I have two female friends right now who are dealing with exact opposite situations. One -- we’ll call her Tina -- is pretty enthusiastic about polyamory. She’s identified as poly for a little while, she knows it’s the relationship style that suits her, and she dates guys who say they’re comfortable with that, but don’t necessarily identify as poly themselves, or aren’t dating others right now.
The other friend, Michelle, is starting to consider polyamory because she’s very much into a guy who identifies as poly. She doesn’t want to date multiple people, but she’s open to the idea of dating someone who does. Can this situation work in the long haul?
My experience has been yes, but with some pretty significant caveats. As Poly Weekly podcast host Cunning Minx likes to point out, love may be unlimited but time isn’t. There are situations in which a poly-mono relationship can work really well, but you have to assess where you both are in life, what your time constraints and concerns are, and go from there.
On one recent Poly Weekly episode, Minx invited author Kathy Labriola on to discuss something called the Intimacy-Autonomy scale. I’ve found this scale to be much more helpful in assessing how likely a particular relationship style is to work for someone than the typical “Do you get jealous?” questions.
Basically, the idea is that whether you’re poly, monogamous or something in between, at any given time in your life you fall somewhere on this scale between intimacy (needing lots of time with your partner(s), wanting to be physically close, needing affirmation and attention) and autonomy (wanting a lot of freedom, needing time with other friends or dates, feeling smothered by spending too much time with a loved one).
So the question of whether a poly-monogamous relationship will work has a lot to do with where the respective partners fall on the Intimacy-Autonomy scale.
Tina, for example, falls near the middle, but on the autonomy side. She likes spending significant time with her partners, but she also enjoys dating and spending time with friends. She needs her partners to want to hang out with her other circles. If she dates a monogamous guy, it’s important that he likes spending some time on his own, and also enjoys spending time in public with Tina, hanging out with her friends. If he feels resentful of her when she’s off with others, their relationship is unlikely to work, so a good match for her is someone who already is fairly busy with work, his own friends, or other pursuits.
Michelle’s situation raises some red flags because not only is her interest all about the guy, but that crush seems to be giving her some dangerous blinders. She admitted that attention is the most important thing to her in a relationship, and that she needs to see someone multiple times a week for a relationship to work.
She’d prefer to live with a partner, and she’s not very happy when she’s single. When I suggest that maybe his interest in other women is going to make it hard for him to meet the time commitments she needs, she keeps going back to how much she adores him. Though it’s possible for this to work, she really needs to sit down with him, tell him just how much time and attention she needs, and get an honest answer on whether that’s feasible.
Incidentally, the fact that you are polyamorous or monogamous doesn’t necessarily indicate where you’ll fall. It might seem intuitive that a poly person would be more likely to fall on the autonomous side of the scale, but many poly people who need a lot of intimacy are perfectly happy with multiple partners, because they get their intimacy needs met through those multiple relationships.
A poly-mono relationship can work really well for someone who identifies as monogamous but doesn’t want a lot of time and attention to come from their relationship in the same way -- since they’re only responsible for a portion of the partner’s needs, they’re less likely to feel smothered.
If you’re considering a poly-mono relationship, often the simple question of time will help you figure out whether it’s going to work. People have drastically different ideals when it comes to how much time they want with a partner. I actually got started with poly expecting to always be in one relationship myself, because my ideal is seeing a partner once or twice a month. People kept telling me that I’d grow up and realize that when you fall in love, all you want is to see the other person, but let’s face it -- that’s not true for everyone.
Right now, I’m in love with a partner I see twice a year, and that person has three other partners. The situation works pretty well that way, but that would be horrible for someone who needs weekly cuddle time.
A second related factor is how you feel about “primary” and “secondary” relationships. Not all poly people use these concepts, but a lot do.
If you’re the monogamous one, think about whether it’s important to you to be primary in someone’s life. If it is, express that right off the bat. (Even if the other person has a primary, many poly people are happy with multiple primaries -- but you need to find out whether that’s an option.) If you’re poly and you already have someone(s) in your life, be clear about your expectations for a new partner and what “primary,” “secondary,” etc. mean for you.
If you do all this groundwork, it’s entirely possible to make a poly-mono relationship work. And if you have managed to make that happen, leave a comment! I’d love to hear how your experience has been.