It’s a term that I’ve heard with increasing regularity over the last several years. Any exploration of it in the media has focused very little on the ways women practice this lifestyle. Leaving me to interpret it as something men came up with to make multiple sexual partners while in a primary relationship more palatable for their female partners. “It’s not cheating! I just have a lot of love to give!”
As a single woman who has been on and off the apps over the years, I’ve seen more and more men identify themselves as polyamorous or ethically non-monogamous. These profiles are usually created by white men and are littered with poorly posed photos that sometimes even include their “nesting partner,” full-time girlfriends, or wives. These men tend to over-explain how solid their current relationship is, that they are simply seeking someone to have a good time with, or desire to add a third to their relationship—another conversation altogether.
Reading these profiles left me with the assumption that these men are looking to have fun while they remain relatively safe within the confines of a relationship. Meanwhile, the women they are interacting with outside of that relationship are potentially exposing themselves to drama and the sometimes very strict rules of a primary relationship that force compliance rather than treating the third partner as a person with their own needs, desires, and autonomy.
If it all feels forced while reading the profile, I can only imagine how irritating it would be to meet this person or couple.
These instances only reinforced my understanding of polyamory to be an unnecessary headache and that a person outside the primary relationship would never hold the same level of importance or respect as the two people within it.
Over the years, and especially the last few months, my ideas about love, relationships, and even polyamory have expanded.
As a 20-something navigating the hypermasculine world of the military, I did not have the language to describe the patriarchy and I was not as sex positive as I am today. I constantly felt bad about my own desires and believed the only way to legitimately express myself sexually was within the confines of a relationship, even though my instincts told me otherwise, out of fear of being labeled a whore, increasing the sexual harassment I was already experiencing, and failing to surrender the internalized misogyny that kept me in line.
Now here I am in my 30s, and I have almost completely abandoned the notion of relationship respectability. I am too old and too tired to care about waiting to pursue pleasure in any form. I recognize I deserve to experience and explore my fantasies, from the mundane to the outrageous, without shame.
This more enlightened and liberated perspective feels great, until it is time for me to date. That’s when there is tension. When my friends and I talk about dating, I often say my ultimate desire is to have a man (or a few) I don’t have to take care of. That he would be someone to have a good time and great sex with, but ultimately wouldn’t demand too much of my time. Also, he must be able to carry on a conversation without saying things that would make me want to run screaming into traffic.
This felt impossible, but recently, after a set of slightly unusual circumstances, I met a man who fit those criteria. From that meeting, and through regular communication, we’ve created a casual relationship that feels good and works for us both.
The casual relationships of my 20s were often fraught because I often participated in them with unspoken expectation that they would evolve into a serious relationship. I would accept piss-poor behavior longer or participate in the game of “what did he mean when he said?” with my friends, rather than spend time asking myself if I even liked this man.
The casual relationships of my 30s mean mutual respect, semi-regular conversation (i.e., we may not talk for a week or speak several times a week depending on our schedules, but no one feels slighted). When we meet in person before anything intimate happens, we catch up on what’s been going on. I take everything he says with a grain of salt and do not spend any time looking for hidden meanings. I mean whatever I say and refuse to play coy. And finally, I don’t perform any emotional labor and we’re both big on enthusiastic consent.
This is the least stressful relationship I have ever had.
However, I still desire more. I want partnership, but the longer I see “my little friend,” the more I realize I don’t necessarily want to give him up either. I like and enjoy what I get from that relationship, I especially love that I have zero desire to make it into something more. It works fine as is. And as someone who used to make almost every instance of infatuation or sexual attraction into an opportunity for a potential relationship, I am especially proud of my growth in this area.
But how am I supposed to go about trying to find a partnership that would allow me the space to continue pursuing my relationship with my more casual partner or additional partners if I so decide?
This question, and reading “The Sex Lives of African Women,” which provided the most intersectional examples of polyamory I’d ever read, led me to reconsider polyamory and try to engage with it outside the white gaze and sexual selfishness.
Reading the stories of Black women across the diaspora, and being guided through the book by author, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, I was left with the inkling that maybe what I was looking for was easier to define than I previously thought. Which led me to ask myself…
Am I polyamorous?
When I look at my life in its current iteration, I’ve spent so much time and effort creating a life that is big enough for me and my desires. Could I grow this aspect of it big enough to include another partnership that featured more emotional intimacy or connection?
I went down a research rabbit hole, bumping into several helpful and not-so-helpful articles. When I came across, “7 Signs You’d Thrive In This Type Of Polyamorous Relationship,” I paused as the writer described solo poly people, a term I’d never heard before. According to Bustle, unlike poly people solo poly people, “don’t usually consider themselves part of a couple, triad, or other unit … even if they have partners, they often won’t cohabit, merge their finances, or get married. Being solo poly is also different from being single. ‘You can have multiple deep, loving relationships while being solo poly,’” Powell told Bustle.
Reading this, I felt my brain do that thing it does when I learn new information that supports something I feel instinctually. The sounds around me drop away and every cell in my body seems to vibrate to some unheard song as my mind is cracked open, ready to receive new information. A signal to me that I was closer to the truth I sought to find.
That is until I read the sixth sign: You Don’t Like Factoring Other People into Your Decisions. Bustle writes, “It’s liberating to do exactly what you want when you want it and make major life choices without consulting anyone. Being solo poly can afford you the ability to make these calls on your own.”
This sign felt detached and like the opposite of the intimacy I crave from relationships. A main component of any more serious relationship I have with a man is his ability to earn my respect. Along with his intelligence (I would never be in another serious relationship with someone I felt the need to tell not to take wooden nickels) why wouldn’t I ask him his opinion on a major life event or something that could affect our relationship?
But then I realized two things: Why did I believe I needed to factor my partner into any major life decisions? And why did I immediately equate my willingness to make a sacrifice for that person as a necessary sign that the relationship had value? My answer to both questions were, “Because you’ve been conditioned to.”
In previous platonic and romantic relationships, I always found myself sacrificing something. In one friendship it was not being treated with the same amount of basic consideration. In another friendship it was deciding not to go to Maui with a potential boo, because she’d already made hotel reservations on the main island without asking me my preference. In my marriage it was compromising on what felt like everything to make him feel less insecure about my abilities.
All of these instances taught me that not only have I always been more than capable of charting a successful path for my life, but also anytime I have ignored my instincts or desires to please a romantic partner, or a platonic friend, it has never ended well for me.
Despite what I was learning about polyamory and what I was discovering about what I wanted in my own relationships, my self-guided trek toward understanding the polyamorous lifestyle still felt disconnected from the emotional intimacy, nuance, and community I crave.
So if a typical, heteronormative relationship is no longer what I seek, and I am not polyamorous … what is it I’m searching for?
Perdita Patrice is a Texas-based writer and documentary filmmaker. She enjoys live music, reading, and watching TV. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @perditapatrice