41 ways to understand polyamorous relationships, dating and sex

Photo credit: Ezra Bailey - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ezra Bailey - Getty Images

Translated from the Greek and Latin words for 'many loves', polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy. As opposed to being exclusively committed to one person, poly people are open to having more than one romantic relationship at a time, with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

But is it really possible to have your cake and eat it too - and how exactly does it work? To dispel the common myths about polyamory and help you navigate the complex world of polyamorous dating, we spoke to sex therapist and relationship expert Tatyana Dyachenko B.SC. from Peaches and Screams:

1. How does polyamory work?

There is no one single way to be polyamorous and it can mean different things to different people, but on the whole poly people are open to establishing loving relationships with multiple people at the same time. Some polyamorous people have one 'primary' partner and one or more 'secondary' partners, while in other poly set-ups, every partner has equal standing. A polyamorous person may form separate relationships with different partners, or they could be in a relationship where all or several partners are romantically linked.

2. Is polyamory an excuse to cheat?

It's a common misconception, but polyamory is not an infidelity loophole. People don't choose to be polyamorous because they're reluctant to commit to a relationship. Just like monogamous people, polyamorous people put time, care, trust and respect into their relationships – but with more than one person.

3. Is polyamory the same as an open relationship?

While they are both forms of consensual non-monogamy, a polyamorous relationship is different to an open relationship. In the latter, both partners are free to seek out external sexual relationships, and sometimes emotional attachments. With polyamory, people develop multiple deep, committed relationships based on love and emotional connection. Some people identify polyamory as their sexual orientation, while others define it as a lifestyle choice.

4. Is polyamory the same as swinging?

Polyamory is not a form of swinging. Swinging is a type of open relationship as well as a social activity. Singles and couples, called swingers, engage in casual sex as a recreational activity with other single or coupled-up people – usually at a club, party or weekend soirée. With that said, some polyamorous people are also swingers, and some swingers have polyamorous relationships.

5. Does polyamory mean you're down for group sex?

Polyamorous people are not necessarily into group sex. Polyamory can include sexual relationships with more than one person, but it's not about getting jiggy with multiple people at the same time – unless you want to, that is. For example, a polyamorous woman may be in a sexual relationship with two different men, but that doesn't mean they will meet and have a threesome together.

6. Is polyamory illegal?

Polyamory is not illegal – but marrying multiple people is. Polygamous marriages are not permitted in the UK, and if it is performed, the person (or people) who are already married may be guilty of bigamy under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. Bigamy is the act of entering into a new marriage while your former husband or wife is still alive. It's a criminal offence in the UK punishable by up to seven years in prison, or a fine, or both.

7. What is the difference between polygamy and polyamory?

Where polyamory refers to having multiple relationships at a time, polygamy involves being married to multiple partners, which is permitted in some countries across Africa and Asia. In its most common form, polygamy is actually 'polygyny', where one man marries multiple women. 'Polyandry' occurs when one woman marries multiple men.

Photo credit: Ladanifer
Photo credit: Ladanifer

8. Can you cheat in a polyamorous relationship?

Cheating does still occur in polyamorous relationships, and it involves breaking the relationship agreement you have with another person – which is a violation of trust. The definition of cheating is different to different people, and it doesn't simply mean that someone is having sex with a person who is not their partner. For example, if you and your spouse have agreed only to date people of the same sex, dating a member of the opposite sex without their knowledge would be 'cheating'.

9. How common is polyamory?

Polyamory is more common than you might think. In a survey of 2,000 Brits carried out by EuroClinix in 2018, 19 per cent identified as polyamorous. Men were more likely to be polyamorous: 22 per cent of those surveyed, compared with 16 per cent of women.

10. Is polyamory a disorder?

Polyamory is not a mental illness or a personality disorder. It's just a way of living your life. There is no evidence that monogamy is a better choice for longevity, happiness, sexual satisfaction or emotional intimacy, nor that it offers additional protection from jealousy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or divorce. In a US study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers found no difference in relationship satisfaction between people who are monogamous or consensually non-monogamous.

