What Is a Polyamorous Relationship, Really?
Including best practices for entering into a polyamorous agreement.
If you've spent even a few minutes on a dating app these days, chances are you've encountered profiles that disclose some form of consensual non-monogamy. More and more, people are finding that they prefer to connect romantically and/or sexually with more than one partner. In fact, research published in 2016 from two national samples found that one-fifth of the population has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives — and for some people, this means practicing polyamory.
"Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy that emphasizes emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy to whatever desired degree in an ongoing way among multiple partners," explains Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE, author of The Polyamorists Next Door, who explains that often the goal for polyamorous people is to have long-term, emotionally intimate relationships with multiple people.
Plenty of celebs are on board with the lifestyle, too. On a recent episode of "Red Table Talk", Willow Smith, daughter of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, opened up about being polyamorous.
So, what is a polyamorous relationship really — and what are the best practices for entering into a polyamorous relationship? Read on for your full guide to polyamory.
What Is a Polyamorous Relationship?
People in polyamorous relationships are open to bonding intimately — be that sexually and/or romantically — with multiple people. While monogamy is defined by exclusivity, polyamory is often rooted in expansiveness, points out Casey Tanner, certified sex therapist and expert for LELO who works with many polyamorous couples. "Successful polyamory is guided by explicit consent to what kind of romantic and/or sexual relationships are explored outside of the relationship at hand," she says. "These agreements exist to keep each member of the relationship physically, emotionally, and sexually safe such that partners can truly lean into experiences within those boundaries."
Unlike an open relationship — in which committed partners might agree to green light dating, sex, or other types of bonding outside of their relationship — a polyamorous relationship is marked by more relational commitment, says Shannon Chavez, Psy.D., a psychologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles. "There can be different levels of commitments and different levels of intimacy," she notes. For instance, some relationships might be based strictly on sex while others are based on an emotional connection or both physical and emotional intimacy.
It also bears noting that many polyamorous people find support from building a sense of community with other polyam people, either online or locally. "It is much more than who you are having sex with or having another relationship," says Chavez. "The lifestyle is an important part of polyamory."
Polyamorous Terms to Know
Many polyamorous relationships include a primary couple, and each of those people has one or more metamours or additional partners, explains Chavez. But there are also other forms as well. A quick primer:
Primary: Not every polyamorous relationship involves a primary couple, but when there is one, those two people are often intertwined in one another's lives domestically and financially. They might have kids together too.
Secondary: Secondary partners are no less committed, but their involvement might be a bit more casual than the primary.
Triad (throuple) or quad: A consensual relationship among three committed partners. Add one more person — or two couples together — and you have a quad.
Full quad: A relationship in which all four partners are romantically and sexually involved with one another.
Polycule: A entire network of people who are romantically or intimately connected.
Solo polyamorous: This is someone who identifies as polyamorous and might be involved with other people who are as well, but they're not interested in being married or entangled in a partner's life financially, domestically, etc.
Compersion: This is defined as a feeling of joy — as opposed to jealousy — when you see your partner happy with someone else.
Common Myths About Polyamorous Relationships
Although awareness about polyamorous relationships is growing, plenty of misconceptions abound. A few of the most common myths, busted:
1. There's always one primary couple.
Not every polyamorous relationship involves a primary couple. "Polyamorous people often will have one relationship that is their 'home base,'" explains Sheff. But that's not always the case — and when it is, that "home base" relationship might not be so much "primary" as it is what Sheff calls a "figment of utility." It just happens to be that you own a home or have a child with that partner, so you're involved in one another's lives in those practical, everyday ways, but it doesn't mean you're committed any more or less to that person.
2. Polyamorous people have wild sex lives.
Having multiple partners doesn't mean life looks like porn for polyamorous people. Again, it's more about building intimate relationships than exploring a sexual connection.
"There tends to be a lot of courting initially to make sure everyone is compatible and can handle all the moving pieces," says Sheff. "Polyamorists, especially those who have been practicing it long-term, would much rather add someone to their life that augments all their other relationships and take the time to find that relationship."
3. Practicing polyamory will save a monogamous relationship.
While some people might discover consensual non-monogamy during or after a monogamous relationship, polyamory isn't a magic bullet to making a failing relationship last, points out Tanner. "If your relationship doesn't already have a foundation of healthy communication, honesty, and commitment, exploring polyamory is more likely to exacerbate your struggles," she notes. "If there's any truth behind this myth, it's the spirit that we can't be all things to all people; it's unrealistic to expect one person to be your greatest love, best of friends, and hottest sexual partner. Opening your monogamous relationship is one way to embrace this mentality, but probably not if your relationship is already on the brink of ending."
4. Polyamorous people are "greedy" and "boundary-less."
Tanner says it's all too common for some people to scoff off polyamory as an attempt to extend their youth, avoid commitment, or satisfy a voracious sexual appetite. This is because they don't see the hard work that goes on behind the scenes of healthy polyamorous relationships, and they fear what they don't understand, she says. "Polyam folks put in just as much time, energy and effort into honoring their commitments — maybe more — as monogamous people," notes Tanner. In other words, both monogamous and polyamorous people have to talk about boundaries and consent, communicate about the rules of the relationship, and look out for their partner(s)' health and safety (think: STI testing).
5. There is only one way to be polyamorous.
Just like other marginalized groups, people misunderstand the polyamorous community to be homogenous, or one-size-fits-all, says Tanner. "When people picture a polyam person, they might think of a youthful, queer artist type with no kids and no mortgage," she says. "In reality, polyamory occurs throughout the lifespan and includes people of all professions, family constellations, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses."
The key to truly seeing polyamory for what it is requires looking at it not through the lens of monogamy, but looking at it as its own unique practice, lifestyle, or identity, she explains.
What It Really Means to Identify as Polyamorous
Some people come to polyamory after having been in monogamous relationships in the past and finding that they were not getting their needs met, says Chavez.
But that's far from the only path to practicing what Chavez calls a relationship orientation. People are realizing that they knew from the beginning of their relationships that they could — and would prefer to — be in love with more than one partner at a time, explains Chavez.
Either way, polyamorous people realize that they are someone who could love multiple people and enjoy multiple relationships, and they find monogamy limits their ability to do that, she says.
Yet, these qualities alone aren't sufficient for enjoying polyamory, adds Tanner. "Many people are excited about the opportunity to explore other relationships, but become angry or resentful when imagining a partner having that same freedom," she notes.
That said, making the decision to practice polyamory is not one to take lightly. "Because meaningful polyamory requires significant emotional energy, self-reflection, and communication, it's incredibly important to take your time in evaluating whether or not this is right for you," says Tanner. "If you do choose to do the work, however, it's a labor of love that may bring a deeper appreciation for your partners, greater self-knowledge, and an abundance of connection."
How to Enter Into a Polyamorous Relationship
If you're just beginning to practice polyamory, Tanner recommends making the following moves:
Address transparency. Answer questions like what do you want to know about the other's outside relationships, and how much detail do you want to provide/be provided with?
Discuss frequency. Talk about the frequency with which you'd like to engage in other relationships and the ways in which you'll continue to be intentional with bringing energy to the relationship at hand.
Talk about "coming out." Decide which people in your life you feel comfortable "coming out" to about polyamory, and make sure you're on the same page.
If you're looking for more information or support around polyamory, consider checking out the following books:
- More Than Two by Franklin Veaux
- The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy
- Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships by Tristan Taormino
- The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families by Elisabeth Sheff