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I love you. And her. How to be polyamorous in a monogamous world

The names of polyamorous people in the blog have been changed and/or shortened to protect their identities.

“Endure freedom” - a big yellow sign warns at the entrance of “Werkstatt Dritter Ort”, the venue in which Cologne’s polyamorous community meets once a month. The very name that translates as a workshop, which implies a place for experimentation. Although imagination might draw some kind of a swing club for sexual practices, it is nothing like that at all. They drink tea together, eat fruit and cakes and talk about love and relationships.

Polyamorous people believe in free love with multiple partners with consent of everyone involved. They often feel offended that the word “polyamory” is attached to sexuality in collective consciousness. “At some point I did not feel like letting myself be reduced to desire anymore,” Thomas, one of the participants, complains. Even so, the entire ambience of the rooms does stimulate sexual associations, with two beds and a statuette of a phallus decorating the windowsill.

The room can barely fit the over 50 visitors who come here from all over the region to meet like-minded people. The group is very mixed: it ranges from teenagers to people well over 40, and features pan-sexuals, BDSM-practitioners, a person on a wheelchair and even parents with their young kids. And so is the diversity of their relationship situations: some have been avidly practicing polyamory for years, others are simply curious to try out new things, and a few are just monogamous “tolerating partners” of their polyamorous spouses.

“When my ex-girlfriend first brought me here, I soon ran away,” Alias recalls during the round of introductions. He was a mono-partner in a poly-relationship for years, and now is starting to newly explore polyamory once his relationship broke apart. He still shares a flat with his ex-girlfriend, and it still feels like a cosy marriage: they cook together, take care of their cat, and plan purchases in the supermarket. Even though M. is now in engaged in a new polyamorous relationship.

M. is one of the few people from the community who doesn’t mind speaking on camera about her polyamorous views and experiences. She readily answers personal questions, but she does not want to be recognized. That is why her name has been changed and her face is only half-lit.

Polyamory can take different shapes and sizes, and also has different origins, says Stefan Ossmann, a PhD-candidate on the topic of polyamory in the University of Vienna. He divides polyamorous relationships into two basic groups: “poly by choice” and “poly by nature”. The former subsumes people who, just like M., always felt that they want to build emotional and sexual bonds with more than one person. “If it’s in you, and you haven’t chosen that, it will be there for the rest of you life. You can live it or not, but if you don’t live it, you suppress it. It is irreversible”, says Ossmann. “Poly by choice”, in contrast, means that people made a conscious decision to become polyamorous at some point in life, and this decision can be reversed at any moment.

Regarding the form of relationships, polyamory is very flexible and has literally no limits to the number of people involved and the combinations of connections. “There is no most common model. Everything is possible,” says Ossmann, talking about his attempt to categorize such relationships. Vee relationship is a form where one person has the relationships with two partners who are not connected to each other. This model is typical for heterosexual people. “Closed triads”, in contrast, are more common among gays - three lesbian, or three gay men. These are not open external partnerships. The largest form of polyamorous connection is called a polycule - it is open at all ends. It can start with three people at the core and have growing connections in different directions that are constantly evolving. The biggest polycule in the Ossmann's research contained 35 people.

Vee, closed triad, and a polycule models of relationship. Material: candies and toothpicks.

Ossmann points out that consensual non-monogamy is on the rise: “This trend has been slowly developing since around 2010. It’s a kind of a hipster thing. You are self-employed, you carry a Macbook Air and a cotton bag. In this trendy age group of 25 to 40 it is also a trend now to live open, and not monogamous anymore”.

On the other hand, Ossmann emphasizes that a lot of people are still afraid of coming out about their lifestyle. “The higher the job position of people, the higher their income, the more stable they are in in terms of kids, the less likely they are to have an outing and speak publicly about their way of living”, he says.

Ossman’s explanation of this is simple - he thinks it can be attributed to the lack of legal protection for polyamorous relationships. “If you are invited to a corporate party and you bring your gay partner, they can’t fire you. But if you decide to take your girlfriend and her second boyfriend with you, theoreticall they can fire you”, explains Ossmann. He says, however, that there have not been such legal cases yet.

At the moment, not only does it still remain unclear if the polyamorous community, just as LGBT, could ever get legal recognition, but even on which grounds it could be demanded. Ossmann explains that the problem lies within the definition of the phenomenon itself. “Both LGB - lesbian, gay, bisexual - and transgender people, are protected by European law, falling in the categories of sexual orientation and identity. And for polyamory we don’t know what it is,” he says.

There are two questions that arise from here: does the poly community itself feel a need of legal protection? And are they ready to speak out and call for their right to be socially recognized? The answer to that, however, is more complicated than a simple yes or no.

FREE BUT NOT ACCEPTED

M. is not fine with the fact that polyamorous people do not have a place in the entire social system that is build around couples: “If I want to marry my two partners - I cannot. If I want to have children with two different partners - how do I ensure that kids have the legal support? And if I die, my belongings will also not automatically go to all of my partners”.

She also thinks that polyamory is neither understood, nor accepted in society on a personal level. Scarce statistical data available on the attitude to polyamory in the USA confirms that the majority does not think that polyamory is acceptable. According to research by YouGov, 56% of Americans consider polyamory to be morally wrong, with just one quarter of the country regarding it as morally acceptable. Even less can people imagine assuming a polyamorous lifestyle themselves - 64% of Americans say they would not forgive their spouse for having an affair, a Gallup poll revealed.

M. often feels that she is being judged before people even get to know her. “Just because of my polyamory and the feelings that I have, they think that I am not responsible, or that I haven’t found true love”, M. says. She wishes that there were more people who speak openly about the needs of poly people and who would shed some light on this theme.

However, M. is part of a minority inside the poly community which seems to admit the need of getting out of the shadow and to call for the right to be recognized. The majority seems to be reconciled with the status quo. “Polyamory is a relationship model, so there is no need for legal recognition, but for communication", says the organizer of the meeting in Cologne. Thomas, the participant, also shares this view: “There is always an opportunity to live in a collective. I do not need the government for that. I only need a bit of tolerance in the neighbourhood,” he says.

Overall, the self-assessment of the poly community as to how far their lifestyle is accepted in the larger society raises many questions. On the one hand, when personally addressed, most polyamorous people say that they are free and do not feel any oppression. On the other hand, they admit they cannot or do not want to go public about their relationships because they fear they might not be understood or it might simply be inconvenient. Especially in a professional context. “You want to be something else in people's minds than "that poly guy"...And at least you still don't want to be “that guy everyone at work is talking about,”” Leonie explains.

Alexandra, also a member of the poly group in Cologne, is one of the few people who came out not only to her family and friends, but also to her employer. In contrast her husband, in her words, lives in constant fear that his family, colleagues and even friends might find out and will badmouth him.

So far Alexandra’s conclusion regarding the self-reflection of the polyamorous community is the following: “It seems that even poly people think of their preference as kind of a "little perversion”. It feels nice when you're doing it in private, and possibly few people find out”.

Author: Yana Biliaieva

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Yana Biliaieva

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