Are polyamorous relationships just like dating — but more honest and open?
It’s put into our minds from a very young age that monogamy is the ideal, that one day we will meet a perfect someone and they will be our whole world, we will start a nuclear family and feel completely romantically fulfilled for the rest of our lives. For many people, however, this is largely fiction. We date people, sometimes several of them at once, looking for the single person who will satisfy our needs. Polyamorous relationships are rarely mentioned, and when they are, they’re often misunderstood.
While I love the idea of building a life with someone I adore as much as the next person does, I have a slightly different approach to it. This approach, which despite all the articles you’ll see about millennials not having sex anymore, is growing in appeal and application. Some call it ethical nonmonogamy; others call it polyamory. Though people have many approaches to it, in its best form it’s a lot like dating. Just add more safety and more radical, emotional honesty.
Yes, I do believe polyamorous relationships, done ethically, are an enlightened form of the dating that many people do. This is not to say polyamory is for everyone or is better than monogamy. But while monogamy sends up the “virtue” of finding one person you’re compatible with, it’s often preceded by lots of seeing multiple people, living together, letting people think they’re “the one” while maintaining relationships with other people and often even cheating when you find someone who’s more “the one.”
Ethical nonmonogamy isn’t like that. When done properly, polyamorous relationships value communication. All my partners know about all my other partners, and I make it clear from the start of any relationship that I’m seeing other people, most of whom I care about deeply in some way. All my partners know my feelings, for them and for other people, without any game-playing or white lies. At times I need to openly communicate that I have limited time, resources and emotions, and some people get more of them than others.
Katherine, who lives in Detroit and is a freelance writer, has been in a polyamorous relationship for quite some time. She prioritizes honesty with her spouse and feels it helps her honesty level in general.
“For me, the greater honesty part comes in with being honest with myself. Even in my monogamous relationships, I’ve never hidden my feelings about others or crushes from my partners. It just isn’t my style. But actually practicing ethical nonmonogamy has forced me to parse out the difference between the ways I want to feel (never jealous, everyone has freedom!) and the ways I do feel (sometimes I get threatened, insecure and suspicious). It’s forced me to confront the ways that society rubs off on me, even when I see myself as outside of it. In the long run, I think that analysis makes me a better person and partner.”
Adam, who lives in Brooklyn and has been involved in polyamorous relationships for several years as well, identified one of polyamory’s greatest strengths. “You avoid so many problems by sharing. You’re talking about things that otherwise you’d just wonder and assume and could get really crazy in your head.”
Safety is another important characteristic of ethical nonmonogamy. I’ve found that people who are open about having multiple partners practice safe sex more consistently than others do. Mention dental dams to most monogamous, heterosexual people, and they will look at you in bewilderment. (Spoiler: dental dams are thin sheets of latex placed over a vagina during oral sex.) However, because I am openly having sex with multiple people and I value the health and safety of all of them, I get regular STI testing done at least every six months and use protection with far more regularity than your average person. This includes condoms, dental dams, rigorous sterilization of sex toys and, at times, even latex gloves.
Of course, there is room for drama and error in ethical polyamorous relationships, as there is in any kind of dating. Most of it comes from when people fail on the “ethical” part of the equation. For example, I dated someone I cared about deeply, who quickly became my primary partner. It wasn’t until months into our relationship that they told me they’d never been in a nonmonogamous relationship before and weren’t sure they could maintain one. Their actions were hurtful, but for me the biggest issue was their lack of honesty about their own thoughts and feelings.
Conversely, by following along with the honesty part of the equation, I’ve had other relationships work out extremely well. One of my partners made it clear upon our meeting that he’d never had deep love feelings for anyone and had no intentions of being anyone’s primary partner at any point. After almost a year, I felt myself developing more romantic feelings for him, and we were able to talk about our differing approaches to relationships and continue maintaining an interaction that worked for both of us. This wouldn’t have been possible if I were just out there looking for the perfect person who would meet all my relationship needs.
A common misconception about polyamorous and nonmonogamous people is that we’re just not ready to settle down. For many of us, this is a myth. I’d love to get married and adopt children with someone one day. But in my vision of this future, lots of people besides my future spouse love and dote on my kids and support me. I know many people who feel the same way.
Polyamory certainly isn’t for everyone. Some people can’t deal with their own feelings of jealousy, and some people genuinely don’t want to be with more than one person. Some people are so deeply marked by the way things are that they can’t break the cycle of lying and cheating they’ve learned while looking for one partner who will fulfill them. I’m not preaching polyamory as a way of life that everyone should embrace. However, monogamous people can learn much from ethical nonmonogamy and apply it to their lives.