Help! Am I a Cheater or Am I Polyamorous?

Louisa Leontiades Advice Column, Epic Relationships

Dear Louloria

Recently I heard about polyamory. I’d heard of open relationships of course, but I did not know it had a name or what polyamorous really meant. 

My question is that I do not know if I am.

On the two occasions when I have had a monogamous relationship long-term, I ended up falling in love with others. People believe that if you fall for another you no longer have feelings for your partner or that the relationship is ‘wrong’ in some way .

In my case it is not, my relationship is perfect and I’m happy, but not I cannot help noticing others; many times I fall obsessively and I feel bad, but do nothing. I still feel unfaithful and reading about polyamory I thought that I might be so… what is certain is that my partner is not!

What is the difference between being polyamorous or just being unfaithful ? Should I feel a difference? 

Ms. SeekingAnswers

[Note: question submitted in Spanish on www.louisaleontiades.com/es]

Dear Ms. SeekingAnswers

Some choices may not be available to us whether by DNA or by circumstance. Some choices may come more easily than others. Some choices may seem impossible. Monogamy has always seemed like an impossibly painful choice to me even if I know–theoretically at least–that it is possible. Maybe it’s the same for you.

There are people who identify as ‘born polyamorous.’ Usually what they mean by that is that they naturally love many. Despite the fact that monogamy has been a painfully impossible choice for me in the past, I do not believe I am ‘born polyamorous’ because I disagree that polyamory equates only to ‘loving many’.

Whilst you may be born with the capacity to love many (which is indeed a part of what polyamory entails), in my experience there are very few who are born ‘magically’ ethical and responsible (which are also important parts of what polyamory entails). I certainly wasn’t, and it has taken me years to learn how to love many in a responsible and ethical manner.

One of the key assumptions underlying ethics, is that we should not treat people like objects. Yet children do treat people like objects to fulfil their needs because they cannot get their needs met by themselves. As we grow older and more capable, we might learn that this objectification is harmful to others and, even though it seems to fulfil our own needs in the short term, negates our own ability to become self-sufficient in the long term. Self-sufficiency is based fundamentally on the learned ability to trust that your survival does not depend on others, which in turn depends on your formative environment.

Taking responsibility for your actions and emotions is another thing that is learned over time. Often women, and I’ve noticed, especially women with Mediterranean-style upbringings (like you and me), take responsibility for others’ emotions due to strong patriarchal and socio-cultural factors.

The ‘boys will be boys’ narrative was particularly strong in Cyprus, where I spent a significant part of my youth, and it was up to the girl to act appropriately in order to protect herself against the emotions and actions of heady, hormonal boys. If you flirted, if you dressed provocatively, you were responsible for their arousal and the actions they took.

Learning to take responsibility for your actions and emotions–and only your actions and emotions–is one of the things that makes it easier to treat others ethically. You can choose to learn these things as an adult, if they were not taught to you during childhood. For me ‘being polyamorous’ is therefore so much more than the capacity to love many (which can be expressed in a variety of ways).

All in all, being ethical and responsible may be easy for you, or it may be very hard for you. If it is easy for you, you may well feel that you are indeed ‘born polyamorous’ (and this must be your choice, not mine, to identify as such). If being open and honest go against your very survival mechanisms, you may also feel ‘born polyamorous,’ or you may not. But in order to practice polyamory–if you want to love many in an ethical and responsible manner–then you will have to ‘choose to act’ in accordance with polyamorous principles again and again; and you will have to consciously work with the insecurities it throws up.

Either way, it is only your choices to be ethical and responsible or not, which will differentiate your actions between cheating and polyamory.

Some people believe that if you fall in love with someone else, means you didn’t really love the other person. Some people believe that if you fall in love with someone else, you are not able to love anyone else.

Both these arguments depend on assumptions that you cannot love different people differently (see the Greek ideas about six different types of love) or that you cannot love two people romantically at the same time (which is now even discredited in the mainstream media). Both imply that love is a finite and uniform resource. Many believe this. I do not.

If you feel that you are able to love several people at once, but don’t act on it, you are not unlike many other people who still choose to be monogamous; if you do act on it you are not unlike others who still choose to identify as monogamous but cheat. Others practise ‘serial’ monogamy, ending one relationship before starting another. Or maybe you will choose to be like the small proportion of people who identify as polyamorous and work with it to accommodate their ability to love many at the same time.

Only you can make the decisions about your identity and about your choices, but I would warn against identifying as ‘born polyamorous’ if this prevents you doing the work needed to practise it responsibly and ethically. Rest assured you do not need to feel ‘born polyamorous’ to ‘identify as polyamorous.’ Your life, your choice.

Good Luck,

Louisa