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Polyamory has been a hot topic for a while now, generating a lot of buzz and sparking a lot of interest. Maybe your favorite podcasters have mentioned it in passing. Maybe you’ve seen it in dating profiles. Maybe your partner has brought it up.
No matter how you’ve come across this, welcome. You’ve probably got a lot of questions, so let’s dive right in!
Polyamory: What it is and What it isn’t
Let’s just get it all out there on the table and address some common assumptions. A lot of people immediately associate polyamory, or poly for short, with group sex. It makes sense to make this leap, but it isn’t entirely true. If we look at the word itself, we see that it has two parts. Poly, from Greek πολύ poly, "many, several", and Latin amor, “love”.
Many loves seem pretty vague and unclear, and it is. It very well could mean group sex for some people, but to assume that that definition holds true for all poly folk would be erroneous and potentially harmful.
There are A LOT of ways to be poly. Here’s a neat graphic display of the overlapping categories and ways to be non-monogamous:
Some people think that non-monogamy is just glorified cheating. Cheating implies that you’ve broken the rules of your relationship, or at least one big one that a lot of couples have: monogamy. But if you’ve talked about it and agreed that monogamy isn’t your thing, non-monogamy in and of itself isn’t cheating. You haven’t been deceitful if your partner knows and is totally fine with your actions. Informed consent, which is consenting with full knowledge of what you’re consenting to, is the basis of good poly relationships.
Ok, so we’ve got the basics, but how do I navigate this unfamiliar world of polyamory, you ask? I’ve got some dos and don’t to help you on your way. This is far from an exhaustive guide, but I hope it will be a good foundation to get you started!
Do: Know what you want
This sounds really straight-forward but there are all sorts of reasons you might not be able to identify these things. Maybe your upbringing told you what to want and left no room for your own discovery. Maybe you have a stressful life that requires you to disengage emotionally and now it’s hard to get back in touch with yourself. Maybe trauma is getting in the way. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty normal to not know what you want.
Close your eyes and think about the relationships you’ve had in the past. What did you like about them? What didn’t you like?
Now, imagine the relationships you would like in your life. What do they look like? What does it feel like? What needs are being met? How are your relationships nurturing you? Once you have a clear idea, imagine different ways those needs can be met. How can you manifest those same feelings?
Humans are complicated and we need a lot of things. When you start dating multiple people, it can be really easy to get swept up in the idea of polyamory itself and forget about finding the right mates for you. The nice thing is that you and your partners make the rules!
You can have a fun, no strings attached relationship and co-parent with someone else. You can do all the relationship things with all the chosen people altogether. You can have certain people for certain parts of your life or personality. You get to negotiate all of these things and it should start with knowing what you want. If you really don’t know, you can experiment to find out. The more you discover about yourself and what you want from your relationships, and what you have to offer, the easier everything else will be.
Don’t: Force anything
So, you’re really excited to get out there and get to know lots of interesting people? Great! Just remember that you’re interacting with real, live people. This is not a fantasy. This is not a video game. This is real life. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes people aren’t who you want them to be. Sometimes you’re not who they want you to be. That’s ok. It happens.
Don’t force anything. It can be really fun to be daring and have adventures, but be careful to honor your own feelings and those of your dates. Check in from time to time and use your senses and your words to know where you’re all at. Taking things slow can be just as fun as rushing into things. It’s all about paying attention to the moment.
Do: Communicate often and clearly
In all likelihood, you and your partners aren’t all mind readers. Remember when you closed your eyes and thought about what you want? No one experienced that but you. How could you explain that blissful reality to the ones you hope to share it with? Take time to think about how to communicate what you want. There’s no script to follow. No assumptions to be made. Just try not to hog the narrative. Relationships don’t exist in isolation.
Try not to get too attached to specifics. Maybe you’ve decided you really need to try a particular sex act that your partner isn’t into. You’re not going to demand they do it anyways, but you might be able to have your needs met. Maybe you can do that special thing with someone else. Maybe you only wanted to do that because you wanted something new and different. If you get at the core of your desires rather than fixating on the particulars, that gives you a lot more room to negotiate a solution everyone likes.
Often times, we hold back on what is going on in our minds and in our hearts. Fear of rejection or abandonment is often to blame. The more you can share with your partners, the abler they are to help you get what you need. Your lovers want you to be happy, just as you want them to be happy. Open up to them and share your fantasies, fears, and intrigues. Share why you like or don’t like something. Let them know why you value their presence in your life and allow them the space to do the same with you.
Being clear about what your hopes, fears, and expectations are with each relationship is essential to preventing really difficult situations down the road. The longer you delay in talking about these things, the more divergent your ideas can become. You might be thinking “We have so much fun together! I can see myself really sharing my whole life with this person in a big way!” And they might be thinking, “We have so much fun together! I love having this relationship to escape into every now and again.”. If you open the lines of communication early and check in often, these sorts of misunderstandings can be worked out before anyone becomes too invested in their own version of the future.
