There are four people in the room: James, his girlfriend Mary, the guy Mary’s sleeping with, and Emma. They sit sofa-bound around a small wooden coffee table playing Catan. They drink wine, they talk, and they trade small cards printed with symbols of stones and wheat for little wooden cities. By the end of the night, they’re all going to have sex.
This is going to happen because of two people who aren’t there; Will and his girlfriend Clare, who have been dating James and Mary as a ‘polycule’ since the two couples met on a polyamorous dating app. Emma is also sleeping with Will. Having met her through Will, James is now dating Emma. And Mary’s been sleeping with a guy. And this guy likes Catan. They all like Catan actually. They also all like sex.
In the mind of the politically conservative, the non-monogamous meet as strangers in the night. Speaking softly, hushed and huddled in dimly lit alleyways – they exchange improper glances and in a shadowy underground marked by anonymity, with illicit implications. They’re a destabilizing cult scheming out a conspiracy against house and home. Against decency and good family values. Against country, against King. To those of us that inhabit a slightly less demented reality –– and who are not obsessed with other people’s sexuality –– they’re regular people having an honestly uneventful board game night. Nobody threw the game board off the table or accused their partner of cheating, either by rolling a dodgy hand of dice or shagging the postman.
When I spoke to Emma, a poly-enthusiastic student at St Andrews, she brought up a book from 1997 called The Ethical Slut. She says that it is a guidebook on how to engage responsibly in these kinds of open relationships. One of The Ethical Slut’s two co-writers, Janey Hardy, explains that non-monogamous relationships are becoming increasingly popular. In a 2018 article for the Guardian, Hardy writes that “things are changing rapidly” and “more people are getting the idea that it’s possible to be happy and healthy without being monogamous”.
“What I’m seeing among young people is that they don’t have the same need to self-define by what they like to do in bed, or in relationships as my generation did”, she adds.
Statistics seem to affirm non- monogamy’s relative prevalence. In a 2021 survey by Chapman University and the Kinsey institute, researchers found that amongst a US Census-based quota sample, one in six surveyed individuals desired to engage in polyamory and one in nine had already engaged with it. Among participants not interested in polyamory, one in seven respected people in non-monogamous relationships. Perhaps that final figure should be higher.
The connections and relationships of non-monogamy take many forms; there are swingers, threesomes, polycules, triads, quads or solos, where a person lives as a single whilst still being intimate with multiple partners (essentially the average 601 club attender), just to name a few. Two of the most common forms are polyamorous and open relationships.
Emma explained to me that her own relationships are all unique. She says that seeing the polyamorous James “felt like dating in the traditional sense, talking over text, going for meals and visiting galleries”, while her relationship with open Will “felt like casual sex”. She went on to add that one of the key parts of both relationships was communication. “Effective communication is important to any relationship,” before explaining that good communication is also key to a healthy non-monogamous relationship.
Leo, another student in a non-monogamous relationship, agrees that communication is critical. “I’ve been in one monogamous relationship before and this has definitely been very different”, Leo says, “I think that’s because in order for the relationship to work my partner and I have had to be open and trusting and communicative with each other about exactly what we want and don’t want”.
He adds that he must be accepted at all times. “Regardless of whether what each of us is feeling is logical we hear each other out and never try to push things down or ignore any uncomfortable topics”, he says.
That has allowed Leo and his partner to be more open in their relationship, allowing them to “talk about jealousy and attraction to other people without a lot of the stress that would bring to a monogamous couple.”
“There’s a far smaller fear of any sort of cheating or anything like that”, he adds. Being able to communicate about often neglected feelings can allow couples to better express and understand each other’s boundaries, making them better partners. Leo spoke of one moment in which his “partner was going through a very stressful period in their life at the time and as a result, needed more from me than usual”. Leo subsequently ended things with the other person he was seeing to offer her more of his attention.
Miscommunication and upset can still happen though. Emma brought up an incident from her time seeing Will. Emma, Will, and his girlfriend Clare had been attending a party together. As the night began to drag, Clare had decided to leave so as not to overly impair her work the next day. Will wasn’t ready to go yet, so the two parted ways for the night. Soon, Emma and Will went home together, leaving Clare to believe that Will had chosen Emma over her. Though upsetting at the time, Emma recalls the situation was eventually resolved through healthy communication.
Outside of miscommunications, a polyamorous couple’s forms of communication always differ, and can sometimes seem strange to an outsider. One evening at James’ place, for instance, Emma says that things got steamy when his girlfriend disappeared to do laundry. The strewn clothes that had just been removed were replaced, and a few cushion covers were traumatised. At the moment it appeared as though James’ was scandalously leaping on an opportunity provided by ordinary domestic chores. However, as was later revealed, the couple had shifted their calendar earlier on, and laundry day had been moved up, especially for the occasion.
Emma explained to me that all non-monogamous and monogamous relationships exhibit subtly different styles of communication. “There’s no set way to communicate”, she says. For instance, with her current boyfriend Trent, with whom she is in a “mostly monogamous relationship”, she says that she is in frequent nonverbal communication. “If we’re at a party we don’t need to go into a corner and discuss what is and isn’t okay, we can do that silently [through body language and glances] and [talk] afterwards”, she says. But she continued to note that “other people may choose to check in more frequently”.
Leo, whose relationship has been open for about a year and a half, says that he and his partner “definitely lean on the more transparent side of things”.
“I know that some people prefer a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ sort of thing but that doesn’t really work for my partner and me”, he says. “It’s just a matter of personal preference though”.
All couples are different and structured times for communication do not seem to work for everyone.
“It’s usually just whenever we think it’s time to re-evaluate or discuss how we’re both feelings, which could be once every few weeks or once every month or so”, Leo says.
Emma, however, says that better communication also leads to better sex. “You talk about everything and therefore you feel safe”, she says. “I’m open to exploring things [with him] and shifting boundaries”.
Openness with partners can also lead to openness in conversations about sex with friends. And in the interconnected relationships and friendships of her poly experiences, she has found frank conversations about sex useful. At one party, she remembers, talking with James about oral, as both of them had been performing it on the same person: Will. Their exchanging of notes went as far as iPhone video analysis, prepping each other on useful skills and effective techniques. Kind of like a coaches’ seventh-inning strategy rundown in the baseball dugout.
Emma even says two of her friends in London say it has even affected their skills at work, saying that one of them was inspired to start having bi-weekly conversations about what was expected from her. Emma says that was immensely helpful.
When asked about the impact non-monogamous relationships have had on them in general, both Emma and Leo responded that it had very positively affected their lives. “I feel like I’ve learned to be a lot more honest and direct about what I want”, Leo said. “That made my life better. For sure.”
Illustration: Thomas Rowlandson