And it includes Making Relationships Suck, a handy 11-page PDF guide about how to make sure your relationships will fail miserably, used during my workshop at Florida Poly Retreat 2008. Recommended reading for folks who want healthy relationships, too, so they know what to avoid. (Note: Not for the satire-impaired.)
To download a PDF to your hard disk, right-click (Mac: Control-click) on the link and choose "Download Link" or "Save Target As..."
The word "polyamory" is based on the Greek and Latin for "many loves" (literally, poly many + amore love). A polyamorous relationship is a romantic relationship that involves more than two people.
You mean, like swinging?
Not exactly. Swinging has a different focus. Swingers focus on recreational sex, though friendships and deeper bonds may develop. With polyamory, deep relationships are the focus, though the sex is often fun.
Oh, I gotcha. So, like, you have a girlfriend on the side.
No. That is something different as well. The technical term for that is "cheating."
Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
No. The thing that defines a polyamorous relationship is that everyone involved knows about, and agrees to, everyone else's involvement.
If you are married, and you have a girlfriend that your wife doesn't know about, or that your wife suspects but isn't sure about, or that your wife knows about but isn't happy with, you're not poly, you're cheating. Similarly, if you're banging the milkman while your husband is out of town, you're not poly, you're cheating.
Polyamory is defined by informed consent of all the participants. Without it, it ain't poly. If you can't invite your lover over to Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of your family because you don't want anyone to know what you're doing, it probably ain't poly.
Poly, schmolly. It's just a polite way of saying your partner lets you cheat.
No. Cheating is breaking the rules. If you aren't breaking the rules of your relationship, you are not cheating, by definition.
The rules need not be explicit; even breaking the tacit rules of a relationship is cheating. If you do anything you cannot feel comfortable telling your mate about, or if you do anything which you know would make your mate unhappy if he or she knew about it, you are quite likely cheating, plain and simple.
Polyamory is a completely different way to define your relationship. Polyamory is an acknowledgment of the simple fact that relationships do not come in "one size fits all." In a poly relationship--
Okay, okay, I understand. Poly is for people who can't commit!
No, no, no. Just the opposite, in fact; people who can't commit to one person sure as hell can't make a lasting commitment to two!
It's been my experience that many monogamous people actually practice "serial monogamy"--jumping from lover to lover to lover, while claiming to be "monogamous" with each one. While no reasonable person expects every relationship to last, it seems that many "serial monogamists" see their partners as expendable, or more often, stay with one partner only until someone "better" comes along. Polyamory is more ethical than serial monogamy as it is sometimes practiced; polyamorists do not discard their lovers when the next interesting person walks down the road. This flavor of serial monogamy is, I think, the essence of people who can't commit!
But if you love someone, you shouldn't want anyone else.
That's a common idea, but it doesn't really hold up in practice.
Many people believe that a person who has multiple loves can't give their "whole heart" to any person. The belief goes that if you love one person, you can express your love wholeheartedly, but if you love multiple people, your love is divided up and is therefore not as deep. This is based on the "starvation model" of love--that is, you only have a limited amount of love, and if you give your love to one person, there is none left to give to anyone else--so if you fall in love with another person, you have to "pay" for it by withdrawing your love from the first person.
Love is not the same thing as money. With money, you have only a limited amount to spend, and when you give it to one person you have less left to give to another. But love behaves in wonderful and unpredictable and counterintuitive ways. When you love more than one person, you soon realize that the more love you give away, the more love you have to give. Yes, you CAN give your whole heart to more than one person, and when you do, you realize it's the most beautiful feeling in all the world.
Don't think of the contents of your heart the way you think of the contents of your wallet; it doesn't work like that.
Some people also seem to feel that it is not possible to love more than one person at a time, so if you're in a position where you're in a relationship with one person and you happen to fall for someone else, this "proves" you don't really love the person you're with, right? After all, the feeling goes, we are put here on this earth to love only one other person, our one true soulmate in a world of six billion people...the single person who is right for us, and who by some quite astounding coincidence happens to go to the same school, or work at the same place.
This is the "scarcity model" of love--the notion that love is rare, that we can only have one true love, and that once we meet tht one true love, the part of our brains which take notice of other people suddenly and mysteriously shut off.
