This is what it's really like to be in a relationship with more than one lover.
In a Grey Lynn flat, finishing off breakfast while their flatmates head to weekend jobs, Monique, Chelsi and Matthew might be any young Kiwis catching up on a Saturday morning. But these three aren’t friends - they’re lovers.
Or rather Matthew and Monique are. And Chelsi and Matthew are. And so are Monique and her secondary partner Meeks, who has another girlfriend as well as more casual partners. Any of them are free to see or pursue anyone they like, provided they keep any interested parties in the loop along the way.
Chelsi, 20, explains that though she doesn’t have additional partners, she still considers Matthew a secondary partner as they don’t have what she calls “primary dynamics”. And though she and Monique aren’t romantic or sexual partners, she says they get along “like a house on fire”.
Polyamory - literally meaning “multiple loves” - means different things to different people. It’s sometimes described as ethical non-monogamy, as everyone’s expected to be open about their feelings, expectations and experiences.
For Matthew, Monique and Chelsi, terms like “primary” and “secondary” help denote how serious their relationships are.
“It doesn't sound very nice, but it definitely helps to know where you stand,” says Monique, 26. “Secondary's not a derogatory term, secondary just means that there is someone else who gets to spend more time and possibly has more of a life plan together. It just comes secondary to that.”
Matthew, 25, first began thinking about a polyamorous lifestyle after exiting a three-year monogamous relationship over a year ago. He’d recently met Monique on Snapchat and made it clear from the start that he didn’t want the relationship to be exclusive or monogamous.
“When Matthew first pitched the idea of polyamory to me, I freaked out,” says Monique. She was ready to say “thanks, but no thanks”, but decided it was worth giving a go – if nothing else, to see whether it worked for her. And, she says, it does.
When Matthew first pitched the idea of polyamory to me, I freaked out.
On the other hand, Chelsi says she’d always had polyamorous tendencies. “When I was 13 years old, I had a school dance and really wanted to take two of my really close friends. I was told that that wasn’t okay, I had to choose one of them … I couldn’t understand for the life of me why that was.”
She and Matthew have been together for a few months, and though she’s interested in having other partners, or even a primary partner, she’s in no hurry to find them. “The whole idea of polyamory for me is not pressuring yourself to be 100 per cent of what someone else needs,” she says.
Despite not being Matthew’s primary partner, Chelsi doesn’t resent Monique’s status or feel jealous of her relationship with Matthew.
“It’s about what’s making you jealous - being able to rationalise and sit back and go, ‘okay, you’re feeling jealous because it’s really cold tonight, and all you want to do is snuggle up and watch a movie with someone. But that someone is with their other someone.”
Monique, on the other hand, says that she doesn’t experience jealousy - just a feeling of envy when she can’t see her partners and they are with other people, usually because she has other commitments.
Matthew takes a reasoned approach. He believes that jealousy springs from fear, whether of being alone, losing someone you care about, not being respected or simply looking stupid in front of other people.
“It’s just a matter of figuring out and reflecting to myself, ‘Okay, what do I need to do to help this work, and make myself feel better, and make her feel better”.
Jesse*, 24, is a Nelson-based coder in a closed triad with his wife Jodie*, a 25-year-old jeweller, and his girlfriend Grace*, a 28-year-old writer.
“We’re not looking for anyone else and we don’t date anyone else.”
He and his wife have been together for seven years, and have a young daughter. Grace currently lives separately, though they’re hoping to move in together soon.
“We very strongly identify as a family - we’re a family unit, and we act as one, rather than a couple with a child and another person. We’re not just dating someone.”
He and his wife had been married for about three years when they began talking about opening up the relationship and both having other female partners.
Jesse met Grace on Twitter (“Nelson is a very small town!”) and a coffee date quickly became a more serious relationship.
Grace and Jodie were initially reluctant to meet one another, but when they did “they just clicked,” he says. “They’re both bisexual and they’d really never had an opportunity to explore that.”
We very strongly identify as a family - we’re a family unit, and we act as one, rather than a couple with a child and another person.
These days, he sees both relationships as equally significant in his life, and says if they could all be legally married, they would be.
“We respect each other equally and would like equal legal standing. But no government department has a form or a system in place to handle poly relationships - one is a primary relationship, and the other is just a person.”
There are implications too for structuring their finances or owning property; if something happened to Jesse, he says, Jodie would take precedence as his wife. “In the eyes of the law, it’s very difficult to have them seen as equal and recognised as what they are.”
Though it’s not a secret, their employers don’t know about it, and nor do Jesse’s parents, who he describes as “very religious”. “It’s quite a major thing for people to find out, and a lot don’t get that, so ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is often easier.
