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Even in 2020, there’s still beaucoup confusion around some relationship styles. Polyamorous people take a lot of flak for simply being honest about who they are and what they want. And much of the criticism stems from a lack of understanding.

A lot of people — not just boomers — don’t even know what polyamory is.

Simply put, polyamory is when a person engages in romantic and/or sexual relationships with more than one person at a time. Polyam people are often overly sexualized and poorly portrayed in the media.

It’s time to clear the air and debunk common myths about this type of relationship. But first, here’s a quick glossary:

Primary: Your ride-or-die, your main squeeze, your top-shelf bae. Not every polyam person has a primary partner, but if you do, they might be the one you live with or spend the most time with.

Secondary: Your more casual partner. You can still be totally committed to this person, but your life is likely less intertwined with theirs than with your primary partner’s.

Thruple: A situation where one person is dating two different people or all three are dating each other. This is also called a triad.

Quad: A relationship involving four people, with each member of one couple dating one member of another polyam couple.

Full quad: Four people who are sexually or romantically involved with each other. Sometimes there are primary partners involved, sometimes not.

Polycule: A network of romantically connected people. Think of it along the lines of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon: you ⇢ your husband ⇢ his girlfriend ⇢ her husband ⇢ his girlfriend ⇢ her husband.

Metamour: Your partner’s partner who you don’t hook up with or have a romantic connection to.

Paramour: The outside member of a marriage or union. For example, your wife’s girlfriend.

Solo polyamorous: When you do your own thang. You’re not interested in having a primary partner, but you may be a secondary or casual partner to multiple other people.

Compersion: The opposite of jealousy — this is when you’re genuinely stoked for your partner when they’re happy with another partner.

There are a lot of buzzwords surrounding polyamory. You’ve probably heard of free love and open relationships. But what about ethical non-monogamy?

These phrases seem to get jumbled together when, in reality, there’s a difference. Here are some common misconceptions about polyamory that need to be debunked.

Myth #1: Sharing is caring, but it’s also cheating

Lots of folks think polyam people are compulsive cheaters. But that’s because a lot of people define relationships as a romantic and/or sexual bond shared exclusively between two people.

Fact:

Whether you’re polyam or not, the definition of cheating is a hotly debated topic. To some people, watching porn is cheating. To others, it’s not cheating until things get physical. Then there’s the divide between physical and emotional cheating. But in general, cheating involves feelings of betrayal.

In polyamory, cheating is not a “yes or no” scenario. It’s all about agreeing on your definition of cheating and establishing healthy expectations for you and your partner(s).

Myth #2: They’re commitment-phobic

It’s an old cliché that those interested in a polyamorous relationship simply want to have their cake and eat it too — meaning they’re afraid of a real commitment, but they don’t want to be totally alone either.

Fact:

A lot of polyamorous people are committed to more than one person at a time. So the idea that all polyamorous people are scared of commitment is nonsensical.

Myth #3: They’re just horny

Fake news: Polyam people just want to have sex with as many people as possible.

Fact:

Maybe consensual group sex or threesomes are your thing. While that’s totally fine, not every polyam person is down for the ménage à trois life.

A lot of polyam people have a “one at a time” policy. Others are asexual and don’t engage in any sexual activities. So to say the polyamorous lifestyle is all about sex is an unfair and inaccurate statement.

Myth #4: Polyam people have different values

FYI: Polyamorous people aren’t sex fiends with loose morals.

Fact:

Polyamorous people need to follow the same tenets of a healthy and rewarding relationship as anyone else. It all comes down to:

  • Trust: It shouldn’t matter if you have one partner or several. Any time you’re swapping feelings or fluids with another person, you need to trust that person on a basic human level at the minimum.
  • R-E-S-P-E-C-T: No matter who you’re sharing your time with, you need to respect their body, values, and mind. And you have the right to expect the same in return!
  • Communication: Being polyam often means being emotionally available to more than one person at a time, so communication is key.
  • Consent: Polyamory isn’t a sex free-for-all. You need to take time to discuss your beliefs and values with your partner(s).

