Today's post is about polyamory. I have a very conflicted view on it and a very conflicted past, so this will be a long and mixed post.
To start off, what is polyamory? Polyamory, or "poly" is being romantically involved with more than one person with the consent of all parties involved. Note the part about consent. If your wife and you agree you can date other people, it's poly. If you decide to see other people without telling your wife, it's cheating. If you and your wife decide to see other people, but you don't tell the third person about your marriage, that is also cheating. Poly relationships involve the consent of all parties involved. Being poly is sometimes referred to as being "open" or being "in an open relationship" but there are qualifiers on that. Typically, being open means you're free to date other people. You can also be in a closed poly relationship, which means seeing more than one person, but only people agreed on by all parties.
Poly relationships are complicated. They can be just as loyal and rewarding as a mono relationship. But they are complicated.
If you're looking for a well written primer on polyamory, I highly recommend reading The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, & Other Adventures by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. It's a very honest and practical guide that talks about what makes poly relationships succeed or fail and how you can work with them, either in your own love life or in the lives of your friends.
When I was in college, I fell head over heels in love with a man named G. G was in the process of discovering that he wanted to be poly. First he asked permission to make out with other people, which I agreed to. Now, G and I had a spot on his neck that I would cuddle into. He referred to it as "my spot." He'd come home, see I'd had a a bad day, and ask if I wanted to go to my spot and I'd get a cuddle. It was intimate. One day, after asking if he could have make outs with other people, we were at a small party and he showed interest in a girl. I told him it was okay if he wanted to make out with her. He started getting cozy with her and then told her she could cuddle into his neck in a special spot. I was furious, not that he wanted to make out with this girl, but that he was inviting her into something special belonging to us. He didn't see the problem.
Later in the relationship, things got really bad. We'd have sex, and then he'd start crying because I wasn't the person he wanted to be having sex with. You can imagine what that does to a person. He kept telling me I was amazing and that he wanted to be with me, but he was miserable that he wasn't also with other people. This is a relationship that was unhealthy, not because he wanted to be poly, but because he wasn't taking care of the needs of his primary partner, me.
When you're in a poly relationship, you are just as responsible for the needs of your partner(s) as if you were in a mono relationship. Some people will have easier needs than others, but it is your job to understand all of their needs and to satisfy them. If you can't satisfy all your partners, you need to re-evaluate what you're doing.
Flash forward past G to my next boyfriend, R. We considered ourselves monogamous. We only wanted to be with each other. But before we went to a party, we'd discuss if we wanted to be on "party rules" or "couples rules." "Party rules" meant we could make out with other people, hands over clothes and on the top half only, and that we'd go home together. "Couples rules" meant we acted like a completely monogamous couple, being intimate and making out with just each other. If one of us wanted party rules and the other wanted couples rules, we did couples rules. We considered ourselves a mono couple, but that's poly behavior. And it worked really well for us.
Why did it work so well?
A. It was based on clear and defined rules. We knew how far we could take a make-out. We knew when it was permissible and when it wasn't okay.
B. We respected each other's feelings. If one of us wasn't feeling like party rules, we didn't do it.
C. We made each other a priority.
In order to be in a poly relationship, it's necessary to understand that there is usually a hierarchy. There's a primary couple, a secondary, partner, sometimes a tertiary partner, and so forth. You have to be happy with your role in the hierarchy. When I was about 28, an engaged couple (male-female) I knew very well came to me and asked me if I'd be interested in becoming their third. I was attracted to both of them, physically and mentally. They were good friends and I liked making out in general, so it sounded promising. But they said that they would always be primaries to each other and that everything could change once they got married. Instantly, I wasn't interested. I like attention. I like feeling special. I didn't want to be anyone's secondary. So I know for me to be happy in a poly relationship, I need to be a primary.
Some other people would be happy with a casual relationship. For example, X's last relationship before me was a long distance relationship with S. Now, remember that X is a sub. S was not only not a dom, she was a virgin and not interested in going the leather-and-lace route. But they were still attracted to each other in all the right ways and still wanted to date. So S gave X permission to mess around with a woman local to him, E. He and E had lots of fun, but it was purely physical. He called S when he wanted to talk about his day and to be mushy. When he was feeling kinky, he called E. It gave X an outlet for his sexual behavior while still keeping the integrity of his relationship with S. It worked for them.
But H, you ask, how can you have a trusting relationship if you're having sex with more than one person? Sex isn't important - intimacy is. Sex CAN be an incredibly intimate act, but it doesn't HAVE TO BE. Remember the example of when G wanted to make out with other girls and showed one girl my spot: it wasn't the physical boundaries that bothered me, but the violation of the intimacy. Different couples will define intimacy in different ways. It's up to you to define it and to hold true to it.
For me, where I am now in my life, I could see making out with other people at a party because making out is fun. I could see going back on "party rules" with X. But I would never want to take someone home. I wouldn't want to make out with someone in the bed I share with my husband and I wouldn't want to have sex with them. That's not because X is the perfect lover or anything, but because I save that intimacy for him and I don't want to share that intimacy with anyone else.
