groundbreaking, but should provide you with at least a couple of new conceptual handles for understanding and verbalizing obscure dynamics, feelings, and concepts.
    • In this workshop, we’ll start by quickly reviewing the core ideological values of polyamory and how different ideologies converged towards it. Then we’ll overview some definitions of key concepts, common types polyamorous relationships, and the challenges and perks of polyamory. After which, I’ll share from my own experience what is needed to nurture a fertile emotional soil, how to grow meaningful connections, and how to make those connections flourish in fulfilling relationships. Finally, we’ll dive in the topic of jealousy—yes, I know—and quickly explore some exercises for understanding it better.
  • Core Ideological Values
    • Being more connected to our feelings, needs, and desires, and furthermore being able to identify, accept, and voice them.
    • Dismissing the idea that our needs must be fulfilled by only one person.
    • Dismissing the idea of owning anyone, and that anything is owed to you.
    • Having the freedom to explore many kinds of love and types of relationships, and to co-create those intentionally and mindfully.
  • Ideological Convergence Towards Polyamory
    • More or less recently, polyamory became a point of convergence of many rather distinct ideological perspectives and groups, namely the hippie, feminist, libertarian, anarchist, intentional living communities, and BDSM movements. While those movements are definitely not mutually exclusive—and sometimes valued as a bundle as it is the case in some intentional communities—it is nevertheless fascinating to explore the path that lead each of them to polyamory.
    • Polyamory (as opposed to polygamy) has its roots in the Free Love movement of the sixties. The movement valued the acceptance of all forms of love and claimed that only the people concerned by sexual matters were the ones involved in it. In other words, that institutions, social norms, and other individuals did not have their say about ways in which people explore love amongst themselves. The intertwinement between the Free Love movement and the Hippie movement is left as an exercise for the reader.
    • More recently, the feminist movements have been a  powerful force in socially legitimizing ethical, consensual non-monogamy and may arguably have forged the foundations of what is now referred to as polyamory. Their struggle for individual empowerment and body positivity lead those movements to encourage the breaking down of gender roles and the praise of individual choice regarding who to be and with whom, how to live and how to love.
    • In anarchist circles, polyamory is generally well perceived and oft practiced as it nicely fits with many core anarchist values such as independence, lack of ownership, non-hierarchy, and free association. Viewed in this light, it is actually monogamy that can be seen conflicting with anarchist values.
    • In parallel, many libertarian and often tech-related circles (self-help, hacking, transhumanist, and start-up subcultures among others) have adopted polyamory as common practice. As I understand it, they have approached it from the intellectual angle of asking if there was better relationship models than the monogamous one we were raised in. My guess is that having already put into question the status quo, those groups which found no solid grounding in favor of monogamy naturally developed towards polyamory.
    • Intentional living communities have likely been ahead of the game due to their general tendency to transgress many societal norms, the close proximity between their members, their members’ generally high openness to experience, and their more “hippie” roots.
    • The BDSM community, in my opinion the most experienced in practicing and enforcing consent, seem to also have been acquainted with polyamory for quite a while.
    • Now a question remains: Is polyamory is getting more and more popular in our society because many of our basic human needs are not being met and we are thus coming up with clever rationalizations to make it socially acceptable, or because it is the logical conclusion of many recent insightful perspectives? Pick an answer subscribing to your favorite ideology.
  • Key Concepts
    • You know what’s great of having this be “Yohan’s Guide To Polyamory”? I get to define the concepts however I wish. And it feels amazing.
    • Polyamory: I’m using my wild card here and tell you: a relationship that engages with the four core ideological values of polyamory.
    • Polygamy: The official definition is: “The practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time.” I’ll add that it usually refers to practices happening in traditional and often religious contexts. Every polyamorous person I know make a clear distinction between that and polyamory.
    • Open Relationships: This one I’m opinioned about. If you’re coming from a region where there are barely any people in non-monogamous relationships, then I think the term “open relationship” can be interchangeably used with polyamory. However, in places like Montreal with a ridiculously massive amount of people exploring non-monogamy, I am tempted to associate the concept of “open relationship” with otherwise monogamous couples who want to explore something new all while keeping their relationship the same. For instance, I don’t remember hearing: “Oh, and by the way, I’m in six open relationships.”
