You might picture a romantic relationship as two people committed exclusively to one another — also known as monogamy.
Consensual non-monogamy, on the other hand, involves relationships with more than one person, with the consent of everyone involved.
Polyamory is just one of the ways to practice consensual non-monogamy. You may have also heard of other forms, like open relationships and swinging.
So, are polyamorous people “cheating” on their partners? Nope. But this is a common misconception.
Cheating includes deception and betrayal, like if you and your partner have agreed not to have sex with other people, but your partner breaks that promise.
The difference between cheating and polyamory is that people who are polyamorous have shared agreements about sex and relationships with other people.
People aren’t polyamorous because they’re unhappy about committing to a relationship.
In fact, one research study showed no difference in relationship satisfaction between people who are monogamous or consensually non-monogamous.
Commitment for monogamous people can mean expressing love by putting time, trust, and respect for shared agreements into a relationship with another person.
Commitment for a polyamorous relationship could mean the same — just with a different set of agreements.
If having threesomes all the time sounds exhausting to you, then you should know that plenty of polyamorous people would agree with you.
While polyamory can include sexual relationships with more than one person, it’s not about having sex with multiple people at the same time.
For example, a woman might have sexual relationships with two different men, but enjoy sex with only one of them at a time.
Polyamory is defined as practicing or being open to intimate relationships with more than one person.
Dating as a polyamorous person means you’re not looking for just one person to share a romantic or sexual connection with.
While every polyamorous relationship is unique, people in healthy polyamorous relationships share many of the same values, including:
Just like monogamous couples, polyamorous people need to be able to trust one another.
Some ways they might build trust include communicating about new partners, practicing safe sex, and keeping promises.
While there’s a popular idea that polyamory is all about sex, some polyamorous people joke that it’s more about talking about your feelings than anything else… because it’s kind of true.
Open, honest, and frequent communication is essential for maintaining multiple relationships in a healthy way.
Of course, you can’t have consensual non-monogamy without consent.
For most people, polyamory isn’t simply a “free for all” to do whatever you want.
Taking on new partners, engaging in new sex acts, and entering new commitments all requires consent for everyone involved.
If someone considers your feelings unimportant, then a monogamous relationship with them isn’t going to work. The same goes for polyamory.
It isn’t just about respecting your partner’s feelings to be with someone else. Respecting other people — including your partners’ partners — is key.
So now that you know how it works, how do you know if polyamory is right for you?
To start figuring it out, try asking yourself these questions:
How do you handle jealousy?
How do you feel when you think about your partner being with someone else?
It’s not true that polyamorous people don’t get jealous at all. But you might be more inclined to polyamory if you can be honest and communicative when you’re feeling jealous.
Do you enjoy variety in your sex life?
Monogamous couples can certainly spice things up with some variety in the bedroom, but some people desire more than monogamy can offer.
If you prefer mixing things up with different types of sex with different types of people, then polyamory could be your thing.
Do you enjoy deep emotional connections with more than one person?
It can be a lot to handle emotional intimacy with even one person.
If you’ve got the capacity and interest for emotional connections with multiple people at once, that’s a good sign for your ability to practice polyamory.
Why are you interested in polyamory?
Different people have different reasons for choosing polyamory — so what about it interests you?
Polyamory isn’t an easy fix for relationship problems or a way to justify cheating. You and your partner(s) must have a genuine interest in exploring additional relationships for polyamory to work.
Keep in mind that it’s always possible to try out polyamory and decide it’s not for you.
The process of evaluating your desires and adjusting accordingly is ongoing.
Of course, if you’re in a monogamous relationship now, then talking with your current partner is an essential step in figuring out if polyamory will work for you.
These tips can help your conversation:
It’s honorable if you want to avoid hurting your partner’s feelings, but keeping your true feelings to yourself won’t help set up realistic expectations.
For example, if sex with other people is what you want, tell your partner so, and together the two of you can work through any feelings that come up about it.
Use ‘I’ statements to focus on your own feelings
This isn’t about something your partner’s doing wrong — and if it is, you need to address that on its own rather than trying to fix it with polyamory.
Talk about why polyamory is right for you — though mentioning what your partner could get out of it can help, too!
That way, you don’t start off on the wrong foot by implying that your partner isn’t enough.
Take your time
There’s no need to rush this. If your partner needs time to think about it or wants to read up on polyamory before making a decision, that’s not a bad thing.
The more informed and in touch with your feelings you both are, the stronger foundation you have for moving forward.
This probably isn’t going to be a one-time conversation. Establishing and maintaining polyamorous relationships requires ongoing communication.
If you and your partner have decided to give polyamory a go, it’s time to figure out the specifics of what that means for you.
These ideas can help make setting ground rules a fun and informative process:
Think about what you’re looking forward to
Are you excited about going on first dates again? What about trying sex acts that you can’t do with your current partner?
Reflecting on what you’re looking forward to can help you identify areas where you need to set boundaries — like if your partner doesn’t want to hear the details of your first dates.
