How Non-Monogamy in Montreal Challenges Us to Look Inside Ourselves

How We Live and How We Love

Photo Esteban Cuevas

When Juniper Cupressaceae, 23, told their mother they were seeing two men, she didn’t take it well.

“She started crying and saying that she was a bad mother […] and that she failed as a parent,” said Cupressaceae. “She said things like, ‘You don’t actually care about these people.’”

Over time, their mother’s grief shifted to grudging tolerance. However, Cupressaceae continues to hide their lifestyle from extended family, knowing their mother would be humiliated and incensed.

In spite of this, Cupressaceae opted to be identified by name.

Cupressaceae practices ethical non-monogamy, also known as consensual non-monogamy, a term spanning a wide range of relationship styles, including polyamory.

Ethical non-monogamy is marked by honesty between partners—which is to say, it’s not cheating.

Cupressaceae’s preferred form is called relationship anarchy: “You meet someone and you get to define exactly what you want your expectations and limits to be with that person, and that’s worked out pretty well for me.”

They are one of a “substantial minority” of Canadians opting for a non-monogamous lifestyle, according to a study published by The Journal of Sex Research in 2019.

The study, which surveyed a representative sample of people across Canada, found that 3.4 per cent of people aged 20-29 and 3.9 per cent aged 30-39 were in open relationships.

Photo Esteban Cuevas

The numbers may not seem high, but these younger demographics outranked any others, leading the authors to conclude that the prevalence of consensual non-monogamy could increase over time.

In all, 2.4 per cent of respondents were currently in open relationships—yet 11.9 per cent reported a preference for consensual non-monogamy.

“There have been conflicting findings around satisfaction and relationship configuration, and what became really clear in this study was that being in the kind of relationship that you would like to be in is a strong predictor of satisfaction,” said Nichole Fairbrother, a University of British Columbia psychiatry professor and lead author of the study.

Yet, to many in a society built on serial monogamy, non-monogamous lifestyles are an inconceivable curiosity, if not a moral malfunction.

“‘Oh my God, I don’t know how you do it. I could never do that.’ That’s the typical exchange I get with people my age, no matter what the setting is,” said MJ, 33, who requested her last name be omitted, fearing repercussions to her high-school teaching career.

“We’re teaching them to be responsible adults, and I think the heterosexual monogamous relationship is still held as the expectation,” she said.

MJ first discovered ethical non-monogamy on a date three years ago.

“I said something very personal about myself. I wasn’t sure it was appropriate,” she said. “I wasn’t sure it was first date material.”

He reacted kindly, and he said, “Well, if we’re being honest, I have a girlfriend, and she knows that I’m here and she’s very happy for me.”

While many non-monogamous people report having to work through feelings of jealousy, many polyamorous people describe an inverse emotional experience known as compersion.

“The British call it feeling frubbly, which I think is a little bit cuter,” said Nathan Rambukkana, an assistant professor of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University whose doctoral studies at Concordia helped inform his book, Fraught Intimacies: Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere.

For MJ, who struggled with faithfulness all her life, the lifestyle was a revelation. She had never encountered ethical non-monogamy during her three years at Concordia.

She hadn’t known there were people who would accept this kind of relationship.

“For me, growing up and early adulthood, into my thirties, I thought there was something wrong with me,” she said.

She insists sexual desire is not at the centre of her lifestyle. Rather, she relishes the freedom to allow connections with others to grow organically, without the need to pigeonhole people into certain roles in her life.

“That’s what it’s about for me,” she said. “It’s about connection.”

In a candy-striped casse-croûte that smelled first of grease and then of cigarette smoke, Roxanne Maltais, 25, described how she and her boyfriend discovered ethical non-monogamy three years ago.

“Their immediate questions will be like, ‘Oh, but how is that different than being a slut?’ or ‘Are any of your relationships really serious if you’re seeing many people?’”

—Juniper Cupressaceae

Their relationship had been monogamous for four years when Maltais’s boyfriend heard ethical non-monogamy discussed on a podcast, sparking a yearlong conversation.

When they finally leapt into the lifestyle, they did so with one rule: that if either wanted to stop, they would stop.

“That was really reassuring in a way,” said Maltais. “We want to be together for our whole lives, so it was easier in that way where I knew I had someone to come to and go back home to.”

They had talked about their fear that one of them might fall in love with someone else, but reasoned this is possible in monogamy, too.

Maltais believes non-monogamy has enriched her relationship, in large part because of the level of communication it demands.

“I can’t just sit on my ass and expect them to be around,” she said. “I have to build that healthy relationship that I want, and that includes working on myself, working on my relationship, communicating with my partner, and being communicative to their needs.”

She credits her sexology education, feminism, and interest in psychedelic drugs with the critical mindset that equipped her to revisit the parameters of her relationship.

For Cupressaceae, a preference for non-monogamy was always clear.

“Personally, I’ve never found monogamy to be satisfying,” they said, adding that even a primary partner would be stifling.

“Even if there isn’t the expectation of being faithful or anything like that, I still am attracted to a variety of people and I’m in love with a variety of people.”

Despite this confidence, curiosity from those with normative relationships and love styles can feel like an attack. “Their immediate questions will be like, ‘Oh, but how is that different than being a slut?’ or ‘Are any of your relationships really serious if you’re seeing many people?’”

