When my ex first floated the idea of polyamory to me, I didn’t know how to feel. Was I not enough for her? Was she not as committed to the relationship as I was? What would other people think, and how would I explain it to them?
I’ve struggled with jealousy before. We all have, especially when it comes to the people we love. Polyamory — the practice of having multiple consensual romantic partners — doesn’t make jealousy any easier to deal with, and that’s not the only emotion I’ve had to juggle in my non-monogamous relationships.
Still, I had to admit that part of me had feelings for a friend of ours that I didn’t want to miss out on. It started with me and her, but I wanted him in my life too — as more than a friend — and so did she.
So I decided to give it a shot.
Starting To Practise Polyamory
When I started practising polyamory, I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be like. I mean, research shows that young people are most open to it, so there has to be some kind of formula or typical setup, right? Well… sort of. Every relationship is so different that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all picture of polyamory. For me, it was shaped by my sexuality, emotional needs, and even race.
A poly relationship isn’t just about sex. It’s about breaking the perspective that a lifelong romantic bond can only exist exclusively between two people. Instead of having a deep emotional and sexual connection with one person, I had it with two.
This isn’t always the same as having an open relationship (where partners are free to sleep with people outside the relationship), although many poly relationships are open. My relationship was open, but I rarely felt the need to seek out other sexual partners.
Occasionally I would go out with friends and meet a new sexual partner. It was empowering to have the freedom to pursue passion in the moment without sacrificing my relationship. My boyfriend would seek other partners fairly often, and my girlfriend seemed content with just the two of us (though she did have a few flings of her own).
We all had ground rules about using protection outside our triangle, making time for each other, and who was or was not okay to sleep with. With some trial and error, we forged a beautiful relationship that lasted nearly three years.
Handling Judgement About My Polyamory
Usually, the worst part of polyamory wasn’t my relationship with my partners — it was how other people viewed and reacted to it. People (especially men) seemed to think that being polyamorous meant I was down to sleep with them all the time, and that my girlfriend and I wanted a threesome.
Others made comments about how lucky our boyfriend was to be dating two girls at once, effectively reducing us to his sexual playthings with their words. My conservative family — who took years to accept that I’m bisexual — did not take it well. When dating came up, they always asked if I was still “playing around” and “when are you going to settle down with a nice man?”
Considering how combative they’d been about my bisexuality, the way they spoke about my boyfriend was ironic. He was one of the kindest and most respectful men I’ve ever met, yet they jokingly referred to him as my “pimp” (he was Black and my girlfriend was white) and made not-so-subtle implications that the relationship was abusive by nature. I guess they’d been watching documentaries about polygamous cults, because at one point, my mom seriously asked me if I thought he was the Messiah.
I never introduced them to my family. Maybe if I had it would have helped normalise things, but I didn’t think they were ever going to get past the perception that a hypersexual Black man had tricked me into being his glorified sidepiece.
While the way other people looked at us could feel awful, there were plenty of ugly emotions inside the relationship that we had to learn to handle as well.
Managing My Jealousy & Insecurities
My experience with jealousy was difficult to manage at first. I sometimes felt like one partner was getting far more attention than I was, or that they didn’t love me as much as I loved them. Communication was the answer to my feelings. As long as they stayed bottled up, they got worse. When I shared them with my partners, we were able to address them together. To my surprise, I sometimes learned that I’d been making them feel the same way.
For example, I spent a few weeks stewing over the fact that my two partners seemed to be having a lot of intimate experiences without me. They’d taken up cooking together and their sex lives with each other looked a lot more active than mine. I started to feel insecure about my place in the relationship and angry at what I thought was exclusion. Eventually, I blew up on my partners and told them if they loved each other so much then maybe they didn’t need me. When we cooled off and dried our tears, I could see that I’d made a mistake.
My girlfriend worked early mornings and my boyfriend worked nights. I worked a standard 9-5, so by the time I got home every day he was getting ready to leave and she was winding down for the day. I was ready to relax and spend quality time together, but they were starting or ending long days. They had a lot more overlap in their free time than I did, and by the time I got home, they were just tired.
But work wasn’t the problem; we quickly figured out how to make time for each other. The problem was that while I’d been sitting on my feelings, I’d become noticeably distant. They’d been worried for weeks that I had lost interest in them. I’ll always regret losing my cool, but I’m grateful that I learned how important it is to share our feelings.
My Polyamory “Rules”
My experience with polyamory is only one of millions. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to make a poly relationship work, but there are ways to keep it healthy.
1. The first step is to think about what you want. Polyamory isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Trying to fit into a relationship mould that isn’t right for you will inevitably make you unhappy. If you’re sure polyamory is for you, then do your research. There are several types of poly relationships to choose from, and experienced poly people can warn you about common issues or answer common questions.
2. Every relationship needs boundaries. You and your partner(s) will need to make some ground rules about sex and emotional connection. For example, you may be okay with them sleeping around, but not with your family or close friends. Some partners like to hear about each other’s sexual adventures, while others prefer not to discuss it at all.
3. Manage your expectations. Some people expect polyamory to solve the problems in their existing relationships, but this isn’t usually the case. You and your partner(s) still need to communicate, devote time to each other, and nurture your emotional bonds.
4. Talk about everything! Every relationship requires constant and dedicated communication. Monogamy comes with a set of rules and expectations that most people understand, but polyamory is new to many of us. You’ll need to express your feelings and be receptive to your partner(s)’ feelings as well. Plus, you’ll need to ensure that you communicate with all of your partners — no one likes to be left out.
5. Don’t be afraid to adapt. For many of us, polyamory is uncharted territory. The rules you set at the beginning of the relationship might not work as you and your partner(s) grow and have more experiences. If you need to change the rules, that’s okay. It’s always better to talk about the relationship than to suffer in silence or violate the emotional bond.
6. Make time for your partner(s). The bond you have with your partner(s) is meaningful and important, and they need to know that. Set aside time to spend with just them, and vice versa; if your partner(s) are always bringing an outside partner along for activities, respectfully let them know that you need time alone with them too.
7. Be respectful toward everyone involved. It’s natural to feel jealous, but you shouldn’t be rude or insensitive to your partners’ partners. Never let jealousy fester, or it will bubble over eventually. Many people even find it helpful to meet their partners’ partners, get to know them, and give them permission to be a partner.
8. You should practice safe sex outside your relationship. STDs can turn a relationship nasty, and no one wants to deal with them. Use protection with anyone outside your relationship, or at the very least make a concrete agreement with your partner(s) on when to do so.
9. Respect yourself and your feelings. If you feel like you’re being edged out by other partners, you need to say something. If nothing changes, then it might be time to move on from the relationship.
10. All in all, a poly relationship can be whatever you and your partner(s) want it to be. It can be an exclusive emotional bond between more than two people, or any number of people that are open to sexual encounters outside their relationship.
Negative feelings are unavoidable, but they don’t define polyamory any more than they define monogamy. If you’re honest with yourself and you’re honest with your partner(s), you can find a way to make it work.