While monogamy works for some, others spend their lives serially cheating on their partners while trying and failing to adhere to it. As an alternative, there are people who have found that some form of polyamory—of which there are many varieties—is the right choice for them. Dubbed by some media as a new sexual revolution, being more open to poly arrangements is steadily growing.
VICE spoke to people who are in poly relationships to find out the nuances of their arrangements and how they make non-monogamy work for them and their partners.
I'm in an open relationship right now, but we haven't done anything too serious with other people yet. If there is some guy I want to bang, we do discuss it. With my ex, he didn't really sleep with other people. Some men I've been in relationships with, even though they had the chance to, they didn't because they felt pressured, which is really weird because they didn't mind if I [slept with others]. My ex and I had group sex together sometimes, but other than that, he was fine with me doing my thing and was just happy that I was happy. But that just wasn't who he was.
What makes polyamorous relationships so difficult is that the rules aren't written across our society. A heterosexual, normative relationship is much easier to be in because the rules are there—that's considered cheating, that's not. You have media, you have everything in society telling you. As soon as you venture out of that one kind of relationship, you have to discuss it a painful number of times. You're constantly talking about what the rules are.
With my most recent relationships, the biggest issue we had was that I am impulsive. Usually the rule is that they want to know about it before it happens. But, I like to go with the flow, and if an opportunity arises, I just want to go with it. What I love about it so much is getting caught up in romance, and having to stop and report back just kind of takes it away for me personally. Recently, I was with the guy I'm in an open relationship with at a club, but he was on the other side of the club. I was on the stage on this pole, and then I just like threw my cunt in this guy's face who was right under me. I was in a skirt, and I just sat on his face in the middle of the club, then I jumped down and started kissing him. It was 1:20 AM, the club closes at 2 and, like fuck it, I am not going to go have that conversation right now to see if he's OK with it—I can have it in 40 minutes. As soon as the club closed, I found him, and we talked.
How I want my life to be like when I'm older is to either be part of two couples who are exclusive to each other or in a three-way relationship. If it's a trio, I prefer me, a girl, and a man; if it's two couples together, I prefer both to be a man and a woman. It sounds like the way I'd want to be in my 70s, at the end of my days.
My girlfriend and I met at a [swinger] party, and we hit it off immediately. We've been together a year and a half. Rules are constantly evolving. The one trap I fall into sometimes is that I think what would bother me and assume other people have the same things they're OK with. We have started writing down rules at this point. We have had times where we bother each other. One time I did too much MDMA and wasn't really aware that she was there, and we had a conversation about that after and decided to tone down the drugs when we do things because we're not as aware about our partners and their feelings when we're really out of it.
Up until a month ago, we had always done things together. She had a fantasy about being with a girl alone and met this girl who we tried have a threesome with before, but found out she's not really into guys. She wanted to keep seeing this girl, so then we opened it up to seeing other people [separately]. Our basic rules are we always tell each other what we're going to do, but keep some of the details out of it. We don't necessarily want to hear, "We did this, this, and this," but, "Yes, I am going to be with this person tonight."
We won't have sex alone with another person in our bed if the other one isn't there. I would rather have a five-some or a six-some because I feel like group play is less emotional than one-on-one; she feels one-on-one is not as much, so that's where we differ.
Some of [reconciling differences in preference] it is that you have a fight and learn. That's why we started writing things down—you learn that sometimes what you're OK with, the other person isn't OK with. A lot of it is talking about individual people. I know it might sound weird to go through a roster of possibilities and say, "OK, they're fine; they're not." But that's sometimes how it has to be.
When my girlfriend and I first started seeing each other, you get to a point with dating when you're poly where you're like, "You need to be aware that in the future I may or may not want to see other people at the same time as you. You have to be OK with that if you want to date me." We got to that point, and it turns out we were both poly but at the time weren't seeing anyone else. Since then, I don't have any other relationships per se, but I do have partners in the kink scene. For example, there's someone I see regularly who I do rope bondage with.
It's a matter of circumstance for me. For me, with the kink scene, that's going to happen no matter what… I need that in my life. That's just on the side, then in terms of my romantic relationships, right now I am just dating one person because I'm super in love with her, and I haven't met anyone else who I feel that way about. I've been in multiple relationships at once in the past. For example, I was seeing one guy where I would go and hang out with him and his whole family, then we would have our dates on our own time… He and his wife were both poly.
You have to talk to people, lots of communication—people say that's the key, and that's because it is. When problems come up, you just logistically have more to deal with… I don't just identify as poly, I identify as solo poly, which is a little bit lesser known… Solo poly is where instead of fully combining your life with someone else, you retain your sense of autonomy. That could mean having your own place or having your own room in a place that you share with your partners, or it could just mean that you always have the last say… It also has a lot to do with avoiding a hierarchy. How that fits into my life is that once new relationship energy calms down, I need a lot of time for myself. That's something that makes my relationship work in a weird way.
