More and more young people are abandoning monogamy in favour of polyamory. But what is a polyamorous relationship and how do you make it work?
Ever since she was 13 years old, Sarah knew she was interested in women.
“Coming from an Islamic background, that wasn’t accepted. I always held in any feelings I had,” she said. So Sarah followed the heteronormative path: She met, fell in love with, and married her husband, Hassan. “I thought: I found someone... I don’t need to attend to those other feelings.”
Fourteen years into their relationship, she finally told Hassan that she wanted to experiment with women. To her surprise, he offered to be her wingman. “The first time, it was in a club. I [wore] a shirt that said ‘wingman,’” he said. The couple were on the dance floor when Hassan locked eyes with a woman on the second level of the club. Sarah was interested. “I thought: ‘That girl has a really nice smile.” When the woman came downstairs to talk to Hassan, he immediately pointed her to his wife. “Eventually, Sarah was dancing with her, they ended up kissing. I’m like, Oh cool, it actually did work,” Hassan said.
Sarah went on to form a polyamorous relationship with the woman for six months, at which point Hassan joined in and they formed a triad for another three months. “After having experiences with women outside of the relationship, I questioned: Can you love more than one person at once?” Sarah said.
They are among many people increasingly turning to polyamorous relationships and other forms of non-monogamy.
But what does it really mean to be polyamorous?
What it really means to identify as polyamorous
Being polyamorous generally involves having multiple romantic relationships at once, with the knowledge and consent of all partners. Polyamory is considered a relationship orientation and sits within the umbrella of consensual non-monogamy—which also includes open relationships, swinging and being monogamish.
“Being polyamorous means you acknowledge that you have the capacity and willingness to love more than one person at once,” Jenna Trostle, a Melbourne-based polyamorous relationship therapist, told VICE.
Essentially, monogamy provides a blueprint for our intimate relationships, and this mindset forces us to demarcate our great loves from our great crushes or our friends from our fuck-buddies. On the other hand, polyamory has no blueprint. It blurs the edges of what society deems acceptable in our intimate relationships. (Why can’t you see a movie with your new crush before going home to spoon your spouse?)
Polyamory also acknowledges that our romantic love for one person doesn’t lessen our romantic love for another.
“Even though most people already love multiple people at the same time throughout our lives—we love both of our parental figures, or have a few deep friendships at once, or love all of our pets or children—there’s still an idea in mainstream society that romantic love can only be felt for one person at a time without endangering it. Love isn’t a finite resource though—loving one person doesn’t take away from our capacity to love another,” Trostle said.
But polyamory (and the motivations for it) is different for everyone.
“For [most] people I talk to, it feels like an innate part of who they are. It's not a choice as much as it is how they exist in the world. They’re still polyamorous even when they’re single,” Trostle said.
“Other people choose polyamory because they want to challenge the system, or experience something from one space that they can't get from another—for example, a kink dynamic where their partner is vanilla but they also have Dom. For those people, it feels less like an orientation and more like an option.”
Polyamory means different things to different people. For Trostle, being polyamorous means having reciprocal freedom in her relationships.
Katherine, a 27-year-old polyamorous woman, said being polyamorous gives her a sense of freedom. “I feel like I can do what I like and don’t have to think at the back of my mind: ‘what’s that person going to think?’. Because I’m doing something that makes me happy, I know the other person will be happy for me.”
Polyamorous relationships and terms to know
Polyamory has a language that captures almost every feeling and relational scenario. Here are some of the more common terms you might encounter.
Comet: an occasional lover who enters and exits your life sporadically, with no expectation to start a relationship.
Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT): a relationship structure where one or both partners have romantic or sexual relationships outside the partnership, without telling their partner or introducing them to the outside lovers.
Hierarchical polyamory: hierarchical polyamory has two camps: prescriptive and descriptive. In prescriptive polyamory, you prioritise your most significant other (MSO)—say your husband or wife—over other partners. In descriptive polyamory, you prioritise your MSO, but agree that as you get to know other partners they may become more entwined in your life (they might meet your family).
