Christa Johnston and Ian Shaw are an outwardly loving young married couple. They sit next to each other in a coffee shop, snuggling together and nuzzling their noses. He works in the trades, and she works for an airline. They live with their two cats, Chihiro and Nisa in Kits on the main floor of a rented house.
They are a solid couple who happen to also be polyamorous.
Polyamory, also known as “ethical non-monogamy” is the practice of being simultaneously romantically involved with more than one person.
“I feel more secure in this relationship than in any other relationships in the past which were all monogamous,” CJ says about her six-year-long relationship.
Christa (CJ) and Ian belong to a growing population of polyamorists in Vancouver. “My choice now is to primarily date other poly people,” CJ says.
Polyamory is a becoming a more popular practice amongst Vancouverites if Vanpoly’s numbers are any indication. The oldest Vancouver-based community group for polyamory was established in 1998. The non-dating platform brings people together through education and discussion. A decade ago, Vanpoly had only 100 members who connected through their website and e-mail list, according to group admin Carole Chanteuse. Today, the community connects through a Facebook group of just under 2,000 members. Now they get 70-90 requests per month, a nearly ten-fold increase in just four years.
To many, the idea of polyamory may either seem absurd, or signify a sexually promiscuous lifestyle with minimal commitment. However, practicing polyamorists say that their decisions have little to do with sex.
How it Happened
CJ remembers her first encounter with the idea of polyamory. “So, you know, in my head, I was like, well, I’m not a sex fiend. I don’t feel I need to have sex with like 20 people at a time.”
But something clicked for CJ during a camping trip where she witnessed the polyamorous friends she made being affectionate toward more than one person. It wasn’t all about sex. “It was very much about the human connection,” she said.
How Does it Work?
“When you’re in a polyamorous relationship you and your partners decide what those lines and boundaries for you,” CJ said.
CJ thinks that in monogamous culture, there is a general lack of such communication. “Labels do all the talking for you: Oh you’re my boyfriend, and then all of a sudden, all these rules are implied.”
Being polyamorous has made CJ and her husband Ian better communicators in general. They started off as a monogamous couple but got married after becoming polyamorous.
Others had similar experiences.
Terrance Anderson, an active Vanpoly member and functioning administrator of the Facebook group recalls how communication was vital when he and his girlfriend switched to polyamory. It happened as they realized their desires to remain together didn’t mean they would stop being attracted to others. So they began to communicate about boundaries they wanted to be respected as they allowed for other partners.
“Of course, a lot of the rules never applied and some were just stupid,” Terrence said, but he felt that the communication was helpful in preparing them mentally transition.
Terrence thought the switch brought him closer to his girlfriend. “Because we can share everything. All of our thoughts and feelings. Without fear of anything.”
Lauren Ham, who went into polyamory when she was single noticed that it led to higher quality and longer lasting relationships for her.
“I got bored, I liked somebody else, I wanted to move on. I was always moving on,” she said about her previous monogamous relationships. Currently in a committed poly-relationship, she feels grateful for it allowing her to explore more opportunities for love.
Yet, as with all relationships, jealousy is a problem in polyamorous relationships too.
Jealousy and Coming Out
“There’s a false assumption that polyamorous people don’t get jealous,” said CJ. For her, dealing with jealousy involves recognizing it as a negative emotion that needs to be overcome like any other negative emotion.
However, a bigger problem that polyamorists face is telling others about their relationship.
“I think women have a harder time,” Terrance confirms. Though he is open about being polyamorous at work, his girlfriend is not. She fears negative impacts on her career.
Lauren agrees. “I am afraid what people say. In such a conservative corporate environment, my job might be in danger if I say the wrong thing to the wrong person,” she said.
Help for the Future
Community groups like Vanpoly offer a place to talk about the challenges of polyamory.
Outside of poly-community groups, however, UBC graduate and Vanpoly admin Aaron Low notes a general lack of poly-awareness among younger populations. He plans to promote change by starting a UBC polyamory club that spreads awareness through holding workshops in conjunction with other on-campus clubs.
But many would agree that all people have much to benefit from more poly-awareness.
You guys are married? So does that mean you’ll stop being poly? is a common question posed to CJ, illustrative of the general assumption that a polyamorous relationship is one that isn’t serious.