    • Typical Relationship: A coined term for whatever is socially understood as the default type of socially acceptable intimate relationship. In it is encoded a way to act depending on how you were socialized by your sex, the concepts of loyalty, of the nuclear family ideal, and basically all the cultural baggage everyone was brought up with, and the expectations derived from it.
    • Feelings: A mental understanding of how one feels, of what emotions are felt within the body.
    • Desire: A strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.
    • Needs: Something necessary to live a healthy life. When talking about human needs, it refers to bottom level needs, like the need for freedom or of belonging. I’m sorry, but ice cream is not considered necessary to live a healthy life—though food is.
    • Expectations: In the context of relationships, actions and interactions of a person on which you intentionally or not rely on. Expectations are not inherently good or bad.
    • Commitment: An assurance you give someone about something in your control that they can rely on.
    • Boundaries: My own definition goes like so: That which when we push further we grow, but when we cross, we risk hurting ourselves and others.
    • Consent: In my own words, consent is reached when all parties involved are in an emotional and physical disposition where they can have full awareness of a situation and of their own desires, needs, and boundaries, as well as being fully able to express those and having them respected. It applies to physical (touching), emotional (being vulnerable), and situational contexts (exploring something dangerous).
    • Communication: In the context of emotional discussion, having a good communication with someone is always having the possibility for clear exchange where everyone can be honest and vulnerable with themselves and the other about (at least) their feelings, needs, desires, and expectations, feels comfortable doing so, and be well received by the listener.
    • Tell Culture: In response to the Ask and Guess Culture, the Tell Culture is about sharing what’s going on in your own mind whenever you suspect you’d both benefit from them knowing without assuming that others will accurately model your mind without your help, as well as interpreting things you hear as attempts to create common knowledge for shared benefit, rather than as requests or as presumptions of compliance.
    • Jealousy: May be a harsh definition, sue me: A specific cluster of insecurities raised by unhealthy aspects of a relationship.
    • Compersion: The feeling of joy associated with seeing two of one’s sexual or romantic partners having a sexual or romantic relation between them, coined as antonym of (sexual or romantic) jealousy.
    • Insecurities: No escaping this one though: Uncertainties, fears, or anxiety reaching far within oneself, often taking us off guard and revealing themselves in the worse possible contexts.
    • Intentionality: In relationships, to engage with each other because we want and chose to, rather than by habit, pressure, or convenience.
    • Primary/Secondary Partner: Qualification used to distinguish different degrees of relationships with people, usually referring to the emotional and logistic involvement, as well as the people who partake in deciding the relationship’s ground.
    • Polycule: A romantic network, or a particular subset of relationships within a romantic network, whose members are closely connected.
    • Metamour: Someone who is your partner’s partner, but with whom you have no romantic relationship.
    • Polyamorous Mindset: A term I coined to refer to an approach one has that values and enacts polyamory’s approach to relationships, whether or not one is in a polyamorous relationship.
    • Introspexual: A word I made up to talk about the attraction one feels towards people’s introspective abilities.
    • Date: You may disagree with this definition, but hey, you don’t make the rules: Going to see someone you’re attracted to, usually one on one. Feelings need not to be mutual, nor need they know you’re attracted to them.
    • Lover: Someone with whom the mutual attraction has been explicated and acted upon.
  • Types of Polyamorous Relationships
    • People first hearing about polyamory often visualize three people dating each other. While that model is not rare per se, it definitely does not constitute the bulk of types of existing polyamorous relationship. As the saying goes, there’s as many types of polyamorous relationships as there are people in them. You get to co-create and define your ideal relationship from all parts with your partner(s) in a way that best accommodates and fulfills everyone involved. If you’ve figured out a relationship type that works for you and your partner(s), then you’ve pretty much made it!
    • Many factors come into play in determining the type of polyamorous relationship one gets into. Taken together, these factors amount to a number of possible combinations and give rise to a variety of types of polyamorous relationship, depending on each individual’s:
      • Identity (gender and personality among others);
      • Attraction and relational preferences (sexual, sensual, affectionate, platonic, romantic, aesthetic, intellectual);
      • Life circumstances (internal and external);
      • Energy level (mental, physical, emotional, relational);
      • Commitment (support, presence, communication, time, projects, activities etc.);
      • Feelings, needs, desires, boundaries and expectations regarding themselves and their partner(s);
      • Understanding of the dynamic between them and their partner(s), and must often be redefined with time.
