Lucky for everyone, the days of selling women to men for a large cow and six chickens have passed. As such, the idea of monogamy is being challenged on numerous fronts, but especially with the resurgence of non-monogamy. Which begs the question that is on everyone’s lips: What is polyamory? Is it the same as that one show that has five wives? What about the TV show Big Love on HBO? Short answer: no. Longer answer: It’s far more complicated than you might imagine.
There have been many hot debates on whether or not monogamy is natural for humans. According to the Institute for Family Studies, “Among mammals, just 9 percent of species are monogamous; among primates, just 29 percent are. Humans are a diverse lot, but before Western imperialism, 83 percent of indigenous societies were polygynous, 16 percent monogamous, and 1 percent polyandrous (where women have multiple husbands).”
The numbers do lend the idea that having multiple partners would be more natural for humans. Christy Powell, LPC, owner of Valance Counseling, explains why it’s so difficult for humans to challenge their monogamous upbringing. “These ideas live in our blood because they are in the air that we breathe; they’re hard to see because they are in the very water we’re all swimming in. So when it comes to polyamory, a lot of people get off track by assuming they will just ‘get it’ by listening to a Dan Savage podcast. They don’t understand there’s a whole culture to which they are total foreigners.”
Polyamory isn’t as simple as you might think, but don’t worry! In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore your most burning questions about ethical non-monogamy and, more specifically, polyamory.
Table Of Contents
- Types Of Ethical Non-Monogamy
- Common Polyamorous Terms
- Common Myths About Polyamory
- Benefits Of Polyamory
- Downsides Of Polyamory
- Different Relationship Styles In Polyamory
- Common Agreements In Polyamory
- Ways To Work On Yourself
- Where To Begin With Polyamory
- What To Avoid In Polyamory
- Non-Monogamy Isn’t For Everyone
Types Of Ethical Non-Monogamy
Polyamory breaks down to “multiple loves.” The dictionary defines it as “involving, having, or characterized by more than one open romantic relationship at a time.” However, the beauty of polyamory is that while the dictionary definition mentions “romantic,” that doesn’t mean all polyam relationships need to be romantic in the traditional sense. However, the ability for all connections to develop into something more, especially romantic love, provides a distinct separation between polyamory and other non-monogamous relationship styles.
If you aren’t familiar with “the lifestyle”, swingers are couples who “play” with other couples. Typically, emotions with outside parties are not allowed. Swingers show up together, play together (within agreed dynamics), and try to keep a firm delineation between each couple. There are always exceptions to this rule, but this is just a general overview.
This relationship style can be tricky and downright disastrous if not approached with clear intentions. The most common approach is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (i.e., do what you want with who you want, I just don’t want to know about it). Open relationships focus more on physical experiences with people outside the relationship. Having an open relationship that allows emotions to be involved would fall under polyamory.
Also note: not telling your partners about other people isn’t actually “ethical,” so it doesn’t fall under ENM.
Different Relationship Styles In Polyamory
When you step out of the monogamous normative lifestyle, the world opens when it comes to ethical non-monogamous relationship styles, like polyamorous triad and poly quads. Here’s what they all mean.
This is the most common relationship style for polyamorous people. Triads come in two different forms: a V and a triangle. Just as it might sound, a V is where one person is dating two people, but those two people are not dating. However, they spend a lot of time together and are close friends. The triangle style is where everyone is in a romantic relationship. There’s no right or wrong way to do it!
As you might imagine, quads are where four people are in a relationship. Like triads, it doesn’t mean all four people are in a romantic relationship, but they’re all closely linked enough to have a relationship.
This ethically non-monogamous relationship style is where one person lives by themselves and lacks an anchor or nesting partner. There is no one person they put most of their focus on, but instead, they have relationships with multiple people.
Relationship anarchists do not prescribe to the relationship escalator but instead are like wild mustangs, living their own lives however they want. No one is more important than the other, but they also don’t usually entertain the relationship escalator. It’s the ultimate example of autonomy. There are no expectations of time or effort put into a relationship. You can read the relationship anarchy “manifesto” here. Side note: the inherent definition of anarchy means that everyone has their own version of what this looks like themselves. This explanation is general but not definitive.
