#PolyamoryProblems: Opening Your Relationship 101

Feature graphic image by The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Q:

Dear DaemonumX,

My long term partner and I have had the conversation about our desire to open our relationship up (about 4 months ago). However, we’re struggling with moving past that initial conversation. We’ve talked about it briefly but it feels like we’re both stuck in moving to the next step. How do we make sure we’re communicating well and on the same page? How do we go about actually pursuing polyamory and making it a reality?

— Ready Already


A:

Dear Ready Already,

First I want to congratulate you on taking the scary step #1, which is that you had the initial conversation about opening your relationship! I wish I could say that the hardest part is behind you, but the truth is that in pursuing non-monogamy you’ll likely have conversations much more difficult than that one. Not to scare you away, but the consciousness shifting of unlearning monogamy calls for some enhanced communication and lots of processing. There are countless things I wish I had known before I started out, and lucky for you I’m here to tell you the things that will hopefully make your transition into polyamorous relationships much smoother. So if I may say so, Ready, it doesn’t sound to me like you are.

Most people experience consensual non-monogamy for the first time while opening up a monogamous relationship. It’s understandable that people like to feel secure and build a strong relationship foundation before welcoming others into the mix in one way or another. I find that because of this, people new to polyamory assume that it always revolves around one couple—two people in a relationship date other people outside that relationship — or that you need to have a partner to be polyamorous. It’s always “We are polyamorous,” and rarely “I am polyamorous.” Polyamorous means you’re open to loving more than one person, or that you don’t cap yourself at one romantic partner. In the same way you can be gay and single, you can also be polyamorous and single. You don’t need one or ten partners to make that valid.

One of my absolute favorite things I learned after deciding to be polyamorous is that it’s a choose your own adventure game. For better or worse, we see examples of monogamy everywhere our whole lives, it’s our default and at the very least we can just look around and copy what others are doing. Because polyamory is not mainstream, there aren’t really any pre-packaged scripts that society has given us to follow. Here’s the fun part: This means that your wildest dream of how to approach relationships is only limited by your imagination. This is how it should be. I urge you to take advantage of this and Dream Big! Close your eyes and imagine your life is overflowing with love. What kind of love makes you feel free? How would you like to feel supported? What do you need to feel safe? (It’s also ok not to know yet!)

Before you dive in and live your dreams, there’s some grounding work to do first. Polyamory is a practice that requires some level of knowledge so you don’t go around being messy. Sometimes I think about how much better off we’d all be if we learned how to have healthy relationships as kids. Most of us don’t know the first thing about being a good partner and we learn by trial and error. Changing your course now from monogamy to polyamory means that it’s time to learn, and learning means doing your homework! Luckily there are tons of resources out there like books, zines, and podcasts that can help get you up to speed (unfortunately way more information than I could ever fit here). At the very least, you should try to figure out which brand of polyamory you want, how you’d like to structure your relationships, what your boundaries are, and even some communication skills. You and your partner can make it fun by sharing podcasts and books with each other, discussing, journaling, and envisioning your future together. Super gay!

Having multiple relationships at once ethically requires intention, accountability, and practice. We’re forced to talk about things we’ve never shared before, in ways we haven’t before, and confront feelings and behaviors that no longer serve us. This is so wonderful, but to be honest, it could also really kick your ass. I always advise people who are new to polyamory to over-communicate at first—your feelings, your fears, what you’re doing, who you’re into. Putting all the information out in the open helps to shield against the anxiety of secrecy or cheating (yes you can cheat in polyamory)! Boundaries around receiving information and communication are great, and you’re allowed to set whatever boundaries you need to protect yourself, but if you don’t want to hear about your partner’s other dates you should take some time to interrogate why. Lots of people set communication boundaries to shield themselves from hard feelings of jealousy or insecurity. Society tells us these are bad feelings and we should get rid of them. In polyamory we learn these are actually quite normal and build really important skills and strategies to manage them! I have never met anyone in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” open relationship that has lasted very long, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try if that’s what your heart desires!

