There’s no such thing as too much love. Monogamous intimate relationships can be a wonderful, satisfying “container” for all the love we have to give – but that isn’t always true for everybody.
As cultural standards surrounding sex, intimacy and identity begin to relax, and admit possibilities beyond heteronormative permanent monogamy, more and more people are discovering that their love flourishes more brightly when planted in more than one garden.
Polyamory comes with unique challenges. It requires hard work, ruthless honesty, and wide-open communication – but when approached with integrity, joy, firm boundaries and enthusiastic consent, this relationship model can be a way to make sure all our flowers bloom.
What is polyamory?
Polyamory – the practice of openly maintaining more than one intimate partnership at a time – is nothing new. In fact, the closed-relationship till-death-do-us-part model is a bit of an outlier in human history. And even in very conservative times and places, poly relationships have always existed.
These days, many people suffer from a lack of meaningful community. When we’re so isolated from other humans, depending entirely on one person for love, intimacy, sex and companionship may place a tremendous burden on both parties – a recipe for broken hearts.
Not to mention that the world is diverse and beautiful and endlessly surprising – and so are human beings.
Healthy, joyous intimacy brings us to a greater understanding of other people, ourselves, and life itself, and diversifying our intimate relationships may be one way to accomplish that.
So polyamory is an intriguing option for those of us who need more of everything to be happy – or who just prefer to seek different forms of intimacy with different partners.
If you experience compelling intimate feelings for more than one person at a time, if monogamy – with anyone – has always felt stifling, and if you’re willing to be completely honest with yourself and others, you may be wired for multiple partners. Polyamory could be an option worth exploring.
How is polyamory different from other forms of non-monogamy?
Multiple-partner relationships have existed, and even been the norm in some cultures, for millennia. The most well-known model historical model is polygamy – one man with multiple wives.
Even in the West, polygamy is still practiced by some very conservative religious groups. It's often coercive and highly damaging for the women and children involved, not to mention the young men who represent competition to those of higher status in the community.
Traditional polygamy is basically traditional gender roles on steroids. It works for some. It also should not be confused with polyamory, where enthusiastic consent is a must and all roles are negotiable.
Polyamory is also often conflated with open relationships, which are romantically exclusive but sexually negotiable. Couples in “monogamish” relationships may grant each other the freedom to “step out” with casual side partners, one-night stands or FWBs, often with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Swinging also falls under the open relationship umbrella.
The key difference between polyamory and open relationships is in the name. “Polyamory” means “many loves”, and involves multiple intimate, romantic partnerships with the open consent of everyone involved. It’s not just about sex – it’s about lots and lots of love.
What are some types of polyamorous relationships?
Polyamory doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody in a polycule is intimate with everybody else! (“Polycule” is a term the poly community uses to describe a constellation of relationships with partners in common.)
In fact, polycules where every person is romantically or sexually attached to every other person are rare. Here are some more common configurations.
- Hierarchical polyamory. In this type a core or “primary” couple has secondary relationships with others. The primary couple may live together, share children and/or a mortgage, and engage with their other partners in other contexts. Usually the primary couple sees each other as their main priority, with other partners providing other forms of support.
- Egalitarian polyamory. Here, a “flatter” structure means that no one partnership is considered more important than any other. Equality takes priority, and if one set of partners lives together instead of with others, they may refer to themselves as “nesting” instead of “primary”, to emphasize that practicalities don’t override meaningful intimacy.
- Solo polyamory. Sometimes a polyamorous person will consider themself their primary partner – living alone, not sharing children, finances, pets or major possessions, and maintaining multiple relationships for intimacy and support as secondary to their solitary life. Are you an introvert who still needs a lot of love, and has a lot to give? Solo polyamory may be for you.
What are some of the challenges of polyamory?
Put simply, intimate relationships can be challenging – and multiple intimate relationships can be even more so! More people means more relationship styles, varying needs, and different sets of boundaries to be negotiated.
Some other common challenges can include:
- Jealousy. Even with the best of intentions, wide-open communication and carefully negotiated boundaries, jealousy can still surprise you. You’re only human after all, and we often don’t know how we’ll react to a situation until we’re in it. Steer clear of people who claim that only uptight heteronormative squares ever get jealous and True Polyams are just too honest and free and groovy for it. In fact, honesty about jealousy is key to a successful polyamorous life.
- Consent issues. True, free, authentic and very enthusiastic consent by all parties is a must in all romantic relationships – and especially so in polyamorous ones, where some participants may be in the process of discovering what is and isn’t okay with them, and some may be much more experienced. In poly relationships, assume nothing and secure a definite “yes, please!” for everything.
- Unhealthy power dynamics. Unfortunately, sometimes poly relationships result from one party manipulating another into an arrangement they don’t really want. A good rule of thumb: the primary relationship, or the first one to make the leap into the poly pool, must be healthy, happy and sound to enable long-term success. Polyamory is not a safe way to manage unhappy or abusive relationships.
If I want to try polyamory, where should I start?
First of all, start slowly! Be patient, get informed about what to expect and what not to, and have deeply honest conversations with your partner, your potentials, and especially yourself before jumping headfirst into multiple relationships.
Ideas that sound great as fantasies often don’t work out in real life, and in real life, treating polyamory as a fantasy instead of a complex potential reality can result in hurt feelings or worse.
So where to begin exploring?
The Ethical Slut is a classic resource for all types of nonmonogamy, and many people have stumbled across it only to discover that they’re much less monogamous than they thought!
Opening Up is another great read; bestselling sex-positive relationships expert Tristan Taormino interviewed over a hundred people about their nonmonogamous experiences, so you can hear from poly folks in their own words.
If podcasts are more your speed (maybe you’d rather not be seen reading “The Ethical Slut” on the bus), Ready for Polyamory is an active pod with a deep archive, hosted by blogger and relationships coach Laura Boyle – who covers every possible eventuality and answers questions you might not know you have.
And in the end, you might decide that talking to living breathing humans is the best way to learn. The poly community has a vast online presence with many real-life meetups, events, internet communities, chat groups, Slack channels… poly folks love to talk about being poly, and the joys and pitfalls of unconventional intimacy.
Absolutely don’t expect poly events to be sex-focused, and don’t worry about accidentally walking into an orgy. Remember, poly is about people, not parts – though it can be a great way to get your parts some attention as well.
Knowing yourself and your partners well, communicating with total honesty, and understanding your own needs and the needs of others is the very first step into that wildly-blooming garden.
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