Is monogamy outmoded and open relationships the healthier, more honest alternative? asks Katie Glass
The hardest thing, for Giulia, is the planning. ‘You get a lot of diary clashes and spend a lot of time trying to stick to plans you’ve made for weekends,’ she laughs, all brown curls and cheeky smile. ‘Polyamorous relationships take quite a lot of forward thinking,’ she decides, but it’s worth it for what they’ve taught her about love.
In other ways, since becoming polyamorous – which means you can be in more than one relationship, with the full support and trust of everyone involved – Giulia says her love life has become more straightforward. For years she was curious about open relationships but had never pursued one. When her last relationship ended in a mess after four years together, she was drawn to the idea that things would have been healthier if they’d been honest about how they felt. She’d fancied other people and had at times been unfaithful, she admits. ‘It would have made more sense to talk openly about those desires.’
WATCH: Your 30s: Why They're The Best Years Of Your Life
Giulia feels some expectations of monogamous relationships are unrealistic. ‘Maybe, back in the day, getting married and staying married your whole life seemed normal, but now people don’t want to engage in self-denial,’ she says. ‘Being in an open relationship is about honesty with your partner, so you can be curious and inquisitive together.’
Certainly, this relationship utopia sounds appealing. I’ve discussed open relationships with every partner I’ve had. I am ambivalent about the institution of marriage – torn between wanting to build a life with one partner, and wondering if we’ll die of boredom doing it.
Meanwhile, around me a brave new world has opened up, exploring sexual and gender spectrums, making the idea of monogamy feel ever more outdated. Facebook has long known that in the modern world things are ‘complicated’. Now sexual adventures that once seemed exotic or risqué – threesomes, lesbian orgies, swingers’ nights – are increasingly becoming more mainstream as we become more honest about our desires. I see couples on Tinder seeking threesomes, my friends use the threesome app 3nder and openly go to London’s fetish clubs Torture Garden and Skirt Night.
Most significantly, our thinking has shifted. If once in delity seemed the symptom of a dysfunctional relationship, open relationships and polyamory turn such thinking on its head. Couples practising sexual and emotional openness say they actually enjoy a stronger connection, because their experiences are shared, rather than hidden. As Giulia says, ‘If it works, it brings you closer because it allows you to speak openly about your feelings and emotions.’
Giulia – now 30, and an academic researching public policy – had her first open relationship with Patrick. For two years it worked. It helped that at first they lived apart – Giulia in Canterbury and Patrick in London. Giulia travelled frequently for work, at one point moving to Australia for six months. ‘Generally, it was fine,’ she says, ‘but occasionally he’d freak out and be upset.’
For her part, Giulia admits she would get anxious and fearful of losing Patrick. She also noticed a pattern emerging: that while she tended to form other significant relationships, Patrick had short flings. And despite promising to be open about those experiences, the reality of doing so felt more complicated. ‘I decided it wasn’t right to carry on as we were.’ Rather than end things, Giulia decided to ask Patrick if he was open to having a ‘truly open’ polyamorous relationship. Patrick would still be Giulia’s ‘primary partner’, but they would ‘fully practise openness’. ‘It’s been a conscious decision we’ve made to try a different way of having a relationship. A different way of envisaging love.’
Some of Giulia’s relationships are more sexual, some more emotional. Some last, others have failed. ‘All the gradients of the rainbow,’ she says. She is currently seeing three people – Patrick, Jim and Mags. They are very different. That’s the point. Jim is a 28-year-old musician from Manchester who she’s been involved with for six months. Mags is a 30-year-old woman she met through university three years ago. Initially friends, they fell platonically in love. A year ago, their physical relationship began.
Giulia enjoys the way different relationships expose her to different ideas and experiences. ‘It can be anything from music to sex. Someone playing a banging tune or telling you about a new book, a film, a festival. Who would want to spend all of their time with the same person?’
Mags agrees. ‘It’s hard to meet someone who fulfils all your needs – but that doesn’t mean you’re any less attracted to them. I think, surprisingly, it’s men who worry more about having open relationships because they worry if that’s what their partner wants, it means they’re not enough – for them, it often comes down to an insecurity about sex.’
Mags’ previous relationships had been monogamous but she believes her open relationships are actually closer. ‘Some people think polyamory is about not being able to commit to people, but to me it’s about making more of a commitment. You commit to working on the relationship. Because you don’t have a recognisable framework to fall back on, you have to keep checking in with your partners, talking about your boundaries, being exible with your needs and nding solutions with each partner to make the relationship work. In that way, I think you are more conscious about open relationships than maybe people in monogamous relationships are.’
Open relationships have to start, says Mags, from a ‘base of honesty and trust’. As a result, she says she’s not jealous of Giulia’s other partners. ‘Jealousy is an expression of insecurity in a relationship but I don’t feel that because we’ve already developed such a strong bond as friends.’
Jim met Giulia at a festival where he was playing. Jim was already in an open relationship with a male partner, David*, but Giulia was his first other ‘other’ partner. At first it felt like cheating. But the more he and David shared their experiences, the less it felt that way, and the closer it brought them. This is Jim’s first open relationship and he says he’s surprised to find he’s not jealous or anxious. ‘It’s liberating,’ he says. It’s made him happier. ‘I’d never thought outside the box,’ he says, ‘but when you talk to people in different situations you realise there are different ways to have romantic relationships. It has changed how I see love.’ Still, if on paper open relationships seem appealing, there are downsides. Is Giulia immune to the jealousy I suspect I would feel? She laughs.
‘Not at all! I’m just as insecure, as possessive and resentful. For me this is a struggle. It’s something we’re trying and failing at.’ Ultimately, though, she believes working through those emotions is healthy. ‘Yes it’s complicated, but complicated doesn’t have to be a negative thing!’ she says – which is true, although it may be more appealing to those who don’t want children. Although Giulia isn’t currently thinking of having kids, this isn’t because she’s in polyamorous relationships. In fact, she says she might consider having children in the future within a polyamorous set-up.
Ultimately, what draws Giulia to polyamory has been what it’s shown her about love. ‘Growing up, I thought love was going to be a thing that just happened and when it happened that was it,’ she says. ‘What I’ve learned is that love is built. It’s being able to constantly renew a connection with someone. To never take it for granted.’
Photographs by Ed Miles. Partners posed by models.