When I met my spouse, I was still in love with another man, smarting from the break up. Some might say only a fool would jump into that deep end of the love swamp, but it turns out I wasn’t trying to drown my sense of lost love in my new beloved’s arms. At the time we met something underneath the discomfort and grieving said to “go for it,” and having learned long ago to trust my instincts, I did just that.
Years later, after dissecting the provocative words of Deborah Anapol, PhD, author of Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners, I’ve now discovered what that small still voice inside knew all the time. Bear with me for a bit before I reveal.
If I had to label myself—and the more I explore sexuality, the more I find them restrictive, problematic and injurious, but for the purposes of this personal confession—I’d describe myself as a monogamous and heterosexual woman with a keen interest in asking questions about the outer edges of human behavior. An incurable romantic streak has, with time and experience, been tempered by a more spiritual understanding of love and relationships. Still, I believe in soul mates, long-term committed love and marriage for those who are drawn to conventional relationships, and have practiced serial monogamy my whole adult life.
“The original meaning of monogamy was to mate and be sexually exclusive for life. Divorcing and remarrying was originally called serial polygamy, not serial monogamy,” explains Dr. Anapol. Thanks to her clarification, I may not become polyamorous. I already am. There, I’ve said it.
What I’ve now really learned from my experience and Deborah’s book is that love—indefinable, sacrosanct and eternal—is hardly synonymous with monogamy or commitment. “To me, faithfulness has more to do with honesty, respect, and loyalty,” she writes. “And commitment is about keeping agreements. Somehow we’ve really gotten confused when relations that include secret extramarital affairs are considered monogamous and those that end in divorce are considered committed monogamous marriages.”
Indeed. Who amongst us, those reading within and in protest to the poly lifestyle, because it’s a lovestyle that still rankles the establishment, can honestly say that they’ve only ever loved one person—in their whole entire lives? I can’t.
Put aside an American propensity and fascination with extra-marital affairs, and consider just what’s going on in our hearts. If you add up all the times you’ve fallen in love, whether or not simultaneously, and include deep affection beyond sexual partners, it’s easier to incorporate a broader definition of multiple loves. Platonic love, all the tenderness you have for friends, family, current and past lovers, children and charges in your care, amounts to a whole lotta devotion, which makes you one polyamorous posse of hearts, minds and bodies, intertwined by a common humanity and need for connection.
So what about romantic, intimate love? Can a man or a woman love two simultaneously, without that love violating a contract with either? When a relationship ends due to bad timing or bad luck, but not because of a lack of real fondness, does that mean the feelings simply vanish when someone new comes along? I’ve learned to accept that grown-up love sometimes means holding a tender space for another, not because one is carrying a torch, but because one simply loves.
In an effort to honor the growing repertoire of experiences, I’ve come to understand that polyamour describes how we can hold tender feelings for another person, long past any breakups and even into our next relationship. It doesn’t have to threaten our love or our morals. It doesn’t diminish the feelings for either lover, past or present. It simple accepts, as is, the deepening experiences of love in all its complicated glory.
Polyamour means cherishing the times we have of those who could not get on the train when we were ready to embark on a journey towards authentic, committed love. Such views of love transcend physical or emotional infidelity because it has nothing to do with cheating, though it requires a lot of courage, self-awareness and acceptance that what is limited isn’t love, but ‘time’.
Ah, but polyamory means having SEX with multiple partners, some will insist. It means willy-nilly and indiscriminate relations with disregard to the hard work of fidelity and commitment, argue others. It undermines traditions and social morays, denounce others. Until I read Anapol’s book, I would have found myself at a loss of words for how to answer protests against these criticisms.
Now I might quote this sexual maverick. Whether or not you are married, single, dating or negotiating multiple lovers, “Keep in mind that something higher than yourself or your partner, whether that be truth, the Divine, higher self, integrity, or whatever you hold sacred, is a good way to anchor a relationship within a larger context.”
Her insights settle a knee-jerk reaction to this emerging lovestyle. The parameters have changed. By removing the focus from the physical aspect and shifting it to our emotional and spiritual centers, we view love expansively.
Sexual and emotional honesty demands that we examine our navels if we are to evolve our understandings of what Love Really Means. If we separate our minds and attitudes from the shackles of traditionalism, and imagine Love in it’s purest form—again without the labels that I’m using to make my case—then the matter of who we love—physically, emotionally, spiritually—is a function of our hearts, not our genitals. It matters not who we share our beds and bodies with, but how we offer up the contents of our hearts.
Polyamour stretched in this way is a matter of growing our minds to catch up with what our hearts already comprehend: love knows no boundaries.