Myth #5: They never get jealous

Some people think polyamorous relationships lack depth, so it’s impossible for polyam people to be jealous.

Fact:

Jealousy is a human condition, whether you’re polyam or not. Saying polyam people never get jealous is straight-up dismissing the sincerity of their relationships.

No relationship is black and white. You can love more than one person at a time, and no one is immune to envy.

Myth #6: They all have a sex addiction

Being polyamorous isn’t exclusively about sex. Polyamorous people simply define relationships in a different way than monogamous people do.

Fact:

You know who can have a sex addiction? Anyone. If sex is the only reason you’re with someone, it’s probably an unhealthy relationship. Sex addiction has nothing to do with being polyamorous.

Myth #7: It’s the same as polygamy

If you’ve ever watched “Sister Wives,” you may have confused polyamory with polygamy, which is when a person has multiple spouses.

Fact:

“Poly” means “many” in Greek, and “amor” means “love” in Latin. But that definitely doesn’t mean polyamorous people are polygamous.

Just because two words have the same root doesn’t mean they have the same definition. Plus, polygamy is illegal in all 50 states.

Myth #8: There’s a higher risk of STIs

It’s easy to assume that more partners = more STI risk, but that’s not necessarily true.

Fact:

Your risk of transmitting or contracting an STI depends on having the talk with your partners, getting tested, and using protection. As long as you (and your partners) do those things, you should be in the clear.

In fact, research suggests that people in openly non-monogamous relationships are more likely to take precautions to protect themselves from contracting STIs than people in monogamous relationships who cheat on their partners.

Myth #9: They never get attached to anyone

When it comes to romance, attachment comes with the territory.

Fact:

Polyamorous people can fall in love like everyone else. They may not define relationships in a “traditional” way, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fall in love or get hurt. People are people.

Interviews have been edited for brevity.

Corinne, 28

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

There’s a common misconception that polyamory means an open relationship — however, that is simply one way to be non-monogamous.

An open relationship is when two people are in a romantic relationship and allowed to have external sexual relationships, with no emotional connection. There is no one way to be non-monogamous.

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

Get really clear on what creates a sense of romantic safety for yourself. That will allow you to design relationships that feel supportive and fulfilling.

Communicate early on about why you desire non-monogamy, what your boundaries are, how much you want to talk about other partners, and how to process difficult emotions like jealousy.

When you first begin a journey of exploring non-monogamy, I think it’s so important to have support outside of your romantic relationships from people who understand non-monogamy. Whether it’s a mentor, friend, or therapist — someone who can understand the nuances will be incredibly helpful.

What are some resources you find helpful?

Zines:Chill Polyamory, Love Without Emergency, and Linked.
Podcasts: Queen City and Multiamory.

Does being polyamorous imply a fear of commitment?

When explaining non-monogamy to people who are struggling to understand the possibility for commitment, I’d ask, “Do you think that parents who are expecting their second or third child are any less loving and supportive to their first?” Parents are no less committed to raising their first child than their second, or third, etc.

I’m not afraid of committing to one person — I’m incredibly in love and committed to my nesting partner. I’m also committed to my other partners. Time management is key.

Franklin, 50

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

Polyamory, while not for everyone, offers an opportunity for individuals to explore and refine their sense of loving support and intimacy by not placing the entire burden to do all and be all on one individual. Additionally, it transforms how we look at love and how close we assume we can be with different individuals in our lives.

So, I do not develop any specific kind of emotional dependency on any one person, but rather find loving support from different people.

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

Be honest with yourself and others about explicitly what you feel. Whether it’s about sex or feelings or timing or space, be honest from the outset. Being deceptive or dishonest will ultimately cause the relationships to fall apart. Hiding your feelings also will lead to resentment over time. Give things time.

What are some resources you find helpful?