I see this happening a fair bit in relationships where an established couple or group are opening up to other, more casual, partners. The new partner(s) might be looking for something more substantial than is being offered, but it isn’t fair to make assumptions either way. Ask what your partners get out of your relationships and try not to pile on any pressure for them to give you the answer you want.
Don’t: Assume you can just do whatever you want
There’s a big difference between polyamory and cheating. The difference is consent. Within polyamory, there are rules that you establish between you and your partner(s). There are lots of ways to do it, but none of them involve deceit. Maybe you agree on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangement, but that’s certainly not every poly relationship. Sometimes there is an established group and anything outside of that group is considered cheating. Maybe casual flings are fine, but the primary relationship gets priority. Maybe there is no hierarchy.
The point is that you can date multiple people, have committed relationships and do it in a way that is consensual and respectful of everyone involved. If you haven’t talked about the rules of your relationship yet, you should! You might discover a few assumptions you didn’t know existed in your relationship. I like to start with the ones that seem “obvious”. It can seem silly and set the tone for a fun, light-hearted conversation while also showing that there are no expectations yet because you haven’t talked about it. It can really relieve some pressure.
Just like in any other relationship, the key is to really listen to your partner(s). Try not to just hear what you want to hear. Allow yourself to listen without reacting immediately. The more space you allow for your partners, the more you will learn about what they want and need and how you can support them and have fun together. When you react dramatically before really even processing what’s been said, you can unintentionally scare your partner enough to make them avoid telling you things in the future.
Don’t shut each other down. Listen, and do so with an open mind and an open heart.
Don’t: Worry about whether or not your version of poly is the “right” way
It can be helpful to hear about different options of how to live polyamorously, but there’s no need to do exactly what others are doing in order to validate your poly status. Are you open to multiple partners? Are the actions and experiences in your relationships consensual? If so, then you’re doing it right! If you’re happy with how things are going, and your partners are happy, and no one is getting hurt (unless they’re into that ), then stop worrying and enjoy it!
Do: Agree on levels of risk
Sex is risky. We all know that. As adults, we get to make decisions about what level of risk we’re comfortable with. When I say risk, there are a lot of things to consider. What sort of approach to birth control is everyone comfortable with? Condoms? Fluid-bonding? How much space in your life and emotions do you have for other partners? How connected to one another would you like your partners to be? What level of control are you ok with?
Don’t just assume your partners’ level of comfort around any of these things. Talk about it. “Is it ok if I have unprotected sex with my other trusted partner who also has unprotected sex with his wife?” “I’m developing some strong feelings for Karen. Are you ok with me asking her out? Do you want to come with us?” If anyone isn’t comfortable, you need to hold off and figure it out. Remember, the key is consent and you don’t want to hurt anyone. You also don’t want to abuse your power in your relationships.
Don’t: Let your jealousy or insecurities get in the way
Ok, so this is the big one. Some people are fortunate enough to not experience this one, but it’s a big adjustment from monogamy that can be surprisingly powerful and difficult to navigate. There’s a fine line between listening to your emotions and boundaries and sitting in discomfort long enough to foster emotional growth. Take things at your own pace. No one is making you poly, and if they are, they shouldn’t be. It’s totally ok to be monogamous.
Jealousy can come from a lot of places. Maybe you need more reassurance that your partner cares for you. Or you worry that you’re not “enough”. A great analogy that can help frame things is that you can have multiple children and love them all. Your relationship to each of them is unique, but that doesn’t make you love them any less. Similarly, you and your partners can love and appreciate each other without it taking away from the other relationships.
Something I found really helpful was that whenever I had uncomfortable emotions, I tried to figure out where exactly they were coming from and tried to think outside the box to resolve them. Maybe I wanted to go out with a partner but they were with someone else that night. We hadn’t made plans and it wasn’t right for me to expect them to drop everything to be with me. Yet I was still upset. When I took the time to think about it, it usually had more to do with me than them. I might have had a rough day and wanted them to make me feel better. Lots of things make me feel better. Go through that list. Call your friends. Call your other partners. Do something for you.
Sometimes I would worry that they were enjoying each other MORE than they would enjoy me. I had no reason to think that, but it’s ok to have these worries. When you have the time and space for it, talk with your partners about how you feel/felt. Just letting them know and having that reassurance, even if it’s delayed, can really help. If your partners bring up these things with you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that poly didn’t work and you should just give up. Maybe it’s a sign that there were some assumptions that weren’t communicated clearly enough. Show your partners you value them!
Do: Learn how you and your partners send and receive love
Ever heard of the 5 Love Languages?
I wouldn’t say that’s the be-all end-all authority on the subject, but it’s a good place to start thinking about ways to communicate with your partners. Some people need to hear you say that you love them or care for them. Others need physical contact the most. We communicate through all these avenues, but some mean more to us than others. If you or your partners need a little reassurance, what’s the best way to reach them?
Just remember, communication is key and consent is mandatory! Crossing over to poly land after only ever experiencing monogamy can be really tough. It’s a total mind-bending experience! It requires you to unlearn and re-learn a lot of ways of thinking and behaving in relationships.
Growth and change take time so please, be patient with yourself and others. Have fun and do your best to be good to those who are good to you!