Anyway, as I was saying, in a poly relationship, it is vital--perhaps even more vital than in a monogamous relationship--for everyone involved to know and understand the rules of the relationship, and abide by them. A successful poly relationship absolutely requires trust and security from everyone involved. If you cannot abide by the relationship's rules, you cannot expect to make a polyamorous relationship work.
Rules? What rules? You want to sleep with someone else, you do, right?
It doesn't work that way.
There are, of course, as many different varieties of polyamory as there are people; there's no one right way to create a polyamorous relationship, though ethical polyamorous relationships do involve honesty, respect, and compassion. But being polyamorous does not give you license to make like a bunny in heat.
A polyamorous relationship isn't about sex; it's about building a romantic relationship with more than one person at a time.
And yes, there are rules.
Yeah? Like what kind of rules?
Depends on the relationship.
Some poly relationships, called "polyfidelity" relationships, have rules not much different from a traditional monogamous relationship, only there are more than two people involved. A polyfidelitous triad, for example, may have three people involved, with one person sexually active with the other two, or even with all three people sexually involved with one another. However, nobody in the relationship may take an "outside" lover, just as neither partner in a monogamous relationship is allowed to have an outside lover; if you do, it's cheating. Cheating, if anything, is a more serious offense in a polyfidelity relationship than in a monogamous relationship--because if you cheat, you are betraying more than one person's trust.
Other polyamorous relationships may permit the people involved to have "outside" lovers under certain circumstances--often, for example, only if the outside lover is approved beforehand by everyone involved, and only if the outside lover knows the nature of the relationship.
The individual relationships within a polyamorous group may be very complex, as well. In many cases, there may be one "primary" couple--a husband and wife, for example. Either or both of those people may have outside lovers, but those relationships are "secondary" in the sense that they involve less involvement in the partners' day-to-day lives than, say, a marriage does.
Note: This does not mean that these relationships are of secondary importance, or that the people involved in such "secondary" relationships contribute less or are less valued! It simply means that these relationships have different goals or parameters than the "primary" relationship.
Or, the polyamorous relationship may be such that each individual relationship is as important as all the others, and no single couple is "primary."
Uh-huh. Says who? Who makes these rules, anyway?
Polyamory is not about "I want to go shag that person over there, and if you don't like it, tough."
It's reasonable for everyone involved to expect to have some kind of input on the relationships that go on. It's reasonable to want to set limits, and it's necessary and reasonable to want to establish a framework that protects both your feelings and the feelings of everyone else involved in the relationships, directly or indirectly.
You do this by negotiating a clear, explicit, and unambiguous set of conditions that guides the manner in which your relationships form, and establishes that framework that helps to make sure everyone's needs are being met and nobody's feelings are disregarded.
It is also important to understand that any breach of these terms is a very, very serious matter--just as serious as cheating in a conventional monogamous relationships! This framework, and the willingness of everyone involved to abide by the terms you set together, are what creates the foundation of trust that a polyamorous relationship requires. Without that trust, it's reasonable to expect that you or someone you care about will end up miserable.
Didn't this whole "free love" thing die out in the sixties?
It never really existed, even back then.
But that's irrelevant. Polyamory isn't free love. All these different flavors of polyamory have their own dynamic, but ultimately, they are all about building relationships, not about sex.
Okay, so they are about sex as well. After all, if no sex is involved, then what you have is a monogamous relationship where the couple has other friends. It is, in a sense, the fact that sex is involved that defines polyamory as distinct from monogamy. But the point is, it isn't just the sex.
And the idea of polyamory predates the sixties, anyway. In fact, it's at least as old as human history. Examples of non-monogamous relationships can be found in many places at any time throughout history.
Isn't this all some sexist, misogynistic, male-dominated Fundamentalist Mormon thing, like on that HBO show "Big Love"?
No. The image that many people have in their heads, of one man with many women as in the HBO series, is technically "polygyny." Polygyny (from the Greek poly many + gynos woman) is the form of polygamy where a man can have more than one female partner, but women are not allowed to have more than one male partner.
In societies where polygyny is practiced, women are usually seen as little more than property. Since people have this mistaken notion of polyamory, it's easy to understand why they think "polyamory" means "disrespect of women."
