Wondering How Polyamorous Relationships Work? Start Here

We spoke to three women who are in polyamorous relationships to find out what polyamory looks like in real life.

March 22, 2018
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Do you think you could be in love with more than one person at the same time? Could you date more than one person at the same time? Have you dated more than one person at the same time?

I’m not talking about cheating here. I’m talking about consensual non-monogamy: when someone is romantically committed to multiple people with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

This sort of relationship might seem rare, but according to a 2016 report in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, one in five Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy. That’s surprisingly common—and it seems like public interest in consensual non-monogamy and polyamory are on the rise. A 2017 analysis using Google’s Trends tool showed that more and more people are looking for information about open and polyamorous relationships online.

Are polyamorous relationships the same as open relationships?

Not exactly, says Mary Fisher, CMHC, a licensed psychotherapist and sex therapist. Fisher explains that “open relationship” (sometimes known as consensual or ethical non-monogamy) is an umbrella term that can include polyamory, but also swinging, relationship anarchy, or other forms of non-monogamy.

Polyamory is a specific kind of ethically non-monogamous relationship in which partners are free to explore sexually, emotionally, and romantically intimate relationships with other people,” Fisher explains. In other words, this generally means you could date multiple people at the same time. “Other kinds of open relationship may include sexual intimacy with others, but limit emotional and romantic connections,” meaning some open relationships allow both partners to sleep with others, but not date or develop feelings for others.

That’s the idea of polyamory in theory, but what does it look like in practice?

HealthyWay spoke to three polyamorous women about their personal experiences with polyamory. Whether you’re interested in engaging in polyamory yourself or you just want to expand your perspective on romantic relationships, read on!

Cameron Glover, 25, a writer and sex educator, feels that she’s still very new to polyamory.

“As long as it’s consensual, positive, and ethical, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to practice polyamory. You can customize it to whatever works best for you, and it’s okay if that changes over time,” she says.

Glover was introduced to the concept when she dated someone who was polyamorous a few years ago. She became interested in the academic side of polyamory and checked out books, podcasts, and blogs about polyamorous relationships and non-monogamy.

“I started to see it as a natural inclusion to my life,” Glover said. “I identify most strongly with solo polyamory—it’s the idea that I am my own primary partner and centers things that I really value, like self-autonomy, independence, having my own space.”

“Solo polyamory” is a broad term typically used to refer to polyamorous people who are committed to their own autonomy. They often prefer to stay single and have casual relationships. They might have partners, but they are committed to the mindset that their autonomy comes first. They could also have close, non-romantic relationships that they prioritize above sexual or romantic relationships, such as relationships with friends or their children.

Identifying with solo polyamory has its own set of challenges, Glover says. “Even within polyamory spaces, solo polyamory is still invalidated, invisible, or just not something that is taken seriously,” she explains. Many polyamory-friendly spaces are couple-centric, which means they focus on couples instead of single polyamorous people or solo polyamory.

“As long as it’s consensual, positive, and ethical, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to practice polyamory. You can customize it to whatever works best for you, and it’s okay if that changes over time.”

—Cameron Glover, Writer & Sex Educator

As a black, queer, cis woman who is also polyamorous, Glover also notes that there’s a great deal of oppression in polyamory-friendly spaces. As in many different communities, polyamorous communities can face issues of fetishization, casual racism, misogyny, and abuse. “I think there’s work being done to change that, but it’s still there and it still keeps a lot of people excluded from spaces that are rightfully theirs,” Glover says.

As with many other polyamorous people, Glover views her experience with polyamory as an interesting and dynamic journey. “I’m still learning so much about myself and what shapes my polyamory will take, but that learning excites me,” she says. “I get really passionate about the potential to push away from social constructions of what love and relationships need to look like to create something that is very much on my own terms. There’s a real power in that.”

Page Turner, 36, a relationship coach, author, and the founder of PolyLand, has been practicing polyamory for over a decade.

Turner was first introduced to polyamory by a polyamorous married friend. “Prior to this point in my life, I had always looked at monogamous as synonymous with morality and that non-monogamous people were irresponsible,” she said. “But here my friends were, consensually non-monogamous, and they were extremely responsible people.”

