8 Lessons of Polyamory

Polyamory to monogamous relationships is like orgy is to sex. You may or may not be willing to try. It may or may not be for you. But it requires the deconstruction of the activity and reassembling the components in a way that makes you better understand them. What you want from sex and what you don’t. What you want from a relationship and what is just a social residue you’d rather not have. Polyamory makes you to get to know yourself – something you could also use in a monogamous relationship.

In polyamory you need to know what is it that you really want and learn to communicate in order to get it. You need to learn how to listen – and not just assume what the other wants, because assumptions don’t work anymore. You have to be open and discuss needs and desires like a grownup, learn to say no – and learn to say yes. You need to figure out what you are doing and why, what you really need, and what you can do without. It requires communication on a whole new level that even monogamous couples would deserve – but rarely enjoy.

Mindless relationship games and assumptions simply don’t work in polyamory and double guessing what your partners think is thankfully out of the question. So is trying to feel what you’re supposed to feel and think what you’re supposed to be thinking.

In a polyamorous relationship you cannot afford to live according to unspoken, undefined social expectations. And there is no one but yourself to judge on whether you’re doing it right. There are no scripted roles to tell you what to do, how to behave, what to want, and what you are allowed to expect in return for filling in a role.

Polyamory raises questions that you should be able to answer in a well-working, monogamous relationship. What is love and what it isn’t? What is a relationship for and what should be taken care of by yourself? Whether your actions, thoughts and expectations are yours or simply scripted for you by one-size-fit-all relationship games.

Imagine how much we could learn from people who negotiate a multilateral love life that is neither dictated by tradition, nor prescribed by gender roles. Imagine that we have the empathy and the communication skills to navigate an unscripted private life, without cemented positions and sadly predictable relationship games.

I invite you to a fearless, harmless thought experiment. What could couples learn from multilateral love affairs?

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1. What is love? And what it isn’t

In monogamy people can conveniently blend friendship, respect, admiration, lust, legal and financial co-dependence, passion, ownership and sometimes even actual love – under the word ‘love’. They can do it because there is no social need to distinguish.

Only individuals need to tell the difference – and they need it badly. When you become a couple, your environment assumes that you do all the usual things. This way it is easier to classify you. But do you really do all the above in your relationship? Are you friends or just a couple who would never see each other when the romantic relationship is over? Do you respect or just own each other? Is it happiness or is it just relief that you didn’t fail to secure a partner? Do you even want a relationship or is it what’s expected of you? Do you want it exactly this way? With these rules? Right now? Or do you just want relief from social pressure? Is it attraction or just financial relief? Would you like to move in with someone if it wasn’t or the rent? It should matter to you, but society doesn’t care.

When you allow all these things to be mixed under the word ‘love’, the word ceases to mean anything. Whatever happens in a relationship is not love. When we fail to make the distinction, ‘love’ resembles the sentiment my grandmother felt for her chickens: She ‘loved’ them. It meant that we tend to them now and they’ll make a great soup one day. I wonder how many people ‘love’ their spouses like they ‘love’ their livestock.

Whatever people do in relationships (or marriage) is hereby called ‘love’ – and then we are surprised when distinctions surface. Our sexual desire doesn’t fall on the same person as our respect, friendship, and love? We go and seek professional counselling. We read magazines and learn that it happens to everyone. Is that supposed to be consolation? Is it a reason to continue?

We all struggle with the same issues – and yet we think the problem is in us. No one dares to blame the notoriously under-defined, one-size-fit-all concept of relationships and what it prescribes to be ‘love’.

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By redefining love to cover whatever ambivalent feelings we may have is an insult to the concept of love. Many have experienced that it is possible to love more than one person at the same time. And yet, instead of acknowledging it, they deny the feeling and think there is something wrong with them. If society says love is exclusive – then so it must be and I must be wrong.

‘Love’ is also used as a synonym to ‘ownership’ – like my grandmother and her chickens. If I love you, you ought to perform certain tasks in my life, and refrain from doing so in anyone else’s. Belonging equals possession. And we call both ‘love’.

