5 Healthy Habits Monogamous Couples Can Learn From Polyamorous Relationships
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
The approximately two-year period during which I practiced polyamory was definitely one of the most enlightening, transformative times in my life. Although I'm currently in a monogamous relationship, I regularly reflect on those two years I spent with that former partner, experimenting with polyamorous principles and practices with an air of curiosity, excitement, safety, and deep love for each other. The two of us spent intentional time educating ourselves on the philosophy of ethical non-monogamy, attending poly-oriented events that pushed us out of our comfort zone, and helping each other get laid (and get over the other one of us getting laid).
I learned more about love and how to keep a relationship healthy during that brief polyamory-fueled stint than I have in all my years and years of dating and being in long-term relationships the traditional, monogamous way.
Of course, polyamory isn't for everyone. I adore it as a philosophy, and even for me, it's not always a feasible option for me emotionally. But even for the most monogamy-only-no-questions-asked people in the world, there are still some incredibly meaningful and powerful lessons to be gained from understanding the ways in which polyamorous relationships work and thrive.
Polyamory stems from the belief that humans are capable of loving endlessly and that an immense love for one doesn't take away from an immense love for another. People in polyamorous relationships must learn a set of dating practices that prioritize a kind of deep empathy, ultra-transparency, active communication, and emotional honesty that's much rarer in the typical early-stage monogamous pair (and still fairly elusive for some couples that are several years deep).
I spoke with Effy Blue, a relationship coach who specializes in ethical non-monogamy and alternative relationship structures, about the healthiest habits that polyamorous people practice that all monogamous couples should totally copy:
1. Defining the relationship.
In monogamy, there's essentially one set of rules for how courtship, dating, and relationships work—and we're all indoctrinated with those rules from a young age via television, movies, books, the news, love songs, and more. "Monogamy is a one-size-fits-all structure that's heavily prescribed by society, and it comes with its own default settings," Blue explains. "We believe in this narrative that if we overcome all the obstacles and look really hard and search high and low that we're going to meet this one person who is 'the one.' And once we find that person, we're going to live happily ever after."
The problem with this narrative is not simply that it's unrealistic—it's that in reality, all people do not have the same set of rules and standards for how they view relationships at all. People date each other with completely different desires, expectations, needs, and degrees of investment. One person just wants sex while the other wants a serious relationship; one person wants a committed partner but isn't interested in marriage, while the person they're dating sees marriage as an end goal; one person thinks being in a relationship means spending all your time together, while the other person thinks two dates a week is a healthy balance. Cheating is bad, all monogamous people agree, but what is cheating? Can you get dinner with an attractive friend? Can you flirt? Everyone has very different rules about these issues.
The one-size-fits-all structure is one that's fed to us by society, but it's far from the reality. Blue explains, "We assume these default settings are what defines our relationship, and we don't necessarily have the conversations."
But polyamorous people? They DTR like crazy. When two poly people get together, there's no single set of rules that people can assume are in play. There needs to be a direct, open conversation about what this new relationship will look like.
"What's different with non-monogamous relationships is that we don't have this one value of fidelity defining the relationship," Blue explains. "You remove this one value that's supposed to be The Glue that holds it together or The Value that defines the relationship. Now you have a clean slate. You don't have that one value, so I think at that point, people get to pick and decide. 'Here's my relationship. Here's what defines this relationship. Here's my expectations from this relationship. Here's what's available in this relationship. Here's what I can and want to give to this relationship.'"
That creates a lot of clarity from the get-go and removes any awkwardness, confusion, or hurt feelings over mismatched expectations. What would happen if every pair of people who got together did this, poly or not? What if every pair talked through how each person defines a "relationship"? How different would the monogamous world of dating look?
2. Acknowledging individuality.
Polyamorous people don't really use the word "we" the same way monogamous couples do, Blue tells me. How could they? If you go to a group of friends and start telling a story about how "we were up all last night talking, and we connected so much," there's some inherent confusion there—which we are you talking about? You and your husband, you and your boyfriend, or you and that guy you hooked up with last week?
"Because you have multiple relationships, people have a bit of a sense of separation, a sense of more individuality, and a lot more 'I' sentences more than 'we' sentences,' Blue explains.
Although some research shows the "we talk" can bring couples closer together, there's still some room for confusion, even if you have exactly one partner: "That 'we' sometimes dilutes the communication and allows for people to not necessarily be heard or to hear," Blue says. "Sometimes in the 'we,' we kind of either not really communicate really well [or] allow some people to speak for us."
