Polyamory is a world of ‘infinite’ love. But how do the relationships work?
This is the second story of a five-part series on how alternative relationships are reshaping love in Canada. Each day this week, we’ll explore a different union model, from sexless and arranged marriages to mixed orientation and polyamory. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #SOTUCanada.
Darren Ruckle spent the first half of his life convinced he was a jerk. For reasons that he couldn’t comprehend, the 44-year-old Victoria, B.C., resident could not stay faithful to one woman.
“I got married at 21 and had an affair. I couldn’t understand how I loved my wife but I also loved this other person. I thought I was horrible,” he says. “You’re not brought up that way.”
He was racked with guilt and even attempted suicide, but eventually, he realized that he wasn’t an incorrigible philanderer. Quite the opposite — he was polyamorous.
WATCH BELOW: The State of the Union series takes a deep dive into five alternative relationship models and uncovers the changing face of Canadian love.
Today, Ruckle is divorced from his wife and lives with his partner of two years, Donna Harrington, 33. She’s his nesting partner, which means they live together and consider one another their primary partner.
Until recently, the couple was in a triad with another woman, but they broke up and now he and Harrington are pursuing other relationships. At the moment, Ruckle has a new girlfriend, Laura, who’s going through a divorce, and she has a boyfriend who’s married. Harrington is also in the early stages of a new relationship with a woman who, coincidentally, Ruckle has known since they were six. She’s also married and has a boyfriend.
No one could be faulted for needing to draw a family tree of sorts to understand the intricate web of relationships, but make no mistake, they are all connected in their own way.
Brandie Weikle, founder of The New Family, a website and podcast about family diversity, says that polyamory is negotiated respectfully and with openness, “which means there’s no sneaking around or cheating.”
Ruckle has met and befriended Harrington’s past partners, and although he has yet to meet Laura’s boyfriend, Don, he will in time. For their part, Laura and Don often hang out with his other partner and spouse.
Monogamy isn’t always realistic
It sounds awfully complicated and like a lot of extra responsibility — after all, relationships require work. Surely, the more people you add to the mix, the more effort needs to be poured into maintaining each relationship.
But some would argue that the one-person model of monogamy is as outdated as the idea that we only have the capacity or willingness to make one relationship in our lives a priority.
“When marriage first became institutionalized, people weren’t living as long, and they were doing it out of economic necessity and safety,” says Barbara Mitchell, a professor of sociology and gerontology at Simon Fraser University. “It then gradually evolved into a free choice romantic ideal and it was assumed that we’d be monogamous.”
“But the women’s and civil rights movements, and the rise of the LGBTQ movement started to question this model of love that was primarily heterosexual and exclusive.”
What the poly community strives to get across is that they’re not swingers who are trying to satisfy some insatiable sexual need or sow their proverbial oats. Rather, they’re people seeking out multiple romantic, meaningful connections with different people who can meet different needs.
“What’s interesting about polyamorous people is that they’re making room to not lean on just one person for everything,” Weikle says. “By having more than one romantic relationship, they’re making space to get a certain aspect of connection from more than one place.”
Polyamory vs. polygamy
Polygamous families follow a religious doctrine and involve a marriage rite that usually consists of one man and more than one woman (although these marriages are not recognized by Canadian law). They all engage in heteronormative sexual behaviour, which means the man has sex with all of the women, but the women only have sex with him. The head of the family is the male and he governs the relationships, which are based on rules, structure and status as dictated by him and the religious community.
By contrast, polyamory isn’t restricted by any configuration of gender and same-sex relationships are common. The families may or may not live together and there are no set rules — the relationships are managed by those involved. Above all else, polyamory stresses acceptance, inclusivity and equality. Plus, it’s legal, even if they cannot legally marry.
READ MORE: A sexless marriage can work
WATCH BELOW: Four per cent of Canadians are in a polyamorous or open relationship, new poll says.
Statistics Canada doesn’t track polyamorous families, but a few bodies have tried to get a handle on how many exist in the country. The Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association (CPAA) conservatively estimates that there are 1,100 polyamorous families in Canada, while an informal survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family found that of 547 respondents, more than two-thirds identified as polyamorous.
An Ipsos poll exclusively commissioned by Global News surveyed 1,501 Canadians and found polyamory to be gaining steam in certain relationship models. One in 25 respondents (four per cent) who are in a relationship described it as polyamorous. The marriage scenarios in which couples were most likely to be polyamorous were arranged marriages (27 per cent) and mixed orientation relationships, where one spouse is straight and the other is gay or bisexual (23 per cent).
“Once same-sex marriage was legalized, we started hearing more about polyamory — it allowed people to feel freer to experiment and to try out non-traditional relationships,” Mitchell says. “We’re seeing more studies in the area and anecdotally, we’re starting to see more people freely say that they’ve been in a polyamorous relationship. They feel greater acceptability.”
In fact, 36 per cent of the Canadians polled said they support the decriminalization of polygamy, half of whom were aged 18 to 34 and identified as being in a relationship.
Perhaps the greatest show of acceptance occurred in April, when Newfoundland and Labrador issued a landmark ruling that allowed three adults in a polyamorous relationship to be recognized as the legal parents of a child born to that union.
“Society is continuously changing and family structures are changing along with it,” Justice Robert Fowler of the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court’s family division said in his decision. “This must be recognized as a reality and not as a detriment to the best interests of the child.”