Polyamory makes a few distinctions here. Love is not ownership, it entails admiration, respect, friendship and lust in different measures, and most importantly, it is not necessarily exclusive. It is not even the same for everyone because they are not the same people. Love me for the person I am – not how I could fill a function in your life – and you will see that your love for me is different from your love to the next person.

2. Jealousy is not part of love

We should stop humblebragging about being jealous. We tend to treat it as some kind of forgivable virtue. We went as far as to confuse it with love itself. How much further can we lower the bar?

We admit it is not nice, but let’s face it, we have the right to do it. Jealousy is part of the package forced upon us by society – we are supposed to be jealous and make a scene. So why bother being a decent human being if society allows us to be jerks?

What exactly does it say about you that you want your partner to be happy – but only if he or she does it with you? That you consider possession part of your love? Can a person even be possessed? Is that even a desirable state of affairs?

The polyamorous answer to conventional, possessive love is compersion. The idea that real love is not possessive and that I want my partner to be happy even when he or she is happy with someone else. Admit it, you would prefer that too from your partner.

Conventional relationships of the mutual ownership kind have conveniently mixed ownership with love, but jealousy is still not part of love. Jealousy is an entirely different problem.

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Firstly, most of the people who think they are jealous merely react to cultural conditioning. They act jealously because they are supposed to be jealous.

Do I feel offended because I am offended or because I am supposed to take offence?

Moreover, you must feel humiliated – even if you aren’t.

In the conventional one-size-fit-all paradigm, people who stray from the path of exclusivity are called “cheaters” to start with. Their partners are therefore considered “cheated”. It is not up to them to decide whether they feel humiliated or hurt. If nothing else, they have to punish the cheating partner for the public humiliation. Even if they don’t feel any personal one.

But is it really the decent thing to do? Does society really dictate to you how to relate to your partner? And do you really want to stand between your partner and what they desire? Who wants to be the trap their partner is locked up in?

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If you are genuinely jealous the number of people sharing the attention of your significant other is the least of your problems.Jealousy is a symptom of fear. Fear of losing someone or not owning a 100% of him. But why would you need to own someone in the first place?

Let us assume that you are not a creepy stalker and the object of your jealousy is actually your partner. The fear of losing her is the product of your insecurity, not her actions. You are not sure about your worth, and you need the stamp of exclusive ownership to secure the attention of your loved one. In other words, you are worried that she might leave you because you would probably leave yourself in her place.

Jealousy is projecting your insecurity on someone – regardless of their actions. You’d rather forgo opportunities just to be able to demand the same sacrifice from someone else. You would rather endure confinement than risking that your partner finds more satisfaction elsewhere – and thereby escapes from your possession. How many times have you heard that “I don’t stray so that I can ask for the same.”  Really? Is that all? You’d like to take the moral high ground – but secretly even you would like to be with someone else? Not sleeping with someone else is a bargaining chip? Is that all? Do you live in a relationship or in the Cold War of mutual blame?

I am not trying to say that it’s easy. You can feel bad about your partner being happy elsewhere. But it can come from a lot of other places other than jealousy. You may want his or her attention right now – but can’t get it. In which case it’s a logistical issue – and it can happen in a monogamous relationship, too. You may be afraid of how you compare and whether the other one is so much better that your partner will find you a waste of time. Again, the noble thing to do is not trapping them in a relationship but trying to get better. If the other person can only offer the pleasure of novelty, you should be safe anyhow.

Instead of jealousy you should just communicate because your fears might be unfounded. As it is usual with fears.

3. There is no such thing as a soul mate

There is no such thing as one soul mate. Not for 99.99% of us. And definitely not for life. And maybe even the .01% are just extraordinarily good at adapting to each other.

I cannot not blame the frightening concept of a soul mate for the triumph of possessive love. The idea of a soul mate is a by-product of the evolution of the content of marriage.

When marriage was merely a legal and financial contract, love was safely ignored. By adding romantic love to the list of demands on a spouse, we have just tightened the cage – instead of getting rid of it. We didn’t dare to question the institution of marriage outright, so we put more pressure on it – and on ourselves.