11. Do polyamorous relationships last?

Much like a monogamous relationship, whether a polyamorous relationship is built to last depends on the people involved and whether it continues to meet their needs over time. Polyamory requires the ability to communicate effectively, set and respect boundaries, and practice emotional literacy, which is the foundation for lasting, loving, and fulfilling relationships.

12. What is it like to be in a polyamorous relationship?

Polyamory is about removing societal expectations of what relationships should be, so you're free to create the terms of what polyamory means to you. You might thrive from having a primary relationship and several secondary relationships, enjoy multiple equal partnerships with different people – who may or may not also be dating each other – or prefer to form a 'throuple', which is a relationship made up of three people.

13. Will polyamory save my relationship?

While many monogamous couples have transitioned into a polyamorous set-up, polyamory is by no means a fix-all solution for a rocky relationship. It requires trust, respect, honesty, and compassionate communication to work – if those things are lacking, opening up your relationship is unlikely to fix it. You might even find it brings more issues to light. However, if you and your partner are in conflict because your individual needs differ, establishing multiple relationships may be a way to help meet those needs.

14. How do I know if I'm polyamorous?

Figuring out whether you're polyamorous can be a difficult and daunting journey. From a very young age, we're told that we should find The One, settle down, and live happily ever after, and it can be hard to shake off those beliefs.

If you're polyamorous, you may feel like you're capable of loving more than one person at a time, or that you want to be loved by more than one person. You may have conformed to monogamy in the past, and felt as though it didn't work for you, even if you experienced happy and healthy relationships.

15. How do I know if polyamory is right for me?

Before starting a polyamorous relationship, first consider how you react to jealousy. 'Would you be able to handle seeing your partner have physical contact with another person?' asks Dyachenko. 'Look back at past relationships to see how you've handled jealousy in the past.' If you can imagine being comfortable with this, you may well be suited to a poly relationship.

The green-eyed monster isn't the only consideration. If you're interested in polyamory you should also ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I enjoy variety in my sex life, and am I open to trying new things?

  2. Do I have the emotional capacity for deep connections with more than one person?

  3. What motivates me – what about polyamory interests me?

Remember, you can always try polyamory, and if you find that it's not for you, that's OK. Just like monogamy doesn't work for everyone, polyamory doesn't work for everyone either. There's no one-size-fits-all, so take time to discover the right fit for you.

16. What if I do get jealous?

It's possible to feel that polyamory is the right choice for you and still have underlying concerns about your reactions to different scenarios. Jealousy is an emotional warning sign that you feel insecure, mistreated, threatened, or vulnerable, so it's worth digging into the emotion when it arises. Often the root cause has very little to do with the actions of your partner, unless they are overstepping a defined boundary. If the jealousy is unfounded, identify any underlying issue – fear of loss, for example – and develop a coping strategy.

17. What is solo polyamory?

Solo polyamory means you have multiple relationships with people, but have an independent or 'single' lifestyle. You may not be interested in living with a partner, sharing finances, children, or any other commitments that may make your life intertwine with others, or entering into an existing relationship where those things are already part of it.

18. Polyamory terms it's worth knowing

If you're interested in the poly lifestyle it's worth adding these terms to your lexicon:

❤️ V-type: This is when two people have a romantic relationship with a person, but not with each other.

❤️ Triad: Also referred to as a 'throuple', this is a relationship between three people.

❤️ Quad: A relationship involving four people, for example, if two polyamorous couples meet and each dates a person from the other couple.

❤️ Full quad: Four people who are romantically or sexually involved with each other.

❤️ Polycule: A term used to describe a network of romantically-connected people – like a family tree, but for love.

❤️ Compersion: The feeling of joy a person feels from seeing their partner happy with another person.

❤️ Metamour: Your partner's other partners or lovers, with whom you are not romantically or sexually involved.

❤️ Paramour: An external person in a marriage. For example, your husband's girlfriend.

