How to have a polyamorous relationship, because it's more complicated than just casual sex
“In a city like New York, with its infinite possibilities, has monogamy become too much to expect?” When Carrie Bradshaw uttered that rhetorical question during a 1998 episode of Sex and the City, little did we know how common polyamory would become. Carrie was never in a polyamorous relationship, but if the show premiered today, the topic would probably come up in her column quite often.
Polyamory (or “poly” for short) is the belief that you can have an intimate relationship with more than one person, with all partners consenting. Being in a polyamorous relationship is not, as many people wrongfully believe, an exotic trend or an excuse to sleep with as many partners as you want. It’s an alternative to monogamy for people who don’t see themselves being with only one partner, emotionally and/or sexually, for the rest of their lives. Some research suggests that about four to five percent of people in the U.S. are polyamorous.
Polyamorous relationships (also known as consensual non-monogamy) require a lot of honesty and communication. To get a better idea of what it’s really like to be in a poly relationship, we spoke with Sophie Lucido Johnson, author of Many Love: A Memoir of Polyamory and Finding Love(s). She opened up about challenges, offered advice for maintaining strong communication, and shared important safety precautions for exploring polyamory. Read on if you’re curious about what it’s really like to be poly.
HelloGiggles: Is a polyamorous relationship the same thing as an open relationship?
Sophie Lucido Johnson: I describe it as being like squares and rectangles—you know, how every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square? Every polyamorous relationship is an open relationship, but not every open relationship is a polyamorous relationship. Polyamory requires enthusiasm, knowledge, and consent from all people involved.
HG: What are the basic communication “rules” of being in a polyamorous relationship?
SLJ: Every poly relationship is different, so the rules will absolutely depend on the people participating in the relationship. In my relationship, it’s 100% communication about everything all the time. Defusing the tension around talking about my partners’ other relationships has taken away the power there. For me, that works really well. I very rarely experience jealousy anymore, and when I do, it’s a great opportunity for my partners and me to talk about where it’s coming from.
HG: How can people in polyamorous relationships set boundaries?
SLJ: Once again, every poly relationship is different. Every person has to establish their own boundaries and communicate about them; their partners have to listen and honor those boundaries. But I’m working on a book right now where I asked a therapist about boundaries, and he said that boundaries are tricky because it’s hard to know where yours are until they’ve been crossed.
HG: What’s the biggest challenge of being in a polyamorous relationship?
SLJ: The biggest challenge is also the biggest gift: Polyamory asks for its participants to get in bed with their uncomfortable emotions. You can’t push away feelings of fear or jealousy or anger; you have to go into those feelings, pick them apart, and try to understand them. This is hard work, but it’s profoundly rewarding, too. Polyamory and radical honesty are closely linked, in my opinion. The truth isn’t always pleasant and lovely and comfortable. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t tell it.
HG: Are there any safety precautions people should take?
SJL: All the precautions. My brand of polyamory is not super sex-focused—I’m more interested in emotional intimacy with some kissing on the side. But when I do engage in sex with people, it’s always protected, except with my husband, with whom I am fluid bonded. Ask people when they last got tested; ask them if they’ve been with anyone since then; ask them what they feel is important to share about their sexual history. Always check the expiration date on your condoms and dental dams. Use condoms on sex toys and invest in some sexy latex gloves for hardcore finger play.
And then beyond that, work to de-stigmatize sexually transmitted infections. Most of them are relatively harmless (meaning: they’re not going to kill you, although they’re unpleasant). We have ideas about STIs that are way out of line in comparison to the way we look at other chronic infections. They’re not grosser because they’re on your genitals. Sexual health is just health. It is crucial that we begin to talk about it that way.
HG: How can someone bring up the subject of opening their relationship with their partner?
SLJ: Don’t open up your relationship because something inside your relationship is broken. Opening it up is not going to fix the broken thing. Work on the broken thing first and establish whether it can be fixed. If one person wants to be open and the other person really doesn’t, then that relationship is probably not going to work in the long run. Honor each other’s realities. If both partners are eager and excited to pursue other relationships—versus, say, terrified or desperate—then establish what rules and boundaries make the most sense for you.
I have personally never met a couple who has made a parallel polyamorous situation work out for more than a year, but the internet swears that it’s possible. Parallel polyamory is the sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell version, where you and your partner date on the side but don’t tell each other details. I’m a big advocate of telling the truth. The difficult conversations are the ones that bring us closer.
HG: What’s the biggest misconception about polyamorous relationships?
SLJ: That polyamory is all about sex. For me (and tons of poly people I know), it’s about two main things. One: accepting and embracing that relationships do not stand still and will change over time, and committing to a partner or partners that everyone is going to communicate, constantly, about those natural changes. And two: shifting priorities to embrace friends, chosen family, and non-sexual romantic relationships, where traditionally our social priorities have been around a single partner. None of that has to do with sex. Assuming that polyamory is all about orgies and millennials three-way kissing in bars does the culture a tremendous disservice and excludes a ton of people who are asexual or sexually transitioning and are uncomfortable with sex.