But polyamory is not polygyny. Polyamory applies equally to everybody. In an ethical polyamorous relationship, the same opportunities are afforded to everyone, regardless of their sex. Polyamory is not about collecting a bunch of women for your harem. Polyamory is about sharing some part of your life and sharing your love with more than one other person--and your lovers sharing some part of THEIR lives and some part of THEIR love with more than one other person. Polyamory is not about "owning" your lovers and hiring an army of eunuchs to make sure they don't stray.
Let's get back to this sex thing. How do you decide who sleeps with whom?
Depends on the nature of the relationship. If there is a primary couple and secondary relationships, typically the primary couple will determine a set of ground rules for who is boinking whom, and when. In a polyfidelity group, the people work out their interpersonal dynamics themselves. And, of course, if you have a king-sized bed, who knows? Maybe you'll find that you like an extra pair of feet in your bed!
But the "who is sleeping with whom" question isn't necessarily the most interesting thing about a poly relationship. Remember, with polyamory, we're talking about more than one romantic relationship, not just more than one sex partner. The social dynamic can be very complex, and goes way beyond who's having sex with whom.
I'll bet. Like, how do you keep from being jealous?
Ah, now that is a real question! In fact, that question has its own page.
But if someone feels jealous, isn't that their problem?
No, it's everyone's problem, and successful resolution of the problem requires you to find out why they feel jealous.
If you treat your lovers as though they are interchangeable, they'll be jealous. If you don't take care to make your lovers feel wanted or needed, they'll be jealous. If you aren't careful to make it clear to all of your partners that you value them, you won't keep any of them for long.
Sometimes, it's easy, especially when you take a new partner, to forget your existing partner in the rush and excitement of exploring a new lover. In fact, some people even have a name for that giddy, infatuated stage of a new relationship; they call it "New Relationship Energy," or "NRE."
That's when everyone involved is particularly prone to jealousy. There aren't any cure-alls to ensure that your partners never feel jealous, of course, but it helps to make a point to pay attention to everyone, to include everyone in the majority of your activities--you know, to be considerate.
If you were raised with the idea that if your partner is looking at someone else, it's because you aren't enough, then you probably won't be happy in a polyamorous relationship until and unless you can unlearn that idea and understand why it isn't true.
People do have the capacity to love more than one other person; there isn't a magical switch inside our brains that says once you love one person, the switch has been flipped and you can't love somebody else. Any parent who has more than one child knows that it is possible to love more than one person.
But that doesn't mean that those people are expendable or interchangeable. People with more than one child also know that their love for each child is unique and irreplaceable. Similarly, people in a healthy polyamorous relationship know that their love for each person in that relationship is unique and irreplaceable--and knowing that drives away jealousy.
Riiiight. Just like that, huh? But why would my lover want to shag someone else if I was adequate, hmm, smart boy?
It's not about adequacy.
Many people are brought up to believe that if you're interested in sleeping with someone else, it's because your partner isn't enough for you. It's a myth that's as common and enduring--and as false--as the idea of Santa Claus. Human beings don't work that way. When we fall in love, the part of our brain that makes us attracted to other people does not magically shut off.
Someone once asked me "How can you stand knowing your lover is with someone else? Don't you feel like maybe they're better in bed than you are?"
The long answer to that question is very complex. The short answer is simple: It doesn't matter. It's not a contest.
There are a lot of people in this world. If you look far enough, you will find someone who is better than you are at everything. You'll find people who are better at cooking, better at sex, better at reading and writing and driving and every other thing you can think of. You can't be the best person in the world at everything. Deal with it.
You know what? It doesn't matter.
If you really believe that your lover is going to dump you as soon as they find someone better in the sack than you are, well, perhaps you shouldn't try non-monogamy--but then again, perhaps you'll want to re-think your romantic relationship while you're at it.
It doesn't matter for the same reason that it doesn't matter if your lover finds a person who is a better cook than you are.
If your lover goes out to a restaurant, do you think "My God, what if the restaurant food is better than mine?" Do you agonize over whether your cooking may seem substandard by comparison? Not if you're psychologically healthy, you don't.
With sex, it's the same deal.
Sex is a learned skill. Who knows...perhaps if your lover discovers something that you didn't think of, then they might bring that new discovery into your relationship, and hey! You're better in bed for it!
But it's not a contest. It's not like you have to spend your life trying to rank your skills in the bedroom against everyone else's. That way madness lies. It isn't really about sex at all--it's about opening yourself to the possibility of more than one romantic relationship.
