The Pros and Cons of Being in a Polyamorous Relationship
DEAR DR. JENN,
A friend of mine is in a polyamorous relationship. I thought that kind of multiple-partner relationship was just about sex but she says it is more than that. What is it about? I am kind of worried about her. What is it really like? —Polly Curious
A polyamorous relationship is the practice of having intimate, emotional and sexual relationships with more than one person with the consent of all involved. Polyamorous people may have a commitment to more than one person they are in a relationship with. It can also mean a committed couple has invited a third partner into their relationship, who would be considered secondary to the primary lovers. It is not just about sex, it is also about emotional connection and developing romantic relationships.
Whether you need to worry about your friend entirely depends on the kind of relationship she’s in, and many poly relationships are built on honesty and trust that do make for a healthy expression of love and safe environments in which to explore. Plus, it’s not as rare as you think.
According to a 2016 study published in the journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, it has been estimated that 21 percent of people have had a non-monogamous relationship. In my observation in my own clinical practice, this is becoming more common. For exactly what it’s like to be in a polyamorous relationship, I’ve broken down some pros and cons that tend to come up. Read on, below.
The Pros of Polyamory
On the positive side, people who are in polyamorous relationships have some great tools for their relationship to work well: communication and honesty. Whether or not you choose to be in this type of relationship, we can all benefit from these skills.
Honesty: Most couples who are in non-monogamous relationships tend to be extremely honest and transparent about their feelings and desires, both emotionally and sexually.
Proactive problem-solving: Non-monogamous couples tend to do regular appraisals of their relationship and discuss their observations with one another. If one person feels the relationship is getting boring or stale, these couples tend to process such speed bumps with one another and make a plan of action, rather than allowing things to fester unresolved.
Rules and boundaries: Non-monogamous couples have rules about their relationships, lots of them! They work hard to establish clear guidelines and boundaries in order to make the experience of sharing their love with others emotionally safe for all involved. They know what flirting, conversations, sexual contact, and phone contact is out of bounds and what is acceptable. Too many monogamous couples make assumptions about what is OK and what is not without discussing with their partner.
Non-monogamy can have its downsides. Bringing a third (or more) party into your relationship can create a distraction from the emotional connection between the two of you. In my clinical experience, it dilutes the intimacy in a relationship when partners spread themselves thinner. Here’s more on the less-than-optimal conditions polyamory can create.
Jealousy: Eventually, someone has feelings toward someone. I have seen way too many jealousy issues arise and emotional bonds form as a result of what was supposed to be meaningless sex, or a primary partner starts to feel secondary and gets hurt.
No new tricks: Sacrifice creates trust and bonds people to each other. Resisting the normal urge to have sex with other people shows a level of commitment and sacrifice that makes the relationship stronger. Bringing a new person into the mix can prevent you from putting energy and creativity into your sex life and relationship with your partner. You’re no longer working to up your game and figure out new fantasies to explore, techniques to try, and preferences your partner may have that you haven’t yet probed — or worse, you’re doing that with someone else.
The wrong fix: Some couples turn to polyamory for the wrong reasons, thinking bringing a third into their sex life will patch up some different issue entirely. While the addition of others in your relationship may be exciting, it does not solve the longer-term, bigger issue of how to keep things fresh in your relationship and how to become a better lover to your partner.
If you are going to have a polyamorous relationship, make sure that you and your partner clearly define the rules, limits, and boundaries of your arrangement. Communication is of the utmost importance. In situations like this, faithfulness is defined by honoring those commitments and boundaries. Keep your promises, but also leave room to renegotiate, in case either one of you has different reactions than you expected. Understand that both partners must agree to change the terms of a relationship, and consent under pressure does not count as a collaborative agreement. If you think your friend has entered into this unconsciously or without her full consent, then yes that's cause for concern. If she's all-in and working to love all members of her relationship fairly while getting a bounty of love (and great sex) in return? She's probably doing just fine.