Today we have an impossibly long list of emotional, financial and social demands on our prospective partners. The idea that all our emotional and material needs should be fulfilled by a single person (for life) is evil. We should learn (and accept) that one partner can be rarely good for all our needs at all times – and live accordingly. We project impossible demands on a future partner, beyond any reason. And that just adds to the pressure that comes from a shared living space, friends, and family.

We have already moved on from one partner for life – to serial monogamy. Maybe we’ll evolve even further and realise how irrational it was to demand one person to be everything for us. Normal people do change and grow. And if there is an expectation to fill in certain roles in another’s life, they will struggle. So when they grow, then can only grow apart.

And this is much easier to see, understand, and accept when you don’t limit yourself to one partner at a time. Then it is easier to allow them to be who they actually are – and love them for it.

There can be a lot of soul mates for all the stages we go through in our life and for all our different sides. There can be even people who would be great companions throughout the entire journey. But fixating on the one and only killed our chances.

4. Don’t try to change your partner

People change when it’s their time. Except when in a one-size-fit-all relationship, because then they need to stay unchanged – until they reach breaking point.

Other times you enter a relationship and try to shape your significant other into a certain shape that’s only in your own head. Maybe they even agree to it – but that’s already too bad. If you want that person – but you cannot accept them unless they change, then you don’t want that person. Easy. And if you still try to change your partner then your partner is the least of your problems.

Your problem may be that you want to be with many different people. Or someone else. 

You are great but I wish you were more sensitive.

We are having fun together but I wish you would be more serious.

And the worst of them all:

We are great partners but I wish you had sex with me more often than you want.

When you try to project all your demands on the same person you are bound to get disappointed. How many relationships went into the ground because the partners spent their energies on streamlining their significant others into a prefabricated shape?

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Everyone had fantasized about stability at home while they have the spark and adventure with a lover. That’s a standard reaction to standard, clichéd, man-made life roles. And stability/adventure is just one of the things you can love two people for – equally, but differently.

  • You want someone who is playful and childlike, rolling with you in colourful autumn leaves – but stern and dependable like a rich banker, looking out for you so you don’t have to.
  • You want him to be your dad – and your bad boy lover.
  • Sensitive and unafraid of tears – while simultaneously alluring with his distant manliness.
  • Letting you roam free and changing diapers unasked – while oozing a dominant macho scent.
  • Being celebrated on magazine covers for his business success – while spending his days with you, only working early mornings while you sleep in anyway.
  • You want to be financially and emotionally independent, but with a super strong safety net in his person. (I blame 50 shades…)
  • You want him to be an instinctive macho – but making love like a seasoned lesbian and knowing your erogenous zones without being told.
  • He should have strong abs and a wide shoulder – but shouldn’t spend too much time in the gym.

Oh, of course, I’m wrong.

  • She should be stunning – but inexplicably shy in public and childishly dependent on your opinion –  and your opinion only.
  • She must be a walking sex ad – but unaware of it and completely decent.
  • She must be spotless without make-up like an adolescent – but mature and consoling like a mother.
  • During the day she should be awfully practical and fight for every penny of savings to make your favourite dinner. During the night she should be a porn actress who honed her skill exclusively with you.
  • She should have a stunning teenage body – after effortlessly giving birth to your genius and well-fed children.
  • Let her be a great and witty conversationalist – after spending her days cooing to a three-year-old.
  • Let her respect traditional gender roles – but earn a lot because there is “equality” these days and you enjoy a good competition and a second income.

All from the same person. Aren’t lifelong monogamous couples a great idea?

Sometimes your success in changing them kills your relationship. Partners spend their energies trying to change each other – then sadly note that the spark is gone, their job is done, the other had indeed changed. Or took flight.

A non-monogamous relationship is a good lesson into what people are – and what they are not. Absent the terrible expectations of a one and only soul mate, you are free to love people for what they are. You may even be allowed to be yourself.

