What I Learned From a Decade of Polyamory
Polyamory may sound sexy on Saturday night. But on Tuesday morning, you still have multiple relationships to maintain with multiple humans with multiple real-life feelings. Polyamorous relationships can be astonishingly fulfilling, exciting, and fun. But they're also incredibly challenging. There's no one-size-fits-all for figuring out whom -- and how -- to love.
After 10 years in various poly relationships, I've learned a lot of things; many of which would have made a big difference in how I approached this lifestyle if I'd known them when I was still a poly newbie.
There's no "right" way to be polyamorous
There are as many different configurations for polyamorous relationships as there are people on the planet. People who are new to polyamory often want to know what the rules are. They want to feel secure that they are doing it "right."
The truth? The only steadfast rules of poly are the same rules that apply to any relationship... no matter if you have two or five partners. Ethical polyamory includes transparent communication, authenticity of self, and an openness to others' wants and needs. Beyond that, polyamory is completely customizable according to your comfort and experience. The key is to share your needs and fears with your partners, and be honest about your intentions and behavior.
As long as you're being ethical, there's no wrong -- or right -- way to have a polyamorous relationship.
Google Calendars will save you
There's an inside joke that the only people who actually use Google Calendars are polyamorists. Splitting time between multiple partners can be a bit like keeping several plates spinning at once. Google Calendars can be shared with multiple people and help everyone communicate and stay on the same page.
If you're a poly couple, planning your dates away from your primary partner on the same night can help ward off lonely feelings or worrying about the partner left home. Just offering to share a calendar with a partner can help assure them you're genuine in your desire to maintain open communication and honesty -- which can go a long way in establishing trust in your polyamorous relationships.
Polyamory will not fix relationship issues
If you're having difficulty being ethical in your monogamous relationships, polyamory is not the solution to your romantic woes. Yes, it’s possible to cheat in a polyamorous relationship. This may sound obvious, but all of your partners have to be aware that they are dating someone polyamorous for the relationship to be polyamorous. Otherwise, you're cheating.
Likewise, adding a partner to the mix is not likely to "spice up" your relationship if someone isn't getting their needs met. People are not need-filling machines. It takes a lot of communication, self-reflection, and emotional maturity to maintain romantic and sexual relationships with multiple partners.
We don't always choose metamours
In polyamory, the person your partner is dating besides you is referred to as a "metamour," or the love of your love. It's really a wonderful situation when everyone can hang out and play Cards Against Humanity together. You may not be attracted to your partner's metamour, but accepting him or her as your partner's partner and maintaining a cordial -- if not friendly -- relationship makes everything a lot less sticky.
I love being friendly with metamours, but there have been a couple of times in my experience when I had to ask myself, "How can someone I love, love someone like her? We’re so different!" Part of the joy of polyamory is, for some people, variety. That means you might always like the person that your partner dates. But it takes a lot of stamina and emotional maturity to smile and be polite with someone that you don't have friendly feelings toward.
Some partners negotiate "veto rights," where partners agree not to date anyone their partner "vetoes." Other poly people don't appreciate these kinds of restrictions. Either way has its pros and cons. Regardless of how you choose to manage your metamours, it's something to discuss with your partners well before the situation presents itself, when everyone is feeling secure, and there is no New Relationship Energy to contend with.
Polyamorous partners are not immune to jealousy
In 10 years of polyamory, I can't count the number of times someone has said, "Oh I could never be polyamorous. I'm too jealous." There's a myth that polyamorous people don't ever experience jealousy. I wish!
Jealousy is the only emotion that we are allowed to use to excuse all kinds of reprehensible behavior. But the truth is that jealousy is a cover for deep, often intense insecurity and fear. And, I ought to point out, all of this is perfectly normal -- and prevalent -- for most people. The best way I have found to deal with my own jealousy is to spend time with the person I'm jealous of. They are usually way less threatening and monstrous than I make them out to be in my head.
You won't always be cured of these insecurities, but over time you develop coping and communication skills that help you get through those difficult moments of self-doubt.
Raising kids in a polyamorous family is complicated
Many of us still believe in this concept that it takes a village to raise a child. And nowadays many of us are well adjusted to the idea of multiple sets of parents providing care for children. In some demographics, more than half of children have step-parents, and split their time between households. Our culture is quickly returning to more communal living, and more step-parenting. So the concept of multi-partner parenting is not entirely new.
The benefit of polyamorous parenting is that children get more one-on-one time with parents, which aids in healthy emotional and social development. And according to some recent studies, children in polyamorous families spend less time in daycare, and have a wider variety of interests and hobbies just from having more people in the household.
The drawback is obviously the occasionally fluid nature of relationships in polyamory. Children can feel some negative emotions when a polycule breaks up and certain parental figures are no longer around. Of course, this also happens in monogamous relationships, evidenced by more single-parent households than ever before.
Love is unlimited. Resources are not.
You may be able to love five different people at once, but that doesn't mean you have enough resources to maintain that many relationships successfully. There are only 160 hours in each week, and each partner requires time and affection to maintain healthy connections. Don't forget about the actual costs of dating. All those dinners and movie nights can add up fast. So while your love for all these people may be sincere, you have to balance those romantic feelings with what is practical in the real world.
After looking at the cost/benefit analysis of all your romantic entanglements, you might find in the end that fewer is better.
Compersion is possible
Compersion is the feeling of joy someone gets when they witness their love being well loved by another. It's the opposite of jealousy. It’s the kind of emotion that fills your heart to the brim and overflows love into a relationship. It's not easy to reach -- more like trying to experience nirvana.
But when you arrive at compersion, there's almost nothing better. It happens when everyone in the relationship has their needs for time, affection, and attention met; and when everyone is confident that his or her relationship is secure. It happens suddenly. The first time it happened to me, I watched my boyfriend kiss my girlfriend, and the look of peace and contentment on their faces brought me to tears.
I was so thrilled that the people I love loved each other that I couldn't contain my own joy. I haven't felt that emotion in every polyamorous relationship I've been in, but the times I have felt compersion make it all worth it, and then some.
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Erin Kennedy is a sex educator specializing in alternative sexualities... in addition to her own experience spending 10 years exploring polyamory and 14 in BDSM communities. You can you follow her snarky commentary on her website, Facebook, and Twitter: @erinstwitsexual.