What We Can All Learn from Polyamorous Relationships
"Many Love," Sophie Lucido Johnson's new memoir chronicling her years of polyamorous partnerships, is actually a lesson on what it means to be committed.
Photo by Bonnin Studio, via Stocksy.
In the middle of our interview about her new book, Many Love: A Memoir of Polyamory and Finding Love(s), Sophie Lucido Johnson casually invites me to her wedding.
“Oh yeah,” the author and artist says, “we’re having an open wedding...it’s October 13, in New Orleans. We got a ton of tacos for hundreds and hundreds of people...it’s going to be in City Park....you can come! Just search 'Luke & Sophie’s Wedding' on Facebook.”
An open wedding is almost too fitting for Johnson and her fiancé; they’re polyamorous, of course.
“But if you come, it’s a flower and dessert potluck,” Johnson adds, immediately balancing expectations, clarifying my role—practices that are integral to successfully maintain multiple partnerships.
Polyamory, a form of nonmonogamy, was the fourth most searched relationship term on Google in 2017, perhaps because the concept is rife with common misconceptions. And that, in turn, may be because there is no easy, catch-all definition. It’s not just about expanding love beyond two romantic partners; it’s a fluid practice that shifts depending on the participants’ needs, desires, and agreed-upon norms. And it can be as much about selflessness and communication and being on top of your own emotions as it can be about sex and desire and autonomy.
Many Love offers up a picture of what polyamory has looked like, over the years, for one person—and her many partners. The memoir chronicles Johnson’s journey, from learning about polyamory to finding many loves. We’re with her as she’s swept away by giddy high school romances, attempting to open up adult relationships, finding best friendship, finding primary partnership, finding community, finding boyfriends, then falling in love with a boyfriend while staying in a primary relationship. And at each milestone, she narrates her process of making sure she knows herself well enough to communicate her needs and emotions.
Johnson says she anticipates readers to be people who are unhappy with their relationships, but the memoir functions more as a guide to the general concept of polyamory than a last-ditch “10 Ways To Fix A Relationship that Isn’t Working” listicle. For instance, it begins with a FAQ, a list of definitions, and a series of illustrated charts that serve as keys for understanding concepts integral to polyamory. Then, each chapter tackles the fundamental aspects of polyamory: deconstructing myths on singular love, exploring and prioritizing friendship, encountering casual love, having sex, experiencing jealousy, and “checking in.” And throughout, there are candid illustrations and excerpts from the canon of texts on polyamory: Sex at Dawn , The Ethical Slut, Dean Spade’s pivotal essay “For Lovers and Fighters”. (The bibliography is 4 pages long; it’s clear Johnson has done her homework.)
But Many Love is not entirely a how-to: the book is as diaristic as it is informative. Readers are let into Johnson’s private thoughts, her interactions with lovers and friends, and all of their check ins. She doesn’t just check in with her primary partner and fiance Luke, but also with her best friend Hannah, her long-term roommate Derek, and then with Eli, Ben, Mac, Rory, Sean, Rory II, Sam, Jesse, Sean, Jaedon, Bob, and—most importantly, with herself.
For Johnson, checking in mandates “transparency, communication, and enthusiastic consent.” Although it can look different for everyone, it’s a process generally fundamental to polyamorous relationships—to make sure that the parameters still work, that jealously is acknowledged, that no one partner has the upper-hand. “You’re always checking in,” Johnson muses, almost lamenting the extent to which the process is at the forefront of her relationships. “I’m so emotional as a person!”
Indeed, there’s a lot of checking in, bringing the reader into the nitty-gritty negotiations of unconventional romance. But rather than tedious, as these conversations can be in your own life, reading along to Johnson’s is compelling—not least because of how freely she shares her emotions, how expansively vulnerable she is. At times, it feels like you’re sitting at Johnson’s kitchen table, witnessing her processing with her partner; her writing rings that true a transcript.
With that honesty comes the reality of the ongoing commitment and energy and battles with jealousy that polyamory requires. Long after Sophie has partnered with her fiancé Luke, fallen in love, moved with him across the country, and practiced polyamory, she still hurts when Luke finds a girlfriend. “The next girl was a person Luke really liked, and he shared with me a text he sent her in which he told her she was beautiful and amazing and funny,” she writes. “The jealousy came back and the processing, and the conversations, and the pain, and all the rest of it.”
Along with the struggles, though, Many Love is very much so about the aspirations of polyamory. While Johnson articulates feelings of jealousy throughout, she doesn’t fail to bring up its counterpart: “compersion,” the joy of seeing a partner happy with someone else. When Johnson goes to visit her long-distance boyfriend, her partner Luke expresses how happy he is about it; and Johnson writes, “Now that I’ve experienced it wholeheartedly, I understand the appeal. Compersion feels great. It feels like getting a free root-beer float.”
Johnson’s writing is, at times, as saccharine as her similes. To balance that sentimentality, I found myself wishing the chapter on sex was slightly juicier. But that’s not what Many Love is about, really. If you’re looking for racy descriptions of group sex or tips for switching up your bedroom life, you will not find them in these pages (although the rare illustrations of hooking are just provocative enough).
What you will find is a notion of polyamory that begins without any description of sex at all. In Many Love’s introduction, Johnson and Luke attempt to have a romantic evening with another couple, but their DIY sushi night crumbles after their cat has to be rushed to the vet. What’s exchanged between the foursome is not titillating, but tender: The other couple nurtures Johnson and Luke, asking after their needs, making dinner, cleaning up, taking care of them.
Such ability to truly support one another seems to come only after deep understanding—of self and partner—and an acceptance of the fluidity of life. “Polyamory means accepting the ways that love is going to change and checking in with yourself and your partners with the way that is going to change—it’s a great way to let go of your ego a bit,” Johnson says.
Within such liberating release, though, Johnson shows us that it’s still possible to hold onto romantic traditions. Many Love ends with Luke and Johnson’s engagement: a fairy-tale finale that almost feels inaptly conventional. I found myself suddenly wondering if I had read a traditional romantic memoir. But Johnson’s explanation is simple: “I’m pro-commitment.”
“I want people to think about commitment differently, because I think commitment is really cool, but I don’t think commitment is about sex and mononormativity,” Johnson says. This is what Many Love accomplishes, within the canon of texts on polyamory: Transparently chronicling what commitment in the 21st century can look like. Johnson shows that, in nonmonogamy, it is not sex that orients one’s involvement with multiple partners, it is the ability to make sacrifices, to work on yourself, to show up and be held accountable.
In fact, Johnson’s articulation of commitment was so moving, I found myself searching the web after I hung up the phone. “Plane tickets from New York to New Orleans” I typed in—wanting to continue reading by bearing witness to Johnson’s next romantic chapter.