by Scott Alden for HowAboutWe
Many singles are actively on the hunt for an exclusive, long term relationship (LTR, for those of you who hate actual words). There are also those among the ranks of the unattached who would prefer to remain so. They are comfortable dating multiple people at one time. Fed up with having only two options -- attached or alone -- they are exploring the possibilities of what lies between.
There are also those who have found a way to enjoy the best of both options -- a long term, loving relationship and multiple partners. They often refer to themselves as "polyamorous" or "poly," and there are currently about 500,000 reported relationships of this type in the US alone. Despite its frequency, polyamory is far from being widely recognized as a valid life-choice. (As I write this article, spell-check fails to recognize "polyamorous" as an actual word.)
I became curious about how people in successful polyamorous relationships do it. So I spoke with Molly, a 22-year-old in a long-distance open relationship and Sarah, a 41-year-old who is raising a 6-year-old daughter with her primary partner. As it turns out, poly relationships are about as complicated as your average monogamous one.
How do people end up in polyamorous relationships?
Sarah: My parents have had an open marriage since around the time I was 5 or so. I grew up with this concept and feel very familiar and comfortable with it. But I think some people just have an easier time with it than others, and I happen to be someone who has an easier time. I have had open relationships for the most part since I started dating in my late teens. I went into a few relationships with the idea of being monogamous but I realize it is not what works for me or what I want in a relationship so I would never enter into a monogamous-labeled relationship again.
Molly: I realized monogamy wasn't working for me when I started dating a bunch of guys at once and decided to keep seeing three of them. I have always had a wandering eye, but I just kinda stumbled into a player situation and loved it. I dropped two of the guys when I moved out of town, but kept seeing one of them. That kid is still my boyfriend. Adam was the only one of them who knew about the others. He had also told me about the other girl he was dating. We strolled casually into an open relationship which has blossomed into a loving polyamorous one.
Are polyamorous relationships more difficult than monogamous ones?
Sarah: I think that all long term relationships are difficult at times and require work and communication. I think that it really must be equally difficult for people in monogamous relationships as it is for people in open relationships. They both have their pros and cons. I think the most difficult would be to be in a relationship where you are not being your true self. I think that lots of people are in monogamous relationships out of habit or not considering other options and therefore may be denying some of their true feelings. I believe that would be very difficult to reconcile. In all relationships you make choices but in an open one you do have more freedom.
Molly: My poly relationship is ultimately easier for me because it takes off any pressure or guilt I would have in a monogamous relationship. But at the same time, a successful poly relationship requires excellent communication, patience, flexibility, and reciprocity. I think because of the extra work people in non-monogamous relationships have to do, they definitely aren't easier, but for certain people they will seem that way.
How do you manage multiple partners -- emotionally and logistically?
Sarah: I haven't run into a lot of emotional issues myself to have to manage, but my advice would be if you feel something to discuss it. As far as logistically managing multiple partners, communication is key there as well. You just schedule time when and where you have it, making sure everyone knows what is going on, where you will be, and that the home needs are taken care of. You have to set and know your priorities so that you can manage your time. This can be said of anything. People always get hung up on "I couldn't manage more than one partner" but they manage more than one platonic friend, more than one child, more than one job, more than one hobby, etc.
Molly: Since my boyfriend and I are long distance, our logistics are different from most poly couples I know. The married poly couples I've made friends with (or dated) rely heavily on strict scheduling and equally distributed time. When my boyfriend and I get to see each other we basically are monogamous, but that's because we only see each other for a week or two at a time, every couple months. At this point I haven't seen him since January and I know that once I see him again in August I won't leave his side for at least a week.
Do you tell your partner about all of your other partners?
Sarah: My partner and I pretty much tell each other everything about our other partners. We certainly tell each other where and when we will be meeting up with them. We check in if that is okay with the other. We ask each other how things went. We have an agreement to tell each other when we are going to hook up with someone or have a date lining up. But we don't need to give advance notice if something comes up unexpected. We can just let each other know later. We share sexual details at times, sometimes for fun conversation and others just for information.
Molly: The things we tell each other have been a touchy topic at times. We used to tell each other who we were dating, what the sex was like, what we did with the other people. But jealousy was an issue. The weirdest things can make you jealous. Hearing him tell me about watching movies that had been "our" movies with another girl hurt. So did hearing him cry because a girl ditched him at a party. Now we've set rules: no talk about sex at all, no date details, just broad strokes about who we're dating and how we feel about them. It's generally understood that we are ambivalent about each other's other partners. Whatever makes him happy makes me happy, because I just want the best for him.
Do you face a lot of judgement about your choice?
Sarah: You have the "nuts" who just get really angry and think I, and people like me, will burn in hell. Those people are easy to ignore. I have had men I have dated or are interested in dismiss the idea outright before any consideration it seems, meanwhile they are sleeping with more than one person at the time. They just tell me "An open relationship would never work'. It is okay to say it wouldn't work for them but I don't like the total dismissal. The thing that seems to hurt my feelings the most, or is the most annoying of an assumption, is the idea that an open relationship doesn't count as much as a monogamous one. I have friends that don't put as much value on my relationship as those of people who are married and monogamous. My relationship/s are somehow less real. They think I don't know true intimacy or commitment. I find this annoying because I am one of the most committed people I know. But again, I have to just ignore a lot of this and not let it get to me.
Molly: I don't tell people who I don't think will understand that I'm in an open relationship so I don't have to deal with their reaction. Usually people respond by saying "Well, if it works for you." I know there is judgement there, but most folks try to conceal it. I know married poly couples who have gotten a lot of flack from their families, going so far as being completely disowned. My parents don't get it at all. They think I '"don't respect myself enough to let anyone love me." and I'm just like, "Mom, Dad, it's because my boyfriend loves me that I feel comfortable doing this." We trust and respect each other. That's why it works.
Sarah: I certainly do encounter the "But what about the children" question often enough. I grew up with my parents' dates and partners coming into my life. Some were long term; some weren't. I feel fine about it. I have no problem with the idea of having people that my partner or I are dating coming into our family if that is what works for everyone. I would like my daughter to be open to all sorts of people and choices and I feel no need to shield her from relationships that are positive. I only think that will be a benefit to her. Also seeing your parents as individuals who have there own interests in life is very important, even if it is a bit surprising at times. I think the more friends in your life the better for everyone.
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