    • Despite the wide range of possible polyamorous relationships, those can generally be clustered in a few notable categories:
    • Hierarchical polyamory refers to polyamorous relationships which include primary and secondary partners, sometimes with a primary having veto power over other relationships. I’ve heard of some relationships of the kind where partners were allowed to have romance but not sex with other people, and others still where partners were allowed to have sex with other people but not to engage in other romantic relationships.
    • Non-hierarchical polyamory is what you’d expect of polyamorous relationships developing freely without primary and secondary partners.
    • The term polyfidelity is commonly used to talk about an intimate polyamorous structure where all members are considered equal and primary partners. These are called triads (or throuple) when involving three people, and quads when involving four.
    • I’ve heard some people referring to being solo poly to mean that their relationships wont escalate to a different status with time (moving in together, getting married, sharing finances, etc.), others to mean that they simultaneously have many one-on-one relationships and that their lovers don’t necessarily know each other–but are very aware and approving of their metamours existence, and yet others to mean that they indentify as polyamorous but currently single.
    • I’ve also witnessed the term relationship anarchist being ascribed various meanings: no relationship had precedence over another (platonic or otherwise), no romantic relationship has precedence over another, as well as a politically engaged relationship model which actively rejects all forms of hierarchy.
  • Challenges
    • If you were ever told polyamory was effortless, I’m sorry but you were lied to. Now it will definitely be (significantly) easier for some people than for others, but it does require some amount of emotional work, at the very least to get acquainted with it. And then when you think you’ve gotten on top of things, life is always around the corner waiting to throw some unexpected situation at you. Fortunately, that gives you an opportunity to grow as a person!
    • There’s a saying in polyamorous groups that if someone wants a lot of sex, engaging in polyamory is the worst possible solution they could of come up with: of all the many, many ways to have passionate and consensual sex with people, polyamory is the most demanding in terms of effort, time, and energy, and will take a lot of attending to the other people’s emotional needs in order to develop and maintain healthy relationships. But hey, if you’re all into lovey-dovey romance, polyamory may well be your jam.
    • Now for the challenges! Possibly one of the toughest challenge out there is around child-rearing in polyamorous relationships, doubly so when not in a community context. I don’t have answers to this. I personally removed myself from this entire challenge by getting a vasectomy at age 21. Ten out of ten would recommend and do again. For those of you with penises, don’t wait till it’s too late and do get yourself fixed for a worry-free lifetime! For those of you with uteruses and a spare $5’000, don’t forget that medical tourism is a thing.
    • Part of this relates to polyamorous relationships being inherently more unstable than monogamous ones because a) there’s an exponentially growing number of relations coming into play as the number of people involved increases, b) all those people have feelings as well, c) each is encouraged to engage with how they feel rather than steamrolling over their feelings, d) polycules where people are vulnerable, compassionate, and transparent with each other leads to a strong emotional contagiousness of emotions (positive and negative) through the web of relationships connecting them, and e) having things be out in the open for discussion encourages further questioning that would otherwise be taboo, thus leading to more uncertainty. This instability contributes to making the following scenarios challenging:
    • Opening up a monogamous relationship must be the scenario with the highest failure rate. In my understanding, the first main reason for this is that monogamous couples wanting to explore non-monogamy have already developed emotional and relational habits that fulfils their needs with minimal introspection and self-improvement requirement. When the structure of the relationship is subjected to change, the partners’ habits—formerly source of security and comfort—are undermined and now become a source of stress and insecurities. The second reason, obvious in retrospective, is asking why people really want to open up their couple. Is one of the partners not satisfied with the relationship as it is and opening up the relationship seems like a smaller sacrifice than dropping it entirely—especially since it is now considered trendy in some circles to be polyamorous? Gosh I don’t know! But do continue opening up your couples some more!
