Polyamory 101: What is Polyamory?

Since I’m noticing more and more people interested in relationship alternatives to monogamy on social media, I decided to write about polyamory from the perspective of a relationship counselor. First, I’m going to get into what polyamory is, how it’s different from monogamy, cheating, open relationships, and swinging, and the different ways someone can be polyamorous depending on their needs. Then I’m going to talk about how to get into polyamory (as a single individual & as people in an ongoing relationship) from the perspective of a relationship counselor. This post is designed to share basic information about polyamory and to generally help people start to think about their own experiences in relationships and what their needs/wants are.

Before I get into polyamory, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page with what certain words and concepts mean. And I want to make sure that y’all can see what polyam (short for polyamory) clearly is as compared to some other ways of doing the whole relationship thing. Relationships are ways of being connected with one another. There are many different ways to connect with 1 or more people and usually we sort out different types of relationship by how it looks (the structure) and what’s going on between people in the relationship (the dynamics). Humans are generally social creatures on some level. Some people need more social time than others, but generally, we tend to enjoy the company of others in many different ways. We have many different kinds of relationships going on in our lives: family relationships, friendships, coworkers, acquaintances, classmates, homeboy at the bodega, the plug, the barber/hair stylist/braider, baby mommas, exes who you still talk to, lovers, partners, etc. With many different structures and dynamics. We make different kinds of commitments depending on the situation and depending on the dynamics/vibes, etc. in that relationship. You’re not gonna promise your barber a 5-ever love, but you are gonna commit to being in that chair at least 2x/month for as long as that hand is steady.

Different Types of Relationships:

Monogamy: Monogamy (if we’re going by the book here) is when 2 people (structure) decide to be sexually and romantically exclusive with each other (dynamics). This is the type of relationship that we are all pushed by society into trying to conform to. Just like we all are pushed to conform to being cisgender (Google it if you don’t know what this means) and straight. As if everyone is the same. As if everyone loves, dates, and/or has sex the same way (if at all). People don’t even eat grits or rice the same way. There’s no way 1 relationship structure/dynamics style is going to be a comfortable fit for everyone.

NOTE: Other relationships are non-monogamous because they involve partners being sexually connected to others on some level (swinging and open relationships) and/or being romantically connected to others (polyamory).

Swinging: Swinging is when a couple that was previously monogamous decides they want to have sex with single people and other couples, called swingers. This usually happens at swinging parties or privately where all the partners can see and/or are aware this is happening. Other than having sex with other people, the couple is romantically exclusive with each other. Meaning the other connections are only sexual. They are dating and in a relationship with just each other.

Open Relationships: A couple decides to have sex with and maybe date other people outside of that main relationship. They can have sex with people together and/or separately. They can date people together and/or separately. It depends on what each couple agrees on. However, those sexual partners and dates tend to come second to the main relationship.

NOTE: None of this is polyamory. At the end of the day, in all of these relationships styles, there is only 1 actual relationship. There is 1 main relationship, like a main character in a movie and everyone else is an always uncommitted extra.

Polyamory: A polyamorous person is someone who can date, commit to, and/or love more than 1 person. It’s different from the other relationship styles I mentioned before because it does not focus only on sex and/or dating.Polyamory involves being in multiple relationships with multiple people. Building connections, feelings, and commitments with more than 1 person. Each relationship looks different depending on the situation and on the needs of the people in each relationship. In polyam, none of the relationships are secret. Every relationship has its boundaries and commitments depending on what the people in the relationship(s) want.

Ok, So Explain To Me Like I’m 2 How This Ain’t Just Cheating?

Cheating is when someone breaks the commitments in their relationship. Most people focus on sexual cheating, but there other ways to break trust. Cheating happens in non-monogamous relationships too. Cheating can involve lying, hiding pieces of information, breaking promises, etc. The main difference between having sex and/or dating outside of a relationship and cheating is honesty and clear communication. If you feel like you have to lie or hide something from a partner in any kind of relationship, something is wrong. Cheating and breaking commitments in relationships are violations regardless of how many people you’re dating. Serial cheating is emotional abuse and opening up your relationship or even becoming polyamorous will not stop a partner from cheating. Non-monogamous relationships are not a consolidation prize for monogamous partners who have given up or a muzzle to keep people who cheat from hurting their partners. If they can’t handle 1 commitment without breaking it, they are not gonna be able to juggle more than 1. At that point, you would be dragging innocent bystanders into your mess and that’s not fair.