Create a ‘Yes, No, Maybe’ list
A “Yes, No, Maybe” chart can be a useful tool for establishing likes, dislikes, and boundaries in an intimate relationship.
Try making a list with polyamory-specific items.
For example, you might say yes to bringing other partners home to visit, no to having overnight guests, and maybe to staying overnight at another partner’s home.
Make plans for checking in and renegotiating
Just because you set ground rules in the beginning doesn’t mean those rules have to be set in stone.
In fact, it’s best to keep talking about your relationship parameters to make sure they’re still working out and change things up if necessary.
If you’re trying polyamory for the first time, it might be fun to plan regular check-ins to share how it’s going for you.
Considering different categories of boundaries can help you get all the bases covered.
Here are some examples of emotional boundaries:
Casual vs. serious relationships
Are you OK with your partner building a deep, long-term relationship with someone else, or would you prefer if they kept things casual?
How would you feel if they said “I love you” to another person, or called another person their boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner?
Sharing details with each other
How much would you like to tell your partner about your dating life or hear about theirs?
Do you want to know the details if your partner has sex, just the fact that your partner had sex, or not hear about the sex at all?
Frequency of seeing others
How often would you like to spend time with other people?
Would you prefer to save dates for the weekends? No more than once a week?
Do you want to designate certain holidays for time with your primary partner?
Telling other people about your polyamorous status
How would you feel if your partner introduced another partner to their family, to your kids, or to the public via social media?
Physical boundaries can include sexual acts, displays of affection, and how you share space together. For example:
Kissing, cuddling, and other nonsexual acts
Maybe you’re fine with sex itself, but kissing feels more like something that only you and your partner share.
Or you might be OK with your partner cuddling in private, but not holding hands with someone else in public places.
Sharing space with your partner’s partner(s)
Do you want to avoid being in the same place at the same time as your partner’s other partners?
Are you OK with sharing space as long as you don’t have to witness displays of affection between them?
How do you feel about going on three-way or four-way dates?
Sexual acts and safe sex practices
Are there sex acts that you’d rather keep between you and your partner? Is sex with other people OK only with barriers like condoms?
Not everyone shifts to polyamory from a monogamous relationship, and if you’re a newbie, it can be hard to know where to start with finding a polyamorous partner or bringing up the subject with a new partner.
Try these ideas to wade into the polyamorous end of the dating pool:
Join a community of non-monogamous people
You can find online groups of people who practice consensual non-monogamy worldwide, around the country, or in your local area.
You can also meet people in person, like by joining polyamorous MeetUp groups in your region.
Use an app or dating site
Dating apps aren’t just for monogamous people. By adding polyamory to your profile, you can find others who might be interested.
Cover the topic of polyamory early on
Say you’ve met someone new and you haven’t talked about polyamory yet. Now what?
It might feel nerve-racking to mention it on one of your first dates, but if monogamy is a deal breaker for you, it’s important to be clear about what you’re looking for.
Not everyone is open to the idea of polyamory, and if you’re looking for someone who is, don’t be afraid to say no to a date with someone who’s strictly monogamous.
If polyamory is new to you, here are a few terms that can help you understand it more.
- Primary. A primary partner is a “main squeeze” in a polyamorous relationship with a hierarchical structure. Not every polyamorous relationship has one. If you do, your primary might be the person you live with, have kids with, or are married to.
- Secondary. A secondary partner has a more casual relationship than the primary. You might be fully committed to your secondary partner, but your lives are less entwined through elements like finances or housing.
- Triad. A triad — also referred to recently as a “throuple” — is a relationship between three people. It might look like one person dating two different people or all three dating one another.
- Quad. A quad is a relationship involving four people. A common example is when two polyamorous couples meet and each person begins dating one person from the other couple.
- Full quad. A full quad consists of four people, with each romantically or sexually involved with every other member.
- Polycule. A polycule is the whole network of people romantically connected. For example, it might include you and your husband, your husband’s girlfriend, your husband’s girlfriend’s wife, and so on. Think of it as a drawing that shows all of the links.
- Compersion. Compersion is sometimes called “the opposite of jealousy.” It’s a feeling of joy that a person feels from seeing their partner happy with another person.
- Metamour. A metamour is your partner’s partner. For example, your wife’s girlfriend, who’s not romantically or sexually involved with you.
- Paramour. A paramour is an outside member of a marriage. For example, the girlfriend of a husband in a polyamorous marriage.
- Solo polyamorous. Solo polyamory means you’re not interested in becoming part of a couple or any other relationship that includes entanglements, such as sharing finances, housing, or marriage. For example, you might be the secondary partner to several people, but prefer not to have a primary partner.
If you want to know more about polyamory, there’s lots of reading material that can help.
Popular resource books include:
- “More Than Two”
- “The Ethical Slut”
- “Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships”
You can also check out the More Than Two website, as well as other sites like:
With this info on hand, you’re off to an excellent start toward an informed journey into polyamory.
Maisha Z. Johnson is a writer and advocate for survivors of violence, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities. She lives with chronic illness and believes in honoring each person’s unique path to healing. Find Maisha on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.