We live in a society in which monogamous pairing is the norm.
We’re taught to desire and seek one other person – namely, our “soulmate,” the one person who will make us whole and happy. And supposedly, when we find that person, we will no longer have desires for others.
This kind of thinking is what Dean Spade calls the “romance myth” – the heterosexual monogamous romance that all women should naturally desire.
Because we are socialized in a culture that teaches us that monogamy is right and natural, monogamy is often not a conscious choice for people, but is more of a default for how to be in relationships.
But just as folks have been challenging structural and cultural heternormativity, more people are coming to question monogamy as natural, and exploring opening their relationships to polyamory.
Often described as “consensual and responsible non-monogamy,” polyamory can characterize anyone who engages in intimate relationships with multiple people in a way that is consensual and communicative of all relationships. (That is, cheating on a partner doesn’t count as polyamory!)
These definitions are broad, and polyamorous relationships come in all different shapes and sizes.
Some people have a primary partner while still engaging in other relationships (sexual, romantic, or otherwise), while others may engage in multiple relationships with each one being equal. Some are in three- or four- person relationships.
The ways of organizing relationships are endless – and so are the myths surrounding it.
Myth #1: With the right partner, you only need one person.
This myth can also sound a lot like “Polyamorous relationships aren’t real relationships.”
We’re taught by movies, music, our parents, friends, and marriage laws what kind of relationship we’re supposed to be in, and what a real relationship looks like – a two-person (usually heterosexual), monogamous one.
And the idea is that when you find that one perfect person, they will fulfill all of your needs, and therefore, you won’t desire anyone else.
This is what real love looks like, they say. If your desires do not fit into this ideal, then there is something wrong with you.
But is there really anything wrong with not finding yourself completely fulfilled by one partner? Can we ever truly have all of our emotional and physical needs met by one person? Is it really fair to expect this of someone?
Putting these unreasonably high expectations on one person can often lead to the end of a relationship – when we’re left feeling something is missing, we might bolt to find the person who can satisfy all of our expectations and desires, only to find the same situation set up time and again.
And while many people find that creating an entire network of support that includes family and friends is enough to alleviate this pressure, many others have found relief from this expectation in polyamory – not just from having to find everything in one person, but also relief from having to be everything for their partner.
You can’t be everything for one person, and that’s okay. You’re not supposed to be.
I’ve found, as have many others, that when the pressure to be everything is lifted, there is more space for me just to be me.
Myth #2: Polyamory means you love your partner(s) less.
Many polyamorous people find themselves continually combating the cultural myth that having sexual and/or romantic feelings for more than one person means you don’t love your partner.
This just isn’t the case, and this assumption has cost a lot of people a lot of happiness.
Certainly you’ve been here before: You’re attracted to someone else, and your partner can see that. They’re hurt by this, thinking that you don’t love them.
But it so often has nothing at all to do with your partner or your feelings for them.
Being in love with someone doesn’t mean you’re unable to love – or at least be attracted to – other people.
Our monogamous culture lives on the assumption that when it comes to romantic love, there is a love scarcity – that there isn’t enough love to go around.
And yet, notice how we don’t apply this to family or friends – because it just isn’t true.
If anything, there is a love abundance, and it can even multiply. Sometimes, the more people around you to love, and who love you, the more love you have for others in your life.
Myth #3: Polyamory is for people who “just want to sleep around” and avoid attachment and intimacy.
Poly people are greedy and selfish, I’ve heard people say. They want to have endless amounts of sex while avoiding real intimacy.
While this may be true of some people (polyamorous and monogamous), polyamorous people tend to engage in very intimate and attached relationships.
Polyamory requires a lot of trust.
Trust that your partner(s) will communicate and share with you what’s going on with their other relationships. Trust that your partner will be considerate and respectful of your feelings and your needs.
Polyamory also relies on setting up clear boundaries.
Calling your relationship polyamorous doesn’t mean you have to be okay with everything your partner wants to do. You set the boundaries – what you’re okay with, and what you’re not.
Negotiating how you want your relationship to look and what your needs are is an incredibly important part of being poly, and can serve to strengthen your ongoing bond with a partner.
Slut-shaming is an unfortunately unsurprising part of the cultural attitudes against polyamory.
The idea that you should only be (and want to be) sexually active with one person has led to a lot of shame and sadness around our desires.
Being polyamorous often means being sexually active with multiple people, but when it does, it ideally happens in a way that values communication as well as consent around emotional and sexual desires while also respecting limits.
Myth #4: Polyamory is for people who don’t get jealous.