So, circling back to your question. Being on the same page with your partner requires all of the above, doing the work separately, and together. Do your research, dream big, set boundaries, over-communicate, and process. In my unhumble opinion, you can start dating others whenever you want, but it only becomes ethical once you put this work in. Keep in mind that what you think you know and how you feel on day one may very well completely change on day two. Keep an open mind and be flexible to the possibility of change as you explore and settle in. Being on the same page also doesn’t mean that you need to be equal. Get comfortable with the fact that one of you might be dating while the other is not. You don’t have to match what the other is doing, which might seem fair but in reality is a fast way to resentment and burnout.

You mentioned being stuck. You and your partner are on the same page, ready and excited to date, so what are you waiting for? This is actually really common! I think there are two things at play here, shame and fear. Monogamy culture is so incredibly pervasive and a lot of people who enthusiastically want to practice polyamory are very hesitant because of the shame. Many people might not understand or support your choice. People in my life have dismissed polyamory as just free love orgies with seventeen partners and an excuse to be a slut (not that you need one). While this may indeed be a wonderful benefit of non-monogamy, there’s a lot to unpack here. You’re going to need to remind yourself often that you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re not cheating, and your relationship choices are just as valid as monogamy.

Fear holds us back from doing many things we want and realizing our full potential. There’s a very real fear that leaving the comforts of monogamy will mean your partner might find someone new and decide to leave you. I’ve heard this a hundred times before and it’s a real roadblock, often for both partners. I’m here to remind you that the beauty of polyamory is that no one has to choose! You can both fall in love with new people and still continue your relationship at the same time. As long as you’re happy no one has to leave anyone! This is part of the unlearning work we do when shifting away from monogamy — the scarcity mindset imbued by our capitalist culture makes us think there’s never more where that came from. When this feeling comes to you, retreat back to the place where you envision your life overflowing with love. Remember, dream big!

Once you’re ready, the initial shift into dating new people is a lot like dating people when you’re single — you can use the dating apps or meet people through friends, etc. However, now there’s a lot more information that needs to be shared with new dates! You should definitely put in your dating profile that you are polyamorous. Then, you have to get comfortable not only telling people you have another partner BUT ALSO laying out the structure of your relationships, and any relationship agreements and expectations you have with other partners. For example, if you’ve decided on a hierarchical polyamory structure with your current partner, you should communicate to new dates that you have a primary partner, if you live together, and how much time you can dedicate to dates, etc. If you and your partner have decided on any other agreements that limit your relationships with other people, now is the time to communicate those as well. Think about it this way — all this information gives your new date the informed consent they need to decide if they want to continue dating you.

Healthy romantic relationships are expansive playgrounds for healing and growth. When we are then challenged with multiple relationships at once, the magic is multiplied. We have many opportunities to learn, unlearn, and relearn all the ways to care for and relate to each other in loving ways that we were never taught. This is such an exciting time and I wish you and your partner so much love, compassion, and lots of fun! Ok ready, let’s recap all we’ve learned. Dreaming big? Check. Research? You got this. Sorting through fear and shame? Sorting! Download the apps? Done. I think now you’re actually quite ready!

Daemonum X is a femme dyke, Polyamory Coach, and BDSM Educator. She is the founder and Editrix of FIST, a zine for leatherdykes.

DaemonumX has written 11 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. This couple keeps showing up in the feature images and I’m a bit concerned about the future of their relationship. They have been having so many ups and downs (and how can we blame them in such a year ?) !

    Just from articles I remember seeing them pictured in, they were trying monogamy in the beginning of the year, then they learned more about themselves when lockdown started, before thinking about breaking up this summer.

    I’m sure more has happened that I missed.

    Can we trust them to openly communicate about anything at this point ?
    Should they even try to save the relationship ?
    I guess we will know when they show up again next month…

  2. Thank you for the insightful article. I’m the male part of a F/M relationship that has been open from the beginning. We are still learning this situation because, even though both of us are polyamorous by nature, our lifestyles, interests, libido and fears keep shifting.

    Just a humble remark: We are also both bisexual. This has afforded me extra space to play in times when my femme partner felt threatened by other femme people. This has, however, also delayed our treatment of jealousy.

