Picture the scene: you’re lying in bed on a Sunday morning, having a coffee and a croissant with your beau or beaus. The doorbell rings, and in walks Louis Theroux. “Can I get you anything?” he asks, as you grin to cover the weird atmosphere and desperately wish you’d had the opportunity to brush your hair or put some fresh knickers on. “Tea? More coffee?” Slightly-too-long pause. “And tell me…” he continues, in his lovably awkward way “Tell me – are you happy?”
Last night I watched Love Without Limits – the Louis Theroux documentary in which he follows a few polyamorous groups to try and get a feel for what draws them to polyamory, and how they arrange their relationships. Cards on the table: I’m not polyamorous myself. Even at my most secure, I struggle with jealousy, and I also struggle to conceive of how I’d go about supplementing the love I have for my current partner. We are open-ish, in that we sometimes have sexy fun with friends if we’re in the mood, but although I have tried quite hard to cultivate compersion, the idea of either of us having another romantic partner makes my heart twist and my stomach lurch a little.
I am a bit sceptical about monogamy, though. I am frustrated that it’s so often presented not just as the ‘best’ but often the ‘only’ possible way to have romantic and sexual relationships. Given the sheer number of human beings on the planet, and the massive variety in what makes each of us happy, I think it would be a statistical miracle if it turned out that all of us are meant to enjoy and experience love in the same way.
What I’m saying is that I went into Love Without Limits keen to see examples of how some polyamorous people make their relationships work, and gauge how Theroux (Professional Layperson) might react.
Aren’t you miserable, though?
The key question on Louis’ lips seemed to be: aren’t you miserable? Aren’t you lonely? Don’t you wish that you – only you – could be enough for someone? It’s a really interesting question. Incredibly rude, of course, but Louis literally makes documentaries for a living, and I doubt any of the subjects went into it with their eyes closed, so I reckon probably a fair question to ask.
But it’s interesting because it’s so rarely a question that I’m ever asked. As a monogamous person, people rarely probe me in depth about the state of my relationship. Sure, they’ll interfere a lot around the edges: I’ve often had to parry ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ and ‘when are you going to have kids?’ or ‘are you planning on getting married?’. But very few people have ever quizzed me about whether the structure of my relationship is the right arrangement for me. No one’s ever asked if, as a monogamous person, I ever feel lonely or jealous or left out. I’m in the majority, I’m doing what ‘most people’ are expected to do, and as such I never have to explain it or justify my decisions.
Yet polyamorous people field these questions all the time, and in the Theroux documentary everyone got plenty of opportunity to answer them, as Louis did his traditional bumblingly-British probing to see how they really felt, deep down. I sound like I’m being rude about Theroux, but I do genuinely like him: I think he asks interesting questions sometimes, and I think his style often gets at emotions and stories that would be lost by other interviewers. But I also think he went into this documentary with the aim of showing a deep and unfathomable well of sadness beneath the surface of polyamory, which was bound to skew the outcome: if you asked him to show the dark side of monogamy I’m sure he’d be able to rustle up three monogamous couples with a well of pain to share. If you started watching Love Without Limits convinced that monogamy was the only – or best – way to do relationships, I don’t think you’d have found much to convince you otherwise.
Love Without Limits: who were they?
There were a few things that frustrated me about the programme. Let’s start with the fact that it’s called “Love Without Limits”, as if polyamorous relationships are just a no-rules, no-responsibilities free-for-all. Most people I know in open or polyamorous relationships would find the idea of ‘no limits’ entirely bizarre: there are, of course, negotiations and discussions about what each person wants and needs, as well as often careful plans around how and when to introduce new people into the relationship. Even those who would advocate a ‘no rules’ system along the lines of relationship anarchy are still usually aware of important responsibilities (and therefore limits) around things like communication, health, or how much care and love each person needs. There are always some limits to any relationship, because at the heart of everything there needs to be consent. Informed consent, where people are aware of the risks and benefits of what’s happening, feel comfortable expressing their needs, and comfortable listening and understanding and responding to other people’s.
Given this, there were definitely some moments in the programme where I felt uncomfortable. I cringed – hard – when Jerry told his wife Heide he’d be happy to watch her and her lover having sex, and she pulled an ‘eww’ face before telling him that wasn’t going to happen. I felt sad for Bob, who at one point was pushed by Louis to admit that he wished he were ‘enough’ for Amanda. And I was gutted for Mattias when he spoke one-on-one with Louis, and expressed some doubts about his partner taking on a new metamour while she was pregnant.
But this stuff didn’t feel uncomfortable because it’s polyamory: the most cringe-inducing moments of the programme were the times when it became clear that people had conflicting needs, and were either struggling to articulate those needs properly or struggling to be heard by the people who were meant to care. I think it’s easy to look at polyamorous relationships and attribute all the sadness to the fact of polyamory rather than do what we’d do with monogamous relationships, which is explore the reasons for the conflicts themselves. Polyamorous people can sometimes be selfish, difficult, frustrating, callous, unthinking and cruel, just like monogamous people. They can also be shy, nervous, worried, insecure, bad at expressing themselves, and capable of falling into the same traps and cycles as monogamous people do. When I fight with my other half, no one ever says ‘well, have you considered polyamory?’ as if the problem lies not with us or our current difficulties, but the very foundation on which our relationship’s built.
Could I survive a Louis Theroux documentary?
Are you happy? I think I’m happy. I struggle with a lot of stuff, and my partner and I have our fair share of fights – though we fight much more helpfully now that we’ve done relationship counselling. Are we lonely, though? Fuck yes. I am often lonely, because my other half doesn’t always do exactly what I need and want at any given time. It’s natural, he’s human. Sometimes he isn’t able to give me the kind of love I need, and vice versa. I know he struggles with loneliness sometimes too, because he relies on me for a huge proportion of his social life, and I often need time alone, or to go out without him, or whatever it might be. Both of us are sometimes selfish, and fail to do the things that would make the other one happy.
I don’t know how I feel about all the people featured on Love Without Limits: it seemed like some of them were happy, some of the time, and some were unhappy too. Some of them seemed kind and thoughtful, others a bit naive, some quite selfish. But I’m worried that the programme invited quite a lot of the wrong kind of judgment: that there’ll be lots of people who watched it and came out feeling justified in saying ‘Ha! I KNEW it! Polyamorous people are all wracked with jealousy and insecurity all the time! What a terrible way to have a relationship! This proves we should all be monogamous.’ Excellent polyamorous blogger and all-round lovely person Amy of CoffeeAndKink wrote a little about the judgments overheard from work colleagues the day after Love Without Limits aired, and over on Twitter @thalestral has written a fascinating thread on the ways in which the show seems to invite these kinds of judgments – check those out if you’d like to read more.
But to me the key question I’d ask of anyone who wants to pass judgment on a different relationship model is: by what criteria are you measuring a ‘good’ relationship, and how does your model stack up? Do you get jealous? Do you feel lonely? Are you unhappy sometimes? Does your relationship always provide the best possible environment in which to pursue happiness? If Louis Theroux sat at the end of my bed and really probed me on how monogamy was working out, he’d uncover a lot of sadness alongside the happy bits. But the sadness is part of the balance we’ve struck, and the arrangement we’ve come to that seems to make us happiest. And while I certainly wouldn’t say any of the relationships on Love Without Limits is perfect, I do think that Theroux was holding them up to a standard of perfection that’s mostly a fairy tale. There’s no such thing as ‘happy ever after’, no matter what your relationship model looks like. There are just people, being people, to varying degrees of success.