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Dismantling the stigma of non-monogamous relationships

One in five adults has practiced consensual polyamory at some point in their lives. And yet, experts say: ‘Monogamy is presumed and you have to be constantly explaining yourself’

Sandra Bravo Poliamor
Sandra Bravo in Barcelona's Plaça del Diamant.Carles Ribas

When she was eight, Sandra Bravo wrote a letter addressed to the Virgin Mary in her diary. In it she asked her to make a boy from school her future husband and father of her children, promising in exchange to be chaste and pure until marriage. She did not keep that promise and, in time, she forgot about it. Thirty years later, she found the diary and was shocked by what she had written. “How, at the age of eight, could I be asking the Virgin Mary for all that stuff when I had no idea what love, sexuality, or even virginity was?” she wonders. But after giving it some thought, she realized that it was no accident. “This story of romantic and heterosexual love is everywhere and we internalize it through culture, such as Disney movies and children’s stories. We are constantly exposed to questions such as whether we like a boy at school or if we have a boyfriend; we see it on TV and in the model of couples around us. From an early age, we understand getting married and having children as our destiny in life, especially as women.”

That letter to the Virgin was the departure point for Bravo’s book, I Don’t Know How to Explain All This to My Mother: Polyamory, Sex and Feminism. Through her Instagram account Let’s Talk about Polyamory, the Spanish journalist talks in the book about her experience as a bisexual woman in polyamorous relationships. Although she has tried to explain her choices to her mother, the stigma of non-monogamous relationships means she finds it hard to grasp, whether it concerns open relationships or just people who have simultaneous relationships. “There’s an idea that it is a kind of young person’s experiment; something temporary, and that when we reach a certain age, we will realize that it is not a workable model but, by then, it will be too late. It makes you wonder how many married couples of a certain age, with children, feel completely alone despite living under the same roof?”

In her hometown in Alicante, in the Spanish region of Valencia, which she left at 17, Bravo’s neighbors have been scandalized by her book. Her mother continues to be punished for her daughter’s decisions, as if the life Bravo has chosen was down to her own failure as a mother: “It seems that we trust structures more than people,” says Bravo. “In the collective imagination, monogamy equals security, commitment and success, while non-monogamy equals perversion, failure and frivolity.”

Academic and popular interest in non-monogamy is increasing, but little is still known about the prevalence of this relationship model. A recent survey conducted by the data agency 40dB. for EL PAÍS found that 94.6% of the couples surveyed are monogamous, 4.8% are in an open relationship with occasional sexual contact and only 0.5% say they are in a polyamorous relationship with three or more people involved. But the panorama is very different when we look at a recent study in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, which revealed that one in five adults have practiced consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives, though the data reflects that, while there is increasing talk of open relationships and polyamory, we still tend towards tradition.

Sandra Bravo, poliamorosa y autora del libro Todo eso que no sé cómo explicarle a mi madre
As a child, Sandra Bravo wanted a traditional monogamous relationship. But when she reached adulthood, she wondered if that was simply because that was what society expected of her.Carles Ribas

“Infidelity is socially more accepted than any non-exclusive practice, agreement or formula, whether sentimental or sexual, because infidelity can be seen as a private waywardness that does not pose a threat to the system,” explains Juan Carlos Pérez Cortés, professor at the Valencia’s Polytechnic University, activist and author of Relationship anarchy. The Attachment Revolution. “However, a non-monogamous relationship shakes the foundations of the false sense of security that we get from being in a couple. Infidelity is still a form of non-monogamy, only not consensual. But what is at stake here is not to question monogamous or non-monogamous practices, but the monogamous system itself.”

According to writers such as Brigitte Vasallo, author of Monogamous Thinking, Polyamorous Terror, the monogamous system is a hierarchical system at the top of which sits the couple who are together for reproductive purposes, followed by consanguineous family relationships and, lower down, friendships. This system conveys the message that we are incomplete people who need to find our other half. Relationship anarchy, on the other hand, proposes changing the way we relate to each other by exploring more diverse bonds. This theory questions not only the number of partners we can have, but also their value. The stereotypical elements of sex, cohabitation and reproduction are discarded here, and so a friendship can have the same value as a partner.

“My three partners are coming to my brother’s wedding”

When Davinia Velázquez received the invitation to her brother’s wedding, she was a little non-plussed. He gave her the option of bringing along one partner, but “I wanted to go with my three partners,” explains the 38-year-old from Barcelona. So, she picked up the phone, explained to her brother how she felt and now, having made a few adjustments to the seating arrangements, the four of them will go. “The truth is that I am very grateful for the gesture and effort,” she says, referring to the economic outlay rather than her brother’s tolerance of her relationship choices. “My family is already familiar with them,” she says. “And if anyone isn’t okay with it, that’s their problem.”

