The Truth About Polyamorous Relationships
There have long been challenges to traditional ideas around sexuality and relationships, but mainstream acceptance is still a work in progress.
Case in point: polyamory.
Does the word have you picturing mass orgies or strange cults? Well, think again. It's far more common (and less radical) than you probably know.
According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 21 per cent of people have had a non-monogamous relationship in which “all partners agree that each may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.” In the US, it's estimated that 4 to 5 percent of people living are polyamorous or participating in other forms of open relationships (there is a difference, we'll get to that later), and 20 percent of people have at least attempted some kind of ethical non-monogamy at some point.
Although there's not much in the way of Aussie stats, Couples Therapist and Sexologist Isiah McKimmie tells Men's Health she's increasingly seeing couples who are finding that traditional ideas around relationships don't work for them.
"I’ve definitely seen an increase in couples choosing to explore open relationship and polyamory."
Intrigued? Here's what you need to know about polyamorous relationships.
What does polyamorous mean?
"Polyamory literally translates as ‘many loves’ so in polyamory people have more than one romantic partner at a time," McKimmie says. Polyamory is also described as "consensual, ethical, and responsible non-monogamy."
What's the difference between polyamory vs open relationship?
"There are different forms of open relationship and polyamory, so the exact meaning of these will be different for everyone," McKimmie explains. "Essentially a open relationship is where partners are free to see other people. This might take various forms such as only having additional sexual partners or being free to pursue other relationships, for some people it also means a level of openness and honesty in communication that many relationships don’t have."
Despite exploring outside of the relationship, open relationships are still committed to loving only each other. Polyamorous people are often committed to loving multiple partners.
What's the difference between polyamory vs polygamy?
As its most basic, polyamory means multiple loves and polygamy means multiple spouses. Most commonly polygamy is actually polygny – when one man marries multiple women. Polyamory, on the other hand, is not gender-exclusive.
What to do if you or your partner want to be in a polyamorous relationship?
"If you’re interested in exploring polyamory, you’ll need to have a really clear and open discussion with your partner," McKimmie says. "Share why you want to explore this and what it would mean to you. Be prepared to answer their questions and address their concerns."
And don't expect to be firing up Tinder seconds later.
"Deciding to move from a monogamous to a polyamorous relationship won’t happen in the course of one conversation, it will be something that you discuss over time with increasing clarity on agreements and how to best move forward in a way that feels good for both of you."
Emphasis on both. Everyone in a poly relationship needs to be on board.
"If you feel you need to convince or pressure your partner into polyamory, you’re likely to experience challenges in future," McKimmie says.
Polyamorous relationship advice:
You've made the decision with your partner, now how do you make polyamory work?
1. Communication is key
"It’s important that you keep the discussion open as the relationship progresses," McKimmie says.
You need to feel comfortable expressing about what's working for you and what isn't. Check-ins are an important part of polyamorous relationships and you should be prepared to talk out new challenges and changes as they come up.
2. Be clear about boundaries
Before starting any new relationships, talk through the logistics and establish some ground rules. Is anyone off limits? How will you divide your time? Will you spend time together as a group? What behaviours are ok?
3. Take your time
Moving to polyamory can be a major transition, so McKimmie recommends taking your take when making the decision and seeking new relationships. It’s hard to know how you’ll really feel about your partner having another relationship until you dip your toe in the water, so don't rush in ready to fill up your diary with dates.
4. Expect challenges
While you might be open minded, you're still human (and socially conditioned towards monogamy).
"Expect that jealousy will arise and be prepared for it," McKimmie says. "Give each other space to discuss your emotions and needs."
Polyamorous relationship stories
Want to know how poly relationships work IRL? Here are some people's experience with polyamory as shared on Reddit.
"If poly had a motto, the motto would be, "love is infinite. Time and energy are not." The other motto would be, "Communicate, communicate, communicate. (And use Google Calendar.) Some poly relationships are totally equal. Some have primaries and secondaries. So for example your wife might be your primary and your girlfriend might be your secondary. This is fine as long as everyone is on the same page about expectations. Right now I have several secondaries (who themselves all have other primaries) and no primary, because I am really freaking busy and don't have time for a primary relationship right now." – TryUsingScience
"In short, it works pretty darn well. It's somewhat more complicated and sometimes harder, but not as much so as you might think. It's prompted a lot more communication and similar positive side effects. The impact on our sex life has been somewhat positive (guess what? more communication is a good thing!), but not terribly dramatic." – EvanDaniel
"It varies to much by relationship to generalise. I've been in situations where both parties got along. I've been in situations where they hated each other. It just depends on the people and what everyone is most comfortable with. I guess you could say it's finding the lowest energy state, the one everything's least likely to blow apart in." – dethb0y
"My group is polyfi, so we don't have relationships or sex with others, but I have two awesome husbands and the three of us live as a nice family unit. We share dinner every night, watch shows and movies, play videogames, work in the garden, go on bike rides, take trips to the rock climbing gym. I sleep with husband 2 since 1 has a different work schedule and is more comfortable with his own bed, but I have a good romantic and sexual relationship with both guys. Husband 1 and I were friend with the other guy fir years before me and him started fooling around, so we fit together as a group well already." – Codydarkstalker
"I've had a couple of different polyamorous relationships. I arrived at the conclusion that while it might work for some people, it doesn't for me because I was too heavily indoctrinated into monogamous behaviors as a child." – mikkylock
"I got started with polyamory in an attempt to salvage my marriage from my gender transition. I did have a bit of jealousy to deal with at first, but soon found that I enjoy hearing about my partners' new loves and sexy times. I also discovered that I was missing out on so much by not exploring new attractions during my decade of monogamy. And I started looking back to my pre-marriage dating years and realised so much of the unpleasantness (no, not cheating, I've never done that) was because I was very inclined to be infatuated with more than one person at once. When I first heard that many poly people consider themselves to be born naturally poly, I scoffed. But I eventually realised I was among them! Life is so much better now that I embrace this." – hoodedhomie
"I've been in several poly relationships before, at one point dating 3 people, all of whom had other partners, and while it didn't really work for me I learned a lot about relationships and how to navigate them, so overall it was a positive experience. The women id met were probably some of the most grounded people I've dated in a long time. Id probably do it again but with a different dynamic, one where I had more one on one intimacy, as that was the downside last time. Many of my friends are poly or open to it as well, very intelligent lovely people. Several live in family-ish units with lovely kids. Some of which have been "married" or together for close to 18 years, since their late teens, early 20s." – Wildernessinabox