As a therapist, one of the very first things I like to ask new couples who are dipping their toes into polyamory or non-monogamy is “How did you get here? How did you learn there was another way to do and be in relationships?” Listening to their stories of awakening, heartache, growth and insight coupled with my own experiences as a polyamorous woman, I’ve found a few important lessons and navigational beacons along the way. Living in a culture where monogamy is the only way that’s taught or accepted, it’s almost like finding a not so secret society where all the rules are different, exciting, challenging and a bit overwhelming. Navigating these changes and learning new rules are different for each person/couple. There is no right way to be in a polyamorous relationship; however, there are concepts to know and work to be done in order to make it a bit easier on you, your partner(s), and your future relationships.
How Monogamy Shows up in our Culture
So, you ask, what does this look like? Well first and foremost, it’s understanding the ways in which monogamy has influenced the way you view relationships. It’s taking a hard look at the social construct of monogamy and actively shifting it until you view your relationship from a polyamorous lens. Take a moment….I want you to think about one movie, TV show, cartoon, book etc. that has a different relationship dynamic, where cheating or a love triangle isn’t the story line; where people can have open, honest, loving relationships with more than one person. Can you think of one? Okay, now think of a Disney movie in which the princess doesn’t get saved or captured by their love interest….which one came to mind? Any? This highlights the programming we receive from very young ages around monogamy. Think about the programming of advertisements; think about the concept of couples resorts, try calling one and see if you can book three adults in a room with one bed. Sandals says no; Excellence Resorts has limited options for this. Think about how language applies: find your knight in shining armor, your better or other half. Everywhere we look the influence of monogamy reigns supreme. These are all examples of how monogamy influences our perceptions of relationships and our culture.
The most asked question I get around being polyamorous is “don’t you get jealous?” And the answer is always, yes! Jealousy is a natural, normal human emotion we all experience, non-monogamous or otherwise. The reaction people often have to feelings of jealousy is the problem and the notion that jealousy is an indicator of love is rooted in the toxic portions of monogamy. The root of jealous feelings are usually in fear and insecurities; feeling as though we might be replaced, comparing ourselves to other people and their connections, fear about losing the relationship. The result of feeling jealous is often the desire to control our partner’s behavior and place rules around what they can and cannot do in other relationships in their lives, whether platonic or romantic. Instead, we should be turning inward. Looking at why we are feeling jealous; questioning where the feelings are coming from. Are they coming from a place of not getting enough time with our partners, are they coming from a feeling of disconnect, or fear of abandonment? Are they rooted in the notion that we should be jealous because it’s something we have been taught is acceptable in relationships or the myth that jealousy means you love someone deeper? Once we have a better understanding of why we’re feeling this way we can then ask for what we need. Maybe it is more intentional time with our partners, maybe it’s validation to assuage some insecurities in the relationship; whatever it is, it is our responsibility to manage our own emotions – our partners are not responsible for them and placing rules around how our partners can conduct their relationships to make ourselves feel more comfortable is never the answer.
Needs, Commitments, and the Relationship Escalator
One of the more prevalent themes in monogamy is the idea we must meet every need our partners have and vice versa. We place a lot of emphasis on getting our needs met in one relationship and while it’s important to recognize our needs, it’s equally important to understand that one person cannot meet all of our needs, for all of our lives, and to put that kind of pressure on a relationship often causes it to fail. This does not mean we are inadequate or on the flip side, too needy. It simply means, we have needs outside of what our partners can provide for and being honest and aware of our needs and the limitations of what our partners can provide for us, is paramount. And it’s not just about us and what we can get in relationships, it’s also about being realistic, open, and honest about what needs our partner has and how we can or cannot meet those as well.
Another monogamous theme that comes up is commitment is synonymous with exclusivity. Exclusivity and commitment are two separate things. You can and are allowed to be in relationships that are committed and not exclusive. Commitment means you are actively working on making the relationship a place you and your partner want to be. You are choosing to learn from mistakes and fixing them, you are communicating needs, desires, and boundaries and making the choice to stay in a relationship. This does not mean it prevents you from being in another committed relationship in which the same values are present.
The theme of marriage and children being the end goal of dating needs to be shifted when exploring polyamorous relationships. Jumping off the relationship escalator is important in deconstructing monogamy in that most relationships are not going to have the traditional “end goals.” Shifting the focus from it being a “forever” or even a long-term partnership to enjoying the time with partners for however long they are meant to show up in your life is important. Letting go of the notion of longevity being a success marker in relationships and focusing on connection. Focusing on what makes the relationship worthwhile, why you are choosing to spend your time with this other human, the things you have in common, the valuable life experiences and lessons you can learn, the things you can teach your partner(s), the time spent doing what sets your soul on fire. These are indicators of successful, happy relationships. You don’t need marriage and children and length of time to dictate success.
Navigating Setting Boundaries and All of the Communication
The negotiation of boundaries in your current and future relationships are an integral part of non-monogamy. This means identifying and communicating these boundaries with your partners. When first opening up a relationship it is important to start talking about what feels comfortable and why. The difference between boundaries and rules is a boundary is something you set for yourself – these can include physical, emotional, sexual, time and financial boundaries; rules are something you set to control other’s behavior. Getting clear on what you need in a relationship is important – developing self-awareness and being honest with yourself is paramount in any relationship. Navigating these boundaries with your partner means being open to hearing what they need from the relationship and accepting influence from them in order to create a set of boundaries that work for both of you. Additionally, taking responsibility and accountability for your actions and not trying to control your partner is important. You are responsible for your own actions, responses, feelings and triggers. You are not responsible for your partner’s. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there as an emotional support for your partner.
Communication! Communication! Communication! This should be your mantra when entering polyamorous relationships because there is so much talking, navigating, setting boundaries, and listening that needs to be happening all the way through. If this has been a weakness for your current relationship, these are skills that need to be developed. Open, compassionate, honest communication is key. There will be thoughts and feelings that arise that feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar – talk about them. Lean in to your partner(s) and challenge yourself to be open about your thoughts and feelings. Some of your partner’s feelings may be difficult to hear and understand as you navigate attraction to others, jealousy, limited time and emotional energy, unmet needs now being met by others. These can be scary but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be talking about them. Let your partner(s) into your inner world and express the feelings that feel too scary to express; chances are they may be feeling similarly or can help to alleviate some of the insecurities that arise.
As you are undoing years of conditioning and deconstructing monogamy – this is going to be uncomfortable. There will probably be times when you are going to want to go back to the security and normalcy monogamy provided and forget about this non-monogamy nonsense; however, you were called here for a reason. This is a time for growth, self-love and reflection, gentleness and challenging your many years of monogamous programming. You are going to make mistakes and if you remain open, you will also learn and grow from these mistakes. Lean into the growth. Find a therapist who is non-monogamy friendly and dig into this part of your identity. Do the work, I think you’ll find it’s worth it, whether you decide non-monogamy is for you or not.
Contact us for counseling support to explore polyamory individually or with a partner(s).