‘Having an extra dad was really awesome’
Blended families are nothing new today (especially not with a national divorce rate of 48 per cent) and co-parenting is a reality for many, even in polyamorous households. Except unlike scenarios of divorce and remarriage, where the adjustment period can be fraught with power struggles, polyamorous families tend to take a more communal approach.
“It reminds me of the 1960s and 1970s when people were joining communes and raising kids in Utopian communities,” Mitchell says. “We know for a lot of those families it worked and the kids benefited from being surrounded by lots of adults who loved them, regardless of biological ties.”
Not only do children in these scenarios feel safer and more secure, she says, they’re also exposed to role modelling from adults who are less hierarchical in terms of traditional marriage expectations.
And for some kids, it also means that they can have all their problems fixed under one roof.
Zoe Duff, 59, is the spokesperson for the CPAA. She is in a relationship with two men, her nesting partner of 19 years and her other partner of nine years. When their families first came together, Duff and her nesting partner had eight children between them.
“The youngest was six years old when we first started dating, so the kids grew up in a poly household,” she says. “I ran a support group and there were always people in the house talking about it. They only have good things to say about it.”
And her kids, in particular, loved having two dads.
“Having an extra dad was really awesome, they’d say. They go to one for Mr. Fix It-type stuff and they go to the other when their computer dies. They have different relationships with each of them, but they view them both as their stepdads.”
Ruckle and Harrington also pitched in with their now-ex partner’s child, taking turns doing school runs and offering advice when it was required. In fact, he says, the child remains very attached to them both.
In a 20-year study examining children in polyamorous families, Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a global academic expert on polyamory, found that although children raised in poly households experienced a range of advantages, including learning open communication strategies and gaining a deeper sense of trust in their parents, they also experience disadvantages.
These disadvantages are both practical — lack of privacy, an overcrowded home and increased supervision — and emotional, including social stigma, discrimination from others and the desire for a “normal” family.
‘It’s a designer relationship’
When it comes to arrangements and responsibilities, each polyamorous household has its own unique set of rules and agreements.
For example, in Duff’s house, each member of the triad has their own bedroom, whereas Ruckle and Harrington shared their king-size bed with their last partner. In both homes, the responsibilities are evenly split, although they don’t have specific chores. It’s just about doing what you need to do for the family and being considerate of everyone.
“It’s whatever works,” Duff says. “I’ve seen it work where two couples and their children live next door to each other, and others live together. It’s a designer relationship.”
Sleeping arrangements and division of household responsibilities are pretty common in every family, but what monogamous couples don’t need to do is lay down ground rules for sleeping with new partners.
Every poly family has their own stipulations. For instance, some nesting partners may vow to only be fluid bonded to one another (meaning only they can exchange bodily fluids during sex and protection needs to be used when having sex with any other partner). In other cases, it could be saving one particular activity or behaviour (like holding hands) for your nesting partner.
“You only proceed in your new relationship at the comfort level of your old relationship,” Duff explains. “Some people have safer sex rules. That helps with jealousy.”
When jealousy strikes
For people who are monogamous, perhaps the biggest and most insurmountable obstacle to a life of polyamory would be jealousy. But that doesn’t mean polyamorous people are immune to it.
“Jealousy happens, but it happens in all stages of our life,” Ruckle says. “We experience it with siblings and with coworkers, and it’s designed to push you forward.”
“In a polyamorous relationship, jealousy does the same thing. If I’m jealous that my partner’s partner is treating her better than I am, it pushes me to change and do better.”
Instead of focusing on feelings of jealousy, however, the polyamorous community upholds the concept of compersion. It’s the act of revelling in the joy that you see your partner experiencing at having a new partner in their life.
“At the beginning stages of a new relationship, most people are bouncing off the ceiling like a chihuahua in heat, and it can drive other people crazy,” Duff says. “But we practice compersion. It’s a true state of being and it’s achievable, but it’s based on being secure in yourself and being aware that your partner doesn’t love you any less just because they have a new partner.”
This kind of security comes from a constant flow of communication. Polyamory literature teaches people how to work through their feelings of jealousy, and it starts with communicating them to your partner. The willingness to discuss this openly and frankly, without judgment, is the cornerstone of preventing anyone in the relationship from feeling left out.
READ MORE: Is monogamy a realistic relationship ideal?
“We often have a lot of trouble in our monogamous relationships because we don’t openly communicate,” Mitchell says. “In the polyamorous community, they have more open communication strategies that can strengthen relationships and have practical benefits. There’s a lot of sharing and caring going on.”
But a lot of the time, outsiders get hung up on the fact that there’s sex going on with multiple partners, spinning it as consensual cheating.
“Sometimes guys will say I’m lucky because I get to sleep with more than one woman, but I ask them, ‘Are you OK with your girl sleeping with another guy?’ If not, you’re not ready for polyamory,” Ruckle says.
“We poly people feel infinite love. We say, you don’t just pick one parent, friend or child, so why is that OK but you can only have deep feelings for one romantic partner?”
These are some of the findings of an Ipsos poll conducted between July 13 and 16, 2018, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,501 Canadians aged 18+ was interviewed online via the Ipsos I-Say panel and non-panel sources. Quota sampling and weighting were employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within ±3.0 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadian adults been polled.
— Illustrations by Laura Whelan
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.