Hinge: seeing multiple people at once and allowing each relationship to evolve on its own terms. Variations include a “V” or “W” scenario (having two and three separate three partners respectively.)
Kitchen table polyamory: a style of polyamory that involves family-style connections between romantic partners, including among those who aren’t dating. The idea is that all partners can sit around a kitchen table over breakfast.
New relationship energy: the overpowering, almost giddy sense of excitement you feel in a new relationship.
Non-hierarchical polyamory: the practice of having multiple partners, friends and loved ones without prioritising any one relationship over another. NHP rejects the “relationship escalator” (see below).
Parallel polyamory: when a person has multiple romantic partners at once but they don’t overlap or meet.
Relationship escalator: the success markers and expectations for intimate relationships. The idea is that partners take a visible set of steps towards a clear goal—date, buy a dog with breathing difficulties, move in, sign a mortgage, procreate and die happily ever after.
Relationship smorgasbord: the idea that each partner fills a few plates from your buffet of needs and desires. “You might have one partner with whom you have sex and dinner dates with, but don’t want to live with them. You might have another partner who you live, snuggle and kiss with—but you don’t have sex,” Trostle said.
Triad or quad: a ployamorous relationship involving three or four people respectively.
Unicorn hunting: when a couple seeks to bring a “unicorn”, often a hypothetical woman, into their relationship to spice things up or complete their union. That “unicorn” (called so because they are exceedingly rare) is expected to exclusively date both of them, agree only to have sex with both of them in the room, and/or move in.
Polyamory vs. polygamy
Polyamory is flexible, yet shouldn’t be confused with polygamy—the practice of having multiple wedded spouses at once. Being ployamorous also doesn’t mean you support polygamy. Hassan said that while his sect of Islam believes in polygyny (having multiple wives) he doesn’t.
Common myths about polyamory
From constant orgies to constant heartbreak—there’s no shortage of myths about polyamorous relationships. Chief among them is that adding another person to your monogamous relationship will fix it.
“There's this idea that somebody will fit into [the couple’s] life, be attracted to them equally, and be the missing piece in their relationship problems. It usually doesn't… pan out that way,” Trostle said. “The couple who are already involved can tend to prioritize each other's needs… and often that [third] person has a lot of feelings about that.”
Polyamory isn’t all orgies, kink and swingers nights, either. Being poly doesn’t guarantee interest in all, or any, of those things (though we’re not against it). Trostle said the belief that polyamorous people are always having sex is misguided.
“Most of the polyamorous people I know are having a lot more conversations than sex. It’s a lot of ‘what does your schedule look like? What does mine look like?’ It’s less orgies, more admin.” As a poly, you might be in multiple relationships yet having no sex at all, or only having sex with some partners.
Hassan said that he is more interested in emotional than physical connections. “If sex happens, sex happens. I'm not necessarily chasing that.”
It’s one thing to challenge your misconceptions around polyamory. But how do you actually build a healthy polyamorous relationship?
How to have a healthy polyamorous relationship
Start with the basics.
“Communication is the most important part of any successful relationship, whether it be monogamy or polyamory,” Trostle said. “The more that you can work on communicating with somebody else in a way that is non-blaming and really talking about what you need—that's really helpful in any sort of relating.”
It can be hard to discuss who’s taking the rubbish out, let alone how your partner triggered your abandonment issues at the sex party. So it helps to talk in a safe, structured space. Katherine recommended regular “check-ins”—a relationship audit of sorts. In the early days, she and one of her partners would have fortnightly “check-in meetings”.
“I would write dot points of how I was feeling, try to figure out why I was feeling that way, go to my partner and read them out,” she said. “They would listen to everything I said, communicate to me why I might be feeling that way and reassure me that they love me.” Katherine said that while she initially cried through these conversations, over time they became easier.
