The way we discuss and understand love in our culture is hugely influenced by our standard monogamous relationship model. I think this is the sort of thing that people often forget because it is easy to go about thinking that our cultural norms are a baseline for everyone and fail to examine them critically. I read an article talking about how terrifying confessing love can be and how important it is and while saying "I love you" for the first time packs a wallop no matter what sort of arrangement you have it is very different in polyamorous relationships vs. monogamous ones. Exclusivity changes the tone of "I love you" (ILY) in really important ways.
The primary issue at hand is the necessity of love being reciprocal. If you can only have one relationship it makes sense that you really want love to go both ways and thus ILY sets the relationship up for an immediate crisis - all in or fold are the only options, no checking allowed. That situation is entirely different when both parties can have other relationships because unrequited love isn't necessarily a problem. Certainly people generally want their feelings returned but if they can have a mutually loving relationship with someone it is usually (not always!) perfectly fine to be in love with someone else who doesn't feel the same way. Sometimes it is only a matter of time, of giving the other person the weeks, months, or years they need to find those feelings too but even if that never occurs you can still go about your life and get all the things you need.
I have been in the situation of being in love and not having it be returned, being loved but not returning it, and being in a mutually loving relationship. I like the third the best obviously but of the first two I would rather be in love over being loved if it isn't going to be mutual. I can handle my own feelings even if they are intense and challenging but it is much harder when I have to worry about hurting someone else. Perhaps it is my sales experience or maybe dating online as a man but in both cases I have learned to deal with regular rejection. Rejecting others on the other hand is *hard*. Not a fan.
The second thing that stands out is the lack of a relationship escalator in polyamorous relationships. You don't have to get on and ride all the way to the top to marriage and permanent partnership so ILY isn't a commitment or statement of intentions but simply a description of a current state. If I love someone now I can simply say that because it is true and I don't have to worry that long term plans are being made around that statement. Polyamorous folks don't necessarily need to agonize over what exactly ILY means or worry about where it is going to the same extent because they aren't necessarily grappling with the followup question of "So, when do we take the next step?"
It isn't all advantages for the poly folk though. What we gain in flexibility we lose in scripts and clear guidelines. When a relationship could be anything from a occasional hookup to a lifelong partnership and there is no agreed upon set of expectations at the beginning it can be challenging to figure out what ILY is going to mean. How much are you going to be willing to lean on each other? How often are you going to be able to be together? These questions are much more complex when there isn't an end goal and a recipe for getting there. I like that freedom a lot but it does come with extra reflection and negotiation built in.
The first time Wendy and I said those words we were both in a bit of a panic. It was very much like a traditional romantic comedy ending; a sweaty, twitching, desperate, terror-filled scene that turned into radiant joy and one HELL of a kiss. I wasn't expecting ILY but I could sure as heck tell something was up and my response was instantaneous and heartfelt. That situation had plenty of other baggage involved because we were roommates and had our relationship blown up there wasn't a place for everyone to sleep but honestly the real thing that had me so terrified was not the logistics. I had already decided I was ready to marry her and hearing those words meant my dreams were on their way to being fulfilled. I was shoving every chip I had straight into the middle before the words were even fully out of her mouth.
With Val on the other hand it was very different. For starters I hadn't already settled on marrying them for a variety of reasons. Our spouses, knowing each other for only six weeks, minor details like that. Val got out a handmade fortune teller like the one you see above and got me to pick colours and numbers till I arrived at the choice between 2, 4, 6, and a set of hearts. At that point I realized that the hearts would definitely have the words I love you written beneath them and I chose them without hesitation. Val gave me an out by confirming that I wanted to choose the hearts but I knew I wasn't going to back away even though I had no idea yet how I would answer. As expected the hearts had ILY underneath it and then my mind went into overdrive.
Well this is good.
Val loves me, okay.
I am happy about this.
But do I love them back?
I know they are super and I *like* them a lot.
I am definitely getting fall in love feelings but it hasn't gone nuclear yet.
For sure I won't lie or exaggerate.
I have to say something... hesitating too long!
I replied that I was pretty sure I was falling in love but wasn't entirely there yet. I was probably not very coherent over the next half hour as I was furiously examining my own feelings to determine if in fact I was in love with Val and could honestly say that. Trying to sort that out while maintaining some semblance of conversation amidst a sea of chemicals was certainly a trick. My conclusion was that yes, I was in love with Val and I said so.
Even though the ILY exchange with Val was awkward by some measures it was still completely okay. I knew that even if our feelings were somewhat unbalanced we would keep seeing each other and that it would be all good. I truly did have the option of just checking and seeing another card. All in and fold were not my only options. Given that choice, given the freedom to just wait and consider, I took a half hour and decided that it was definitely time to get all my chips in.
There may never be another moment quite as intense as that first ILY with Wendy. It was uniquely powerful in my experience and it is certainly true that the all or nothing element of monogamy lends a certain impact. But given the choice I will go with the flexibility and freedom of polyamorous I Love Yous. The experience has less edge but it also has less fear, more comfort, and more freedom and that is a trade I will take every time.
Picture from: http://www.dltk-kids.com/world/japan/mfortune-teller.htm