Johannesburg - Mark and Kate have been together for 13 years. And Mark and his lover, Alice, have been a couple for a year. Kate, too, has another lover, Nathan, with whom she’s been involved for five months.
Confused? These people follow a polyamorous lifestyle. Polyamory literally “many loves” and is the practice of having more than one intimate, sexual relationship at a time, with the full consent and knowledge of those involved.
Before I met Mark, Kate and Alice at a Joburg restaurant, I learnt that they are considered the “poster children” of polyamory in South Africa. That is why, says Mark, they try to present a positive image to their community, despite some people’s disapproval of their unconventional bond.
The three have nothing against monogamy – they all started out that way. But Kate says she was “never very good” at committing to her partners. No matter how much she felt for her partner, it didn’t stop her from developing feelings for someone else. “I didn’t have a word for it. I only discovered the term ‘polyamory’ years later,” says Kate.
Being with Mark changed all that. The two live together. They talked at length about the dynamics of their relationship. He learnt that she was bisexual and he was accepting of her sexual preferences. He didn’t mind her having girlfriends.
In the beginning, however, their open relationship was a strain for them socially. Mark’s mother didn’t approve. He also refuses to tell his extended family; he says he has no doubt they would disown him. Kate’s father doesn’t know about her lifestyle, they’re not close.
But they have told their friends. At first, the couple took flak from them. “We didn’t have that perfect life with a house and picket fence, so people didn’t deal well with this,” explains Kate.
Mark recalls an incident 10 years ago when Kate was dancing with a girl at a party and his friends were horrified. “They commiserated with me,” says Mark, “but I told them they were being patronising and I had to tell them to stop insulting Kate.”
Over time their friends adjusted to their lifestyle. And it got easier.
The difficulty came for Mark when Kate took men as lovers. He felt jealous and insecure. His self-esteem took a knock. But working through his emotions, he realised that even though Kate saw other people, she still came home to him.
“I was going to lose her only if I screwed up,” he says.
They argued, talked and examined their relationship. It was a rocky process. They discussed their boundaries, and shifted them if they didn’t work.
To help Mark cope, rules were put into place where he had a say in Kate’s relationships. They went through a period where Kate didn’t go further with her dates without his input.
For example, she was not to spend the night over at a lover’s house unless Mark met and trusted him with her safety. “Living in South Africa, there’s a lot of insecurity with Kate’s safety. What if the guy was crazy?” says Mark.
Five years ago, he became “okay with Kate being in love with other men”. And the boundaries and rules fell away naturally.
Mark realised that it was unfair to Kate for him to have a “veto power” over how she conducted her relationships. “Kate didn’t need to bring her guy around to get vetted. If she was serious with someone, it was more than likely that she would bring him back to the house.”
The role was slightly reversed when Mark met Alice. It was “definitely an adjustment” for Kate. She was very happy that Mark had found Alice. In the past, she had encouraged him to be open to other possibilities. She had never before experienced jealousy – it was an unfamiliar emotion.
“But it’s not to say that it wasn’t difficult, particularly to adjust to the changes in his behaviour,” she says.
Kate had never before had to share him or his attention with anyone else.
And she knew Mark and Alice were serious about each other.
“The picture of our future then was different. It brought with it the idea that there was no fixed guarantee in life,” she adds.
“But it wasn’t right for me to think that I have supremacy (in the relationship) just because I was here first.”
The women got on well. Alice was shy but slowly came out of her shell. They enjoyed each other’s company and skinder (gossip) sessions.
Alice may be the “new kid on the block”, but she plays an important role in their lives. “She’s very much a member of the family,” says Mark.
Alice appreciates the comment and reaches across the table to intertwine her fingers with Mark.
Softly-spoken, she admits that in the beginning she was jealous of Mark and Kate’s relationship.
“But that’s my own insecurity, because of past experiences. I’m a person who doesn’t adjust well to change. But because of Mark, I got a lot of reassurances,” says Alice.
“Mark is an excellent communicator,” agrees Kate.
“Entering into this kind of relationship, communication is important. I have to discuss the situation with everyone involved,” says Mark.
Falling in love with Mark and accepting his deep feelings for Kate was hard and nerve-racking in the beginning, says Alice, who had always believed in monogamy.
