Dating in polyamorous relationships and searching for multiple partners can be complicated. However, it may not necessarily be more complex than monogamous dating. Polyamorous people encounter similar challenges, roadblocks, joys, and disappointments in dating.
Not all polyamorous people actively date; some are in closed polyamorous relationships, or simply are not interested in pursuing other romantic connections. Other people who practice polyamory seek connections with more people regardless of what is happening in their personal lives.
When complications, heartbreak, or conflict arise in polyamorous dating, talking with a poly-friendly mental health professional can help.
An ethical, nonmonogamous relationship may take many forms. Some examples of nonmonogamous relationships, which by no means represent all the ways people may structure their romantic lives, include:
- Swinging refers to the pursuit of recreational sex outside of a two-person marriage or committed relationship. Generally, both partners pursue sex with members of other committed partnerships. Friendship and/or love may develop, but in general, this type of nonmonogamy does not focus on the development of relationships outside the primary partnership.
- An open relationship is a committed relationship in which one or both partners (with the knowledge and consent of both) pursue intimacy outside of the relationship. These encounters may be casual “hookups,” friends-with-benefits relationships, cuddling companions, and so on. One couple's definition of an open relationship may differ from another’s and include more or less romantic involvement with other partners. Typically, the committed relationship is the core relationship and outside encounters are more casual, which makes this style of nonmonogamy different from polyamory. Other understandings may include relationships in which partners are committed to each other but are not sexually intimate, for whatever reason. One or both partners may be free to pursue casual sex or friends-with-benefits relationships outside the committed partnership.
- A triad consists of three people who are equally committed to one another. Generally formed by an established couple seeking a third person to join them, triads are often made up of a man and two bisexual, pansexual, or queer women. However, triads with any gender combination exist. A closed triad means none of the members date outside the triad.
- Polyamory is the practice of embracing romantic love with more than one partner at the same time. Important tenets of polyamory—and all other relationship styles—are respect, communication, honesty, consent, and trust. Philosophies and relationship styles vary, but in general, polyamorous relationships involve commitment to multiple partners. Some polyamorous relationships may prioritize one relationship, such as a marriage. Others avoid prioritization and focus attention equally on all partners. These types of polyamory are known as hierarchical and nonhierarchical, respectively.
- Polyfidelity describes a closed relationship involving more than two people. This may be a triad or a quad, for example. Those in the system are committed and exclusive to each other.
There is a difference between rules and boundaries in nonmonogamous relationships. According to the author of popular polyamory guidebook More Than Two, boundaries are for protecting ourselves. Rules, on the other hand, are imposed on a partner. Some polyamorous relationships intentionally eliminate all rule-making, while others might construct some guidelines around how much communication happens and when.
Occasionally, polyamorous people have rules about approving a partner’s dating prospects before the partner gets involved with someone new. This is sometimes called “veto power,” but it is not always seen as a positive or healthy construct in a relationship.
Other people might have rules which serve as ways of protecting oneself, including:
- Not dating people new to polyamory
- Not wishing to receive information about aspects of a partner’s activities
- Fluid-bonding rules, such as a partner using condoms with all partners outside of the primary relationship
- Consequences if a partner breaks trust or violates boundaries
Because polyamory exists largely outside social norms, many people who practice it are private about their relationships, not wishing to experience discrimination or intrusive questions. Polyamory and other forms of nonmonogamy may be as natural to some people as monogamy feels to others. Still, any type of relationship may be tested at times. Nonmonogamous relationships may be challenged by the same issues occurring in monogamous relationships, as well as by situations unique to nonmonogamy.
- Jealousy may arise as an issue in nonmonogamous relationships. For example, one partner in a committed relationship may desire attention from a partner who has plans with another person. Jealousy can be a natural reaction, but those in nonmonogamous partnerships are often able to develop ways to address and work through it in a healthy and open way.
- Time available to spend with partners may be limited by jobs, children, household responsibilities, and so on. This may make scheduling dates and intimacy difficult, and complications may in some cases lead to conflict.
