“So, how many people are you currently dating,” my monogamous friend asked me last weekend.
The question took me off guard. I just stared at the curious expression on his face. The truth is, I rarely think about the fact that I am polyamorous anymore. I’ve been non-monogamous for half a dozen years now, and it just feels like the new normal to me. It’s only in conversation with monogamous people that I remember how unusual it is to have multiple lovers and partners.
Finally I gave him the only answer I could honestly give: “I don’t know.”
He laughed and then he said “wow. Just, wow!”
“No, it’s not like that!” I countered. “It’s not like there’s too many to count, it’s just that I don’t know how to count.”
My explanation didn’t help. He laughed even harder, and so did I. When we both caught our breaths, I said, “actually, I’m serious. It depends on what you mean by dating. What exactly constitutes dating anyways? I mean, I can tell you who I am sleeping with if that’s what you want to know. But that would leave out my most important relationships. And just because you’re sleeping with someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re dating, and what if you hardly ever have sex with someone but physically intimate in other ways, and-”
“Ok, ok!” my friend interrupted me. “Why don’t you tell me who all you’re involved with and I’ll tell you if I think you’re dating.”
“I’m game” I said. I was curious to see how he would categorize my complicated love life. I thought I’d start with my oldest relationships and then move up chronologically, but just then I noticed one of my partners coming into the room.
So yes, I live with two partners. We live together, we share resources, our sorrows and joys, we plan our future together, and we are committed to being a family.
“Yeah, but that’s not dating,” my friend interjected. “You’re past the dating stage.”
I laughed. How can we be past our dating phase when we never actually went on any dates? The relationships between the three of us did not begin with dates. My first partner and I met at work. We supported each other through some very hard times and moved in with each other. We never went on any dates. We weren’t romantically involved. But we shared an apartment, a car, and finances. We were best friends, and when at one point we did have sexual interactions, we defined ourselves as “life partners with occasional benefits”.
My second partner came into our lives as a housemate. We grew closer and closer until the three of us hung out all the time. We never went on dates. Our relationships were neither romantic nor sexual. But we knew each other so intimately and became so comfortable with each other that our subletter called us “an old married triad.”
He was right. The three of us are like old married folks, finishing each others’ sentences, bickering, sharing resources, doing each others laundry, and picking up after one another. So now we call each other partners and everyone assumes we are lovers. I don’t correct them. They can see that the three of us love each other, and that’s what matters. Whatever does or does not happen in our bedrooms is secondary.
“So it’s more like you’re married but not dating” my friend tries to summarize.
I grin. “See what I mean?” I say. “That’s why I don’t know how to count!”
“So what about your lovers then?”, he asks.
I start with Joe, who fits neatly into the dating category. We met years ago and went on a couple of dates then, but didn’t pursue a relationship. At PantheaCon last year I surprised him (as well as myself) by walking right up to him and kissing him, which turned out to be a great idea. He took my subtle hint and invited himself over for a hot tubbing. What started out as sexual “play dates” has become a passionate and joyful dating relationship.
It gets complicated when I think of the Cute Guy, a nickname that stuck ever since our first date. He was the first lover I ever pursued and asked out. We’ve been in each others lives for half a decade now. At first we were dating but at one point we ended our sexual relationship, because reasons*. But we wanted to keep seeing each other. So we continue to flirt, we go on romantic dates, we have snuggly sleepovers, and we tell each other that we love each other, because we do.
“So,” I ask my friend, “are the Cute Guy and I dating?”
My friend doesn’t have an easy answer. We agree that the level of intimacy we share would be unacceptable if either The Cute Guy or I were in a monogamous relationship with someone else. But he’s polyamorous and I love hanging out with his other partner. The three of us get along well. None of us mind being seen in public. Once we walked down the street, all three of us holding hands. We certainly don’t fit comfortably into monogamous culture.
And then there’s my adventure partner. We officially started dating at Burning Man – true story. Our relationship went through a rocky time when I became a Pagan and he remained a Rationalist. Our circle of friends ceased to overlap and I lost interest in his events and he felt that Pagan rituals were not really his thing. We saw each other less frequently, but found new ways to relate. Nowadays we go on adventures together, exploring nature and sometimes urban environments, and we both enjoy the new pattern into which our relationship has morphed.
