I’d never heard the term “polyamory” when my high school boyfriend suggested we stay together but also sleep with other people. After cheating on me just weeks after we’d lost our virginity to each other, he apologized with tears and gifts and proclamations of true love. Soon after, he suggested that he continue to sleep with other people — and that I do the same.
He was starting his first year of college, while I was a lonely senior, missing him. Couldn’t I understand that he needed to explore?
Perhaps it would be selfish to deny him that. We went back and forth between cheating and allowing each other to stray, but it never hurt any less. I’d shrug to my friends. “It’s cool,” I’d say. But it wasn’t.
Later in life, there were other men who cheated. There were also men who cheated on their girlfriends with me. And there were committed boyfriends from whom I strayed. I learned how to let things slide, for myself and my partners. I made fewer and fewer demands of people and relationships but continued to be disappointed. Monogamy was failing me — again and again. So I decided to try something new.
Polyamory is the practice of having “many loves.” Polyamorysociety.org defines it as a “nonpossessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously.” Honest, ethical — these things sounded good. They emphasized respect for yourself and for others and acknowledging each person’s needs. After neglecting my own for so long, I desperately wanted someone — or multiple someones — to care.
A quick Google search led me to a polyamorous Meetup group in Portland, Ore. I’d recently moved to the city, and through browsing online dating apps, I discovered a surprising prevalence of polyamory. So I decided to learn more.
In a room full of pillows and erotic paintings, I found myself in the middle of a refreshingly honest conversation. “I don’t want to muscle through commitment,” one woman said as her partner rubbed her shoulder. “I want to wake up each day and decide for myself: Do I still want to be with this person? And know that he’s deciding for himself, too.”
The man rubbing her shoulder had other girlfriends. But here, his attention was laser-focused on her. He watched her with adoration, and I found myself feeling envious of that emotional attachment.
About 15 people sat in our circle — some came alone, others with partners. There was a transgender woman in a long black dress and dark makeup; a middle-aged couple in business attire, their legs crossed conservatively. There was a woman in her early 20s and some couples in their 60s. But each person in this wide spectrum listened and discussed their polyamorous lifestyle in similar terms. They all believed that love could be limitless, and that they deserved as much of it as they could find.
We addressed the importance of knowing what we’re comfortable with, and communicating our wants, needs and desires with our partners. It was our responsibility to take care of ourselves first.
“If it’s not a ‘Hell yes’, it’s a NO.” This mantra was repeated again and again.
How often had I gone along with relationships and sex without a “hell yes”? I realized the abundance of unsure and uncomfortable answers I’d given men, just to avoid conflict or hurt feelings.
Sure, I’d told more than one ex-boyfriend. You can sleep with other people. I guess.
I wasn’t sure if I could ever be a “Hell yes” to the idea of having multiple relationships in my life. But the openness of the community gave me comfort. People shared so much of themselves and expected honesty from me, too. They wanted to know why I was there. What did I want from a relationship? What was I looking for?
It was time to ask myself those questions, too.
My first date with John, the leader of the polyamorous group, led to more dates where he continued to regale me with his passion for this lifestyle and his love for multiple women. Soon, I was part of his very busy calendar of quality time, split between myself and three others.
His texts were full of honesty and inquiries. He was meeting so-and-so for lunch, but would I like to meet him for a walk after? How was I feeling? Did I want to hear about his other dates? He was thinking about me.
This new style of relationship was exhilarating at first. I knew I wasn’t being lied to, because there was no reason to lie. I’d met John’s other girlfriends, and I decided for myself how much information I wanted about those relationships. If I asked something, he told me.
But reality set in when John had to take a call from one of his other partners at my apartment. She was experiencing intense anxiety over the state of their relationship and needed to talk. He apologized before closing the door to my bedroom to speak with her in private, while I found myself sulking outside.
Was it selfish to be hurt when she clearly needed him right now? It didn’t matter. Because I was upset. And I owed it to myself to address that.
I realized that polyamory wasn’t what I was looking for. I told John that I couldn’t handle this kind of open relationship, and he thanked me for putting myself first.
For so long, I’d been failing to find honesty in others. But perhaps that was a result of my failure to be honest with myself. By giving up on commitment, I’d discovered a commitment to myself.
Polyamory isn’t my thing, but it got me a little closer to understanding what is. In the future, I’ll know when to say “Hell yes,” and I’ll mean it.