4 Things Even Monogamous Folks Can Learn From Polyamory
A study this year revealed that a sizable chunk of the population has at some point practiced consensual non-monogamy (CNM). This may include swinging, polyamory, or open relationships. In fact, slightly more than 1 in 5 of the single adults surveyed reported engaging in some kind of CNM in their life. Clearly this non-monogamy thing is working for a lot of people, but why?
I’ve been poly most of my life and very happy about it. For those of you who don’t know, polyamory is a mess of a word from the Greek poly meaning many and the Latin amor meaning love. Polyamory means that you are allowed to pursue multiple intimate romantic relationships. This is distinct from swinging or open relationships, which often carry the connotation of focusing on sex over intimacy. There are of course millions of exceptions, and people use all kinds of words to describe themselves. My polyamory means my partners and I are all open to the idea of having more than one life partner.
I fully understand why people might not want to be poly. Some people simply don’t have the time, energy, or desire to pursue multiple romantic relationships. That being said, there are certain things that one must do to have a functioning poly relationship, which means developing skills that I think every relationship could benefit from.
How to talk about everything, especially the hard stuff
A lot of people imagine that polyamory is some kind of carte blanche to do whatever you’d like without ever needing to apologize. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Monogamy comes with a set of rules and expectations. People modify them, but there is a basic structure and understanding. When you start dating, you assume that you both come in with a similar set of expectations. I think that this causes all kinds of heartache down the road when it turns out you had totally different expectations, but you never took the time to talk about it.
There are as many kinds of polyamory as there are poly folks. Every new relationship requires renegotiating the rules and terms. You have to talk about safe sex; you have to talk about what kinds of relationships you are comfortable with; you have to talk about what exactly you expect from your partnership, and what you expect from your partners’ partners. As your relationship progresses you will find that you have renegotiate all of these things many times. You cannot just assume that everyone is one the same page.
As your relationship progresses you will have to be incredibly honest about very difficult things. You will have to talk about your jealousy; you will have to talk about your fears; and you will have to be honest about your insecurities. Sometimes it sucks, but I can honestly say the result is incredible. When you have to articulate these things, you also find yourself thinking about them differently. When you’re dealing with multiple partners, this must be ongoing for practical reasons. You can’t simply dismiss a person’s concerns or insecurities, because there are so many other people affected by it.
Even if it isn’t necessary for practical reasons, this kind of communication can only make a relationship stronger. Think how much less stressful new relationships would be if you had to start by talking about what your expectations are and what you are looking for. Think how comfortable your existing relationship could be if you both had to be honest about your own insecurities and accommodating of each other’s.
How to be really really honest, and how to trust that your partner is also being really really honest
This one goes hand in hand with communication. You have to be honest about yourself, your expectations, and your desires. On a more practical level, you have to be very honest with your partners about your other relationships. Did a condom break? You have to tell your other partners. Are you attracted to that cute girl at work? You need to tell your partners. Are you concerned that you’re partner is neglecting you? You need to talk to them about it.
Everyone in your poly network has to be honest, because you all have to trust each other. If you can’t trust your partner’s partner, you can’t trust your partner. It’s hard to develop this kind of trust, but here’s an interesting fact: folks in monogamous relationships contract STIs at the same rate as those practicing consensual non-monogamy. This is true even though the poly folks have more partners. Basically it boils down to the fact that poly people are honest about the partners they have, honest about their condom usage, and get tested more often. I would also add that in my experience poly folks are more honest about if they do have STIs, discuss what precautions they should take, and are more comfortable sharing their sexual history.
Frequently when infidelity happens in a monogamous relationship, one partner does not know. It’s also often impulsive and people are less likely to use protection. If you made a mistake, you need to tell your partner. It’s also worth being honest about attraction. Your partner knows when you’re suddenly all glowy and flirty even if you aren’t cheating on them. Rather than lie to yourself and them and pretend it’s all totally innocent, be honest. Then it is innocent. Maybe your partner doesn’t mind you flirting with other people; flirting is fun after all. Just don’t pretend it isn’t what you’re doing. By being honest and opening up a conversation you are allowing your partner to voice their concerns and you can address them. You can talk about various comfort levels and act appropriately.