“I was in two minds about being with two people, but willing to try anything… It took me a long time to be comfortable.”
She’s not resentful of Mark’s time with Kate. “I have my moments of insecurity, but we even ourselves out and get past it,” adds Alice.
“I do see myself spending the rest of my life with them.”
Kate believes that each of their relationships stands on its own. Mark relates differently to her and to Alice, just as she relates differently to Nathan.
“I have objections to the concept that love is finite. I believe you can love someone differently. If you had two children, would you ask which child you loved more?” argues Kate.
Mark connects with Kate on an intellectual level. They share similar philosophies and political outlooks. He’s terrible with structuring his life, so Kate organises it.
Alice fuels his creative side, and he appreciates her vivid imagination. She nurtures his emotional being, while Kate feeds his logical side.
“Mark and I developed a bond through the years. We never had that over-the-top chemistry, that ‘I can’t live life without you’ feeling,” says Kate.
The subject of sex eventually crops up during our interview.
“Most people say that polyamory is about sex,” says Mark, “but they’re taking a shallow view of it… you may as well be swinging. Certainly not all hedonism is about kinky threesomes.”
Have they had a threesome? I ask him.
“Yes,” he smiles. One night the three of them were huddled on the bed with a male friend, Dave.
“Alice got frisky, Dave left, and so we had a threesome. It happened naturally, it didn’t feel strange.”
He adds with a laugh: “It also wasn’t a once-off, but a twice-off. The last one was the five of us, three guys and two girls.”
The women say they ensure that they all practise safe sex.
“You have to have a safe sex agreement with all partners. Otherwise, if you’re not careful, you can introduce a whole chain of things,” says Kate.
Alice says that she didn’t feel awkward about their intimacy with one another.
“I am by nature an affectionate person,” she says.
“It takes me a while to be affectionate,” counters Kate.
“She didn’t realise how cuddly I was,” grins Alice.
“No one did,” says Mark, kissing her on the lips.
Looking fondly at the two, Kate explains they openly communicate their feelings to one another.
“It doesn’t mean that we don’t get upset. We figure it out in everyone’s interest. I don’t own Mark, he doesn’t own me.”
Time-sharing is the challenging part of their relationship, but they claim that they base their routine on common sense and a lot of give and take.
As Kate’s job “wipes her out”, she has Mark on weekends and Mondays. Alice, who has her own place, gets Mark from Tuesday to Friday.
Mark says that there have been times when Kate would feel down and ask whether he could postpone his time with Alice. He doesn’t mind because he wants to be there for her when she’s having a rough time.
“I would do the same for Alice if she goes through a similar thing. From all sides there has to be a great understanding.”
Being flexible and honest, he says, is central to this lifestyle. “If I feel neglected that Kate is spending too much time with her yummy honey, then I talk to her about it, instead of being blindsided by a break-up.”
Mark doesn’t see himself being seriously involved with anyone else while he has these two women in his life. “In reality there is no time for more than two partners and also have time for myself,” he says.
Having more than two partners would be crazy for him. He laughingly concedes that he can barely cope with them, particularly when the two become emotional during their menstruation period.
“Now that’s challenging.”
Mark takes both his partners’ hands and takes a long look at them. He says lovingly: “I consider myself lucky to have two such beautiful, talented women who are in love with me. I thank my lucky stars.”
Isn’t it just swinging with a fancier name?
Polyamory isn’t swinging, says sex educator Avri Spilka.
Swingers engage in purely sexual activities with other partners for reasons that include adding variety to their sex lives.
“I see an unwritten rule in swinging,” says Spilka. “You don’t fall in love. It’s physical, even affectionate, but it’s not seen as emotional.
“And that’s the difference with polyamory – it has an emotional aspect. Swinging is more sensory,” says Spilka, who herself is in a polyamorous relationship.
“Some guys I’ve come across think that because I’m polyamorous, I’d be fine with jumping into bed with them.
“For some poly people, yes, but personally I love the intimacy and the feelings. It’s not just about the sexual variety for me – it’s about the deep emotional connection and defining your own rules.”
Wikipedia says polyamory is often defined as consensual, transparent and responsible “non-monogamy”. It’s less specific than polygamy, in which a man usually has more than one wife. - The Star