People in polyamorous relationships do experience jealousy, sometimes quite often – but instead of avoiding feelings of jealousy, polyamorous folks (just like all people in healthy relationships!) are pushed to confront jealousy head on.
It’s important to recognize that it’s okay to feel jealousy! There’s nothing shameful about it. It’s just a feeling.
What is important is what you do with that feeling, and how you come to understand and deal with it.
There are strategies to survive and even work to unlearn jealousy. These can often be applied to other areas in our lives.
In this way, confronting our feelings of jealousy can serve to make us stronger people, strengthening our foundation, our internal security, and our relationships, too.
Myth #5: Polyamory is for enlightened people.
While there are a lot of prejudices against polyamorous people, there can also be a romanticization of it, seeing polyamory as the truly evolved way to live.
The truth is, polyamorous people are not perfect. People hurt each other in polyamory just like they do in monogamy. Polyamorous relationships can fall apart just the same.
Polyamory comes with its own set of challenges, requiring a process of unlearning and challenging our cultural conditioning around love and relationships.
Fact #1: You are already complete.
Too often, the cultural understanding around monogamy rests on the assumption that you are not enough, that you need another person, your “other half,” to complete you.
But you don’t have to look for someone with whom you can hole up, turning into that all-encompassing two-person unit, closed off and turned inward.
You are already complete.
Coming into polyamory requires seeing yourself as already whole, facing outward and open.
Fact #2: Valuing all of your relationships.
How often have you found yourself losing touch with your friends when you start dating someone?
Or maybe you’ve noticed it in friends – they start dating someone, and pretty soon you don’t see them anymore, or when you do, they always bring their partner.
We’re taught to prioritize our romantic relationships over all other relationships. And there tends to be a strict distinction between the two.
Sometimes monogamy can close people off because of how the parameters of all other relationships are defined – the relationships that aren’t romantic are denoted to “less-than.”
In polyamory, the distinction of a new relationship can be blurred and less defined, allowing more space to nurture new friendships.
Another way that polyamory opens us up to valuing all of our relationships is changing how we view time.
In monogamy, because sex is only shared with one person, we tend to use sex as currency. Sex is how we show value, how we differentiate one relationship from the rest.
But in polyamory, because you may be engaging in sexual relationships with multiple people, you distinguish relationships and show value through the use of time instead.
The more time you spend with someone, the more value you exhibit and place on that relationship.
Time is a factor in platonic relationships as well, and because polyamorous people may have a different sense of how to allocate time, they often come to recognize that they need to share value and affection with friends and lovers alike.
Fact #3: Other people are not your competitors.
When we see love as scarce, we are taught to see others outside of our relationship as potential competitors. Often, these are people of our same gender.
Women, especially, are conditioned by our culture to see other women as their competitors.
But we don’t have to see others in this way.
In polyamory, there is ideally a freedom from this way of thinking that can also be very liberating.
It can be hard to do, especially at first, but when you work to humanize the people your partner is interested in, seeing them as allies rather than rivals, you are liberated from having to be territorial and can come to see everyone around you in a different light.
Seeing those of the same gender as potential enemies is also politically harmful.
Competition amongst women, fueled by our patriarchal cultural conditioning, is incredibly detrimental to our fight for gender equality.
When we work to liberate ourselves and those around us from seeing other women as competitors, we work to strengthen the feminist movement.
Fact #4: You have the right to choose.
No one should ever feel pushed into polyamory by a partner or by those around them – that choice should always be completely yours.
Unfortunately, we don’t usually have models in our lives for building trusting and open polyamorous relationships, so it can take time and work to figure out what you want your relationship to look like.
More people are coming together to support other polyamorous folks, so look in your area for polyamory meet-up groups. Or start your own!
And look for Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s incredible book, The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, & Other Adventures
Ultimately, the questions to ask yourself are these: What do you truly want from a relationship? What do you value in connecting with others? What kind of relationship will allow you to thrive?
What you need and want can change for you with time, context, and experiences.
What’s important is that you feel open to new experiences, that you’re able grow with others and within yourself, and that you feel empowered to explore.
Laura Kacere is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and is an feminist activist, social justice organizer, clinic escort, and yogi living in Washington, D.C. Laura coordinates the Washington Area Clinic Defense Task Force, teaches yoga with the intent of making it accessible to all, and does outreach for the DC-based sex worker support organization, HIPS. When she isn’t on her mat or at the clinic, she’s usually thinking about zombies, playing violin, eating Lebanese food, and wishing she had a cat. Follow her on Twitter @Feminist_Oryx. Read her articles here.