I laughed in his face when my then-boyfriend asked me to move in with him — and his wife. I had only learned about polyamory four months prior, and while things had been going great as I dipped my toe in the ethically nonmonogamous pool, the thought of moving in with him and his wife of eight years seemed like a disastrous idea.
Still, after some convincing, I said yes. I was 25, in love, and figured I had nothing to lose, besides the potential for a broken heart.
Eight months later, we broke up amicably when I decided to move to New York City. But in that short time, I learned more about myself, my needs, and my communication style than I had in any previous relationship. It changed the way I think about all my current relationships, regardless of whether they are polyamorous (in a romantic relationship with more than one person), open (sexual relationships with others while in a committed, romantic relationship with one person), or monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive to a single person). I’m what’s now being called ambiamorous — someone who’s open to the idea of all types of relationships, depending on what works best for me and my partner(s).
By practicing polyamory, I learned how to advocate for myself and how to set boundaries. Prior to being polyamorous, I was a partner-pleaser. I’d try to do everything I could for the person I was with, and when they didn’t reciprocate, I’d become frustrated. This type of martyr complex simply isn’t cute; it just builds up resentment. Being polyamorous forced me to adequately address what I want out of a relationship and also taught me not to feel shame asking for it.
Madison McCullough is a therapist listed on Manhattan Alternative, a network of psychiatric and therapeutic resources for kink, poly, and LGBTQ folks. “More often in monogamous relationships, people expect their partners to know what they want or need implicitly,” says McCullough. “[They’re] also more likely to fall into routines that leave less room to acknowledge and adjust for when wants and needs change. People in poly relationships are often navigating these types of conversations much more frequently, which can benefit them in any kind of relationship.”
cCullough also speaks to another way polyamory teaches healthy relationship skills: Certain topics need to be brought up consistently, especially as things in the relationship change. Prior to being polyamorous, I never told a partner, “This will be an ongoing conversation. When something changes in our relationship or one of us starts feeling a certain way about this, let’s talk about this again.” Before polyamory, I would typically have just one conversation with a partner about an issue we were struggling with, and then we would never resurface it. Ongoing conversations take into account that your needs and wants will change as a relationship evolves. This is true for all types of relationships — even platonic ones with family, friends, and coworkers.
Recognizing the difference between your own needs and wants, and balancing those with what your partner asks for is a particularly challenging, but necessary, part of poly relationships, explains Melissa Johnson, a licensed psychologist and director of Brooklyn’s Groundwork Therapy Psychological Services.
Johnson helps her polyamorous clients learn “when and how to compromise, what one can give up without resentment, and how to accept that one’s needs may not always align with [one’s] partner’s needs.”
Wants between partners might not always match, whereas needs, for the most part, really should be met. “Teaching individuals to be more direct with the root of each need increases the likelihood of it being met and thus maximizes the satisfaction and fulfillment in their relationships,” says Johnson.
Johnson also teaches her clients alternatives if they are unable to meet a partner’s specific desires, including ways to say “no” without rejecting or shutting their partner down. “For example, you can say ‘I’m not able to meet you after work today, but is there another way I can make you feel wanted?,’” she says.
Polyamory doesn’t just teach us better ways to communicate our desires, it also forces us to contemplate what it is we want from our relationship(s). Often in traditional monogamous relationships, we don’t reflect on what we want. We simply think to ourselves, “I want a partner who loves me and I love them, and I want us to be together until we die.” Long-term monogamy is assumed to be something we’ll all do, and it’s considered the ideal type of relationship we should all strive to achieve. With polyamory, however, there is no “standard” type of relationship. Some folks have rules about who their partners can sleep with, as well as where and when to sleep with them. Other folks have primary partners and secondary partners, and most folks have different rules regarding safe sex.
Jesse Kahn, a psychotherapist on Lighthouse LGBT, a platform that connects LGBTQ+ individuals to LGBTQ+ affirming healthcare providers, and also the director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective, often works with queers in polyamorous relationships. He tells his patients struggling with polyamory to “get back to the basics of why they’re nonmonogamous, what that means to them, and what they want that to mean for their lives and the lives of their partners. [This] helps clear space for what feelings and obstacles are in the way of actualizing those beliefs and desires.”
Bisexual activist Robyn Ochs, co-editor of the books Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the Worldand Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men–An Anthology, coined terms for two types of monogamy: reflexive and radical.
“Reflexive monogamy refers to absorbing the messages we’ve absorbed from a young age that we’re supposed to be monogamous, and taking for granted that monogamy is superior,” Ochs told The Huffington Post. “Radical monogamy, as I define it, is throwing away the should and asking yourself the question, ‘What type of relationship structure works best for me in this relationship?’ and then choosing based on your own needs and those of your partner — or partners.”
Another important aspect of polyamory is having “compersion” for one’s partner instead of jealousy. “Compersion — the feeling of joy in someone else’s joy — can be really helpful in reconciling the differences [between you and your partner’s desires],” says Kahn. Embracing compersion can make a relationship easier and healthier. In my own poly relationship, I couldn’t give my boyfriend everything he wanted, and it was great that he was able to get these needs met by other people. It made all of our relationships even stronger.
Now, two-and-a-half years following my polyamorous breakup, I’m in another relationship. This one is neither polyamorous nor monogamous. This one is simply open — meaning that we have sex with others, but are romantically committed to one another. With my current partner, I’ve been able to reflect and clearly communicate my needs while listening to his and have ongoing conversations about issues that arise to avoid them becoming problematic down the line. And I feel compersion — happiness for my partner’s happiness — when he crushes on a new boy.
If you are having troubles accepting your polyamorous relationship and need help anad support, contact Woodbridge Therapy