A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that more than one in five people who participated in two of the annual Singles in America survey have engaged in a polyamorous (or a type of consensual nonmonogamous) relationship. While this statistic should suggest that polyamory is becoming less taboo, if we look to popular culture, we’re often presented with a relationship model that doesn’t represent the spectrum of consensual nonmonogamy. We usually see a cisgender, heterosexual man involved with multiple cisgender, heterosexual women.
Take, for instance, HBO’s Insecure wherein Molly (Yvonne Orji), a high-powered attorney who tends to make poor relationship decisions, becomes sexually involved with her childhood friend Alejandro (Sarunas J. Jackson). Alejandro is married, but he and his wife have decided to open their marriage so they can both pursue sexual relationships with other people. It’s rare to see polyamory represented outside of this man-marries-and-then-meets-other-women scenario, which is exactly why journalist and writer Sophie Lucido Johnson wrote Many Love: A Memoir of Polyamory and Finding Love(s).
It’s time to imagine new ways of being in romantic relationships. In her newly released book, Johnson explains why she became polyamorous and how we can create a broader understanding of nonmonogamy through a combination of candid writing and vivid illustrations. Johnson recently spoke with Bitch about what friendship taught her about polyamory, the importance of chosen families, and the one myth about nonmonogamy she hopes her book debunks.
What persuaded you to write such a deep and personal memoir about your life and the way that you approach relationships?
I wanted the narrative to be out in the world [and put] an emphasis on female friendships. Before I pitched the book, whenever I said the word polyamorous, [people would] just flinch. They seemed to think that it means that I just have a lot of sex, which isn’t what it means to me at all.
I also like writing about myself. My belief, as a person who trained in journalism and also in creative writing, is that it’s valuable for people to tell their own stories. It’s unfortunate that some people have more access to being able to tell their stories than others, and I want to acknowledge that I’m very, very privileged in that department. But it’s powerful when people have the opportunity to say what happened to them. That’s as true as you can get.
I love that you have a chapter in the book about friendship being the kind of relationship that gets sidelined in adulthood. Based on the section about your former roommate Hannah, do you think that friendship can be a gateway for exploring nontraditional relationships. If so, why?
So living with Hannah was just a very functional relationship for me, and I wasn’t sleeping with her. I loved living with her. I enjoyed living with her more than society suggests that we should. After we find a husband, there’s sort of this placeholder quality that’s given to friends. She’s there for you [until you] find someone, and then she’s kind of out of the picture. But she would always do a better job rooting for you than [a] man ever would. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I learned from living with Hannah, and I am just so filled with gratitude because she helped me see what was valuable about telling the truth.
And she also helped me understand emotional labor and the tasks around living in a house with people. I’m more understanding of [how to] keep a house because Hannah was really open and honest about her feelings about living. She really modeled it for me.
At the beginning of the book, you speak about your parents’ “model nuclear relationship” and how that influenced your initial perception of relationships. Were you at all worried about your parents’ response to your decision to be polyamorous. If so, how did you move past that fear?
I was terrified. When I [told them] how I was choosing to live my life, they treated it as “well, this is only a phase” and went so far as to say, “I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you’re not going to build a life because you’re talking about love in a way I don’t think about love.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my choice to live in Chicago. My whole family lives in Portland. Portland’s cool, but I needed some physical space from my blood family. A lot of people do, [and] that’s really okay. We should move more toward making chosen families and families that we find with people [who] really love and care about us no matter what happens. And that can be really painful. Relationships are complicated.
My mom is the coolest mom, and she has been pretty cool about the polyamory thing. I call her a lot. And I am grateful to have some space from my family too so that I can continue to live my truth, grow on my own, find like-minded people, [and] diversify my worldview. And that’s important. The world is big, and there’s so many people in it who believe the same thing that you do or maybe have something to teach you if you’re on a path. And if you stay honest, open, and remember others’ humanity, I believe that everyone can find a family that fits for them.
I love the idea that everybody can find a family that fits them. I really enjoyed and thought it was strategic and insightful to include the frequently asked questions section at the beginning of the book. Why was that important for you to include?
Originally, I incorporated a lot more research into the book, and [I was] switching from memoir voice to book-report voice. And my editor felt like it was too book-reporty throughout and that I might lose readership that way. It was important to me to do research for this book, talk to other people [about polyamory], and really look into their perspectives. I interviewed a lot of people while I was writing this book, particularly because I was looking for queer couples who were in polyamorous relationships and older women who have decided not to have children because those are stories that needed to be told. There are so many interesting people who have great things to say.
I’m not a great research writer. I do a lot of blogging, and I like the word “I.” I felt like I didn’t have all of the information in my life story that a person who is sort of curious about polyamory might want in a book like this, and I certainly appreciated learning about some of the historical influences of polyamory. I really had no idea that the word has been around for so long, that the movement has been changing and growing for such a long time. There’s some real wisdom in the community that I wanted to make sure made it into the book.
In the book, you write that “the polyamory movement as it exists today owes a lot to queer culture because queer couples have been experimenting with different types of relationship models for a long time.” What has the historical relationship between queerness and polyamory been? How are they speaking to each other now?
Queer folks have been exploding the idea of what relationships [are] supposed to look like for as long as people have been on the earth. There’s plenty of evidence that that’s true. So we’re pretty quick to think about pride movements of the ’80s, where chosen family was a very big part of the culture and people did not assume monogamy when entering into relationships. But the movement was pretty white and mostly about gay cis males.
