Before I started practicing polyamory, I was well-versed in the theory of polyamory: I read books and articles about non-monogamy, I discussed ideas with non-monogamous friends, and I spent a lot of time thinking about what polyamory means in the context of a heteronormative world.
But understanding something in theory doesn’t prevent you from making mistakes when you try it in practice. When I began practicing polyamory, I made many mistakes – mistakes that were incredibly misguided and often dangerous.
I’m sharing these mistakes here, on a public platform, so that people who are new to polyamory won’t make the same mistakes as what I’ve made.
I’m also talking about these mistakes openly because I want to remind polyamorous people that it’s okay to make mistakes. Owning up to those mistakes and trying to be better is incredibly important.
Let’s look at some of the blunders I made as a newbie polyamorist:
Mistake #1: I Assumed All Polyamorous People Are Progressive
Most of the polyamorous people I know are feminists. I guess that’s why I made the assumption that everyone who practices polyamory is progressive.
This assumption led me to automatically trust polyamorous people more. I thought that polyamorous places were safe spaces that actively condemned oppressive behavior.
Unfortunately, I found that this wasn’t the case. After a while, I realized that polyamorous communities can be just as problematic as any other community.
I learned this the hard way when I saw how certain polyamorous people tokenized bisexual women. As a bisexual woman, this broke my heart, because I thought I would be safe in my newfound community.
I’ve also encountered a great number of abusive “feminist” men who use polyamory as a façade so that they seem more socially conscious. By assuming that polyamorous men are progressive, I became even more vulnerable to abusive men – men who had the support of the feminist community because they seemed progressive.
Believing polyamory is inherently progressive can sweep these issues under the rug. This mindset can lead us to think we don’t need to work at being more thoughtful and considerate.
Ultimately, erasing these issues does a great deal of harm – especially to polyamorous people who are particularly marginalized. Instead of buying into this myth, polyamorous people need to bring awareness to the issues within our community.
Mistake #2: I Thought I Was More Enlightened Than Monogamous People
Despite the fact that I always knew polyamory wasn’t for everyone, I subconsciously believed that I was somehow more “enlightened” than monogamous people.
Of course, this is completely untrue – yet it’s a myth that many people believe.
Okay, sure. Being polyamorous often means you have to shed many toxic, traditional ideas about love, romance, and sex in order to feel comfortable.
But being open-minded about love, romance, and sex isn’t limited to polyamorous people. And – as I mentioned above – polyamorous people aren’t necessarily progressive, let alone “enlightened.”
Whether we’re polyamorous or monogamous (or anything else!) is not a good indication of how progressive and forward-thinking we are.
Mistake #3: I Thought There Could Be No Cheating in a Polyamorous Relationship
When I first entered a non-monogamous relationship, I felt really safe.
In previous relationships, I struggled with feelings of jealousy and distrust. As someone with low self-esteem, I subconsciously believed my partners would always leave me for someone better.
Non-monogamy seemed to provide a kind of solution: if my partner wanted to sleep with someone, it wouldn’t necessarily threaten our relationship because I’d be okay with it.
Yet, that partner went on to cheat on me – multiple times. When he slept with others, he lied about it, which violated our one condition: that we’re entirely honest about who we sleep with.
When I found out that he cheated on me, I felt two levels of hurt. Firstly, I was hurt because my partner was purposefully dishonest with me. Secondly, I was hurt because my assumption was incorrect. It shattered the idea that my relationship would free me from the fear of being betrayed.
I struggled to recognize my partner’s toxic behavior as cheating. I downplayed the effect it had on me. As a result, I stayed in this relationship for way too long – which had an awful, traumatic effect on me.
“Cheating” might look different in non-monogamous relationships, but that doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Non-monogamous and polyamorous relationships can also be toxic, dishonest, and even abusive. Being aware of this fact enables us to identify and address toxic elements in our relationships.
Mistake #4: I Believed I Couldn’t Be in a Monogamous Relationship Again
Once I discovered that I was polyamorous, I thought I would never be able to have a monogamous relationship again.
I felt like polyamory was an essential part of my identity. This made me believe I could only ever have relationships that were polyamorous – or, at least, non-monogamous relationships.
When I found myself attracted to someone who wasn’t polyamorous, I was tentative to begin a relationship with her. I wasn’t too sure whether we could conduct our relationship in a way that worked for us both.
Thankfully, I dated her nonetheless. And not only was I able to have a monogamous relationship, I was able to be incredibly happy while in a monogamous relationship.
I realized that, while polyamory is indeed a part of my identity, it doesn’t have to determine how I structure my relationships.
Having the ability to fall in love with many people at once doesn’t mean I always need to exercise that ability, nor does it mean that I have to structure my relationship around that ability.
This flexibility isn’t something all polyamorous people have. While some polyamorous people can have relationship structures of all kinds, others only want polyamorous relationships. And that’s okay – different things work for different people!
Mistake #5: I Wanted to Date—Like—Everyone
Being able to date more than one person feels super liberating. To me, it felt so liberating that I felt like I wanted to date everyone I found attractive.
I was close to starting relationships with people simply because we both could. In my mind, I knew not everyone I dated had to fulfill my every need. In a way, this was a good thing: I stopped looking for someone who was completely “perfect” for me. Letting go of this unobtainable goal brought me a lot of joy.
But in another way, it led me to making the crucial mistake of entering relationships with people who were attractive, but quite incompatible with me. I didn’t always see a future with them. Sometimes, I didn’t even really get along with them.
This mindset is dangerous for three reasons. Firstly, dating multiple people can be exhausting. Dating someone takes a lot of time and emotional energy, which is why it’s important to think it through and only enter relationships if you definitely, really want them.
Secondly, dating people randomly could open you up to a lot of hurt. Even if you’re not very attached to someone, breaking up with them can be very painful. Entering relationships willy-nilly means you can hurt yourself and them.
Thirdly, I realized I was doing something awful. I was tokenizing people. I didn’t like them for them, but rather, I liked them because I loved the idea of dating many people at once. This is super dehumanizing and hurtful.
I know the idea of dating a lot of people can be super exciting, but it’s still important that we think it through. This prevents us from hurting ourselves and our partners.
Making mistakes is a normal and healthy part of learning something new. It’s okay to make mistakes, but I truly hope that you learn from what I did wrong when I first entered the world of polyamory.
Remember that mutual respect and compassion are essential to every kind of relationship, romantic or not, non-monogamous or not.
Sian Ferguson is a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Read her articles here.