They said these comments used to be very hurtful. “I felt like nobody had this approach to relationships,” they said. “I was like, ‘Am I the weird one? Why am I like this and everybody else is different?’”

Non-monogamy and intersectionality

Al Hendrickson, 57, co-organizes two polyamory meetup groups, including Black and Poly Montreal. He said there are particular challenges involved in being non-monogamous and Black.

Hendrickson pointed to the conviction some hold that the family unit is key to improving the prospects of the Black community as a whole, making its subversion that much more sensitive. “That’s what our recent generations have been taught,” he said.

There are also stigmas in the community around masculinity, he said, which are challenged by a polyamorous lifestyle.

Photo Esteban Cuevas

These, of course, are in addition to judgments coming from outside the Black community that are informed by racism.

“You probably know throughout our history there’s ‘the deviant,’ or, ‘Oh, you’re one of those people’ type things,’” he said. “There’s misinterpretations and then poor judgments made based on those interpretations.”

Cupressaceae has also been the target of racial prejudice. “I will not be taken seriously because people are like, ‘Oh, you’re just weird because you’re Colombian,’ or ‘It’s just Latin people being horny,’ or whatever stereotype there is around it,” they said.

“It can intersect also with class,” said Rambukkana. “For example, if you have two partners, one of whom has a lot of financial means and the other doesn’t, that can create a power differential. Who do you go on vacation with on your holiday break time?”

Rambukkana noted that as economic realities become more difficult, there may be a need to revisit the kinds of communal living arrangements that used to be more common, and which could include cohabitation with multiple partners.

In explaining how polyamory can work for families, Gabriel, who requested not to be identified by last name due to professional considerations, mentioned a friend of his who was raised by four moms—one would take his friend to school, while another taught them to ride a bike, and so on.

Hendrickson takes the economic connection further, suggesting our reliance on wages saps our energy and causes insecurity, depriving us of the freedom we need to be more thoughtful about how we might best pursue a satisfying life.

Our legal system, particularly in relation to marriage and child custody, codifies our society’s preference for monogamous relationships.

“It used to be that you could only really replicate the kinds of family law that monogamous people take for granted using a series of private contracts,” said Rambukkana, although he noted this is changing to some extent.

Polyamorous spaces are not immune to prejudice. Maltais said there can be sexist and biphobic comments found on online polyamory groups, for instance.

Preconceived ideas “don’t disappear because we understand that it’s hard to bring two partners to Christmas dinner,” she said.

Challenging monogamy as the default

“If I were to wish something for society going forward, my wish would be that we begin to question monogamy as the default,” said Fairbrother. “And, that even for people in monogamous relationships, that some of the more damaging beliefs that can accompany monogamy are questioned.”

Fairbrother said a romanticized notion of monogamous love leads some to believe that one should only be attracted to one’s partner.

“I think those kinds of beliefs can cause people a lot of pain.”

Assumptions that tend to accompany monogamy can also touch other realms.

“We are [raised] to believe that the most important person in your life is going to be your romantic partner, and then your family, and then your friends, and then strangers,” said Gabriel.

He believes this can undermine valuable relationships in a person’s life.

Photo Esteban Cuevas

Similarly, when a couple decides they have become incompatible as romantic partners, monogamous culture can imply the need to terminate the connection altogether, even if it’s profound.

“A big problem with the monogamous narrative, for me,” said Gabriel, “is this concept that as your partner grows and their needs change, you need to be able to continue to meet their needs, […] certain kinds of needs that are exclusive to your relationship.”

He believes this helps to foster a culture of insecurity and jealousy. “In this model, the only way they can have another meaningful connection like that is by replacing you,” he said.

There are, of course, many monogamous people who subvert this expectation, demonstrating that monogamy, like anything, is best approached critically.

“If you’re in a monogamous relationship and you choose to be in it, even though you could choose other forms of relationships, then it’s more meaningful, I find,” said Rambukkana, who no longer lives non-monogamously.

“Most people I know are monogamous not because they’ve asked themselves the question, ‘What do I want out of life,’” said MJ, “but because that’s just what everybody is. It’s just a default way of being.”

She hopes more and more people will truly ask themselves what they want out of life. “They might be surprised by the answer that they get if they really think about it,” she said.

“Sometimes just to begin questioning it is hard because you have to start looking at the world differently,” said Gabriel. “You have to start realizing in order to pursue this that love is not a finite resource.”

Cupressaceae contemplated why some might not see non-monogamy as an option. “Is it because of social pressure? Or is it because they’re not able to have these conversations with their partner? Is it because they’re not willing to lose their relationship over this issue? I think communication is very important,” they said.

Non-monogamy has the advantage of spurring reflections about one’s desires and boundaries—hard questions that monogamous people, to whom society provides a script, can more easily avoid or defer.

But Cupressaceae doesn’t think polyamory is inherently better.

“My favourite monogamous friends […] questioned themselves, and they asked themselves if they would do non-monogamy, and if that’s something that they wanted, and it turned out that it wasn’t, and that was OK,” they said.

“My friend who grew up with four moms had a coming out,” said Gabriel. “They said, ‘Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom: I’m monogamous.’”