Polyamory - Is It For You?

Curious about whether polyamory might be the right lifestyle choice for you? Here, we explore the day-to-day realities of poly living and loving — and what monogamous couples can learn from it.

By Allison Kendall

hanks to such television series as Big Love and Swingtown and MTV’s True Life: I’m Polyamorous episode, the discussion of polyamory as a valid lifestyle choice has been on the rise over the past few years. While it may obviously not be the right choice for everyone, it could be the right one for you. If you’re interested
Make no mistake, there is commitment involved.
in learning what polyamory is really like, set aside your ‘70s-era swinger stereotypes and check out the questions we asked for our polyamory primer below. The answers might surprise you...

1. Who’s polyamory really for, anyway?
In the most basic terms, polyamory is practiced by people who desire to be sexual and/or intimate with more than one partner in an honest and consensual manner. “Polyamory is for those people who don’t necessarily believe the status quo has the right answers and who suspect that there may ultimately be more security, love and fun outside the confines of the standard monogamous relationship,” says Sheri Winston, founding director of The Center for the Intimate Arts and the author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal: Secret Maps to Buried Pleasure. “The ‘security’ of monogamy, after all, isn’t all that secure if we consider the current rates of divorce and adultery,” notes Winston. “Polyamory holds out the promise of having your cake and eating it, too — plus sharing and sampling lots of other cakes as well.”

While unconventional, polyamory is a particular lifestyle that simply requires a different sort of commitment — but make no mistake, there is commitment involved, explains Perri*, a married polyamorous woman living in suburban Washington, D.C. Generally speaking, anyone who chooses to practice polyamory should have excellent communication and relationship skills, very strong personal integrity and a desire for personal growth, says Winston. “Multiple consensual relationships require the time, patience and willingness to have the necessary discussions, i.e., negotiating and dealing with feelings that will arise,” she notes. Who should bypass polyamory? “The faint of heart or the terminally insecure,” says Winston, adding that it’s also “not for cheaters, lowlifes or emotionally immature people.”

2. Is there a difference between being polyamorous and being “swingers?”
Definitely, says Winston: “Polyamory revolves around sharing intimate connections with more than one person. The relationships are usually sexual in nature, though they can sometimes be emotionally intimate and sexually platonic. The level of connection may vary, but the emphasis is on the shared relationship.” Swingers, on the other hand, get together with the sole purpose of having sex. “Generally, with swinging, anonymity and non-involvement are prominent draws for those who practice it,” Winston says. “This is the exact opposite of polyamory — which is about loving more people, not having more sex.” Additionally, she adds that the swinger’s world emphasizes heterosexual couples, while the poly world embraces a spectrum of orientations.

3. Do polyamorous people marry? If so, what’s the point?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, many people who are polyamorous are actually married, explains Perri. Winston concurs, saying: “Marriage signifies a public affirmation of a deep, lifelong commitment. It doesn’t need to be equated with monogamy.” Once you step beyond the standard definition of what comprises an intimate relationship, a wide variety of options become possibilities. “Marriage is a state of both the mind and the heart — and need not define who you’re committed to or how many people you’re having sex with,” says Winston. Some poly people start out in a monogamous partnership then shift into more open arrangements, while others have multiple committed partnerships and feel married to more than one significant other. “The majority of poly people I know are married but feel that monogamy just isn’t natural,” says Perri. “Instead of cheating, they openly enjoy their relationships with others and are just being honest about it, which works for them. I think removing the need to lie or be deceitful has made my marriage stronger.”

4. What are the emotional benefits of being polyamorous?
While some feel as though one person can satisfy the majority of their emotional, intellectual and sexual needs, for others, the idea of having no limit on who they can love offers the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment that a single partner cannot. “When you acknowledge that you have needs that aren’t being met by your primary partner, it becomes eminently logical to look for additional connections elsewhere — and in the context of polyamory, with its rules about integrity
Flirting can be integrated into a monogamous relationship.
and clear and loving communication, it’s both ethical and okay to do exactly that,” explains Winston. Perri notes that it’s for this exact reason that living a polyamorous lifestyle works for her: “My husband and I think it’s ridiculous to assume that having sex with (and sharing a life with) the same person for 50 or so years is the recipe for a good partnership,” she explains. “Being poly is our way of allowing each others’ needs to sometimes be met by another person, which actually takes some pressure off each of us to be that person for each other all the time.” And, like all romantic relationships, the emotional connection that sex provides is important for poly couples, too. “Some people may want to experience more intimacy, touch, talk or play than their current partner offers,” Winston explains. “Poly folks usually believe they can live more fully and richly by having intimate, tender relationships which are usually, but not always, sexual in nature with more than one person.”

5. In polyamory, when and how are boundaries set?
Winston advises that polyamorous people should discuss boundaries early and often. “If there’s one maxim to polyamory, it is this: communicate, communicate, communicate! The late-night ‘Oops, darling, I messed up!’ phone call is a huge no-no,” she warns. “Boundaries are made to be honored!” Jeff*, Perri’s husband, adds, “And don’t ever assume that all polyamorous people have the same boundaries — as with anyone, we all have our own unique levels of comfort; that means sexually and also when it comes to emotional intimacy.”

6. Do polyamorous people have to “out” themselves to their monogamous friends?
Polyamorous people generally discuss their sex lives much in the same way others do: rarely, and only with people around whom they feel comfortable doing so. “Sure, we’ll discuss our sex lives with our open-minded friends if the subject comes up,” says Jeff. “With those people that we know wouldn’t get it at all we just keep our mouths shut, just like we’d do with people who have different political or religious beliefs from ours.” If you’re considering polyamory and wondering how you’d bring up the subject to others, Winston recommends doing so delicately: “The most important thing to do is make it clear that it is not about cheating or being sexually indiscriminate. It’s about being in a loving, high-integrity relationship with more than one person, and working within guidelines that totally respect and honor everyone in the mix.” Communicate that while it’s a different path, it’s not a lesser one. Also, Winston adds, it’s always a good move to reassure your monogamous friends that you’re not about to jump them... or their partners.

7. If polyamory isn’t for someone, but that person would like to make his or her sex life more exciting, what tips and tricks can someone “crib” from this lifestyle?
Borrowing some boundary definitions from polyamory can help spice up any heterosexual relationship, according to Winston. Flirting can be integrated into a monogamous relationship without risk when it’s done correctly; what you don’t want to do is lead on a stranger with no intention of following through. Winston explains: “When you flirt just for fun, you’re getting outside confirmation that you’re attractive, not to mention some excitement and a harmless erotic buzz. Bring those ego strokes and the sexual charge it gives you back home with you into the bedroom!” She also advises being committed to saying what is true — even when it’s difficult — in the kindest possible way. “Be who you really are. It’s not just the foundation of polyamory… it’s the foundation for establishing true intimacy and a hot sex life!”

* Some names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.

Allison Kendall is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, GA.
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