And maybe it's YOUR new lover who will teach you a thing or two!
For starters, being polyamorous doesn't mean you're shagging a bunch of people. It may mean that you only have one other partner.
But that's beside the point.
The answer to this question actually addresses who we are as human beings. Why do people get involved in interpersonal relationships at all? Why become romantically attached to anyone? The answer, of course, will vary from person to person, but at the end of the day we're all social animals. People are happier when they're romantically involved with someone than when they're not. Intimacy adds to the quality of your life.
Fine. But why isn't one person enough?
What would you say if you had a child, and you decided you wanted a second child, and your first child said "But why am I not enough?"
The question itself doesn't really make sense, once you understand that it isn't about what's "enough."
Let's start with the fact that the majority of people are not intimate with one person. They're intimate with one person at a time...at least in theory. And with statistics from the General Social Survey suggesting that as many as 34% of men between the ages of 50 to 64 will admit to having cheated at least once, evidence suggests that even the theory isn't too widely practiced.
But that's different. That's cheating.
Precisely. If you want more than one lover--which most people do, in spite of the romantic myth you've probably been brought up to believe--then integrity and decency demands that you be honest and up-front about it.
I've been approached and propositioned by women who have asked me, point-blank, "So, would you ever cheat?" When I say "I am open to having other lovers, but I would never cheat--we can become lovers as long as my partner approves," they usually freak out. "Oh, that's just too weird!"
So apparently there are a lot of people who are perfectly fine with lying and deception, who won't hesitate to betray their spouse and think nothing of it--but who can't accept the idea of integrity and honesty.
Those people aren't my lovers. Anyone who can betray their spouse can betray me as well, and I don't want people like that in my life.
So you're saying that everyone is either poly or cheating?
No. Some people seem wired for monogamy. They can stay in a monogamous relationship, and be happy, and never even look at another person. That's cool. But not everybody is like that; in fact, evidence suggests that most people are not.
Even that isn't what matters, though. In the end, it's not about what is "enough." Some poly people could be monogamous, if they really wanted to; in fact, people who can sustain successful polyamorous relationships tend to be better at obeying the rules of a relationship, and not cheating, than average people. But poly people don't want monogamous relationships.
What's wrong with monogamy?
So why don't you want it?
Okay, so what's the down side?
For those whose relationship inclinations lean toward polyamory, a poly relationship offers more. When you have more than two people involved in your relationship, it offers you resources and perspectives that you don't have in a monogamous relationship. If one person is feeling down, or has a problem, that person has two, or more, people to turn to for support. With more eyes on a relationship problem or a problem at work or whatever, sometimes the solution is easier to find.
And it's great for your sex life.
I'm creative in bed. On my better days, I like to think I'm very creative in bed. But the fact is, no human being has seen or done it all; in fact, no human being can even begin to scratch the surface of Cool Things To Do In Bed. We have six billion people on the planet right now, and thirty thousand years of recorded human history behind us. Someone, somewhere, has thought of something that you would absolutely love, but you'll never think of yourself.
I've learned a lot of things from each of my lovers, both in and out of the bedroom, that I have been able to take with me into my other relationships. Not even just new techniques, but sometimes new ways of looking at things. These things have enriched all my relationships, and my life.
It may not even be what you're thinking. Not all poly people are into group sex. There are polyamorous individuals who've never had a threesome. Being poly doesn't necessarily make you kinky. Nor does it mean that you're into orgies, or that you're promiscuous, or that you want to boink everyone you meet. For polyfidelitous people, being poly really isn't that much different from being monogamous. Polyamory also doesn't make you bisexual; in a polyamorous relationship, all the people involved are not necessarily sleeping with everyone else involved. (The idea of being a guy in the middle of hot girl-on-girl action is a cliche as old as time, but don't think polyamory is automatically going to get you there.)
The down side is that you have more than two people involved in your relationship.
That is both a blessing and a source of stress. Romantic relationships come with a certain amount of tension built in; I've never known anybody, anywhere, who's never had even a single argument with their lover.
Add another person to the mix, and your potential for disagreements and arguments and tension goes up. A lot. Add two more people to the mix, it goes up even further. The more people you have involved in a romantic relationship, the greater the potential for problems.
