The first love triangle I experienced was brought to you by MSN Messenger, Livejournal and a website called Writers’ Workshop. This was back in 2004. Based in New Zealand, Writers’ Workshop was cutting edge for its time. You could post your work online for feedback, there was a (blissfully flame-free) discussion board, and most impressively a private messaging function. As a token Aussie living in a tiny beachside town, I poured my angst-fuelled heart and soul into that corner of the web along with the Kiwi teens.
Predictably, Hotmail addresses were eventually swapped. We complimented Mary Sue stories and half-baked philosophical essays via instant messenger. Cliques formed. From the trust that comes with anonymity, intense bonds asserted themselves. Online friendships more real than the spattering I had IRL soon comprised the majority of my social circle. And if you think teenagers can’t fall in love over the internet, boy howdy, do you have another thing coming. Countless hours were logged on chat, phone calls snuck on Valentine’s Day, pages posted to tin mailboxes across oceans. Tl;dr: eventually, my friend and I were extremely sweet on the same boy with a username that was all in lowercase.
Then it turned out he’d been interacting with us both romantically for the last however many months. It was just, he said, that you could love more than one person at a time. Let me tell you, it was a total clusterfuck in terms of emotional casualties. Despite all our varied modes of communication, very important messages had been lost in bottles. Probably because we were young – and bottles are notoriously unreliable at reaching their destination. I do polyamory very differently these days, but the internet still plays an important role.
Polyamory is a style of non-monogamy. It broadens the definition of relationship beyond a romantic/sexual and platonic binary, and provides a structure to have these connections concurrently. Beyond that, set-ups are formed by the individuals involved with everything from strict hierarchies to more fluid and egalitarian styles. Triads, Vs, dyads – pretty much any shape you can think of until it’s simpler just to call it a web: these are the ways polyfolk branch out from the traditional couple.
This approach to relationships separates out from the more conventional way of having your cake and eating it too (cheating) by putting the ‘ethical’ in non-monogamy. Everyone involved is aware of and consents to the involvement of everyone else. For this to have any chance of working out, communication is key. So much so, it’s become a catch-cry of the poly community, with members often priding themselves on listening, negotiation and debriefing skills. The healthiest relationships tend to be seen as a constant work in progress – which is not so different from monogamy, it’s just more obvious when there are more people involved. Even if you believe that two heads (and hearts) are better than one, there’s no getting around the fact that relationships require consideration, care and sometimes just straight-up work to succeed in the long term.
After that fatal love triangle fell spectacularly apart, my family and I edged towards civilisation. With a broader range of people available in suburbia, my extreme angst and nerdiness found company closer to home, and online relationships became less of a cornerstone. I forgot poly for a few years – though this is not to say I did monogamy well (sorry everyone) – until it was sprung on me again at seventeen. We’d kissed a few nights before, so I was surprised (okay, initially mortified) to learn Matt had a girlfriend and a boyfriend already. Though, this didn’t prove to be a problem as it had those years prior. Probably because we actually discussed things like expectations, boundaries and what everyone wanted out of the scenario. All of these are good things to cover in advance.
To help orientate myself to poly properly, I returned to what I knew best: Livejournal. There was one blogger in particular who was instrumental in my un-monogamisation. His name is Franklin Veaux, screen name: tacit. Under this pseudonym, tacit detailed his intricate poly web, adventures in BDSM and general geekery. He discussed everything from jealously to logistics, while also expressing a very convincing preference for boundary-based instead of rule-based polyamory, an approach I now wholeheartedly subscribe to. The difference between the two might seem semantic, but it’s really not. Rule-based poly, as you might expect, places restrictions on people’s behaviour – often in an attempt to safeguard the relationship. In comparison, the alternative encourages the expression of personal boundaries and asks others to respect them. The consequences may be the same (for example, undisclosed and unprotected sex leading to a break up) but whereas rules seek to control another’s behaviour, boundaries foster clarity of dialogue and expectations. Before I had access to the classic poly tomes, tacit’s Livejournal was where I could get my learn on, in a friendly space, complete with hyperlinks to other thinkers and polyfolk.
MSN Messenger continued to play an important role as well. Matt lived out West with his girlfriend, and I was still stuck in high school and living at home. Our screen names were no longer lowercase. As a testimony to our maturity they were now complete with copy-pasted symbols, the occasional emoticon if we were feeling frivolous and, of course, the song we were listening to at the time (remember that feature?). Then soon after the Melbourne Zombie March – which is exactly what it sounds like, an excuse to dress up like the undead and take en masse to the CBD streets – I started dating Sarah as well. She lived in Doncaster so we logged a lot of time online to sustain ourselves and a sense of ‘us’ till the weekend.