5. You absolutely have to figure out, who you are and what it is that you want…

You are a teenager. You are making out for the first time. You know it’s supposed to be good – but you can’t enjoy it just yet. Firstly, you don’t know where your lips, tongue and hands should go. Secondly, you’re self-conscious. You just want to get done with it.

Or the first sex. It is the coveted thing and you are trying to do what you’re supposed to do according to the patchy, useless information you’d gathered, but it’s more frightening than pleasant. You feign the height of horniness to conceal your bewilderment. You act a hundred times more turned on than you could possibly be because you don’t even know where your hands are supposed to go and you want to hide it.

It will take a while before you understand yourself, what you like and what you don’t – and even learn to communicate it. And listen when others try to communicate theirs to you.

If we just stay at the example of sex there is a lot of stupidity out there fuelled by magazines and porn. These beliefs are standing between us, between our pleasure and ourselves. Frankly, we should be insulted that they sprout stupidity like “What do women want?” and “How to please your man?” We are not in kindergarten, thank you very much. We can discuss it between ourselves, like grown-ups.

Or can we?

In time, you will learn how to enjoy making out and sex, but you’ll probably always suffer from outbreaks of what-I-am-supposed-to-do-itis. How long do I wait before I call? When can I raise certain topics? What is the right thing to do in bed?

The only thing you never ask is the only question worth asking:

Do I do this because I feel like doing it or because it is what I’m supposed to do?

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And it is not just sex.

Knowing what you want from a relationship should be mandatory before the first “Hey!” is uttered.

First of all, do we want a relationship at all? Right now? Do we want it because we really want it, or are we just supposed to want it to make the disapproval and patronising looks (real or imaginary) go away?

And then do we want to move in together? Sleep in the same bed? Introduce family? Vacation together? Proceed like clockwork to marry, to mortgage, and to have children whenever we run out of ideas? Or do we give it some thought for a change?

Rarely. Instead, we adopt whatever a relationship is supposed to be and what it supposed to be like. We don’t like the shared bed thing, but, oh well, this is what you have to do.

Does this sound even remotely OK with you?

You must know yourself, know your preferences, and know when you don’t have a preference. You must also know when you change, because you do, and communicate it like a real person.

Monogamous relationship roles don’t tell you how to do that. They don’t want you to communicate so they offer you ideas on what to want. They suggest what “men want”, “what women want” and we learn that about ourselves and assume each other into them. They imply that we never change so that we don’t have to discuss that. They offer a ready-made set of wishes and desires – and even the timeline to accomplish them. So you don’t have to talk about it. You can maybe ask yourself when you want to do things, not whether you want to do them in the first place.

So get to know thyself, and while you’re at it, get to know your partner. And listen to them and believe them when they tell you what they want because you have no better guide to them than their own words. So learn to trust them about their wishes while you’re learning to trust yourself about yours.

It is harder than it sounds because you know for a fact that you’re special, but what if they are not? What if they just tell you that they are different – but they are walking clichés? What if they are really conventional at heart and only delude themselves? What if they will yield and leave you fight alone? Indeed, what if you do?

Your entire life can be spent in this double-guessing hell and you never really bother to clean things up. A polyamorous affair starts with that.

6. There is no mind-reading

How often do you think that something is obvious and your partner is insufferable for not understanding it without words? And how many different things do you try to convey by the same “manly” silence? That shrug? Has it ever worked?

Think about how many words you use when you talk about your relationship problem to a friend – versus your actual partner. You clearly articulate what you find wrong – but to a third party.

  • You think it’s a personal space issue – he thinks you’re just playing hard to get.
  • You think she’s ‘needy’ – she thinks she just told you what she wants in bed because you asked her.

Whom do you discuss it with? Of course, anyone but your partner.

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Monogamous relationships try to circumvent the mind-reading problem (without resorting to actual talking), by trying to think and want what they are supposed to think and want – to make it easier for the partner to guess. While it is indeed a difficult task and it comes with a lot of admirable self-suppression – one must wonder whether actual communication would be easier. If easy is what you want.

