Many people still believe in finding ‘the one’, but a growing number of Kiwis believe love goes further than that. Eda Tang reports on the world of polyamory.
Looking back, high school drama teacher Kara* realises she went overboard dating six different people at once.
She was new to polyamory, and bit off more than she could chew.
“It was just stupid…and I learnt a lot through making mistakes.”
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These days, Kara has scaled it back to just two partners: she’s in a non-hierarchical triad, which means the three people in the relationship are dating one another.
“It’s me with person A, me with person B, and then the group, and all three are separate [relationships],” she says. “No-one is above each other.”
Non-monogamy isn’t new
Monogamy and marriage are comparatively recent social constructs. Historically, marriage often had greater legal and economic importance as a formalised alliance, and inheritance of resources was placed above romantic connection.
Monogamy – and by extension, the assumed virginity of the bride – was an assurance that family wealth would be transferred to biological children, and has been hypothesised as an evolutionary safeguard against sexually transmitted infections.
European colonisation spread these values around the globe, and the traditional concept of one man, one woman to the exclusion of others has been seen as the aspirational nuclear family unit in many countries worldwide.
However, times are changing.
As western society becomes more secular, and people move away from historical religion and traditions – not least with the rise of the rainbow community – the norms of marriage and monogamy are being challenged.
For Kara, the journey to polyamory began about four years ago. She read Polysecure, a book often considered essential reading for polyamorists, although that didn’t save her from some “super unhealthy and toxic” early experiences.
“I was still with my ex, and he was keen to do polyamory because he had been seeing someone without me knowing,” she says, “whereas I genuinely wanted to get into it.”
After exiting the relationship, Kara spent time healing and reading more about polyamory before seeing some people casually.
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“I think a lot of people think it’s an excuse to be promiscuous,” she says, reflecting on common misunderstandings of polyamory. She believes a monogamy-centred society is a product of colonialism.
“There are still a lot of things that we have to undo as a nation.”
The origin of generations of shame
The authors of The Ethical Slut, another iconic polyamory bible, describe how controlling sexual behaviour wasn’t considered important until the Industrial Revolution.
There was a rising European middle class, with limited space for children in urban cultures, and social practices were turbocharged by religious beliefs. Doctors and ministers condemned masturbation and normalised circumcision.
Modern society still lives under those shadows, the authors say, and “modern puritans attempt to enforce the nuclear family and monogamous marriage by teaching sexual shame”.
Research has also suggested a high correlation between monogamous marriage systems and payment of dowry, when plough agriculture and land ownership determined a family’s wealth in early Eurasian societies. Agriculture was dominated by men, and women were often reduced to their reproductive ability.
Outside of Europe, though, non-monogamous social structures continued to flourish, says Dr Byron Rangiwai, an associate professor of healthcare and social practice at Unitec.
“Monogamy was of course an imported concept that came with Christianity,” he says.
“There are examples of Māori, particularly rangatira, having multiple partners. The term rangatira also included women, particularly in iwi such as Ngāti Porou.”
Tāwhiri*, a tikanga scholar and “novice in polyamory”, says those colonial constructs have become deeply ingrained in modern society “where success is held up as a nuclear family, a house, a nice car, and supposed stability.
“The irony is that half the time, those marriages fail and there’s infidelity and catastrophe going on in that space.”
He says the approach to Māori sexuality from Christianity and whiteness has led to shame over what was previously celebrated.
“[In] compositions like mōteatea and all sorts of art forms, sexuality is so normalised,” he says.
“You include their genitalia and their penis is erect because that’s a sign of reproduction.”
European settlers removed or covered genitalia in whakairo and redacted language about sex in waiata and karakia.
“They’ve been intentionally erased so finding examples of that kind of thing is hard because it’s made deliberately so,” Tāwhiri says.
From play partners to love triangles
Polyamory and open relationships are both considered ethical non-monogamy. The ‘ethical’ part distinguishes it from non-ethical non-monogamy, or cheating, where a monogamous relationship is breached without the consent of both partners.
Polyamory, or having multiple romantic relationships, is distinct from open relationships, where partners within an existing relationship can have outside sexual partners.
Ellie Stringer and Thomas Le Bas put themselves in the polyamory camp. They’ve been together two years, and have just moved from Aotearoa to Canada.
“When we first got together we both had other semi-temporary things going on,” says Stringer, explaining how they eventually found mutual love with another girl who was a long-time friend of Le Bas.
“We occasionally talk to people on Feeld, Hinge [and] Tinder and the best friends we have made here are a couple who were exploring polyamory on the Feeld app,” she says.
(Feeld is a dating app for people interested in alternative relationship models and sexual preferences.)
“There were a couple of months between Thomas arriving in Canada and getting here myself, and I was absolutely comfortable with him meeting people and mingling in that time.
“We both have the shared value that love is not a finite resource. You can have many friends, so why not many romantic partners?”
For Stringer and Le Bas, who both identify as bisexual, it’s important that any third partner is on a parallel footing, and shouldn’t just be considered a “sexy booty call”.
Stringer adds: “Polyam is far more about love and romance and connection than just f…ing lots of people without consequences.”
Ben Reyburn and his ex-girlfriend used to go out to parties and kiss and cuddle other boys, and then tell one another about their nights.
He and a later partner researched non-monogamy and decided their connection would be “more kind of like relationship anarchy [where] all of your relationships are valid, all of them are important and there shouldn’t be a hierarchy”.
Reyburn, who identifies as queer, is currently “not anti-monogamy, but I’m also not pro-monogamy”; through his experiences dating multiple people he’s learnt to be “really transparent”.
The beauty is that “many hands make light work”, he says.