G hurt me very deeply as he experimented with polyamory. He was my first lover and as I was trying to explore what it meant to have sex with someone and to have a truly sexual relationship, he wasn't satisfied with what I could give him. I gave him everything I had and it wasn't enough for him. Realistically, we should have broken up a lot sooner than we did, but we held on for too long because, in our own way, we really did love each other. It took a long time for me to realize that nothing I could have done would have saved that relationship and to believe that I could be enough to satisfy someone.
If you get the urge to mess around with other people, before you act, you need to do some soul-searching. What are you looking for? Physical pleasure? Intimacy? Romance? Excitement?
If you're looking for physical pleasure, you could try to go elsewhere, or you could try to spice up your current relationship. Try toys or role play. Try tying him up. If he isn't satisfying you, give him ideas and instructions on how to. One of the best things I did for a relationship back in college was to take a sex book on how to pleasure women and I annotated it with post-it notes, including "I love when you do this" and "I'd like you to try this" and "Never do this." I gave it to my boyfriend as a Valentine's Day Present. He loved it - a customized guide book to your woman's sexual pleasure! Don't we all need that? He studied that thing and did a much better job satisfying me. It was amazing.
If you're looking for intimacy, that can come in many different flavors. Maybe you have trust issues and you need to work on opening up to more people. Try having serious conversations with close friends. Sometimes you just want to cuddle or to hold hands. My best friend, S, and I cuddle and hold hands all the time. I have absolutely no wish to get sexual with her, but we both enjoy physical contact and we're very close, so we snuggle on the couch and we hold hands. When I spend the night, we even share a bed, holding each other like sisters. X is absolutely fine with it because he knows there's no sexual attraction there - it's just how we express our emotional connection in a physical way. Our culture tends to put physical contact in a black-and-white view: if you're touching, it must be sexual. But that's not the case. Think of how a mother touches a child - they hold hands, they kiss on the cheek, they embrace, and it's all familial. Likewise, there may be ways to incorporate more touch into your life to bring more intimacy without getting sexual. The last time I went to a haunted forest, I took my female friend's hand and didn't let go the entire time. I relied on her for comfort while freaks wielded chainsaws around us. That's trust and intimacy, but not sexual.
If you're worried about how someone may take your physical expression of connection, ask permission. If you're sitting at a coffee house table, talking, and things get personal, just ask "May I take your hand?" Your friend will appreciate that you respected their boundaries and will be more likely to acquiesce.
Looking for romance? That's a tricky area. Everyone gets in a rut from time to time with their partner. It's tempting to go somewhere else to get the new-ness and initial burst of energy and romance that comes with a new relationship. I've been with X for 4.5 years and I can honestly say that, while it takes work, the romance I get from him is more satisfying than what I can get from a new relationship. Start by stating your needs in specific terms. Don't just say "I need you to be more romantic with me." Try "I'd like flowers this week." Not everyone is instinctively romantic. Many people need to be coached and trained before they get romantic. Make an effort yourself - write a cheesy poem or call a radio station and dedicate a song to them. Cook dinner for the two of you and get his favorite ice cream for dessert. Try a brand new restaurant with a candlelit dinner. Also try to appreciate the romance in the little things. X is out of town right now and has been for three days. He hasn't sent me flowers or chocolates, but he's made an effort to be online every night this week so we can talk to each other. That's also romance. Look for the little things.
Looking for excitement? There are a couple different things you can do. First, you can try to spice up your relationship by trying new things together. Take a cooking class. Take a dance class. Take an art class. Go to a wine tasting. Go to a live show. Have a picnic. Try biking. Go to a water park. Take a vacation. Do whatever thing is fun for the two of you. You can also do things for yourself that you find exciting. For me, it's going out dancing. I go out blues dancing once a week. Blues dancing is a very intimate, sexy style of couples dancing, but everyone on the dance floor keeps it completely professional. For the three minutes we're dancing, we're close and foxy, but when the dance is over, we thank each other and go our separate ways. I get the thrill of new and exciting people without jeopardizing my relationship with X. Sometimes I get a little riled up from the dancing. I contain myself, come home, and take it out on my husband. Everyone wins.
Some people say that being poly is not a choice, but the way you were born, like being gay. I somewhat agree. I think that at different points in our lives and in our relationships, we have different needs. When I was with G, even though I agreed to let him make out with other people, that did not fill his needs. He needed more. When I was with R, we wanted to make out with other people sometimes, but not all the time. That filled our needs. Now that I'm married to X, I get my thrills from dancing and I get my intimacy from my husband. He fills my needs. As I have grown and matured, my needs have changed. I think that everyone else's do, too. Maybe my needs will change as I get older and I'll want another partner, maybe I'll be happy with X until the day I die. The best thing I can do is to be in tune with my needs and feelings and to be honest with X about them so that we can have a satisfying relationship.