So, you're interested in polyamory. For those who are unaware, polyamory means "multiple loves" and is a relationship structure involving more than two people; sometimes it can be simple as a triad, and sometimes it can get complex enough to merit the "poly pentacle" chart that some friends of mine came up with. Maybe you want to "spice up" your relationship; maybe you've always felt drawn to relationships with more than one person. Maybe you just want to experiment.
None of these things are wrong; in fact, they can be great things! But, speaking as someone who has 10+ years of experience in the polyamory community, I want to warn some people of the five most common danger signs—while I don't regret what happened to me, per se, I hope imparting my experience will help give those new to the scene (and maybe some who aren't) some pointers on what to avoid.
Beware the Unicorn Chasers.
No, I'm not talking about the cuddly kitten type here. These are much more dangerous. In the polyamory community, there is a common desire, especially from married couples who want to "add some spice," for a third. This third is almost always young, female, slender or fit, conventionally attractive, interested in both members of the couple, and completely new to the world of polyamory, with no compass to guide her. If she's lucky, she'll have other poly friends, but this is usually not the case. This is why she's called a "unicorn," because of the sheer rarity of these women compared to the number of interested couples. (I will mostly be covering married or established couples seeking out a third, because this is where the greatest pitfalls are found.)
If this sounds like a midlife crisis, you're not far off the mark. Usually, the couple is only interested in their secondary for purposes of their satisfaction. They don't care about what their third wants—or maybe they care, but they don't care enough to provide for her emotional needs to put her "ahead" of the primary partner even temporarily.
In my first polyamorous relationship, I was the unicorn. My exes loved that they'd finally found a bisexual, thin young goth woman with a high sex drive and a willingness to try about anything. At the time, I was still recovering from my first relationship, which had turned abusive due to a number of outside factors. When three months after that breakup, I wasn't "over it," they told me I was choosing to hold on to pain, that they were not nice people, and that they could not continue to emotionally support me. This was about three or four months into our relationship. They also knew the precise buttons to push to make me feel like it was all my fault. This is not uncommon among unicorn chasers.
Bottom line, if someone that you don't know really, really, really well invites you into their relationship, then be on guard at all times. Even then, be cautious; I thought I knew my exes well, but I still ended up blindsided.
One Penis Policy Means RUN.
Okay, so you're probably wondering what the fuck a "one penis policy" is. This is when the male part of the couple is so insecure (or misogynistic) that he can't fathom the idea of "his" woman sleeping with other men. Some go so far as to "ban" their wife or girlfriend from using dildos with their female sexual partners.
There's a lot here to unpack, to be honest. Insecurity plays a role, for sure, but so does fetishization. Usually, OPPers want to be in on the action, even if it's "just" watching. Because, hey, who wouldn't turn down free lesbian porn in their own bedroom? Ugh.
The other problem with this is that it's exceedingly heteronormative and devalues relationships between women. Any time a guy says that his penis is the only penis allowed, he's also saying that the relationship between the two women isn't important; it doesn't matter. Usually, it's for the purpose of getting his rocks off.
These types tend to become ever more controlling as time goes on, as well, because the "One Penis Policy" is fueled by fear and insecurity. Rarely, it'll lessen, but more frequently, it will become even more obvious.
If you're entering an already existing relationship with a One Penis Policy, my advice is simple. Don't. No matter how charming or well-mannered or otherwise compatible you might seem, the risks are too great. If you are already in a relationship and your partner wants to open it up with OPP rules, then you need to ask yourself some hard questions. For one, can you live with your other relationships being devalued? Can you handle your husband or partner wanting carte blanche to do whatever he wants (which is how this usually works) while putting limits on you? Is this even something you want to do? I only have so much space here, and there are many more questions worth asking, but do not, under any circumstances, rush into a decision.
Polyamory Is Not Evolution In Action.
If there's one clue I'd love to slam over the heads of my fellow poly-folk with, it's this ridiculous idea that polyamory is somehow more "evolved." No. It's not. It's a relationship structure. It's no better than monogamy, and can in some ways be worse because there is a greater potential for abuse due to the increasing number of people involved. It's not wrong to be polyamorous. It's not wrong to be monogamous. It's not wrong to be capable of both—and I know plenty of people who don't have an individual preference.
The "poly is more evolved" crowd is not only wrong; they are causing actual harm to the polyamory community, because … okay, I've been told a lot of horrible things about being polyamorous over the years. I've been called a cheater, I've been told I wasn't capable of love, I've been told that if I really loved my partner, I would be monogamous, etc. When poly folk say that polyamory is more involved and that monogamy is lesser, they're just as much assholes as the people who told me the above.
