My first polyamorous relationship was a three-year-long, on-and-off disaster that swallowed up most of my college experience. I had opened up the relationship after a short period of monogamy, and before that I had been serially monogamous in high school.
But to the surprise of some of my friends, I came out of that crappy poly relationship not swearing off open relationships in the future, but instead identifying as polyamorous. How on earth could I stick with polyamory after such a bad relationship?
I realized that polyamorous relationships, just like monogamous ones, could be healthy or unhealthy. In my case, the problem had been my boyfriend’s condescending, selfish, and gaslighting behavior, compounded with my untreated depression and anxiety. While we had had problems with the open relationship, our relationship was terrible because of him (and me, to an extent), not because of the relationship structure itself. Polyamory itself actually forced me to mature and re-examine my views about relationships in a way that worked well for me.
Back when I was growing up, I believed the romanticized ideals about relationships you see in Disney movies and romantic comedies. I was an awkward kid and not very close with my family, which made the script of Prince Charming all the more appealing. Someone who would love me, sweep me off my feet, and take care of all my emotional needs sounded perfect.
As I got older, I realized that the idea of Prince Charming was unrealistic, but I couldn’t shake the idea of the One Perfect Soulmate, the idea that was propped up, implicitly or explicitly, by countless movies, songs, and books. This One Perfect Soulmate would not only fulfill all my needs as a romantic partner, but all of my needs as a person, overshadowing friends and family alike.
I’ve been in polyamorous relationships consistently since college (save one very short-lived and ill-fated affair). For me, polyamory hasn’t just been a comfortable relationship model; it has helped me rethink some of my unhealthy and unrealistic ideas about relationships. While these are things that other folks might learn through serial monogamy, or simply from growing older and having more experiences, for me, the experience of polyamory was key to realizing these elements of healthy relationships.
Here are some of the lessons I learned:
1. Discuss Rather Than Assume Boundaries
If you’re in an exclusive relationship, is looking at porn cheating? Is sleeping in the same bed as your friend? How about forming a deep, committed, but non-sexual relationship with someone you’re attracted to?
The only way to actually know is to ask your partner. I’ve seen plenty of arguments either way on all these issues, everywhere from advice columns to OKCupid questions to internet forums to conversations in real life. Over and over, I see some people assuming that how they feel and what they think “exclusive, committed relationship” means is universal – but if you look at others’ responses, it’s clearly not.
We all come into relationships with assumptions; I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. I remember being in a relationship in high school and being shocked and hurt when I found out my boyfriend looked at porn. At the time, I just assumed that looking at porn was bad, if not cheating, because of messages I’d internalized – not because of any conversation I had had with my partner about expectations.
There are plenty of people who do think porn is normal and fine, and plenty who think that watching porn is unhealthy or problematic or at least something you shouldn’t do in an exclusive relationship. I’m not going to derail with a discussion about the ‘right’ answer, but the important thing is that if you assume one way or the other, your partner might not be on board.
Equally important are assumptions not about you or your partner’s interactions outside the relationship, but about your relationship with each other. For example, I have had a couple of relationships in the past few years that were barely or not at all sexual. They were definitely romantic, since I had an emotional connection, we cuddled and kissed, and we went out on dates. But one or both of us weren’t interested in sex, and we communicated about it.
A couple of years ago, I had a sexual and romantic partner who didn’t like vaginal penetration. It’s often assumed that if you have a vagina, you want to use it during sex. By the time I was in this relationship, I had gotten comfortable talking about sexual preferences and boundaries. When she told me hesitantly that she didn’t like vaginal penetration, I was able to say “OK” and move on to discussing what she did like. I was used to the idea that people may have different sexual boundaries than what the “norm” is, and that’s not a big deal.
I hadn’t heard any messages about this type of communication until I was introduced to polyamory. Communication, including discussing and setting boundaries, is emphasized in most polyamorous resources, and by much of the poly community. Growing up I saw virtually no healthy models for this, and certainly nothing in the Prince Charming model that suggested I might need to discuss rather than assume.
Communication about boundaries and expectations doesn’t fix all relationship problems, but I’ve found that it addresses and preempts a lot of them. Learning how to ask about, listen to, and respect my partner’s boundaries while communicating my own has helped me have healthier relationships.
2. Relationships Require Compromise and Effort
Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I absorbed the idea that healthy relationships are effortless. You shouldn’t have to talk about anything, and if you and your partner disagree, well, either someone has made a mistake and needs to fix it, or else the relationship is doomed.
My college boyfriend, even though he identified as polyamorous, agreed with this sentiment. He told me that he believed he shouldn’t have to compromise, that if he had to put in work it must be a crappy relationship.
Through dating him, I realized that we had bought into a mainstream myth that relationships should be easy. Now I recognize that they aren’t necessarily supposed to be “easy”; they’re supposed to be worthwhile and fulfilling. There’s a difference between a relationship where you put in all the effort and compromise and you end up feeling drained, and a relationship where you both put in effort and sometimes compromise while sticking to your core values and valuing yourself, and you feel loved, fulfilled, and satisfied.
The best things in my life – learning how to cook and write, physically transitioning, making friends – have taken a lot of effort. The important part is knowing that the effort helped me become a better and more satisfied person, rather than giving up a part of myself and getting nothing in return.
Even though my first polyamorous partner didn’t understand that, I learned it the hard way, through that relationship and subsequent ones. I had to work on bettering myself and trying to be a good partner if I wanted my relationships to work, and ultimately that effort made my relationships more fulfilling and rewarding. I realized the difference between a fulfilling relationship that took effort, and a relationship that simply sucked out my energy without reinvigorating me.
3. Don’t Expect One Person to be Everything
My sappy romantic side really stuck to the idea of True Love. Intellectually, I knew that I would need multiple people in my life, friends and family as well as a partner. But I still clung to that One True Soulmate ideal that's common in our culture, the idea that one person can meet all of one’s romantic, sexual, emotional, and intellectual needs.
Dating multiple people at once helped me break down this idea in a way that serial monogamy wouldn’t have for me. In college, my boyfriend didn’t share many of my hobbies, but some of the other people I dated did. After college, I was in a relationship with someone who was into most of my hobbies, but didn’t share all of my kinks. I had a couple of play partners (think hookup buddies, but for BDSM) who did share my interests, so I could explore that side of myself without pressuring my boyfriend to try activities he wasn’t terribly interested in.
You can absolutely have friends that fill those roles, but polyamory was a useful stepping stone, helping me move from “One person must be your romantic partner and best friend and soulmate and spouse and center of your life” to “You can have several meaningful connections in your life, and no one person has to meet all your needs” through the intermediate step of “You can have multiple romantic partners and no one of them has to meet all of your needs.” Not everyone needs that intermediate step, but since I had trouble making friends when I was younger and I was still very attached to romantic ideals, it was invaluable for me.
Polyamory definitely isn’t for everyone, so I’m not going to say, “Go out and date multiple people, because it will make you more enlightened!”. A lot of you may have figured some or all of this out through monogamous relationships or other life experiences.
That said, if you think polyamory might be a good fit for you, you could end up learning a lot about yourself and about relationships by trying it, if only because you’re approaching things from a different perspective.
For me, being non-monogamous has helped me have healthier relationships. Regardless of if I decide to “settle down” in a mostly monogamous way sometime in the future or if I remain polyamorous for the rest of my life, I’m glad I’ve spent several years practicing polyamory. It has taught me more about myself and about how to have healthy relationships, and made me realize I need to live my life for me, not in search of one person who will fulfill all of my romantic and emotional needs to the exclusion of everyone and everything else.