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You think you know someone pretty well, but suddenly in a casual conversation they drop the p-word. "I should probably tell you I'm a polyamorist." ...Who the what now??? When someone reveals to you that they're poly, it should be the start of a long and interesting conversation. You should feel privileged as well, because they obviously trust you enough to confide such a personal detail of their lives. Unfortunately, polyamorism itself can be hard to explain, because there are few concrete descriptions of the subject. To make matters worse, there are as many versions and flavors of polyamorism as there are people who practice it. Ultimately, each person has different comfort levels and expectations when it comes to these unique relationships, and all this makes for a very interesting topic. (keep in mind that the picture below is NOT your typical polyamorous relationship)
When someone tells you they are poly, ideally your next question should be "and what exactly does that mean?" It's important to resist the temptation to jump to quick conclusions, because a given poly's attitudes and practices may be very different from what you expect. Whether you've never heard of polyamorism before, or are slightly curious about what it has to offer, this guide is a great starting source. I'm not sure I can speak for every person out there as I go into detail, but I can give you a glimpse into the lives of polyamorists, and hopefully clear up some confusion.
It's surprising that so few people know about polyamorism. Suffice it to say that its philosophy is by no means mainstream, but it goes a little like this: a person simply has more than one love interest at a time, and everyone involved is okay with it. When non-poly people fall in love with another person, they subscribe to the ideology of exclusivity. This means that they want their lover to be with them and no one else, and (hopefully) they plan on staying just as "true" themselves. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, its kind of cute. But people in monogamous relationships would normally become hurt or jealous if they witnessed their partner engaging in flirtations or romantic acts with anyone else. To them, any kind of outside romance is a threat to their relationship. However, polyamorists don't find themselves in the same situations. They're quite capable of loving more than one person at a time. This kind of mindset can seem quite bizarre or strange. But imagine being asked to choose which parent you loved more than the other, or which sibling, or which friend...sometimes the question is simply unanswerable, you simply like them both. While most lovers would be put off if their partner admitted to having feelings for another person, the polyamorist would likely welcome the idea. And just in case love is too strong a word to fathom, imagine that polyamorists are simply "attracted" to more than one person at a time. But how exactly do these kinds of relationships work? Before I can go into that, I think I should get a few misconceptions out of the way.
What Polyamorism is not...
Polyamorism is NOT necessarily the same as polygamy. The latter term is strictly for defining a certain type of marriage arrangement. There are many polyamorists out there that are ultimately committed to a single person, or completely uninterested in the idea of marriage. Polygamy refers to a specific type of polyamorism (See more in the section titled: Casual or committed?)
Polyamorism has nothing to do with sexual orientation. A poly person may be straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transexual, or whatever. Again, it says nothing about which gender you are interested in, only that you may be interested in more than one person at a time.
Polyamorism does NOT necessarily mean a person is just horny and wants to go out and hump everything they see. They still may have morals, restrictions, and various levels comfort levels of what they will, and will not allow in their relationships.
Polyamorists are NOT necessarily sociopaths who have no feelings and are only interested in sex. Emotions often get involved, and this can be both problematic and beautiful
Keys for a successful Poly relationship
How exactly does this stuff work anyway? If I can say it without sounding too preachy...it all starts with having good values. Its funny how these can seem remarkably similar to the ideals of a good monogamous relationship, but with polyamorism they become exceedingly important for anyone involved to adhere to. Different values may find different levels of importance depending on the person, but in general they are:
Communication - is a MUST, because even two poly people may have extremely different expectations when they consider forming a relationship. Is it okay to develop feelings for other people? Do you have to approve of my love interests before I go after them? Is only flirting and kissing okay or can I go farther? These are all things to consider and talk about BEFORE entering into a poly relationship. The potential for drama and jealousy are admittedly high, and because we'd all love to avoid heartbreak, simply talking to another person can avoid all that bad stuff from ever happening.
Trust - is enormously important in a poly relationship. The people involved may still agree on boundaries and limits to what is acceptable (or not). Respecting these boundaries and trusting your partner to do the same will keep your relationship free of jealousy and drama...sweet!