This type of relationship style always has a “top dog” for a non-monogamous person. Whether it’s an open or poly relationship, you have one person that will always come first. This relationship style can cause problems, such as vetoing or ending relationships entirely.
This approach is all about creating equity in individual relationships, not prioritizing one over the other. Agreements and needs are addressed on a case-by-case basis. To be non-hierarchical means that no one relationship is more important than the other. You can still live with someone and have an anchor partner, but you don’t let one relationship rule them all.
Essentially everyone knows about each relationship, but they don’t spend a lot of time interacting with their metamours. It’s not that they aren’t friendly to one another; they just don’t want to spend a ton of time together, which is valid and acceptable.
Ah, Unicorn Hunters. There is a significant amount of animosity towards Unicorn hunters, but what are they? Unicorn hunters are usually couples looking to add someone to their dynamic because they only date together. Sometimes it’s just for sex; other times, it’s in hopes of creating a triad. The reason this causes a lot of ire in the non-monogamy community is mostly due to the new person being tossed out when they don’t measure up to the couple’s goals.
More often than not, collateral damage is painful for whoever is “hunted.” Kelly A. shared her experience and, unfortunately, it’s quite typical.
“Years ago, after vetting a couple, I met up with them. They offered me a drink. Halfway through, they offered me another one…and another,” she said. “I ended up doing things I didn’t want to know and remember very little of that evening outside of vomiting repeatedly and them constantly giving me liquor. It wasn’t my first unicorn experience, but it was certainly my last.”
Common Polyamorous Terms
The learning curve to non-monogamy lingo can be steep. Here is a not-so-definitive list of polyamorous terms.
Relationship Escalator – Monogamous relationships inherently expect things to happen. Meet, have sex, enter a relationship, first times doing things, move in together, get engaged, get married, etc. In polyamory, these “escalators” are done with more intention. There isn’t an assumption you’re in a relationship just because you’ve been on six dates—it’s an actual conversation.
Does it feel juvenile to say, “will you be my partner?” Maybe, but it shouldn’t. If you have to ask consent to get engaged, why wouldn’t you ask consent to be someone’s partner? Every step to a more intimate relationship should be done with intention, not assumptions.
Primary/Secondary/Tertiary – These are hierarchical relationship terms. Primary means the relationship that comes first. As the term implies, being “secondary” means to be the “runner up” relationship. Tertiary refers to other relationships that have less power in decisions, dates, time, etc.
Anchor Partner – This is the non-hierarchical term for a primary partner. This is someone you “anchor” yourself to but isn’t given preferred power over anyone else.
Nesting Partner – This is another non-hierarchical term, but it means you live with someone. They’re significant but not more important than another person.
Compersion – Ah, the ever-elusive emotion. Compersion (or to be compersive) means to feel happiness for your partner’s happiness. When they are excited about someone new, and you’re happy for them, that’s compersion. It’s no different than when they get all giddy about a hobby they love, and you love that for them. However, it is not a required emotion, and not everyone experiences it. It’s pretty cool when it happens though.
Metamour – “The lover of my lover.” This term refers to someone your partner spends time with. You do not have to meet them, but you might be surprised at the kinds of friendship they can bring to your life.
Kitchen-Table Polyamory (KTP) – There’s no feeling on earth like sitting at a table with everyone you love and appreciate and they all get along. Holidays, family nights, and dinners at home are all enhanced when everyone you love can converse and have a great time. This is the goal for a lot of people but far harder to come by than people realize. It involves being okay with watching your partner be affectionate with others and making space for that in real-time.
Parallel Polyamory – This is the opposite of KTP. Everyone knows about one another. Maybe they even met once, but that’s the extent of it.
Fluid bonding – What an odd term, right? This term means that you’re forgoing protection (i.e., condoms or dental dams). This choice is considered an escalator behavior on the relationship escalator. In non-monogamy, it’s a really serious choice and shows an intense level of trust. Even with regular testing, it isn’t guaranteed that no one will get an STI or STD. When you fluid bond, you mutually agree to take that risk.
