What motivates a woman to choose, and stay in, an open relationship? Three women tell Gabrielle Fernie why they turned their backs on monogamy
‘I’m happy that she’s sleeping with my husband’
Hannah Collins, 31, works in the arts industry. She identifies as queer and polyamorous. She’s been with her partner James, who is also dating Rae, for 16 years.
‘For many people, my relationship is their worst nightmare, but theirs is mine. We only get one life and I’m not trying to be something I’m not. That’s pretty empowering.
‘My partner James and I have always been “open”. We speak about people we like, but we’d never “cheat” on each other without discussing a sexual encounter first. Strangely, it was getting married that was the turning point for us. We took the decision to formalise our relationship with a wedding because we knew we were life partners. But a few months in, I was struggling with the fact that, despite being happy and in love, I was also thinking, “I don’t think I can be with one person forever.”
‘I shared my feelings with James and he looked relieved − he felt the same. What followed was an honest discussion about where we wanted our relationship to go and we started dating other people about a year into our marriage. To start with, we dated girls who we met on apps together. We met Rae on an app called Feeld. It’s mainly for couples looking to meet another girl – for dating or sometimes for sex. We were looking for someone to get to know properly. We initially met up with Rae separately, and when I went for drinks with her in a bar in Camden, we ended up kissing. Then the three of us dated for about six months, sometimes together, other times in pairs. But as time went on, I could see feelings grow between James and Rae. They are very similar with shared interests and had a strong connection from the start. In contrast, I felt more casual about Rae. I began another relationship with my current boyfriend, Arron*, which was intense. I said to James and Rae, “I think it’s better for me to step out and let you guys continue as a two because I think this is wonderful”. There’s a great buzzword in the poly community called “compersion” – feeling happiness on someone else’s behalf. I felt that and love how happy she makes him. But he’s still my husband.
‘Arron and I have been together for a year now. He’s good friends with James and they hang out together. I sleep with them both and James is very supportive. Some poly couples have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but we are honest with our feelings. We even like to have a gossip about the sex.
‘Is it possible to cheat in open relationships? Sure. If a partner didn’t communicate a situation to me first, that would be cheating. I don’t want children, but I don’t have a problem with the idea either. If a child grows up around people who love them, what’s the issue?’
Rae Campbell is 29 and works in healthcare. She identifies as queer and ‘solo poly’− living her life as an independent, single woman while still being in various relationships.
‘Unlike many people who are in poly relationships, I have always been poly and have never had a monogamous relationship. For me, polyamory is literally what it translates as: many loves. I believe that you can be in love with many people and treat all of those relationships as equal.
‘I currently have three people that I would class as a regular partner. My primary relationship is with James. From the outside, we look like a normal couple, except that he’s married to Hannah.
‘I know very few poly people who’d have handled that situation as well as Hannah did. We’d been dating as a three for a good few months, but the triangle was becoming unbalanced. James and I were developing a very strong connection, as we were able to see each other much more. Whereas Hannah and I were feeling this weird pressure for the two of us to be as into each other as James was.
‘We all sat down in a pub one evening and talked it out. I thought Hannah would suggest we all cool off and I’d be put to one side, but she said, “I think the two of you should prioritise this lovely thing you’re developing and I’ll be the one who steps back,” which stunned me. It was a true moment of someone being selfless for someone they love. I think that’s admirable.
‘Another of my partners is Arjun*, who I met online. We’ve been dating for a few months. He’s new to poly and comes from a really conservative Indian background, so he’s adjusting to how he wants to come out and what that will mean to his family and friends. I’ve also just started dating a girl called Robyn. She’s a lot of fun and we go on great dates together. The only limit to how many people you can date at once is time.
‘I once dated seven people, but it became a burden. Many dating apps comprise couples looking for “unicorns” − young, bisexual women who are happy to have threesomes with a heterosexual couple and be treated as a secondary partner. I’ve dated couples where you can’t be in the room with just the guy: the girlfriend is too scared you’ll steal him. Women often get a raw deal in poly relationships, just like normal ones. I once had a great relationship with a couple, but the girlfriend forced him to break up with me after a trivial argument. As a solo poly you’re vulnerable to the power imbalance of being a single person versus the primary relationship. That can be challenging. When I meet couples online, I ask if they’ve seen I’m poly on my profile. The guys often say, “Great, let’s go on a date.” They translate being poly as being easy, which is not the case at all.
‘People thought being poly was a phase for me, but it isn’t. My brain just cannot compute the idea of being with one person indefinitely.’
‘There will always be an element of jealousy, but you deal with it’
Vee Stiles, 34, is training as an equine sports massage therapist. She identifies as pansexual and polyamorous.
‘Coming out as poly has been relatively recent. I’d been trying to squash myself into traditional relationship roles most of my adult life. Five years ago, after coming out of an incredibly boring monogamous relationship, I decided that I was not going to get romantically involved with anyone, I was just going to keep things casual.
‘But I began to miss that emotional support and intimacy of a relationship. I started seeing Danny last year and we shocked each other when in our first conversation we both admitted we would prefer to try an open-style relationship. It was the first time for both of us. We are what we call “nesting partners”. This is our primary relationship: it’s strong, supportive and constant. When we sleep with other people it’s extracurricular.
‘Later this year, we’re looking to move in together and we’re serious about staying together long-term, so we’ve agreed that we can have sex with other people − just not in the place we call home. Our bed is our bed. It is where we go to sleep at night. If we broke that rule, we’d have to talk about it on a person-by-person basis and see how we felt about inviting them into our space.
‘We both identify as poly, but we have different preferences. My partner feels he may be more traditionally polyamorous, in terms of developing affectionate feelings for more than one person at a time. I’m more interested in sexual intimacy with both men and women, without developing deep feelings.
‘There’s always going to be jealousy there, and it’s manifested for Danny a couple of times. I recently had lunch with a male friend and Danny questioned me intensely afterwards: “Do you not want me there? Is it a date?” He later admitted he was jealous. It’s a very natural emotion and it’s important to talk about it.
‘There’s a lot that we want to explore together as a couple. The best thing about polyamory is knowing that even if one person breaks my heart, my world won’t crumble. I’ll always have somebody else I can turn to. The downside, however, is people judging you. One of my best friends once joked, “There’s a word for girls like you.” That was really hurtful, but it opened up a dialogue between us and now she’s incredibly supportive. All of my friends know that I’m poly. Most are in very traditional relationships and tell me they could never share partners. I understand that. A few years ago I probably would have said the same, but this is the choice that we have made.
‘I definitely feel less judged in the polyamorous community, and it’s so much easier to talk to Danny about things that I want to explore sexually, which I’ve struggled to do with other partners. Once you’ve said, “I want to have sex with other people” or “I want to fall in love with other people” there’s not much else that’s going to shock them.’
Language of love
Open: Where both partners have a desire for sexual experiences outside of that relationship.
Poly: Having intimate, loving relationships with multiple people.
Solo poly: Somebody who chooses polyamorous relationships, without the ‘goal’ of becoming a primary partner.
Pansexual: Not seeing gender as a deciding factor when choosing who to date.
Bisexual: People who are attracted to both men and women.
Demisexual: Somebody who always forms an emotional connection with someone before a sexual one.
Queer: An umbrella term for sexual
*Names have been changed