Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who wanted to explore polyamory while partnered in a new city. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about how it changed their lives to explore ethical non-monogamy — an umbrella term that encompasses relationship styles such as polyamory, swinging, and open relationships where all parties practice informed consent.
Do you have a dilemma or question you’d like to see answered as part of a future Can We Talk? Submit it here.
Carolyn, 27, Brooklyn, NY
Even as a child only just beginning to understand relationships, Carolyn questioned the concept of monogamy. "I remember asking adult figures questions about it, and that didn't go very well," she remembers. "But from the time I was 15, I would journal about it. By 17, I had a summer job working on a farm with some more alternative folks, and we'd have lengthy discussions about what monogamy really meant in the tomato fields."
Then she began dating her high-school sweetheart. "I remember speaking to my therapist at the time and expressing having feelings for multiple people, even though I had a boyfriend," Carolyn says. "I'd say I was really excited about someone else and wasn't gonna act on it, but didn't really know what this meant. That therapist essentially shut that down and told me to focus on my boyfriend. It was like there was this thing that just kept bubbling up, but there just weren't really safe spaces to explore it."
After going to different colleges, Carolyn and her boyfriend decided to "open up” the relationship for a semester. "It went terribly because we didn't know what we were doing," she says. They decided to "close" it back up and continued dating monogamously. It wasn't until grad school that Carolyn really began diving into polyamory after years of being curious about it. "At that point, I’d been in a monogamous relationship for four years, and when it ended, I was pretty clear that I needed to live my romantic relationships in a much more authentic way," she says. "That meant exploring ethical non-monogamy and dating more queer people. I was 24, living in New York on my own, and I started with more passive exploration." She read The Ethical Slut and Opening Up. She listened to the podcast Multiamory and learned about Ester Perel. "I tried to get my feet wet by learning communication techniques and relationship structures," she says. "All that cemented for me that this was the path I needed to be on."
Then, Carolyn started dating in New York. "Pretty much right away, I met people who've stayed in my life pretty significantly, whether that's friends or partners or both," she says. "It just felt right… Knowing this identity and relationship structure was out there — and, later, that it worked for me — made me feel so validated in my existence.”
That's not to say everything's been easy. "When you're living and loving in a polyamorous way, you're trading one set of problems, like not fitting in, for another," Carolyn says. "I recently started a new job and people there are wanting to get to know me socially. A clear entry point is to ask me if I have a partner. There's a normativity to only having one partner to bring to the holiday party and talk about at coffee. So, I have to make decisions about whether or not I'm going to out myself and have to explain to people who might not know anything about polyamory. In moments like that, there's fear of discrimination or being othered. Being ethically non-monogamous does not put you in a protected class legally, and that's also something to think about."
Knowing this identity and relationship structure was out there — and, later, that it worked for me — made me feel so validated in my existence.”
Despite these very real worries, Carolyn feels well-suited to the life she leads. Her ultimate vision is to practice what's known as "kitchen table polyamory." "Imagine everyone's sitting around a table," she explains. "You might be sitting next to your boyfriend, and your boyfriend's boyfriend is to the left of him and you're all good friends. You go around the table and there are people who are dating and people who love each other because they love the same person and share similar values."
Carolyn says there are people in her life who've made her feel even more secure in her choices. "I give my mom a lot of credit," she says. "I remember there was a time when I was still dating my high-school boyfriend when I had feelings coming up for one of my brother's friends. I was really concerned about it and didn't know what any of it meant." She ended up talking to her mom about it. "She was incredibly curious, compassionate, and non-judgmental as I was discussing this with her. It's funny; we are unbelievably different. She's lived a very straight-edged life and has been in a happily monogamous marriage forever. Yet, given our differences, I've always been really amazed that she's held space to allow me to question things."
This was a stark juxtaposition to the therapist who shot down Carolyn’s questions about monogamy in high school. "At that time, I was questioning some pretty scary things, and to have her more or less try to remind me of 'the contract' I'd set with my high-school boyfriend and essentially shut down any opportunity to discuss the feelings I was having really added to my confusion. I never went back to see her after that. It made me feel invalidated and shamed and wrong for having these legitimate feelings. I didn't really know how impactful that moment was until later."
Now, Carolyn sees a poly-informed therapist and has continued to educate herself about polyamory by reading books like Polysecure. She wants to keep learning — and keep exploring — throughout her life. And she wants to keep talking about it so that others can feel less alone, and won't feel the way she felt after talking to her first therapist. As she puts it: "On a pure identity level, just knowing that there were other people like me has changed my life and made me feel celebrated for who I am."
"Imagine everyone's sitting around a table. You might be sitting next to your boyfriend, and your boyfriend's boyfriend is to the left of him...You go around the table and there are people who are dating and people who love each other because they love the same person."
The first time Sara Youngblood Gregory read the word "polyamory," they were 15 years old, scrolling through Reddit at school. "I'm pretty sure I was on my computer in study hall," they say. "I knew pretty young in my life that monogamy wasn't going to work for me, but I was private about that at the time. It's not like I leaned over to the person next to me, and said, Look at this! I didn't really date in high school, and I didn't know any other queer women."
