Listening to Polyamory

Double Spoon 2 (detail) by Stasia Burrington

As more relationships open, I wanted to learn if this can be a spiritual practice for growing love.

Last New Year’s Eve, I decided to commit to accomplishing what I wanted most: to have a red-hot love affair—with Love itself. Love Actualized was the name of the game, love of self, love in relationship, love of community, and love of work. Rather than keep trying to better myself in one way or another to attract the mate I wanted, so I could experience the love I wanted, I decided to take the bull by the horns and live a life in love.

I had exhausted the Cinderella story (someday my Prince will come), had buried the Sleeping Beauty narrative (another version of the story that there is someone outside myself who can rescue me), and intentionally hunted down and killed every single paradigm that informed me that the only way I could experience true happiness, deep fulfillment, and physical pleasure was through a relationship. What I realized is that I had been living in a state of impoverished imagination, thinking that being in relationship was the only place where I could give and receive the love I wanted.

And it worked!

When I refocused my attention on experiencing love wherever I was and with whomever I was with, I was able to receive love from places I hadn’t before: in a deeper way from my family and friends and through my everyday interactions with strangers. And it even made me deal with the angst of my fellow drivers in a different way. But while I was living my life from a more empowered platform, there was no escaping the wisdom Rilke immortalized: “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

So when a friend of mine said she was receiving more love than she ever had in her life through a polyamorous relationship, and that she had finally found a container to explore love in ways that was expanding her comprehension and capacity of love—what can I say, my interest was piqued. Polyamory has plenty of positive and negative associations, and like many philosophies, means very different things to different people. For simplicity, we’ll define it as the practice of having romantic relationships with more than one person, where everyone involved knows about the other lovers. Truth be told, I have been a merciless judge of this kind of relationship. It was hard not to wonder if polyamory is just an escape from the trials and tribulations of a “real” relationship, one that ends up being an escape from the state of the world itself—given the amount of time I witnessed my polyamorous friends spend scheduling and coordinating dates with their partners and their metamours (their partner’s lovers or partners). Not to mention the level of processing and negotiating involved in between. Polyamory seemed an all-consuming distraction in a world that has real problems to solve.

Then a friend confided that she and her husband had opened their relationship so she could take a lover. She went on to explain that she and her husband were committed to staying together and parenting their child, and yet had concluded that their sexual desires were unfulfilled. This woman broke every stereotype that I might have had about polyamory: she was a successful and well-respected leader in her field, completely committed to her work and her family—and her own full expression of her sexuality. They developed guidelines, and were both allowed to take on lovers. In addition to enlivening her sexuality, she felt more empowered in her work life, and she and her husband were having the best sex of their lives. I started to wonder if this might be an awakened path.

Does It Take a Village?

Of course this isn’t anything new. The open marriage movement has been around for plenty of time: the free love movement of the ’sixties still resonates through the music of that time. I live in the Bay Area, so first I convened a few of my elders to find out why the free love movement of the ’sixties didn’t take root—and the overwhelming response was that they simply didn’t have the skills or the tools to manage such a massive paradigm shift in relationships. Many returned to monogamy. I also wondered how many people today practice polyamory, and it turns out that no one knows. In an article published in Psychology Today last year, Elizabeth Scheff estimated that 1.2 to 2.4 million Americans live in polygamous relationship, and perhaps 9.8 million live as couples with agreements to allow satellite lovers. Scheff notes that the Internet has made it much easier for polyamorous people to find each other, but it’s also a group that’s still for various reasons in the closet. But it’s a movement that is slowing coming out, simply because sex and relationships are continuing to go through a massive transformation.

We have taken sex out of biology,” explains psychotherapist Esther Perel, who has been writing and speaking about our current society’s relationship to eroticism, intimacy, and desire in the modern-day relationship. “This is the first time in human history where we have created a model of relationships where we have a sexuality that is rooted in desire. We are not having sex so we can have six children … and we are not having sex because it is a woman’s marital duty. … Due to the women’s movement, the gay revolution, sex has been socialized so it’s no longer a part of our condition, but a part of our identity.”

Perel also says that the shift in our modern culture away from communal living has had a devastating effect on our intimate relationships. “This is a grand experiment of the human kind. We want companionship, economic support, social status, family life. And then a best friend, a confidant, a passionate lover, and for a few decades to go.” We are asking one person to do what a village used to provide.

I then invited a group of people—many of them relationship coaches and all of them people who have sustained multiple intimate relationships and consider polyamory a part of their spiritual path—to describe what their new village looks like. My first lesson was that the term polyamory isn’t loved by all. Many prefer to use the term exclusivity for monogamy, and nonmonogamy or open relationship for polyamory.

So What Is It Really?

Greg Callahan said, “At its core, it is about living in the container of a relationship that is absent of fear and control.”