Relying on nasty, old gender-stereotypes instead of actual talking to your partner is regarded ‘mature’ and normal. To pile insult upon injury these stereotypes tend to be based on nasty biological and evolutionary determinism (because these are the only arguments scientists ever look for and accept as an explanation). And when you look for a symptom of a stereotype, you will find it. And enforce it. What can be more uplifting than being reduced to a patronising gender-stereotype by your own partner – and by yourself?

Poly relationships cannot resort to neither mind-reading nor presumptions about people’s opinions, thoughts and desires, based on their usual relationship roles. Because there are no such roles. The only way forward is actual words. Talking, discussions. Changing minds. Even our own. Not blaming others for changing their mind and allowing them to learn. Being honest with self and communicating the results with as much authenticity as our unpracticed communication skills let us.

I know it’s hard work. And if you manage to do it all at once you have nothing to struggle with for the rest of your life. Maybe that’s what old-fashioned people try to avoid.

7. Relationship roles, life scripts are the death of love

– So you want to play Hamlet?

– Yes, but not with the unstable personality, I don’t like that. Oh, and not Danish. And I disapprove of suicide so I won’t do it. And the lines, I’ll need new lines, these are odd and frankly, too long. And I have issues with Shakespeare so I prefer it to be someone else’s play.

– So why do you still want to play Hamlet?

– Because everyone wants to do it, and so do I. And I like the stage and I want to be seen. And I want to tell everyone that I did it.

Sounds stupid? This is exactly what I hear when you decide to tie the knot – but swear to do it differently. I have heard more than my fair share of monogamous, millennial couples telling me that they won’t follow the all-too-predictable relationship roles in their own lives.

“They make their own rules.”

But they are already adopting the names of the characters (girlfriend or husband) and act out most of the script as it comes in a package. You do the marriage thing, with lengthy legal and financial consequences attached – but you totally do it better. You will be playing house but with less furniture than your parents, no car, and you will totally have a cute (insert pet your parents didn’t have) because you refuse to be like them. Because you are different, I get it.

Why do you want to be different by doing the same things?

Let’s face it, there is no such thing as taking 96% of a package and leaving out the rest. The items you embrace will call the missing ones into existence – because they support one another. It is designed that way. They are the vicious cycle of the relationship vortex. It is also supported by people around you – and your own inability to communicate honestly.

The punishing routines and demeaning life roles (we all fervently wish never to adopt) are all based on a heterosexual couples of two. Any other combination calls for some authentic thinking and has the potential to stop the all-too-known and much-hated relationship dynamics from taking root, uninspected, and under the radar.

Once there are no prefabricated roles, it is really hard to fall back into them. You simply cannot follow your parents’ relationship patterns (I know you are dead set to avoid them) if there are extra people in the story. I am not saying to go out and try, but maybe we should imagine what we would really want and how we would really behave if we didn’t bring that baggage into the relationship.

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Sitcoms have been training us to the expected relationship roles since the dawn of television – and the radio before that.

The couple where she is desperate for a ring and he is desperate for his independence – but with sex. Friends must approve. Milestones must be reached. The dumb father wants to be alone and the bitching mother who apparently doesn’t, and makes a fuss about anniversaries. Demeaning, simplistic stereotypes everywhere and you have the confidence to say that they didn’t affect you?

What if I tell you that the only thing that affects you more than what you’ve seen – is the thing that you’ve never seen? Have you ever seen a different life? How is that for  an opinion bubble and manipulation?

In a pre-scripted, monogamous relationship you can go on autopilot and look for what you’re supposed to look for in a partner. You can expect what you’re allowed to expect, and react the way you’re supposed to react according to your role. Vague social conditioning dictates you what to look for in a relationship and what to offer. The latter you wildly debate. You want to stretch your boundaries. You may ask for an open relationship, or secretly keep your options open. But from your partner you still expect the full package – minus a few minor things (because you never really wanted them anyway). And you consider yourself very modern and progressive.

Some even argue that it’s easier not to rock the boat and letting it drift wherever your combined inaction takes it. You should rather try to enjoy the ride. Trying to enjoy it is difficult to do so it must count as hard work, right? Wrong.

It is lazy. It is your entire life we are talking about. How can you take a backseat and not try to make it your own?

You will come to think that your partner is the reason you broke into the role. You will blame them for giving up yourself and suppressing even the thought that you want something different. You will be wrong – but it’s part of the game. Then you’ll be not only bored but actually start to hate each other. You end up alone but living with someone, and then in therapy, and try to redefine that ambivalent feeling towards each other as love.

Non-conventional relationships don’t have such scripts. Everything has to be negotiated and regularly re-evaluated – and that’s a good thing. Worth the mental exercise even for those who don’t want to try poly. In a poly relationship it is almost impossible to sink into old relationship games and role-based dysfunctions. There are no evidently desirable things that you are supposed to covet and there is no obvious offence to seek.

And you call them weird.

8. No dating rules and relationship games in polamory

If the above weren’t enough, imagine a world where you don’t get judged by inane dating rules that you may or may not have heard of.

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Who makes the first move and what is not considered to be embarrassing? Who is supposed to call first? When can you text and how long before you suggest a second date? How about the kiss? Is it too early? Can you show interest before she does?

Now try these anxious rules and petty games in a relationship of three.

How much time should pass before you look for a new partner in the relationship? Can you bring in someone you already know, or does it have to be a new friend to you both? What sex should it be, anyway?

There is no glossy magazine to answer these questions (or come up with stupid rules) so you probably have to do what you (and your partners) think and feel is right. Absurd dating rules and manipulation games don’t work for non-conventional relationships. But do they ever work for anyone?

Dating advice comes straight from hell. Dating gurus create the very confusion they offer to help you navigate. We all learn the rules of the dating game from glossy magazines and received wisdom. So it is perhaps worth remembering that glossy magazines are written by deadline-struck editorial interns recycling old articles – that have been written by similarly deadline-struck editors for the sake of word count around that image on page 4. They hope that no one would take their made-up listicles seriously. And yet, our stupid dating games are saturated by those nasty pieces of advice.

Received wisdom is no better. It usually originates from the most confident person – who is the most confident exactly because he is the most ignorant. Or it comes from those who screwed up and hate people and want others to suffer with them.

“He asked you out for a drink and didn’t kiss on the first night?”

“She closed her eyes during blowjob?”

“He mentioned his dog on a first date?”

That is bad sign, you should not meet again.

But why is it so widespread to judge people by arbitrary rules – instead of talking to them? Am I the only one who finds this slavish and stupid? In polyamory you cannot play games – or at least you have to come up with better ones. There are no scripts and roles to follow. There are no sitcoms to learn the relationship games from. No one to imitate, to emulate, no script to fall back on. No prefabricated roles and mutual demands to sink into. And want to hear something even better? In non-conventional relationships there is less room for games.

You pretend you’re not interested to make them come after you even harder? See if it works. But FYI, you just said that you’re not interested – so they probably won’t. Remember: take people’s words seriously.

There’s less room for games – even in the bedroom.

Does he do it because he loves it, or because he (wrongly) believes I do?

Does she genuinely enjoy doing this or she just read it in a glossy magazine?

Ask already, you idiots!

Enough with the second-guessing. No need to endure something because we are afraid to ask. With other than a heterosexual couple in bed, everything must be discussed – and no one accuses you of dishonesty if you change your mind later. Grownups know that it can happen.

And the bedtime routines you’ve come to hate? He makes the move, she sighs, he climbs on top, she helps to finish. She used to like this, so he does it first thing into sex – to speed things up. Very practical. It is now speedy and efficient, there’s not an unnecessary move, not a second wasted. You could write a life hack blog on how to automatize sex lives. Oh wait, no one wants to hear that.

It takes a lot more to find a routine in a threesome – and when you do, there is one more participant that can throw you off the beaten track. And you can always sit down and discuss whether you actually like something or only perform/endure it for the other’s sake. You should do that in conventional relationships too.

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