How would you feel if your partner told you that he or she had fallen in love with someone else, but still wanted to stay with you and have a "polyamorous" relationship? Hurt, jealous, confused? Or do you think you'd manage to accept your partner's feelings and maybe even love several partners openly yourself? It's an unsettling idea, perhaps because for most young Europeans, love is still about finding "the one."

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Aleksandar Savić on how polyamory fits into European ideas about love more... How does it feel to be polyamorous? An interview with Philipp more...

Cover photo: Johanna Torstensson / www.youthmedia.eu (licence)

What does polyamory mean? Aleksandar Savić on a phenomenon which is not as new as you might think...

The human community is a living organism. Over time, this swarming mass called "society" has evolved, and with it its notion of human relationships. And yet, few kinds of relationship have intrigued mankind as much as love. Why do we find it so fascinating? Is it because it fills us with the desire to care and be cared for? Because it suppresses egoism in favour of altruism? Or just because the word sounds really good in French? Whatever the reason, the words of the poet and philosopher Novalis have not lost their power: "What is the eternal secret? Love!"

Now, just as we thought things couldn't get any more complicated, we come to a new term: polyamory. The word is derived from the Greek term poly meaning "several" or "many," and the Latin amor, which means "love." So, there you have it, many + love = many loves. This looks so simple when depicted as a formula, but if we take into account all the trouble we have in explaining a love (I'm creating grammatical chaos here, but bear with me!), how are we supposed to define multiple loves?

Illustration by Kunti Berzinska
Polyamory: a complicated love story

The very term "polyamory" is debated. Just like any other abstract term which relates to the very essence of one's intimacy, it is defined according to the attitudes of the people who define it. According to the Polyamory Society (polyamorysociety.org), polyamory is "the non possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously." Critics, on the other hand, claim the very opposite - that this is a practice which diminishes love, undermines relationships, and thus weakens the very fabric of society as we know it. Sometimes, it is even compared with promiscuity, which was the sexual norm in primitive societies before the appearance of early forms of marriage. Here, it is crucial to highlight an important factor in understanding polyamory. Unlike promiscuity, which indeed meant sexual relationships with many partners but had reproduction as its main goal, polyamory is all about the feelings, i.e. creating an emotional bond among partners.

As Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers University, says, love has three main aspects – lust, romantic love and the feeling of attachment. "But these three brain systems aren't always connected to each other. You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner, while you feel intensive romantic love to somebody else, while you feel the sex drive to people unrelated to these other partners. In short, we're capable of loving more than one person at a time." Basically, this is how polyamory works.

Loren Davidson's poem sums up polyamory:

Many Loves

I love the ocean,
I can stand by her shore for hours
Savoring her sighs
As her soft wavelets lap at my toes,
Fascinated by the mystery of her changing faces
Masking her eternal constancy.

I also love the hot wind
Blowing westward,
Thrusting wide the door between autumn and winter,
Making me sweat
And lick dry lips in anticipation.
She is not gentle
But rips away my illusions
Like the leaves the tree no longer needs.

Loving the wind
Does not mean I love the ocean less.
Each evokes a different part of me
And brings me different lessons,
And my love for them would not diminish
If I also loved the fertile forest.

As we go deeper into the significance of polyamory, the logical thing to ask ourselves is why these forms of relationship have such negative connotations in everyday life. Despite its hippie associations, polyamory actually has its roots way back in human history. Ancient societies were quite familiar with the custom of having relationships with several different people. Exotic tales of wealthy highborn princes courted by consorts and concubines may be the favourite setting for clichéd adventure stories, but beneath the surface, they represent just one of the forms of polyamory. Such relationships were able to exist without too much of a problem until the rise of a new religious and ethical model. Christianity brought with it a completely new ideological discourse, which promoted different values. Over centuries, these Christian values have put down roots in the European mentality, and monogamous relationships and marriage are a standard even among people who are not religious. "Thou shalt not commit adultery," warns one of the Commandments. Enough said. Even though one cannot compare polyamory with common adultery, the deviations from monogamy are automatically frowned upon, since they break with the social pattern which has been created under the influence of Christianity.

