The truth about life in an open relationship
For growing numbers of people, monogamy just doesn't work. So what happens when you throw out the rule book? Tanya Sweeney meets the couples in love with polyamory
While wedding season is in full swing, it's safe to say that in 2016, the idea of marriage as an institution is under threat. Relaxed social mores, technology and 21st-century feminism have put paid to the idea that a loved-up couple is the only happy-ever-after there is. And now a growing number of people are seeking emotional fulfilment with an alternative relationship model: polyamory. The results, it must be said, are often effective.
Much as its name suggests, polyamory is the practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the consent of everyone involved. It's a different entity to 'swinging' (which is simply sex with different partners), or having a bit on the side (most polyamorous people see their partners as equal in terms of love).
Catalina Vieru, a 29-year-old European Voluntary Service worker from Dundalk, first heard the word 'polyamory' six years ago. As it happens, she was already in an open relationship with another man.
"I never felt like I could be monogamous," she explains. "With my ex-partner, we decided that the safest for us would be to have a sexually open relationship, meaning that it was okay for both of us to date or have sex with others, as long as we didn't get involved emotionally.
"During that time, I started wondering about what would happen if I'd allow myself to develop feelings also.
"After we broke up, I started dating a woman and we talked a lot about polyamory and we started dating different people and creating different bonds. What helped a lot (and still does) was a very real, authentic communication.
"We've been together for two years," she adds. "At the moment, I am also involved with three more people and a couple, and I have a different type of connection, all very special, with each of them."
Certainly, Catalina could be onto something: it's not likely that one lover will fulfill all needs (romantic, intellectual, sexual, emotional), and having different lovers to fulfil different needs sounds like a good way of getting most needs met. And, contrary to popular belief, a poly relationship can be every bit as loving, honest and committed as a monogamous one.
Part of the power of polyamory, say its practitioners, is that honesty, respect and communication are paramount to keeping the wheels of the relationships greased. Polyamorous people aren't oversexed or promiscuous, and no one is cheating or coercing a partner into a relationship they don't want. There is no need for clandestine encounters or affairs, because everyone in a poly relationship is on the same page.
Monogamous relationships aren't without their complications, certainly, but the fact that three or more people are involved in a poly relationship means that the interpersonal combinations are plentiful.
There is a 'V' (one person is the 'hinge', and has two lovers who aren't romantically involved with each other), a 'triad' or 'quad' (a relationship between three or four people). A 'W' denotes a fivesome in which two lovers have their own separate lovers.
"I do believe they all have the same potential of being as honest or dishonest as the monogamous relationships," says Catalina.
"If you nurture a safe space for all the people involved to feel supported, listened to, respected and valued, then you will have a committed and honest relationship, regardless of its type."
IT engineer Balazs Balogh, 31, originally from Hungary but living in Galway, became aware of the concept through a web-comic, and found his mind sufficiently 'blown'.
"Up until that point I believed I came up with the whole thing, then I discovered there's a worldwide community with more or less the same idea," he explains.
"My first tries were far from perfect; in hindsight they were rather set up to fail as my partners weren't explicitly poly themselves while being okay with the general concept.
"That's how we learn I guess.
"I'm married and have two kids, so that forms a foundation to build on," he adds. "I usually meet my other partners separately, and have time dedicated just for them.
"We've had a partner living in with us full time for a few weeks once, and I still hold that time dear. If people would've seen it they would be surprised how 'ordinary' it all was.
"One thing that particularly stuck with me was when they were cooking together while having a chat, it was so heartwarming I could've watched them for hours. There's this saying that gets thrown around a lot by poly people that by loving more, love doesn't run out, but multiplies. I felt exactly that."
That's not to say that complications don't arise: "Some poly people say they just don't feel jealous and never did - God, I wish I was like that, because feeling envious or jealous is really not fun," Catalina reflects.
"I think most of my current partners feel the same way. Once we get emotionally involved with someone, we start feeling envious when that person is seeing other people and spends time with them. I deal with it by being very self-aware and knowing that envy appears because of my fears and it has nothing to do with my partner or their partner."
Adds Balasz: "Most poly people are just as susceptible to jealousy as monogamous ones - it will just arise for different reasons. You can be perfectly okay with someone sleeping with your partner but if they go and see a movie together you were also interested in, it's sure to kick in. It's just practice that makes us deal with it better."
Polyamory Ireland - a 300-strong faction of people - hold regular meetings in Dublin. Its members range in age from teenagers to grandparents, and are highly multicultural and well-travelled. Randy Ralston moved to Ireland from California in 2002 and started the group in 2008.
"There were no resources for people interested in creative, respectful, loving, inclusive alternatives to society's dominant relationship paradigm," he explains.
"In the beginning it was definitely a 'build it and see if they will come' kind of thing.
"The meetings are very relaxed, informal, and easy-going," he continues. "We create an atmosphere of safety and respect so people feel it is okay to open up and share their experiences, opinions, ideas, dreams - no matter what they are."
Balasz organises the get-togethers in Galway, and there are polyamory groups in Cork and Limerick too.
"They're all very welcoming and positive," explains Balasz. "We convene at pubs and similar venues, have a topic for the night to start conversation every once in a while, and that's about it.
"There are lots of misconceptions about polyamory in general," he adds. "People think we have orgies all the time. People's reactions usually range from dismissive to surprisingly interested. Others can go deeper and question things in a sinister way without knowing any better. We routinely get accused of the inability to commit or of being greedy."
Among the other commonly held misconceptions is that polyamory is bad for children in the relationships.
"All the evidence and research to date says that children who come from polyamorous families are, at worst, no more dysfunctional than those who come from traditional monogamous ones. And, at best, are much happier and more well-adjusted," reveals Randy.
"For many, there is still a lingering fear of unjustified stigma around being openly polyamorous," he adds. "A significant number of people in society are quick to judge and shame without really knowing anything about it, based on someone else's inherited morality."
Yet the times are changing, and are set to shift even further: visibility for the poly community will be at an all-time high as Polyamory Ireland are set to march in the Dublin Pride Festival for the first time this month.
"Our community has the right mix of people to provide a beautiful and supportive presence," says Randy. "The struggles Pride represents are all of our struggles. We will be there in solidarity, essentially, for freedom of relationship choice. But also for equality, diversity, tolerance, and justice for all.
"Personally, I think it is entirely natural for us to love multiple people,"he adds.
"Some may feel otherwise, and that is perfectly okay. Our group supports and respects freedom of relationship choice for all - no matter what it may be. There are many ways to live, and many ways to love."
For more details on Polyamory Ireland, see meetup.com/Polyamory-Ireland/