❤️ Nesting relationship: Some people prefer this term to 'primary', especially if they share a living space with a partner, as it implies a hierarchy over 'secondary' partners.

19. How do polyamorous relationships start?

Polyamorous relationships vary in the same way that all relationships do. You might meet someone in a bar, or you might have known them for years. Some people make a conscious decision to seek out a polyamorous relationship, while others may find it's a natural course their existing relationship has taken over time, or a step they chose to take as a couple.

20. What is a throuple?

Also known as a three-way relationship, a triad, or a closed triad, a throuple occurs when three people unanimously agree to be in a romantic relationship together. A throuple can be made up of people of any gender identity and any sexual orientation. Often, it involves a married couple or long-term couple who choose to add a third person. It's not just a threesome, which describes sex with three people, although it can start that way.

21. What does it mean if a couple is looking for a unicorn?

This means a heterosexual couple is seeking a bisexual man or woman to join their relationship. This could be sexually, as a threesome, or emotionally, as a throuple.

22. Do I have to identify as polyamorous?

You don't necessarily have to identify as poly to participate in a polyamorous relationship. Some people choose to adopt the label as a way to describe their sexual identity and feel like part of the community, while others may become involved in polyamorous relationships but not necessarily consider it a core part of how they identify.

23. How should I bring up polyamory with a potential new partner?

Discussing polyamory with your partner may be nerve-wracking, but if monogamy is a deal breaker for you, find out what they're looking for in a relationship before things get serious. You could ask whether they want an exclusive relationship, what they think of polyamory, or how they feel about dating multiple people at once. 'It's always best to be honest from the start with any potential new partner,' says Dyachenko. 'Just rip off the band aid and get it out there.'

24. How can I bring up polyamory with my existing partner?

If you are in a monogamous relationship and want to explore polyamory with your partner, be honest and upfront. 'Broach the subject when you're both relaxed in each other's company,' says Dyachenko. Make it clear that this isn't about something your partner is doing wrong – use 'I' statements to explain why you feel polyamory is right for you. Don't rush them into making any decisions; give them time to digest what you're saying.

25. How can I start dating?

Dating apps aren't just for monogamous people – you could add 'polyamorous' to your bio, and see who's interested. 'The best site for polyamarous dating is OKCupid, due to the app's detailed settings for non-monogamous relationships,' Dyachenko says. You could also try Feeld, an inclusive alternative dating platform for both singles and couples. 'If dating apps aren't your style, you can try polyam meet ups,' she adds. 'Do some research online to find local groups in your area. You may also be able to find a local group on social media.'

Photo credit: igor_kell
Photo credit: igor_kell

26. What else should I know about poly life?

Some people might assume that polyamory simply involves having loads more sex, but time and effort often goes into maintaining multiple relationships. Polyamory requires strong time management skills and plenty of planning ahead, so be sure to schedule in one-on-one time, double dates and group gatherings.

27. Where can I learn more about polyamory?

To learn more about polyamory try the following resources:

  • Polyamory Weekly: a weekly podcast, with essential resources, poly book recommendations, support group links, FAQs and online classes.

  • More Than Two: an essential blog about all things poly, from basic principles and common myths to nurturing healthy relationships and handling jealousy.

  • Polyamory Society: a nonprofit organisation that promotes and supports the interest of individuals of multi-partner relationships and families.

  • Loving Without Boundaries: a useful blog and podcast, with free tools, courses, coaching, workshops and more. Run by relationship coach and educator Kitty Chambliss.

  • Polyamory in the News: media and news outlet coverage of stories relating to polyamory, from pop culture to legal issues.

28. What are the rules of polyamory?

If you and your partner have decided to give polyamory a go, the next step is to figure out the specifics of what the label means to you. Together, reflect on what you're both looking forward to by bringing polyamory into your relationship – it can help you establish likes, dislikes, and boundaries going forward. You're free to create the 'rules' as you see fit.

