Human sexuality is a complicated, fascinating and beautiful facet of life. Countless sociologists, psychologists, scientists and doctors have studied what makes one person attracted to one another, how people approach and define relationships and sex—and countless other aspects of romance. While monogamy is the widely accepted norm for Western society, a polyamorous relationship is far more common in other parts of the world. This type of setup doesn’t hold the same strict rules on being exclusive and committed to one person, but allows for more exploration and intimacy with multiple partners. As sex and relationship therapist Courtney Geter, LMFT, CST explains, “Polyamorous is a form of ethical non-monogamy or ethical open relationship structure. Ethical non-monogamy means all partners involved are aware and consenting to the agreed upon relationship structure.”
While many couples have found success and happiness through this type of couplehood, there are many misconceptions about what a polyamorous relationship is and isn’t—and what it takes to make it work. Here, leading sex experts provide the 101 guide on everything you need to know about a polyamorous relationship, and perhaps provide insight if it is something worth exploring for your lifestyle.
What Is a Polyamorous Relationship?
As the name suggests, psychotherapist and author Dr. Jenn Mann explains a polyamorous relationship is the practice of having intimate, emotional and sexual relationship with more than one person, with the agreement of all involved. “Polyamorous people may have commitment to more than one person they are in a relationship with. It is not just about sex, it is also about emotional connection and developing romantic relationships,” she explains. This means while someone might be your boyfriend or girlfriend, you also might have another partner, and they could as well.
Geter adds there are many different structures in poly dynamics, including a primary and a secondary relationship. Most of the time, a primary has a more significant value and a stronger level of commitment, where the two people are married or in a long-term relationship. Together, these two people decide they would like to invite others into their love nest, and Geter says the demands of the primary usually come before the needs of the secondary. “This doesn’t mean the secondary relationships get the short end of the stick or neglected, though expectations and level of commitment differs,” she adds.
Polyamorous people may have commitment to more than one person they are in a relationship with. It is not just about sex, it is also about emotional connection and developing romantic relationships
Another type of polyamorous relationship is called a ‘solo poly’, where there is no hierarchy in the relationships, and one person has the freedom and autonomy to have more than one partner without limitations from a primary partner, Geter notes.
How Common Are Polyamorous Relationships?
From a historical standpoint, sex expert Kat Thomas says a multi-partner affair has been very common. In fact, Thomas shares the popularity of monogamy started due to money, when humans decided they wanted to own land. “Once that started happening it was important to know that land was going to be inherited by their heirs. How do you determine who your heirs are? Create monogamy to guarantee it,” she explained. “Thus for centuries men were allowed multiple affairs, while the women were expected to remain faithful.”
According to the anatomy that is positioned in our bodies, Thomas notes a poly agreement makes far more sense than a monogamous one. For proof, the way we orgasm can explain the value of a polyamorous relationship. How so? Just think of the way female climax works: it’s often louder than men and happens several times. “There’s a biological reason for this,” Thomas continues. “When we were primates in the jungle and a male came across a female in heat, they would start having sex. Because of our poly nature, the female would loudly orgasm, advertising that she was ready to go again. More and more males would show up, wait their turn in line, do their part, and then be done.”
So what about in modern society? It’s not quite as frequent as the jungle, but still fairly common. According to Dr. Mann, a 2016 study published in the journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, it has been estimated that 21 percent of people have had a non-monogamous relationship. She notes this number could continue to rise, as she sees more and more couples in her practice trying out a poly deal.
What Are the Benefits of a Polyamorous Relationship?
So, it’s an orgy, free-for-all, 24/7, right? Wrong. Because this type of romantic connection is still considered quite taboo in most western communities, there are plenty of rumors surrounding what goes on behind closed doors. These are not only false, but they prevent people from working up the courage to navigate their own sexuality. Before you believe what you see or hear, it’s important to understand the true benefits of a polyamorous relationship, straight from experts who know best.
Your needs don’t have to be met by one single person.
At the core of a monogamous relationship is to find the all-time-most-perfect-person… ever. This ‘soulmate’ is meant to fulfill all of your desires by being what you need in the bedroom, as a friend, as a mentor, as a partner… as everything. That’s a tall order to demand of anyone, and Geter explains one perk of a polyamorous relationship is lessening the pressure that is often put on a long-term, committed relationship. “You may have an interest in a certain hobby or cuisine that your primary partner does not share. If another partner also shares this interest, then you can enjoy these hobbies without possible feelings of pressure or burden or knowing your partner is not enjoying themselves,” she explains. “Although not all poly relationships include sex, if a sexual relationship is part of your agreed upon structure, sexual needs may be met and prevent discord in a relationship with differing sexual needs.”
Having freedom to seek happiness from other people allows your primary relationship to flourish in your strong areas, instead of suffering in the parts where you’re disconnected.
You develop stronger communication skills.
In a couplehood that allows one another the liberty to act on their desires, partners are free to express exactly how they feel, without it being judged or punished. Much like being 100 percent transparent with your partner, Dr. Mann explains another perk of a polyamorous relationship is couples develop great communication strategies for interacting with one another. When they are feeling something for another person, they let their primary partner know right from the bat, so no gray areas are created. A monogamous couple might not be this candid, or shy away from expressing how they really feel or how they are attracted to someone else.
“Non-monogamous couples tend to do regular appraisals of their relationship and discuss their observations with one another. If one person feels the relationship is getting boring or stale these couples tend to process it with one another and make a plan of action,” she explains.
Communication also helps to create boundaries for a polyamorous relationship. While sure, there isn’t the ‘you can only love and sleep with me’—there are limitations that both parties agree on. “They work hard to establish clear rules and boundaries in order to make the experience emotionally safe. They know what flirting, conversations, sexual contact and phone contact is out of bounds and what is acceptable,” she explains. “On the other hand, too many monogamous couples make assumptions about what is OK and what is not without discussing with their partner.”
You become more aware of your beliefs.
To be open to other partner within your relationship requires a sense of curiosity and bravery. When you begin sleeping with or even falling for multiple people, you challenge your core set of values. This is beneficial for personal growth, according to Thomas. “Taking a deep look at your beliefs when it comes to relationships, you realize that the only person whose job it is to make you happy is you,” she explains. “Through exploring multiple relationships, you’ll stop looking for others to define you as a human being. In a monogamous relationship, it’s very easy to shift from ‘me’ to ‘we’, and a lot of times when you do that you lose yourself to the ‘we.’”
How Do You Try a Polyamorous Relationship
Maybe you’ve been dating someone for several years, and you’ve both grown complacent. Or perhaps, you’ve never had a successful monogamous relationship, and you’re curious about testing out poly to see if it is more fulfilling for your preferences. Before you decide to go down the multiple-partners route, follow this helpful advice.
Be clear about what is acceptable.
Thomas has three words for new poly partners: honesty, honesty, honesty. “Many couples when first exploring open relationships make the rule of ‘no strings attached sex,’ but the challenge with that is the more time we spend with a human being, the more we bond to them on many levels,” she explains. This means being realistic and setting up boundaries is essential for both parties to remain comfortable. More likely than not, you will develop feelings for another person you’re sleeping with, and Thomas reminds couples that is the point of a polyamorous relationship, as opposed to a one-off threesome experience.
Don’t worry about what other people think.
And frankly, you don’t even need to alert your community you’re trying out a polyamorous relationship. It’s none of their business—and Thomas says it’s important to not let the opinions impact your lifestyle and adult choices. “Some people might get it, some people might not, but either way it’s your life,” she continues. “If you’re not having fun, why the hell are you doing it?”