How Do You Wanna Do This Polyam Thing?

There are actually many different ways to date people polyamorously. Just like any other relationship, it really depends on the situation and the needs/wants of everybody involved. To figure out what would work for you, it’s important to think about what you need in terms of the dynamics and structure in relationships.

Dynamics: Do You Want a Hierarchy in Your Relationships or Nah?

Primary/secondary aka hierarchical polyamory:

The primary relationship is the main one while other relationships work around that main. Someone can have more than 1 primary relationship and more than 1 secondary relationship. Primary relationships are usually given priority over the other relationships. People who prefer primary/secondary relationship structures tend to give their primary partners more responsibilities and commitments. In many hierarchical polyam relationships, the primary partners have some level of influence and/or control over the secondary relationships. Secondary relationships are like smaller plants having to grow around a larger plant. A more obvious example of the kind of power primary relationships can have is called veto power. A veto in hierarchical polyamory is when a primary partner can “veto” or end their partner’s relationship with another person, usually a secondary partner. A veto is partner’s ability to end a relationship that they aren’t involved in because they (for whatever reason) do not want their primary partner dating that other person. In hierarchical polyam, the primary relationships are always given top priority.

Non-hierarchical polyamory:

1 romantic relationship doesn’t have power over any of the others and all relationships have the equal room to grow ideally without any influence from other relationships. In non-hierarchical polyam, each relationship is separate from each other. No one has veto power and no can dictate what goes on in a relationship that they’re not in themselves. Partners have equal power/say in their own relationships despite any differences in commitments, responsibilities, etc. in each relationship.

Structure: What Kinds of Relationship Structures/Shapes are Interesting to You?

  • Vee or V: When 1 person is dating 2 people who are not dating each other. [Example: Person A is dating Person B. Person A is also dating Person C. Person B and Person C are not dating.]

  • Triad: When 3 people are dating each other. [Example: Person A, Person B, and Person C are all dating.]

  • Quad: A relationship of 4 people. [All 4 people could be dating each other. Or 2 couples could decide to date each other. 1 person could be dating 3 people, etc. There are many different ways 4 people can come together and make commitments to each other.]

  • Polyfidelity: A group of people who only date each other. The group agrees to only be romantically exclusive (and possibly sexually exclusive if there is sex in the relationship) with each other and keep the relationship closed to new partners. [Example: Triads and quads can practice polyfidelity, keeping all the commitment/love in the group.]

  • Solo/single polyamory: 1 person having multiple separate relationships with others, outside of a primary/secondary hierarchy, and usually prioritizing their autonomy/independence. Solo poly people tend to not organize their lives around romantic partners. They don’t identify as a part of a couple, triad, quad, etc., and tend to value their individual identities/sense of self over seeing building a life with others as a main life goal. Many solo polyam people refer to themselves as their own primary partner as another way to describe how they prioritize themselves.

  • And More…the options for relationship structures are basically limitless.

How Do I Get Into Polyamory?

Learning about and getting into polyamory can seem like a lot so I tried to simplify this as much as possible:

Do Some Homework

If you’re serious about this lifestyle change, it’s time to put in work. Read books (here and here are good starts) and articles about polyamory. Go to events, etc. Get that knowledge. Once you feel like you have a solid idea of what polyamory is and what it can look like, it’s time to figure out if it’s right for you. This is where self-reflection, talking to people you trust, and/or talking to a therapist if you have one is important. It’s that serious. You are learning new ways to think about relationships and new ways to date/love. You don’t need to rush into this. Learn enough about yourself that you can communicate your wants/needs clearly and in detail to other people.Practice having clear communication with the non-sexual and non-romantic people (friends, family, acquaintances, coworkers, etc.) in your life. Managing these other relationships in your life and nurturing them is good practice for managing multiple romantic/sexual partners.