I’ve read a lot of articles and books on this, but to be honest, you are free to create whatever you feel best meets your needs. Books can help you start the conversation, but you really have to start with what you feel comfortable doing and ease into things in a way that allows emotional honesty to evolve.

Is polyamory meaningless sex without attachment?

Definitely not. The emotional attachments are real and can be quite profound. There’s a lot more intimate involvement than just sex in many polyamorous relationships. Again, I draw a distinction between casual sex buddies and people who allow themselves to share an emotional involvement in their romantic relationships.

Lulu, 30

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

We’re not having wild sex parties, or hooking up with everyone we meet. I will speak solely for myself here, but I am the same as many others… I care about the world and other people, I recycle and vote on Election Day, I go to work and bust my ass, I treat myself to good coffee and solo weekend trips, and I somehow manage to kill all of my house plants.

All of that to say I’m no different, as a human, than someone that is monogamous, asexual, open, polyam, etc.

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

Do it for the right reasons. I cannot overstate that enough. If you are considering it because you are with someone and deep down you know something is missing or you’re trying to fix something (as I was), it just won’t work.

It has brought a significant amount of value to my life, and I have beautiful memories that I wouldn’t trade. But it can and will shine a spotlight on things you (or your partner) want to keep in the dark. If you’re on the receiving end of a polyamorous request, make sure the decision is yours and yours alone.

What are some resources you find helpful?

First and foremost, your “primary partner” (if you call it that) is your best resource. Outside of that… call me old-fashioned, but I read books. The ones I found most helpful are Opening Up, The Ethical Slut, and More Than Two. I also Googled every article I could find on open relationships, jealousy, insecurity, communication, and compromise.

Is there jealousy?

Of course there is. WE’RE STILL HUMANS. With insecurities and doubts. The difference, I’ve found, is that people who are open to the idea of multiple partners typically are open to self-reflection, open to communication, willing to compromise, etc.

Jealousy still exists, but it’s an opportunity to look within and figure out the root of it. Jealousy is often fear. Fear of being unloved, unworthy, abandonment, not good enough. Taking a look inside yourself, rather than at someone else, is the best way to work through jealousy.

Mark, 27

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

That it’s a legitimate option!

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

Communication is key, and being polyam doesn’t mean you will be/have to be polyam forever and ever, amen.

What are some resources you find helpful?

Being part of the queer community helps. Feeld is a really good app for this kind of stuff for het/homocurious people!

Is there a higher risk for STIs?

People need to be safe, but they need to explore their sexualities. All abstinence of sex is “safer” from STIs. The risk of not exploring your sexuality (body, mind, and energy) in fear of picking up an STI is a sad life.

Dee, 25

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

I guess I want people to know that polyamory is not “consensual cheating” (yes, this is a real phrase one of my family members used to describe my relationships). Polyamory is a way of describing a relationship style and helps me explain/signify what kind of relationships I’m interested in developing.

I don’t want a “one and only.” I’m not interested in reducing all my needs and desires and whims to a single person. I want to form communities to fulfill all parts of me.

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

Set aside time to communicate through all the messiness. People are messy, and the more of them you involve, the more time you are going to have to spend making sure everyone is on the same page.

Also, communication doesn’t always solve your problems. The transformation of a relationship into a different kind of relationship is not a sign of failure.

What are some resources you find helpful?

I love Instagram accounts that talk about polyamory and some of the other intersections of sex and dating in our lives. Some that come to mind are @chillpolyamory, @daemonumx, and @salty.world.

What are the benefits of committing to more than one person?

Society has taught us that unless we are fully fulfilled by one person, there must be something wrong. This puts so much pressure to be everything for each other, instead of practicing negotiating what we can and can’t do. I love being empowered to fulfill my needs through many types of relationships! Some committed and some less so.

Olivia, 30

What do you want people to know about being polyamorous?

