My boyfriend has a girlfriend. She’s intelligent, funny, insightful, stylish, has an adventurous taste in hair, and is an all-around cool person.
But enough about me!
Joking aside, I’m polyamorous. So is my boyfriend. And so is his girlfriend. We’re all free to explore sexual and/or romantic relationships as we choose, as long as we keep the necessary people in the loop about it. And while polyamory seems to be a frequent topic of discussion right now — what with a series on Showtime entering its second season, and new articles about it popping up every week or so in left-leaning publications — society as a whole lacks the vocabulary and the social scripts to navigate poly relationships. The poly community has been around long enough to invent some new ones, but it’s still a work in progress, and every single poly person is a pioneer in this endeavor to establish new social norms.
This is all a long way of saying I still have no idea how to describe my relationship with my boyfriend’s girlfriend.
What do we call it?
In poly lingo, we’re metamours — a portmanteau of “meta,” which means “pertaining to a level above or beyond,” and “amour,” which means “lovers.” So we’re related by our relationship to the same lover. The word “metamour” appeals to me; it pushes my geek buttons (“LOL how meta”), my Romance language buttons, and my too-damn-clever-for-my-own-good buttons.
But “metamour” has limitations, too, and ones I’m still struggling to overcome. “Metamour” merely names our relationship — it acknowledges that the relationship exists. It doesn’t do anything to describe the quality of our relationship.
When I say, “He’s my boyfriend,” a host of cultural associations spring to the listener’s mind: we’re in love; we go on dates; we are sexual together; we devote a significant amount of time to each other. When I say, “She’s my sister,” or “They’re my friends,” there’s a similar amount of cultural associations. They’re not just useful for the listener to understand where I’m coming from — they’re also useful to me as I make sense of the myriad relationships with my life.
And then we come to “metamour”…
Not enough weight
This word is so new that it hasn’t accumulated any cultural baggage yet — even in the poly community. (Or so it seems to me; other poly folk might disagree, and if so I’d love to hear from you!) I’ve had metamours whom I’ve never met, or met only once or twice. I’ve had metamours whom I didn’t think were a good influence on my boyfriend. I’ve had metamours with whom I’m best friends, and metamours with whom I’m casual acquaintances. Although it hasn’t happened yet, it’s entirely possible that I’ll have metamours whom I actively dislike.
How in the world can one word encompass such a broad range of potential relationships? More importantly, how can one word accurately convey my beautiful, complex, unconventional relationship with my beautiful, complex, unconventional metamour?
Queering things up
Because of course things need to be even more complicated, I’m queer. I love ladies, gentlemen, and everything between, besides, and beyond. While I’m not certain about how my metamour self-identifies, she most certainly is not entirely straight. To put it delicately, I know this from firsthand experience. Multiple firsthand experiences, if you know what I mean.
So now we have a sexual relationship thrown into the mix. However, I doubt that my metamour and I would have sex or date if our mutual boyfriend wasn’t present as a social lubrication (pun 100% intended). Thinking more practically, we probably would have never met if it weren’t for our boyfriend. My radical feminist self rankles at the idea that our sexual relationship requires the presence of a man, but that’s how the chemistry plays out, and I’m not sure any amount of consciousness-raising would fix it.
Part of me thinks that I should welcome these multifarious complexities in my relationship with my metamour. I chose a polyamorous lifestyle partially because I think society will benefit from a breaking down of the rigid barriers between romantic and platonic friendships. By this line of thinking, the difficulty in succinctly describing my relationship with my metamour is inherent and also a benefit; it forces me to give my relationships the detail and care in description that they deserve.
(Astute readers may be protesting at this point, “But Natalie, weren’t you extolling the utility of culturally-loaded relationship labels just a few paragraphs ago?” You would be correct, astute readers. I haven’t yet found the sweet spot between “labels are used to facilitate communication” and “labels are used to enforce oppressive cultural norms.” That’s why I’m finding this endeavor so difficult.)
Staking our claim
For now, we’ve settled on calling ourselves “metamours with benefits.” The term neatly hijacks the cultural baggage of “friends with benefits” (we’re good friends, enjoy each other’s company, and have sex once in a while, but don’t “date” in the conventional sense) and adds the nuance that we’re dating the same guy. Maybe this turn of phrase will catch on in the poly community; maybe a new, better word or phrase will sprout up — that remains to be seen.
There are still limitations to our current method; while it is a great way to briefly describe ourselves to people active in the poly community, most monogamous people still don’t know what “metamour” means — heck, a lot of people who are poly in practice but aren’t politically active are still unfamiliar with the term. So I’d still have to have that conversation with them, and that’s a conversation for which I don’t always have the energy.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much; being pioneers in a new cultural space is time-consuming and exhausting at times, but it’s also an exciting opportunity to help shape the future of society. By doing all the hard work now, we’re laying the groundwork for future generations of people — poly and monogamous — to more easily and effectively navigate and talk about relationships of all stripes. That thought makes all the headache-inducing vocabulary gymnastics worth the while.