Over the last couple of decades, polyamory has been transforming from a social phenomenon into an organised movement. There are societies of polyamorous people all over Europe, ranging from Denmark and the Scandinavian region, all way to the south of the continent. In their quest for a place under the sun, they have launched numerous internet sites and blogs where people can find out about the lifestyle of the polyamorous: for example, there's at least one major polyamory website in the Netherlands, an English site which aims "to focus on the British and European perspective" and a forum site bringing polyamorous people together in France.

polyflagsmallThe poly-flag is one of several symbols of polyamory. Others include the parrot (parrots are typically called "Polly" in English) and a combination of a heart with an infinity sign, representing infinite love.

These groups are also doing their best to strengthen their social structures, holding meetings all around Europe - and of course, there's the obligatory facebook page to keep people up to date about meetings in their home countries. Such strategies help bolster the confidence of the polyamorous community, because they also allow them integrate themselves better into society. However, prejudices against polyamorous people are still a major problem.

I suppose I could finish with that woolly rhetorical question – "Will we be able to overcome these misconceptions?", or "What are we to do in order to integrate and accept the polyamorous people into society?" But I won't. Everyone has his or her own ways of dealing with this matter. We can hope, on the other hand, that European society will not only become able to tolerate these kinds of differences, but to embrace the diversity they have to offer.

The very first conversation between two people who are going to fall in love with each other is often pretty boring. "I'm really into indie music!", "I study law," and "isn't this a terrible club?!" are probably some of the first words spoken.

One of the first things Philipp said to Franziska* was, "I'm polyamorous."

Photo: Philipp Schiebler
Philipp: "I'm polyamorous."

Two and a half years later, he tells me in his matter-of-fact way: "Polyamory is an ability which people can learn. It's the ability to love more than one person deeply at the same time."

At the party where the two of them first met, Franziska's reaction set her apart from the vast majority of girls in Philipp's experience: when she heard that he was polyamorous, she didn't look for a quick excuse to end the conversation and avoid talking to him for the rest of the night. She wanted to know more. "It was inevitable that we'd be together," says Philipp seriously. His girlfriend looks embarassed and laughs, but doesn't disagree.

It's at a Munich polyamory meeting that I get to know the two of them. Philipp founded the group, which meets every month in a laid-back Munich bar. Nothing at the meeting is quite how I'd expected: somehow I'd imagined that it would be very serious and soul-searching, and that each person would tell the story of his or her struggle with multiple relationships whilst the others sat in sympathetic silence. Or maybe that they'd be painting placards for a political demonstration demanding poly-rights.

"You're going to be disappointed," says Andi, a regular at the polyamory meetings, sitting down beside me. "These meetings are just for small-talk – you ought to go to the other group, the one for lesbian and transgender polyamory – they're much more political there!" And what made Andi start coming to Philipp's meetings? "I noticed that whenever I was in a relationship, I became totally fixated on my partner," he says. "And I wanted to solve that problem, and to find out about other kinds of relationship."

As it turns out, the meeting is a jumble of very various people, all with different reasons for being there, and the conversation flows in all different directions. Our corner of the bar fills up with people, and there are soon at least twenty of us, about two thirds of whom have never been before. "There's been a lot of interest lately, because it's been in the press a lot," comments Philipp.

For many of the people at the meeting, "polyamory" seems to be a name for something they have felt for a while. One young guy with an impressive beard says he came along to meet like-minded people and to gain confidence when facing the outside world. A middle-aged woman introduces herself as a genuine relic of the 1970s: in those days, she was in a "threesome" relationship and was very happy, but eventually left that constellation because she felt it couldn't be right. "Since then, I've never found anyone I felt so happy with," she says nostalgically. Another newcomer keeps returning to the question of how somebody should deal with their polyamory if they're already in a long-term relationship. "How can you risk losing the person you love?" he asks Philipp earnestly. Another man chips in, "I guess there are two options, either you take the risk, or you just have to suppress your polyamorous side." "No, there is a third possibility," insists Philipp. "I know a couple who have opened up their relationship in gradual stages." Somehow, they managed to adopt polyamory without letting it force them apart – which must have taken an enormous amount of work. "Polyamory does take a lot of work, particularly at the beginning. You have to invest a great deal of effort," nods Philipp.

