August 6, 2021

What Is Polyamory? How It Works And Common Misconceptions

There are so many myths about polyamory. We’re here to set the record straight.
Written by
Amanda Scherker
Published on
August 6, 2021
Updated on
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Polyamory has increasingly become part of our cultural zeitgeist, but this form of romantic attachment is frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted, and clouded by myth. So what is polyamory anyway? 

Dr. Elizabeth “Eli” Sheff, a sociologist, researcher, relationship coach and author of the book, The Polyamorists Next Door, tells O.school that, “[Polyamory] is a form of consensual non-monogamy that emphasizes emotional intimacy among multiple partners, and sometimes sexual intimacy.” That is to say, it typically involves romantic and/or sexual intimacy with more than one person. According to Sheff, polyamory functions under the belief that “[Y]ou can really love someone, and you can really love someone else… that love is not necessary a limited quantity.”

As Sheff writes in a blog post, there have been three waves of polyamory in the United States: during the 19th century Spiritualism movement, during the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movements, and most recently, in the era of the Internet, which has helped to facilitate community and relationships amongst polyamorous people.

Why people choose polyamory 

You may wonder what drives certain folks to choose polyamory. As Gigi Engle, ACS, certified sexologist and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life, tells O.school, “For lots of people this is just natural for them. Humans are not naturally monogamous. they're socialized to be monogamous.” Relationship coach Effy Blue adds that some people believe that polyamory is their natural relationship orientation, and that it isn’t a choice, while others actively choose to practice polyamory. 

Dr. Eli suggests that, sometimes, a person can be perfectly happy in a committed relationship, but simply can’t imagine only having sex with one person for the rest of their lives. Other times there’s a libido mismatch between partners and seeking outside partnership may help satisfy needs. Some people choose polyamory simply because they have different interests, hobbies, or sexual proclivities. Some people choose polyamory as a way to explore their sexual identity. 

Others are simply philosophically opposed to the idea of monogamy, while some might like to experiment with new relational structures, whether temporarily or permanently. As Blue notes, some people “find that polyamory is an agent for personal growth and self discovery… So they get to explore parts of themselves that might not come up in other relationships”

As with any relationship structure, there isn’t a one-size-fits all. Those who choose to be polyamorous do so on their own terms and define the bounds of the relationship through communication with partners. 

Types of polyamorous relationships

Polyamory, as Blue explains, fits under the umbrella of non-monogamy, and it can take many different forms. “It’s a blank canvas.” That said, there are some core types of polyamorous relationships. Here are a few terms people might use to describe their approach to poly relationships. 

  • Kitchen-table polyamory. In this situation, everyone in the relationship knows one another and has relationships with one another, whether or not they’re sexual.
  • Parallel poly. Here, different relationships exist alongside each other, but partners don’t actually interact with each other. 
  • Solo poly. This is where you have multiple romantic and/or sexual relationships, but don’t recognize anyone as being your “central” relationship. This, Dr. Eli notes, is common amongst single parents who might not have the emotional bandwidth to foster primary partnerships.
  • Hierarchical polyamory. Dr. Eli notes that, “Some people in polyamory have a very hierarchical view,” delineating between “primary” partner, ie your main relationship, and “secondary” partners, ie your auxiliary relationships. 
  • Non-hierarchical polyamory. According to Blue, in this type of structure, “you’re saying all your relationships are equal and.. you manage them depending on the situation and context.” 

It’s important to note that some people may naturally or consciously form “triads,” i.e. relationships between three people, or “quads,” i.e., relationships between four people. Often, polyamorous relationships take the formation of a “polycule,” where everyone in the relationship naturally turns into what Blue calls a “micro community” of support, communication, and respect, regardless of how they’re interacting romantically or sexually.

Polyamory might be more common than you think

It’s difficult to say just how many people are poly as experiences are often underreported since polyamory may be seen as taboo in certain communities or cultures. That said, more people may be exploring polyamory than you think. According to some research, there are about a half-million polyamorous relationships in North America. “Some sex researchers put the number even higher, at 4 to 5 percent of all adults, or 10 to 12 million people. More often than not, they’re just office workers who find standard picket-fence partnerships dull, “ writes The Atlantic. “Or they’re long-term couples who don’t happen to think sexual exclusivity is the key to intimacy.” 

