In the last few years, polyamory has become more and more popular—and visible, from Showtime reality show Polyamory: Married and Dating to actress Mo'Nique proudly sharing with the world that her open marriage was her idea. For the launch of our new weekly series, Love, Actually, exploring the reality of women's sex lives, we wanted to explore what it's really like to be in multiple relationships.
Lisa (a pseudonym), 34, has been with her husband for half of her life, and says being polyamorous has strengthened her marriage. Their relationship has been almost entirely open, albeit with differing rules and structures as they've figured out the type of setup that works for them. Currently she has four additional partners; two of those relationships are ones she shares with her husband.
We met as teenagers and were friends first. We moved in together at 18. One day we were filling out a sexuality survey in a magazine and one of the questions was "How do you feel about monogamy?" Both of us picked "It's an unrealistic expectation." We didn't talk about it just then, but let it simmer for a year until we had an opportunity to have a threesome with a coworker of his, which she and I instigated.
Before that threesome, I let him know I was okay with them having sexual contact, just not penetrative penis-in-vagina sex. He was absolutely fine with this plan, but in the heat of the moment it was me who changed my mind. I was so turned on by watching them together. They were gorgeous and I was loving every minute of it; I didn't feel left out like I thought I would. I totally changed the rule right then and there. That seems to sum up my learning curve with non-monogamy. Now our only rules are honesty, safe sex, and no taking time from mutual commitments.
One of the things I had a meltdown about when we were considering if we were going to get married was, will we be monogamous like people expect us to be? One of the things I couldn't get my head around was never having another first kiss. I don't know why that never occurred to me until we were engaged, but suddenly, I was panicked. First kisses are the best. The idea of being monogamous meant that kind of thing was over, and that felt so sad for me. When I shared it with my husband, he felt the same way.
I COULDN'T GET MY HEAD AROUND NEVER HAVING ANOTHER FIRST KISS.
For most of our relationship, we saw other people as a couple, with periods of monogamy due to things like living arrangements, family responsibilities or planning our wedding. Five years ago, we decided to also pursue outside relationships. Right now, I have four other partners, two of whom we see together. We each have maybe two dates with other people a month on average. Sometimes we go months where we only date and have sex with each other, other times we have three dates in a week.
My personality type is conducive to multiple relationships. I'm a connector. I grew up with a really big family; I'm the kind of person who requires a lot of attention. I need to talk things through to feel better about them; it's a big part of how I function. I have a lot of love to give; I like to dote on people. Polyamory helps me do that without putting all my needs on my husband.
Smartphones have definitely been a huge blessing to people in multiple relationships because it's so much easier to make people feel like they're part of your day by sending a quick hello text or a picture of something that reminded you of them that helps keep them close to you even as you have a separate life. I have a long distance partner where I only see her a couple times a year but we're in communication every day via text or other social media. We rely on each other also for emotional support with things that are going in both of our lives. With two of my partners, it's more casual and sexually oriented. It's great to have five partners but if none of them really feel like they're supported by you, you're not an effective partner.
My husband and I both had a lot of codependent issues to work through early on. If my husband was upset, I very much took that on even if it had nothing to do with me, like I needed to follow him around and walk him through all the steps to process that. Being supportive doesn't mean doing someone's emotional labor for them. Being poly made it more clear that we needed to do our own work and pull our own weight.
You hear dudes say all the time: "How could you let your wife do that?" We don't have to "let" each other do things; it's not our job to parent our partners, or keep them in line, or punish or reward them. We don't want to be policing each other, that's not the kind of relationship we want. It's hard to un-learn that kind of thinking.
The most common question I get asked is whether I get jealous. Jealousy happens. It's an emotion, just like sadness, loneliness, anger, excitement, and joy. These emotions happen in any relationship. You work through jealous feelings just like you work through the rest of your feelings. You feel it, you talk about it, you make a plan for how to do better in the future.
Once, my husband had a partner who was just the exact opposite of me, physically, intellectually, even politically. (I volunteer for the Humane Society and she hunts deer and skins them herself.) We were complete opposite ends of the spectrum and before I met her, I was feeling really uncomfortable with that. What's with the anti me? But the second I met her, I just totally got it. I could just see the way they interacted together; it brought out a totally different side of him.
I have a partner right now who is my submissive. We've been dating for a few years and our connection is mostly sexual. We have a fantastic dynamic, my first where I'm strictly in a dominant role. It's been such a learning curve for me, but so much fun. On our first date there was this great moment where she was looking up at me with those pretty eyes waiting for me to kiss her and I was like, "Wait...that's my move!" We have dates where we make out for hours; we both love that part as much as we love the parts where I tie her up and spank her and make her come so many times we lose count. I love spoiling her with little presents, playing with her hair, getting adorable half naked selfies from her as a surprise mid-day—all things that are vastly different from my connection with my husband.
Those are things I don't get in my marriage and am happy to share with other partners. I have a lot of kinks, such as exploring BDSM and power dynamics, that my husband doesn't necessarily share my curiosity about. If we were in a monogamous relationship, I'm sure I would be resentful about that, but because I can get those needs met elsewhere, my husband and I can enjoy the kinds of things we do best together. If he winds up being interested in kinky play it'll be because he wants to, not because he's doing it "for me" or begrudgingly. There's no pressure for us to be all things to each other.
AS TOLD TO RACHEL KRAMER BUSSEL for ELLE.COM
IMAGES: REX FEATURES