For the Ratlings, the road to polyamory was not a linear one. Brian started checking out polyamory websites a few years into their marriage but only broached the subjects a decade in, he says, after he discovered his wife sexting a former lover.
By definition, polyamory is the practice of having consensual multiple intimate relationships and can be termed ethical, responsible non-monogamy.
When I meet Brian over drinks, he explains that the episode between he and his wife forced an elongated and complicated discussion. “If you’ve been married for 10 years, the dopamine wears off and there is nothing you can do to spice up your marriage,” he says. “The only way to do that is to understand that your marriage is changing.”
Brian says it took about a year to renegotiate the terms of their sexual relationship but he forced the pace.
“If you are going to make a decision, at some point you have to make it,” he says. I stop short of asking him how he would have taken his wife’s intransigence on the issue. Brian instead, segues into an anecdote about a recent former girlfriend.
“My girlfriend broke up with me recently. She said, ‘I am looking for my lobster.’
She said, ‘Lobster is made for life, I want someone who is going to be home when I get home, who is going to be my everything.’
I said, ‘China it doesn’t work like that. If it did we wouldn’t have more than one friend.’”
Brian’s wife, who is also seeing another man, hasn’t met the new girlfriend yet because “it’s still new and casual. People think, ‘I will get to have sex with whomever I want and it’s going to be cool,’ when actually, it’s not like that.”
He says should I ask his wife, she’d tell me that polyamory saved their marriage. When I call Elize a day after meeting her husband, she echoes his sentiments, but with more apparent sensitivity. “I am one of those people that take time to process stuff,” she says from on the line from her workplace. “I need to be able to say, ‘This is never going to work for me.’ It did take me a long time for me to work my head around it and realise that a feeling of jealousy is just a feeling and it can be dealt with as other feelings can be dealt with, through communication, compassion and understanding. You really have to change your whole life.”
These “changes”, obviously, involve ground rules and communicating the situation appropriately to their children.
The Ratlings have a trio of preteen children, the youngest being four. “One night I wanted to go out [to see my girlfriend] and stay the night,” explains Brian. “My one daughter asked, “Where is papa going? My wife said, ‘No, he’s going to have a sleepover.’ That’s something that a six-year-old or a four year old can understand. Kids have sleepovers all the time right? I make sure that I am back home at 6.00am, to help her get the kids up and be ready for school.”
To the outsider, it might be hard to imagine how the entrance of outside partners might enhance a long-term sexual relationship, but Elize gives a literal example of “bringing new ideas home”.
The intimate feeds into the platonic she says: “We now have many other things to talk about besides a lack of money, children and logistics, it’s like having a best girlfriend. Somebody who can say: ‘I went on a date’, and you can ask, ‘What was it like? Tell me all about it?’
“One of the things that I tease him about, and I mean I’m making a huge judgment here, I say, ‘What’s up with you and the fat chicks?’ We can talk like one would in completely inappropriate terms with a girlfriend because it’s safe.”
Brian says the pitfalls with the lifestyle are not what people think, but have to do with conflict resolution and emotional intelligence. “If one or both of you freaks out, can I be adult enough not to lose our shit and walk out of the relationship?”
While Brian says that there are plenty support systems out there for neophytes, Elize says she gets the bulk of the sympathy from friends who don’t practice a similar love style, “They treat me like a victim by saying I am here for you and not Brian which is not terribly helpful either because I don’t need pity’’.
She adds that they still have to work out what the arrangement would be like when they reach their 60s, for instance, or whether it, or they, would even last that long.
Raam Naicker, a self-described polyactivist, says the prevalence of polyamory in South Africa is difficult to quantify. “The last count on the mailing list when I was in the Zapoly group (an online support group) was 320,” he says. “But these things are difficult to quantify. It is not mainstream and people are afraid to out themselves. It’s like in the 80s when being gay was not out.”
Naicker says polyamory is more in the media now, with documentaries, talk shows and magazine articles.
“There was a poly documentary recently on SABC1. After that documentary, the mailing list jumped up by about 120.” Asked whether polyamory was practiced across cultures in South Africa, Naicker said he believed it was, although many people would not come out as it was not socially acceptable. He says that in some black communities, for example, men might do it openly while not allowing their female partners to do it.