Today I should have been spending quality time with my girlfriend while waiting for my husband to join us, but instead I have been thinking about Newt Gingrich’s marriage. The Republican presidential hopeful is facing allegations by his ex-wife that he asked her for an “open marriage” so he could continue his affair with the woman who became his third wife. But if he truly wanted an open marriage this is not the best way to go about it.
I consider myself “polyamorous”. The word is a fairly recent creation, coined in the early 90s to mean: “The practice, state or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.”
The way that this works in my life is that, instead of there being two of us, there are five. If that sounds like a scheduling nightmare it’s because it occasionally is – but no more, I’m sure, than many families in the UK with step-parents and former spouses.
My legal husband (let’s call him Alan) and I have been polyamorous from the start. Alan had been in a polyamorous relationship before, and as soon as he explained it to me, the idea just clicked; this was what I had been looking for. One of the other men in our life (for the sake of argument, Ben) came on the scene six months later just as Alan and I got engaged. And when Alan and I were married four years ago Ben was present at our wedding – although my parent’s religious views prevented us from being open about his place in our hearts.
About three years ago, we came to know another couple (they can be Catherine and Dan) through the incredibly geeky table-top roleplaying society of which the other four are all members. (I mostly sit on the sidelines and knit). Initially, Catherine and Alan were the only ones with a romantic connection, one that often left me speechless with joy at their obvious happiness together. However, over time, first Dan and I, then Catherine and Ben, and then Catherine and I developed relationships of our own. (It’s easier to explain with a diagram.)
We have all had other relationships with other people through this time too, but we have decided that we all want to grow old together. Although it might be difficult to understand, despite being legally married only to Alan, I view my relationships with Ben, Catherine and Dan as equal.
Living like this enables us all to have all our relationship needs met, without having to put all that expectation on one person – and not having to be that one true love for anyone else. We love one another because we know one another – not because of who we wish the other person was, or because if they lose us they lose everything. It’s so freeing, and at the same time a huge commitment. Freeing because you don’t have to be everything to one person, but a commitment because you are signing up to be one of the most important people in many lives, not just one.
Last summer, we finally had the conversation about the rest of our lives. This was every bit as terrifying as it is for anyone in a more conventional relationship. We don’t have the choice about whether or not we get married, and may face more legal barriers than monogamous couples, but the decisions about where to live, whether or not we have children, and who pays the bills are just as momentous.
No two polyamorous relationships are the same, in the same way that no two conventional marriages work in exactly the same way. But an essential characteristic of any polyamorous relationship is informed consent; I have no problem with any of my partners telling me that they have a date with someone else, but would have a big problem with finding out that they had one last week with someone new, and didn’t tell me.
It would be tempting to say that we never have to deal with jealousy, but we do. However, jealousy is usually a symptom of another problem, rather than being a problem in itself. A bit of soul-searching and communication can usually turn up a solution that works for everyone.
Our family is quite unusual, even under the umbrella of polyamorous relationships. With every additional partner comes additional complications, so a polyfamily of five can be quite complex at times. There is a common misconception that polyamorists are greedy, or all about the sex, but in our experience, we spend a whole lot more time talking about sex than having it.
A blogger on the Polytical website recently wrote that she considered her polyamory was inherently feminist, as it forces those within the relationship to discuss and negotiate their behaviour and expectations.
Over the past year there have been a number of quite public examples of people wanting non-ethical non-monogamy. Maybe we know people in our own lives, who are not having all of their intimacy needs met by their primary partner, yet clearly do not want to give up a loving relationship.
From my point of view, I often end up wishing that these people would just communicate their desires to their partners, and try to negotiate the freedom they want in an ethical, open way, rather than just taking it, and hoping they won’t get found out.
Had Newt Gingrich followed these principles and talked about his needs and desires, he might have negotiated with his wife to open up his marriage and pursued an interesting friendship. As it is, he appears to have asked to keep a clandestine, non-consensual relationship that he had already started. Who knows, maybe, if he had talked first, then instead of dealing with a media storm, he could have been coming home to both the women he loved.