It's not necessarily all bad. Sometimes, having people who you can turn to when you have problems is a big blessing. On the whole, however, managing more than one romantic relationship is, not to put too fine a point on it, harder than managing only one.
It is incumbent on any people in a polyamorous relationship to take care that they follow the rules, and make sure everyone's needs are met. Without that, the relationship will fail--just as a monogamous relationship will.
The other downside is that being poly is emotionally riskier. The more people you open your heart to, the more likely it is that you'll have your heart broken.
The people down the street from me tried an "open relationship," and it all fell apart. This kind of thing never lasts.
The people down the street from me tried a monogamous relationship, but they just ended up getting a divorce. Does that prove that monogamy never lasts?
Some relationships work out; some don't. Nature of the beast. Some polyamorous relationships work; some don't. Some monogamous relationships work; some don't. Yet because monogamy is the accepted social norm, when a marriage fails, people do not blame the instution of marriage...but when a poly relationship fails, people blame polyamory.
A relationship succeeds or fails because of the people involved.
One could argue that most relationships in general don't last; how many people actually spend their entire lives with the very first person they were ever romantically involved with? A few, but not many.
There are many reason why a relationship might not last, and most of those reasons have nothing to do with the relationship model. It's tempting to look at a non-traditional relationship and assume that every problem the people in that relationship have is due to the form of the relationship, but it doesn't actually work that way.
And not all relationships that don't last are "failures." It's common to believe they are, but it isn't necessarily so; any relationship that teaches you more about yourself or those around you is in some measure a success.
What about disease? If you have several lovers, don't you worry about STDs?
One of the great advantages of practicing open, honest non-monogamy with partners you are not lying to is that it makes communication about STD boundaries and STD status so much easier.
The folks I know in the poly community tend to be very conscientious about issues like STD risk--more so, in fact, than most of the monogamous folks I know. Many monogamous people do not talk to their lovers about their sexual history, often for fear of causing jealousy; and likewise, many monogamous people don't insist on things like STD testing before they have sexual contact.
Now, I'm certainly not saying this is true of all people in traditional monogamous relationships. Don't get me wrong, there are many folks engaged in monogamous relationships who are very careful and conscientious about sexual health! Nor am I saying that all poly folks are automatically safe.
But in my experience, this is not the norm. I do not often see the same level of awareness and care about sexual health among those in traditional relationships as I do among people in polyamorous relationships. This is particularly true amng folks who practice serial monogamy, and even more true still among folks who are nominally "monogamous" but who cheat. A person who is having an affair may expose his or her partner non-consensually to STD risks that the partner isn't even aware of, and that kind of behavior is almost universally condemned in the poly community.
As with any relationship, making it succeed is more complicated than making it fail. One of the surest ways to make it fail is to lie. If you can't be honest with your partner, and I mean about everything, then polyamory isn't for you. If you can't abide by the rules of a monogamous relationship, then poly isn't for you. If you cheat, then poly isn't for you.
Another good way not to make a poly relationship work is to browbeat your partner, or coerce your partner into accepting it. Poly relationships don't work if one of the people involved only grudgingly accepts it; it has to be for the benefit of everyone.
I'm with you so far. No lying, no bullying; check. Now what?
Depends on you, and on the person you're involved with. When in doubt, if you're considering trying a polyamorous relationship, it's best to go slowly. Make sure you and your partner feel secure in what you're doing. Make sure you don't get so carried away that you forget about your partner's needs. This is a very easy mistake to make, even if you're watching out for it!
Also, if you are already in a relationship, it is vitally important to make sure that relationship is solid and stable before you go experimenting with non-monogamy. A relationship that is not healthy to begin with will further erode if you try to change the foundation on which it is built.
So: No lying, no bullying. Remember to consider the feelings of your partners--ALL of them. Don't forget that everyone has to be happy, or you can bet that nobody will be! Pay attention to your lovers. Don't get distracted.
Get over the idea that polyamory gives you license to be promiscuous. It doesn't. Being poly does not mean you sleep with anyone you want. It doesn't mean that your life is an endless vista of wild orgies. Put aside those ideas before you even start; that is not what it's about.
