Illustration by Louisa Cannell
by Reina Gattuso
No matter what love style you choose, all relationships have one common denominator: They’re super-complicated. First, society imposes rigid definitions of gender, sexuality, and love. Add that to the personal baggage we pick up along the way, and you’ve got one explosive cocktail.
Polyamory is no exception. Based on the belief that we can be sexually and romantically involved with more than one person in a healthy, consensual way, polyamory is a type of ethical non-monogamy. Unlike cheating, which is nonconsensual, ethical non-monogamy requires thateveryone enthusiastically consents to the arrangement. There are lots of different definitions of polyamory, but most people distinguish it from more casual open relationships, like “monogamish” arrangements or swinging, because polyamory includes emotional as well as physical or sexual intimacy.
By pushing us to question compulsory monogamy—the idea that all people should be in exclusive couples, enforced by institutions like marriage—polyamory can expand our understanding of love. It’s a great fit for many people, especially those who feel most joyfully themselves when exploring intimacy.
But questioning conventional ideas of monogamy, jealousy, and love can also bring unique challenges, from defining what trust and fidelity look like outside of monogamy, to spotting potentially toxic or abusive behaviors within poly spaces. Sometimes, what feels like a philosophically good fit might not be an emotional one.
“What does it look like to be in a relationship that’s based on trust, and autonomy, and agency? How can we love people without controlling them?” asks Dr. Liz Powell, a sex educator, speaker, and psychologist who specializes in nontraditional relationships. “Those are all challenging quests for all of us in our lifetime, and I don’t think any of us has the answer.”
For many women, polyamory helps us assert our desires fully, but gender inequality can play out in polyamory, too.
That means each of us gets to be explorer-in-chief of our own intimate journey. If you’re curious about whether polyamory could be a fit for you, it’s worth taking some time to think through your values and needs—and the cultural beliefs we’re all taught about monogamy, sexuality, and gender.
We’ve All Got Baggage
Polyamory challenges social conventions around possessiveness, sex, and love that have historically harmed women and queer people. In the United States, sexual freedom has been a privilege of straight cis men, not a right assured to everyone. Gay sex was illegal until 2003, and homophobic violence is still a daily reality. Meanwhile, until the turn of the 20th century, women were considered legally inseparable from their husbands, who had a right to rape them without criminal consequence until the 1970s.
Possessiveness was built into the institution of marriage—at least on the part of men, who have historically used jealousy of their wife's affair with another man as a successful legal defense for killing her or her affair partner. Of course, men have also been given more social leeway to have sex outside of marriage. The implication: a woman’s sex is the property of her husband, but men can have sex with as many women as they want (as long as they don’t get caught by other men).
While women now have most of the same legal rights as men (except, of course, the right to full reproductive healthcare), inequality surrounding monogamy and marriage still influences our lives. That doesn’t mean that monogamy is inherently unequal, or polyamory is necessarily better. It means that questioning what we've been taught about relationships can be a profoundly empowering way to understand what works for each of us.
For many women, polyamory helps us assert our desires fully, to see love and sex as a means to pleasure and personal happiness, and to build more equal relationships and communities.
At the same time, histories of gender inequality can play out in polyamory, too, leading to toxic relationships or abuse. For example, says Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, a researcher and relationship coach with an expertise in polyamorous families, because cisgender men are taught they have a right to women’s sexuality, they may feel more entitled to control who their women partners can and can’t sleep with in polyamorous relationships.
A relationship style may look great on paper, but if it doesn’t suit what you need at this time in your life, then it’s not right for you.
In some communities where polyamory is the norm, individuals can also feel political or moral pressure to practice non-monogamy. “While compulsory non-monogamy doesn’t have the same institutional place compulsory monogamy does, it can still be coercive,” says Sheff.
So how can you tell if polyamory is right for you—and create the most equitable relationships possible?
Be Real About Your Needs
A relationship style may look great on paper, but if it doesn’t suit what you need at this time in your life—what you really need, not what you think you should need—then it’s not right for you.
