Loving several people at once - is that possible? Meeting a polyamorous young woman showed that it is, but only if you replace some of love's glamor with sober rationality.
"There are phases where I'm closer to one person. Physical proximity plays a huge role. But if I meet someone new and think they're interesting, that doesn't mean I'm less close to anyone else. Maybe I have a bit less time for them, but everyone else's lives never stand still either," Juliane (right) says.
Turns out love, unlike money, food or space, isn't a limited resource. Juliane loves, sleeps with, is there for, and occasionally gets angry about, four different people. She lives as part of a network of people who all have multiple lovers.
Currently, she has been in one relationship in Berlin for more than a year, in a long-distance relationship and casually with two others for two and four years, respectively.
The secret for not letting this turn into a massive orgy or a constant emotional rollercoaster ride? According to Juliane, there are some essential ingredients: "It's really important to me that the people who play a central role in my life get to know each other and communicate openly," she says, adding that honesty is also important, along with having the guts to be raw and vulnerable.
Her relationship model of choice is polyamory, a term coined in the mid 90s. It is a model that works differently for everyone involved in a relationship with multiple partners. There isn't one sole way to live it - details are constantly being negotiated.
Loving just one person is absurd
Although there are no official figures available, it is estimated that #link:http://www.spektrum.de/magazin/polyamorie-meine-liebe-reicht-fuer-viele/1320521:up to 10,000 people# live polyamorously in Germany. In the United States, the number is estimated to be #link:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-polyamorists-next-door/201405/how-many-polyamorists-are-there-in-the-us:between 1.2 to 2.4 million#. What unites them is the conviction that love doesn't ever run out and that it can be distributed among many.
"Monogamy is an absurd idea to me. If there is someone I feel very close to, someone I love, why would that keep me from having sex with others? Why would that keep me from feeling close to someone else? I mean [even if I tried], it would happen. I would meet someone new and I'd fall in love. A relationship wouldn't prevent me from feeling that way," Juliane says with a smile, as if she's probably thinking about someone at this very moment.
She describes love as "finding someone fascinating" and "meeting someone so great you want to spend as much time with them as possible". Her idea of love is focussed on the other person - on their life, the way they see the world - so it feels different every time because every person is different. In that way, she doesn't so much talk about the butterflies in her stomach or the excitement in her own heart, instead she highlights people's characters.
She talks about all these people fondly while sitting in the garden of her girlfriend Theresa's flat in a residential part of north Berlin. Theresa never had just one relationship; there were always several. After one and a half years together, Theresa is one of her more intense relationships. Their interactions are natural and effortless. They casually chat about their plans for next week and talk about where her housemate is. With their inside jokes they come across like old friends, but you can tell they are lovers by the way Juliane tenderly strokes Theresa's hair for a split second. Then that moment is gone.
Behaving like an 'ethical slut'?
When talking about her lifestyle and her choices, and Juliane does that a lot, she speaks calmly and with confidence, as if she doesn't need to prove anything to anyone - or convince anyone of anything.
She made her decision when she was 17: she cheated on her boyfriend of one and a half years but it didn't feel like cheating. The wave of guilt never came despite her friends telling her that she needed to tell him and that it was a betrayal. In fact, when she did tell him, he didn't mind, and they carried on having an open relationship.
That was a pretty logical way of getting rid of tensions within a relationship. It almost seems too logical for something that involves the most illogical of all creatures: the human heart.
"The Ethical Slut", the polyamory bible penned by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, draws out a few suggestions on how to treat each other respectfully. The core is that polyamory isn't a "no strings attached" easy way out of responsibilities. There are certain rules - like always being honest about jealousy and talking through what "commitment" means individually - one must follow in order for it to work.
Juliane takes a sip from Theresa's cup of green tea. Sometimes they smile at each other knowingly just like any couple that has been together a while and know each other inside and out would.
Having a series of polyamorous relationships must feel pretty similar to a monogamous one – it just seems as if it involves far more organizational legwork: "Sometimes the three of us go to a gig, and we have to discuss who goes home with whom beforehand. That's a little unfamiliar, it takes a bit of practice - but it's not that hard really," explains Juliane.
The second key is efficient communication: In their daily lives, Juliane says, there are a lot of questions involved like: 'Was it okay that this other person was with us? Do you want to meet up again? I'd like to hang out with someone and then come see you, is that okay?'
You end up with a network of loved ones, not only loving each other, but constantly talking about loving each other and analyzing each other's and their own feelings. Is that still the greatest thing on earth - or is it more like a thesis in sociology? "Obviously having to be honest and reflecting all the time can be tough, but I personally think it's beautiful that [polyamory] forces me to do so," says Juliane.
The first sex is never as good
Because of that, polyamory is more about not leaving important things unsaid, resisting playing games and looking after everybody's feelings – including your own.