I think the relaxed, open atmosphere at the meeting has a lot to do with Philipp's attitude – he began organising these meetings about two years ago, soon after he started being open about his polyamory, and the mood definitely seems to be affected by his contented, uncomplicated manner. "I'll tell you what's really scandalous and shocking about polyamory," he says. "It's the fact that it's normal! It's not freakish, not perverse, just perfectly ordinary – and that's what people really can't believe."

I'll tell you what's really scandalous about polyamory - it's the fact that it's normal!

Philipp has not always accepted his emotional identity as something "normal." A few years ago, when already in a relationship, he fell in love with another girl. He suppressed his feelings, thinking that they could not be right. A year later, the same thing happened again – again he fell in love with someone else. This time, he waited to see if the feeling would fade – to find out whether he really did love both of them. "And at last I realised – I love both of them, and I love them truly... There was no competition between the two loves. In fact, they completed each other. And I thought to myself, I'm just not normal!" He fell over the word "polyamory" on the internet and found that it described his feelings. He told both girls about it, and neither of them felt able to stay with him. Was it simply that they could not deal with the situation, or were they unable to accept polyamory in general? "The whole thing," says Philipp. "They couldn't accept it in general."

People have much less of a problem with the idea of having sex with several different people than with the thought of actually loving several people.

This is the most common reaction to polyamory – and indeed, although I think of myself as being open and tolerant, I don't know how I would react if my boyfriend told me he loved another girl and wanted a relationship with both her and me. "It's funny how it's so much more common for people to be dishonest and have affairs than to have several relationships openly," says Philipp. "Somehow, that's far more acceptable. And people have much less of a problem with the idea of having sex with several different people than with the thought of actually loving several people." Well – perhaps, but part of being in love is devoting your love completely to your beloved, right? "In our society people tend to connect love very directly with the idea of ownership. Along the lines of – I can only love him if I own him. Love without ownership is unimaginable; it's difficult to accept. People think they'll get less love if their partner also loves someone else. But I think, the more love you give, the more there is." Currently, Philipp is in two relationships: one with Franziska, and one which he calls a "loving friendship without passion."

Philipp's book
Photo: Philipp Schiebler
Philipp's book: a love story of monoamory and polyamory

I imagine that the biggest difficulty which polyamorous people have to overcome is jealousy. Do they just have to ignore it? Or maybe they have a way of switching it off completely? "Jealousy has many different forms – and it can be something positive, if it lets you know that something in the relationship isn't right. But if it's exaggerated or unreasonable, then it's destructive. If you're in a polyamorous relationship, you know that just because your partner loves someone else, doesn't mean they're going to leave you." But there is also a kind of antidote to jealousy, a different emotion which some polyamorous people call "compersion" - it seems rather mysterious to me, but when Philipp talks about it he makes it sound pretty simple: "It's the emotion you have when you feel happy for someone. Everyone's familiar with it, but not in this context. In a relationship, it means you're happy for your partner when they're happy with somebody else."

It has taken Philipp a long time to come to these conclusions – he compares the process to a second puberty. "At first, everything seems weird and you feel like you can't be normal!" He grins. The comparison seems very fitting: for Philipp, this process of feeling abnormal and having to learn slowly about his own emotional identity was a necessary part of "growing up" - which is probably why he now seems so chilled out about it all. "It sounds really kitsch, but love is not limited."

Meeting in Munich: www.polyamorie-muc.de

*not her real name

NEXT ISSUE 01.04.2018