Given its continued popularity, you'd think more people would be openly discussing polyamory as a viable relationship option. While there are no national statistics on polyamory, Terri Conley, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has estimated that about five percent of Americans are in one of these types of relationships at any given time. Maybe you've only heard of polyamory in passing and aren't exactly sure what it is.

We'll take a look at that, but before we do, let's take a quick look at what polyamory isn't.
  • It isn't a sexual free-for-all where every partner can have random sex with whomever they choose.
  • It does not involve everyone putting their keys into a bowl so the host can assign you a partner based on a random draw.
  • It's not about having multiple spouses at once in conflict with local laws.
  • It most certainly isn't an excuse for one partner to serially cheat on another.
  • It's not an excuse to have more sexual partners.
OK, OK, so what is it? Polyamory means having multiple intimate relationships at a time with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved. But here's the part that surprises many people: The main thrust of polyamory isn't sex at all. Poly, derives from Greek and means "many," amor comes from Latin, and means "love". That's right, love. The focus of poly relationships isn't intercourse, it's intimacy, so love, friendship, and yeah, sex.

What I Learned From Poly People

After interviewing lots of poly people (some names have been changed to protect the polyamorous), I learned that most practitioners believe that love is not a finite resource that must be restricted to have value, nor is sexual fidelity an accurate measure of commitment to a relationship. According to polyamorists, there's plenty of love in the world to go around, and that love does not diminish when shared - it multiplies.

Clearly, that goes against what many of us believe about monogamous relationships, which revolve around the idea that if your partner loves you, they won't want to experience sex or love with anyone who isn't you. But while this works for many couples, it doesn't work for all of them.

So, where a typical monogamous relationship is quite rigid, a poly relationship is anything but. It can involve married spouses, multiple girlfriends or boyfriends, or even group relationships. Some partners may be shared, while others aren't. There may be primary and secondary relationships, or no hierarchy at all. Poly people may be gay, straight, bi or omnisexual. When you learn that someone is involved in polyamorous relationship(s), your best course of action is not to assume anything. If you're curious, ask questions. Do keep in mind, though, that no one owes you an explanation for the relationships they choose, even if they're markedly - or even shockingly - different from your own.

Don't you get tired of dating?

My own experiences as a younger woman on the dating scene were downright nightmarish, full of vapid comparisons, less-than-honest partners, extreme shallowness, and the underlying and depressing idea that I'd never find my ideal match. Once I did, I was relieved I'd never have to go through dating again. When I expressed this to poly people, I was met with surprise. Turns out, some people actually enjoy what we used to call playing the field. (Learn more sports metaphors in The Baseball-Sex Metaphor Explained.)

Chuck C. is a straight male who told me he enjoys dating.

"Interestingly enough, once your life works and you're not lonely or deprived of a loving, caring, compassionate partner in your life. . . Dating loses a lot of its nightmarish qualities," he said.

Sarah R., a bi female, goes a bit further.

"Actually, I didn't do much [dating] before I got married," she said. "Now that I am married and have the security of knowing I have a great guy to come home to, it makes me much less needy or desperate than I sometimes felt when dating as a single … to me, dating is just the getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship."

Do you think there's one ideal partner for you?

In polyamorous relationships, the concept of having one ideal partner ranges from fluid to non-existent. Strange, a 33-year-old straight male says he hasn't found his ideal partner yet.

"I think that’s because to me, no one person can be my everything. Previously in relationships if there was something I wanted or needed in my life but wasn’t able to get from my partner, I either had to do without or break up and risk finding someone more compatible. Poly adds the ability to balance life out by finding someone who can offer you things your partner/partners cannot," he said.

Many poly practitioners echo this sentiment, explaining that having one ideal partner is unrealistic, at least for them. This is in stark contrast to monogamous partners who can become jealous of attention paid to work friends, former partners, or even Internet pornography.

In fact, jealousy is presumed to be a pervasive issue in poly relationships. Secondary partners may be jealous of primaries, or other secondaries. Wives or husbands may be jealous of their spouses' desire for other partners. But while it's easy to call this "the problem" with polyamory, I've known countless people in monogamous relationships who have dealt with jealous partners, jealous exes, and even jealous admirers that they've never actually dated. Clearly, jealously isn't restricted to poly couples.

"As far as I've seen, there's no greater rate of divorce or failure in relationships between monogamous and polyamorous folks. Jealousy is a reality in a poly couple, duh. Because it’s a reality for ALL relationships," Matt, a poly straight guy, told me.

Cazadora, an omnisexual female, says absolutes may not work in any relationship.

"Be wary of declaring any kind of absolute when it comes to interpersonal relationships. With polyamory, jealousy is something people (try to) work through. It is often a masking emotion for fear, insecurity, trust, or one’s own needs not being met," she said.

What's the most important ingredient in a successful polyamorous relationship?

Through the lens of polyamory, the idea that one partner must be everything to the other seems like an insurmountable amount of pressure to put on a relationship, but when asked, every poly person I interviewed assured me that the most important ingredient in a successful
poly relationship is open, honest communication. Not surprising, considering that this is what monogamous couples consider most important as well. (For another perspective on polyamory check out When Your Partner Sleeps With Someone Else - And It Makes You Happy)

"Self-knowledge is probably at least as important [as communication]," Sarah R. said. "It helps you figure out, say, when someone is mistreating you versus them not meeting your needs because you never asked for what you want."

"It helps for the participants to have relationship goals that are mutually acceptable," Sasha, a 29-year-old straight poly female says. "Some people want a friend for adventures, some partners want a third to set up a long-term relationship. I've watched some relationships implode because poly brought them together but their ultimate goals are too disparate."

Again, this is something that applies to monogamous relationships as well. Monogamous couples can and do split up after realizing they've never discussed children, career goals, how money should be managed, or other key factors in sharing a life with someone.

Are you open about your relationships with others?

Sadly, all of the poly people I spoke with indicated that at some point, they've all made the choice to keep the particulars of their relationship a secret from someone. This may have been a parent, a conservative relative, co-workers, or even friends from whom they feared judgment. Some interviewees spoke of malicious or rude behavior, being threatened with "outing," or even job loss. One respondent told me a co-worker refused to allow him access to the homemade cookies she brought to the office. Now that's just cruel!

I asked interview participants if there was anything they wish everyone knew about polyamory. Not surprisingly, their answers all touched on similar themes.

"Poly isn't very exciting. It isn't super glamorous. It’s comparing calendars to find a good night to go on a date. It’s trying to figure out whose socks these are. It's understanding that your needs are valid, but they don't override other peoples needs, or rights. But its not a threat to anyone else either. After all, no one shuns a cheater faster than the poly world," Chuck C. told me.

Sarah R says, "We're a pretty diverse lot; and we all do polyamory in different ways."

Matt agrees, "There is no standardized way to have a polyamorous relationship," he said.

Like most things, what people really want is acceptance, a lack of presumption or judgment, and for everyone to follow the Golden Rule. A little knowledge also goes a long way.

You Say Poly, I Say Monogamy

Like any other kind of relationship, gay or straight, monogamous or otherwise, openness, honesty, and responsible behavior are vital for success.

"Polyamory is a valid relationship choice…neither better or worse than monogamy," Cazadora said.

As for effectively managing a poly relationship, Strange offers this suggestion,

"Try not to 'expect' anything because it often leads to disappointment and bad reactions. Just go with the flow and be happy with what you can experience. If there are issues, just work on changing that part of your life or finding a new partner that fits that role better."