Love: that thing between two. Adam and Eve. Anais Nin and Henry Miller. Elton John and David Furnish. Yet, in our discourses of romance, a form of amorous relationship is forgotten: polyamory.
Duncan* ’19, who uses they/them pronouns, frames polyamory as an experience of intimacy in all its forms, from intimate friendships to romance. James* ’18, who is currently in a monogamous relationship, said that he identifies as polyamorous because he has loved three people at one time.
Duncan came into their identity when they encountered a polyamorous community during their freshman summer. Now, they find understanding in a discussion group called “Poly High Tea”, which meets monthly under the auspices of Experience Ananda, a studio in New Haven founded by Amanda Ananda.
Ananda was first inspired to start Experience Ananda during a divorce. She realized that many around her believed they didn’t deserve happiness and decided it was her life mission to affirm that all people are worthy of love and bliss.
Ananda noticed that New Haven lacked sex-positive spaces and places where people could explore aspects of spirituality together. She started Experience Ananda in her apartment before moving into a larger space on Grand Avenue. Her studio is colorful and vibrant, with a soft floor to cushion cuddle parties and tapestries hanging from the walls. Through workshops and events including guided meditations, erotica writing groups, tantra yoga and “questioning gender” discussions, Ananda strives to create a space for the discovery of self-identity, spirituality and true connection. Since discovering polyamory in her late teens, Ananda has participated in poly cocktail parties in New York City and recently presented at a poly conference called Poly Living, organized by the nonprofit organization Loving More.
“I’ve been poly since I started dating, I just didn’t know the word,” Ananda said. “I was being monogamous because that’s all I knew how to be, but I was shifting from relationship to relationship. Then, I found the book ‘The Ethical Slut,’ and I was like, there are people like me.”
Yoojin, a New Haven resident who identifies as polyamorous, agreed that “The Ethical Slut” was a pivotal resource in her discovering of polyamory. The nonfiction book, written by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, discusses how to thrive in consensual nonmonogamous relationships in honest and healthy ways. In the book, Easton and Hardy reclaim the pejorative term “slut” by using it to signify an individual who accepts and embraces their enjoyment of sex and physical intimacy.
Polyamory is often misunderstood. Ananda said that a common stereotype is that polyamorous individuals are hypersexualised and indulge in a multitude of sexual liaisons.
But Yoojin said that polyamory is “not about sleeping around.” Instead, she said that it is like a type of sexuality — “not everyone identifies as polyamorous, not everyone identifies as monogamous and it can be fluid.”
Duncan agrees that polyamory is not, and need not be, solely about sex. Duncan said that polyamory also comes with “rejecting ‘The One’ rhetoric, the idea that there is this one perfect person for you.” Instead, it has allowed them not to rely on one person as their sole source of fulfilment, which has been liberating.
Simon points out that modern culture has made us accustomed to the language of the “OTP,” or “one true pairing.” Simon believes that this emphasis on monogamy stems from the institution of marriage. He said that because institutions have the weight of legal precedent and are inherently part of the status quo, they are crucial in shaping our mindsets and beliefs — including those of an amorous nature. The tradition of marriage cajoles us into placing the hope of understanding in one person, he said, and that can be “unrealistic, unfair and burdensome.”
“Especially when you’re poly, there’s always conscious transitioning and figuring out where your relationship is still healthy for both of you, where you still meet each other, you know. I think it’s an important phase of relationships that we haven’t been taught to navigate in a healthy way,” Ananda said.
Ananda conducts poly workshops at her studio which she calls “Blissful Transitions in Conscious Relationships”. Through these workshops, she helps her clients gain clarity about who they are, what they want, and what they want to create in polyamorous dynamics.
Simon* ’17, who is in an open relationship, found a model of intimacy in the romance between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Simon said that the philosophers, who were in an open marriage, had categories of “necessary, essential love” and “contingent love.” Simon added that to Sartre and de Beauvoir, the love between them was necessary; everything else was contingent.