David Imiri, a relationship coach, explained, “Poly is a paradigm that supports embodied sensibilities. But you aren’t just trying to go with every impulse. You are trying to do it with care and love because that is what feels most deeply right. But you are making it up as you go along. The ‘mechanics’ of it is to pay attention and resist nothing; to stay present, authentic, caring, and responsive. I find this not only sufficient, but rewarding beyond anything else I’ve tried or heard about.”

Melani shared, “At first I didn’t know that loving multiple people was my path. My husband brought the idea to me seven years ago, and in deciding to stay with him or not, I had to dig down to see if I could get aligned with this or not. In the exploration I discovered I didn’t want to constrict love in any shape or form, and I didn’t want to be an influence of constriction in him. At first he was the only one who explored other relationships, but then I also fell in love with another man. I am continually blown away and grateful for the lessons that arise as the result of being in an open relationship.”

Equally but Differently

Relationship coach Phillipe Lewis explained, “Polyamory has been in existence forever: it happens between parents and their children in a natural way—they love their children equally but differently.”

Imiri went on, “There are different kinds of inner work that come more to the forefront in each style of relationship, but we all have to work for our wholeness and awakening no matter what kind of relationship we choose. People come into relationships from both healthy and wounded places in themselves. In exclusivity I see people clutching their partner for security, for self-esteem, or to reach for spiritual connection or an experience of union. They want to extract that experience through their partner or relationship, and that is misplaced longing. . . . And with polyamory, you’ll find people who have issues with commitment, consistency, follow-through, showing up emotionally consistently, escaping into one peak experience or another, or running from one form of fascination to another—they can avoid issues that require deep intimacy.

But none of this has to be how we do either love style. The Sufi’s have a saying, ‘The heart that can be broken is not the true heart anyway, so break me, now.’ So the opportunity is to stop seeking to extract security, self-esteem, and unity through a partner or a relationship.”

Is Monogamy More Secure?

Bertram says no. “Monogamy sometimes only provides the illusion of safety when it is a container that doesn’t stand for truth, growth, transparency about desire, and an equal focus on self-love, and so it may result in dishonesty, sexual frustration, lying, cheating, and ultimately often separation and divorce. Plenty of people desire to live in the illusion of safety. Of course there is Conscious Monogamy where you are still in truth and transparency with your desire—you just don’t act on it outside of the container of the relationship and instead find ways to channel that desire in healthy ways within the relationship.”

Imiri adds, “Some people live in structures because that makes them feel safe. But as soon as you try to control something that way, you’re creating a false sense of refuge. It’s not Buddha or Sanga, it’s your imagination. I’m a big fan of containers and commitments, but I like them to be flexible and reflect what has already arisen organically.”

Relationship coach Lorina Manzanita highlighted that context does not always define the value of content. “I let go of expectations and agendas as to where a relationship needs to go in order to be valuable. My various relationships don’t quite seem to fit into the binary categories of dating vs. sleeping with another. I’ve had profoundly meaningful, loving, and transformative one-night stands. I’ve had seriously satisfying relationships that consisted of mostly cuddle dates. My current, almost six-year partnership is deep and beautiful and we both have no idea whether we are going to want to be with each other in 10 years’ time. So many different forms can arise out of that ground of relating.”

Not So Simple Logistics

While there may be an infinite amount of love to go around, time is still finite, so one question I asked was, “How do you manage it?”

Most of the people I spoke with explained there really wasn’t a typical week, but Melani, a mother of two who is in committed relationships with two men, gave me an extensive calendar that broke down time with herself, time with her husband, time with her lover, time with her children, time with her husband and her children, and time with her lover and her children. Philippe explained he spent two nights a week with his wife, two nights a week with one of his lovers, one night a week out on a date, and one night babysitting while his wife was out with her lover.

Dealing with Desire

While loving many people in your life at once may be the norm, what is noticeably different is that the open loving relationship model plays by a different set of rules: where the guidelines make space for desire for others to be spoken about and acted upon.

Imiri explained, “Whenever we desire, what we really want is a feeling, not a form. We can have our needs for love, care, nurturing met in any relationship, or many relationships. The less mature version of polyamory is obsessed with rules to go by, versus trusting in transparency and care as the guide. When you are coming at your relationships from a basis of awakening, you can find your realistic love for your partner(s), and stay allies to each other.”

The “Hungry Ghost”

Manzanita explains that she tracks when her partner’s impulses are coming from wholeness, and when his impulses are coming from the “hungry ghost,” or deficiencies:

He tracks it too, and he values my reflections. Two things might look like the exact same actions, but depending where an action is coming from it can have an entirely different effect in the field. If we don’t acknowledge that we are potentially trying to fill a hole, through more love and more sex, it can have an addictive pattern. So I find that it’s important to track those hungry ghost tendencies and to strive to come from wholeness.”

Lewis explained, “There are shadows to polyamory: it can attract people who can’t commit, and people who can’t get enough love. That empty feeling never gets filled, and eventually you have to see yourself as the common denominator. The path is to recognize where the desire you are expressing is coming from. You might meet someone and really want to be intimate with them—and it might be because you’re naturally loving, or because you have a need that has to be filled. Knowing what the proportions are is part of the discovery of who we are and what we are made of.”