A poly relationship works only if everyone involved is happy. While you can't expect someone to be everything for you, all the time (even in a monogamous relationship), there is absolutely no dishonor in telling your lover point-blank "Look, I don't think you're spending enough time with me. You need to pay more attention to me."
And, of course, some common-sense rules are always good. If you have more than one lover, then for God's sake, play safe. You already know the whole safe-sex spiel. Well, do it.
But how do I know if I'm even poly at all? How can I tell if this will work for me?
That's something you have to find out yourself.
If you can imagine sharing your lover, and be happy with that, then that at least suggests that you can be happy in a poly relationship. No guarantee, of course, but at least it's possible.
Generally speaking, polyamory is not something I recommend people just dive into. You need to be secure in your relationship before you think about opening it up to other people!
I've always been poly, my whole life; I even took two dates to my senior prom back in high school. I have had an eighteen-year relationship with a partner who had a very conservative Catholic background. The subject of polyamory didn't even come up for the first two years of our relationship, because I thought it was more important to establish a good foundation with her first. Even when it did come up, it was over a year before anything happened--and it was her, not me, who took an outside lover first. This was important, because it let her see firsthand that she could have another lover, and it would not hurt our relationship.
One thing that does help enormously, if you are in a relationship and youre considering polyamory, is to get your ducks in a row before you start. Don't go into polyamory thinking that it can fix whatever is wrong with your existing relationship; the "relationship broken, add more people" approach doesn't work very well, but it does put someone else in the middle of whatever problems you may have, and that's not cool. Building healthy polyamorous relationships starts with making sure your existing relationship is healthy.
How do you get started in a polyamorous relationship?
If you're approaching polyamory for the first time, remember that you have to be willing to work at it. You must listen to your partner, without pressuring that person. You must be willing to concentrate on what's important, and on making sure your foundation with that person is stable and secure.
Of course, some people find themselves in a poly relationship without really considering it first. It's easy if that happens to feel overwhelmed, insecure, jealous, angry... Take a step back. Look at the situation rationally, with a cool head. What's happening? Is your partner rejecting you? Is your partner losing interest in you? If the answer is "no," then you should think very carefully before you allow yourself to become angry or jealous. What's really going on? How much of an investment in your relationship are you prepared to make? What assumptions are you making about the way your relationship "should" be, and are those assumptions valid?
Yeah, I know, it's tough.
Assuming you are willing to give it a go, though, here are some things I'd recommend:
- Make sure, and I mean sure, everyone on the same page. What are you all looking for? Under what circumstances is it OK for you or your partners to take another lover? Do you have a say in your partner's partners? If so, what kind of say?
- Be compassionate--both to your partners AND to your partner's partners. This is especially important if you're already in a relationship. Often, a couple looking to explore polyamory will be so concerned about preserving that core couple that they will forget the other people involved are human beings, too. An ethical framework should treat everyone involved with respect and compassion.
- If you can, I highly recommend finding a local poly group. When I first started non-monogamous relationships, nearly twenty-five years ago, I didn't have the benefit of such a group, and I rather wish I had. It's really, really helpful to have access to the collective wisdom and experience of people who have made all the mistakes already.
- Don't rush. Take your time. There's no reason to rush in to the first poly relationship that comes your way.
- Develop good communication and conflict-resolution skills. As sure as night follows day, there will be a time when you need them. (Of course, this is true of a traditional, monogamous relationship as well...)
So where would I even find poly people, anyway?
Where do you find anyone? The world is full of people. It's hard to walk out your door without running into them.
That isn't intended to be flippant. My point is, you can't just go to a certain place and expect to meet people who are poly, or look for a certain sign to tell you when people are poly. It's like anything else. Where do you meet people in general? I've met poly people at conventions, at work, at clubs--you know, the same places you meet anyone else.
And just because someone doesn't advertise that he or she is poly doesn't necessarily mean that person is closed to the idea. Many people are open to new ways of looking at relationships; it's quite often that people will surprise you.
One helpful technique when you're looking for a partner is not to try to make a grocery list--"I want a redhaired, bisexual woman who listens to Elvis and reads Kurt Vonnegut"--and leave yourself open to the possibilities around you.
So the rest is kind of up to you. I can't give you a magical Guide to Making It Work, and I can't tell you where to go to find people who are polyamorous. But I can tell you that, difficulties aside, it can be an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling way to extend and expand your romantic life.