My only ever online dating success is Chris. We were a 99% match on OKCupid and figured we should meet, and meet we did. I gave him poison oak on our second date. Our date was meant to be just a mushroom hunting trip, but ended up with unexpected snuggles at my house, albeit clothed snuggles, touching each other in the very clothes I wore while running through poison oak. He suffered for weeks, and my friends were sure I’d never see him again. But we went on another date, with the caveat that we should skip the danger of clothing next time. We’ve been seeing each other ever since. We’d be a typical boyfriend – girlfriend pair, if it wasn’t for our schedules. We can only ever figure out how to see each other every few months.
Does frequency matter in establishing who is and who isn’t dating? My newest relationship is a case study in scheduling fails. It’s taken us a couple of years of dancing around each other, with extended hugs and frequent “hello” kisses. We finally started dating, officially, but keep very different schedules. As polyamorous folks like to say, our ability to love is limitless, our ability to actually schedule dates – not so much. How often does one need to succeed at going on dates? Does the intention count?
Then there’s someone I need to skip over here. No matter how many different ways I write this paragraph, I always end up deleting it again. I’m just too worried of saying something that can identify this person. Unfortunately many of us who are polyamorous have to be very careful not to be outed. I wish everyone had the freedom to be as out as myself and as Chris or Joe. But sadly, most of us do not have the luxury of working in progressive environments where we can be open about our lives.
And then there’s all of the loves who I know I am not dating. There’s a wonderful woman I’ve had a crush on for a long time and we finally had our first date. It was hot and wonderful and we want to have another date. There’s also someone from out of state who I met a conference. We’ve been flirting, and who knows, we might become a lovers the next time we meet (fingers crossed!). And I met someone at an event and we had a hot and intimate date. He lives far away and we have no plans to see each other again. But our connection was more than a random one night stand. It was emotionally connected and deeply magical. So he, too, now lives in my heart.
I also have monogamous loves. We don’t go on dates, and we won’t have sexual relationships, but we’re in love. One is married and while he and his wife are sexually exclusive, they both share affection with others. He and I love each other and want to be a part of each others lives. Another monogamous friend is single and we’ve been on a few dates, but he wants to date monogamously. So we’ve become cuddle partners instead, and we, too, love each other. And then there’s another one I love, and another, and another.
Some of my relationships are passionate and sexual, some are cuddles-only, some are romantic, some are rooted in friendships, some are flirtatious, some are magical, some are playful, some are serious, and many are a wild combination. Every person I mentioned here, I love. I love them fiercely and joyously. In some cases our love for each other has had time to mature and deepen, in some cases it is new and bubbly. The foundation of my relationships is always love. All comes from love, all goes back to love.
My friend, who asked the question, is one of my monogamous loves. By the end of our conversation, he gave up on establishing a dating count. How do I describe my love life in a society and culture that uses language based on default monogamy? Polyamory has invented some great new words, like metamour (a lover’s lover or the partner or a partner) and compersion (the opposite of jealousy, the happiness we feel when a lover or partner has a great date with someone else).
But what do I call the people in my life? They don’t all fit into the category dating. I can’t call them all partners. Nor are all of them are lovers. Sometimes I call them loves, sometimes I call them a boyfriend or girlfriend, and sometimes I give up and use the lengthy phrase someone I am involved with. I wish there was an elegant linguistic solution, but I haven’t come across one.
There’s one word, however, I have coined for my love life. Tribalamory. I like the word polyamory and I do use it to describe myself. But like the word Paganism it is an umbrella term that includes many different forms of consensual non-monogamy, from poly fidelity (multiple partners who are “monogamous” within their group) to those preferring a single life with many one night stands.
For me, it is all about my “tribe”. Tribalamory, my expression of polyamory, is not based on rules and negotiations. It is not focused on couples but on community. In tribalamory, no one owns my sexuality but myself, and I am free to share it with whoever I want. In tribalamory, love is the foundation of all of my relationships, be they sexual or not. In tribalamory, the boundaries between dating and not dating break down, the categories of partner, lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, and friend fade into one another. In tribalamory relationships are free to shift, from sexual to non-sexual, from friend to lover, back and forth, because each of these categories are held within the container of the tribe I love.
I love being tribalamorous. I love the freedom of expressing my sexuality spontaneously as well as within committed relationships. I love the challenge to transcend labels and flow from category to category. I love how my heart grows each time I welcome a new person into my tribe. I love all acts of love and pleasure. And more than anything I love how tribalamory continues to stretch me into loving even more.
* Nosy, huh? Well, this is a public blog, so “reasons” is explanation enough.