Intimacy means many different things to different people. It could mean trusting a person enough to tell them something you’ve never shared with anyone before, or finding someone whose touch doesn’t make you too nervous, or with whom you can spend an extended amount of time without having an argument. Most significantly, it means having someone you can feel completely comfortable with. Intimacy can be platonic, and it can be sexual, and it seems that more and more people want to understand what it means to them and where their boundaries begin and end. Whatever intimacy looks like for each of us, it usually takes a long time to find someone you can have that level of intimacy with. Whatever the scale is.
For people in monogamous relationships, understanding how intimacy can work in non-monogamous relationships can be challenging, especially as intimacy to date has so often been defined as being exclusively shareable between two people. Often imagining your partner being intimate with another person can leave room for jealousy, and this is certainly not just something that affects monogamous couples. It leads many of us new gen consumers, thinkers, and doers to wonder how is it possible to have the same level of intimacy with multiple partners without the associated feelings of guilt, jealousy and sometimes betrayal.
There are many ways to explore intimacy outside monogamy but we live in a digital age so it doesn’t come as a surprise that it is apps that help new gen individuals navigate these waters. While looking for the right way to start exploring new aspects of intimacy, you might end up on Feeld, the dating app offering a space for couples and singles to meet like-minded people. Before entering a polyamorous relationship, most people’s preconception is that it is founded on a strong emotional connection with just one person, and perhaps on a less meaningful one with other partners but that is in no way the blueprint. The idea that it is best to only love one person and keep any other relationship trivial dominates many people’s dating lives when, in fact, it could often be linked with the reasons some relationships fall apart. In a sense, admitting to having more than one significant other can sound more acceptable than hiding it from a society that sees monogamy as the only option.
I asked a Feeld member who is currently in an open relationship with his partner of eight years and used Feeld in the past whether intimacy was an important part of the conversation before opening up their relationship. “It’s not that there isn’t enough intimacy in our relationship,” he says. “I just like hanging out with other people and being close to other people and being able to touch them.” Many other non-monogamous couples share the sentiment that communicating openly, like this user and his partner did, is what makes their relationships work.
Despite knowing what comes with polyamory, some couples still get the occasional pang of jealousy, but how do they get past it? In many cases, it’s often down to learning from the mistakes we make while in a monogamous relationship. Open communication and verbalising our desires rather than hiding behind how we’re meant to act or be like in a relationship is a crucial step, and one that Feeld is trying to create through the app, community and conversations it is cultivating.
In the same way that every monogamous relationship you have over the years is different but still meaningful and strong—as it varies from each person you date—people who chose to be in polyamorous relationships are able to have many connections simultaneously. For most non-monogamous couples, the hope is that conversations around intimacy will start to open up and include them, rather than scrutinise their ability to form intimate relationships with more than one person.
It’s time to accept intimacy in all of its forms. Intimacy is a personal thing, and so it will continue to look different in every relationship. After all, who are we to say there is one right way to have a relationship.
If you have been on a dating app recently, you will likely have seen the phrase ‘ethically non-monogamous’. Overused to the point of cliché, it’s hard to tell what distinguishes the term from its non-ethical counterparts. So, what exactly does it mean?
While many of us have practised non-monogamy or been in an open relationship at one time or another, sexual and romantic exclusivity remain the norm. Some people, however, decide to see other partners outside the relationship, a choice requiring openness, communication, and boundaries (however loosely defined) to make it work for everyone involved.
This is where the ‘ethical’ dimension comes in; being mindful of your sexual or romantic partners’ needs alongside your own and, accordingly, treating them with respect and honesty. It is a term which is often used synonymously with polyamory and, just like polyamory, it comes in all shapes and sizes and—though you might not think it—has been around for a very long time.
The common misconception about polyamory is that it’s a modern invention, a destructive fad that seeks to wreak havoc on the altogether more ‘natural’ dyad relationship structure. Yet, it’s important to recognise that relationship standards are culturally specific and that although Western culture privileges one relationship style, this doesn’t automatically make it the ‘right’ one.
According to research by Prof. Roger Rubin, only 43 (of 238 societies across the world) are monogamous. Polyamory has been and still is traditional to many indigenous cultures, and academics like Dr Kim Tallbear have theorised what they call ‘settler sexuality’ as the colonial imposition of compulsory heterosexuality, cisgenderism, and monogamy on indigenous peoples of Canada and the U.S.
Within the context of Western settler culture, polyamory boomed in the ‘60s and ‘70s when it arose from the free love movement and developments in feminist and queer thinking that questioned the traditional family structure.
When we accept non-monogamy, we pay homage to these radical roots and commit to thinking critically about why we’ve been told to aspire to one particular kind of relationship. Through polyamory, individuals can define new forms of kinship on their own terms, with some building an expansive support network of partners and others developing alternative forms of parenting. Non-monogamy, however, can also serve as a tool for rethinking the hierarchy of relationships that positions coupled romance at its pinnacle and creates the expectation that one person can and should satisfy all of our emotional, romantic, and sexual needs.
It’s important to note that, in practice, polyamorous relationships are not free from abusive power dynamics, just like monogamous ones. Polyamory, however, can help us diagnose some of the more problematic aspects of mainstream relationship culture—just as mainstream relationship culture has generated its own critiques of polyamory.
For example, in recent years the term ‘toxic monogamy’ has emerged from online polyamorous communities as a way to describe more problematic manifestations of monogamy. These can include the idea that possessiveness is an expression of commitment, as well as forms of co-dependency facilitated by the idea that your romantic partner has to function as the be-all and end-all in your life. For those who continue to seek monogamous connections, it’s worth giving real thought to how these potentially harmful dynamics might play out in your relationships.
While neither monogamy nor polyamory is ‘more ethical’ than the other, I have found myself in the latter camp, over the past five years. I have experimented with forms of non-monogamy but often found that my behaviour was less than exemplary. Struggling to come to terms with non-monogamy in a relationship environment that’s dominated by a monogamous commitment on the one hand and a poorly defined dating culture on the other, I can admit that at times I have been too casual with other people’s feelings and at others, I have been pressured into ill-fated monogamous setups.
Throughout this period, I was reluctant to recite terms like ‘polyamorous’ or ‘ethically non-monogamous’. While I was aware of the related subcultures, I was put off by what seemed like an excessive focus on rules and jargon and the often holier-than-thou attitude that I found in these environments. Spending the past few months trying to learn more about ethical non-monogamy and how it can help me become a better partner, whether sexually or romantically, has displaced some of these reservations. Accepting it as a process, rather than a label, I have come to see it as a roadmap to explore alternative relationships on my own terms.
This article is the first of a two-part series exploring unconventional relationships, created in partnership with Feeld.