Last month, Briana babysat for her boyfriend’s children, aged 8 and 9, so that he and his wife could go out for a date night.
After Anya slept with her current girlfriend for the first time, the first thing she did was text her husband, “I’m so excited!” He was thrilled for her.
When Heather invited a serious girlfriend to move in, she brought her three children into a household with Heather, Heather’s husband, and their two sons.
These are just a few of the countless configurations of polyamory: the practice of maintaining more than one romantic relationship at a time with the full knowledge and consent of all partners.
While your response to this concept might range from, “Oh, hell no!” to “Sign me up!” there's no denying that polyamorous people have figured out how to successfully navigate some of the trickiest danger zones of any relationship: jealousy, boredom, loneliness, sexual monotony—issues that certainly contribute to the national divorce rate. So, whether the idea of your partner finding romantic love with another person fills you with selfless joy or homicidal rage, polyamory clearly has something to teach us all.
Unlike swingers, polyamorous people are looking for more love, not just more sex, valuing intimacy and emotional commitment over sexual variety. They may be involved in a “primary” relationship or marriage and have “secondary” relationships outside of it. They may also form polyamorous triads or quads, groups of three, four, or more, in which some or all members are sexually involved with each other. These relationships may allow for outside lovers, or they may practice “polyfidelity” with rules that resemble traditional monogamy.
Polyamory should also not be confused with polygamy, or the most common form, polygyny, in which men are permitted to marry multiple wives, but women are restricted to only one husband.
But you should be communicating openly, honestly, and respectfully in your monogamous relationship, so it’s the same tenets. There’s just no way around applying them in polyamory.
So, how do polyamorous people manage to nourish and sustain multiple romantic relationships simultaneously? How do they avoid the pitfalls that ruin so many monogamous relationships over and over despite both partners’ best intentions? Anya Hall-Flores gives the same answer you might hear from any couples therapist: communication.
“I think polyamory forces you to do all the things you should have been doing in a monogamous relationship,” Anya says. “You have to communicate. When you’re dealing with more than one person, if you don’t talk about something, it can turn into something else very quickly. But you should be communicating openly, honestly, and respectfully in your monogamous relationship, so it’s the same tenets. There’s just no way around applying them in polyamory. ”
Anya has been involved in a polyamorous quad, or what she calls a “fourple,” with her husband and another married couple for over three years. The four do not share a single home, but spend much of their time together and consider themselves an emotionally committed unit, although they are not all sexually active together. The delicate balance of the “fourple” is maintained by another crucial activity that monogamous couples often neglect:
“Scheduling,” Anya stresses. “What’s my time going to be like with this person or that person? In a monogamous relationship, you just kind of let it happen a lot of the time. But you don’t have that luxury in polyamory. … We literally sync our calendars up and map out time to be with one another.”
Anyone who has attempted to balance a serious relationship with the demands of a consuming career or the needs of young children knows how difficult it can be to make time for your partner. But polyamorous people schedule constantly, making sure that each relationship is fed by quality alone time and that nobody feels left out.
But what about jealousy? What about the fear that your partner has deeper feelings for someone else, or might leave you for that person, or even (gasp!) prefers having sex with him or her? Jealousy does come up in polyamorous relationships, but it is usually relieved by open discussion and by the assumption that falling in love with a new partner doesn’t automatically mean that you abandon the old one.
Briana hasn’t felt any jealousy in her polyamorous relationship with a primary boyfriend who dates other women and a secondary boyfriend who is married. She believes their situation actually takes the pressure off any romantic partner to be a perfectly compatible soul mate on every level.
“No one person, no matter how much they desire or try can be someone’s everything,” Briana says. “The kind of sex I have in my primary relationship is very different from the kind of sex I’m having in my secondary relationship. … I’m getting a very different experience, and I’m getting fulfillment out of my secondary relationship, therefore I don’t have to resent my primary partner for not being everything, because no one can.”
Like many polyamorous people, Heather believes that choosing to open up her marriage to other people has actually made it stronger and more connected. When she first began dating a woman, she noticed the contrast in her own behavior toward her exciting new girlfriend and the husband who had become so familiar. She made a conscious decision to treat both her relationships with the same care.
“Because I had a girlfriend,” Heather says, “I’d find myself going, 'Oh my gosh, I’ve been texting her four times about how much I want to see her and how much I miss her,' and then if I started remembering to do that for him also and be his girlfriend, it just changed everything.”
Monogamous couples take note! Couldn't we all learn to treat our established partners like thrilling new boyfriends and girlfriends? Couldn't most marriages use a little more honesty, self-awareness, and communication? If we could rethink jealousy and possessiveness, what else would be on the table?
“Everything’s a possibility,” says Anya Hall-Flores. “It’s a scary thought, but a freeing thought too, because you can literally create the world you want to live in… I get to redefine everything.”