Knowing what you want isn’t easy in the best of circumstances. But because of the emphasis on respecting partners’ autonomy, says Powell, polyamory can come with unique challenges. “I think we can go too far, to a place where we let people do whatever the hell they want,” says Powell. “That’s not real. All of us get to have boundaries, all of us get to have wants, all of us get to have needs.”
Especially for those of us raised female, it can be tempting to prioritize our partners at our own expense. "If you’re socialized as a woman, you’re taught to say no to sexual requests and yes to relationship requests,” says Powell. This can translate to the pressure to be “chill” in relationships—which is often code for putting aside our wants and needs to accommodate those of our partners. Meanwhile, people raised male are taught to ignore their own vulnerabilities, rather than honestly confront them.
But for Sheff, having your basic needs for love, intimacy, trust, and care met is key to successfully navigating relationships with more than one partner. “I think of it as having their relationship bellies full,” says Sheff. "If you’re well-fed, sharing your cookies isn’t a problem. But if you’re starving, having fewer cookies just isn’t going to work.”
Know Your Boundaries
A common stereotype about polyamory is that it’s a way to have sex without commitment. For Sheff, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Without the conventional expectations of monogamy to fall back on, polyamory forces partners to make a conscious effort to negotiate and define their commitments. “They’re just not committing to monogamy, but they’re committing to other things,” Sheff says.
Intimacy is always surprising, and the preconceptions we have about ourselves and relationships will be challenged.
That also means setting boundaries, around things like time spent with different partners and safer sex. And just as you have the right to assert your boundaries in monogamy, you also have the right to only commit to what you’re truly comfortable with in polyamory.
Knowing our boundaries isn’t always easy, particularly for those of us with histories of assault or abuse. If it’s hard for you to assert yourself, Sheff suggests being especially conscious in setting expectations with partners. “Do you have control over either negotiating or renegotiating a situation that doesn’t work for you?” Sheff asks. “If you can’t say no, then yes is not a real yes.”
And even in non-monogamous relationships, if someone violates agreed-upon boundaries regarding intimacy with other people—seeing someone else secretly, or breaking expectations about safer sex, for example—that is betrayal, and it isn't okay.
Finally, says Powell, it’s important to trust your gut. If you feel you have to change yourself, ignore your own needs, or do things that are against your values to be in a relationship, that's a red flag. “If it feels weird or off, that’s something worth listening to,” says Powell.
Listen to Yourself
There’s one particularly sticky issue that comes with the territory of non-monogamy: jealousy. While many polyamorous people strive to experience compersion, a feeling of genuine joy at your partner’s romantic and sexual happiness with another, that can take a lot of time and practice to achieve. And, says Powell, compersion shouldn't be confused with denying your feelings.
“A lot of the mythology around non-monogamy is just ‘Get over being jealous and you’ll feel happy all the time and you’ll always feel compersion,’” says Powell. But emotions like jealousy can’t just be wished away. Instead of ignoring challenging emotions, we can treat them as an invitation to listen to ourselves. “All our emotions are important. They give us information,” Powell says. “You can ask, ‘What is it that makes you jealous?’”
By listening to what jealousy is telling you, rather than pushing it aside or acting impulsively, you can determine if what you’re feeling is temporary and situational—because your partner is going on a date for the first time, for example—versus jealousy that indicates that this relationship, or polyamory in general, aren’t working for you.
Messy, Messy Humans
Intimacy is always surprising, and the preconceptions we have about ourselves and relationships will be challenged. “The Liz in my book is a fantastic woman who would be so easy to date,” Liz Powell says. “The real Liz is a messy, messy human."
We don’t get to choose the individual and societal baggage that make us so delightfully and humanly messy. We do, however, get to choose how we deal with our mess, and how we can turn our unique, bizarre, and lovable needs and foibles into healthy relationships. At heart, that requires embracing that all of us, even the apparent experts, are making it up as we go along.
Ultimately, the secret sauce to healthy relationships isn't polyamory or monogamy: It’s egalitarianism and mutual respect. Sustaining healthy, happy, pleasure-filled love in this messed-up world is never going to be easy. But with a lot of self-love, and a little work, we can all find care, support, intimacy, and spicy sex—with one person or many.