Polysaturated – This means you officially have as many relationships as you can handle.
Comets – These are the types of relationships that come into your life randomly, orbiting in your life for a brief period of time. Example: someone who comes into town every few months.
Satellites – These are more stable than comets but still on the outskirts of your everyday life. This person could be a friend with benefits you hook up with randomly.
New Relationship Energy (NRE) – You know those overwhelming butterflies that flit around in your gut with someone new? The can’t-eat-can’t-sleep obsession makes you feel like you can take on the world because of this new person? That’s NRE, and in polyamory, it’s greeted with a sense of excitement and dread.
There is no feeling on this earth like NRE and it’s undoubtedly why Elizabeth Taylor got married a trillion times or why Taylor Swift has a never-ending trove of break-up songs. NRE can rip apart relationships, make you question everything, and make it hard to function in your life. That doesn’t make it a bad thing! The key is to understand that it’s temporary (lasting only up to two years, usually) and that it isn’t a good reason to run away to Vegas and marry someone.
Vetoing – This is, by far, one of the most traumatizing experiences in non-monogamy, even in open relationships. This situation occurs when Partner A and B have a relationship, and Partner B is with Partner C. Partner A gets so jealous, they tell Partner A to leave C.
This behavior is entirely tied to making someone responsible for your feelings. Almost every single time, the resentment will fester, and more often than not, Partner B will leave Partner A. Forcing your partner to abandon something they enjoy because you don’t like it is the ultimate and toxic form of control.
Common Myths Of Polyamory
Polyamory continues to be one of the most underrepresented and vilified relationship styles out there. A large part is tied to human history and how humans have used monogamy to propel society forward in specific directions. Some of it is property-based. Other reasons are based on religion. Regardless, monogamy has become the accepted norm for most of society, but just because it’s normalized doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. As a result, there are a lot of misconceptions about polyamory. Here are a few!
Myth: Polyamory Is Illegal
No, it is not—technically. While not inherently illegal, most people are socialized to believe monogamy is the norm. Additionally, polyamory is not a legally protected status against prejudice and discrimination. As such, you probably know someone who is, at minimum, in an open relationship, but they haven’t trusted you with this information yet.
Myth: Polyamory Is The Same As Polygamy
No, it is not. Polygamy is the practice of a person having multiple spouses. More specifically, polygyny is the practice of a man having many wives, and polyandry is a woman having many husbands.
Myth: Polyamorous People Don’t Get Jealous
“I could never share my partner, I’m just too jealous.” The number of times I’ve heard this phrase…
This myth simply isn’t true. Jealousy is a normal human emotion and doesn’t just disappear. So many people are hesitant to explore non-monogamy because they’re afraid of their jealousy—and for a good reason. If you’ve ever burned with deep and unrelenting jealousy, you know how uncomfortable it is. People will do anything to rid themselves of the emotion. It’s tied to fear and shame, two of the strongest emotions known to humankind.
Polyamory doesn’t mean you’re free of jealousy—it means you’re willing to sit with your emotions and discover the source of the feeling. For a lot of poly people, jealousy often signifies there is a need that requires attention. Usually, it’s an unexplored fear of rejection or abandonment. Jealousy is a trench coat for the naked truth. Inside everyone is an experience that we carry with us, coloring our experiences and realities. Polyamory just requires you to find it, acknowledge it, and move on.
Myth: Polyamory Is A Lawless, Wild Land Of Sex
Just like for the general mono lifestyle, some relationships are more about sex. Other relationships lean more platonic. Polyam relationships are no different. That’s the beauty of polyamory: relationships can take any form they need to.
Myth: Polyamory Will Fix Your Relationship
If your relationship is struggling, like possibly heading towards divorce, it’s ill-advised to further complicate an already difficult situation. Adding another person—that isn’t a relationship therapist—will inevitably cause more issues, which is certainly not ideal and could lead to more heartbreak.
