Candlelit tables for two. Marriage licenses with two lines. Artsy salt-and-pepper shakers locked in an embrace. Even while our society has made incredible strides in the legalization of same-sex marriage, the idea that a relationship could include more than two people has remained a taboo—even when one in five Americans claim that they have been in a relationship with more than one person.
According to a study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in April 2016, 21 percent of people have had a nonmonogamous relationship—one in which “all partners agree that each may have romantic and/or sexual relationships with other partners.” The data, pulled from 8,718 respondents in the annual Singles in America survey, is clear: Polyamory—having more than one sexual or romantic partner, with all partners agreeing to the arrangement—is a common type of relationship.
But even though it may be common, that doesn’t mean it’s easily understood. That’s partially because each polyamorous relationship is unique. Unlike an open relationship, where partners may have an agreement to have sex with people outside the relationship but remain committed to loving only each other, polyamorous people are often committed to loving multiple partners.
While some polyamorous relationships consist of a group of people who all have relationships with each other—considered a “closed” polyamorous relationship—others have partners who may or may not know the other people the partners are involved in. And while some individuals consider polyamory a core part of their sexual identity and identify as “polyamorous,” others may become involved in polyamorous relationships, but not necessarily consider it a core part of how they identify.
Relationships, too, can vary. Some polyamorous individuals see all their partners as equal; others may have a “primary” partner who they may live with, split bills with, or consider their emotional anchor, and then have secondary people they date and commit to, according to terms laid out between the individual and his or her primary.
But one thing is consistent: Polyamory is all about respect, open communication, and the ability to live love on terms that work for the people involved in the relationship. Here, three polyamorous individuals explain how it works for them, and clear up some common misconceptions people may have about the lifestyle.
Kitty Stryker, 33
Married with a boyfriend
Since she was a teenager, Stryker identified as polyamorous—and has practiced it throughout various relationships. “When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who had a boyfriend, and the three of us would hang out and I was like, this is nice. Why should I have to choose?” says Stryker. Now, Stryker is married to a trans woman, whom she has been with for the past four years, and has had a boyfriend for one year. While her wife and her boyfriend are not partners, Stryker says that they are all friends. “It’s different for everyone, but for me, it’s essential that everyone get along. It avoids a lot of clashing when everyone can directly communicate.”
Stryker jokes that polyamory is “a romantic relationship that works for people who like spreadsheets,” adding that there’s a lot of planning to make sure everyone is on the same page. “I’ll think of the week, and be like, OK, when do I want a sleepover with my boyfriend? It’s not necessarily spontaneous.” And Stryker admits it’s not for everyone. Stryker, the coeditor of Ask: Building Consent Culture, says that couples who may be intrigued try starting slow. “Even seeing your partner platonically cuddling someone else, what does that mean or bring up for you?” asks Stryker. “I think taking small steps to open up a relationship, and frequently checking in with each other, is key.”
Page Turner, 36
Married while dating other men and women
When Page Turner and her first husband decided to open their marriage over a decade ago, they had a frank heart-to-heart, realizing that the decision may cost them their marriage. Turns out, it did—but she doesn’t have any regrets. “When we opened up the marriage and began meeting other people, we realized the best thing for both of us was to let each other go,” says Turner, who remarried five years ago. Now, Turner, who runs the blog Poly.Land and wrote the book Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory actively dates other men and women but considers the relationship between herself and her second husband to be her “primary.” For her, that means the two live together, split household expenses and chores, and create the terms of what polyamory means to them.
“For us, there’s a huge difference between fidelity (being sexually exclusive to just one person) and loyalty (supporting and being honest to another person). And I think people outside the polyamorous community may not understand that the two aren’t necessarily the same thing,” says Turner.
To maintain their emotional bond, Turner and her husband developed a system: The pair subscribed to a monthly wine club where they got four bottles of wine delivered to their door; they promised that, no matter what, they would drink the wine together by the end of every month. “Those are our emotional check-in times, when we talk about what’s working, what isn’t, and what we need from each other,” explains Turner. For Turner, it comes down to some house rules: “For example, the biggest fight I ever had with my first husband regarding polyamory was about who was allowed to sleep in our bed. We finally made a rule: If someone else is sleeping over, the rule is no one is allowed to sleep in the other person’s spot in bed. I still observe the same rule with my now-husband: The date can sleep over in the bed, but I’ll take over my husband’s spot, so he won’t come home to feel like someone has been in that space. It sounds so minor, but talking through those issues makes a big difference,” says Turner.
Turner adds that often, if she or her husband is planning on bringing a date home, the other will make plans to be out of the house with another partner or stay in another part of the house. “If I do come home before planned, I’ll text first or make a lot of noise. While we do like to meet each other’s partners and we often become friends, it’s important to give a sense of privacy, too,” explains Turner.
The emotional check-ins can make polyamory more labor intensive, emotionally, than traditional monogamous relationships, Turner explains. “Everything gets discussed. Everything’s on the table,” she says. And sex, says Turner, is only one part of the lifestyle. “I think there’s this assumption that you’re having sex all the time, but just like a monogamous relationship, it depends on what’s going on in your life. For example, during my heaviest dating period, I was dating three men and two women. And I was having sex less than I am now, with a husband and dating a woman! So it just depends,” she explains.
Jase Lindgren and Dedeker Winston
Together four years, dating other partners
The couple, who cohost the Multiamory podcast, tend to date different partners but have had a few partners they simultaneously dated. They started their podcast as a way to dispel some common misconceptions about the lifestyle. “One of the main myths about polyamory is that a couple somehow become one unit and have just one set of thoughts and feelings,” explains Winston, who recently wrote the book The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory.
Winston and Lindgren don’t use the term “primary” and feel that each of the relationships they maintain is unique, different, and just as committed as the one they have to each other. “To me, polyamory isn’t something practiced by a couple, but practiced by individuals,” says Lindgren. “Swinging and certain types of open relationships center around a couple. But in polyamory, it’s an individual committing to other individuals, allowing each relationship to naturally find it’s own depth and intimacy.”
Lindgren and Winston also want to dispel the myth that polyamory is in some way “selfish.” “Having multiple partners requires a lot of commitment—commitment to being the best possible partner, commitment to being honest and proactive in my communication, commitment to putting care and investment into each relationship,” says Winston.
Finally, cheating still exists in polyamory—as Lindgren explains it, a successful polyamorous relationship depends on all partners being on the same page. "I've heard polyamory explained as 'legalized cheating' before and I can't stand that explanation. It's completely wrong and very misleading. Cheating means you have broken an agreement you've made in a relationship. In monogamy that means having sex or romance with someone other than your partner, but in polyamory that isn't an agreement so doing those things isn't cheating,” says Lindgren. “In my experience, the most successful polyamorous relationships are the ones that have the fewest rules and limitations. That way the focus is on each person doing things to make their partner happy rather than focusing on 'not breaking rules.’ But that said, some ground rules, especially regarding sexual safety, are a smart strategy and relatively commonplace in polyamorous relationships.”
And at the end of the day, a polyamorous relationship has more similarities than differences to a monogamous relationship. “Any functioning relationship requires dedicated effort, time, and energy—no matter how many people are involved,” reminds Winston.
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