Self-Reflection for Each Individual

Taking the time to know yourself and your needs/wants (and not who you’re expected to be or who you wish you were) will save you so much time, energy, and pain. Think about your needs in a relationship and the reasons leading you to make this change. Think about your relationship history (what you liked and didn’t like, regrets, successes, etc.) and how your history affects your choices now. Think about any worries or concerns you might have about making this change. Or anything you aren’t sure about. It’s better to think about this and figure this out now before you start trying a new way of dating.

And remember this isn’t all about you. This is also about the people you will be dating in the future and their feelings. What would you be bringing to the table for each relationship? Look at your life. Take stock of the situation. How much energy do you have for each relationship? Polyam relationships involve a lot of effort: clear communication even when it’s awkward, planning, honesty, actively working through your personal feelings of jealousy…with more than 1 person. Half-stepping isn’t an option for successful polyamorous relationships. If you don’t have the energy or time for multiple relationships, polyam isn’t for you. There are other kinds of non-monogamy options if you have time for sex and/or casual dating, but not relationships. Be realistic and honest with yourself, your needs, and your situation here and now.

Self-Reflection as an Already Established Relationship

You want to get into polyamory and you’re already a part of a couple. I’m assuming you already talked about your mutual interest in polyam with your partner and you’re both on the same page. If the BOTH of you aren’t on the same page, the BOTH of you aren’t polyamorous. That’s cheating. Enthusiastic consent is absolutely necessary in polyam. If you both aren’t really excited to try this, your experiment into non-monogamy will fail. There’s no such thing as reluctant polyamory. Coercing/pushing easily leads to resentment, abuse, etc. If you want to explore polyam and your current partner wants to stay monogamous, you can only control yourself and your behavior, not your partner’s. You, at that point, would have to decide if you want to stay in a monogamous relationship with this partner or end the relationship to explore polyamory. And again, if you are only trying polyam under the false idea it will stop a partner, who has cheated, from breaking any more commitments, your experiment with polyamory will fail. Polyamory, again, is multiple relationships. If a partner can’t commit to 1 relationship, they can’t commit to more than 1. Now, they’ll just have more commitments to break and more people to cheat on.

Now, I’m assuming the both of you are excited and ready to see what polyam is about. There are definitely some things for y’all to reflect on as a couple. Polyamory isn’t something to try to add spice to your current relationship. Other people’s lives and feelings are involved now. That would be using people like objects and no one likes being used without their consent. While you’re reading and reflecting on your feelings, wants, and needs, talk to your partner about what kind of relationship you would want to have together. Reflect honestly on how you both deal with change and/or stressful situations as a couple in the past.Reflect on your ability to evolve your relationship together as people and situations change. Talking about this honestly now in the beginning will do wonders and it teaches the both of you the kind of communication that is necessary for successful ethical non-monogamy.

Learning a whole new way of connecting in love and relationships is not easy. You gotta really reflect and honestly dig deep on what interests you about polyam and how you think it will benefit your life. Learn more about polyam – read books/articles, watch videos, and go to events/socials to meet polyam people. Again, don’t rush this. Make sure that polyamory will do for you what you think it will. Having realistic expectations of what polyamory is like and the kind of work/effort you have to do in these kinds of relationships are important. Knowing what you are looking for is also important. Not just for you, but also so you can explain your needs to others. Reflect on your communication skills and how you are with setting firm boundaries. These skills are very important in monogamous relationships and are much more essential when dating multiple people and managing multiple relationships. Know yourself. At the end of the day, it’s hard to have any kind of relationship without a strong sense of who you are and your needs.

Thanks for reading. The next post will be the 4th and final part of the 4-part parenting series: You So Vain: You Probably Think This Kid is About You on 7/22/18. It’s going to cover the option of not having children at all and other ways to support the next generation, create a family, have security, and build your legacy/accomplishments without raising children if that’s not something that fits the reality of your life.

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