The lifestyle is very customizable. There are a multitude of relationship styles that can come from having multiple partners. Communication is key. And I don’t mean just talking about what you want. It’s a lot of listening, stating intentions, and processing emotions with each partner to ensure everyone is heard and valued equally.

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

The root of emotional upset tied to cheating is more focused on deceit and betrayal of trust. Once you open your relationships up, boundaries need to be discussed and those boundaries need to be honored.

In monogamous relationships the base boundary is no physical or emotional intimacy with anyone outside of the relationship. This can work for some people, but restraining a person’s intimacy can be stifling and detrimental to your relationship.

What are some resources you find helpful?

Read The Ethical Slut, especially if you’re straight or queerious. Also, join discussion groups online!

Is it about the thrill?

Sure, for some people, juggling multiple relationships and hiding those relationships from others is a thrill. This is not ethical polyamory, and I would never keep my relationships secret from the people I’m dating.

Francesca, 21

What do want people to know about being polyamorous?

In my experience polyamory is a principle to not put a limit on human emotion. I know that I feel immense love for people in lots of ways, and for me, being polyamorous means I never have to be scared of feeling and of expressing my love for people. I never have to repress my emotions for the sake of societal expectations. It’s a great relief!

Do you have some words of advice for people considering polyamory?

You don’t need to feel guilty for wondering and for wanting. People have probably been polyam since the beginning of civilization — there just haven’t been appropriate terms until quite recently.

What are some resources you find helpful?

Shrimpteeth on Instagram has some great advice and graphics for polyam people!

Do poly people have different morals than monogamous people?

I would say the exact opposite! I have incredibly strong morals, and one of those is that I refuse to be limited to only showing affection to one person even if I might feel it for multiple people.

While figuring out if polyamory is right for you, you’ll have do some soul-searching. Some important questions to ask are:

  • Can I share intimate emotions with more than one person at a time?
  • Am I comfortable with communicating my needs to my partner(s)?
  • Am I OK with sharing my partner with others?
  • Can I handle feelings of jealousy if they come up?

Have an honest discussion with yourself about your wants, needs, and boundaries. Take your time, and only go for it if and when it feels right.

Discuss it with your current partner

If you’re currently getting your monog on, you definitely need to have an open and honest conversation with your S.O. before jumping into polyam life.

They may feel like they aren’t enough, so be sure to express your feelings in an honest and compassionate way to avoid hurting them. Make it about what you want, not about what they may lack.

And who knows — maybe they’ve also been wanting to be polyam for a while. You won’t know until you have a chat.

Establish ground rules

Whether it’s a new partner or someone you’ve been with for years, you need to form a code of conduct. Once you’ve set boundaries and mutual goals for your dynamic, you can tweak it as you go along.

Emotional boundaries

In any relationship, you need to do check-ins with yourself. Figure out how your partner(s) make you feel. If things start to go sour, ask yourself, “Why am I jealous right now?” and “Do I feel secure?” or “Why isn’t this fun anymore?” Then communicate these feelings as they arise.

Physical boundaries

Figuring out what you and your partner are comfortable with is key. Maybe you’re fine with your partner having sex with others, but you’re not OK with them having emotional attachments. Or vice versa.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all lifestyle. It’s about what works best for you. And remember, you should never feel pressured into a physical situation. Don’t be afraid to say “no.”

How to make the transition

First off, do your research! This will help you write your own polyamory pro/con list. Reach out to others who have been around the polyam block and get some feedback.

Be prepared to be honest with yourself and your current partner (if you have one). Discuss why this lifestyle is what you want, and remember to take your time.

Whether you’re polyam or not, being in a relationship means sharing your time and emotions with another person. Polyamorous people can have the same values and morals as monogamous people.

As you start your polyam journey, be ready to put your emotional and physical well-being first. Manage your expectations from the start and work on maintaining healthy boundaries as you find your groove.

The resources below will help you learn the ins and outs of your new relationship(s).

Podcasts:

Books:

Websites: