Polyamory is on many people’s minds these days. While “poly” originally had a specific meaning, many people now use it to simply mean any variety of consensual non-monogamy.
In the blogosphere, “sexperts” and other relationship activists promote poly as a viable option. Which, of course, it is.
But is it for everyone? Absolutely not.
In fact, an increasing number of my patients turn to non-monogamy as a way of fixing broken relationships. This is a strategy that almost never succeeds: “Our relationship doesn’t work? Let’s add more people!”
As you know, there’s a continuing increase in the number of sexual orientations and identities that people claim. Predictably, some folks are now claiming that poly is their orientation—as if this is supposed to settle all questions about their motives, responsibility, or decision-making.
Whether we want to consider poly an orientation or not (I think doing so is rather pointless), the fact that it might be an excellent alternative for this or that couple does not mean that it’s a good idea for all couples (which is also true about monogamy, of course).
Here are some of the fundamental mistakes my patients have recently made in choosing or implementing poly. While there’s nothing wrong with non-monogamy, each vignette provides a cautionary tale. Just because we want to legitimize poly as a relationship format doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking clearly about what’s necessary to make it successful—or identify what elements guarantee failure.
- Grandfathering in an affair
Jose has an extramarital affair with Sue. His wife Marta catches him. Jose announces “I realize I’m poly, and want to live that way. Please accept my relationship with Sue into our life.”
There’s little or no acknowledgement of the betrayal, or the resentment that Marta naturally feels toward the newcomer. There’s no discussion about responsibilities or privileges. This clumsy way of creating poly rarely works. And then Jose gets to blame Marta for being close-minded.
- Imposing it on a partner
Indira and Ken have struggled with their desire discrepancy for years. Finally, Indira announces she has to have sex elsewhere. She says to her lower-desire mate “Look, now you can do what you want (as if he wants more sex). I’m going to, so go ahead.”
While I sympathize with her frustration, Indira might as well say “I’m abandoning you sexually.” Non-monogamy is hard enough when two people create it together enthusiastically. Regardless of the subject, no one likes to have their marriage hijacked by their partner saying “here’s how it’s going to be now.”
- Doing it without clarifying the rules
Trey and DeShaun want to spice things up, so they decide to be poly, like some of their friends. But in their naïve enthusiasm, they do it without seriously discussing rules, boundaries, or expectations.
For example, is it okay for one of us to fall in love with someone else? Do I expect that we’ll be with each other on our birthdays? Are there any things—sexual or nonsexual—that you’ll do only with me? Talking about such details may be uncomfortable; not talking about details like these ahead of time will lead to consequences that will certainly be painful.
- Underestimating the maintenance that non-monogamy requires
Pat and Parker have a history—they love each other, but Parker always wants to discuss their feelings and their relationship more than Pat does. When they opened their relationship, Pat assumed that Parker would talk with his new partners, giving Pat a break. But she quickly discovered that poly requires more talking between primary partners, not less.
The challenges are many: allocating each person’s finite time; deciding about sleeping arrangements; dividing up each person’s sexual energy. Sometimes there’s jealousy to deal with. There’s even the question of what to tell friends, or the kids.
Poly arrangements last about as long as monogamous ones–which is to say they require continual attention. Like monogamy, satisfying poly needs thought, consistent care, self-awareness, and conversation. Being selfish, fragile, non-communicative, and conflict-avoidant are bad for a relationship, regardless of its format.
If you struggle to talk about your needs and frustrations, non-monogamy won’t fix that—it will simply highlight the problems that this deficit creates in a relationship. If you’re hoping that non-monogamy will reduce your partner’s desire to process your imperfect intimacy or sex life, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Of course, struggling together to meet the challenges of poly can enhance a couple’s intimacy, expanding their life experiences and bringing sex to a new level—whether inside the couple or with others partners.
“Sexiness” and enthusiasm are not the key predictors of successful non-monogamy. They are, rather, (1) a solid foundation of genuine caring; (2) realistic expectations; (3) clear agreements that both partners embrace; and (4) the willingness and ability to communicate, no matter how difficult.
Don’t miss my video quickies on “sex addiction,” masturbation, “the problem with foreplay,” and more–go to www.youtube.com/c/DrMartyKlein1/videos