Pain & Rejection

While having multiple lovers can clearly provide an abundance of intimate relating, it can also provide an abundance of opportunities for your lover to want to be with someone else. Rejection, pain, unmet desires, jealousy, and suffering all seem ripe for the picking. I asked about that.

Manzanita shared, “When it comes to the kind of human love that involves deep, beautiful, vulnerable attachments—well, I don’t think there is any way of escaping some degree of pain in that form of love. When I can accept that pain is an inherent part of that picture, bring my awareness to the uncomfortable, vulnerable feelings as they arise, and simultaneously deepen my connection with Source Love—when I do that, I find I don’t get caught up in unnecessary suffering. I move through the painful feelings with a lot more grace. This is all of course easier said than done. It’s a practice. It’s a practice that is well worth it. When I do my practices my love life consistently thrives.”

Imiri explained, “When you are triggered is when you understand that the feelings are really your own. ‘This is my jealousy.’ Or I can turn this around and choose compassion, or even find joy in my partner’s happiness, knowing that the happiness and love she experiences with her other partner will also come back to ultimately feed our relationship and she may even be more resourced for our relationship. We even have a word for that: compersion. This elevates real love and care about her happiness over fear, and shows a trust that the happiness and love she experiences with her other partner will always come back to feed our relationship, and leave her more resourced there as well.”

Bertram said, “We are conditioned to think that jealousy is normal. We are so used to the Hollywood story where guy sees a sexy woman, and then the woman he is with gets mad, and they end up in a tailspin.” He continued, “When I am with our group of friends, I am often in both love and desire for every woman in the room. Desire can be nuanced—I feel a different level of attraction and flavor of love for different kinds of people. I receive being able to express what I feel as a huge gift. I am both part of and in deep admiration of the brotherhood of men in the room, who can hold and celebrate this new kind of conversation. And desires can be expressed, without having to go anywhere. It is about establishing trust through transparency—and transmuting shame and guilt simultaneously.”

Melani said, “I just navigated a situation where I was feeling attached and needy to my partner, and it was so painful to see myself give my power away to someone else.”

Love of Self

I’ve heard of people performing ceremonies where they married themselves, and I found the practice tragically depressing. I still held the dream of having a big wedding where all my friends and family danced the night away—not a solo ceremony of committing to myself because my particular version of Prince Charming hadn’t arrived. But through the course of these conversations, I have come to think the practice of marrying oneself might actually be the gateway to love. I asked about that.

Manzanita said, “I hit rock bottom with my codependent tendencies in a relationship about seven years ago. When I finally got out of it I said, Fuck that, fuck trying to complete myself through another human being, and vowed to take full responsibility for my happiness, and for loving myself. And from that place I created new situations that were abundantly loving and far healthier. That approach to loving led me to be in a deep and open relationship for the past six years.”

Bertram said, “Poly is serving in that it outlines for you the work you have to do within yourself. You realize that the triggers you feel—rejection, jealousy, insecurity, loneliness, shame—are just unintegrated childhood trauma. So I have to make the choice to not shoot the messenger (the person or event I am triggered by or upset about). The work is to go inside and feel that unintegrated charge, and that is the path—rather than blaming the external circumstance that triggers you. So when one is triggered, you don’t make it about the person who triggered you, and you don’t gloss it over to make it go away or escape into another partner. It is about being responsible and staying ‘response-able’ so you can deal with it. And from doing that I have found I have a lot more compassion and acceptance when my partner is in there dealing with her triggers. Open relationships only work if both partners subscribe to doing their work, to life happening for them and not to them, and having a safe place to do their individual work.”

On Reflection

My first love was that sweet and innocent wholehearted dive that only comes once, when you have no idea what pain can come from falling in love. I experienced the angst of heartbreak for the first time when my beloved cheated on me with another woman. Or that’s one version of the story. The true heartbreak actually came when I realized that we weren’t going to be compatible as lifelong partners. That our visions for how we wanted to live our lives were actually quite different. And yet the memory of the love we shared was so good and so strong that even in the worst of times it felt impossible to let go.

When we eventually broke up, it took me over five years to heal and be truly open to loving someone again. I clung to stories about what the cheating meant and took on powerful belief systems about deficiency. So imagine my surprise when I saw him again for the first time 10 years later, and what I saw in his eyes was pure love. Desire was absent, but the presence of love, undeniable. Now, I think back on that relationship and wonder how much harm could have been prevented if we had had a different toolbox to work with: what if desire for one person wasn’t defined by the rejection of another? What if we could have lived in a world where desire and attraction didn’t come with shame, blame, and scarcity? The poly toolbox is profound. A friend who is a therapist mentioned that she is having her mind blown by the millennials she counsels, and that a fair number of them are having open and conscious relationships with several people. We are all building on what we are learning about how to be better lovers—to our beloveds, our families, and our communities. And so: cheers to a year of love actualized.