Generally speaking, they're assholes in other areas, too. It makes for a useful filtering tool.
Your Emotional Needs MATTER!
If there is one thing that makes me want to drink, it's this idea that poly is just about sex. No, it's not. Swinging is about sex. Poly is about relationships. I mentioned a previous relationship earlier that turned sour when I wasn't automagically recovered from a bad relationship (my very first, at that) in mere months.
If someone starts making comments about not wanting to commit, or only wanting sex, or accusing you of being too needy or wanting too much, these are red flags. They'd be red flags in any relationship, but in polyamory, you have more than one person to help support each other. Even though I'm not involved with everyone in my polyfamily, I still care about my metamours (the poly term for your partner's partner, that you're not involved with) and don't want to see them hurt.
Now, some poly groups aren't as close-knit as others. Mine is very much so; we've gone through a lot of hell together over the past I-don't-know-how-many years. Bottom line, if there are multiple people and someone's being told that their issues aren't important enough, that they're overreacting, that they're demanding too much… those aren't just red flags. Those are red flags with a fucking air siren.
Let me be blunt. If your partner can't be arsed to take the time to be there for you when you desperately need them (exceptions given for emergencies and the like), they are not a good partner. To quote the inimitable Maya Angelou, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them." If they are up-front that they won't be there for you when you need them, take them at their word.
It's not always that simple, though. At this point, it can devolve into gaslighting. This is non-negotiable, for any relationship, monogamous or polyamorous—if the person that you are with does not have the inclination to make time for you (within a reasonable amount; of course, requesting a response to a text message within five minutes is unreasonable), then they are outright showing you that they are not a good partner. Again, as Ms. Angelou says, believe them.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
This is a tricky one. There are valid reasons for polyamorous people to remain in the closet. I personally know people who have had their children put into foster care (and eventually returned, but not without a great deal of trauma for all involved) simply because they were polyamorous. The ACLU and similar organizations refused to get involved. But this can cause massive stress on a polyamorous relationship, especially if it's a married couple who already has children, with a third partner. The married couple may want their relationship with their third to be secret, but that leaves the third in an uncomfortable position.
In essence, the married couple is asking for everything to appear status quo, with no thought to how this might affect the third. It might not bother her, or it could upset her quite a lot.
While I understood the need for secrecy in certain cases (my ex-boyfriend's parents would have sued for custody, and we lived in the Deep South), it still didn't make me feel any better. They at least did not care what I spoke about online, which is where most of my friends were, due to disability and inability to get out and make friends the "normal way." But I know others where the third was not supposed to even let it slip online, no matter how many filters or privacy locks it was behind.
Barring situations like my ex-boyfriend's, it results in the established couple getting everything they want—the beautiful, vivacious young woman, interested in trying new things, eager to please her new partners, and the oft-referenced NRE ("New Relationship Energy"). She probably wants to share her happiness with her closest friends, at the very least—but she's been told she can't. Unfortunately, most of the time, there is no given reason beyond the established couple not wanting others to know about their "dirty little secret."
"Dirty little secret." Three words, and how much hurt and harm they carry.
If you insist, without just cause, on keeping your third (or more) a secret to the point that she cannot even tell her friends in the most vague of details, you have no business being polyamorous. Swinging, perhaps, because that scene is focused on sexual hook-ups, whereas polyamory is based upon romance and loving more than one person. I know from personal experience as a queer woman how much it hurts to have to hide who you are and who you are involved with. This is nothing but damaging for the third, and selfish and irresponsible on the part of the established couple.
Yes, there are still other groups that have to hide their relationships, but this isn't the Olympics. Each person's pain is valid. What's worse is that, often, this isn't brought up in initial relationship negotiations, and instead is brought up later—usually once the third has become romantically attached.
This is only a short primer, but these are the most common issues I've seen over the years in the polyamory community. I want to answer one other question as well. I'm sure people are wondering, "Why bother if it's just going to be drama?"
Well, that's because it's not the poly. It's the people. All too often, people enter poly for the wrong reasons. They're unhappy with their partner, they're not getting what they need, they have diametrically opposed sex drives, any number of things. But our culture is based around monogamy and jealousy is not only rampant, it's encouraged. How many times have you heard a guy say something along the lines of, "You talk to my girl and…."? And this is a blatant example; there are more subtle ones as well.
Don't make my mistake and jump right in. If something feels "off"—listen to that quiet voice in the back of your head. More often than not, you'll find it's right and you've dodged a bullet.