Unlike the other dating I did during high school, none of these relationships would have lasted without the internet. Polyfolk tend to be fewer and, at that time, definitely further between. MSN Messenger was also more economical in that I could be chatting to both my sweethearts at the same time, instead of tethered to a landline. That might sound cold, but it’s also inescapable that there are limited hours in a day. Imagine the amount of time that people spent together as a duo, then try and double that without it blowing up in your face. Some poly people build intricate calendars with dedicated date nights, scheduled sleepovers. Rather than being a buzz-kill, this is one way to make sure everyone makes the most of our limited twenty-four hours – and ideally leaves room for things like eat, sleep, work and play. I knew a triad who had a shared Google calendar, which worked super well for them. Everyone could see changes and updates. My set-up was more casual than that, but still benefited from anything that would allow you to multitask. So a shout out to MSN for that.
As you have probably gathered, this was all before the days of internet dating being an actively facilitated thing, or making connections online being relatively normalised. Before our parents started pulling their hair out over the apocalyptic ‘hook-up culture’ endorsed by apps like Grindr, tinder and OKc. Baby Boomers were still stuck in that fear-mongering stage of ‘everyone you meet online is a serial killer’. This, at times, seriously cramped my style into fugitive secrecy; I was still in contact with Lyra by the powers of Facebook – her friendship was now then of the longest-standing I had, bound together by a mutual love of Black Books, binge drinking and bad jokes. As someone who’d had such informative relationships online early on, reliance on the internet came naturally both here and in my IRL relationships.
To jump forward to the present, such sites and online communities play an important role in allowing polyfolk to find one another. Back in 2008, I had to pitch the concept of polyamory to Sarah while we were having coffee. Now, there’s an app you can install for OKc where it’ll tell you whether a person is open to non-monogamy based on how they’ve answered the questionnaire. That is pretty dang helpful. While listed as single to maximise my searchability, in my profile it states I already have a long-term girlfriend and am especially interested in meeting other non-mono folk. So it allows you to subvert the traditional expectations of single as code for available and coupled meaning closed off to the potential of new relationships.
We’re clearly spoilt for choice these days with all the ways to discuss everything extensively. But is there any truth to technophobes’ fears? It’s often difficult to take their concerns seriously with chronically unbalanced articles, and references to Web 2.0 in scare quotes. Clearly, not everyone is on board with non-monogamy as a valid life option. There was a terrible article late last year in The Advertiser about the ‘strange, jealous world of a married swinger couple’ which paints the arrangement as doomed despite the couple’s own views. (Similar pieces can also been found in The Age and The Australian – a quick Google pulls them up.)
A much more balanced piece can be found in the second issue of Archer Magazine. One of my favourite truths within is ‘If a monogamous relationship breaks up, people never consider monogamy to be “the problem”, or take it as proof that monogamy doesn’t work. But they do with polyamory.’ People are certainly more aware of non-monogamy these days. But the internet is still an imperfect tool, wielded by imperfect beings – that’s us. If the web were a completely unproblematic platform, maybe my first love triangle wouldn’t have imploded so magnificently.
I had put this question to tacit: with access to so many different kinds of communication, how do we avoid it all becoming new and exciting ways to misunderstand each other? I wanted to know how many of my personal failures could be put down to a reliance on the internet. I thought of my seventeen-year-old self, that time Matt’s MSN Messenger account automatically signed his girlfriend in, and the awkward – incredibly brief – conversation that ensued. Instead of the communication we so loudly professed to desire, both of us were more than happy to let Matt continue as mouthpiece. I put this down to naivety mostly – open, ethical chats are all well and good in theory, but when you’re dealing with a metamour (your partner’s partner) who is a lawyer ten years your senior, the whole thing is a bit intimidating. We’d done fine some time later IRL at Matt’s graduation – so surely MSN was to blame. The heated emails I’d exchanged with a now-ex partner mentally resurfaced, fraught with mutual emotional outbursts and accusations. In sharp comparison, the only other fights we’d had face-to-face occurred when one or both of us were wicked drunk. The internet was clearly to blame!
Except: nope. Instead of absolving me of my sins tacit sagely replied: ‘People who want to misunderstand each other will always find a way to do so, I reckon. On the other hand, people who genuinely want to communicate can only benefit from having lots of channels of communication :).’ To drive the point home, I’ve also been watching (okay, rewatching) Gossip Girl, a show whose premise is built on – often cultivated or premeditated – online misinformation. Without giving away just how familiar I am with GG, let’s just say you have to be disingenuous offline as well as on for the shit to really hit the fan.
Last year, Lyra’s job brought her to Melbourne. We got incredibly overexcited and met at a quiet bar walking distance from her backpackers’. After ten years of avatars and the eventual abandonment of Livejournal for less angst-ridden areas of the internet this was, as you can imagine, quite a big deal. We bought pints of cider and caught up without a keyboard between us. After discussing the smaller topics – Australian racism, institutionalised disadvantage in universities and the wallet-smashing price of tobacco – our conversation moved back to that first love triangle. In record time Lyra and I apologised for our potentially sub-par behaviour, and the general havoc wrought back in the day. We’d had this conversation before of course, over email, MSN and probably even the private messaging function on Writers’ Window. This last step was easy because neither of us wanted to misunderstand each other. It meant we could continue our friendship unscathed, and have another pint.