He is used to the same set of questions and assumptions: “People naturally assume that it’s not equal and that I’ve got two women who are subservient to me, that it’s a sex thing or a fetish thing, which it isn’t.”
Their daughter has known Grace since she was four, and sees her as a friend or sister, though the triad has recently been trying to assert her as a parental figure.
Though it’s never been explicitly explained, the assumption is simply that Grace will be there, whether out for dinner or on holiday – more questions would be asked if she were not.
“She’s seen every combination of us kiss and hug. She’s never reacted negatively, but a lot of things just go over her head, though obviously we’re not overtly sexual around each other.”
They’ve talked about having another child, with Grace being the biological mother, and are keen on the idea of sharing parenting of a newborn between three parents rather than two.
For the time being, though, Jesse says that polyamory makes him a better person.
“Imagine your wife telling you off, but there’s someone there agreeing with them. It makes it more balanced and more of a discussion when more points of view are there.
“I’m surrounded by two amazing, supportive women, who have made me better. I can’t see my life without them both.”
While Jesse’s and Monique’s relationships roughly conform to shapes, Auckland-based Bee, 33, and Esther, 31, have more of a constellation.
I’m surrounded by two amazing, supportive women, who have made me better. I can’t see my life without them both.
Esther’s secondary partner is Bee, though she has a few other “romantic friendships”. For Bee, it’s even more complex: she has two primary partners, Edward and Esther, as well as additional relationships with “intimates or lovers” that she doesn’t see as often, whether because of the dynamics of the relationship or just due to distance.
“Each person gets a say. And they can all change their mind. For me, that supports autonomy as much as it supports dependence, and everything's negotiable.”
Bee was engaged to be married when she fell in love with someone else. The experience, she says, made her question whether she even believed in marriage, or indeed monogamy.
“It confused the living daylights out of me, because there was no thought or part of my being that did not want to pursue the engagement or not be with the man I was going to marry. I couldn’t fathom how I could fall in love with someone else, and it wasn’t something I’d done on purpose.”
Esther and Bee met on Tinder as Esther was coming out of an eight-year marriage. She has two young sons, and, having only ever had one partner in her life, felt that she had some catching up to do.
“I thought, ‘well, this is a great way to do it, rather than have one person at a time.’
“I really like having the idea of something that expands my heart - a core value of mine is growth, and so I could see that polyamory would be a really great way to grow and challenge myself, in terms of love and the emotional intensity that comes with those kinds of connections with people.”
She says there are added advantages for people who are bisexual.
“If they're monogamous that means they're going to have to choose between which person they are going to be with, even though they're attracted to both, whereas if you're bisexual and you're poly, you can actually satisfy both of those loves that you have.”
Bee and Esther hope to foster a polyamorous community in New Zealand via a Facebook group, so that people in poly relationships can engage with and support each other. In the long run, they hope to have events like workshops or weekends, where people can get together or offer each other support.
Many polyamorous people, like Jesse and his family, don’t feel comfortable being ‘out’, which Bee says is often with good reason.
The difference between polyamory and swinging is that swingers tend to have a lot of sex, and polyamory is just sitting around talking about their relationships.
“I know people in the States who have lost their jobs and their children, that have been taken to social services, because they've revealed themselves or come out as polyamorous.
She hopes more exposure to the issue will make for less stigma and more general acceptance.
“There’s an assumption that [polyamory] is reckless, that it's careless, unethical, … maybe dishonest, that it's coming from not a selfish but a kind of debaucherous place, which is valid - but it's not the case.”
It is often confused with swinging, she says, though there’s a substantial difference between the two.
“There's a running joke in polyamory communities that people think that being polyamorous is just people having big mass orgies all the time - the joke is, the difference between polyamory and swinging is that swingers tend to have a lot of sex, and polyamory is just sitting around talking about their relationships.”
So polyamory is about talking - but it’s also about love, and not just where you might expect to find it. Esther mentions compersion, another term often used in polyamorous communities.
“Something that surprised me about polyamory was compersion - where you can feel a good feeling about your partner's interaction with someone else.”
She gives the example of seeing Ed kissing Bee.
“I almost feel the good feeling that Bee would be feeling from that connection, and it's a warm feeling, and it's lovely.
“You think, ‘Oh wait - shouldn't that be jealousy? Why aren't I feeling jealous? I'm feeling really happy for their happiness.’ That's a really lovely spin-off of being poly.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story said Esther's primary partner was Bee. This has been updated to reflect that Bee is her secondary partner.
Video shot and edited by Luke McPake
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