This is not to say polyamory can’t enhance a relationship; it’s just not going to fix it.
Myth: Cheating Isn’t Possible In Polyamory
Incorrect. Cheating in a polyamorous relationship is definitely possible. While poly people don’t necessarily set “rules” for their relationships, they do tend to have “agreements.” The most distinct difference is that at least two people must mutually agree for an agreement to exist. There’s also always room for negotiation with agreements.
Here are some examples of how to cheat in polyamory:
- If your partner decides to fluid bond with someone without prior discussion, that’s cheating, even if you know about that other person.
- If you have an agreement to mention all new potential partners immediately and your partner speaks to them for a whole week before letting you know, that’s cheating.
- If you both agree to specific testing scheduling requirements and/or proof of recent testing, but your partner ignores either/both, that’s cheating.
Myth: All Non-Monogamists Are Greedy
For one reason or another, people believe that one person should be enough for you—more is just greedy. A great example of this mindset is in this opinion piece called, Polyamory is just a sly way to make cheating seem virtuous.
The best response to this is: if you had the opportunity to live the most fulfilling life possible without hurting anyone, why would you turn that down?
Myth: There’s A Limited Amount Of Love To Go Around
A very popular phrase in polyamory is, “love isn’t pie.” Pies can be delved into different slices, but eventually, the slices will disappear. This saying is why some cheeky unknown artist slapped the Pi symbol on the polyamory flag, to show the only Pi that is infinite.
If you’re able to love all of your dogs, why can’t you love all of your people? If you can love all of your family members at once, why can’t you love multiple partners?
There is only one limitation in polyamory: time. There’s simply never enough.
Benefits Of Polyamory
It’s easy to imagine the cons of polyamory but what about the benefits? For all of its complications, polyamory has enough rewarding experiences to keep people coming back for more.
Less Pressure To Be Everything For Your Partner
Unlike monogamous relationships, polyamory doesn’t require you or your partner to depend on each other for everything. For instance, you and your partner may have incredibly different interests—they love Dungeons and Dragons; you hate it. On a deeper level, perhaps you and your partner have completely different sex drives. Is it fair to ask your monogamous partner to fulfill these needs? Even if it isn’t something they want? The beauty of polyamory is that you can get specific needs met elsewhere, no matter what they are.
New Support System
One of the most beautiful experiences of polyamory is sitting around a kitchen table with everyone you love, eating and drinking, and laughing your butt off. There are enormous benefits on top of that, like cuddle parties on the couch, multiple built-in babysitters, multiple people to give you rides to the airport, and there’s always somewhere there to watch your dog when you’re out of town. When things are really good in polyamory, your metamour will bring you soup when you’re sick. It’s the tribe you never knew you needed but always wanted.
Lily Bacon, a long-time polyamorist, reflects on a recent experience she had with her metamour. “My polycule has been around in one form or another for about four years now. We do lots of fun social stuff together—board game nights, dinner parties, hot tub hangouts, our annual beach trip. But we’ve also been there for each other in tough times through break-ups, layoffs, and other hardships. Recently, when my house lost power in a snowstorm electricity outage, my metamour invited me to come over and ride out the storm at her house. Having this family-by-choice has made my relationships and my life so much richer.”
Opportunities For Growth
Polyamory and personal growth are synonymous. If you want to succeed in polyamory, you have to be willing to do what they call “the work.” You will fail without a solid foundation of introspection and therapy. Sure, this is terrifying. If growth were easy, then everyone would be better people.
Communication skills are a must with ENM. All humans struggle with communicating effectively, especially when entering a situation with unresolved trauma, which is phenomenally difficult. How often are we raised not to speak up about our needs and boundaries? However, advocating for both without expecting someone to predict them is vital in ethically non-monogamous relationships.
Downsides Of Polyamory
It Might Need To Be A Secret
It’s common for people with jobs in the government, close proximity to children, or working for corporations that are too controlling to hide their personal lives. You do what feels right and safe for your own experience.
