Mindful Romantics: Lessons Learned in Polyamory.
Jua O'Kane shares with us their experience of polyamory and how it has helped them develop as a more self-aware, independent individual.
by Jua O'Kane
I felt my first inclinations towards polyamory when I was a teenager and struggling to commit to a closed relationship with my then potential boyfriend. I’d only been with men up to that point and I wanted the freedom to explore my sexuality if the opportunity arose. Caught between my affection for him and my desperation to explore my queerness, I wondered why it had to be either or. It’s been almost eight years since then and I’ve spent the majority of that time in a mix of open relationships, having multiple committed partners and solo poly dating.
The optics of talking about polyamory as someone who is bisexual or attracted to more than one gender can be complicated. I’m wary of feeding stereotypes of the greedy, unfaithful bisexual, unable to satisfy their sexuality while in a monogamous relationship. I’ve been monogamous in the past and I probably could be again in the future - my choice to practise polyamory has infinitely more to do with embracing the joy of human connection than it does “satiating” my attraction to multiple genders.
Polyamory has also been a vital tool for my own personal growth. I’ve struggled with codependency throughout my life - I’d fall into a relationship, get deeply attached and then forget how to take care of myself or be my own person. Getting intentional with how I practise non-monogamy and navigate romantic relationships in general is what broke the cycle for me.
It started with my long-term girlfriend breaking up with me a month before Christmas in 2021. We were long distance and I wasn’t seeing anyone else at the time, which manifested as intense codependent behaviours on my side that were tearing us apart, as much as we loved each other. She told me, in a metaphor I’ve repeated countless times to other people in similar situations: “You’ve been drowning for a while now, and I keep trying to hold you up but now I’m starting to drown too. It’s time to stop treading water and focus on getting to shore.”
I travelled home for Christmas, cried countless tears and tried to explain to my mum that no, this wasn’t like my last break up, this was different. By January I had channelled my sadness into determination, resolving to build a better life for myself, find independence and end this cycle of blowing up relationships with my mental health. I returned to Plymouth and kept myself busy, forcing myself to spend time with friends, practise DBT skills, go on dates and attend local queer events even when I didn’t feel like it. I realised I had a rich network of people around me and that codependent urge to dump all my woes on a single partner gradually diminished.
‘Taking care of yourself does not mean “doing it all alone”. Creating a good relationship with yourself is not done in a vacuum, without a relationship to other people… It is important that we are able to be alone, of course, and some people do need to withdraw from outside relationships to a certain degree, until they feel really comfortable with themselves. Sooner or later, though, we need the reflection that a relationship gives us.’ (Shakti Gawain, Living in the Light)
In monogamous relationships we often expect a partner to satisfy a significant range (or all) of our needs. Consciously rejecting this notion has opened up a much wider range of potential partnerships to me. There are plenty of people I have dated who I couldn’t have sustained a monogamous partnership with, whether that be down to incompatible life goals, sex drives, interests or values. But being able to pursue multiple intimate relationships relieves the pressure on a partner to fulfil my every need - I’m more able to appreciate relationships for what they do give me, rather than what they lack.
There’s great pleasure in finding mutual understanding over where my compatibility with a date lies. They might not be the kind of person I’m going to text daily or see every week, but that doesn’t mean that the time we do spend together is any less valuable to me - it’s just a different type of partnership, one that has a lower time commitment but is still highly emotive and caring.
To me, polyamory is not just about having multiple partners but about bringing intention and thoughtfulness to how you carry out those relationships. Non-monogamous dating tends to have more up front communication about desires and boundaries than monogamous dating does; non-monogamous people are used to being explicit about the existing partnerships we have and what we’re looking for in new connections.
I try to approach dating intuitively and without expectations, allowing the relationship to unfurl as it sees fit. Embracing the natural ebb and flow of romantic relationships feels much less scary when you view them not as solid, defined entities but as energies that are in constant flux and negotiation.
When we try too hard to label and control relationships, we destroy them. Then, we spent a lot of time and energy fruitlessly trying to bring them to life again. We must be willing to let our relationships reveal themselves to us. (Shakti Gawain, Living in the Light)
I’m friends with most of my exes, because generally we’ve been able to recognise when we have outgrown our romantic relationship and it is no longer serving our needs. There’s a very cishet, monogamous adage that all relationships either end in marriage or break up. It positions break ups as a unilateral defeat, a failure of both parties to make a relationship work. But break ups can be a tender undoing, a celebration of growth, an admission that you can love a person deeply and no longer be right for them.
Queering traditional relationship structures enabled me to embrace this fluidity. I don’t need all my relationships to last forever or be transcendentally perfect. Being present and embracing the expansive connective possibilities of the people around us, without setting expectations or trying to control the form those relationships take, has brought me the most fulfilling connections of my life so far.
In saying this, I can illustrate the fulfilling potential of polyamory all I like, but inevitably the question of jealousy looms above it all. It’s the comment I get most when I tell people that I’m poly - “How do you deal with it? I would get so jealous!” The secret is: so do I. I have some natural propensity for polyamory in that I’ve never been particularly physically territorial or cared about my partners being intimate with someone who wasn’t me - generally it elicits a response of, “Cool! Did you have fun?” But I’ve also dealt with periods of horrific, crushing jealousy in my time being polyamorous - I actually couldn’t bring myself to finish this article for several months because I was dealing with one such period.
Watching my long-term partner develop another serious relationship and cohabit with that person while we have remained long distance has been the ultimate test for me. While I’ve found non-monogamy can increase the viability and longevity of long distance relationships, it can also produce a kind of desperate jealous sadness, knowing your partner is with someone else when you miss them so terribly. It’s a kind of intense physical discomfort that gnaws at your insides.
What I’ve spent the last several months learning is that owning your jealousy and picking apart the insecurities it manifests from is the key to letting it go. I’ve had to communicate my needs regularly; asking for reassurance and affirmation when I’ve needed it, carving out regular virtual quality time with my partner while we’re apart and setting conversational boundaries during periods where I’ve felt emotionally vulnerable.
The moment it finally all clicked was on the tube in London. I had gotten the train down for the weekend to meet my girlfriend’s other partner for the first time. I was under the weather and took the only available seat, while they stood. When some seats freed up a few stops later on the opposite side of the carriage and they both sat down, I found myself watching the two of them like an outsider. They spoke quietly, hands gently resting on each other’s knees.
That gnawing feeling began to swell up in me, my chest and stomach tensing. But then I remembered what a difficult time my girlfriend has had in the last year, how much she’s struggled with her health and living situation. Catching her in a moment of happiness, as she talks to her love on the train - it doesn’t matter that that person is not always me. I never want to limit the places where she can find happiness.
The jealousy left and I remained watching them, albeit with a new sense of calm.
Having struggled with emotional regulation for a long time, being poly has been like strength training for me. I’ve learnt so much about anxiety management, processing discomfort and releasing ego from my relationships. I’m a stronger, more compassionate and well-rounded person for living this way. Polyamory isn’t viable or desirable for everyone, but I think the lessons it has taught me are universally valuable.
Jua O'Kane (they/he)
Jua is a trans and non-binary illustrator, graphic designer, creative practitioner and researcher from Northern Ireland. Their current research is centred on creating new narrative frameworks to explore transgender experiences through intuitive art making. Jua’s illustrations navigate the intersections of queer identity, technology, relationships, spirituality and religion.
You can find more information about Jua's work here.
If you would like to book Jua as a speaker for a workshop or panel event, please get in touch with us via email at email@example.com
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