"Sometimes there are specific situations where I feel left out, thinking ‘Hey, I still exist...', but that kind of thing can happen in any social situation," she says. But it never led her to question the concept of polyamory, mainly because it's not one of many concepts to her, but a lifestyle and culture that is deeply rooted in her identity.
Contrary to common stereotypes, polyamory is by no means all about the sex - although sex is a pretty "vital part". "I find it very unappealing to only meet someone for a short amount of time, but of course sometimes that also happens. Normally, if I like someone I want to get to know them properly. If they feel the same way, they'll stay in my life for a while. Sleeping with someone for the first time is never as exciting as when you've come to know someone better," Juliane says.
Not hurt by one, but by many
At first sight, there seem to be a lot of insecurities attached to the plain fact that the other person always has a right to leave. But then again: anyone can always leave anyway, and a monogamous relationship surely doesn't save someone from getting their heart broken. Juliane talks a lot about making a conscious decision for the other person every time they meet instead of staying together until it just doesn't work out anymore.
"Polyamorous relationships aren't without conflicts. But at the beginning, once you both realize that things are starting to feel more serious, you promise each other to be fair and open, and to always communicate how you feel. Sometimes that doesn't work out so well and it gets super exhausting, but I think having negotiated the framework we want to live and love in does give some sort of security," Juliane says.
Something about her emotions still seems guarded, but maybe it's just the absence of the false illusions and sparkling eyes we know from Hollywood movies. Or it might be her slow sentences, her sober conclusions and the plain logic of it all. Perhaps that hint of emotional reservation is the only way to prevent someone from running away with them - with polyamory, it is not just one person that can hurt you, but many.
When Juliane moved cities a few years ago, she left someone she was close to behind, and they knew things wouldn't be the same after that. "We never talked about 'splitting up', but we both knew that would be a big change, and of course leaving is painful when you were really close before, but it's just not possible to be with everyone you love at the same time." Maybe it's because some years have passed, relationships changed, new people entered her life and others left, but Juliane seems curiously detached when talking about this episode.
But being less emotional in order to minimize the risk of getting hurt isn't the point, she insists. Instead, she chooses to maximize the amount of love she wants to share: "Too much love? There can't ever be too much love!" She smiles like the question is completely absurd, and for the first time you can guess what the heartbeats and the euphoria do to her. At the same time one cannot help but think that she'd get bored pretty quickly if there was only one person.
Listening to their story, it seems that if the possibility of being hurt by many is the downside to all of this, the upside is that perhaps the pain will not be as deep or last as long - there'll always be someone else to comfort you. Maybe that's the fundamental difference - the loss of one individual from your relationship is less painful.
In polyamory, love's appearance is altered
But Juliane says that if anything, having a polyamorous relationship where your feelings are laid open to all, makes you more at risk of being hurt. "I had to learn to talk about feelings because we don't grow up being encouraged to reflect or talk openly about what moves us," she says. "It's a lot about making yourself vulnerable, to let real intimacy happen and to not fear that the other person will use you."
It's difficult to picture what being vulnerable could look like without witnessing any major fights, meltdowns, or arguments about the same old issues that wouldn't end. Now, talking about vulnerability on a harmonious summer evening feels a little clinical and theoretical, but maybe that's a huge part of a polyamorous lifestyle.
Her profound determination to live differently has become stronger and less compromising over the years, because she put so much effort, literary research and then first-hand experience into making polyamory work. "If people look at all the relationship models and find that polyamory doesn't work for them, that's fine too. What annoys me is people who don't reflect on society and traditions and just adopt [monogamy]."
The pair fool around under Theresa's apple tree. Juliane wants to try and eat a fruit, Theresa says: "Careful, not sure what that is and if you can eat it." Theresa grins, shakes her head and says she doesn't want to kiss her "just for the photo". That would be staged.
She herself has reflected on, thought about and battled with how she will live her life, while others just adopt what is considered to be "normal". As a result, her points are almost dizzyingly coherent and her unagitated and calm way of explaining her way of love, can only make you wonder why monogamy has always been so normal when there is obviously more than just one way of having a content love life.
Looking at Juliane's and Theresa's polyamory, love has altered its appearance. You'll miss some of the door-slamming, the thoughtlessness, the naivety, the youthful idiocy of giving away too much and the drama that makes love, love. Instead, it's less Hollywoodesque, less exclusive, less delusional about this "perfect human being", but more raw and honest. It just comes with more responsibility for oneself, with more explanations.
Maybe that's something monogamous people can learn from polyamorous people like Juliane: Instead of being so focused on one person - The One who will lead you to eternal happiness and rainbows - copying Juliane's way of relying on herself, being conscious about her own feelings and needs, may also increase the abundance of love in a one-to-one relationship.