Speaking of tears, it’s important to sit with your emotions as they happen. Few of us are immune to feelings of jealousy, insecurity and inadequacy. But there is strength in questioning your feelings and working to reframe them. By doing this, polyamorous folks learn to embrace emotional states like compersion—the joy you get when your partner invests in or takes pleasure from another polyamorous relationship.
Polyamorous folks also learn how to reframe jealousy into something positive. “My partner can go and have a wonderful, romantic relationship with somebody else who's smart, funny, sexy, beautiful and has a great career. And they still choose to come back to me… That’s kind of an ego boost,” Trostle said. Katherine said she has reframed her own feelings of jealousy by practicing empathy for her partners. “We always think that everything is about us... But somebody doesn't do things to make you upset. They’re doing things because something else makes them feel good.”
Being in polyamorous relationships doesn’t mean you can always pass go, collect $200 and bonk everyone. Boundaries are essential for healthy polyamorous relationships. “It’s possible to cheat in a polyamorous relationship, but it’s harder to do so because there’s so much more communication and permission,” Trostle said. Boundaries in polyamorous relationships change all the time—what’s ok today may be abominable tomorrow—so you can constantly reassess them. “Whether it's a new person I'm speaking with, a new relationship or if things change in the dynamic in [an existing] relationship, I always bring it back to: what are our boundaries and what are each of us comfortable with?” Sarah said.
Adding a screaming, shitting baby to any rocky relationship won’t fix it, and the same goes for adding another partner. If you’re considering opening up your relationship, make sure you’ve got a solid foundation first. “There’s a level of happiness you can achieve by fulfilling parts of yourself that you may not fulfill with one person. But if you’ve got things to address in your own relationship, do that first,” Sarah said.
Also, get a calendar and thank us later.
How to start a polyamorous relationship
If you’re thinking about starting a polyamorous relationship, gird your gonads. Whether you’re doing it solo or in an existing relationship, de-monogamising your mind is a challenge. Trostle said you can seek out information and communities—books, films, online groups and forums, and polyamorous discussion groups. “It's really important to find that community where you can talk to people, ask questions and not be shamed for it,” she said. She also recommended books like Polysecure; The Ethical Slut; Love’s Not Color Blind; Mating in Captivity; and Sex At Dawn.
If you’re in a monogamous relationship and considering polyamory, communicate with your partner about your needs and why you want to try polyamory. Acknowledge that it will be painful, but boundaries can help you both in the early days.
“Start with boundaries and rules. Then you can start eliminating them the more comfortable and open you are with your partners,” Hassan said.
Katherine suggested starting with lofty boundaries, especially if you don’t know what you’re comfortable with. “You can set lots of rules and boundaries at the beginning. You can say: ‘I don't want you to sleep over at that person's house. Just go on a date and come back.’ That’s okay, because you're working through your jealousy at a smaller scale.”
Ultimately, you’ll never know how you feel about you or your partner trying something new until it happens. At some point, you have to dive in. “Through trial and error, that's where we've learned the most,” Sarah said. Once you go out and experience new things, you can come back and figure out how you and your partner/s feel about it.
While polyamory is a lot of work, the polyamorous folks we spoke to said it’s worth it and has been a conduit for self-discovery. “Polyamory is a journey of yourself. Whatever you’re feeling is a self-reflection,” Katherine said.
For Sarah and Hassan, transitioning to a polyamorous relationship has strengthened their marriage. Hassan said it has given him a greater appreciation for his wife. “I’ve been able to understand how other people are, and realise that [Sarah] is very accepting of a lot of things I do.” Sarah said she’s found the whole process fun and fulfilling, and felt supported by her husband every step of the way. “I know that I have support to be fully who I am.”
Polyamorous dating sites
The polyamorous folks we spoke to said it can be hard to find other polies. But with enough persistence, they’ve found like-minded people on OkCupid, Tinder, Bumble, RedHotPie, Feeld, Meetup and through Facebook groups and events.