Why Charlotte's polyamorous couples are thriving
[Note: Names, details, and timelines have been changed to offer clarity, narrative, and protect the privacy of those involved.]
I matched with a woman on Bumble about two years ago who had great dating app bona fides.
She had a respectable job as a shift manager at a bar, side hustled as a wedding photographer, enjoyed true crime podcasts, was working on a half sleeve, and was aggressively tackling her student loan debt so she could buy a house.
She also had a serious boyfriend who she'd been dating for three years.
I didn't notice until after we matched. Maybe I missed that bit of her profile during the existential dread fueled right-swiping that powered my dating life at the time.
"I put it in my Bumble profile so it wouldn't surprise people," the woman, Shannon, told me recently over a text message. "I didn't want to waste anybody's time, and I didn't want my time wasted either. I was down with casual sex, but not with anyone who didn't understand polyamory."
It wasn't the first time I'd ever heard of polyamory. I first remember the word being used when I was a senior in high school in 2008. A new classmate who'd moved from San Francisco used it to describe her relationship with her long-distance boyfriend.
"I love him, but I don't believe he's the only person I could possibly love," she explained to me at the time, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
It was a brand new concept to me, and one that's still relatively rare today. Rolling Stone reported in 2018 that only 4 to 5 percent of Americans are polyamorous. Vice suggested 6 percent in 2017.
What complicates these kinds of figures is that polyamory encompasses a lot of different types of relationships.
Polyamory is hard to define. Everyone I asked had a slightly different answer.
"Polyamory is deciding that even if/though I have chosen to have a long term and primary partner, very few people are capable of meeting my needs," said Missy, whose primarily partnered with their fiance, but maintains other sexual and romantic relationships.
"Polyamory is just having multiple sexual and romantic partners at the same time and being honest about it," said Austin. He is part of a poly that includes six people. Although not all of them have a romantic or sexual relationship with each of the others, they consider the poly to be a sort of relationship of its own. Members of the poly aren't allowed to bring in others without discussing it with the entire poly.
"It helps us keep toxic people out," Austin said. "Outside of that, we can date around and meet singles all we like. Really, it's not much different than what monogamous people have been doing for years."
Another woman I talked to said her and her girlfriend agreed to keep only one shared boyfriend at a time. Yet another woman said she has casual sex with others, but only pursues emotional bonds with her primary partner.
In 2017, Franklin Veaux created The Map of Non-Monogamy, an attempt to map the relationship between various types of polyamory.
It's... a lot.
Included in the map is hip terminology like "relationship anarchy," in which you and your partner don't explicitly state any rules, so you're free to do whatever you like. Another point refers to a "100 Mile Rule," where you and your partner are monogamous unless you're out of town.
So, what's the difference between polyamory and being a single, sexually active person?
Again, it often comes down to perspective. Even the map's creator acknowledges that the line between polyamory and cheating/casual sex is thin and malleable.
In fact, most of the people I spoke to mentioned that their engaging in polyamorous relationships followed some sort of infidelity in a monogamous relationship, either by them or their partner.
"I felt really bad about cheating on my ex," Austin told me. "I'm just not built for monogamy, and I think a lot of people aren't and that's why they cheat."
"My ex cheated on me after we lived together for three years, and I just was not in the mood to go into another committed thing," Anna told me, a poly partnered woman in her mid-30s. She explained how polyamory gives her freedom from the jealousy, suspicion, and fear that dominated her previous relationship.
"I used to have panic attacks thinking about him cheating on me," she told me. "I don't worry about shit like that anymore partly because I just find the poly community so much more honest, but also because the rules are laid out after a lot of discussion."
Communication, communication, communication. The one trend that continued to arise in my conversations was the importance of communication.
In monogamous relationships, many of the rules and boundaries are considered implicit, to the point where it's almost considered taboo to discuss them.
One monogamous partner may assume after a certain number of successful dates that the other partner would stop seeking sex or romance outside the relationship. The other partner could assume the opposite, deciding that since the relationship is still new, sex outside the relationship is fine.
One partner is too nervous to bring up monogamy, thinking they'll appear needy, while the other partner is hesitant to discuss it for fear of losing their other sexual partners.
It's scenarios like this that make me think Austin and Anna both have a point. Maybe polyamory isn't that different than what monogamous couples spend most of their time doing, and perhaps the pressure of monogamy does lead to increased jealousy and dishonesty in monogamous relationships.