    • Related to the previous challenge but also applicable to relationships which started as polyamorous, is facing the unnerving fact of one partner being monogamous. They may always have known this, thought it could have changed with time, or may have discovered it just recently. It doesn’t matter. Now the cat is out of the box and the issue has to be addressed by everyone involved.
    • And now, for a general one: Personal needs, desires, boundaries and—surprise, surprise—feelings actually change with time. Sometimes they don’t change much. Sometimes, they change in the same direction as your partner’s. And yet sometimes—for better or worse—they take a direction of their own. Better arm yourself with patience, compassion, and a whole truckload of communication for this one!
    • Complementing the previous challenge though not always easily distinguishable from it: noticing a change in your partner’s capacity to fulfill your needs or desires (or to respect your boundaries). Maybe give them a heads-up before having this conversation with them, and do­ leave yourselves ways to evacuate your emotions before, during, and after the conversation.
    • Living together with partners is a no-brainer here. It’s hard enough living with roommates, adding romance, intimacy and/or sex is ultimately increasing the complexity of the challenge. One reason for this is that one of the partners may bring other lovers home and this may be emotionally intense for people struggling with jealousy or feelings of abandonment. Another less thought-of reason is that the interactions between partners become less intentional and more the result of habit—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it takes work to successfully navigate. Living with partners is definitely not unpleasant or undoable, but you’d better start enjoying long conversations right away!
    • Attending social events with partners may also be a source of challenge as everyone’s attention is dispersed and not necessarily towards partners. You or your partner may meet other human beings and flirt with each other in front of your partner(s), and hopefully this is dealt with well. Also, metamours may meet each other which may be awkward because as a culture, we don’t yet have social norms for how to interact with metamours. But we’ll get there. Eventually.
    • Another challenge that may suddenly arise is having a polyamorous relationship being disturbed by a particularly bonding one. One of you meet this new person and is completely infatuated with them and spends a whole lot of time with them and, well, we’ve all got twenty four hours in a day and not everyone spends it casually reading books at home—though many of us may like to. So then, maybe the person spends less time with their other partner(s), talks about this marvelous new person all the time, or isn’t emotionally present when they’re with their other partners. Checking-in on how everyone’s feeling and where everyone feels emotionally is probably a really good idea if this situation arises.
    • In triads or quads, everyone has a relationship with at least two other folkx. If one person’s feelings change towards another within the polycules, that challenges the equilibrium previously reached, making the maintaining of these kinds of relationships more effortful (but no less fruitful!).
    •  Very much related to the previous challenge, but applicable in all polyamorous relationship is having negative feelings towards a metamour. Whether it was like that from the start or developed slowly with time, the resentment towards this person may impede on how you relate with your partner, often accentuating personal insecurities and sometimes involving heated conversations with your partner—though hopefully not.
    • A final scenario many people find themselves in is having polyamory not being accepted in their social circles (friends, family, coworkers). By coming out to them as polyamorous, one may face rejection thus thrusting the person to weight whether they want to be honest with them or not, and in some cases even weight whether they want to engage in polyamory for this very reason. If this is your case, I’m sorry. There’s no right way out, and each will bring its challenges. Be brave!
    • All these scenarios can be understood as adding extra opportunities for miscommunication and for insecurities to rise to the surface. They can come alone, or they may present themselves in bulk—often uninvited. We can easily imagine examples where these scenarios pile up until we actually get to pity the people involved. But they shouldn’t deter you from exploring polyamory. Or rather, if they do, maybe that’s for your own good, and that’s fine! What I really mean is that if you feel confident about facing these challenges, or if the pull of polyamory is too strong for you to do otherwise, then let there be polyamory!
  • Perks (The Totally Awesome Stuff)
    • Okay now we’re into the nice stuff. These are the things we’re sold by polyamorous folkx trying to convince us it’s all great and wonderful. What are these you ask? These are the relationships we’d all hope to have. I’m taking about those passionate, intentional, fulfilling, honest, authentic, mindful, consensual, caring, meaningful, transparent, easy-flowing, and trusting relationships. Those we dream about when we go to bed at night. Those we were dreaming of as kinds before life hit us hard. Well let me tell you: they exist. They are possible. And they’re fucking great!