Velázquez talks openly about her partners; her WhatsApp profile picture is with them, her LinkedIn profile has a link to her podcast, Polyamorous stories. She is “out of the closet” – an expression now used when presenting as polyamorous. “Monogamy is presumed and you have to constantly be explaining yourself,” says Velázquez, who sees her three partners invitation to her brother’s wedding almost “as a form of vindication.”

Throughout history, there have always been relationships that have gone beyond the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable, but rarely have they been openly acknowledged. This has been changing as a new generation claims their right to love differently and create bonds that defy the norm. They are not doing so by going to demonstrations or demanding a change in the law. Sometimes activism is as simple, and as groundbreaking, as attending a wedding with your three partners.

Davinia Velázquez
Davinia Velázquez, administrator and co-author of the podcast Polyamorous Stories.

All those EL PAÍS spoke to point out that often the most difficult thing to manage in a non-monogamous relationship is the reactions from a more conventional mindset rather than the internal dynamics.

“There is a reduced view of a reality that is very broad,” Sandra Bravo says, referring to the sleaze factor – one of the main stigmas faced by people in open or polyamorous relationships. “Most of us live our lives questioning how society is organized and how hierarchical sentimental relationships are. However, there is often a tendency to reduce polyamory or open relationships to the purely sexual, suggesting that we are constantly involved in orgies.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Bravo claims to live through the same ups and downs as couples in monogamous and conventional relationships. “I have a job, I have to pay bills and, though I would like to live like many people imagine I do, from orgy to orgy, I don’t have time for that.” She explains that there are many reasons why a couple may decide on an open a relationship; for example, one may feel less sexual desire than the other and not want to be required to have sex in order to preserve the relationship: “There are people who embark on this path to fuck less rather than more,” she says.

Mario is one of the guests at the Velázquez wedding. He prefers not to give his last name, as he is not “out of the closet”, although he has made a start. “I told my brother last week and he was shocked,” he recalls. “And I know that, for my parents, it would be a disappointment. I was a model child and I’ve always had long relationships. I did things the way I was supposed to do them. I followed the narrow path that others had laid out for me.”

Mario had a happy, conventional, monogamous, heterosexual marriage, which stayed that way for nine years. Then, one night out drinking with a couple of friends, they all ended up in bed. “It wasn’t something we were looking for, at least not at first,” he says, adding that the involvement didn’t last long, but changed their lives forever. “It happened on three occasions and we put the brakes on it because it was causing a lot of problems for the other couple. But, as we didn’t feel jealous, we thought that maybe this relationship model could work for us.” So, they started to explore.

Everyone knows how a conventional monogamous couple works. The rules are written into children’s movie scripts, in civil law books, in the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we read. Society is built around a canonical relationship model that we have drummed into us from childhood. But, as Mario points out, when you go for a different model, you have to make up your own rules; read up on ethical promiscuity, relational anarchy and free love. He and his wife gave themselves a few months to reflect, study and think about what they wanted. “I prepared a document for myself, which I called ‘the non-monogamy bullshit’ and in it, I reflected on what kind of relationship I wanted, he explains. His wife did the same, and then they shared their ideas. “We wanted to make sure we were on the same page,” he adds. They were, and that meant turning it over and starting a new chapter as a polyamorous couple.

Mario believes everyone should embark on this learning process. “It’s a way to deconstruct and question the romantic model of love we’ve been sold,” he says. “It’s really good to ask yourself these questions; whether you’re like this because you want to be or because that’s what you’ve been sold.”

Mario now has three more partners. He promised 11 years ago to be faithful to his wife. To love her, take care of her and respect her. Through thick and thin. He believes he has kept that promise and that at this moment they are in “a good place.” They are happy. “Fidelity means staying true to shared principles,” he says. “And we have done that.” Mario, Sandra and Davinia deconstructed themselves, reviewed their beliefs and came to the conclusion that they would be happier rethinking their relationship model. Theirs has been a very personal journey, but it reflects a collective and social change. Their stories transcend them and speak to the rise of new models of coexistence that defy the norm.

“When a standard, monogamous relationship fails, the normal thing to do is to look for another one,” says Professor Juan Carlos Pérez Cortés. “And then maybe another one. This is what we call serial monogamy. And the reaction, after several failed relationships, is usually guilt: thinking that there is something wrong with us, seeing it as a kind of personal tragedy. And yet no one questions whether it’s the model that is failing. This is the privilege of the hegemonic – it is naturalized to such an extent that it is never questioned, because it is not perceived to exist.”

Pérez refers to a speech that writer David Foster Wallace gave at Keyton University’s 2005 commencement ceremony that was later turned into an essay: two young fish are swimming in the sea when an older fish comes across them and says, “Isn’t the water nice today!” and the two young fish look at each other and ask, “What the hell is water?”

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