How A Brit Handled The Berlin Dating Scene

Illustration: Louisa Cannell
If you’re dating right now then you know. You know how difficult it is to swipe left and right when all you want is to enjoy a half-decent conversation in real life. You know how tedious it can be to flirt over the internet with people you may or may not have chemistry with. You recognise the annoying term ‘ghosting’ and you’ve experienced it – you may have even done it yourself. What you might not know yet is if the potential partner you’re trying to click with is polyamorous, or poly for short.
When I moved to Berlin from the UK earlier this year, I knew there was a casual attitude to dating. This is a city where people have sex in full view in nightclubs; Preston it is not. But I wasn’t quite prepared for just how open it is to open relationships.
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“Is it possible to have a monogamous relationship here?” I remember asking my equally perplexed British friend. “I think it would be difficult,” she replied.
But is it true? Is poly – having more than one loving relationship with the full support and trust of all partners involved ­– becoming as common as monogamy? It’s hard to calculate. Polyamory is not featured as a tick box in any census but anecdotal evidence suggests it is on the rise throughout the world.
In Berlin, a city known for pushing boundaries, the community is strong and growing. Zoe, 28, an editor who lived in Ireland for 10 years and is now Berlin-based, believes it is becoming the norm.
“I would almost say polyamory is the standard go-to here,” says Zoe, who was in a poly relationship while living in Dublin. “There’s definitely not the assumption that just because you start seeing somebody here you stop seeing other people, the way that it might be in somewhere like Ireland. People are far less threatened by it here.”
In Berlin lots of men and women of all ages state they are poly on dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. It’s also easy to find established meet-ups, groups, cuddle parties and sex gatherings.
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For poly-advocate Rebecca, 26, who is marrying her British boyfriend at the beginning of next month, poly is simply all about love. “The way I see it is love is not limited,” says Rebecca, over a frothy chai tea in a café in the southern district Neukölln. “Love is endless and we have the capacity to love many people. I often compare it to just as you love your family members, it’s not limited to just your mum and your brother.”
Rebecca, a project manager from the German city Leipzig, met her boyfriend at a poly gathering. “The situation is that we are totally free in what we allow the other one to do,” she says. “That means we are talking a lot about topics like jealousy and we’re being really honest with each other.
Rebecca says a Facebook group for organising poly events has grown from having 10 members to more than 150 in the last 18 months. There are several other groups throughout the city. “This kind of lifestyle for me really happened two years ago when I moved to Berlin,” she says. “I discovered cuddle parties and it moved on from there. I think the people who come to Berlin are very open-minded, they want to experiment.”
Rebecca and her partner talked for a long time about getting married before making a decision. Their wedding will be a mix of traditional activities – families coming together, eating and drinking, signing the register – along with less common rituals. Instead of a reception the happy couple will host a ‘poly party’.
Ultimately, Rebecca believes polyamory can stop partners from feeling they have to “hide things”. “What makes our relationship really strong is I feel very safe and I can be honest,” she says. “I can talk about my desires and my wishes.”
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For Susanne, polyamory has been a way of life for 11 years. She’s been with her boyfriend for 13 years and they have a 6-year-old son. The 34-year-old describes herself as a “veteran of polyamory” and often helps other couples adjusting to the lifestyle. “We have so many couch stories,” she says.
Susanne, a biologist born in southern Germany, says open relationships require a lot of communication and it’s not for everyone. “I have a feeling that in polyamorous relationships we do a lot of relationship work where a lot of monogamous couples forget to do. We talk a lot about feelings.”
The couple discussed becoming poly for a year before moving forward with the idea. “My partner fell in love with another person and I was always waiting for the heartbreak which society dictates,” Susanne says. “I was waiting for the anger, the embarrassment…but it didn’t happen. He told me he was with another person and I felt really happy. We started having a proper culture of communication about it. That was the start. We’ve been polyamorous since then.”
Susanne and her family have lived in different places, including Oxford in the UK. “Oxford has about 20 polyamorous people,” she says. “In Berlin it’s much more open.”
Sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, says she has noticed younger generations having a “flexible attitude” to dating. “They can see themselves being monogamous with some people at some times, but also being open, maybe polyamorous or relationship anarchy,” she says. “They have a lot of swinging-like behaviours in terms of open sexuality among groups of people but they don’t call it swinging – they see that as being for older people.”
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Sheff says there are several reasons why more people are opting for non-monogamous lifestyles. “Sometimes people see their parents divorce over infidelity and think: why promise monogamy if you’re not going to do it? Let’s just talk about it instead of pretending. I would say the biggest thing that’s contributing to a growing sense of non-monogamy is extended lifespan.”
Although Sheff says “the genie is out of the box” when it comes to polyamory, she believes monogamy is not going anywhere. “It’s a popular choice, especially serial monogamy,” she says.
Psychologist Anita Abrams says the uncertain future for millennials and emerging generations means more people are living in the moment and not investing in monogamous relationships. She says: “Who’s to say that the surrounding uncertainty which has given rise to the impending Armageddon politically isn’t influencing young adults now? It isn’t at all surprising that young people will explore more possibilities for now because their long-term future is uncertain. Adults now have less reasons to look forward, less inspiration to save both money or time.”
So is Berlin leading the way with less emphasis on monogamy and is it time we all were a bit more open-minded, regardless of where we live?
“As a biologist I have strong doubts that it’s in our nature to be monogamous,” says Susanne. “Serial monogamy is a popular option. But every relationship that I know of so far, somebody cheated and that kind of calls for polyamory.”
Whatever you think about poly or mono relationships, it’s safe to say that dating is not getting any less complicated… but maybe that’s what keeps it interesting for all of us.
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