You've got to be an emotional genius to have a polyamorous relationship

Managing the challenges of multiple loves at the same time is a tall order

02 December 2018 - 00:10
In a polyamorous relationship you have to be aware of your feelings and actions to ensure the happiness of all partners.
In a polyamorous relationship you have to be aware of your feelings and actions to ensure the happiness of all partners.
Image: 123RF/jackf

Polyamory is my relationship blindfold. I can't see how it works. It's seems a tightrope walk, a devil in disguise, the many loves waiting to turn your heart into a swirling, chaotic tornado. Emotions spiralling out of control. Perhaps I am too insecure for polyamory.

The 2018 Sunday Times Lifestyle Sex Survey says 20% of South Africans believe in having more than one partner and are open to it. The finding stripped my blindfold and led me towards a path of enlightenment, understanding and meaning.

I took my suitcase packed with the baggage of polyamory on a journey, and here's what I found.

The feminist in me tapped into polyamory's history. A variety of cultures, traditions and religions teach us that polyamory, or rather, in more conservative terms, polygamy (actually being married to several people at one time) is reserved for men. Plural marriages, legally speaking, have almost always been defined as one man having multiple wives.

But that does not stand any more, does it? Plural relationships are open to anyone who desires them. Gender non-conformists, males, females, homosexuals, heterosexuals - all identities across the board.

Was I being restrained by historical assumptions of what a relationship looks like, of what a marriage is supposed to be? I realised that my politics surrounding multiple partners was not only steeped in problematic norms of absent gender equality but also the rigid constraints of the patriarchy, and by dismissing it or failing to understand the art of multiple romantic relationships, I was potentially perpetuating these very constraints.

But one nagging question remained: what about the emotional management? Who are these people who are so evolved, equipped and organised to execute such control over their relationships and themselves?

I have to admit, I have trouble with constant communication, even from just one person, and she's my wife. I often have to turn off WhatsApp notifications so that I don't make the mistake of blue-ticking without a response.

My partner is also a definitive chatty Cathy, and I am not. How do the polyamorous manage to do all that communicating with multiple lovers?

But even if the relationship and emotional management of having several partners were as easy as a blood test, I would still fail. I'm not ashamed to admit that beyond my inability to split my attention pie into several equal parts, I would be deeply insecure if I were polyamorous.

And as it turns out, so are those who actively choose to have multiple romantic relationships.

Many self-help articles and books exist to assist partners with managing emotions such as jealousy and elements of loneliness when it's "not your turn or your day", and advice on how to accept that the person you love also loves someone else.

Then, of course, there are tips for controlling the emotions that sprout from material catalysts - like money and financial management. How to cut the money pie into parts as equal as the time/love/attention/communication pie's? None of the advice columns convinced me that I would ever be able to do it.

But there are superheroes out there who do it every day.

They work hard at practising something called "compersion" - the act of being infinitely happy for each others' happiness. Being excited with and for them and even experiencing their joy vicariously through them - kind of the opposite of schadenfreude. A tall order.

Several articles cite the polyamorous as over-communicators. It's not just about talking to your partner, it's about being an expert at questioning, seeking and understanding, over and above what seems like the natural human capacity.

One must also be able to self-soothe and introspect at any given moment - to be so aware of your feelings and actions that you can deep dive into yourself and immediately self-correct before your emotions create a domino effect for several people, and things come crashing down. 

That is a lot of responsibility.

Then I came across a story about a husband and wife who had been married for just over five years and discovered that love was not an "all for one and one for all" kind of thing - they had different needs. In a nutshell, the husband defined polyamory as such: love is additive and not always infinite. There was no love lost between them, but the argument here is that one person's love is incapable of satiating you. Are we, the monogamous, fooling ourselves? 

My journey led me to a lot of admiration but very little convincing. It's not for me. Perhaps I am just not evolved enough. Twenty percent is a big number, but I fall 100% into the larger fraction of that statistic of people who do not believe in it, purely because I just would not be able to do it.

• The Sunday Times Lifestyle Sex Survey was conducted in association with local research house Ratepop, using its proprietary chatbot technology. Over 3,500 individual South Africans answered the survey, which was hosted on Facebook Messenger. The respondents' identities were kept strictly confidential.