Deprogramming Is Hard
One of the biggest reasons people dip their toes into non-monogamy and quickly exit is the struggle of deprogramming. It can be very difficult to unlearn certain behaviors and concepts when growing up in societies where monogamy is the norm. For example, monogamous societies normalize jealousy in relationships and being territorial over your partner.
Deprogramming from monogamy requires a massive amount of self-regulation by constantly challenging your thought patterns and behaviors—and that is very difficult.
You Could Lose Your Job
Unfortunately, a lot of people struggle to understand the concept of non-monogamous relationship styles. In certain careers and companies, you could be fired. A lot of people hide their relationship style from friends, family, and co-workers for this very reason.
More Relationships, More Heartbreak
Heartbreak is a risk we take when entering any relationship, whether you’re monogamous or non-monogamous. All relationships, regardless of dynamic, come to a close at some point. Sometimes those ends are mutually agreed upon; other times, they are unexpected and devastating. Since polyamorous people maintain multiple relationships, they are more prone to experience heartbreak.
New Relationship Energy (NRE)
One of the biggest thrills in life is falling in love. The rush of joy, the anticipation, the energizing flying-high feeling. NRE is why people decide to get married in Vegas. It’s why people decide to move in together quickly. Nothing can go wrong when you’re falling in love because you have each other…except when you have other partners that have needs too. Many poly relationships fail because one partner gets too swept up in NRE and neglects the needs of their other partner(s).
Holidays, Birthdays, And Anniversaries
Believe it or not, joyous occasions can become quite stressful. Sure, the holidays become more expensive when you have multiple partners, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll have to figure out who you spend the holidays with, especially if your partners don’t want to be around one another. Birthdays get tricky for the same reason. Plus, anniversaries could fall on an event another partner wants you to attend.
The Calendar Can Be A Friend—Or Foe
You might be surprised to know that failure to manage your calendar effectively is another reason people fail in polyamory. Double booking, forgetting important dates, and failure to build in self-care time must be taken into consideration when making plans. Sharing your calendars with those most important to you is an excellent way to avoid these SNAFUs.
Common Agreements In Polyamory
Agreements are normal in non-monogamous relationships. These aren’t rules. Instead, think of them more like general blueprints. Let’s explore some of the most common ones.
Are you tired of this point being brought up again and again? Well, that’s kind of how communication works. You talk about something until you’re exhausted, then you talk some more. It’s vital to communicate about everything, from feelings to schedules to other hard conversations that might feel icky. A great way to improve communication is to set aside weekly time to discuss your thoughts and feelings together. Always approach conversations with an open mind and a few deep breaths. It’s important to maintain a neutral openness so everyone feels safe to speak about what’s on their minds. Some examples of what you should be prepared to discuss:
- Scheduled dates
- Your needs
- Your feelings
- Anything else you agree to discuss. This can include sharing testing results from new partners (or quarterly check-ups), communicating if someone is coming over, holiday schedules, etc.
Seven Lee, owner of ATX Poly Coaching, recommends learning how to communicate in a way that is loving and open. “Being able to express where your negative feelings are coming from in a calm, nonviolent manner and asking for or allowing your partner to comfort reassure and support you.” Sure, it’s easier said than done, but anything worth doing is going to take work.
Many people looking at the community from the outside would think that STDs might run more rampant, but actually, it leans more towards the opposite. It’s entirely normal for people in non-monogamous relationship styles to agree to get tested every 2-3 months. It’s also normal to trade medical results paperwork before sleeping together as well.
Unique Agreements For Reconnecting
Naturally, every relationship is different. The most common agreement is reconnection time and activities. It’s entirely normal to feel a bit worried or insecure when your partner begins to see someone new. Relationships find a way to reconnect before and/or after dates. Sometimes that means sex after a date or just physical intimacy in general. Sometimes it’s cooking a meal, cuddling, making a drink, etc. It’s reasonable to ask your partner for whatever you need to reaffirm the connection.
