I firmly believe that one of the greatest things travel can do for your romantic life and perspective is that it forces you to see relationships in a new light and challenge your own biases.
Progressive though I like to think I am in principle, I know that on some level I still identify strictly with the heterosexual monogamous relationship. That’s not just a product of my Catholic upbringing, but also of the general culture in the United States while I was growing up. It’s really only been in recent years that there has been wider acceptance of and broader support for anything outside typical heteronormative parameters; even homosexuality still remains cause for frequent derision and discrimination throughout the world (just look at Russia’s archaic new anti-gay laws). But there are plenty of other sexual proclivities that remain shrouded in taboo. One of those is polyamory.
While travelling, I’ve met a number of couples who are committed to one another but open to bringing other people into the relationship as well, either solely to sleep with or to form another emotional connection. Their affection for their primary partners is evident in the kind, compassionate and intimate ways in which they interact. It’s clear that there is a lot of love and devotion there.
In fact, nearly every story I’ve heard or read about polyamorous couples has been along similar lines: couples whose marriages have been saved by the wife having sex with other men; a foursome all deeply in love with one another and supportive of everyone’s happiness. One woman interviewed by the BBC embraced her partner’s suggestion to be non-monogamous, saying the freedom allowed her to fall deeply in love with that partner, knowing she could love and be with whoever she wanted without constraints.
Initially, my knee-jerk reaction to these situations was that they were “weird” or that “I could never be in a relationship like that.” I cringe to admit it now, but I judged them negatively, caught up in my own biases of what relationships “should” look like. After all, how could someone stand to see their partner touch someone else, flirt with someone else, maybe even sleep with someone else, and be okay with that?
And then I began to wonder. Maybe they were on to something. I started reading more about consensual non-monogamous relationships, a category that extends to polyamorous couples, open relationships, swingers and other non-traditional arrangements. The thing I found emphasised in all of the articles and studies I read was the high levels of communication and honesty in these relationships. All experts agreed that in order for a polyamorous relationship to work, there had to be openness and trust. Many also said that, contrary to some opinions, being non-monogamous is not simply a license for sleeping around, but a nuanced, highly individualised and complex approach to relationships.
Studies have indicated that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships tend to be quite open to new experiences, and well-educated, according to Scientific American. The emphasis on communication and honesty helps couples cope with jealousy, set ground rules for the relationship and establish trust. Being open about their desires for other people, whether emotionally, sexually or both, and allowing for multiple partners, means an avoidance of the anxiety and guilt that comes from hiding those feelings and trying to deny them, or acting on them and attempting to hide what’s going on behind your partner’s back.
As seems to be the theme in each of the articles I read on the subject, this openness and communication vitally extends to practical matters such as STD/STI prevention as well. Bloggers writing about their polyamorous lifestyles have talked about the importance of considering everyone who could be affected by their sexual choices, and the need for discussion with current partners before becoming involved in a new one.
The thing that has struck me most about these non-monogamous relationships is the priority of creating a situation that suits the people involved, regardless of what friends and family might think. There is no one cookie cutter picture of what a non-monogamous relationship looks like; those involved decide what works and is comfortable for them.
As someone who travels often, meeting many people who interest and mean a great deal to me around the world, it seems increasingly plausible that I might meet someone who is a great match for me on many levels – intellectually, philosophically, emotionally – and with whom I’d want to start a committed relationship, but that there would be other people I’d still want to be with or who stimulate me in other ways.
And when I consider that, I begin to think there’s something beautiful in the idea of being intimately connected to more than one person, and being able to share and celebrate that, rather than feel guilty about it.
Whether or not I would ever be in a consensual non-monogamous relationship, I don’t know. But it makes sense to me that people will increasingly re-evaluate the standard relationship and choose partners and dynamics that fulfil them and meet their preferences, regardless of the status quo.