As a longtime participant in non-monogamous relationships, let me tell you something you already suspected: They're complicated. Contrary to popular belief, they're not a free-for-all, and navigating the boundaries, jealousy, sexual health, and communication (not to mention scheduling,) isn't always easy. And there are plenty of extra questions you have to answer: Do you explore sexual situations solo or together? Is there a hierarchy, and if so, who's the primary? Does one of you have a date coming up? Your place or theirs? Are certain restaurants or bars off-limits? Are snuggles allowed or discouraged? Do you need to purchase gold chains or grow a mustache? How much do you tell your friends, and which ones do you tell? (Hint: Most of them don't want to know.)
But in the end, whether you're a swinger, poly, serially monogamous, consensually non-monogamous, or otherwise, there's one aspect of every relationship that looks more or less the same: the breakup. When lifestyle (the blanket term used for open relationships) couples split, opponents often blame it all on the horrors of sexual promiscuity, but the truth is, poly folks tend to break up for the same reasons as anybody else—anything from cheating, to fights, to incompatibility, to just growing apart. Breakups can be ugly, amicable, or in one notable case, even involve a party (more on that here). But in the end, non-monogamy seems to be a contributing factor about as often as monogamy is.
But don't take my word for it—collected below are stories from people who have been part of pairs, trios, or quads and have been through a non-monogamous relationship and come out the other side (and in many cases, gone right back in again.)
Because while there are a million ways to define being together, being apart looks pretty much the same for everybody.
"A kind of four-plex"
My husband and I have been open for seven years now, and we met a married couple about three years ago. My husband started dating the wife, and I started dating the husband. We were a kind of four-plex. But as their marriage broke down, my relationship with her husband started breaking down, and his wife and I ended up breaking up with the poor guy a day apart.
We all had completely separate relationships; my husband and I had a relationship, my boyfriend and I had a relationship, and my husband and his wife had one. She and my husband are still together now, coming up on three years. He and I were together a year and a half. It was a bit of an adjustment. I lost my boyfriend, and she lost her husband at the same time. And there was a lot of animosity between the two of them. I wasn't quite as angry.
We suspected early on that he was the catalyst for the open relationship. And it turned into a poly relationship at some point—the "I love you's" started flying back and forth, but my boyfriend and his wife had never discussed that. The other married couple had been together 16 years, but they were newer to the whole thing than we were—which we didn't know.
It was interesting how it happened; he definitely started to change as they were falling apart. He started looking to fill the void with affection and affirmation from others; he wanted more from me, but as I'm married with two kids, I couldn't give him the attention he was craving. And at the same time, he got less conscious of the relationships he already had and less thoughtful of our feelings. I found out when we broke up he was also hooking up with four others and hadn't told me.
Don't get me wrong—I don't hold any grudges. We had some good times, and it wasn't this horribly nasty thing. We were both adults. And we decided to be as kind as we could to one another. But that was a big learning experience for me. Don't get involved with couples who don't have their shit in order.
"It was more of an emotional relationship than a physical one"
I'm married, and for a while, I was dating a lesbian couple. We met on FetLife (a social network for the BDSM, fetish, kinky community); they'd posted they were looking for an additional partner, and we'd chatted online for a while before we decided to meet up. And after a couple of weeks, we had a first date. And everything was going really well. We got to know each other and started dating. It was more of an emotional relationship than a physical one: cuddling, stuff on the couch, but nothing past that. It was my first foray into a poly relationship—my wife has been in one for four months now—and it was really eye-opening to dive into that—trying something new, understanding the dynamics between scheduling, balance with my wife and my partners, and making sure everyone had the right amount of attention.
We dated for four or five months, and when we started, it was going very smoothly. But over time, we started to have some challenges. My new partners wanted a lot more time than what I could give them. I tried really hard to make sure things were balanced, but I also have a wife and kids, and they have to be somewhat of a priority. And then, as well, the relationship had been emotional and based on support. For me, venturing into the poly world, I thought it was a great testing ground, but it could be emotionally draining. And I realized that in terms of relationships, I'd also want something that involved a physical component—kissing, touching, snuggling, other stuff in that vein. And they weren't interested in that. My wife's relationship, for example, has been growing organically, and they're both engaged physically and emotionally, and that's something I'm still looking for. And I finally said, "That's something I need to feel connected to you." We tried to find some middle ground—we tried making out, for example—but it didn't end up working for them. And they took my interest in a physical component as being pushy or aggressive. We also didn't have that much in common. Our social beliefs and our political beliefs were quite different. So it got to the point where we all had to step back and say, "This isn't working."
