A brief guide to the most common questions about polyamory and how it works.
Like a lot of polyamorous people, I have to answer the same questions repeatedly from folks who don’t yet understand how polyamory works. I don’t mind that, but I’m also awfully lazy, so I thought I’d just write them all down in one place I can just point people at. These are the most common questions poly folks hear, and the clearest answers I know how to write.
What does polyamory mean?
It’s the practice of maintaining multiple romantic/sexual relationships concurrently. A polyamorous person might have multiple girlfriends, boyfriends, or both, and may also be married. Their partners may also have other relationships. Everyone involved knows about everyone else involved.
Isn’t that just called cheating?
No. Cheating involves lying and breaking promises. Polyamory works best—only works at all, really—when it’s built on a foundation of very open, very honest communication. It is still possible to cheat in poly relationships; for example, you might get involved with someone after telling your current partners you wouldn’t. That’s extremely bad practice: nobody, poly or otherwise, likes a cheater.
Don’t you get jealous?
Sometimes. Most poly people don’t get jealous easily, but in practice it’s possible to feel shortchanged for attention in favor of another partner, or inadequate, or left out, or any other reason you might feel jealous. The difference is that jealousy doesn’t have to be a dealbreaker. It can be something like irritation or frustration; anyone who’s never been irritated or frustrated with their partner is either a saint or a liar, and there’s not a lot of saints in the world. We don’t dump our partners over these minor annoyances, though; we talk about the source of the problem and handle our feelings like grownups. Poly people strive to handle jealousy the same way.
Further, most poly people often feel an emotion we call compersion, which has been described as the opposite of jealousy. Compersion (adjective form: compersive) is the pleasant sensation one feels on seeing one’s beloved being happy with someone else. Compersion is when your partner texts you saying “Having a great time on my date!” and you smile with genuine pleasure. For monogamous folks who might have a hard time picturing that: think of how you feel watching your beloved enjoy something they really care about, but that isn’t your cup of tea. Like if they’re into running and you’re not, the way you feel seeing them come in from a run, drenched in sweat and breathing hard, excitedly telling you about the personal best they just beat. Yeah, it’s like that.
So you just have sex with whoever all the time?
Oh, heck no. Polyamory is about more than just sex. Sure, sometimes you’ve got relationships that are basically just fuckbuddies, but the “amor” is in the name for a reason. Poly people can and do feel deep, romantic love for multiple people simultaneously. For those who feel that way, it can be rewarding on a very profound level, but it does mean you have multiple serious, emotional relationships to maintain, and one of the ways you maintain those relationships is by not just having sex with whoever. Negotiation and communication, again, are absolutely key.
But there are lots of orgies, right?
Depends on who you ask. Some people have been poly for decades and never had more than two in a bed. Others can’t get through a weekend without a threesome or more. On average, over a large sample, the median number of orgies per capita per year is approximately way less than you probably think.
Doesn’t it get complicated?
Yes. Yes it does. Even just scheduling time… the standard joke in poly circles is that Google Calendar is the greatest gift polyamory ever got. More than that, though, relationships take work. There’s an old saying that every marriage is a threesome, because there’s you, your spouse, and your marriage, and all three of you have needs. And that’s with only two people. As the number of people increases, the number of relationships goes up geometrically, and they all have needs. Some are high maintenance, some are low, some are full-time, some are part-time, but none are simple and none can be taken for granted. Add in the complicating social factors, where you can’t invite Carl to the dinner party because he just broke up with Mabel and it would be awkward, and Mabel’s husband is asking if he can bring his new girlfriend Ellie, but Ellie and Darren had a falling out over Drew last month, and Darren’s definitely coming… I’m really not kidding about Google Calendar. It’s all worth it, though, if this is how you love best.
Isn’t having sex with a lot of people dangerous?
Technically, yes, insofar as there’s a greater risk of STD and STI exposure than there is in a totally monogamous relationship. However, in practice there are two major factors that affect that math. First, if you know you’re doing something risky, you take steps to mitigate that risk. Driving cars is dangerous, so we wear seatbelts and obey traffic laws. Similarly, safer sex practices and regular STD tests are strongly encouraged in poly circles, and most of the folks I know personally wouldn’t ever date someone who forgoes either. Second, the open communication that polyamory depends on reduces risk enormously. There are a lot of people in the world who caught an STD when their monogamous relationship turned out to be less monogamous than they thought, and their partner couldn’t start using condoms because it would look suspicious. Careful habits and clear communication make for safer practices, and not just when it comes to sex.