Think about your story about how "we connected so much last night"—do you know that that statement is true for the both of you? Or is that an assumption, a blanket application of your own feelings over an experience without real consideration for what your partner actually felt?
Even monogamous couples can stand to think twice about how their words, thoughts, and actions might be stepping on the toes of their partner's individual, separate existence. Marriage therapist Linda Carroll, M.S., tells mbg that one of the most important lessons every person in a relationship must learn is that "my partner is not me." That recognition of each other's otherness forces us to constantly practice active communication and listening as a means for understanding each other—rather than relying on the comfortable presumptions of we.
3. Keeping a relationship calendar.
When you're in a polyamorous relationship structure—you have multiple partners, each of whom has their own set of several partners—creating an efficient scheduling system is an absolute necessity. Many poly people rely heavily on meticulously kept calendars that are then synced and shared with their partners' calendars, Blue tells me. "It also allows for people to see how often you're seeing one another. So if someone's saying 'I don't get to see you enough,' there's a visual representation of, 'oh my gosh, yeah! I haven't seen you in a couple of weeks. I'm really sorry. I can see that we haven't spent any time together in a while,'" she explains.
Part of that means being very structured with your time and intentional about the time you spend with each partner. She adds, "Non-monogamous people make very intentional dates—catch-up dates or check-in dates or date nights."
Many of us have work calendars, she points out. Why don't we all have relationship calendars too, as a normalized standard? A well-kept, shared calendar allows couples—even when it's just the two of them—to track how often they're together and apart, make sure there's a healthy balance between the two, and ensure they're diversifying the kinds of activities they take part in. Are you regularly making time for the couples' activities that enrich your connection?
"[Some couples value] social time and nesting and hosting and friends—so putting time in the calendar that you're going to invite friends and have a dinner party together. It's solid in the calendar. You're gonna do it," she explains. "For some people it's learning and growing and connecting. … Make sure that you're attending two or three workshops a month. It's in the calendar, and you're structured with it. You're learning things together, and you're doing things together. You wanna travel? You're into traveling and seeing the world? Put it in your calendar. Make sure it's there, it's visible, something to look forward to, something to plan around."
4. Scheduling conversations.
Speaking of calendars, another extremely healthy habit that many polyamorous folks have is setting aside dedicated time to discuss the state of the relationship.
"Once a month we sit down, and we sort of check in," Blue explains. "How are we doing? How are things? Are we having our needs met? Are we seeing each other enough? How is everybody doing? … Just because you're monogamous doesn't mean you don't need a check-in. What's going on? How are we doing?"
Having regular check-ins allows couples, no matter what type of relationship they're in, to address any problems that may have arisen recently, to reflect on good things that have happened, and to talk about goals or upcoming changes you'd like to make to your life as a couple. Some questions Blue tosses up as possible ones to think about bringing up: "Do you wanna have kids? Do you wanna move? Do you wanna talk about mental health? Do you wanna talk about sex?" These questions might seem scary to bring up, but part of the reason why is because we're not used to talking to each other in this deep, vulnerable way. The more regularly we talk about these big ideas in a safe setting, the easier they get—and the better the communication flows.
5. Truly recognizing humans' endless capacity to love.
In any discussion of polyamory, one of the first questions asked is something along the lines of this: But what about jealousy?
One of the most beautiful aspects of the poly worldview and ethical non-monogamy more broadly is that jealousy is not insurmountable. It's not some kind of unsolvable poison that destroys all in its path. It's a feeling. It's one part of human nature, this tendency to be protective of one's people and possessions and to feel insecure or threatened by the idea of losing them.
But there are other, equally essential parts of human nature that are just as powerful—one of which is the human capacity for love.
"It's part of our survival system," Blue says. "Other than the mushy feelings of love, it actually serves a purpose. It's about bonding. It's about connecting. It's about safety in numbers. It's about the survival of the species. This idea of love and bonding is hard-coded into our lives."
What if instead of instinctually worrying about the overwhelming power that jealousy can wield over people who consider alternative relationship paths, we instead instinctually thought about the overwhelming power that empathy and compassion can wield over them?
Even if non-monogamy would not practically work in your life, leaning on these most positive aspects of our human identity can help you respond to challenges, confusion, and miscommunications in your monogamous relationship with a lot more grace, understanding, love, and openness.
I encourage anyone interested in strengthening their relationship to spend some time learning about polyamory and ethical non-monogamy, whether that means reading more articles about it, going to actual poly events and workshops as a curious observer, or simply talking more with your partner about it. Because the truth is that the polyamorous lifestyle carries with it a lot of built-in wisdom that truly every couple can benefit from.
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