Polyamory refers to a relationship style in which people have, or are open to having, more than one romantic or sexual partner with the consent of everyone involved.
Some poly folks have a parenting partner with whom there is no sex, and a romantic partner with whom there is lots. Some even have domestic scenarios with three or more adults sharing their beds and lives (as in the popular reality TV show Married and Dating, or the web series Looks Like Love To Me).
In short, polyamory is as varied a scenario as you can imagine, with as many challenges as there are opportunities for growth. The key etymological components say it all: poly means many, and amory comes from the French word for love.
I know a good deal about polyamory because I’ve been there. In my "know thyself" phase of sexual awakening, I had a romantic partner who had another partner, which I was OK with. I decided to have another partner, too, for a short while. There was consent all around. We were four humans all romantically intertwined, with a few degrees of separation.
It was a situation that suited me at the time. I liked the freedom it afforded me. Unfortunately, it all ended rather badly when my partner’s partner decided that he and I had gone too far; she hadn’t meant to share him heart-and-soul quite so extensively with another woman.
He had to choose, and he didn’t choose me. It was a heartbreak, which has certainly shaped my attitudes about relationships to this day, but one which I am ultimately grateful for, given all of the learning involved.
Since then, I’ve seen many clients, friends, and colleagues venture on and off the road of poly, and I would caution anyone about making any generalizations. Just like in dyadic (two people) relationships, there are happy and sad stories; there is fun and there is complication.
As Janet Hardy, co-author of the seminal polyamory book The Ethical Slut famously wrote, the same skills you need in a two-person relationship you need in a poly relationship.
Here are some important life lessons I’ve learned from polyamory:
1. You can love more than one person romantically at once.
It seems nuts to have to say it when anyone who has more than one child (or has siblings) knows how the heart keeps growing, but we seem to have a cultural belief that this excludes romantic relationships. Not true.
As a society, we have evolved social norms and economic realities to support marriage between two people, but not because humans can’t do love differently. We can, if we are open to it, and prepared to do the work involved (see below).
2. There is a lot of truth to the idiom "honesty is the best policy."
Specifically, openly discussing with your partner feelings and fears about topics such as sex, jealousy, and time management, can grow your skills in relationships exponentially.
As there can be several partners to time-manage and emotionally manage, there is far more analysis and discussion of feelings, needs, and more in a polyamorous scenario — that is, if you are sincerely desiring your relationships to work well.
3. Jealousy is not a horrid green monster, it’s an invitation to know oneself better.
One of the emphases in some poly communities is compersion, which is feeling happy when someone you love is happy (like when your lover has a new lover). Compersion is sometimes packaged as a more spiritually elevated form of love; jealousy, alas, in some poly circles is therefore billed the moral failure of compersion — though in my opinion, this is far from the truth.
Where polyamory gets it right, in my book, is when jealousy is accepted as just an emotion with no moral imperative, and it is embraced as an opportunity to identify, express, and meet one’s own needs better. Those needs can range from wanting to have more time with a partner, or more sex, or more help with kids, and so on.
4. Polyamory is time-consuming.
Poly is not for the time-poor. Managing one relationship in the context of work, play, and friendships, or children is hard enough. Managing multiple relationships on top of this is even more time-consuming, requiring much negotiation, scheduling tools, and a careful watch on sexual energy (so that you have enough for everyone who wants some). As much as having a few lovers can be exciting and adventurous, it can also be exhausting.
5. Relationship styles evolve, as do the individuals involved.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned personally from my own experience is that there is no "right" answer, and much to be gained from any relationship style.
As much as I was once content with being poly, now I am also content in a monogamous relationship. The freedom to experiment, explore, and grow in relationships is integral or one’s self-actualization, and in this regard, the polyamorous lifestyle provides a very fertile ground.