You can’t really love two or more people just the same, can you?
First, who says we can’t? Second, who says we have to love them just the same? Love has a lot of forms, and much of the fun of polyamory is getting to experience multiple kinds of love at once. With a little luck, you can feel that warm, comfortable, well-broken-in-jeans love, that crazy, unpredictable, dare-you-to-try-it love, and that close, chummy, finishing-each-other’s-sentences love, all in the same week. Well, with a little luck and Google Calendar.
Some folks rank and prioritize their relationships in a specific way: primary, secondary, and tertiary is one terminology system I’ve heard, for example. Others like to keep a more free-form model and let each relationship grow in its own way. There are advantages to having different types of relationships; it makes it easier to maintain perspective. For example, poly folks talk about New Relationship Energy, or NRE: that feeling when you’ve just started seeing a new person and you’re all wibbly over them, you can’t shut up about how great they are, and they are temporarily the most interesting person in the whole world. With multiple relationships going, it’s easier to understand that that feeling is lots of fun, but it doesn’t last, and it should be allowed to fade into a more stable kind of love in its own time.
What happens when you break up with someone?
If it was an amicable breakup, we cry a bit, mope a bit, and go on with our lives. If it was acrimonious, we cry a bit, swear a bit, complain they were never any damn good, and go on with our lives. Why, what do you do?
Seriously, the main difference with poly breakups is that we’re less likely to dump someone for not being the one perfect person we want to spend the rest of our lives with. We don’t ask anyone to be that, which allows breakups to happen for less dramatic reasons. Maybe they’re not the same person we fell in love with any more, maybe they’ve done something irretrievably hurtful, maybe they’re causing trouble with our other relationships. A lot of things can drive a couple apart, but we do have incentives in place to stay friends if possible. We’re likely to run into our exes socially, after all, but more than that, polyamory means that each individual relationship doesn’t have to be the one perfect true love, it can just be what it is, and when that ends, it’s a little easier to put it in perspective.
So you think everyone should be poly?
Heck no. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s cool. Oh, you’ll get the occasional overenthusiastic dork saying that we’re more highly evolved and those poor monogamous saps deserve our pity, but let’s face it, you get that dork in every group sooner or later. Some folks are happier poly, some folks aren’t, and like anyone else, most poly people just want everyone to be as happy as they can.
The one area where poly people do have an advantage is that we have more of an incentive to get good at communication. It is, structurally, much harder for us to take things for granted, leave assumptions unspoken, or not share our feelings. The practices and habits of communication that have been developed in poly communities have a lot of application to monogamous relationships; there is no relationship in the world that wouldn’t be improved by better communication.
I knew someone who tried polyamory and [one awful outcome or another] happened. Doesn’t that show that polyamory doesn’t work?
That sucks. It’s always a shame when someone has a bad experience with love and sex; those should be sources of joy in our lives, and it’s terrible when they become sources of pain instead. Before you condemn polyamory as a whole, though, ask yourself this: how many people do you know who’ve had nasty, painful experiences with monogamous relationships? Cheating, lying, abuse, assault, or just lousy relationships? Do you take those as proof that monogamy, as a system, doesn’t work?
How do I know if polyamory would work for me?
On a certain level, that’s between you and your heart. If you need some help, though, there are a few questions you can ask yourself. Are you good at emotional communication, or at least willing to get better? Are you able to be honest with people you’re close to? Are you good at putting conscious work into relationships, or do you tend to take things for granted and let them slide? Are you comfortable with your partners having other relationships, or do you get jealous easily? Do you have a history of being able to talk through issues and resolve fights that have come up in your previous relationships? The answers to these might not tell you if polyamory is what you truly desire, but they can help you figure out whether you’d suck at it.
What are some good resources to learn more about polyamory?
Franklin Veaux has written some useful stuff on the subject, including his notorious Map of Nonmonogamy, which clarifies a number of important distinctions with practical examples. In books, Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up and Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut are two good, down-to-earth guides to how polyamory works in real life. There may also be a local polyamory group in your area, and this site is a decent starting point for finding them.
Speaking just for myself, polyamory has enriched my life beyond measure and I am perpetually grateful that I embraced it. Others have had other experiences with it, some better, some worse, and that’s their own business. I respect those who make monogamy work for them (Who doesn’t love cute old couples that have been doofy in love with each other for half a century?) but that’s not the path I choose to walk. For those on other paths, I hope that this article has clarified things for you. As I mentioned earlier, honest communication and improved understanding help make everything better.