All polyamorous people interviewed agreed that polyamory differs from person to person and that it is up to the participant to define their relationships depending on their needs and wants.
To Duncan, polyamory is most liberating in how it rewrites well-worn scripts of dating and romance. Duncan explained that polyamory can be interpreted in a plethora of ways, and every individual should find what suits them best. While some identify as “solo-poly”, a term that refers to individuals who wish to be less entangled romantically, others are “swingers” who have a primary partner and hook-ups outside of that dominant relationship.
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The emergence of polyamorous communities begs the question: is it possible to love more than one person at once? Perhaps, an answer lies in our evolutionary past.
Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, a biological anthropologist and professor in Yale’s Department of Anthropology and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said that the puzzle begins with understanding mammalian biology — specifically, primate biology. He explained that in most mammals, the female has a substantially greater initial investment in her offspring due to lactation and pregnancy. From an evolutionary perspective, this may set the stage for different behaviors in males and females, he said.
Fernandez-Duque added that while the widely cited maximum number of offspring produced by a woman is 69, there are records suggesting that Moulay Ismail, the bloodthirsty emperor of Morocco in the 18th century, fathered 800–900 offspring. The difference here is telling of a different biology and a different potential for reproduction, Fernandez-Duque said. Perhaps, this distinction between the sexes introduces the perimeters for polygamy.
Fernandez-Duque said that human societies vary on how they organize their mating and social relationships, but he points out that there often is a gender imbalance in polygamous relationships.
“From an evolutionary perspective, and in view of the profound differences in the reproductive biology of men and women, it’s rare to imagine a system where it is the woman who has two husbands,” Fernandez-Duque said. “But there are small communities in Nepal and the Himalayas where that was the case and still is.”
Fernandez-Duque added that polygamy in marriage is more prevalent in societies that enable the accumulation of resources. One of the explanations has been that this accumulation of resources by men can become a currency that is exchanged for wives, he explained.
There are elements of our biology that speak of a polygynous past, Fernandez-Duque suggested. He said that primates with pronounced sexual dimorphism, where the sexes have very different physical features, are often not monogamous. In the human species, men are often bigger than woman. May this be telling of a human evolutionary history of polygamy?
Fernandez-Duque said that while polyamory has arisen in modern cultures, such a relationship structure may not always be sustainable. He referred to some research by William Jankoviak, who studied a community of swingers in Las Vegas.
“What he found in those communities — 21st century Western communities, not the polyandrous peasants of the Himalayas — even in these communities where people thought they could handle simultaneous relationships, again and again what he’s finding is that they could not last,” Fernandez-Duque said. “People are having all kinds of emotions and problems.”
A few of the interviewees attested to this as well. Yoojin said that jealousy and balancing time between multiple partners is a challenge in polyamorous relationships. Duncan found that communicating with partners’ partners was tedious and required great sensitivity.
James said that one of the greatest difficulties was justifying polyamory as a legitimate lifestyle.
“People I’ve dated or had relationships with, it felt like we diverged very fundamentally,” James said. “Because of outside pressures and beliefs of what constitutes a healthy or acceptable relationship, there’s this idea that when you’re young you can play around, but after a certain point you have to get serious, and decide. I still don’t know what to do with that.”
But many said that polyamory has strengthened and enriched their relationships.
Duncan found that polyamory has taught them to communicate more honestly and frequently. Ananda said that polyamory helped her shed cultural conditioning and shape her own expression of womanhood. She added that “To be able to open up and receive different levels of connections with different people is really empowering,” saying that she’s had experiences where she’s had a wonderful mental connection with someone but less of a sexual spark, or where she’s had “amazing fantastical sexual experiences” with a different partner with whom she connected less intellectually.
Simon said polyamory offers the opportunity to grow with multiple people, and to gain new insights into facets of oneself through simultaneous intimacies.
Polyamorous people remind us that our heart is not a pie chart and that loving one person does not diminish the love we feel for another. By opening our minds to the possibilities of how a human being can love, and letting our hearts move as they will, perhaps we may even surprise ourselves.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.