When Polyamory Isn't Really About Sex

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few readers attest to that. The first makes a key distinction:

I’ve been in a poly relationship since around 2010, and I think it’s important to make clear that being poly and being in an open relationship are not exactly the same. Being from the Midwest, I had no clue what poly was until I moved to Seattle and became a member of the Center For Sex Positive Culture. So, while I am not a perfect expert, I do want to clear up some stuff.

An open relationship can generally be considered as something between a couple (two committed adults in a relationship) who are willing or looking to add someone else in for a short term period—a threesome, foursome, one-night stand, swinging, etc.

A polyamorous relationship might be an open relationship. But a poly relationship might also be every bit as focused as a monoamorous relationship, except between three committed people, or four, or more.

As a relational anarchist myself (someone who defines each relationship on its own dynamic, rather than attempting to define them based on an outwardly imposed dynamic), I’m not going to say they’re all identical. Currently, I have a partner I’ve been committed to for almost five years, who has a girlfriend (who is married), and a male partner (who is also married). I have an “Other” with whom I have a very complicated relationship with, and I have had other partners in the course of our relationship.

These are not one-night stands. I have met every one of my partners’ other committed partners, as well as their spouses (and sometimes, I’ve met their spouses additional partners). I’ve been to their birthdays, gone to concerts, museums, movies, and game nights with them, and in some cases I have even met their families.

Again, these are not one-night stands, and we have never had a threesome with any of them. They are each their own relationship, interconnected but distinct from the relationship I share with my partner. Some are sexual, some are not.

We have rules and guidelines like any other relationship, and it’s not cheating because other relationships are fully within the boundaries of our relationship. To call it “open” is incorrect because we are not necessarily actively hunting anyone new, and people who get brought in often requires a long, intense conversation.

So we are not open or promiscuous; we are polyamorous. In fact, since there is a long chain of effect, we are very careful about things like testing and safe sex, because the consequences for cheating and going behind someone’s back are even worse and further reaching.

One of your readers wrote:

I don’t get polyamory. Why would anyone want multiple romantic relationships? Having one is enough of a headache.

I can say that my partner often asks the same question about monoamory. Without speaking for them, I can say that once you’re outside of it, the idea of requiring a single person to meet the bulk of your romantic, sexual, emotional, etc. needs seems ridiculous and irrational. For one thing, this country has a real problem with understanding the sexuality spectrum, and as a bi (pan? omni?)-sexual people, it’s literally impossible for a single person to meet all of those needs for me or my partner. As a mixed race person, sometimes my partner can’t understand what is was like growing up mixed race in this country. That doesn't make them a bad partner, and it doesn’t mean they feel bad when I find another person who does and want to make them part of my life.

Ultimately, while people focus on the “poly” aspect of polyamory, they should be focusing on the “amory.” I am not a one-night stand person. In fact, since I don’t believe in dating, I often have to know a partner for years as a friend before I even begin to consider them partner material.

I love the people I become partners with, and they each bring something I need to my life that is rich and unique. They’re wonderful people, and although comparable to one another, they are distinct in so many ways that the idea I would give up one because I loved the other “more” is ludicrous. To make a gross oversimplification, no one forces you to stop drinking black tea because you develop a taste for green tea. We acknowledge that you get different things from each, and that enjoyment of one is not exclusive of enjoyment of the other.

For some folks, monoamory works. But a lot of the time we want to portray polyamorous (and bisexual) people as being hypersexual folks who can’t control their urges—or make up their minds.

From another polyamorous reader, Adam, who underscores the first reader’s point about hypersexuality:

Thanks for hosting this discussion about non-monogamy. I have a wonderful partner (we’ve been friends over ten years, a couple for five, and married for one) and after a lot of talking about it, we decided to try polyamory about six months ago. It’s still new, but so far it has been an amazing and challenging experience.

As if by magic, another queer poly couple showed up in our lives just as we made the decision to explore non-monogamy, and we’ve now been dating as a quad for about five months.

People always want to know “how it works,” and it’s hard to explain. There is a romantic connection, sexual connection, and, above all, soul connection among all of us. We sometimes pair off for dates but more often all enjoy an evening together.

I describe polyamory as 99 percent talking about feelings, 1 percent kissing. We have enjoyed lots of making out but we are not yet sleeping together. We are taking it slow. What we have done a lot of is communicating, reflecting, shifting to be better partners to one another. Jealousy comes up and we do our best to regard it as helpful information, not a crisis or a failure.

Seeing my partner fall in love with someone else—a wonderful who I love also—is one of the sweetest parts of being poly. [CB note: It’s called compersion, the opposite of jealousy.] Falling in love is truly among the finest experiences life has to offer, and there are loves for every season of our lives. How could I stand to be the reason that my favorite person never gets to feel that way again?