Maria Kinsella’s girlfriend has a girlfriend. Kinsella has just started seeing someone else, who might become her girlfriend. And, up until last year, she and her girlfriend shared a girlfriend.
Confused? Well, it may sound like a riddle, but for Kinsella, 32, like an increasing number of singles and couples identifying as polyamorous in the UK, this is a normal state of affairs.
Polyamory, for the uninitiated, is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as “the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of all people involved.” It is a lifestyle choice which focuses on having simultaneous connections with people that are loving as well as sexual, suggests Dr Meg Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships.
Kinsella became polyamorous eight years ago, after realising that she wasn’t able to stay in a monogamous relationship. She says: “It wasn’t a decision as much as putting ethics around my normal behaviour.” Thankfully, her partner felt the same. The pair have enjoyed several relationships since, both separately and together. “It’s about being completely honest about what you want,” she says.
Although some might feel shocked by the concept of polyamory, it is a lifestyle choice that is becoming increasingly recognised in the UK. This year, Goldsmiths University’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer) society added a “+” to its name to represent polyamory. “Things have shifted in the last decade to the point that there is greater awareness and acceptance of various non-monogamous ways of doing relationships,” adds Dr Barker.
As for the figures, there are no national surveys about polyamory, but here’s what we do know. Polyamory meetup groups across the country, in locations such as Nottingham, Cambridge and London, have around 2,000 members in total. And research conducted in 2012 by Terri D.Conley and Ali Ziegler for the Personality and Psychology Review suggest that 4-5 per cent of the US population are polyamorous, suggesting that the figure in the UK may be larger than we know.
Meanwhile, the 3nder app, launched in July last year for singles and couples looking to experiment with multiple lovers, has had 60,000 downloads in the UK alone. Users might be closer to home than you think – founder Dimo Trifonov reveals that people who sign up to the app have on average 5-10 Facebook friends already using it. The Poly Life, a relationship app for polyamorists launched in November last year, has experienced its second largest number of downloads (after in the US) in the UK.
“Polyamory is the new black,” says Trifonov, “I want to give people the opportunity to be open-minded about it and connect with similar people. When you see 60,000 people signing on to 3nder, you realise that there is nothing wrong with trying it out.”
The rules – to borrow a line from Grease – are that there are (technically) no rules. Some polyamorists date in a group: for instance, three people might have a relationship and describe themselves as a “throuple”. Kinsella was in a throuple for five years with her current girlfriend and another woman.“It was like a family. It was interesting to have different emotional connections.”
Melissa Roberts, 23, a teacher, was in a throuple with a man and a woman for three months. “I had already been dating my boyfriend for about ten months when a girl joined the relationship. We perceived it as three individual pairs, as well as the three person dynamic.”
For others, three’s a crowd. “We come first with each other,” says Inigo Lapwood, 21, a student at Oxford who has been in a polyamorous relationship with his now-wife, Alice, for three years, “We have sexual encounters with other people together but nothing long term.” His relationship operates within a hierarchical system familiar within polyamory: you have a “primary interest”, but date other people with or without your partner.
Lapwood and his wife live in different cities, where they are free to have relationships with other people. He says: “We’re both open-minded, randy people. If you’re confident that you love each other a lot and you’re not going to lose one another, that makes it all okay.”
The point most polyamorists agree on, however, is that transparency is key. “You have to be honest and discuss everything,” says Lapwood, “Polyamory forces you to be closer and to communicate in a way which monogamy doesn’t.” Kinsella, agrees: “As long as you’re open with each other, it’s great. My partner loves hearing my stories.”
Too much information? If you are in a monogamous relationship, the prospect of your partner sleeping with someone else can be nauseating – let alone hearing about it in intricate detail. Are polyamorous couples immune to the green-eyed monster? “Jealousy is a big one,” say Kinsella. “We haven’t transcended to some ethereal plane just because we’re polyamorous. But we talk about it. Jealousy is just an emotion.” The ultimate aim, according to polyamory bible The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, is “compersion” – “a feeling of joy that comes from seeing your partner sexually happy with someone else.” However, Kinsella acknowledges that, for some people, this would be too difficult.
Polyamory, after all, takes time and effort to work. Trifonov may have founded an app for polyamorists, but he has yet to invite a third party into the bedroom himself. “Maybe one day. But my girlfriend and I aren’t ready yet. I don’t want to put her in a situation where she feels like she’s making a compromise in order to be together. We still talk openly about sex and other people, though.”
For some, the idea will never appeal – and, according to science, that’s down to genes. A study by researchers at the University of Oxford, published in the academic journal Biology Letters in February this year, suggests that some people are genetically predisposed to monogamy, while others are the opposite. Rafael Wlordarski, co-author of the study, says: “We found that there appears to be, within both males and females, two subgroups of individuals – one tending towards greater promiscuity than the other.”
The jealousy might also be a deal breaker: “It isn’t for everyone”, says Lapwood. “There are always emotional responses to someone you love sleeping with someone else. Those responses are stronger in some people than they are in others.” Both Lapwood and his wife had brought up the idea of polyamory in previous relationships – but each time the response had not been favourable. “It’s the fact that we are so happy with this relationship that makes us so well suited to each other.”
Even in the happiest polyamorous relationships, having multiple partners can bring a minefield of complications to your everyday life. “Conducting one relationship is hard – so three is very tiring,” admits Kinsella. Many polyamorists use a Google calendar to arrange their various liaisons with different lovers, while The Poly Life app has its own built-in events planner. “We had to be very organised with our planning,” says Roberts of her previous polyamorous relationship. Making time for all the different possible groupings is demanding.”
But these demands come with rewards. “Polyamory automatically prevents cheating. It’s impossible within the terms of the relationship,” says Lapwood. In a society where cheating is rife – the latest statistics from extra-marital dating site Illicit Encounters predict 18 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men have cheated on their current spouse – a polyamorous relationship is, for some, a means of avoiding the lying and betrayal that comes with infidelity.“
Others, like Kinsella, love polyamory for the sheer amount of meaningful relationships it brings to your life: “People have different facets. When you are polyamorous, you allow different people to feed each part of you, so each facet is happy and fulfilled.” Lastly, says Roberts, the sex is fantastic.
What is apparent from talking to polyamorists, however, is that it is a lifestyle choice that goes far beyond a sexual taboo. The individuals and couples I have spoken to, while no doubt basking in post-coital bliss as I write this, are passionate about the emotional and intellectual perks of their lifestyle. Even Roberts, whose “throuple” relationship broke up after three months, says: “it was was the most intense relationship I’ve ever experienced. I would not hesitate to enter into another polyamorous relationship if I met the right people.”
Polyamory is not for everyone – and if you don’t fancy wrestling with deep seated jealousy, or picking date night from a calendar already pencilled in with multiple sexual rivals, then you should probably stick to monogamy, at least while it’s still in fashion. But it is a fascinating theory – and, dare I say it, a romantic one, which is rooted in a basic human desire for love. Sharing is caring, after all.