Loyalty - Polyamorous people are people too, they can sometimes develop insecurities and think, "Do they still really like me? Do they prefer others?" Some polyamorous relationships may rely a certain amount of commitment between two or more people (see section: Casual or Committed?) In these instances, it is important that partners remind each other, in any number of ways, that they belong to each other at the end of the day.
Honesty - lying to the ones you love never gets you anywhere good. And manipulating people with lies is downright dangerous. Life's more fun when people's feelings don't get hurt for stupid reasons.
So now that we're past the obvious stuff and you've got a pretty good handle on the basics of polyamorism, now's as good a time as ever to get acquainted with the various flavors that it comes in. Keep in mind that each idea here is presented as two opposite ends of a spectrum, a sort of dichotomy. While it can definitely be an either/or situation, often there is a blending of possibilities in between.
Selfless or Selfish?
At the very core of a relationship and perhaps the most important trait of all, lies a person's real reasons for wanting to be in a polyamorous relationship. The particular pseudo-dichotomy drawn here rests on the distinction for being selfless and selfish about polyamorism.
Selfless polyamorists - find the idea of "ownership" over their partner's actions undesirable. When they develop a love interest, they think that this person should be able to branch out and be able to experience new opportunities when they arise. (and by opportunities I mean other people) Whether this means allowing their lover to go on dates or have intimate encounters with others, they permit such actions because they simply want their partner to be happy, to grow and become better lovers, hopefully reciprocating such actions back towards them. Loyalty is an extremely, extremely important trait that they desire in potential matches, because by permitting their partner such freedoms it is certainly possible that they could be walked all over. They may expect their love interest(s) to permit them the same kinds of freedoms, or they may not.
Selfish polyamorists are more interested in controlling their own destinies when it comes to relationships. They may be more interested in the physical side of relationships rather than the emotional side. Being selfish isn't necessarily a bad thing, it just means they know what they want and they're not afraid to go get it. As always, its probably better if these types are up front and honest about their intentions before getting involved. Commitment may still be important to them, but more often than not they are interested in casual relationships with no strings attached.
Casual or Committed?
The dynamics of a polyamorous relationship become more complex when two or more people decide to become committed to each other. Keeping any kind of polyamorous relationship steady is no cakewalk. As always, those with stronger values tend to be more stable.
Casual polyamorous relationships -are usually for the short term, and more based on attraction and physical relationships. They may be as innocent as wanting partners to go out on dates with, or as involved as "fuck buddies." The people in these types of relationships usually exercise less control over their partners, and some of the people involved may not even be interested in each other or see each other, as is with characteristic V, N, or W-shaped relationships. Loyalty may not be as important here. Being open, honest, and making sure everyone involved is okay with the situation will usually ensure that its a fun time for all.
Committed polyamorous relationships - mean that at least two people are loyal to each other. Typically, this type of situation involves a couple who is receptive to the idea of allowing other people into the relationship from time to time. These "outside contacts" may be complete strangers, or old friends. A partner may require approval before they let their lover become involved with anyone else, or they may let their lover roam free. Alternatively a committed relationship may involve a true "triad" where three people are have all agreed to be equally committed to each other. Stranger still, commitment may be found between two couples or more couples that become involved with one another. Theoretically any kind of arrangement is possible, but loyalty is typically key here, as well as trust. There are significant challenges as well when an odd number of people are involved, and extra steps may need to be taken to ensure that no one feels like they're the third wheel.
Open or closed?
This facet of a relationship is fairly straightforward.
Open relationships refer to situations where everyone involved is comfortable with letting outsiders in. For instance, a couple may seek a third person to go out on dates or have a threesome with. One lover might allow their partner to do whatever they wish with whoever they wish. Or a triad might be receptive to the idea of letting outsiders in occasionally. The possibilities are literally endless, but being open presents hurdles for everyone. Its important to be up front with outsiders with what they're getting into, whether its a regular or one time thing for them. If sex is involved, the topic of STDs and how to be safe should be discussed as well. In general, open relationships are more common when one or more people can't see each other on a regular basis, but its not unheard of for a poly person to simply like the occasional hookup with a stranger, even when they're committed to someone else. As long as everyone is comfortable with the situation...no harm no foul.