How to have a successful polyamorous relationship 

Having a successful, thriving polyamorous relationship under any of the above formations is absolutely possible, but it requires a number of skills and practices to work. 

  • Start slow if you’re new to polyamory. Engle suggests stepping into polyamory slowly and with care, explaining that: “There are no wrong ways to do polyamory as long as everyone is communicating and consenting to everything going on. If you're looking for variety in your sex life, I'd suggest starting with things like sex toys, attending a sex party (you can just watch if you want), watching some porn and then moving up from there. Don't leap before you're ready.”
  • Don’t be a “unicorn hunter.” A common and real stereotype about people who are new to the polyamory community is that they are more focused on what they will get out of the relationship sexually rather than what they can offer to new partners both romantically and sexually. Both Dr. Eli and Blue noted the prevalence of so-called “unicorn hunters,” ie male/female couples who enter the community looking for what Dr. Eli calls a “free-floating bisexual woman” to satisfy their sexual desires. Dr. Eli adds that “they have a lot of requirements for her but don’t say what she’s getting out of the relationship.” Consider both how you can supplement your current relationships in a meaningful way and what you can realistically offer to new potential partners.
  • Do your research. Over the past decade, a number of books that function as crash-courses in polyamory have hit bookstores — from The Ethical Slut to Opening Up. There’s even a recent children’s book that celebrates polyamorous families. Additionally, the internet offers more ways than ever to learn about ethical polyamory. Online magazine Loving More and the blog Polyamory Weekly are both great resources to check out. Social networks like Fetlife and Meetup.com can also provide a comfortable forum for folks to learn about various polyamorous lifestyles, either in person or from the comforts of their homes.
  • Practice open communication and boundary-setting. Dr. Eli explains the importance of “[e]xcellent communication... about feelings and boundaries. And not only communicating between the lovers, but communicating between the non-romantic partners as well is crucial.” Being able to talk about needs, boundaries, and expectations is essential. You’ll have some situations where some partners want information, and others want privacy within their sexual relationship, and coming to a balance between those two needs is crucial. “You get everyone together in the same room with the results of their most recent STI test and you talk about what exactly do you want to know” It's about “working through how to meet all the needs of everyone in the relationships, and not just the lovers… and that requires some extensive communication skills.” 
  • Be realistic and empathetic. Setting boundaries and rules means being real with yourself and your partners about what you can and can’t handle. Sometimes, we may think we’re okay with certain scenarios, but when those scenarios actually happen, we may find we suddenly feel differently. Polyamory can take a bit of experimentation to discover what’s right for you and others involved, and it’s important to be realistic and empathetic as you move through any shifting boundaries, wants, and needs. 
  • Conflict resolution. As they do in any other kind of relationship, conflicts inevitably arise in polyamory — whether it's about negotiating childcare, scheduling dates, or just negotiating sexual expectations. As Dr. Eli adds, polyamory is “a high maintenance form of relationship.”
  • Emotional regulation. Blue also describes the importance of emotional regulation in maintaining positive polyamorous relationships. Being able to understand, cope with and mediate the emotions that might arise from having multiple partners is crucial.

“Relationships take work and if no matter how you choose to love, as long as you put in the time and commitment, it can work,” concludes Engle. 

