Someone close to me recently confided that he used to beat himself up because he struggled to have a successful monogamous relationship. He was always interested in more than one person, which resulted in a lot of problems. Then he realized he was polyamorous and everything suddenly made sense. Poly what? If you're not in the know, and you're wondering, what is polyamory, being polyamorous means being romantically involved with more than one person at a time.
"Polyamory is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or just romantic, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved," Psychology Today noted on its website. "Polyamory is not gender-specific and rejects the idea of exclusivity; anyone can have multiple partners of any gender."
If you watch Shameless on Showtime or S.W.A.T. on CBS, both of these shows have examples of polyamorous relationships. In each of these shows, the people are involved in three-person relationships where all three people are in a union together and know what's going on.
However, polyamory means different things to different people. A polyamorous person can be involved in multiple relationships with other people that don't include all partners, although all partners still know about each other. In addition, not all of these relationships have to include sex. So, how does this work? They key to successful polyamorous relationships is transparency.
"Having strong communication skills helps people to maintain polyamorous relationships, as they need to manage feelings of jealousy as they arise, as well as clearly define their boundaries," Psychology Today explained.
This means that everyone you're dating knows that they're not the only one. It's not cool not to tell someone who thinks they're in a monogamous relationship with you that you're polyamorous. Even if you're not having sex with other people, if you are in emotionally romantic relationships with others or even casually dating other people, it's important to disclose that to everyone involved. Otherwise this is called cheating, which is based on dishonesty and it not the same thing as polyamory.
If you think polyamory is just another word for an open relationship, Cameron Glover, host of Sex Ed in Color, told Teen Vogue that there is a big difference. "Polyamory focuses on the relationship aspect, whereas open relationships often focus more on having different sexual partners,” Glover explained. “But obviously people can redefine these differently to mean different things. And I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings. A lot of people interpret polyamory as an open relationship. But polyamory might mean someone doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship at all, they just want to date."
In an open relationship, two partners give each other permission to have sex outside of the relationship but they usually don't want their partner to be emotionally intimate with anyone else. "People are looking for different experiences and want to meet the needs that aren’t being met in the relationship,” Renee Divine, L.M.F.T., a Minnesota-based sex and relationships therapist, told Women's Health about open relationships. She added that there is never an intention for feelings to get involved in these kinds of encounters, though that sometimes happens.
While polyamory isn't for everyone, as long as everyone agrees to and adheres to a specific set of rules, being polyamorous has some unexpected perks. "Research has found that polyamory can offer some surprising benefits, ranging from greater satisfaction and extra help with child care to increased relationship commitment," Psychology Today explained.
However, because these relationships involve humans, even the best of intentions in polyamorous relationships can lead to jealousy. On S.W.A.T., a show that follows members of an elite SWAT team in Los Angeles, the character Chris (a woman), is involved with soon-to-be-married couple Ty and Kira. Ty and Kira are the primary partnership in this relationship, but they tell Chris she is an equal member despite the fact that Ty and Kira will be legally married. The three live together and share everything. In addition, they all have separate emotional and sexual relationships with each other. Eventually, Chris realizes she is in love with Kira more than with Ty. This is one of the pitfalls of polyamorous relationships that involve two people involved in the primary relationship who bring in a third person.
"It’s hard enough to get a relationship right with just one partner. Imagine two or more? The more people involved, the more challenging the tides of emotional experience," Susan Winter, a New York City-based relationship expert and best-selling author, told the Independent UK.
"On one hand, polyamory removes the secrecy and betrayal of trust that surrounds an affair. On the other hand, managing compersion (finding joy from a loved one's pleasure in another) is the stumbling block that trips up most poly [relationships]. Polyamory can work if both individuals are completely emotionally and philosophically on board with the concept. Even so, it’s challenging to eradicate the insecurity that sparks jealousy."
While the emotional pitfalls of polyamory can be difficult to manage, a study by the non-profit Loving More cited research that found people in polyamorous relationships were more likely to be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
"Consensually non-monogamous individuals were significantly more likely to have practiced safer sex with all partners, to have undergone STI testing, and to have had conversations about safer sex practices than were sexually unfaithful individuals in ostensibly monogamous relationships," Loving More noted.
If someone is in a polyamorous relationship, that doesn't mean that can't at other times in their lives commit to being in a monogamous relationship. However, if you are in an unhappy monogamous relationship, and you think bringing in another person will fix things (like actor Demi Moore admitted in her memoir), that almost never works. Before one can even consider this kind of polyamorous relationship, there needs to be honesty, trust and transparency with the primary relationship.
"When he [Ashton Kutcher] expressed his fantasy of bringing a third person into our bed, I didn’t say no. I wanted to show him how great and fun I could be," Moore writes in her memoir. But this isn't how it worked out. Because Moore was doing something she thought her partner wanted and not something that was good for her, the arrangement backfired. "They were good people, but it was still a mistake."
Glover told Teen Vogue that bringing a third person into a relationship as a way to avoid dealing with issues between the two primary partners is a common misstep. "I feel like there is a misconception that opening up the relationship or adding in another person to create a triad relationship will fix problems that already exist in a relationship between people,” she said. “If you are coming from a previously monogamous relationship and looking to open it up, that’s valid. But there’s work to be done and there needs to be work done to exist already addressing existing problems before that step."
This all goes back to the most important factor for a successful polyamorous relationship — communication. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this article told me that because he thought he was supposed to be monogamous, but he was actually polyamorous (though he didn't know that was a thing at the time), he ended up lying to his primary partners in order to see multiple people. Once he realized that he could identify as polyamorous, all of that stopped. He found a freedom in being able to love more than one person and be totally honest about it.
"It is all about communicating, both listening, understanding and articulating. If you are any relationship where you can’t communicate in a healthy way, non-monogamous, poly, or monogamous, maybe that isn’t the best relationship for you," a gay man in a polyamorous relationship told Teen Vogue. "When something feels wrong, you bring it up the same day. Exceptions are only for things like timing and distance, but you can’t let it fester."
In general, you're going to be much happier in life and in love if you are able to be totally honest. This doesn't mean asking people who are more comfortable with monogamy to be in a poly relationship with you. I mean you can ask, but if they're not into it, there are plenty of people who are. For me, there is nothing that feels worse in life than finding out you've been lied to so someone else can get what they want. If you and your partner aren't on the same page about polyamory, it's not going to work. Period.
"I think the most important thing is that all relationship structures are valid as long as they work for you and they are not harming anyone, and everyone is on the same page about what the structure is," Glover said.
After all, the key to having any kind of happy and healthy relationship is making sure everyone's needs are met and everyone is comfortable with what is going on. However you and your partner(s) do that is up to you and your partner(s).
Life is short. Love other consenting adults in a way that's comfortable for everyone involved. And while there is still a stigma around being polyamorous, according to the Loving More study, it's mostly because it's misunderstood. You can explain it to others if you want, but you don't have to. It's your life. Live and love in a way that's honest and makes you happy.