“You’re surrounded by people who care. Friend groups do the same… no one is ever going to be able to fulfil all of your emotional needs all the time.”
Ben says open relationships and various forms of non-monogamy are much more accepted in queer communities, “and I think that comes from having had already queering relationship norms”.
Scout, a 25-year-old tattoo artist in Tāmaki Makaurau, first recognised feelings for other people at age 16.
Their then-partner was “pretty supportive” but didn’t change their monogamous dynamic until they moved into together – and the shift came with challenges.
“I was only allowed to see women, I wasn’t allowed to see other men. It’s essentially called a ‘one penis policy’.”
Non-monogamous writer Jacqueline Gualtiere, based in California, says “the decision to implement a [one penis policy] is rooted in many troubling issues, particularly the issue of the intersection of biphobia and fragile masculinity”.
Scout has two boyfriends. One of them is their nesting partner, “the person that you share a home and bills and all that kind of stuff with”.
Jealousy and insecurity obviously comes up, says Scout.
“But it could be speaking to a feeling of lacking in the relationship or an insecurity that needs to be addressed… It’s not a reflection of non-monogamy as much as it’s a reflection of how I see myself, and the ways I need to reframe the situation.”
Relationship therapist Serafin Upton thinks jealousy gets a bad rap even though it is mostly a helpful response.
“We were born with jealousy. It’s to make sure that we get our needs met. It’s a protection really.”
She says a lot of her polyamorous clients make a point to have deliberate conversations to process jealousy.
“Couples who are ethically non-monogamous… really prioritise communication,” says Upton.
“They tend to be more self-aware and more and more inquisitive and more relational.”
Overall, Upton is an advocate for ethical non-monogamy.
“You’re learning new things about the world and about yourself and about relationships. And you then bring all that enrichment into your own relationship.”
Upton says she sees many instances of people who have met someone special at a young age and realised later that they haven’t explored sex, relationships or dating at all.
“Ethical non-monogamy can be a really great way for young people to explore dating and relationships and sex in a healthy way without losing that really special person that they’ve met.”
But it’s not just for young people. Upton sees lots of couples in their midlife who are “bored out of their minds with one another in the bedroom, and they want to go sleep with other people. But they don’t want to separate [and] throw away 30 years of marriage and memories”.
She adds: “It can work really, really well. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. You can still have an amazing, strong, lifelong commitment to your partner and see other people.”
Connection and support
As Ellie Stringer says, it’s not just about the sex.
Lia* is a pansexual polyamorist who has individual relationships with three people. She has fibromyalgia which means she is in pain every day.
“I don’t want to burden just one person,” she says.
Lia’s girlfriend uses a wheelchair and has a heart condition.
“I think for them as well, they are fearing putting all of that burden, as we see ourselves, onto just one significant other,” she says.
“There’s also an element of fear when my girlfriend is disabled and worried that she might not have a very long life expectancy.
“What happens if you leave that one person behind with no support, no community, no one to hold their hand or give them care and affection?”
Lia says being polyamorous allows her to “experience as much in this life as possible”.
“Even if being polyamorous doesn’t last forever, I think the skills that I’m learning through dealing with emotions, clear communication and figuring out what I like and don’t like will stick with me forever.”
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“I would like to say I don’t, [but] I do care what people think,” says Tāwhiri.
“When a [monogamous] relationship fails, people say it’s normal… whereas if a polyamorous relationship fails, the first thing everyone will say is ‘it’s because they did that’ … so there’s a sense of pressure to make that work.”
Opening up his relationship has been “one of the first times I’ve majorly stepped out of a social norm in a really intentional way”.
Tāwhiri feels the stakes are higher in disclosing his polyamorous relationship. As someone trying to create systemic hapū-wide change, “if I get caught up in a scandal or something then all of my goals that existed, and collective upliftment are jeopardised”, he says.
“The irony is that that’s sort of an indication of how colonised we have become because it’s harder for Māori to practise our own relationship tikanga.”
Another irony, he adds, is that most monogamy is serial monogamy, where “you’re having back-to-back relationships”.
For example, he says, someone could have slept with 20 people in the last decade without judgement, while a polyamorous person might have slept with four and been judged for it.
Statistics show a clear trend of younger generations being more open to practising ethical non-monogamy, and Kara, the millennial high school teacher, wants to be able to talk about polyamory freely.
“There are a lot of teenagers who are polyamorous, and they are quite open about it which is awesome.
“I know for a fact there’s nothing like this in the health curriculum… Why aren’t we looking into different types of relationships and talking about healthy relationships?”
For now, Kara feels unable to share her identity without compromising her employability.
“I shouldn’t feel that way, but because I’m also a young female, it’s hard enough as it is.”
While the polyamory discourse opens up, Tāwhiri is concerned about free sexuality having associations with a hippie agenda or new trend.
“It throws out everything about society [which is] the opposite of te ao Māori, which is built on the transmission of knowledge.”
Tāwhiri thinks some discussions about polyamory are from a very limited cultural perspective where it’s heralded as a new movement to challenge orthodoxy, whereas he believes it’s suppressed tikanga.
“Pushing this agenda that it’s a new thing without realising that it’s a product of their environment is actually very ignorant,” he says, adding that Māori had a flourishing society before Europeans arrived.
“We weren’t running around with daisies in our hair. We had to go out to get food, we had to push the boundaries of what’s known as knowledge and exploration.”
Kara says regardless of motives, anyone wanting to explore polyamory should be ready to “fail and learn”.
“It is quite hard initially but once you get through those learnings then you kind of get into a really good space,” she says.
“Polyamory has taught me how to be a better communicator, how to be a better person and also how to care for myself.”
*Names changed to protect identity.