People mean a lot of things by polyamory, and there’s a lot of words to designate different types of open relationships, but I’m old fashioned and am going to stick to the word polyamory. I hear lots of people say things about polyamory it would take me a lot of time to disagree with, so here’s my big polyamory post where I make all of my points. This is not a ‘full educational post about polyamory,’ this is more a response to specific points. It’s also from my perspective; non-monogamous relationships are widely varied. There’s lots of good resources online if you want more holistic information!
It feels weird to use polyamory to refer to an active practice. If you have two boyfriends who die in a tragic orgy accident, are you suddenly not polyamorous anymore? Maybe, but the way I like to use the concept of polyamory is closer to an orientation than a description of a relationship; much as you might be in a gay relationship but also be gay.
“Feeling attracted to people besides your partner” also doesn’t seem necessarily polyamorous to me - does this mean if I organically only want to have sex with my boyfriend, but he happens to be having sex with eight other women and I’m totally okay with it, that I’m monogamous?
“Engaging in relationships outside your own” also feels like a weird definition. What if my partner and I are both dating multiple people, but then we break up with them cause we’re moving to a small town with nobody we find attractive? Are we suddenly monogamous now?
The definition of ‘polyamorous’ that I find cleanest, for me, is not forbidding your partner from having extra-relationship intimacy. It doesn’t matter if they’re acting on it or not, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like banging anybody else, as long as your partner could go have sex/love someone else if they wanted, then to me, that’s polyamory.
“But my partner and I are only actually interested in each other, we don’t actually want to go be intimate with anybody else.”
Maybe I’m jaded, but I think “only wanting intimacy with your partner for your entire life” is extremely, extremely rare. Maybe it’s been this way for your last four years of relationship bliss or whatever, but I’d put money on forty years being a humbling experience. At some point, one day, maybe there will come a time when one of you is on a business trip and some hot backpacker just got a clean STI panel and wants a one-night stand and now your genitals are turgid, and in that moment the question of would my partner let me have sex with this person suddenly becomes important. To me, “my partner and I just want each other” is actually “my partner and I are going to pretend being attracted to someone else will never be a possibility.” Just because you’ve been happy inside the room so far doesn’t mean it’s not important to know if the door is locked!
By my lights, polyamory is the unlocked door, whether you ever try to open it or not.
I often hear people saying, doesn’t polyamory mess up commitment? What if you have a house and triplets and a car you’re paying off, are you just gonna open your relationship and let your partner spot some hot tail and run away?
I think this is a super big error.
Imagine for a moment your friend comes to you and says “I just started dating a new woman, and she doesn’t want me to hang out with any of my friends anymore. If I do she gets really jealous, and feels like I’m not committed to her.” You’d probably be concerned! This seems like controlling behavior, and is bad. I feel similarly about monogamy.
But you might say this isn’t a fair comparison, that’s overly controlling behavior, whereas there are some restrictions that are fine in relationships; that’s what commitment means, after all. You’re building a life together and there has to be some expectation you’re not going to fuck it all.
I agree! If you enter a relationship with the agreement that you’re going to buy a house together, this requires some commitment of behavior of your future self, and also an expectation that you hold your partner to some behavior, like holding a job or contributing some amount of funds. I am very down with this. For example, if I were married to a husband who started spending every evening with his new girlfriend, I would be upset because presumably he committed to helping raise our children.
People often say things like, “I don’t want polyamory because I want commitment to our relationship.” This is fine, except these people often seem to apply the standard inconsistently. We’re okay when our partner spends a night or an occasional weekend in a getaway with their friends, despite this taking time away from us. We are okay when they spend a bit of savings on a nice watch, despite our overall goal of saving for a house. In practice, people in relationships are able to put their focus on things besides the relationship without us processing this as a violation of commitment.
But if our partner is spending a night or an occasional weekend having sex with someone else, this suddenly becomes a violation.
And there are circumstances where it might be. Maybe one of the commitments you have is “getting your sexual needs met,” and they’re not fucking you enough and then now they’re going off and fucking someone else. Maybe one of the commitments is spend enough time with me so that we feel consistent intimacy, but you both work jobs and time together is scarce and if they date another person it would eat into that valuable time. This is a legit complaint, because it’s tied to a concrete commitment. But lots of scenarios have no impact whatsoever on you. Most people, when criticizing polyamory, give example scenarios that are actually about violating other concrete commitments (what if they give you a STI, what if they don’t spend time with you?), while ignoring steelman scenarios independent of those commitments (what if they are very careful about safe sex, what if they’re already not spending time with you?). We all know the trope of the happy wife in a great relationship who discovered her husband was cheating on her. Cheating is bad, obviously, but it says something that the only actual problem caused by the cheating was the knowledge of the cheating, not that it was actually having practical impacts.