Myths about polyamory, debunked 

While there’s no question that polyamory can be challenging, this type of relationship has propagated a lot of misconceptions. These include:

  • Poly people don’t get jealous. Just like monogamous people, polyamorous people absolutely might experience jealousy, though research has found that people who identify as poly do experience less jealousy than monogamous folks. The big difference, according to Dr. Eli, is that jealousy in polyamorous relationships can typically be talked about openly, rather than shamefully hidden as it often is in monogamous relationships. 
  • Poly people have commitment issues. Polyamorous people don’t become polyamorous because they have commitment issues. If anything, it’s because they want to commit romantically or sexually to multiple people, which requires what Blue calls a “ninja” level of skill at communication, setting boundaries, and resolving conflicts.
  • Poly relationships are bad for families. Lots of people mistakenly believe that polyamorous relationships hurt children. But according to Dr. Eli’s two-and-a-half decade long Longitudinal Polyamorous Family Study, beginning in 1996 and consisting of multiple interviews with 206 members of polyamorous families, that’s simply not the case. She’s found that children in polyamorous families actually tend to thrive. While the children may experience stigma from people who don’t understand polyamory, the structure of their parents’ relationships is not inherently harmful, and even comes with benefits — these children tend to have more role models and more of a support structure
  • Polyamory is all about sex. Dr. Eli explains that a common misconception is that polyamory is “one big orgy,” when in reality, polyamorous people tend to be “quick to communicate and slow to [have sex].” In fact, many polyamorous people she’s spoken to prefer to only engage in one-on-one sex and find group sex to either be a “condiment” or not appealing at all. Polyamorous relationships are unique in that they are explicitly about more than sex, they’re about bonding and relationships. 
  • Polyamory is illegal. Polyamory is not illegal. That said, polyamorist relationships are frequently discriminated against in society. CBS News notes that, “There is no legal framework for polyamorous families to share finances, custody of children or the rights and responsibilities that come with marriage. Likewise, there are no legal protections against people facing discrimination for being in a non-monogamous relationship.” That is to say, most states don’t recognize relationships that contain more than two partners, a policy which only adds to the stigma polyamorous people and families face.

Polyamory vs. an open relationship and swinging

In reality, “open relationship” is an umbrella term to refer to any relationship in which monogamy is not an expectation. However, it includes other relationship formations beyond polyamory, which assumes romantic and sometimes sexual relationships with multiple partners. Swinging is a common example of an open relationship that is not polyamorous. That’s because the primary couple is typically centered, and any additional relationships are kept exclusively sexual.

Polyamory vs. polygamy 

People also frequently confuse polyamory with polygamy, but the two concepts are vastly different. Polygamy is the practice of having multiple spouses and is illegal in the United States, though it is sometimes practiced by fundamentalist Mormons. Dr. Eli notes that polygamy has cropped up in just about every society around the world, particularly very religious ones. 

It overwhelmingly takes the form of one wealthy or powerful man having multiple wives. In contrast, polyamory does not involve having multiple spouses, and is typically far less conventionally “gendered.” As Dr. Eli explains, women being allowed to have multiple partners “has only been accessible where women can earn their own money, get an education, determine their own partnerships, and control their fertility. So, really, polyamory only happens in places in the world where women have economic independence.” In this way, it’s far more equalizing than polygamy.

When do poly relationships not work? 

At the end of the day, polyamory, as previously noted, can be challenging, and that means it doesn’t always work. There are some common problems that relationships coaches and experts see repeatedly in polyamorous relationships. As Dr. Eli explains, “It doesn't work if people don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to maintain the relationship. The sex part is easy, but the relationship part is hard… And even if love is infinite, time is not.” 

Polyamorous relationships also don’t work when partners aren’t on the same page, particularly when one partner is more enthusiastic about pursuing polyamory than the other partner. Sometimes this takes the form of what Dr. Eli calls the “poly-mono mismatch,” where one partner prefers to bond monogamously while the other gravitates towards polyamory. 

The bottom line

Polyamory is a very broad category of non-monogamy that allows for all kinds of creative relationship formations, romantic experiences, and sexual expressions. It requires work to maintain polyamorous relationships, but as Engle rightly notes, “monogamous relationships aren't exactly a cake walk either.” While polyamory can seem intimidating in a culture that emphasizes monogamy, it’s absolutely worth exploring if the prospect interests you. It can result in truly life-enhancing bonds and experiences.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Amanda Scherker is a freelance writer and producer. She was an Associate Editor at HuffPost and is a contributor to Reductress, Artsy, Cracked and Cherry Picks. She also writes and directs video essays about pop culture for the Youtube Channel Wisecrack.

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