And it was really emotional. Do we end this? Is that the only option? And sadly, it was. In relationships, you need to make sure everyone involved is getting something out of it.
"We started playing separately"
Lifestyle stuff didn't have a ton to do with the end of my relationship, but it definitely contributed.
It had been his idea to get into the lifestyle in the first place. We met just out of college. I wasn't that keen on it initially, but I think he'd always hoped—to a degree—that I was secretly super bisexual, and that we'd go have all these threesomes. But that wasn't really the case for me. I mean, we did do a lot of that, because I knew he was really into it, but I never felt like I was getting what I wanted.
In the last year, we started playing separately, which wasn't something we'd ever done before. But then, about four months before we broke up, he told me he wanted to stop doing that and go back to doing only group stuff. The problem is, the crowd we were involved was more vanilla than I was, and I felt like I was getting the short end of the stick. So being able to play separately was my outlet.
Like I said, there were a lot of other factors, but certainly once I wasn't happy in the relationship, I became less respectful of what my partner wanted, lifestyle-wise. We'd been together for 12 years, and we'd always communicated quite a bit, talking about what was working and what wasn't working, and for a long time, we were both really honest. But once things started not working for me, I stopped communicating and basically stopped being respectful. Although by then, it didn't feel like he was listening to me, either.
For the longest time, I was struggling with admitting to myself that I was done with the relationship. You get used to people knowing the two of you together. And our friends had always been like: "You guys are the perfect couple. You're so happy." And when you hear that enough, you start to wonder: Is there actually a problem? Is there something wrong with me?
What finally happened was that he found out I'd been out playing separately and hadn't told him. By then, I had essentially stopped caring and ended up doing things on my own without his knowledge. And he actually wanted to stay together and work it out. But it was a wake-up call for me. It was clear that if I was at the point where I was doing things like that, then I'm done.
The breakup itself was pretty amicable. We're communicating, and everything is ultimately going to be fine. But I definitely feel like an asshole for how things went down.
"I noticed a lot of jealous looks"
I met my current partner during a three-way poly relationship with him and his then fiancée. And we ended up staying together even after they broke up.
They were the primary couple when I came on the scene. I was looking for a steady couple to be in a relationship with, and I communicated a lot with his fiancée first—I asked her a variety of questions before letting my walls down to let them into my life.
I had a feeling early on that she wasn't completely onboard with being poly; originally I had met them in the swinger community several years earlier as soft-swappers (non-monogamous couples who have non-penetrative sex with others), so I thought that was a pretty drastic change in such a short time. She reassured me repeatedly that she was comfortable with the idea, but as time went on, I noticed a lot of jealous looks and uncomfortable situations.
During the nine months we were all together, I wasn't allowed personal time with him, even though I had loads of personal time with her. While all three of us were together, I could show unlimited affection to her, but the moment I showed affection to him, she'd throw a fit. Pretty quickly, I started to feel like it wasn't what I agreed to. I asked her several times to have all three of us sit down and reevaluate our relationship, but she would always make excuses for it not to happen.
Then one day, she sat me down and said she'd lied about everything. She didn't want to be poly and that she was doing it all for him, but that I couldn't say anything. She blew up my phone with messages begging me not to call things off with him. So I brought it up to him, and it turned out she'd been seeing a bunch of guys on the side without my knowledge and had been fine with the arrangement until they all dumped her. Then suddenly, poly wasn't something she wanted—at least until she found somebody new. In the end, all the lying was more than we could handle. Once we discovered everything, he and I decided to stay together even after they split up.
We're a lot stronger as a couple as a result, but nowadays we tend to steer clear of poly relationships. We like to attend parties and clubs, any social events. We like meeting sexy new friends, but as a general rule, we keep it at a distance when it comes to developing any sort of relationship. I'm just too guarded now. I feel like there can be some wonderful things about open and poly relationships, but just like in any relationship, there needs to be honesty and trust. Lies and deceit make it impossible.
Jesse Donaldson is a Vancouver-based author.