(again: sometimes cheating does have practical impacts, but my point is that it doesn’t necessarily have practical impacts)
But you might say, “feeling insecure/bad/threatened/jealous” is also a real impact! Is it too much to ask of a relationship not to engage in behavior that makes me feel bad? And what if my partner feels the same way - we both agree to just not mess around with other people and make each other feel terrible. It’s a voluntary agreement, we’re not coercing each other here, this is what we both actually want.
I think this is good! It’s good to choose insecurity, to know what your priorities are in life, to know what you feel like putting time into and what isn’t worth it. People’s brains are different, and you might be in a brain that just has disproportionate levels of freakout in an open relationship, and you are entirely within your rights to just not try open relationships. This is not a fault, this is you genuinely navigating the preferences you’ve been born into to the best of your ability. I myself ‘choose insecurity’ in many ways in my life.
I also want to point out that we can easily extend this to your friend’s girlfriend who doesn’t want him hanging out with you anymore. If two people really get insecure and threatened when their partner hangs out with friends, then this is also okay in the exact same way. It’s also a real impact, of feeling insecure/jealous/bad, and it’s okay to try to mitigate that by requesting your partner obey certain rules as a condition of being in a relationship with you, and it’s okay for someone to voluntarily agree to restricting behavior in order to please you.
But there is a difference in these restrictions! To reiterate, the test I use here is impact. Is the impact external/concrete (now I can’t buy a house with you, now I’m undersexed, now our children don’t know their father), or is internal (now I feel insecure and afraid)? Does the impact come from simply knowing about it, and if you didn’t know about it, would you be impacted at all?
In my mind, polyamory is completely orthogonal to commitment, and it always confuses me when people weigh the two together. I am completely fine committing to concrete goals with a partner. I am happy at the thought of marrying someone, doing the ‘kid’ and ‘house’ and ‘emotional support’ and ‘sexual fulfillment’ projects and placing clear expectations on my partner to support those, much as I would have expectations on a business partner if we were starting a business. It’s possible that the end outcome of this style of commitment looks a lot like monogamy from the outside! But I am not fine placing restrictions on my partner’s behavior for the sole purpose of avoiding insecurity or pain inside me. I’d feel weird about preventing my partner from seeing friends even if it made me feel bad, and I’d feel weird preventing them from seeing lovers even if it made me feel bad. At that point, my feelings are about my own insecurities, not about preserving commitment. I find many critics of polyamory chronically blur this line.
What about hierarchies in poly? Most of my above stuff addresses this (commitments are fine, if you want them, and then let other relationships fall where they may!). Terms I use in my own head for this are prescriptive vs descriptive hierarchy (which, after googling, turns out are already polyamory terms). I’m personally okay with descriptive hierarchy, which rises naturally out of things like lifestyle choices, commitments, where you sort of notice that the way you’ve chosen to live has resulted in a hierarchy of relationships. I’m less okay with prescriptive hierarchy, where priority with a partner is prescribed independently of clear, natural reasons for the hierarchy. This is basically monogamy-lite to me.
And if you don’t know much about poly, know there’s tons of different relationship styles here - ‘non-hierarchical poly’ is a thing, relationship anarchy is a thing; the hierarchy question throws poly people all across the board. I personally don’t care too much about the nuances between these categories here, but the world behind it is vast in case you want to learn more.
Mate guarding, parental uncertainty, and general evolutionary and historical reasons for monogamy are real and legitimate things. But there’s lots of good reasons for ways that we are that we no longer support - sexual coercion, for example, is an evolved behavior that we have now all have agreed to be very sternly mad at. Birth control divorced sex from pregnancy, and now most of us are happy with how this lets us have chiller sex now. It feels weird to leave polyamory as the exception here; sure, maybe monogamy was evolutionarily beneficial, but so was rape sometimes.
(To be clear to the uncharitable, I’m not equating monogamy with rape, I am pointing out that you can use the evolutionarily beneficial argument to justify some things you might not actually want to justify.)