But when Sara got to college, they felt freer to explore. "It was surprising in a good way to hear people talk openly about polyamory and their living arrangements," they say. "Like, hearing about a wife who had a husband and a girlfriend, and the logistical nature of that." Soon, Sara began exploring polyamory firsthand. "It felt exciting and terrifying, big and different uncharted territory," they say, "and 10 years later, it honestly still feels uncharted." But they're working on giving people a map of sorts: They just published The Polyamory Workbook last month.
Over the years, Sara has learned a lot about making poly relationships work. "You need to have a certain humbleness and patience — with yourself and with others, and especially when you and your loved ones are juggling multiple relationships," they say. “There's an aspect of time management, so you're spending time with everyone, plus communicating. All of that is true in all relationships, but I think it's amplified and magnified if you're having multiple relationships with different people."
It's also important to check your ego at the door before entering an ethically non-monogamous relationship. "You have to realize you're not the center of your partners' universe, nor should you be," Sara says. "You can't always fulfill all your partners' needs, and if you can accept that you don't need to be your partners' 'other half,' you can be so much happier."
There are no specific "rules" for Sara's practice of monogamy, other than making sure there's always consent and everyone is safe, sexually and emotionally. Everyone can figure out what works for them based on the boundaries of who they're with. "I'm always really forthcoming, and if I go on a date, I tell people before and say that I'm dating this many partners, and now I say I'm married," they say. "I think a big key is just being explicit."
Sara has come a long way since study hall and says they're so happy and fulfilled with their current life and relationships, especially as a newlywed. One thing they hope to achieve through their writing is more general understanding and acceptance of polyamorous people. "There's some representation, but it's still showing up in very hetero- ways and in unhealthy contexts in the culture," they say. "Sometimes it feels like people are rooting against it — like if someone gets divorced, they assume it's because you're poly, not because relationships sometimes end."
Sara says more examples of healthy non-monogamy might have helped them avoid some mistakes. If they could give their younger self advice, they'd say: "Don’t rush. Don’t get into too many relationships at once. It's quality over quantity. That's something so important for people who are new to this. It's tempting and exciting for people who want to be with everyone walking this earth, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Be patient, and be really honest. Overall, be picky."
DeMecia Casimir, 38, Queens, NY
DeMecia Casimir didn't always know she was polyamorous — it was more of a "slow burn" realization. “I grew up in a super fundamentalist Christian religious community,” she says, "and when I came out in my 20s, I was not accepted by many people. While I think I was always interested in polyamory from the moment I first heard what it was, it was too much for my brain to handle because so much was new to me already. I had just gotten a handle on having one girlfriend and navigating this new part of my life where I identified as queer.”
But fast forward about 10 years to 2016, DeMecia moved to Brooklyn and began dating and meeting new folks who practiced ethical non-monogamy in various ways. After years of observing and feeling more and more intrigued, she decided to try it out.
"It can be terrifying because there is no script," she says. "But it’s about figuring out: What feels good and what feels safe? How can you support yourself and any partners in all those feelings that come up when you're dating one, two, three different people in various ways?"
After easing in and doing a lot of self-education through books, podcasts, and talking to friends, she added "poly" to her dating app profile. "If I matched with someone, I learned the hard way to always double-check with them that they get what that means," DeMecia says. "Now, after a few years of doing this, I still say, ‘Hey, I just want to make sure that you see that I’m poly and partnered. I have a partner and a girlfriend now, and I’m not sure I’m looking for another relationship but you seem really cool and I’d love to go on a date and see if we click.’ That sets the tone... It's important to remember that everybody’s feelings are important."
Exploring polyamory also helped DeMecia relearn setting boundaries and communicating. "You have to get used to talking openly about the physical and emotional impacts," she says. In one instance, she’d been dating one person for a while polyamorously, and decided to take on another serious partner. When she told the first person, they had some real feelings about it. "They were super valid, and I had to say outright, ‘You’re not being replaced,’" DeMecia recalls. "We’ve had a lot of conversations and I’ve just been reassuring this person. You can be jealous, but it’s about working through that before downloading it to the other person. You can’t only say, 'I'm jealous, I don’t want you to see that person.' Instead, you’d think it through, and say, 'I’m having feelings about you seeing this other person, not because of them or you, but because I feel like I might lose you or a part of you, and that is really scary.' And then the other person responds and says, 'You won’t lose me.' It’s about affirming people, meeting them where they’re at, and being vulnerable — which can be terrifying."
Overall, DeMecia says exploring polyamory has allowed her to figure out: "’Here's what I want, and here's what I need,’ and be able to communicate that. If somebody hasn’t worked through their shit, they’re not going to be good at polyamory, because you have to talk about that kind of stuff. If you're not being healthy about your emotions, it has a ripple effect on all involved."
"In the queer community, we've had to do so much work to figure out who we are and why we are who we are — and fight for that," she adds. "I not only needed to figure out I was not straight, but that I'm polyamorous. That impacted every relationship I had in my life and I had to navigate that and understand that some people wouldn't support me. But I've come to a place where I can say: 'This is who I am. Take it or leave it.'"
With that said, DeMecia is open to change. She says that, if she understands anything, it's that you can have a strong sense of self, but still evolve. "Do I want to find a wife? Do I want to have three girlfriends? Who knows!" she says. "You get to play with it, as long as other people are giving consent. And I think that's so freeing."