Never judge a relationship simply by the two people you see. However unlikely, there could be four or five more people waiting in the wings to round out a happy family. Such is the life of polyamorous folks… and yes, Black people do engage in polyamory. Whenever the topics of open relationships and polyamory come up, one of the first things people ask is, “Why get into a relationship if you want to sleep with other people?” It’s important to understand that, for many people, relationships are not primarily about sex. Relationships can be far more complex, and there are more poly relationships in our communities than we think.
How Do Poly Relationships Work?
A polyamorous relationship usually involves three or more people consensually engaged in various degrees of romantic and sexual intimacy. All parties involved are aware that others exist, and they are all connected: either by one person being the central focus, or by some mix of interchanging partnerships and intimate fluidity. “Polyamory” literally means “many loves,” and these “loves” can include everything from deep, emotionally-bonded partnerships to sexual partners enjoyed from time to time.
More often than not, a male figure is at the center, connected to several women. In some instances, they practice what’s known as “polyfidelity,” a commitment to keep romantic and sexual activity within their established group. An example of this is seen on the TLC reality show Sister Wives, where there’s a legal husband and wife pairing and three more spiritually bound wives who are all committed to only having sex with the central male figure.
In some polyfidelity situations, the women are bisexual and engage in sexual activity with each other. In other poly relationships, each partner has the option and opportunity to date and/or have sex outside of their committed relationships. For example, a man might have three female partners, and any of those women can have another regular partner or partners outside of their “quad.”
People who engage in polyamorous relationships are often dismissed as greedy or afraid of commitment. Those involved would argue that neither description is accurate, and that they’re actually quite giving and selfless and strongly value commitment. There’s a lot of open communication between the people involved and jealousy isn’t usually a significant issue, though it can come up. As highlighted in this New York Times article, most poly folks are truly into variety and communal lifestyles, and they revel in the opportunity to be intimately engaged with more than just one person at a time.
The fascinating thing about polyamory in our communities is that so many of us have stories about how our grandfathers or elders had two families or had a wife and kids at home, but it was well-known that he was also dealing with Ms. So-and-So down the street, taking care of her house and home just as he was with his wife and kids. Many of our grandmothers seemed to have turned blind eyes to their husbands’ behaviors, but knowledge of these activities was widespread. We keep a lot of secrets and pretend these things haven’t and don’t still happen, but they do. Yet we often balk at the idea of people being open and willing to explore this type of lifestyle because it doesn’t seem right.
With divorce rates hovering around 50%, and marriage rates decreasing as divorce rates increase—and with over 50% of men and women admitting to having cheated on a romantic partner—we have to think about what’s going on with our relationships and why people are reluctant to get married and stay married. Are we making choices based upon what we truly want, or more upon what we believe we’re supposed to want? How big a role does our perception of what society expects play in how we make our relationship decisions?
Ann-Marie*, a married woman in a polyamorous relationship with her second husband and one other woman, says that she knew she wasn’t cut out for a monogamous relationship. “I got married young, at 26, to a man I loved, and I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do,” she says. “I realized after a year or so of marriage that I didn’t feel right. I realized I wanted to be with him and I wanted to see other people. It took me a long time to tell him because I was afraid of his reaction and what people might think. I didn’t want to cheat either. He wasn’t at all happy, and he couldn’t stop feeling like he wasn’t good enough for me. We eventually separated and I was divorced by 30. Now, I’m in my late 30s and living a wonderful life with my husband and my wife.”
Ann-Marie explained that when she met her husband, Devon*, he was dating their current third partner. He explained to her that he was exploring the poly lifestyle and wanted to be open and honest. She appreciated his honesty and they all began to build. Their other partner, Joanna*, wasn’t interested in legal marriage, but embraced the polyamory as they did. Ann-Marie lives with her husband and Joanna lives in an apartment in the building across the street. They spend a lot of time together and they make it work for them. Joanna occasionally dates outside of their triad, but for the most part, it’s the three of them in their unit—and according to Ann Marie, they’re all happy with the arrangement. (None of them have children, which one would imagine makes things less complicated.)
At what point do we begin to accept that people have the right to choose the relationship dynamics that work best for them? We might not understand why people do what they do or even agree with it, but that doesn’t give us the right to be overly judgmental and insult or ostracize people when they’re not breaking any laws or hurting anyone.
I don’t condone “settling” for a poly lifestyle; if you don’t want to share your significant other, then stick with that and make it very clear early on. Don’t feel you have to agree to one to keep your partner. That simply isn’t healthy.
Polyamory is still pretty much a fringe lifestyle that continues to be condemned as immoral, so it can be difficult to find others who are into the same lifestyle. However, there are some resources online that can help those interested in learning more or possibly exploring their options. The most important thing is that you figure out what you want and are open to (and remain honest with) potential partners, even if it means losing out on a few good people. We don’t all have the same relationship goals, and if polyamory is yours, it’s best you let those interested know early on. You might just find someone who’s into it like you are just by being honest.
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.