If everyone is polyamorous, won’t this mean a few men end up with all the women, leaving the low-status men to freeze out in the sexless cold?
Well firstly, we live in a monogamous culture where this is already happening; more women reproduce than men. So the question is, would “everyone going polyamorous” make this problem worse?
Maybe! But good solutions often have side effects, and just because a system has some downsides doesn’t mean the upsides aren’t worth it.
But also I sort of suspect it wouldn’t make the problem worse, actually. Old-style non-monogamy wasn’t polyamory, it was polygamy, where the men were allowed to bang lots of women but the women weren’t allowed to bang lots of men. Imagine the world we have now, except all of the women in relationships could bang you. It makes more women likely to get into relationships, but also makes those relationships less of a barrier to your intimacy with them.
I also suspect it wouldn’t work cause humans like to pair bond; you might imagine all the ladies gazing at Chad with lust in their eyes, but we only have so much time and energy for pair bonding, and ladies tend to want to have at least one partner who is fully committed to building stuff with them, providing their children with resources, etc. Most people who fear polyamory cause of the sex dynamics I think fail to properly model female reproductive strategies here; if you change the rules such that all women can have sexual access to Chad, this will not cause all women to pursue Chad as a long-term partner after he already has one.
I know I’m not all women, but as a data point I have been fully, unquestioningly polyamorous for a decade, and most of my relationships have looked pretty 'traditional’ from the outside, except I’ve just ended up banging more guys than I would have otherwise, including many guys on the virgin end of the sacred chad-virgin spectrum.
“Polyamory is a choice; it’s a conscious lifestyle move, like being a vegan.“
This one’s more complicated; for a lot of people I think this is true! Many people are vegan-poly in the sense that they evaluated it and decided they’d try it.
But some people are poly in the way that gay people are gay; it’s closer to an orientation, an unchangeable piece of identity. Orientation-poly describes me well here; in my first relationship, before I’d ever heard about polyamory at the age of 18, my boyfriend admitted to sexting someone else. I remember feeling not upset at all, but that I was supposed to be upset, so I did some performative scolding and moved on. When I eventually met a couple who explained for the first time to me what polyamory was, it felt like suddenly I was seeing clearly. Oh - that’s what I am. It was instant, without any doubt or evaluation. I was obviously polyamorous. As soon as I had a word for it, that became exclusively what I was, continuously, right until the present day. I’ve never once had a doubt about it, never once thought I might want a monogamous life.
(There’s also other fun parallels I notice to early-stage gay rights culture; poly people are underrepresented in media, and when they are represented it’s usually terrible or trivializing or demonizing. I am very deeply touched, often crying, the rare times I good depictions of poly people in media. I feel subtly alienated by nearly every single romantic plotline in movies, because they’re overwhelmingly monogamous, dealing with monog problems. Legal rights for poly marriages are pretty dismal, although I acknowledge it’s more complicated to work those out than it is for gay people. And of course there’s massive cultural stigma against it and absolutely widespread misconceptions about how polyamory works. Many poly people use the “coming out” concept, usually in conservative areas. I remember talking to someone at an atheist meetup in Idaho, and the way they talked about their life made me guess they were poly; it was very subtle, but I was poly and could smell it on him. When I casually asked him how long he’d known he was poly, a look of fear flashed over his face and he had to pull me aside to whisper yes, he was poly, how did I know this, and no nobody could ever know this, please don’t tell anyone.)
I often wonder how much easier polyamory would be if we had good cultural exposure to it, examples of healthy poly relationships growing up, and helpful representations of it in media.
What if you go poly, and then your partner leaves you for someone else?
Unfortunately this usually happens when the “someone else” is monogamous, and is uncomfortable with your partner being with you. This happened to me once and it sucked, a lot. But ultimately, it revealed that my partner was willing to sacrifice me in order to ease another person’s insecurities - and this is really good information to have! I am glad we didn’t date after that, and I wouldn’t have discovered that information for a long time if we’d been monogamous.
But in general, things get a little wonky if your partners aren’t as fully on board with the polyamory as you are. “My partner wants to try poly and I’m reluctantly agreeing” is one of the most reliable predictors of an upcoming gigantic explosion, based on my anecdotes of watching this happen to people around me.
I did do a big survey several years ago about relationships; I need to redo the data and republish, but my findings were that “very polyamorous” and “very monogamous” people reported about the same level of satisfaction in relationships, while people who reported middling “partially polyamorous” scores had the lowest satisfaction.
