This article originally appeared in April 2010 on ClarisseThorn.com. Republished here with permission.
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which people have multiple lovers, and are honest with each other about doing so. I have a lot more theoretical exposure to polyamory than personal experience, but I’ve been gaining more personal experience over the last year. It’s often interesting, sometimes painful.
Some recent experiences are making me think I am not nearly as smart or as on top of my emotions as I like to believe I am. I remind myself that I have to be willing to acknowledge when I don’t know what I’m thinking, but that’s harder than it looks … I don’t always take enough time to understand my feelings before speaking or acting.
Still. Through the stupid mistakes and the understandable ones, through my own failures to be sensitive and the little heartbreaks I’ve sustained, I’ve been learning.
One thing I think I’ve figured out is what I want: I want a number of different relationships that are ongoing, and one or two relationships that are primary, or especially committed. Ideally, in fact, I’d love to eventually have a permanent relationship with a primary polyamorous partner in which we have kids with each other, live together most of the time, etc, but are still polyamorous. That would be a while in the future, though—for now, it’s important to me to not feel as though my partners expect me to settle down or stay in one place or anything like that. It seems like any relationship I develop, even during this relatively early time in my life, could become a child-rearing relationship eventually—like, years from now—but if it does, I doubt I’d want to make it monogamous.
I recognize that we don’t always get our ideal world. In fact, we usually don’t. Although polyamory is a high priority for me, it may be something I eventually compromise on, given that the majority of people in this world identify as monogamous. (On the other hand, it’s worth noting that research shows 40% of young couples don’t agree with each other about whether they’re monogamous or not. How are these people communicating?)
Keeping all that in mind, my preference for polyamory presents some challenges, and questions that I worry about. Such as:
1. What are my responsibilities towards my partners’ other partners? A lot of poly people will tell you that if you get into a relationship with, say, a married polyamorous man, then you must also expect to interact with his spouse. In other words, don’t assume that your relationship means you only interact with one half of a couple. I’m totally fine with this, but on occasion I’ve felt like I was getting sucked into the couple’s problems, or like I was expected to have no individual relationship with my partner—that I always had to go through his primary partner.
Yes, it is certainly my responsibility to communicate with my partners’ other partners and to be friendly with them. But I need to set boundaries on that too—just dating a poly guy does not make me their relationship therapist, and it doesn’t make me best friends with his other girlfriends (or boyfriends, for that matter). I am responsible for what I do, but I’m not responsible for what he does. I am responsible for how I treat his spouse, but I can’t be responsible for how he treats his spouse.
But what if I’m already friends with someone, and one of my partners gets involved with that person? Do I have special responsibilities in that case? I’m still figuring that one out. (Insights from commenters are welcome.)
2. When is it actually the best time to start talking about polyamory and setting out relationship definitions? My approach so far has been to put poly on the table during initial conversations, and then talk about it more when the topic of the relationship comes up. But I’ve been thinking lately that I probably should go into more detail sooner, because people have such different stereotypes of open relationships that I can’t be sure they’re on board with what I’m talking about unless we’ve discussed polyamory in-depth.
I feel like I talk to a lot of people who think they want a supposedly “polyamorous” relationship because they see it as a no-strings-attached free-for-all, and that’s definitely not what I want. Or I talk to people who back away from polyamory for the same reason. I see polyamory as being about more commitment to relationship negotiation, not less. I see it as being about setting individual boundaries, if necessary—it’s not about having no boundaries. I see it as being about creating a secure situation for all parties involved—not making anyone insecure, or ignoring anyone’s needs. And being polyamorous doesn’t make my relationships unimportant to me. Being in love doesn’t seem at odds with polyamory for me.
This is a hard thing to communicate in a small dose, though, especially if I’m dealing with someone who has minimal exposure to the concept. On the other hand, having a Serious Conversation about polyamory on the first date is a bit much. (Ideas about the middle ground are welcome.)
3. Is it a good idea for me to get involved with guys who ultimately want monogamy? As I noted earlier, I might compromise to monogamy eventually, but poly is a priority for me. (Who knows, maybe I’ll decide it’s my ideal relationship formation again someday. This seems unlikely to me right now, but anything’s possible.)
But what if I get really into a guy who ultimately plans to be monogamous? Is this a bad call on my part? On the one hand, if I go on a few dates with a 28-year-old guy who doesn’t want to get married until his mid-30s but definitely wants a monogamous marriage when he does … I mean, why not have a relationship? On the other hand, I may be setting myself up for heartbreak in such situations, if he basically sees our relationship as “not real” from the start. This brings me to my next point ….
4. Some people see polyamory as a sign of commitment-phobia. I’ve made this mistake myself—in fact, the “polyamory as commitment-phobia” stereotype is so strong that I’ve occasionally reversed it and wondered if my desire for it was a sign of commitment-phobia. But the fact is, my appreciation for polyamory only increased as I became more certain about what I’m seeking in a partner, and as I gained more understanding of how to negotiate that. It’s come along with relationship confidence and understanding.
I feel pretty okay with believing in commitment in the context of polyamory. But my potential partners might not be. I already tend towards emotional caginess and am sometimes accused of being way too emotionally controlled—I’m worried that I’ll be read as a “player” (or a “slut”) by people who write me off as a result. I’m also worried that some may be attracted to me because they see me as an emotionless player, whether they admit it or not—indeed, even if they don’t admit it to themselves—and will be annoyed if I turn out not to be that way. Stereotypes and assumptions are tricky to root out whether we’re aware of them or not.
Some days, I get nervous that the guys who are going to be willing to talk about and process relationships in the depth that I’m looking for, with a degree of acknowledged emotional commitment, are all monogamous. Then I remind myself of how many awesome polyamorous men I know, and also that I’m falling for stereotypes yet again, just by having these fears.
5. Other questions:
How open am I to casual relationships that don’t seem to be going in an emotional direction, given that I don’t have to give up on more serious relationships to have them?
How does being poly change breakup dynamics?
In the absence of monogamy, are there different signifiers that a relationship is serious—or is getting serious? How can I get better at both giving and reading those signifiers?
What are the other poly stereotypes I’ve internalized, and how do I act against them? What are the other poly stereotypes I should look out for from others?
Rereading all my questions and rethinking all my thoughts makes me feel somewhat exhausted. Relationships are hard, and hacking the expected models makes them hopefully more fulfilling … but also so much more complicated. My life seems so weird sometimes; a week doesn’t go by that I don’t wonder why I’m not getting a nice typical job and settling down with a white picket fence and the monogamous husband and having 2.5 kids. That is not actually what I want, but sometimes the image seems seductively easy.
Clarisse Thorn is Role/Reboot’s Sex + Relationships Editor.