Where To Begin With Polyamory
Therapy is a significant component to self-work, so that’s an excellent place to begin. Luckily, seeing a therapist is a lot less taboo these days. Therapy does not mean you’re broken; it’s completely normal to struggle with things. When you’re just entering the non-monogamy scene or even as you acclimate, therapy can help you sift through the deprogramming struggles that will undoubtedly appear.
So many people use their partners or friends as therapists, but really, they aren’t qualified professionals. Partners, especially, are not good options for cheap therapy. You do not want to cross boundaries by venting about your other relationships. That gets messier than a toddler with spaghetti. Having a neutral support system can help you gain objective perspective with your experiences.
Not enough people utilize a journal. Maybe it feels juvenile, or your parents broke your trust by reading your innermost thoughts as a child. However, this is a highly underrated tool to explore your internal landscape. Even if you’re just freewriting, penning down everything in your mind for ten minutes straight, you’d be shocked by the things you’ll learn about yourself.
Not sure where to begin and free-writing feels too weird? Look up shadow work. There are journals that give prompts or Google will be full of suggestions. Recently, I did some digging about my jealousy issues and discovered it all stems back to my younger sister. That discovery helps me approach my next jealous moment with a better understanding of the emotion.
Side note: shadow work is for everyone, regardless of relationship style.
Find A Community
Most big cities have meet-up groups for polyamorists. These can be difficult to find but try Facebook first. Some groups might be invite-only to keep people’s personal lives on the down-low. In this day and age, people can still be fired for not adhering to societal norms. Once you find them though, you should be able to ask all sorts of questions. Some communities have educational resources as well!
Read Some Books
There are a lot of great resources out there. Three books that come highly recommended are The Ethical Slut, More Than Two, and Mating in Captivity.
Understand Your Own Needs
One of the greatest mistakes most adults make is assuming their partners will just naturally know how to fulfill unspoken needs. This is incredibly wrong, and you need to remove this belief from your brain immediately. When you’re feeling insecure or upset, it’s entirely on you to dig deep and figure out why.
For example, say your partner goes on a date to a trendy bar you’ve always wanted to visit. You feel so upset, even though you hadn’t fully communicated that you wanted to go there. It’s your job to go, “Hey, I know I didn’t mention this, but I really wanted to go there. Do you think we can go there together next week?” Being angry at them for not being psychic only hurts your relationship in the long run.
Some conversations might feel impossible. Maybe a condom fell off, and everyone in your polycule needs to get retested. Maybe you’re escalating with a partner and need to let your other partners know. It could even be as difficult as breaking up with a partner for no other reason than just wanting to move on. At the end of the day, it’s on you to be honest with yourself and allow others to do the same, even if it hurts.
Autonomy means that you live your life and your partner lives theirs. You agree to live a life together, but you are not each other’s everything. If they want to go to the movies alone, that’s okay. If they decide they want to have sex with a new partner, that’s okay too.
When people focus too hard on controlling their partner’s life, it’s always a one-way ticket to toxicity. Unfortunately, in monogamous relationships, autonomy isn’t as valued because that person is all you have. They’re a therapist and hobby partner. For some, even a night apart sounds unfathomable. However, not allowing your partner to have their space is unhealthy.
Autonomy is making sure your partner has space to live their life. Sometimes this leads to breaking up. However, it’s vital to know that most relationships will end one day. Entropy and atrophy are what makes up the universe. When you learn to appreciate a relationship for what it is and not what you need it to be, that’s when you’ll be on your way to enjoying autonomy.
Emotions Are Temporary
We’ve all been there: a terrible, no good, very bad day that dragged us down into the depths of hell. The feelings were suffocating and all-encompassing. Did they last? No, because the moment passed. Time whisked the feeling away, dulling the impact. The same goes for polyamorous relationships. Your insecurities may spiral when your partner goes a date with a new person. That’s okay! The important thing is to sit with them and know they’ll pass. They could pass as quickly as an hour or maybe last a couple of days. The point is that they pass. Whether good or bad, all things end eventually.
