Polyamory is not swinging, swapping or good old fashioned threesomes driven by greedy men. At least not always.
Defined by Polyweekly.com as “having multiple long-term, loving relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved,” true polyamory can take about as many forms as there are practitioners of the lifestyle.
Very often, these arrangements are initiated by female partners in monogamous relationships.
“I have seen many straight couples open their relationship at the woman’s initiative,” said Diane Gleim, a certified sex therapist (CST) based in Sonoma County. “[The common] assumption is that it’s mostly men who seek polyamory because they want multiple sexual partners. There is research that shows that monogamous, heterosexual women actually desire novel sex and novel sexual partners more than heterosexual, monogamous men.” Several other counselors interviewed agreed.
Even when women are not the instigators, they often become champions of the way of life.
“In a heterosexual relationship, if a man brings the idea of polyamory to an initially wary partner, it is very common after a few months for the woman to actually find she thrives in non-monogamy, only for the man to feel threatened and want to close the relationship back up again,” said Emily Sotelo Matlack, an educator with Multiamory.com. Matlack, a past participant in polyamory, is now in a monogamous relationship “because it was a better fit for me and my partner.”
“Gay communities also have practiced and accepted many forms of non-monogamy and eschewed the social constructs of traditional heterosexual partnerships for decades,” added Matlack. “It is difficult to find polyamorous communities today where there aren’t at least some, if not a majority, of queer members.” The honesty and intention that comes with polyamory can help to create a chosen family, which theoretically works as a buffer against the constant repression and threat of violence faced by LGBTQIA+ folks.
One leader in the “poly” scene is Phoebe Philips of the blog Polyammering, a kinkster who inadvertently found herself as a kind of advice columnist to those curious about and new to polyamory. “It is ironic since I’m not polyamorous,” said Philips, who is monogamous in a committed relationship with a poly man.
Phillip’s introduction to polyamory came from a place of the heart.
“Nine years ago, my husband passed away. When I started dating again, the first person I met that was interested in me was polyamorous. I was like, this is great because this person is not going to be jealous of the fact that I still have feelings for [my late husband],” said Phillips in a Zoom interview, visibly moved by the recollection. “I was processing this loss, [but was ready] to have a connection with somebody else.”
Doing the Work
Like any relationship, a polyamorous lifestyle has its challenges as well as its rewards.
“One of the most frequent things I see partners struggle with, especially when they are new to ethical non-monogamy, is their own internalized monogamy,” said North Bay therapist Ayala Kalisher, who specializes in polyamory. “There is internalized monogamy programming saying, ‘I need to downplay my new connection to protect my initial partner’s feelings.’”
When the depth of feelings for a new partner is revealed, the downplaying is “likely to lead to hurt caused by the dishonesty more than the new connection and can be confusing and harmful for everyone involved,” said Kalisher.
Advocates of polyamory agree that there is a lot of work required in coming to consensus about how a poly relationship or relationships are formed.
“Being polyamorous forces you to do that work, because you are going to be bumping up against challenging emotions often, as well as learning to rewire deeply ingrained [monogamy centered narratives] from our media, our society and our families of origin,” said Matlack.
Like with so many things in life, the work is part of the benefit.
The poly promoting non-profit Loving More writes on its website: “For many, the necessary level of honesty, self-knowledge, and sensitivity to their partners’ deepest desires brings more intimacy than they ever experienced in monogamy.”
Additionally, polyamory necessarily includes freedom beyond just other sexual partners. Ownership of one’s own life within a relationship supports personal space and safety.
“A monogamous, healthy relationship requires that your partner not be your everything. You should have friends, interests and hobbies outside of your partner and what you do with them,” writes the poly education site, Polyamory for Us, of which Phillips is an administrator. “Any partner that insists that you should have no other friends or interests? That is [a] red flag that they’re isolating and abusive.”
That is not to say that polyamory doesn’t have its risks. Research indicating failure rates as high as 92% for “open marriages” are cited around the web, although the study is hard to track down.
“Polyamory does not create problems,” responded Phillips. “It exposes the problems that were already there. So, if you have not had great communication with each other, polyamory is going to make that loud and clear. If there was already distrust in the relationship, it’s going to get amplified.”
“There is so much to gain from polyamory, but I think an increased sense of autonomy and self is one of the most amazing parts of getting to be a part of this relationship structure,” said Matlack. “It can be scary at first to be alone on a Saturday night while your partner is out on a hot date, but after some time, you will relish the opportunity to get to have some quality time to yourself.”
According to Santa Rosa CST Adrian Scharfetter, couples usually start with “a conversation about the current state of one’s relationship and why this dynamic is being explored. Non-monogamy and all the flavors of this experience is often seen as an addition to, or enhancement of, a well-established relationship.”
“The next phase the couple really needs to dig into is how they wish such an arrangement to look like? Swinging, group sex, play dates, ‘monogamish,’ polyamory, solo polyamory, etc.,” added Scharfetter.
“Take it slow, take it easy. Go on tea or coffee day dates. Enjoy being with people without expectation just to see how it feels,” said Scharfetter. “Consent is the core foundation to this exploration, for all parties involved.”
“I often ask when I interview people,” said Phillips, “‘OK, you go back in time and tell your younger self, your baby polyamory-self, some advice. What do you tell them?’ The overwhelming majority of people say, ‘I would tell them to slow down and talk more, and read more and learn more before I started dating.’”