4 People on How Being in a Polyamorous Relationship Affects Their Sex Lives
"It’s about finding new ways to bring love, connection, and intimacy into your life.”
Not everyone’s comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people’s bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG’s monthly column Sex IRL, we’ll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.
Many people are redefining what romance, love, and partnership look like for themselves; forgoing monogamy, heteronormativity, and having an abundance of intimate relationships.
Polyamory is one alternative to monogamy that has been a popular topic in recent years, with people being interviewed about it, writing about it, and putting their polyamorous status on dating apps. Polyamory falls under the umbrella of ethical or consensual non-monogamy, the practice of having more than one sexual or romantic relationship at a time. Polyamorous partnerships, specifically, are composed of multiple loving relationships. But consistent, open, and honest communication and the consent of all participants are key to all forms of healthy non-monogamy.
While polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy may seem new, it has been practiced throughout history. It’s estimated that 21.9% of Americans have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at one point and that 4% to 5% of people in the U.S. currently practice polyamory.
It is unique in that it acknowledges, nourishes, and puts into practice, the ability to love more than one person at a time. Some polyamorous relationships aren’t all sexual, and people who practice it are also expanding what platonic love and companionship look like by forming polycules with other polyamorous people, especially during the pandemic.
However, an abundance of love and intimacy sounds like a dream in theory but isn’t always easy in practice. So I spoke to a few polyamorous people about how polyamory has affected their sex and dating lives, and what people tend to get wrong about polyamory.
"My sexual self feels more aligned than ever thanks to queer expansive relationships."
“I’ve been polyam for about two years now. Prior to that I was monogamous and struggling. I realized I was fighting against my true needs, desires, and values to live up to a standard I never set for myself. For me, engaging with polyamory is understanding myself first as primarily self-partnered. From there, I engage in non-hierarchical relationships of all kinds.
“I have given up the notion of romantic love—a conclusion I came to through my polyam experiences, by exploring my gender, and more. I’m romantic with my friends, family, lovers, and people who I have sex with. I don’t box off any type of love from any type of connection. What works for us is what we will work with! What I navigate feels the same as any relationship—actually, being a self-partnered polyam has deepened the respect and care I bring to all my relationships (including the one with myself). I am able to better value my needs now that I understand one person doesn’t have to meet them all.
"My sexual self feels more aligned than ever thanks to queer expansive relationships. I feel I'm able to show up vulnerably and presently with my sexual partners. I feel extremely privileged to have intimate connections with many people and to have many kinds of love in my life. I feel extremely privileged to have so much pleasure, to have space, and to come first to myself. It feels more natural to me to hold space for multiple relationships than to put one on a pedestal and hold more space for [one person] than for myself or others. Because I’ve always been the type of person to love really big and passionately, I often wanted to give (and receive) more from my relationships of all kinds. Now, I know I can, without punishment, restriction, guilt, or shrinking. What I realized recently while reflecting on past iterations of myself and my relationships, is that the way I’ve always wanted to be in relation with folks was never going to fit within a monogamous narrative or one where the way you love defines the relationship.
“I think polyamory is misunderstood. People think polyamory folks want the 'allowance' to have sex with a lot of people (allowance in opposition to the notion of cheating/being unfaithful). I think it’s easily tied to the notion of not finding your fairytale soulmate. I think people may misunderstand polyamory. It doesn’t lack depth, conflict, or jealousy where we think monogamy has it. It’s superficial but we are taught every moving part of those thoughts: that monogamy is the only way, that cishet relationships are it, that being sexual outside of monogamy is frivolous and means you don’t respect yourself or your primary partner if you have one, and that there are only certain types of love reserved for certain types of relationships. That it isn’t possible to be 'in love' with more than one person at a time and that we owe things to others more than to ourselves.”
— Dana Falsetti, 27, California
"I like the freedom to explore new connections without the guilt of finding other people attractive."
“My live-in partner and I opened our relationship about one year ago. It had been on the table for a while and we would come back to it as we figured out what we wanted. Our biggest hurdle was our fear that the other would fall in love with someone else. Eventually, we realized that we wanted each other to experience the full spectrum of emotions with others if we could because life is so short. It’s been amazing. In practice, it's so much communication. More than he or I have ever done. Our only ground rules are [being] real and radically honesty [with each other], letting the other know if we won’t be home that night, and [having] safe sex and testing regularly. Of course, now with the pandemic, it’s different.
“I love how confident and at peace with myself, I am. I’m more open with my live-in partner and I know how to set clear boundaries and expectations with potential partners. You kind of have to because it isn’t just about you anymore, like when you’re single. Jealousy is always a part of the equation and not something you can run from. I learned how to ask for what I need, especially when I’m feeling jealous. Navigating that has been the hardest part but with communication, it works. Time management is also something I’ve negotiated, asking for more, and setting aside time for partners and the like.
“A big part of becoming polyamorous was tied with me coming out as queer. I wanted the full spectrum of relationships with people outside of cis-men, so this was one way to do that. Before sheltering-in-place at home, I was having sex more often between partners and better sex with my live-in partner. We just really loved seeing the other person feel confident and wanted and that made things more satisfying with us as well. We also set boundaries since we lived together such as giving the other a wide time frame to have a partner over for evening dates. Also, just checking in with each other. It’s obvious when someone has picked up something new in bed after having a new partner, so we communicate before trying new skills if that’s something me or my partner also would like to do.
"I think the main thing people misunderstand [about polyamory] is that they think we don’t get jealous, which is so far from the truth. Jealousy is normal and can be dealt with in a healthy way. It plays a huge part [in polyamorous relationships] and it takes so much vulnerability [to be honest about it]. In addition, people think that people who practice polyamory, are sex-craved or debauched. Sex can be part of the equation. It is for me, personally. I like the freedom to explore new connections without the guilt of finding other people attractive, which toxic monogamy has. Both monogamy and polyamory have benefits and one isn’t more morally 'good' than the other”
—Sarah, 30, Chicago, IL
"I like that I get to enjoy that electric new relationship energy with people whilst still having the warm, fuzzy comfort of long-term love."
“I’ve been with my boyfriend for the past seven years, and over that time, we have gradually opened up our relationship to the point where we now feel comfortable with the label of ‘polyamorous.’ Our relationship started out in the typically monogamous way. In my early 20s, I wanted to explore group sex and threesomes, and luckily, my partner was on board, too. That developed into an open relationship where we would both meet other people to explore our sexual desires solo. Eventually, we both found ourselves enjoying more intimacy and meaningful relationships with other people. So rather than just [having] casual sexual flings, we felt that we had outgrown the ‘open’ label and became polyamorous. For me, being polyam is about knowing that I have the capacity to have romantic feelings for more than one person at a time, even if I’m not actively in love with multiple people all the time.
“It’s not a case of only setting your boundaries once and then just getting on with it. It’s a constantly evolving thing and you have to become skilled at dealing with potentially awkward conversations and checking in with your partner(s) about how they currently feel. As a rule, I only date people who are comfortable talking to me about my primary relationship. If someone didn’t want to hear about my life with my boyfriend, that would be a huge red flag. I like that I get to enjoy that electric new relationship energy with people whilst still having the warm, fuzzy comfort of long-term love. Sometimes it can be difficult, and you have to deal with feelings of jealousy or discomfort (which are both totally normal and can be dealt with through open communication), but ultimately, it always feels worth it. There have been times when my boyfriend and I have had to comfort each other when another partner has upset one of us. It was a strange sensation at first, but it’s actually really lovely having someone you care for in that way there to support you through any uncomfortable feelings.
“Being polyamorous means that if my primary partner and I are temporarily out of sync (for example, if either of us is incredibly busy with work or going through a lower libido phase), then we don’t have to put pressure on ourselves to fulfil all of the other person's needs. I am continuously discovering new things about my sexual desires that I may not have discovered if I had not met some of my partners or been able to have open conversations about sex with new people. Plus, as a bisexual woman, I love that I don’t have to ignore that part of myself while I’m in a relationship with a man. I find that exploring these desires also keeps me and my boyfriend’s sex life interesting. Some people might think that having relationships with other people would pull you further away from your primary partner, but for me, it has the opposite effect. Being polyamorous continuously reminds me of what I find attractive about him. The un-sexy bit is that it takes a lot of admin to have multiple sexual partners. Arranging plans, respecting everyone’s schedules, regular sexual health checks, etc. You have to be very organized!
“I think that some people believe that if a person has multiple partners, it must mean that one person isn’t ‘enough’ for them. I think this idea of ‘enough’ is a symptom of toxic monogamy, where we perceive total reliance on one person as a sort of epic love, rather than it being potentially harmful and unsustainable. While having multiple relationships isn’t for everyone, and I do truly believe that a lot of people are more suited for monogamy and that neither relationship style is ‘better,’ those who practice non-monogamy ethically and with kindness aren’t trying to fill a void in a lacking relationship. Most people have multiple friends who they rely on for different kinds of support, comfort, or fun, and we don’t judge them for nurturing multiple platonic relationships. I think people also mistakenly think that it’s something practiced on the fringes of society. From my experience, there is no one ‘type’ of person who practices polyamory.”
—Poppy Lepora, 28, London
"It’s about finding new ways to bring love, connection, and intimacy into your life.”
“I’ve been involved in some type of polyamorous relationship for over seven years, across a few different relationships with partners both current and past. My relationship style has shifted and changed over the years as well.
“It started out as me expressing interest in having threesomes and open relationships with a partner who I was monogamous with. We tried opening our relationship for a little over a year and decided to break up because we wanted different kinds of relationships. Some of the partnerships I had started in that year of polyamory continued after, but they were always of a non-monogamous nature from the start. Since actively choosing polyamory, my style has been expressed as polyamory, while being a swinger and a lover of group sex, with elements of relationship anarchy and coupled non-monogamy. Overall, it has enhanced my romantic life because it has helped me re-evaluate the relationships in my life and how I think about family.
“I’ve had to do a lot of internal questioning about what I’ve been taught about relationships, love, and desire, and what parts of that I need to let go of. There have been a lot of conversations about boundaries and what people need to feel good and cared for in their relationships. I’ve done a lot of work unpacking my own complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), like infidelity in previous relationships. I spend a lot of time questioning my own self-worth and insecurities, which can feel uncomfortable.
“I think it has made me a more attentive lover in the ways that you have to think about the safety and boundaries of multiple people. It can feel like a mental gymnastics game. But, it has also provided an opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting and gratifying sexual experiences, as someone who enjoys group sex, exhibitionism, etc. People think it’s only about sex, and while I find that to be a really fun addition, it's not the thing that is at the core of polyamory for me. It’s about finding new ways to bring love, connection, and intimacy into your life.”
—Hunter, 31, Albuquerque, NM