t a whiskey bar that desperately wants to be a nightclub, my date asks me if I’m getting a drink. Paul* is a pale, middle-aged, charismatic filmmaker who probably subscribes to The New Yorker but doesn’t read it. This used to be my type, back in 2015. I let him buy me a whiskey sour to see if he can measure up to my 2019 standards.
In my ride-share home, I text syrupy compliments to my partners. Only Eric is awake enough to exchange sweet nothings until my still fully made-up face hits the pillow.
I’m solo-polyamorous. That means that while I love my two long-term partners, Eric and Jackson, I present myself as single in all non-date, social and professional situations. It’s a lifestyle I have no plans to deviate from, and my partners have no issue with it. But it took me a while to get here.
Six years ago, when I started exploring ethical non-monogamy, an umbrella term for everything from swinging to polyamory to relationship anarchy, it presented in interesting opportunity to double-down on the way I’d already been living. I’d never seen marriage in my crystal ball. Society and an inherited eye for design helped me plot a beautiful wedding before I hit puberty, but the institution that came afterward held no allure. And when my adolescence sparked more than a decade of coming out of closets, unearthing limitless attractions and limiting identities, marriage seemed a silly place to stop subverting expectations.
Casual relationships studded my sex life for years after that, and to my surprise, in my effort to avoid committing to one person, I learned that I was capable of committing to and caring for multiple people at once. In polyamory, I found a version of connection that multiplied love rather than limited it — but it had its limitations, too.
Many poly couples follow a hierarchical structure, ranking relationships as primary, secondary or tertiary. This quickly proved cumbersome for me. For years I was relegated to someone’s secondary or tertiary partner, and while I enjoyed the freedom these classifications gave me, I hated always being on the outside. Being vetoed. Being less of a scheduling priority. No matter how emotionally committed I might be to someone, this supposed counterculture still centered around a primary — often heterosexual — couple. I meandered through a mix of these mostly devastating and occasionally wondrous hierarchical relationships for too long.
It was three years ago that I finally started looking into solo-poly life — a polyamorous structure wherein there’s no primary partner and/or ranking of external partners. It seemed like it could protect me from getting caught in the cemented chronology of coupledom, where intimacy points are scored in hopes of winning an expensive party. And I hoped it might function as a kind of emotional shield.
But as I read about solo-polyamory, and recalled the peace and ease of a former partner’s life that didn’t prioritize any one partnership over another or over his own happiness, I began to see it as something more transformative than protective. So I borrowed his ethos and poured the emotional labor of a primary relationship into myself.
It was a year before I crafted a version of solo-polyamory that reflected me. And now, on first dates, I inform people that the dynamic tells us what it’s going to be, not the other way around. I give all my relationships room to transform, grow, regress, shatter or whisper away into nothing.
Giving others and myself this space to explore what we need has helped me set higher standards and find people willing to rise to them. A few months into my relationship with Jackson, for example, I realized I often took the backseat in conversations, so I swiftly gestured toward the exit. In stark contrast to the indifference or gaslighting of past lovers, he owned the flaw, asked for the opportunity to better, and then followed through on that.
We’re celebrating two years together in August.
Currently, I take solo-poly as a structure wherein I am my primary partner and everyone else has fairly equal footing with no pressure to be casual or serious. Ultimately, it’s about removing possession and traditional goals from my relationships. Some people can’t grasp the idea that I can satisfy my emotional needs without conventional relationship markers. They can’t fathom a world where I can fall in love and never argue over the dishes. But this world exists without breaking the laws of physics, and I’m not alone or lonely in it.
In hierarchical polyamory, I often felt hidden away, so when Eric and Jackson introduce me to people as their partner or girlfriend, I’m filled with joy. These declarations are as important to me as my personal agency. But they’re terms most often used deep into a conversation to provide context or signal an emotional commitment; they’re not the whole story.
None of this means I didn’t tell Paul I had existing partners; it means I told him who I was first. I’m a shower-belting, stress-baking, strike-leading writer, journalist, nerd, and so many other things beyond another person’s relationship with me.
I’m single, in love, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
*All names have been changed
J. is a lifestyle writer based in Los Angeles and they believe hot dogs are sandwiches.
Collage by Madeline Montoya.