Soon, Turner fell in love with her friend—and so did Turner’s then-husband. Both Turner and her husband went on to date this friend in a triad: a three-way relationship where everyone is dating one another—like a couple, but with three people.

Since then, Turner has parted ways with her then-husband and they both went on to find more suitable partners. “I have no regrets, and neither does he,” Turner says.

Turner has since remarried and she has also engaged in many polyamorous relationships. “Currently, I’m seeing my husband and two girlfriends. One of my girlfriends I see separately; the other my husband also sees,” she tells HealthyWay. “My husband has someone of his own that he sees that I do not. One of my girlfriends is married. The other is married and has a boyfriend.”

“I had always looked at monogamous as synonymous with morality and that non-monogamous people were irresponsible. But here my friends were, consensually non-monogamous, and they were extremely responsible people.”

—Page Turner, Founder of PolyLand

When Turner first entered into polyamorous relationships, she struggled to deal with her feelings of jealousy. “A big part of my process was learning how to recognize those feelings when I was having them and figure out why. Was I feeling neglected? Overshadowed? Envious of something someone else had? Was I afraid of losing my partner?”

Now she tackles jealousy by letting the feelings wash over her, then processing why she’s jealous and how to address the cause of the jealousy.

Turner also struggled with feeling like she wasn’t giving each of her partners 100 percent of her effort and time. “I had a picture of romantic love that was rather perfectionistic, so I didn’t like the idea that by dividing my time and attention that I might be not giving any one of them my all,” she explains. This challenge provided her with the opportunity to work on her relationship skills.

“I learned how to optimize,” she explains. “I became better at time management, communication, assertiveness, and setting boundaries. Because I had to. There wasn’t any room to slack off or be bad at any of this stuff.”

Diana, 30, has been in a polyamorous relationship with her partner for the past five years.

“I have never felt comfortable in monogamy, and I always thought there was something wrong with me, that I was deviant in some way,” she says. “I would not only be attracted to, but have genuine romantic feelings for multiple people at once.” She cheated on her then-fiance, Martin, in 2012—a decision she still deeply regrets. While separated, she learned about the concept of polyamory. She identified with it immediately.

Diana and Martin got back together, attended couple’s therapy, and worked at solving the issues in their relationship. After this, their partnership became a polyamorous relationship.

They met another polyamorous couple, Elsa and Andrea, and Martin started dating Elsa. “The couple, who have two kids, invited us both to move in with them as they were buying a house,” Diana says. “We run the household as a community now, with four adults all working together to keep things going and to parent the kids.” Since moving in with Elsa and Andrea, Diana and Martin got married.

In times of crisis, Diana finds it helpful to have this small community to support her. If any of them are ill, for example, the others pitch in with cooking, cleaning, childcare, and chores.

“I have never felt comfortable in monogamy, and I always thought there was something wrong with me, that I was deviant in some way.”

Polyamorous relationships have posed a few challenges for Diana. She’s struggled with the stigma especially. “I am not out to my parents and many of my friends and none of my coworkers out of fear of judgement,” she says. “When my parents visit we have to pretend to be monogamous. I am constantly anxious a colleague will see me out with a partner, not my husband.”

She’s also struggled with managing her time. Having one partner can be time-consuming—having multiple partners can mean really struggling to schedule and prioritize.

Diana is currently in five relationships. “I didn’t set out to be in this many, but things often start out casual and then I catch feelings. They all require varying amounts of emotional intensity, none of them are just sexual or casual,” she says. She says she has to make time to see each of her partners and attend to their emotional needs.

“Combine that with life admin, my job, running a house, helping look after kids, and trying to have alone time, and it gets very, very difficult,” she says. Much like Turner, she’s had to learn excellent time-management skills to help her maintain her relationships.

Can polyamorous relationships be successful and healthy?

Although many people might assume polyamorous relationships can’t be successful or healthy, Fisher says this isn’t the case.

“There has been no research to suggest that polyamorous relationships are less successful,” Fisher says. “In fact, some practitioners would suggest that polyamory requires greater self-awareness, more sophisticated communication skills, and greater attachment security than monogamy. I would agree with that, based on my research.”

