Multiple Ways To Have Multiple Partners

Image | Dainis Graveris

“Though I’ve been poly all my life, I didn’t know it had a name. I used to say that I ‘openly dated multiple people and they were all aware they were not the only one,’” says Shay Au Lait, a Philly burlesque producer and theatre artist (and a personal friend of this writer) on a social media thread this week. “Years later, I’d learn there was a poly world with its own vocabulary.”

While it’s difficult for researchers to know for sure, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans have been in a consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationship: a non-exclusive, agreed upon romantic or sexual arrangement. Consensual non-monogamy is distinct from infidelity — where people are acting outside of the stated boundaries of a relationship.

In all likelihood, the number of people in CNM situations is probably higher, since threesomes and other random arrangements might technically fall under the definition. That trend is likely to continue, since one third of Americans indicate that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous, with millennials especially interested.

But not all non-monogamous relationships are the same. That’s the whole point, arguably: that no two relationships are identical, but rather the unique combination of the people who are involved. Even within the label of “polyamorous,” there are wildly divergent ways to relate to partners and different expectations to have about how one will interact with one’s “metamours” — that is: your partner’s partners.

While it’s difficult for researchers to know for sure, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans have been in a consensually non-monogamous relationship.

These differing expectations have been challenging for Shay in some of her relationships with her metamours. “I don’t mind meeting metas but beyond that I have no desire for further interaction,” she says, “I’m only dating the person I’m dating and would rather invest the rest of my free time with MY friends, not my lovers’ other girlfriends and lovers. Not my business.” This is further complicated by her profession as a performer. “I can’t quite avoid it because going back since forever they always come to my shows,” she says.

In her social media post, Shay shared a list of poly orientation vocabulary: some of the ways people choose to orient their open relationships. Included in the list:

  • Garden party poly– partners are able to engage in friendly interactions at social functions or on social media, but don’t share a great deal directly.
  • Kitchen table poly– named after the idea that all one’s partners would be able to comfortably sit around the kitchen table, the assumption that metamours would be friends with each other.
  • Lapsitting poly– a more engaged version of kitchen table poly, where metamours in a polycule develop entanglements and relationships of their own.
  • Parallel Poly– all the partners acknowledge each other’s existence but live entirely separate lives.

There are endless ways that non-monogamous people can orient their relationships or want to relate to their partner’s partners. In Shay’s post, she asked followers how they preferred things to go, and I posed the question on my social media as well. Here are a few responses we received:

“I love knowing and being able to interact with them. The depth of that interaction absolutely depends, but my desire is that I’m close to most of them and get to be part of building community together.”- Leslie

“My preference would be for my partners to at least be able to civilly interact with each other, but interaction is not always mandatory…. I think labels are best as conversation landmarks. If two people say they like kitchen table polyamory there still needs to be a conversation about what that label means to them as it may be different from person to person. But the label can be a good place to start…. Some relationships with your meta may also change overtime. Some folx might not be comfortable with Lapsitting Polyamory right out of the gate with a new meta but are open for that to grow with time.” – Bill

“I prefer to have a polite direct line of communication with my partners’ partners. Sometimes I end up being friends with metamours, other times we only check in as needed to clarify logistics, but it tends to work better than triangulating communication through a shared partner.”- Mischief

“[We] are very fluid and we treat the interactions we have with other partners autonomously and allow them to take their own course. We hedge toward kitchen table and we love for our other partners to meet and interact and for them to interact with each of us but we would never force that on to someone. As much overlap as each person is comfortable with is ok for us but the fluidity also depends on the energy we have to give.” – Travis

Even within the label of ‘polyamorous,’ there are wildly divergent ways to relate to partners.

“It is my fervent belief that metamours should be treated like coworkers. You may not like them, and you may not always want to get a drink after work together, but you sometimes need to be collegial for the project to get done, and sometimes you need to make small talk at the office mixer. I think it’s lovely when I can be friends with my metas, and honestly that’s my personal preference and desire. But bare minimum I try to make sure I can negotiate time and challenges (and maybe nefarious good surprises for our mutual partner) directly so we are acting like adults and not putting our mutual partner in a weird game of whisper down the lane.” – Nicole

“Creating a tribe of people is part of our intention so interaction with metamours is always the goal.”- Alex

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    • Timaree Schmit Headshot

      Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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