- Society's assumptions of monogamy may marginalize polyamorous relationships and further the stigma surrounding them. Assuming people who are polyamorous are simply pursuing sex or a temporary thrill can be harmful. Simply put, polyamory is a valid and legitimate relationship style. It may be natural to some and may not work for others.
- Rules are often essential components of polyamorous relationships. Some monogamous relationships may operate with understood or explicitly stated rules, such as, "Having sex outside our relationship would be cheating." However, in a polyamorous relationship, rules and boundaries—when established for the right reasons—can help define the relationship and make partners feel safer. For example, many couples may have some variation of the following rule: "We have a conversation about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) with each new partner and get tested once every six months."
- When one partner begins dating someone new, the beginning stages of the relationship often include excitement, anxiety, and new thrills. These feelings associated with a budding partnership are known as “new relationship energy,” or NRE, to polyamorous people. The NRE stage may have a negative impact on the other partner. In some cases, this partner may feel hurt, neglected, or worried about being replaced. Communication, honesty, and in some cases couples counseling can help committed partners address this.
Some people decide to explore nonmonogamy because they and/or their partner is interested in opening a current relationship to partnerships outside their primary relationship. They might begin to practice hierarchical or nonhierarchical polyamory. Others pursue polyamory on their own, with or without the intention of developing a primary relationship(s). They may date and develop close partnerships but not pursue marriage, cohabitation, starting a family, or other long-term experiences shared with a partner.
People who practice solo polyamory tend to date autonomously, prioritizing independence and the ability to define each new relationship as it comes—rather than having primary or secondary partners by default, for example. While someone practicing solo polyamory might not seek a live-in partner or marriage, this does not mean the relationships they develop are necessarily less intimate or deep, or that they will never be open to a relationship evolving in such a way.
Solo polyamory is sometimes associated with “relationship anarchy,” a fluid type of nonmonogamy in which relationships may be constantly evolving or shifting based on both parties’ needs or desires. Each of these relationship styles may be distinguished from simply dating, or “playing the field,” based on the common tenets of nonmonogamy and polyamory—a dedication to honesty and communication shared among all partners.
Plural marriage is not an interest or priority for many polyamorous people. But for the sake of equal rights and equal opportunity, some polyamorous activists are fighting for the ability to marry more than one person in parts of the world. The United States does not legally recognize polygamy or plural marriage, which can be frustrating for polyamorous people who wish to marry more than one person.
Some polyamorous couples choose to have marriage ceremonies, sometimes called “spiritual unions,” to express their commitment. However, because these marriages are not honored legally, some nonmonogamous people are unsatisfied with this approach. In many cases, only legal spouses can visit a hospitalized partner, join finances with a partner, sign lease or mortgage documents with a partner, or take part in other benefits associated with marriage. This can be hurtful, exhausting, or even dangerous in multi-partner polyamorous relationships in which all have an equal stake in the partnership and desire the same spousal accommodations.
Many monogamous people assume that either jealousy must be ever-present in polyamorous relationships, or polyamorous people do not experience it. In fact, polyamorous people probably experience jealousy no more or less than monogamous people; however, because they may encounter it more often, they may be practiced at examining and processing feelings of jealousy.
In one well-known book about navigating polyamory, The Ethical Slut, authors Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy contend that jealousy is an emotion or experience most people tend to shy away from or avoid altogether. Even other negative emotions such as sadness, guilt, or anger seem to be given more recognition and processing time. Jealousy, on the other hand, is often pushed away as soon as it is felt, and rarely given a chance to be understood.
By examining jealousy, one can learn more about its roots. Jealousy might stem from a perceived lack of fairness in a relationship, for instance. Or it may be an articulation of insecurities dating back to childhood that are not related to a partner. In other cases, what feels like jealousy is actually envy—witnessing someone having an experience and wanting that experience also. By contrast, jealousy is the wish that someone else was not having an experience that you wish you were having.
While it is common to believe jealousy is an insurmountable emotion that does not change and can be helped only by other people alleviating the discomfort by ceasing an action, many polyamorous people will say this is not so. Jealousy may not always be overcome in every respect, but taking the time to recognize it for what it is and address underlying causes of it may ease those negative feelings and make jealousy easier (and rarer) to encounter.
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