In addition to this, polyamorous relationships—and open relationships—are not necessarily less healthy than monogamous relationships. “It’s generally accepted that a healthy relationship includes a sense of basic emotional safety and trust,” she says.

She notes that a relationship that is healthy should also include opportunities for open communication and discussion. In any relationship, no matter the agreements and understandings it entails, we should be able to communicate our needs and listen to the needs of our partners.

Of course, toxic or abusive people may engage in polyamorous relationships, just as they engage in monogamous relationships. “I think many of the signs of relationship problems in monogamous relationships are the same for polyamorous relationships,” says Fisher. “Coercion and gaslighting are problematic in any relationship, polyamorous or otherwise.”

Interested in entering a polyamorous relationship? Here’s some advice.

There are many reasons why people consider polyamorous relationships. Like Diana, they might feel that monogamy doesn’t work for them. Alternatively, they might simply feel like they have a lot of love to give, and that they’d like to commit to multiple people. Whatever leads someone to a polyamorous relationship, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

“Some practitioners would suggest that polyamory requires greater self-awareness, more sophisticated communication skills, and greater attachment security than monogamy. I would agree with that, based on my research.”

—Mary Fisher, CMHC

First thing’s first: Communication is key. It’s imperative to discuss your feelings, your expectations and desires, your needs, your time, boundaries, safe sex, and other issues. “It’s really important to have these discussions fairly early on to prevent miscommunication, mismatched expectations, and hurt,” Diana advises. “If you don’t know what you want, that’s okay, but then explain that to your partners or potential partners so they have full knowledge of what they’re getting into.”

Turner agrees. “If you’re opening up an established relationship, make sure you’re on the same page before you do it,” she suggests. “Relationship agreements are helpful not for the rules … themselves, but because by going through an explicit process of talking about those concerns when you set a relationship agreement, you create a mutual understanding of what’s important to you.”

If you’re interested in learning more, Turner speaks a lot about relationship agreements in her book A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching.

“Sometimes people who have been polyamorous for a while will be very anti-relationship agreement or anti-rule—but I think it can be really helpful when you’re starting out,” Turner says. “I have found that the longer I’m polyamorous, the more I can have those conversations and agreements informally. But that’s because I’ve set a bunch and generally know what’s important to me and can communicate that quickly.”

Diana says that developing self-awareness is critical to communicating well in a polyamorous relationship. “For polyamory to work, you need to be able to understand how you are feeling, and you need to be able to articulate this in words,” she says. “If you don’t know how you’re feeling, can’t articulate it, or why, I would say you might find it more challenging.”

The challenges of communication and self-awareness can be easier to handle when you have a community behind you—one that offers support, advice, and perspective when needed. For this reason, both Diana and Turner recommend finding polyamorous friends. Turner notes that Facebook groups, the subreddit r/polyamory, and social media can be great for meeting people online. It’s also helpful to have polyamorous in-person friends, so consider looking for local polyamorous groups on meetup.org.

Here’s what to be aware of before entering a polyamorous relationship.

Because there are so many ways to practice non-monogamy, there’s a lot of jargon used in the polyamorous community. This can be super confusing for newbies, outsiders, or even practicing polyamorous people who aren’t aware of the terminology.

Glover’s advice to newbies is to remember that it’s not all about academics. “Having the language and the lingo and fun facts down is cool if that’s your thing, but I think there’s too much emphasis in knowing the specific jargon that goes along with talking about a certain experience that is revered more than just experiencing it.”

“For polyamory to work, you need to be able to understand how you are feeling, and you need to be able to articulate this in words.”

Glover also warns against objectifying others while practicing polyamory. “Go into polyamory with the idea of seeing people as people first, rather than fulfillments for your own expectations,” she says.

Many couples, for example, might enter polyamory looking for a third person to fulfill their sexual fantasies. This could be done in an ethical way, but when the third person is seen as an object of desire—and not an autonomous person with their own feelings and desires—it can be unethical. “I think that we have to take responsibility individually to treat other people with the same compassion and respect that we would treat a romantic partner or loved one,” Glover says.

As with any relationship, polyamorous relationships can be hard—but they can also be rewarding, fulfilling, and successful. What it comes down to is a willingness to learn, communicate, and introspect while practicing mutual respect and compassion.

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