If you're in a closed relationship with someone else, welcome to the world of monogamy. But it may be possible that a triad, 2 or more couples, or a group of people decide to remain exclusive to one another and no one else. (and in some ways this saves them from many of the problems of being in open relationships) That's pretty much all there is to it.
Communal or Private?
Polyamorism can be a touchy subject between some people, or an arousing subject for others...the distinction drawn here highlights the difference between what the members of polyamorous relationships want to do with each other.
In a communal polyamorous relationship, members are typically open with their affairs. Three or more people may want to go out on a date together, or have a threesome or foursome. These activities may not always be open, occasionally two people may pair off and do their thing. The gist of the situation is that when a person sees their lover acting flirtatiously or romantically with someone else, they don't get jealous. Activities are often more focused around the group rather than a pair of people.
Private polyamorous relationships focus more on the interactions between two people at a time. A lover may allow their partner to be with other people, but still want nothing to do with it, or even see or know about it. Such apathy is astonishing, but it happens. A lover may know about or even meet their partner's other romantic interests, but not be involved with them at the same level. More often than not, these types of people enjoy some good 'ol alone time to do whatever they want while their parter is out and about. Trust is absolutely essential in these cases, and everyone involved should be perfectly comfortable with what is going on before it happens. The last thing you want to do is have reason to doubt your lover.
Emotional or Physical?
This is an extremely important aspect that can ensure the stability of a polyamorous relationship. It highlights the degree of affection that polyamorous people allow their partners to engage in with others.
If a poly person allows emotional encounters, it means that they don't mind their partner forming emotional bonds with other people. As you can imagine, loyalty is absolutely key. Often these additional lovers are well trusted by everyone in involved. The danger with allowing such a freedom is that there is always the off chance that a partner will end up liking someone else even more. Its really up to the partner in this case to balance out their own affairs so that they don't make anyone feel isolated or cut off. And sometimes? maybe there is such a thing as having too many love interests. Knowing the extent to which they can "spread themselves out" is important. No pun intended.
If a poly person only allows for their partner to have physical encounters, then they consider anything beyond it a form of emotional cheating. Usually this applies to outside strangers. For instance, a poly in a committed relationship may allow their partner to have intimate encounters, but only if no feelings are involved. Easier said than done, but its still possible for some people to have no strings attached encounters.
In the end, life ain't perfect
When two poly people meet each other, its far from a match made in heaven. They may have entirely different ideas about what they want. Some people prefer short term polyamorous engagements. The idea may sound fun and interesting to them while they're still young and dating, but later on they might want to settle down with one person. Some couples may already be in committed relationships and want to entertain the idea of short term encounters.
Polyamorous relationships go outside the norms where situations that are often considered "cheating" or "hurtful" are in fact quite acceptable. This is made possible by the fact that everyone involved is perfectly comfortable with what happens. I really hope I've said that enough by now! Whether a guy is letting his girlfriend go and dance with other dudes on the floor, or a girl is begging her boy to join her in a threesome with this really hot chick she knows, or a triad is cozying up to go to bed...polyamorism can lead to some interesting and extremely rewarding situations that sound appealing to everyone involved.
That being said, life ain't perfect. Jealousy, drama, fights, feeling left out, and getting hurt are very real possibilities as people cross lines or do things that their partner(s) are uncomfortable with. Often times, poly relationships simply don't work for the same reasons that monogamous relationships fail: incompatible people. If you thought it was hard to maintain a relationship with one person, can you imagine two or more? Clearly its not for everyone, but in the end life is messy, surprising, and you may find yourself presented with unique opportunities.
Can monogamy-minded and polamory-minded people even date each other?
The simple answer is, why the hell not? Just because a person may be open to the idea of polyamory, doesn't mean that they absolutely require it to be happy. They may still be perfectly capable of enjoying a relationship with another person, and remaining faithful and loyal to them alone. Monogamous relationships can be a beautiful and enjoyable aspect of life, but some people can find themselves comfortable with a little bit more. Hopefully by now you've gotten a much clearer picture of polyamorism! Feel free to comment if you have any further ideas/questions to pose.