A Couples’ Guide to Polyamory

Many of us grow up hoping that we will one day meet the prince or princess that we will be with forever, living in blissful hot monogamy. But not all our stories end like fairy tales. Today in America, sexless marriages number approximately 20%, we are still at the 50% rate in divorces, and men and women are still having about the same number of affairs for the same reasons – and that totals about 30-35% of us. So, it’s understandable that some couples are asking if the traditional approach to partnership is really working. They’re wondering if maybe there’s another way – maybe sexual exclusivity isn’t the be-all, end-all anymore. Maybe it isn’t even natural!

So in seeking an answer to those questions, millions begin exploring the ethical and sensual approaches to non-monagamy that include, most commonly, swinging and polyamory. Today we’re going to talk about polyamory, and in another video we’ll talk about swinging.

Swinging is mostly about recreational sex. Polyamory, which literally means “many loves,” is about deeper relationships. Polyamory is the practice of building loving, intimate relationships with more than one person, within an ethical, consensual framework. In my practice I’ve worked with dozens of polyamorous people and I’ve taught other therapists about working with polyamorous clients. While polyamory has tremendous allure for a lot of people, and for obvious reasons, it is far from a panacea for struggling monogamous relationships. Successful polyamory requires participants’ emotional maturity and a willingness to invest time and energy in processing their relationships at a refined level. I often say that if you can’t handle one relationship well without it deteriorating into drama, conflict and crisis, then you have no business exploring polyamory. To even begin to approach polyamory in your relationship you need to be more skilled and more emotionally mature than someone in a monogamous relationship, because you are juggling much more detail, and many more potential problems.

Just to clarify here – polyamory is NOT polygamy. If you’ve been watching the news or are a fan of TV shows like Big Love, it’s easy to confuse polygamy and polyamory. But polygamy is not a romantic choice, it’s part of a religious belief system, and in polygamy only the men have multiple spouses. Polyamory is a lifestyle or relationship choice, and it’s based on emotion and desires. In polyamory, both men and women have multiple partners. Women are first up to debunk the idea that men draw them into this. They will tell you, just about one and all, that it is part of their way of ensuring that they have power and control over their own bodies. They see it as a way of counterbalancing cultural restrictions that seek to control women’s bodies and women’s relationships.

The majority of polyamorous relationships are structured when a couple, referred to as the primary partners, become involved with other people who are known as secondary partners or tertiary partners, depending on their position in the relationship. This style of polyamory is known as hierarchical polyamory. Usually, secondary partners also have a primary partner, or maybe they’re seeking Mr. or Ms. number one, so secondary relationships do change over time. A primary couple will tend to have serial secondary relationships, but sometimes a secondary can continue on with a partner for many years, sometimes even many decades. And sometimes a couple will desire a third person who is part of their relationship on an equal basis, or an individual might bond to two other people and negotiate a threeway relationship. You might see a woman and two men, or a man and two women or three people of the same sex. But in any case, it’s called a group marriage or a triad. And group marriages can actually involve as many people as desired. They would share income, they would share child rearing, and would essentially be part of an extended family. Sometimes people are exclusive sexually within the group or the triad, and sometimes they have other relationships outside the group.

Some people see themselves as poly by choice and others see themselves as poly by nature. In either case, most poly people believe that love is bigger than two people, and that one partner can’t satisfy all of their needs, so different partners are chosen to satisfy different spectrums of emotional or sexual needs. Now, detractors would say that looking to have all one’s needs satisfied – or even thinking that you’re supposed to have your needs fully satisfied – is a childish or a narcissistic way of approaching life. And of course, poly people would argue that that’s simply not so.

Some people who define themselves as poly don’t always live an active poly life. They may choose during some periods to focus only on one relationship, yet they want to keep a door open should another relationship come along at the right time or under the right circumstances, so that they can embrace it as well. Some couples create a kind of hybrid between polyamory and swinging. These friendships involve more than recreational sex, but they are strictly negotiated so that they don’t threaten the primary relationship. These are usually called swing-poly, or social polyamory.

Orchestrating a poly life demands a lot of you. It requires that you take a very hard look at your need for grounding and your tolerance for change. To presume that poly is solely about sexual satisfaction is to miss the point. And it’s a point that brings couples to serious negotiation, because living a poly life is not an easy trick. It means that your arrangement has to be complex and requires skilled communication, an enormous amount of self-awareness, and a lot of negotiation. Successful poly threesomes and moresomes really have to up the ante on their ability to be communicative and aware partners.

The foundation of poly is consent, which must be given at an explicit and detailed level. Couples can spend many months negotiating their polyamorous agreements and then continue to refine them and update them over time. If any aspect of an arrangement is not working well for anybody, then it’s just not working, and it has to be renegotiated. Poly falls apart when people make arrangements under pressure or when they lie to themselves about what they think they can handle. At first poly may sound like an answer to all the pitfalls of monogamous relationships – it has depth and variety, it has novelty and security. But issues often taken for granted in monogamy need tons of processing in poly, and that means, like I said, loads of work. Couples have to look at the big picture stuff and the day to day stuff. The big picture stuff might mean negotiating whether or not one partner has to meet the other person’s potential partners before they have sex with them. And the day to day stuff might include things like is it okay to have sex with someone else in the master bedroom bed, or how much money is it OK to spend on someone else. Then there’s the question of what happens when your partner has a date, and your datebook is completely blank. That can be kind of hard. You know you’re your partner is out there making love to someone else, and you’re home all alone. So polyamory can bring up an enormous amount of emotional discomfort, and yet it’s seen as an opportunity to work that through.

Polyamory embraces the ideal that we can feel emotions other than jealousy when a partner has another lover in his or her life. A term you’ll hear in poly circles is “compersion.” That’s a word coined to denote your feeling of delight when you know that your partner is blessed by more love than just your own. But we don’t grow up steeped in developing compersion. That’s a pretty foreign concept to most of us. Consequently, polyamorous people get jealous just like anybody else. However, they find that a much less alarming experience than most other people, because dealing with their feelings of jealousy constructively is one of the lessons they feel they will gain from being poly. Poly people note that when a partner begins to date someone new, the heady glow and hormonal highs of what’s called “new relationship energy” can overtake their partner. It’s during those periods that it can be really hard to see your partner going off with somebody other than you. But since poly people are generally well acquainted with other poly people, the support and guidance of the poly community can be very helpful here. This is when friends can share strategies for contending with what is a most predictable aspect of poly life.

Legal issues for poly people can be very complicated. Our legal system often penalizes people for being different. Divorce and child custody issues are particularly dicey. An organization called The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom is an advocacy organization in Washington D.C. that seeks to help people negotiate these very, very choppy waters.

These days therapists are becoming more aware of diverse relationship styles, and are unquestionably far less judgmental then they were perceived as being in the past. After all, problems arise in poly relationships just like in exclusive relationships, and obstacles need to be handled. Therapists are there to help without invoking judgment and without invoking shame. So if you’re thinking about exploring polyamory and you’re not quite sure how to go about getting started and doing it the right way, it’s good to know that therapists are also available to help, are nonjudgmental, and many of them do know a lot about helping you navigate the waters of polyamory. And there’s a whole poly community out there too, that is happy to help anyone learn more about what poly is all about, and how to make it work for you.

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