One Valentine’s Day circa 2001, Liz D. received a greeting card inscribed with a sweet message from her then-boyfriend. Liz, now 38, had no problem with the card itself, but she did have a problem with the fact that two other women had received the exact same gift. While all three recipients were fully aware of one another’s existence, they were put off by their shared boyfriend’s one-size-fits-all treatment of multiple partners in a polyamorous relationship.
“There are plenty of people who would be OK with that,” Liz said of the card situation, “but [the issue] for us was not being treated as unique and special.”
For those not familiar with the term, a polyamorous relationship is one in which a person has more than one romantic or sexual partner. Someone can embrace polyamory in a few different ways — by being in multiple monogamous relationships, or a group relationship involving three people who are all committed to one another, or a no-strings-attached arrangement.
This year, Liz says she’ll keep Valentine’s Day low-key — with flowers, they’re a must — by spending the night with her boyfriend of two years, whom she lives with just outside Philadelphia. If she gets a thoughtful text from her other partners, she’ll be satisfied. Liz isn’t looking for any grand gestures; what matters to her is getting quality time with all her partners. Whether or not that happens on the 14th itself isn’t important. “We can plan a weekend away some other weekend,” she said. “I certainly expect some special dinner or sexy time.”
On Valentine’s Day, a holiday commonly seen as the celebration of cliche or “traditional” representations of love, portrayals of non-monogamous relationships are depicted as tricky balancing acts. And, sure, for some poly people, the day requires planning. But, more importantly, it’s about communicating, determining partner desires, and establishing the holiday’s significance within the relationship — all facets of polyamory that are important any time of year.
“Consensual non-monogamy means saying goodbye to ‘either/or’ and welcoming the concept of talking and brainstorming collaboratively,”’ said doctor and sexologist Timaree Schmit, a self-identified poly person. She suggests using a little creativity when it comes to making time for multiple partners: “Can you see one person during the day and another at night? Can you celebrate on different nights? Can you all hang together?”
Houston-based couple Hazel and Matthew Bray have been married for 10 years. This year, they’ll celebrate their first Valentine’s Day living under the same roof as their girlfriend, Jean Mennecke. About six years ago, Hazel and Jean started a long-distance relationship. It stayed that way until last year, when Jean moved from California to Houston. Once Jean relocated, the whole dynamic changed: She, Hazel, and Matthew became a triad, meaning they’re all included in the romance. In August, Jean moved in with the couple and their children.
Hazel and Matthew aren’t big on the whole Valentine’s Day thing, but they enjoy spoiling Jean and are secretly plotting to make the day special for her with a movie and little treats.
Despite the fact that more than one in five participants in a 2016 study reported engaging in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives, and that increasingly larger percentages of people are comfortable with the idea of loving more than one person at a time, Hazel still feels like most people misunderstand her relationship. Hazel and her partners encounter the same societal pressures surrounding Valentine’s Day as those in monogamous couples. On top of that, she says, they also deal with poly-specific Valentine’s stigmas.
“I think that the biggest misconception in general is this idea that, ‘Oh, I bet you guys are going to have fun on Valentine’s Day,’” Hazel said. “Honestly, it’s not that much different than [it is for] anyone else; you’re just doing a little bit more for [more people].”
It can take some time, though, to figure out how to take multiple people’s needs into consideration in conjunction with your own. To make sure she does that, Liz uses an approach she calls “the order of operations of priority,” which entails creating a sort of hierarchy of the wants and needs of each person, based on everyone’s available time and interest. This could mean indulging in self-care to ensure she’s giving the best version of herself to her partners, or making the most of her weekend so she can spend quality time with more than one person. It’s all about careful prioritizing.
“I think what happens more is that time works against you,” Liz said. “If they don’t live with you or can only make it out for a special weekend, the problem is how can I choose [to spend] my time so everyone feels cared for.”
Schmit, the sexologist, plans her dates similarly. This Valentine’s Day, she’ll be in Colombia with friends and none of her partners (whom she’ll check in with regardless). But she’s learned from experience how to navigate poly Valentine’s Day. One year, she offered to spend the day with the first partner who asked, when it turned out the holiday held significance for a few partners. “Instead of asking everyone, ‘What does it mean to you and how do you want to celebrate our love?’ I thought I had to pick,”’ she recalled.
Schmit contends, however, that making polyamory work, on Valentine’s Day and in general, isn’t primarily about managing jealousy. “Monogamous people tend to focus on the ‘But don’t you get jealous?’ angle,”’ Schmit said. “I think they assume non-monogamous folks are either built differently or their situations are just rife with drama.”
In reality, the same necessities lie at the root of any relationship, no matter how many people are in it. Communication, for example, is a must. Schmit suggests those in poly relationships share their Valentine’s Day needs and expectations so they can collaborate on a meaningful experience.
For Liz, a meaningful Valentine’s experience is one that includes some traditional aspects of the holiday, rather than a rebellion against all societal conventions. “All we see in movies and TV and books is monogamy, [where] people get into that rut, that pattern, that routine, that autopilot,” Liz said. “[In poly] you can’t go on autopilot because you’re always having new dynamics coming and forming. You can still do the dinner and flowers date but you have to know it’s a choice, it’s something you’re actively creating together.”
Ultimately, the goal of Valentine’s Day for any relationship — non-monogamous and monogamous alike — is to value your partners. Because the best part of love is doing nice things for the ones you love.