(also fun fact, I found avg reported amount of years people had been in primary-partner polyamorous relationships and avg years people had been in monogamous relationships were basically the same)
How can you be poly with kids?
By being poly and having kids, no problem. I know multiple poly parents who seem to be doing great (or sometimes not-so-great, much as monogamous parents sometimes are not-so-great); the time they have for dating other people has definitely dropped a lot, but they’re still poly by my definition of it.
“If I go polyamorous in a relationship, my female partner will have a super easy time finding other people, but it’s hard for me, a man, to date other people.”
You do realize all men and women have had exactly the same average amount of straight sex, right? You also realize that it’s hard for you to date other women because women are selective - and female selectivity is something that will probably also apply to your partner, who will select against other men. Women have a hard time getting dates with someone she will want; men have a hard time getting dates with someone who wants them. In both cases the partnerships are restricted, and in the end it evens out to men and women having exactly the same average amount of straight sex.
There are some situations that make this fear legitimate, though - if you have higher relative standards than your partner, you’re less likely to find someone you want to have sex with. If you’re in a super gender-imbalanced community, it’s gonna make it tough for one of you. If your female partner is actually not picky and a total slut, then yeah good chance she’ll have more sex than you.
But also, this is a competitive frame, and seems like it might come out of fearing discovery that your partner has higher sexual market value than you do. If they have higher SMV, then they have good incentive to leave you. But if you did manage to get into a committed relationship with this person, then they probably don’t have higher SMV; people tend to be pretty evenly matched, at least most of the time!
Jealousy sucks, how do you deal with it?
Everyone handles it differently, but for me and at least some others, jealousy is performing a function - alerting you that your mate might be sucked away into a competitor’s claws.
If your mate would leave you for another person, why would you want to hold them back? If they’ve made concrete commitments to you like raising children or whatever, it makes sense to try to hold them to that commitment. But if you haven’t, then trying to stop a partner from leaving means that they are not with you because they want to, they’re there because you are trying to make them stay. When I’m in a no-external-commitment poly relationship, there’s something deeply comforting about knowing my partners are choosing to spend time with me entirely of their own volition, with no coercion.
If they are sucked away, you will be okay.
Raw exposure to the jealousy might eventually make it fade. If your brain is screaming “they’re going to leave you/spend less time with you/care about you less,” but then over time you find that consistently this is not happening, then the jealousy might fade. I find I am most jealous in new, untested relationships, where I haven’t seen the person not-leave me yet. After a few rounds of my partner dating other people and seeing their attention and care for me not change at all, then some deep part of me starts to realize that my metamours are not a threat, and I chill out.
Remembering that I love my partner and want them to get what they want sometimes helps. I might feel jealous and threatened, but tapping into my empathy for them can take the edge off.
It also seems to me people will be less likely to “get sucked away” at all in polyamory; in monogamy, if they like someone else the only way to be with the other person is to leave you. In polyamory, they have much less incentive to leave you!
I also want to caution against self-suppression in polyamory. There’s an idea of what a good poly person is like - self sacrificing, jealousy-free. It’s going to be hard if you constantly compare yourself to that ideal. When I was less self aware, I’d convinced myself I wasn’t feeling jealousy, because I desperately wanted to be a cool, mature poly person. This is bad and I do not recommend it.
I do think polyamory is ideal, but in the sort of way waking up at 5am, exercising, drinking a green smoothie and then going to work at your orphan-feeding charity is ideal. It’s a nice, idyllic goal, but for a lot of us it’s not practical (I wake up at 10am and shove stale crackers into my mouth for breakfast, personally). This is fine, you are not built to be a superhero. It’s okay to want a partner who is okay being restricted and is okay restricting you. It’s okay to evaluate your desires and pursue ones that aren’t “do five years of expensive workshops in the hopes you might get rid of relationship insecurity when really handsome monog Bob has been looking at you dreamily this whole time and maybe you could just get a fucking start on your life and marry him and then work on starting that community center instead” or whatever.
I’m privileged in that I got born into a polyamorous brain, yes. But still, polyamory feels like a deep value for me. I really want to afford my partner(s) the greatest freedom I can; I want them to have the freedom to pursue what they need, especially when I’m unable to provide it. It can be hard and complicated at some times, but the payoffs are so, so worth it.