Free Love is a Battlefield

Originally published in Spook Magazine, September 2015

It’s not every day that one stumbles across the profile of an “NYC scientist studying sex, drugs and religion” when scouring Airbnb in search of a shiny new life in an unknown city. In different circumstances, the “good scientist’s” declaration that (when he wasn’t working on a graphic novel about cannabis and its myriad benefits) he passed his time as an active member of a polyamorous Brooklyn love tribe might have been enough to disqualify him from my eligible housemate pool.

Considering the half-formed ideas I had been having about monogamy and its discontents, co-habiting with Lex Pelger sounded like a serendipitous opportunity to conduct some observational field research. What was the worst that could happen? The answer turned out to be having my sleep patterns regularly disturbed by the sound of strangers having relentlessly loud sex, but I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Regardless, it was worth it alone for that time I was casually propositioned by a man wearing only a towel and his nipple rings, right after he read me a poem. Blokes just don’t do that kind of thing down under.

I came to what Lex affectionately termed the slow house on K Street, Bed Stuy, somewhat disillusioned with matters of the heart. My then-boyfriend and I had discussed Buddhist attachment theory at length, which I simplistically reduced to the assertion that it is futile to cling to anything or anyone, because everything is changing and nothing is permanent. When he told me that he couldn’t promise to always care or have my best interests at heart, it hurt my feelings because I knew it was true. Who could promise such a falsity as eternal love? Even so, my understanding of relationships as social contracts in which two people choose to say affirming and sweet things to one another under the unspoken agreement that nothing is really certain (nor legally-binding) had been deeply disturbed.

Regardless, I was struggling to rectify the logical belief that there is no “the one” with a desire to love without fear of an approaching doomsday. A passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being kept coming to mind: “She had an overwhelming desire to tell him, like the most banal of women. Don’t let me go, hold me tight…but they were words she could not say. The only thing she said when he released her from his embrace was, ‘You don’t know how happy I am to be with you.’ That was the most her reserved nature allowed her to express.”

Despite harbouring a sheepish penchant for saccharine sweet nothings, I was a resistant “girlfriend.” A friend whose parents have been married for 30-odd years once explained his desire to replicate their nuclear family as the natural result of prolonged exposure to such an enduringly joyful union. Unable to remember my own parents happily together, pleasant lifelong companionship feels strictly fictional. More pressingly, I worried about staying in a relationship and missing out on single and fabulous New York, where the streets are paved with the wild times that are meant to be emblematic of one’s roaring twenties. While my boyfriend was the kind of rare, thoughtful person who did things like get my lunch delivered from the other side of the world when I ran out of money, I mourned lost opportunities with strangers I hadn’t met yet.

While I had met many people who moved from warm bed to warm bed with apparent ease, Lex was the first who sought to do so in an entirely honest and honourable manner. He claimed to love – in some form – all of the beautiful and interesting women he spent his nights with, and I believed him. “For me, it’s easy because it’s delightful to be with anyone who intrigues you. Some people like to tinker around with car engines or old books or opera – for poly people, relationships are a hobby,” he explains.

Knowing only a handful of people in New York, I had a lot of time to do things like walk around art galleries and think. At the Brooklyn Museum I found myself drawn to one particular Jenny Holzer artwork. It was a message emblazoned on a serious looking bronze plaque, the kind you’d expect to see at a war memorial or on a public park bench: “You should limit the number of times you act against your nature, like sleeping with people you hate. It’s interesting to test your capabilities for a while, but too much will cause damage.” This playfully Confucian message made me wonder about the implications of treating sex like a hobby or social experiment. I remembered the times I had slept with people I didn’t care for and how – without the foil of fond feelings – it had felt like little more than an undignified, mechanical meeting of limbs.

Lex clarifies that there is an important distinction between polyamory and mindless fucking with a flagrant disregard for emotional connections and consequences. Approaches to polyamory within Lex’s love tribe range from committed couples occasionally allowed to stray within carefully defined parameters, to complex romantic networks with cute names like ‘polycule’.

“In my experience in the New York City poly scene, people are often less interested in the amount of sex they can have then in the delight of so many intimate relationships. I would guess that they spend more time talking then fucking. Not to say that this scene is not a minefield of broken hearts and bad endings, but it’s within the range of any group of New Yorkers trying to navigate relationships in a tough city,” he insists.

If love in all forms is destined to be a battlefield, why risk the potentially exponential trauma of jealousy and hurt feelings between multiple partners?

While the vast majority of polyamorists still experience doubt, envy and mistrust, they strive towards a middle ground between their own needs and the needs of their partner. Jealousy exists to be negotiated and balanced with compersion: a word invented in the swinging ‘60s that describes the pleasure of seeing the emotional or sexual needs of one’s partner fulfilled.

I was impressed by the way that members of Lex’s tribe chose to acknowledge their feelings of jealousy without surrendering to them: “You think about the reasons behind jealousy, which are often about feeling like you’re not good enough,” articulated one of Lex’s particularly striking and insightful lovers.

“Knowing that our [he and his primary partner’s] relationship is the bedrock makes it easier to not be jealous of other partners who might be able to give her certain things that I’m not interested in, or not as good at, like salsa…or S&M,” explains Lex.

I wondered if Kundera had heard of the term compersion when he reflected on the anxieties that taint so many romantic relationships: “Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short. Perhaps the reason we are unable to love is that we yearn to be loved, that is, we demand something (love) from our partner instead of delivering ourselves up to them demand-free and asking for nothing but their company.”

Perhaps I had misunderstood attachment theory all along. Could it be less about cold and clinical detachment and more about accepting and enjoying the company of another person without expectations of a white wedding, or fears that you might eventually be fucked and forgotten? To my mind, that was a sentiment that polyamorous lovers, reluctant girlfriends and committed companions alike might gain from – because we’re all just trying to connect in this crazy, messed up world.