Tips for polyamorous dating

If you're ready to dip your toe into polyamorous dating, follow our tips for establishing those all-important ground rules:

29. Talk about everything

'Communication is key,' says Dyachenko. 'Being open and honest with your partner is a must for any successful polyamorous relationship. Talk about how it's going, things you like about it and things you don't.' This way, you can change things up if necessary.

30. Consider the details

Establish how much you'd like to know about the other relationships in your partner's life. For example, do you want to know if your partner has sex, or would you rather not hear about it? Would you want to know if they said 'I love you' to someone else?

31. Be mindful

Agreeing how much time you want to spend with each partner is important, as is giving them sufficient space when they're seeing others. For example, if you know they're on a date with a prospective new partner, refrain from constantly calling them or texting them.

32. Be respectful

Be conscious of the way you relate to your partner's partners. These people are part of your life now, so establishing healthy relationships – even just as friendly acquaintances – is important. Constantly criticising or trying to compete won't make anyone happy. Remember, they're fallible human beings, just like everybody else.

33. Know your boundaries

Identifying how you and your partner feel about emotional and physical acts with others can help you to foster a healthy polyamorous relationship. Things to consider include:

  • Are you comfortable with your partner holding hands with another person in public?

  • How about introducing them to your wider group of friends and family?

  • How do you feel about being in the same place as your partner's partners?

  • Would you mind seeing them being affectionate towards each other?

  • How do you feel about three-way or four-way dating?

  • If sex with other people is OK, how do you feel about oral sex, anal sex, and BDSM?

  • Are one-night stands OK? How about if they use protection?

  • If you live together, what are your feelings towards overnight stays – at home and away?

Be prepared to negotiate compassionately for what you want, without minimising or trampling over your partner's needs. Be open to adjusting your values, boundaries and priorities as time passes. They can change as relationships develop, and that's OK.

34. Don't make assumptions

Don't second-guess – or attempt to exert any control over – your partner's relationships. This includes the direction the relationship will take, how fast they're moving, or what they're experiencing together. Resist the temptation to compare it with your own.

35. Check in regularly

Schedule specific time where you can check in with each of your partners – once a month, for example – and raise any feelings or concerns you might have. Developing good conflict resolution skills is also a must. It's no good making regular space for discussion if you're unable to communicate empathetically and react poorly to constructive criticism.

36. Don't let issues go unresolved

When an issue arises, open a discussion about it with the person involved. Tackle any trust issues and feelings of jealousy, hurt or resentment head-on, and don't shame others when they experience them. Not even the most logical, reasonable, level-headed person thinks rationally 100 per cent of the time.

37. Make time for you

Don't be so wrapped up in your relationships that you neglect yourself – you're not a relationship robot, and as the saying goes, you can't pour from an empty cup. Similarly, don't allow your relationships to define your worth or sense of self. Make sure your value comes from within, take care of your emotional health above all else, and it'll help you remain resilient during rough patches. It'll also take the pressure off your relationships.

38. Don't force relationships

This is true of all relationships, but it's especially pertinent if you're a couple looking to become a throuple. Creating space for another person in your relationship is one thing, trying to force a person to fit into that space is another. In the same vein, it's unrealistic to expect someone to develop the same relationship with both you and your partner.

39. Be flexible

Even the most carefully-planned calendar can't account for the unpredictability of life. If you're in a polyamorous relationship with several people, and one has a family bereavement, they might need a little more support than usual – and that's OK.

40. Join a community

You can find groups of people who practice consensual non-monogamy in all corners of the internet – Facebook groups, Reddit communities, and kink and BDSM sites, for example. You could ask mutual friends, try local meet-up groups (meetup.com), or even attend a polyamory convention to meet like-minded people.

41. The bottom line...

Different people express love in different ways, so just like monogamous relationships, no two poly relationships are the same. Polyamory is about opening up your ideas of love, sex, and intimacy – you're not looking for just one person to share a romantic or sexual connection with, but several. Above all, it's about respect, communication, and trust.

Last updated: 15-03-2021

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