I've been with my husband for 15 years and with my boyfriend for a year and a half. In prior relationships, I would have done the more hierarchal stuff, but for me, when you've been together for so long, primary becomes natural—and especially when you add things like marriage, owning a car, a house.
We've been open since 2006, so I've had multiple partners; so has he. My husband hasn't dated anyone in a while except for someone very briefly, so rules are a bit different right now. It's been a couple of years, so it's almost like we're starting from scratch when he does go out with people, whereas I've continuously been dating other people. The rules are different depending on who you're with, and at the end of the day, it's about being flexible. There's two ways of doing things: You can have rules to start with and see if you're OK with things and then have less rules, or you can go into it with no rules and see what works. We more plan it ahead of time and see what we're OK with.
When you have a breakup, it is both the worst and the best at the same time. It's the worst because it's a breakup, but then you also have to get on with your life and give your partner who's still around attention. On the flip side, the reason that it's good is because since you still have a relationship with one partner, it's like you have your best friend there to support you… I've had a lot of disastrous breakups. I've been in many situations where it is [someone's first poly relationship]. For some, maybe they like the idea of it at first, but then when they're faced with the reality of it… it can be a bit scary for people. I've been with people who really thought they wanted to take that leap, but then suddenly got really scared and decided they were never going to stop being monogamous—they were just going to cheat on partners forever because they couldn't handle living an "abnormal" way of life. The problem is you can never tell who those people are going to be.
I've written a book on polyamory, so I could go on, but one thing I learned a lot is about equality and what it really means… People can build a lot of resentment up because they see their partner doing something and feel they either have to do it or you don't want them to do it. At the end of the day, people need to realize as long as each of you are getting your individual needs and desires met, it doesn't matter if they are different.
I have always been non-monogamous—even when I was in so-called "monogamous" relationships. I didn't know about "poly" until I was an adult and immediately felt relieved thinking, Oh, finally, this describes me completely! Although I was in monogamous relationships in high school, I always had a side dish or two. With my current partner, I was very open about not ever loving one person at a time and that I crush easily on others. We played with poly rules and relationships, but found it hard to manage initially without really hurting each other. I then read the book The Ethical Slut, and it gave me some framework on how to make things work. We found it was easier to open up our relationship after we got married. We were solid that we were coming home to one another every night, so it gave us the comfort and security to play knowing we were still crazy about each other.
We started with a close friend and on-again-off-again fling I'd had for over ten years and ended up having a couple of fun threesome nights together—that eventually didn't work out. We started going to a sex club, but usually just ended up having sex with each other while others played closeby. Now, I'm pregnant and encourage my husband to go out and play as much as he wants, but he hasn't found the time to yet.
The fact that we both have carte blanche to go out and see what else is out there helps us solidify how amazing our connection and relationship is. We rarely get back after spending time with others without thinking, Oh my god, I'm so lucky to have you or You get me so much better than anyone else out there. For me, it also feels different to have the permission to "go out and play" and choose not to because I love my hubby so much.
I've been in my current relationship for 12 years—ten years together, married for two. We started [being poly] at our one-year anniversary. I was very curious and had taken him to a swingers club; we started very small, like baby steps. I've never really believed in monogamy and having one guy for my entire life. I knew we were in a great place with our relationship and really trusted each other, so I wanted to try it. The goal was small at first: just find a girl [at a sex club] to do oral sex with me. It started there and grew from that.
We dabble into it. We are comfortable with other people together or separate. The first rule we had when we started was you ask, and it's yes or no—there's no explanation. "Can I do this to this person?" And it's yes or no. If it's no, you move on. Always wear protection is definitely a rule. Then we have "vacation" rules because we do a lot of separate things when we're out with our friends: You can't be with someone for more than 48 hours and call me before bed. Rules are always changing; you have all these conversations about what you're comfortable with and what you're not, and it changes from when you're first getting into the scene versus when you're in it for ten years. We spoke in our early years about no cuddling, no kissing, but also, we thought that was more intimacy and not love. It's hard when you're trying to turn someone on without kissing, so that rule kind of died quick.
I think I prefer separate right now, but we [sleep with people] together too. It's fun to incorporate your partner, but we've been together for so long that it's nice to sometimes be by yourself and have an intimate relationship with someone new and have those feelings all over again… At one point [my husband and I] didn't want to tell each other details, that was a rule. The rule now is that you can do whatever you want, but I need full details after because I think it's so hot.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
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