Feature graphic image by The Gender Spectrum Collection.
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
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!