    And now my question. Can you please elaborate on the following point you made?
    “You don’t have to match what the other is doing, which might seem fair but in reality is a fast way to resentment and burnout.”

    How does balancing each other’s polyamorous activity lead to resentment? My intuition is that the lack of such balance is far more undermining to the relationship but I might be missing a point here.

    • It’s the expectation that it must be “balanced” that leads to resentment. We’re all different people and because of those differences, as well as just plain luck, it’s likely that one of you will have an easier time dating than the other. If you accept that and enjoy the things you both get out of your relationship and its structure, it’s a lot more likely you’ll have a relationship that can weather the “imbalances” that pop up.

    • For me the problems with a requirement for things to be balanced can easily be demonstrated with an example:

      You have a partner, you both start dating casually and it feels “equal”. One of you falls in love with a date and things start to get more serious, the other one doesn’t develop feelings for any specific date and continues to date casually. How can you make this more equal? Does someone break up with someone they fell in love with because their other partner doesn’t like it? What does that say about the value placed on the feelings of the date?

      This is my problem with hierarchy and rules in general and I don’t think there’s an ethical way to keep those restrictions.

      But it doesn’t even have to be this extreme. What if you and your partner are trying to casually date but one of you gets more interest on your chosen app than the other? Do they have to turn down dates? Why, to shelter the other’s ego? What does that give you, what benefit in your life and growth?

      I think these kind of restrictions are ways to avoid the real hard work of polyamory, which is to challenge and overcome unhelpful fears. To say, I feel scared if my partner dates more people than I do but that’s not a reason to limit them. To say, I feel scared if my partner dates more people than I do, and I understand why and I can find strategies to become more secure, to cope with and reduce that fear, so that I can live by my values instead of running from things.

      Does that address the situation you had in mind?

      • I’m not sure from your wording if you meant it this way, so I apologize in advance if I’m misreading your meaning, but I feel a little frustrated at the implication that hierarchical polyamory is inherently unethical. I see opinions to this effect repeated a lot, and it really bothers me.

        Hierarchy isn’t always necessarily just about feelings, there can be a lot of other factors that come into play, and in certain situations it’s a necessity and/or simply works better for the people involved. Relationship anarchy isn’t better or more evolved than relationship hierarchy, just as polyamory isn’t better or more evolved than monogamy. Yes, some people do hierarchy in an unethical way, but people also do RA or monog or whatever else in unethical ways. All relationship formats are valid, and nobody should be made to feel that theirs is somehow inherently “wrong” just because other people don’t prefer it.

    • The first two comments below are essentially what I meant. I call it a “tit-for-tat” way of thinking. If you’re dating someone else, then your partner must also be dating someone else. If you have a date planned for Friday, your partner must also have a date planned for Friday, etc! Trying to be equal in all you do will lead to burn out because it’s really exhausting to keep score like this.

  3. I’m fascinated by the decision to invite Daemonum X back for an advice column after her last article on this site caused such controversy (about power exchange/abuse) that the comments section was shut down.

    If her previous essay on her personal relationship dynamic raised red flags for so many readers, why is this the writer you’ve chosen to give a running relationship advice column?

    Will you be willing to keep commenting open this time if readers disagree with her takes on OPP (other people’s polyamory)?

    Deadass concerned and not taking the piss, thanks for your thoughts!

    • sorry, how is that not what you’re doing here?

      not every article, not every relationship dynamic, is for everyone. there were a lot of assumptions being made about the safety practices and relationship dynamic in the comments on her last article. people who engage in polyamory and kink are expected to do their own research before commenting on what’s “right and wrong” and one of the main tenants of both concepts is that anyone can nope the fuck out of a scenario that isn’t working for them, no questions asked. that’s literally the dynamic she described in her previous article.
      your kink/your polyam is not my kink/polyam, and that’s okay! but it’s not anyone’s place to talk shit about it on the internet.

  4. I loved this article and DaemonumX’s other writing, especially her substack.
    DaemonumX, if you’re reading, please can you advise about poly situations that are supposedly non-hierarchical but where one party is very clearly lowest tier? This keeps happening to me and has also happened to several other dykes I know. How do you confront someone about an observable reality without coming across like a jealous terror?

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