Be Open To Negotiation
How many of us have declared, “I’m never drinking again!” or “I hate broccoli”. Then you have a good night of beer drinking, or someone cooks broccoli in a way you love. Non-monogamy is similar. In non-monogamous relationships, declarations like “you can never fall in love with someone else” or “you can only see other people once a month” should always be open for future reevaluation. Why would you want to remain stagnant in a relationship style that should always be encouraging growth?
What To Avoid In Polyamory
Oh, yes. There are certainly ways to do ENM wrong. The following things to avoid in polyamorous relationships are usually hard limits. But again, you do you.
Using Polyamory To “Spice” Up A Relationship
This no-no goes hand in hand with unicorn hunters. People are not condiments to your relationship—they are not there for you and your partner to feel better together. Period.
Cassandra, 32, talked about what her own “spicing up” was like. “I was wholeheartedly, hopelessly, ill-advisedly in love with my partner who told me he wanted an open relationship six years into our marriage…He was all too happy about how his story was developing, but some jealousy issues surfaced when I also found some fun. It turned out he didn’t really want an open relationship with me, and he wanted to be single, though I’m not sure if even he knew that. I wish I could’ve seen that we had completely different stories we wanted for ourselves from the start. I wish I’d been more honest with myself on what I needed and wanted from our relationship. Hindsight sure f*cking is 20/20.”
Using It As A Way To Save A Relationship
If you need outside people to save your relationship, it’s most likely doomed. Every day, couples join the non-monogamous community, hoping to find a way to stay together without focusing on the fires lit in their own home. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes it can really help a couple, and they also succeed in not treating other people as relationship bandaids. This does happen…it’s rare, though. Sometimes couples enter the community, realize how hard polyamory is, and then exit it.
Christy Powell, LPC, expanded further by addressing what happens to couples that approach non-monogamy in this way. “As a therapist, the thing I see over and over are couples coming to me six months after a crash and burn. They had opened up with an excited, gold-rush style mentality without anticipating all of the possible pitfalls. What I’d like to see is more intentionality, more respect for the importance of these things. Find a therapist BEFORE you open up or break any hearts, do your homework, move slowly and respectfully—this isn’t your culture, at least not yet.”
It’s worth repeating that other people are not the solution to your problems.
Indulging In Oversaturation
Okay, you’re dating multiple people…now what? It’s natural to want to dive in and start dating five people, while simultaneously forgetting about other obligations. However, if you do this, things in your life will begin to suffer and you may experience relationship saturation. Dates become double booked and partners feel like you aren’t meeting their needs. It becomes harder and harder to keep up with communication.
Relationship saturation tends to end in heartbreak, so it’s vital to discover and adhere to your limits. Most people max out at 2-3 people, especially if they have a demanding career and/or kids.
Making Someone Responsible For Your Feelings
As a grown adult, you should never hold someone responsible for your feelings. When a partner does something you don’t like, you a) react some way b) you choose that way to react. Our reactions usually stem from our childhood (thanks, mom and dad!), so most people react from their trauma brain. However, your fear of abandonment is not anyone else’s responsibility. It isn’t even your partner’s responsibility to cater to this fear every day. It’s one thing to ask for reassurance; it’s a whole other thing to request hourly affirmations, so you don’t spiral out of control. Requiring a particular behavior from someone else so that you can avoid certain emotions is not okay.
Non-Monogamy Isn’t For Everyone
Like anything in this world, we all have our preferences, like pickles or the existence of the Oxford comma. You have to find what works for you. Relationship dynamics are lifestyles and some will feel more natural than others. For me, my first polyamorous relationship was literally in Kindergarten but that is the exception, not the rule. Some people marry their high school sweetheart and stay together for 60 years. Other people marry a dozen times, enjoying all of the spices of life. The important thing to keep in mind is that you choose what works for you and do it as ethically as possible. Aim for progress, not perfection.
If you’re looking to broach the subject of opening up your relationship or hoping to veer away from the general binary of dating, ENM can be an excellent option. It’s not without its pitfalls, so make sure to keep reading to learn about some of the pros and cons of ethical non-monogamy.