In high school, I probably wouldn’t have predicted that polyamory would have any part in my time as a Stanford student.
I figured that maybe I’d find someone I’d like, we’d date and then we’d presumably either break up or marry — only two options, and both of them daunting. Could I even date people if I had to choose between falling out with them or marriage? Marriage?
And then I actually came to campus and added the word “hookup” to my vocabulary, and for a few short months I thought everything made sense. It was so convenient to have that sort of no-strings-attached intimacy, so nice to not have to date so I didn’t have to think about the future. For that one night I’d have a hell of a time, and then we’d perhaps smile at each other for a week as we biked past in opposite directions. Then we’d forget about each other, rinse, repeat. Welcome to Stanford, right? We’ve all grown to accept that.
But when I started falling in love with multiple people instead of just hooking up, I had to ask myself if I was ready for polyamory. Well, the first question I asked was: Was poly even okay?
When it happened, it wasn’t as if it was nonconsensual — we were all from campus, we all talked about it, agreed on it, had the consent of everyone involved. We went on cute dinner dates, bickered over completely pointless things, flirted over Skype, cuddled — how was that different from “normal”? My friends had similar relationships and were some of the happiest, most content people I knew. But for some reason, poly didn’t make sense to people around me.
Some people told me that my love wasn’t genuine since it was “spread out,” or something — how could I be so cruel to my partners as to only love them half as much as I should, or a third as much as I should? I was honestly puzzled by the question; what about people with two kids? Is each only loved half as much as they should be? Sorry, economists, but love is an infinite resource — it’s not like love takes up space, and we tend to have large hearts in the first place. Why restrict yourself to one?
Polyamory is hardly perfect — we deal with the same things that all relationships go through. Jealousy, miscommunication, loneliness; we work through the same issues as people in monogamous relationships, except that for polyamorous relationships, communicating about these things is not a choice but a necessity. Communication is the only difference between a healthy poly relationship and cheating on your monoamorous partner. And so we tell each other when we’re feeling jealous, when we develop feelings for new people, about how we feel towards each other multiple times a week.
Everyone has their own style; everyone talks through their relationships differently. I have friends who have been polyamorous for more than 10 years with the same group of people, friends who stay with their primary partners and freely rotate through their secondaries, friends who, every few months, have two or three different people they’re in relationships with.
And they’re all really, really happy.
Polyamorous people tend to be kinky, but that’s only because being open and communicative enough for poly means you’re open enough for other things too. And I think that’s the most important part of it. I don’t know if people are “predisposed” or anything towards polyamory, monoamory, whatever — but we’ve all experienced the same baggage that comes out of intimacy. How do we navigate love and relationships in the context of a society that encourages us not to talk? How and where do we have those necessary conversations when we’re told not to have them in the first place?
I’m not advocating for polyamory — far from it. Rather, I think that the communication that makes polyamory possible also makes any relationship stronger — friendship, monoamory, marriage. Because how many times have you held yourself back from telling people things because you “didn’t want to make things awkward,” or “didn’t want to ruin what you have?” The silent movie script in today’s society regarding love and intimacy from flirting to frolicking, the romanticization of “sending signals” and “reading actions” — they all make love into something that doesn’t make sense. And we’re told that the confusion and frustration we feel about love is “natural” or even “magical.”
That’s fine by me! But when we look at love through a more communicative lens, we start to fall for actual people — not a set of social gestures. We don’t fall in love with that well-executed dinner date or kiss on the cheek at the theater or sudden hugs. Rather, we learn, like and love each other for the little things, the stupid things, the fact that they randomly think of me at three in the morning sometimes and aren’t afraid to tell me that. I suppose this turned into pseudo-dating advice, in the end…but why not? We could all benefit from a little more communication.
Lily Zheng is the president of Kardinal Kink. Contact her at lilyz8 “at” stanford.edu.