So it’s interesting to think about queer and trans people in Europe in the last 10 years who’ve been really exploring the idea of relationship anarchy, which are relationships without rules, and approaching relationships from the perspective of not making any assumptions. And that work has been done [almost] exclusively by queer folks, and it’s percolated into our modern culture. And I do feel frustrated with how heterocentric the narrative around polyamory is in the media. You will be hard pressed to find any model that isn’t just a hetero couple who has started dating another woman; it’s almost always another woman. I mean there’s a couple of exceptions but very few. I’m just grateful for people who have been out there having awesome love for decades and centuries and sometimes very quietly and very secretively. Because not too long ago, you could and would lose your life for loving differently. It’s making me tear up just [thinking] about it.
What are three books people should read before deciding to become polyamorous?
The books that I’d recommend the most are Polyamory in the 21st Century, which was written by Deborah Anapol. She just writes so accessibly and eloquently about the history of polyamory but also the logistics that you might not have even thought [about]. That’s how I learned that people who are on the autism spectrum are more likely to be polyamorous than people who aren’t. And that actually make a lot of sense because of the way that we all deal with emotions. It also offers up a lot of beautiful questions about the way that we look at disabilities. So she goes into detail on those issues, and she’s so smart and so special. She passed away a couple of years ago, but that’s one of her three books. All three of her books are great.
There’s another book called Opening Up that I really love. It’s by Tristan Taormino, and it’s [filled with first-person narratives from] people who chose to open up their relationships. It’s a little dated at this point, but I find it to be really helpful. If you are also reading The Ethical Slut [by Dossie Easton], then you should find another book to supplement. Sex at Dawn is an awesome book. It’s very pro-sex and about sexual freedom. But it does bill itself as a guide to polyamory, and polyamory is about a lot more than sex. And it’s important to take into consideration all the different ways that this relationship model can look. [In] Sex at Dawn, there’s a lot about rules to make your relationship comfortable, and that does work for a lot of people. But I just want to emphasize that rules don’t work for everyone in the way that they’re [described] in that book.
That’s a great book for trying to figure out a framework for starting a sexual open relationship, [but] there are a lot of problems with it. Some of the science in that book is really interesting, just in terms of how communities work and how the world functions differently than the Western model of relationship structure. [Monogamy] is not the only relationship structure that human beings have, and they do a good job of finding some of the anthropology behind cultures in other parts of the world that aren’t well-documented in the way we think of documentation. So [The Ethical Slut] has some good information for people who are just looking for the science behind [polyamory].
Queer folks have been exploding the idea of what relationships are supposed to look like for as long as people have been on the earth.
You write in the book that, “Relationships are collaborative chemistry. They’re always at odds with the sum of their parts.” I thought that was profound because I’ve found myself trying to force relationships to work even when I know that they can’t, and they won’t. How do you know when a relationship, particularly a polyamorous relationship, is healthy? Are there obvious signs that people who are in polyamorous relationships should be paying attention to?
Yes! For me, the bottom line is are you being completely transparent with your partner? As your love is changing, [are you] constantly checking in about the flow of your relationship? Love changes—that’s a fact. It has never, in the history of time, ever stood still. There’s no human accounts of a relationship that was ever hammered into place, except maybe someone who got married, made a bunch of promises, and died the next day. But we change, so it’s only fair to be communicating with your partners about the ways in which you’re changing, and that naturally includes ways in which your relationships might be changing. It’s really painful because maybe you don’t want [your relationships to change] and wish that they wouldn’t. But it’s also really beautiful when people are open about their feelings, are vulnerable [about] feeling scared or tired or confused, and are naming their feelings in an open way. You’re telling the people who you love that you trust them, and that’s really at the center of what makes a functional relationship.
So the warning signs, to me, would be are you skewing the truth to try to protect the feelings of your partner or partners? Are there things that you’re withholding that you have an inkling that your partner or partners would want to know? Do you have emails or text messages that you really are afraid someone will find? I mean it’s the same thing as if you’re cheating on someone. It’s the same arena. I’m holding a huge part of my life from the most important person or people in my life. That stuff is heavy when you’re holding it. It takes a lot to hold onto uncomfortable feelings and not share them. My friend, Ben, who’s in the book a lot, is someone I dated for several years in high school and college, and he just flew in and surprised me with his wife. They’re staying here. They just came down for the book launch. That’s unbelievable deep kindness, and we’re so close. And I just think [about] how much it would’ve hurt if I had lost this friendship because I hadn’t been willing to let the relationship change the way it needed.
I love the part in the book where you’re talking about how to have friendships with exes. I think that’s very valuable.
Rather than breaking up, your relationship is evolving. And specifically, that might mean you don’t talk to the person a lot, but barring cases of abuse, you’re [keeping] compassionate and empathetic people in your life who you’ve loved. You don’t have to lose anyone. It’s not necessary to lose people who are valuable to you if they’re still alive. You don’t have to. We can find ways to keep loving each other in different shapes.
What is the biggest misconception about polyamory that you hope that your book dispels?
The biggest misconception about polyamory is that it only looks one way. I say it’s the biggest misconception because it’s the most dangerous: man and woman decide to open up their relationship, they remain “primary partners,” and start to date other people on the side while sort of maintaining this don’t ask, don’t tell logic. I just don’t think it works very well. But that’s just the way we see it portrayed in culture, and that’s very dangerous. I don’t know if my book dispels that. My book is trying to shatter the idea that polyamory is about sex. I don’t think that it’s about sex.
Sex is a part of love naturally, but there are people who are very capable of love who are asexual and who can enter into profound romantic relationships with other people where sex isn’t even a part of it. There are people who are hypersexual who are aromantic who can enter into polyamorous relationships. Polyamory is about trust and honesty and letting your love change, and that idea [can] be useful to any relationship. Everyone could benefit from being open-minded [about] how things are going to change.