What is Polyamory? The word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, where it is defined as:
“The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.”
Charlie is talking excitedly about a first date she went on the night before.
Next to her on the sofa is her husband of six years, Tom. And on the other side of him is Sarah, who’s been in a relationship with Tom for the last five years. Sarah’s fiance, Chris, is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
The two women are also in a full-blown relationship, while the two men are just good friends. Together, they make a polyamorous family and share a house in Sheffield.
“We’re planning to grow old together,” says Charlie.
Polyamory is the practice of having simultaneous intimate relationships with more than one person at a time, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary only in 2006, and such relationships are rare enough that Tom finds himself having to account for his personal situation time and time again.
“The number of conversations I’ve had with peers where I’ve started to explain it and they’ve got as far as, ‘so, you all cheat on each other’ and not been able to get past that. I’ve said no, everybody’s cool with it, everybody knows what’s happening, no one’s deceiving each other.”
If any of the four want to get involved with someone else, they have to run it by the others – all of whom have a veto.
“We can’t use a veto for something as silly as, say, personal taste,” says Sarah. “If you were dating somebody and I could not understand why you found them attractive, that would not be sufficient reason for me to say, no, you can’t see this person.”
What counts as infidelity, then?
“Lying,” they chorus.
“For example,” explains Charlie, “before I went on this first date yesterday, I sat down with each of my three partners and checked with them individually that I was okay to go on this date. Cheating would have been me sneaking off and saying I was meeting Friend X and not say that it was a potential romantic partner.”
The rules and boundaries of their relationships are carefully negotiated.
When they had been a couple for just two weeks, Tom suggested to Charlie that they be non-monogamous.
“It was a light bulb moment for me,” she says. ‘I had been scared of commitment because I had never met anyone I felt I could fall completely and exclusively in love with. The idea of this not being a monogamous relationship allowed me to fall as deeply in love with Tom as I wanted to without fear that I would break his heart by falling in love with somebody else as well.”
But how did she feel when, a year into their marriage, Tom fell in love with another woman?
“Well, Sarah’s lovely,” says Charlie. “I was just so happy that Tom was happy with her.”
Sarah’s partner, Chris, was less comfortable with the situation at first. They had agreed that they could have other sexual partners, but forming an emotional attachment with someone else was a different matter.
So when Sarah fell for Tom, she agonised over how to tell Chris.
“We sat down and talked about what it meant to be in love with more than one person, and did that mean I loved him less. Well, of course it didn’t.