“Compersion.” It's a word that describes happiness at seeing a partner get joy from someone else—almost the opposite of jealousy. Monogamous lovers might hesitate to imagine feeling anything aside from anger at the sight of their other half being loved by someone else. But compersion is a kind of fulfillment gained by the polyamorous, those who maintain honest, committed romantic relationships with more than one person.
The word "compersion" is one of many invented or co-opted by polyamorous people to give names to nouns and verbs outside the dominant paradigm of monogamy. Julian Wolf thinks back to a confusing time before she had words for her preferred method of loving. "It took me going to college and finding other strange and fun people that lived differently before I got words for all of the things I had been doing my whole life," Wolf says.
Erik Erhardt, too, remembers life before learning the vocabulary of polyamory. "When I was finally given the language of polyamory as an alternative relationship model that allows me to express and share love with multiple people, I realized that this was something I could have identified with 15 years ago," he says. "I just didn't have the language to say, This is possible."
Wolf is a "normal"-
Many polyamorous relationships can be shown through geometry. Imagine the "V" model: One person dates two people who are not dating one another. There's also the triangle: One person dates two others who are also dating each other. There's the "N," the square or any other shape a person might want to dream up. Not that long ago, Wolf was dating five people. Her friend Riotgrrlscout came up with a shape for it. Wolf was the center of a starfish whose arms sometimes touched and sometimes didn't.
"I have been at the brunt of prejudice, and I have experienced negative things because of who I am."
Erhardt found himself in one shape or another over time, having started his journey to polyamory through the book The Ethical Slut. "It's kind of like a polyamory bible. It was one of the first books to describe what polyamory was, to describe skills a person needs to be successful in this relationship model." Erhardt, too, dresses soberly. He's in a gray, striped button-up shirt and steel-framed glasses. He comes to his interview with packets of printed material, references and resources.
Erhardt was introduced to polyamory by a former girlfriend. After four years of monogamy, the woman decided she was interested in considering polyamory. "I wanted to think about it, too," he says. "So we did that process together." Erhardt, who is getting his PhD in statistics, describes himself as the kind of person who goes about everything in a studious way. He uncovered websites. He found The Ethical Slut and another book called Polyamory. He dug up a podcast by Cunning Minx in Chicago called “Polyamory Weekly.” Years later, Erhardt can't imagine going back.
In spite of being at the center of a starfish, Wolf emphasizes that her relationships are not always sexual. In fact, she often won't have sex with a person until she's known them for years. Erhardt, too, says sex comes secondary to forging emotionally intimate, safe, honest relationships. Both separately tell a joke, the gist of which is that polyamorous people are often so busy communicating and learning about themselves, they never get around to getting it on. Polyamorous practitioners are not necessarily "swingers," a word used to describe those who have recreational sex with multiple partners.
"I just didn't have the language to say, This is possible."
There are as many different types of relationships, poly and mono, as there are people, so the emphasis on sex can vary. Still, many of the people who are writing about polyamory espouse that getting laid is not usually the focus. Polyamorous blogger Franklin Veaux writes that practicing polyamory doesn't equal threesomes, either. "Being poly doesn't necessarily make you kinky. Nor does it mean that you're into orgies, or that you're promiscuous, or that you want to boink everyone you meet," he explains. Though this may seem fairly obvious, being polyamorous also doesn't mean you're bisexual, he points out.
Polyobvious, Erhardt calls it: When you have multiple "partners" for any definition of the word partner, "and everyone knows about everyone else." It is vital to the philosophy of polyamory that everyone involved in a relationship knows about everyone else and is comfortable and agrees with the situation. There is a distinct difference between being polyamorous and cheating on one's significant other.
Wolf says she's been polyamorous for about nine years, and in that time, she's been cheated on. Being polyamorous does not mean there aren't any rules for the relationship. When Wolf talks about getting together with someone or breaking up with someone, she calls it "negotiating" or "renegotiating." There are clearly terms to her arrangements, and constant communication is part of letting everyone express what they are and aren't comfortable with. "The most important thing I do is I negotiate all my relationships," says Wolf, who is also involved in Albuquerque's leather community. "Be it I want to take you out to dinner once a week, be it I want to have a home with you or a life with you. Or I want to get tied up by you once a month at this play party."
"Some of the people like that are probably polyamorous or are probably just starting negotiating their relationships."
Wolf argues that true monogamy is a recent concept. She points to times in Europe's past when marriages were arranged as land deals. "It was not only normal, it was expected that you had a mistress or a lover that wasn't your husband or wife." A person's job was to have babies with his or her spouse, and it was in poor taste to publicize one's affairs. "I call that consensual non-monogamy," Wolf says.