    • Someone I hold close to heart spoke of this best: “I had a friend a while back who asked me why I put myself through it. Why would I want to bring up my feelings of insecurity and mistrust over and over again? Why would I put myself and my fella through that? Well, I can say, now that I’m just about on the other side of it, it’s because it held me back. My jealousy only served to push people away from me, when I most needed them to be close. My shame kept me from looking at myself. My life-long history with this problem kept me from living a much better and more full life.”
    • It’s also about getting to know someone for who they really are with all their beautiful qualities but also with all their fears and insecurities and all those things we all wish weren’t part of us—and still love them. Our love is then based on who they are, not how they are.
  • Nurturing a Fertile Emotional Soil
    • It is good practice to engage more with how we are feeling by noticing and identifying what physical sensations we feel in our body, what feelings these sensations relate to, what event or state of mind brought about those feelings, how that relates to which needs of ours have or have not been met, and whether or not we want to perpetuate this causal chain or change it to something else—but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Introspecting regularly to notice what we currently desire and where our boundaries lay is also a healthy exercise. All this relates to noticing and identifying the emotional things that happen inside of us.
    • The second part is acknowledging that this is what we feel. To accept it. Why, you ask? Because “what is true is already so and owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Just as not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with” (Eugene Gendlin). Accepting it does not mean approving of it. It just means that we recognize what things are happening within us. Only when we understand such things may we choose to change ourselves—and succeed.
    • The third part is voicing it to the people close to us as honestly, transparently, and non-violently as possible. The quicker we can notice, identify and accept [whatever is happening inside of us], the quicker we are in a position to share it with our loved ones, thus defusing most conflicts or misunderstandings before they even arise.
  • Growing Meaningful Connections
    • I entertain a personal awe for the all the times love finds its way into someone’s heart. I find it beautiful, the light it shines on people’s face, the fueled flame that irradiates from their hearts, the lightness of mind it brings them. But what I find even more breath taking is a shared love, one acted on. In so, polyamory does miracles, permitting love to be lived wherever and however it presents itself, in a healthy and fulfilling way, by creating the ground for intentional and conscious relationships to develop themselves, where each moment spent together is not the result of habit or duty, but rather sprout from a desire to exist with another. Whereas one may be said to fall in love, polyamory permits you to stand in love, to find independence in love.
    • In so, I find beautiful everything in the domain of love that happens between two or more people for whatever it is (passion, intimacy, friendship, companionship, shared gazes, etc.) and for the time it lasts (hours, days, months, years, a lifetime) as long as it’s consenting (obviously), and that the commitment is reciprocal.
    • I find that the word “commitment” is an umbrella term referring to many things. Thus, when I talk about commitment, I distinguish between six types of commitment:
      1. Commitment in presence: Committing to being present, really present in the moment with someone when you see each other.
      1. Commitment in support: Committing to supporting the person whenever she feels the need. Stating outright that you can be relied on.
      1. Commitment in communication: This one may take a little more energy, but in my experience is totally worth it: Committing to always consciously take the time to communicate and do so non-violently as if the relationship would last forever.
      1. Commitment in time: Committing to maintaining the relationship for a certain amount of time.
      1. Commitment in actions/activities: Committing to do actions to or activities with a person. Includes keeping contact by text/call/in person with someone a certain amount of times a day/week/month, keeping each other up to date to daily events, or regularly doing activities together.
    • I personally only commit to the first two in all romantic relationships but the ones with whom I live: then I don’t commit to being completely present with them every time I see them, because living with other roommates would then be hard.
    • Polyamory is about having the freedom to co-create and live those relationships. Whereas the sky is (currently) the hard limit, your imagination and dedication is the softer limit which can always be transcended.
  • Maintaining Flourishing Relationships
    • A most important part in keeping alive the relationships we love is about how we are receiving others. It never hurts to be in a benevolent state of mind of welcoming the other. To be present with them and attentive to how they are feeling, what are trying to say despite their words. To be there with our hearts, not our minds. To welcome people’s vulnerability and to acknowledge the courage it takes to open up.
    • Check-ins may be of the most important things you could be doing to your partner a) when you think it might be important to, b) when you don’t know how they are feeling, and c) more often than you’re probably doing it. They permit everyone involved to feel cared for, and to express how it is they are feeling, and whether their loved ones can do anything about it.