Story | Mishael
Illustration credit | Zhai Qiutong
Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating love. While people experience love, romance, and intimacy in vastly different ways, Valentine’s or anniversary cards usually depict straight, cisgender couples in a monogamous relationship. This relationship structure then appears as the only dominant narrative.
Such a discourse is perpetuated in a multitude of ways across society and assumes that everyone strives to be married to one partner and to find fulfilment in that romantic endeavor. It also makes it difficult for people to even imagine a scenario where they are involved in partnerships with other genders, multiple people, or perhaps find happiness through intimacy with friends or situations without any label.
But some at Yale-NUS College have found the courage to take the road which feels true to themselves, no matter how untravelled, misunderstood, or underrepresented that road may be.
Ditching the default
For Max ’23, monogamous relationships seemed confining. In fact, Max relates to the notion of “relationship anarchy,” which, according to them, “involves doing away with societal expectations pertaining to relationships and creating your own, as well as rejecting the idea that romantic relationships are more important than platonic ones.” They also question why there should be a difference between friends and romantic partners in terms of how one develops intimacy and emotional investment in the relationship.
While Max finds that the people around them have been supportive of their choices and identity, Fedi ’22 said they found dating to be more of a challenge as someone who is pansexual, non-binary, and polyamorous.
Fedi explained: “When I have to tell a female date I’m queer […] or tell someone that my pronouns are ‘they/them,’ I’m sometimes worried about the manner in which they may perceive me.”
“Telling people I’m polyamorous can confuse them; they wonder if hook-ups or being ‘friends with benefits’ is all I’m open to,” they added.
While there are no authoritative definitions, “friends with benefits” are sexual relationships that do not involve romantic feelings, whereas open relationships allow someone to sleep with people outside of the main relationship. By contrast, polyamory refers to having a deep-seated emotional bond with multiple partners.
“These relationships can be closed (only within the specific group of partners) or open (also involving other people). The beauty of polyamory is that it’s a relationship structure that can look very different to each person according to their needs and desires,” Kat ’23 said.
Open relationships and “friends with benefits” can both be considered non-monogamous, but they involve no-strings-attached sex.
“I don’t think everybody’s naturally monogamous. It doesn’t make sense; [monogamy] is very socially constraining and can be exhausting,” Fedi said. This is indeed the case, particularly in some communities.
Kat, suggested that in many cases bisexuality and polyamory go hand in hand: while many bisexual people feel fulfilled in monogamous relationships, for some it can mean one aspect of their identity is put on hold.
“I realized I was bisexual while I was in a monogamous relationship with a man [some years ago]. I really wanted the space to explore being with people of different genders and he was supportive of that, which led to us opening our relationship. While I was satisfied with monogamy, I felt so thrilled to have the space to explore my identity. Even though in the end, actually hooking up with people of different genders became less important to me—I didn’t need sex to validate my sexuality. But having the space that polyamory created was essential for this self-discovery.”
People aren’t property
As Cupid’s hearts and advertisements for “gifts for him/her” pop up everywhere, it becomes more and more clear that our conceptions of love cannot escape the capitalist, consumerist world we live in.
Max explained how part of the reason they are polyamorous is that they dislike the idea of “seeing someone as your property, and trying to exert control over them or having control exerted over them.”
They told The Octant that they tried to think and feel from a mindset of abundance, in which we can notice and appreciate the love and connections we have with a range of people in our lives. For them, it has been important to “unlearn a mindset of scarcity that growing up in capitalism taught them, in which we pursue one romantic relationship in the hopes that an individual will be able to single-handedly provide our life with meaning.”
While complex emotions are a part of all relationships, being polyamorous has taught Kat to become more introspective, and to try to understand where such emotions come from, rather than simply acting on them.
Taking jealousy as an example, Kat shares: “[It] usually signals that you have unmet needs or desires in a relationship, like something is lacking, and that can get triggered when partners are able to find that with others. So I try to see jealousy as an opportunity to learn more about what I want from my relationships even if it sucks to feel in the moment.”
While boundaries or rules in polyamorous relationships may vary from person to person, the most important aspect, according to Kat, is “open, honest communication” about fears, doubts, and expectations in order to overcome negative emotions.
Likewise, Max said: “Doing polyamory isn’t about not feeling jealousy. I really resonated with an Instagram post that said ‘we should turn towards jealousy, and look at it with curiosity and compassion instead of shame.’”
Similarly, Fedi remarked that they found it peculiar that people did not put much conscious effort into understanding love, despite the fact that things like money and religion are often pondered at great length.
While Max, Fedi, and Kat have shifted away from traditional religion-endorsed romantic and sexual relationships, wider society has a long way to go; monogamy and heteronormativity persist, remaining the criteria that shape our romantic interactions.
To increase awareness of non-monogamy, open relationships, relationship anarchy, and other related topics, Max and Kat, along with other members of Kingfishers for Consent (Yale-NUS Colleges’ Sexual Wellness Peer Educators), will be organizing a workshop on ethical non-monogamy during Sexual Wellness Week next month.
According to the organizers, events like these are important in order to help provide community and support for people who find themselves seeking something outside the norm and trying to navigate complex emotions and choices without pre-existing roadmaps. For both Kat and Fedi, leaning on other members of the queer or polyamorous community has been helpful and comforting, and Fedi feels “fortunate to have found this community of people who challenge the norm, even if small, at Yale-NUS.”
It is important that visibility for less mainstream forms of intimacy be increased, not only in order to make people who may not fit the conventional mould feel more able to accept their preferences, but also so that all of us can learn more about building healthy relationships and what ideal forms of love might look like to us.
In a month where we are surrounded by representations of heteronormative relationships, February offers an important time to question and reflect upon the manifestations of heteronormativity and cisnormativity around us and in our own lives. It is only through this reflection that we will be able to truly answer the question: How can we reimagine romance in a way that works for us?