She points to tribes in which women have multiple husbands and the "free love" period of the '60s as other examples of polyamory. And how about serial monogamy? Is that really monogamy? she asks. "You are the only person in my world, and then we break up and I'm with someone else within a week." Rinse, repeat. Everyone knows someone who jumps from serious relationship to serious relationship, she says. "Some of the people like that are probably polyamorous or are probably just starting negotiating their relationships."
The popular value system prizes the myth of monogamy, says Erhardt. "There is the overwhelming, ingrained romantic ideal that in your life you meet one person who is the love of your life. And you live happily ever after, and you can't live without them. Your love will never change. You will always want to be with them." To Erhardt, a stagnant relationship that lasts 20 years sounds awful, and very little evidence exists proving relationships are meant to last forever. All relationships end, he says. "But you can't write a very good love song about that."
"One thing polyamorists are not is beyond feeling jealous," says Erhardt. In fact, that's one issue bubbling to the surface of the discussion group he facilitates regularly. Ethi-Q Slutdom meets odd-week Thursdays to talk about challenges and strategies for polyamorous relationships, among other things. "Jealousy is not in itself a feeling," Erhardt says, "but can be experienced as anger, sadness, loneliness or desperation. All of these situations are labeled as jealousy, because of the context they occur in."
“Monogamy is not a strategy in and of itself for safety and security."
Wolf says she doesn't get jealous about people as much as she does about time. If a partner breaks a date to go out with someone else, Wolf is less likely to feel jealous of the other person than she is to feel upset that she didn't get her date.
Feelings of jealousy, Erhardt adds, often point to unmet needs. Take the imaginary couple Jack and Jill. Jill meets Ted, and she’s vibrating with that new relationship energy, the infinite interest spawned by early infatuation. Now Jack’s needs aren't being met to the degree they were when he was the only outlet for her attention. Erhardt's advice: "Once you express your feelings in the language of feelings and needs, you can now develop strategies to help you meet those needs."
Wolf has lost jobs because of her lifestyle. In addition to being polyamorous and part of the leather community, she is pagan and defines herself as "gender queer," which means she doesn't fit into the gender molds, she says. Wolf's settled out of court with an employer because it was fairly obvious she'd been discriminated against and fired because of her choices, she says. "I have been at the brunt of prejudice, and I have experienced negative things because of who I am."
After a particularly bad ending to a relationship, Wolf opted to try and live "straight." "I tried so hard to be vanilla. And I tried so hard to be monogamous and not be kinky." She spent three months alone, meditating on who she was. "And to my utter dismay," she says, "I am in fact a polyamorous leather person who is attracted to people regardless of their gender orientation. And that's OK. Just like it's OK if you're straight and monogamous or whatever it is that you are." As long as you're living your truth, that's what matters, she adds. It would be easier, Wolf acknowledges, if she "only went one way."
Erhardt has been able to tell his family about his love choices, but has a harder go of it when trying to date new people. Many of the women he's gone out with lately have found the notion shocking, though they said they thought it was very interesting. Even those who thought polyamory might be able to strengthen their relationships said it sounds too challenging.
Erhardt says it took about a year to open his relationship up to where there were no longer any limits. The process of starting from monogamy and going to polyamory is one of discovery, he says, and he was confronted by his insecurities. Does opening a monogamous relationship ever result in the demise of that couple? "I'm sure relationships get wrecked when they try to do that," Erhardt says. "But relationships fail naturally all the time anyway. Monogamy is not a strategy in and of itself for safety and security."
A common fear when opening a relationship is one of being replaced, or, as Erhardt phrases it: "What happens if my partner meets someone else who satisfies them more than I do? Why won't they leave me?" Things are replaceable, he says. Items are exchangeable. But people aren't. "What makes a relationship valuable?" he asks. "Valuing the relationship."
Both Wolf and Erhardt say the energy expenditure multiplies with polyamory. Maintenance on all of the relationships takes time. "But it can be so rewarding," Wolf says. "The thing about polyamory, just like any relationship, is things are going to go wrong." The difference is when things go wrong, those trials are multiplied. Similarly, when things go right, she says, the good feeling is multiplied.
Wolf works in family dynamics. "I like people to be in my family. There is such joy when your family of choice is doing well, and things are good." But breakups are just as bad for the polyamorous as they are for everyone else. Sometimes a person endures multiple breakups at once.
For all of its potential pitfalls, Wolf says she can't imagine living any other way. She finds herself fascinated by long-term monogamy and is supportive of her monogamous friends. She likens her need for polyamory to food, to sustenance. She knows some people can get all of their nutrition from one person. "If you don't eat enough, you get sick. If you're not getting your needs met, emotionally, physically, spiritually, it's the same thing."