How to have amazing non-romantic friendships
If you google opposite-sex friendships you will find any number of links talking about the dangers of opposite-sex friendships. There is a huge debate on whether or not you have the right to be jealous of your partner’s friends, especially if they could potentially be attracted to those friends. One Huffington Post article goes so far as to say, “Many opposite-sex friendships are maintained because of a simmering attraction.” The general internet consensus is that you should not have friendships with people of a gender that you find attractive. This means that bi folks are basically screwed. Also you are very much throwing the baby out with the bath water.
I am the kind of person who forms a small number of very deep friendships; some of these date back to high school. Before learning about the wonders of polyamory, these friendships have caused problems with my romantic partners. People would get jealous of how close I am to my friends. I was unwilling to give up these friendships; I figured (correctly) that they would outlast the romantic attachments. I could be perfectly happy with one sexual partner for the rest of my life. I could not be happy if I couldn’t cuddle up with my best friend on a couch and watch a movie, if every hug that lasted longer than 10 seconds was suspect, or if my husband got jealous because I stay out late partying with a friend.
Ironically the fact that my relationship allows me to have other sexual partners makes it easier for me to have rich, profound, platonic relationships. There is no question of simmering sexual tension. If my friend and I decide that our relationship should be romantic or sexual, we have a romantic relationship. If not, we are incredibly close friends and romance isn’t really an issue. This fantastic network makes me happier and thus my partners are happier. I have people to call when I lock my keys in the car; I have people to lean on when my husband is traveling; I have friends to support and love me. How could this be a bad thing?
Even if you are monogamous, you don’t have to be jealous of every one of your partner’s relationships. Is it so terrible that they have a robust support system? Hopefully your honesty and communication means that they will tell you if there is simmering sexual tension. Hopefully you trust them when they say it isn’t there. And when they assure you that their friendships are just that, friendships, rejoice that the person you love has so many people rooting for them.
How to be vigilant about your health, all of your health
I have a very good friend who spent 7 years in a monogamous relationship convinced that she had genital herpes. She didn’t have health insurance, and she’s not a huge fan of doctors. She did some research online, self-diagnosed, and decided there really wasn’t much to be done about it. As time went on, even after acquiring health insurance, she just decided not to deal with it. Her logic is that once you’re tested, you have to confront it. Again, since she was monogamous, she didn’t see that it really mattered one way or the other.
A few months ago, she and her boyfriend decided to open up their relationship. The first thing she did was go get tested for everything. She had a super honest conversation with her doctor about her lifestyle, about her sexual experiences, about her past partners and got tested for everything. Later that day, I got this voicemail.
“Hi. To be the socially responsible person that I am, I went to the doctor and I got a full work up to see if I have any sexually transmitted diseases. And who has two thumbs and doesn’t have herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, or HIV? This Guy!”
Being Poly, testing is a huge part of my life. It’s one of the first conversations I have with potential partners. This also means that I am staying on top of my annual well-woman visits, as I like to take care of it all at the same time. I realized early on if I was going to have multiple partners I had a greater responsibility to myself and others to take care of my health. Even though I hate doctors, this is something that I am vigilant about.
Regardless of the number of partners you have, it is worth taking care of your health, even the occasionally embarrassing bits. I’ve had friends suffer through itching, burning, and uncomfortable sex much longer than necessary, because they don’t want to talk to a doctor. I know it can be awkward and embarrassing, but go find a doctor you can develop a relationship with and take the time to discuss your whole body with them. Also remember that just because something isn’t debilitating, you don’t have to suffer through it. Sex isn’t a frivolous part of your health. If it’s painful or uncomfortable, please take the time to talk your doctor.
Polyamory works for me. I am not monogamous by nature, and I don’t really think I ever was. Still, learning how to be polyamorous was a lot more complicated than I had thought it would be. I had to learn to be more honest about myself than I ever had in previous relationships. I had to learn to really listen to my partners’ concerns. I had to learn to take care of my health, even though I hate doctors. In the end, all of these things made my life and my partnerships so much richer that is was worth all the hard work. Maybe the practical reasons for all of these things don’t exist in a monogamous relationship. You don’t have to negotiate which TV shows you watch with which partner, or how far ahead you have to plan your calendar, or who you are allowed to flirt with. I do however believe that every relationship can benefit from the skills being poly has forced me to develop.