"Polyamory takes a lot of maturity and facing your own jealousy," Missy said.
In a city like Charlotte, a transplant city where people in their 20s and 30s can make significant money in the banking industry, polyamory might seem particularly attractive.
"I don't want to settle down," Austin told me. "There's a lot of cool people here and I like being able to meet them."
I was sitting with Austin at Duckworth's in Ballantyne. He showed me pictures of his primary partner, an elementary school teacher for CMS. They got engaged last summer and are saving up for their wedding.
I ask him what they plan to do about the other four members of their poly after the wedding.
"Probably the same," he says. "I don't see why anything has to change."
I challenge him on that. "You can't really think everything will be the same," I say. "Come on, you'll be trying to have a baby and buy a house and create your lives together."
"I guess," Austin says. He pauses to think. "I can't imagine wanting to create a life that didn't have all of them in it, or didn't have all the people I might want to meet in the future."
"Have you ever considered just meeting them and not sleeping with them?" I say, semi-seriously.
He laughs. "I guess I could not sleep with them. But I would 100% rather be able to sleep with them."
Many of the people I spoke to told me polyamory was a non-negotiable for them right now.
"So let's say hypothetically the day after the wedding, she sits you down and says she wants out of the poly," I say. "What happens then?"
"I'd do it." He answers more quickly than I thought he would. "I mean, I do love her. If she's over it, I could be over it."
I met up with Shannon, my polyamorous Bumble match from a few years ago, at Rhino in Uptown to interview her for this article.
We never went out two years ago when we matched. I respectfully wasn't down with the idea of polyamory. It seems like a logistical hassle. Scheduling dates, respecting boundaries, and tending to each other's needs is hard enough between two people. Adding thirds, fourths, or fifths seems insurmountably difficult.
She's still got all the same bona fides. She's changed jobs a few times, but still manages at a high volume bar in Southend. Her wedding photography side hustle is going strong. We make small talk about how our favorite true crime podcasts have changed since we discussed it through Bumble years ago.
The biggest change? She's no longer polyamorous.
"I think it was a phase," she says with a laugh. "I was being reactive to things that were happening to me rather than being proactive in what I actually wanted."
I push her for clarification, but she evades. She volunteers that things were "really bad" without stating what things she's referring to. It's like there's something she wants to say, but is hesitant to cast polyamory in any negative light.
"I was cheated on," she finally relents. "Like, a lot."
Two weeks ago, I would have said something condescending about cheating in a polyamorous relationship, but it's not the first time it's come up in conversations I've had.
Infidelity is certainly easier to parse in a monogamous relationship, where the rules are simpler, but it doesn't appear particularly uncommon from what I've heard from polyamorous individuals.
"We had rules and he broke them," she says. It's as detailed as she's willing to be. "I don't think it says anything about polyamory. It says more about him."
The statement sticks with me for more than a few days.
In a lot of ways, polyamory is exactly what I thought it was. It still seems like a logistical nightmare, and jealousy and infidelity aren't absent. The people I spoke to were mostly wage workers, liberal, white, educated, not straight, backing up what's been suggested by some research that polyamory is for the white left.
But in a deeper, more nuanced way, it's something I hadn't expected at all. Polyamory is less of a noun and more of an adjective, a way to describe a multitude of experiences and feelings regarding sex, romance, and relationships. It can look stunningly like monogamy, and monogamy can closely resemble polyamory.
For some, it's a lifestyle they couldn't ever see leaving. For others, it's a phase they will look back on with regret. The same can be said of monogamy, celibacy, or any other romantic mode of expression.
I asked both Shannon and Austin the same final question: What would you say to someone who thinks polyamory isn't valid?
"I would say to closely look at why they feel that way," she says. "It didn't work for me, but I know a lot of people it works for. You don't want to close yourself off to something that could really work for you."
Austin is slightly different. "I would say you'd be surprised how much better dating is when you don't feel like you're trapped in bed with one other person." I ask him if he means sex, but he clarifies. "Yes, but not just that. You don't have to rely on just one person for all your emotional and physical needs."
I tell him I see what he means, but polyamory still seems strange to me.
"Dude, people spend their whole lives with one person and never wonder what else is out there," he says. "That is what's strange."