Juggling multiple relationships at different levels with many different people requires a sturdy relationship skill set that makes poly relationships the PhD of human interaction — not better than other types of relationships, but definitely more complicated. Here are five principles central to successful consensual non-monogamous partnerships that can improve basically any relationship.
1. Communication is really important.
Communication is so important. There is no room for unclear communication about desires or boundaries or anything else when being unclear could potentially affect many different people and relationships. Sex educator Charlie Glickman says:
“Something else I’ve learned from being poly is that it requires the ability to talk about and process feelings quickly and efficiently. Of course, that skill will benefit any relationship, but when there are multiple people, each with their own needs and desires, as well as their feelings about each other, there are a lot of moving parts. If I could, I’d tell my younger self that the best way to learn how to process well would be to build social networks full of people who are dedicated to open-hearted, honest communication.”
Communication is important whether you’re a non-primary partner who wants to stay that way or in a primary partnership that’s opening up for the first time or living with your partners and having bathroom sex with someone you met a few hours ago or seeking your very own lesbian throuple. It’s also important when you’re dating one other individual person. It’s just better when everyone is on the same page.
2. Consent is also really important.
One of the most important parts of poly is informed consent. Consent is the thing that separates poly relationships from cheating. In an essay in Feminist and Queer Legal Theory, Elizabeth F. Emens writes:
“Honesty forms the basis of consent. The idea of consent — that partners in a relationship or a sexual encounter make an informed decision to participate in the relationship or the encounter, including knowing its polyamorous context — pervades poly writing, both implicitly and explicitly. That all parties agree to the non-monogamy, rather than participating without their knowledge or consent, is foundational.”
Talking about your relationships or current situation or expectations happens a lot in non-monogamous situations, but can be really useful in monogamous relationships as well. In addition to the obvious importance of enthusiastic consent in sexy situations, collaboration and enthusiasm between everyone at all stages can only lead to a better experience for all.
3. Everyone has feelings and needs.
Sometimes, one of the most important things to remember is that everyone has feelings and needs, and that theirs may be different than yours.
In a discussion of non-primary partners, Shara Smith writes:
“Even when you do have a clearly defined primary relationship (or two, or more), or you have a relationship that tends to have higher priority than others (as in descriptive primary), you still have to be careful not to invalidate your lesser-priority relationships. My ‘secondary’ or satellite partners are every bit as important as my ‘primary’ or core partners. They are human beings with feelings and needs, and by agreeing to be in a romantic relationship with them, I take some responsibility for how my actions affect them. This does not mean I am responsible for their happiness. This means that I am aware of how my actions and words affect them and I can avoid intentionally causing them pain by being insensitive to their emotional needs. Our relationship may have evolved in such a manner as to include less time and attention than my other relationships, but that doesn’t mean that the person in that relationship with me is expendable, disposable, or an interchangeable commodity.”
In translation, don’t be a dick.
4. Jealousy is a dish best served deconstructed.
It’s not that people in non-monogamous relationships don’t ever get jealous; it’s that jealousy gets in the way of thinking about and addressing your actual thoughts or feelings. In The Ethical Slut, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy write:
“Jealousy may be an expression of insecurity, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment, feeling left out, feeling not good enough, feeling inadequate, feeling awful. Your jealousy may be based in territoriality, or in competitiveness, or in some other emotion that’s clamouring to be heard under the jealous racket in your brain.”
They also note that sometimes jealousy can be envy — not that you don’t want your partner to do something with someone else, but that you do want them to do that something with you — or feelings of loss — as if it is possible to lose something when your partner has awesome sex with someone else — and continue, “The challenge comes in learning to establish within yourself a strong foundation of internal security that is not depended on sexual exclusivity or ownership of your partner.”
It’s way more fun to feel happy your partner is having great sex or new relationship energy with someone else (this is called compersion) than it is to intellectually support her but wonder the whole time whether it means your connection won’t be as strong. In monogamous relationships, you can know that your partner is having an excellent non-sexy time with people or activities you are not involved with without worrying you will become romantically redundant.
People who feel totally secure in themselves 100% of the time probably still get jealous, whether monogamous or poly, but by recognizing that there are probably other things going on it’s much easier to manage in a way that makes everyone feel good.
5. There is more than one way to have a relationship.
A ton of modern relationships are seen as having one logical path, with all other options being anywhere from less than to completely transgressive. Soly Poly calls this default path the relationship escalator, and defines it as:
“The default set of societal expectations for the proper conduct of intimate relationships. Progressive steps with clearly visible markers and a presumed structural goal of permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. The social standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, ‘serious,’ good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.”
Unsurprisingly, this model not only fails when for people having romantic relationships at different levels of intensity with multiple people, but also fails for many people having a romantic relationship with just one person. If everyone has to follow one relationship model or consider the whole situation a failure, it becomes harder to acknowledge the default expectations in place, easier to encourage remaining in non-ideal relationships and harder to value non-escalator relationships or others’ relationship choices.
Instead, thinking critically about this model — whether in non-monogamous or monogamous relationships, whether following it or not — acknowledges that there’s more than one way to have a valuable relationship, that relationships are still valuable if they end and that it’s important to treat everyone with respect.
There are so many possible types of relationships, and so many ways to conduct those relationships, that thinking about what you actually want from a given situation and how it might work for you (and communicating those needs) is incredibly important.
Feature image by Vanessa Velazquez Photography.