I reluctantly became polyamorous 25 years ago when my wife, Guin, asked to open our marriage. Over time, however, poly has shifted my worldview and identity to the point where it’s hard to imagine living any other way (you can read more about my shift into poly here).
Many friends expected our marriage to end decades ago with one of us running off with another lover, but I was convinced we lasted so long because we allowed space for other lovers. I was proud of what we achieved together and thought our marriage was bulletproof.
After losing a deeply significant relationship a few months ago, Guin decided she now wants to be monogamous. This would be fine except she has also demanded that I become monogamous too and drop my longstanding relationship with Morgaine. I felt it was unethical and even cruel to make such a demand and, after some hemming and hawing, refused. Guin is now debating whether she wants to stay married to me and is considering leaving to “create space” to attract a monogamous partner. It has been a deeply painful and confusing time in my life, but also a period of deep learning and insights. I hope to write about it when I have more distance and clarity.
In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting what I experience as some of the pros and cons of polyamory to keep my bearings in the storm. I hope they prove useful to others exploring whether or how to be in loving, consensual relationships with multiple partners.
In another blog post I shared how polyamory has repeatedly compelled me to let go of old ways of being and expand into larger and better versions of myself. After I got married, but before becoming poly, I actually felt relief that I never had to “date” again, but this also meant a part of me was going to sleep. Whether it is being open to flirting or contact improv or staying fit, polyamory keeps me more on my toes, introduces me to new ideas and ways of being, and reminds me to not take any of my relationships for granted.
FREEDOM AND ACCEPTANCE
MLK Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I would add that it also bends towards liberation and tolerance. Over generations, marriage has become less about property and politics, and bi-racial and gay marriages have expanded its definition. Polyamory is further pushing this envelope by releasing the concept of ownership in relationships (unless, of course, if you’re into that sort of thing ;-). While often difficult at first, there’s no feeling like compersion, which comes from offering our partners an unrestricted ability to share love with others and delighting in the joy they find.
When it comes to love, our society suffers from a scarcity mentality. Love is often seen as a zero-sum resource and we often feel we have to prevent our partners from loving others for fear that it will deplete the love they have for us. Similar to switching from fossil fuels to solar energy, polyamory reminds us that, like the sun, love is abundant and can be shared with multiple people in non-threatening ways. And really, on our deathbeds, will any of us regret trying to have loved more deeply and more often?
People often think of monogamy as something black-and-white — you either are or you aren’t. But to me, it is all gray areas. Is it okay to have close friends of the attractive gender(s)? Is it okay to share secrets with them? Difficult emotions? A massage? A kiss? Monogamous couples generally think they are on the same page without having to discuss boundaries, but discrepancies will arise over time, which can be painful to process, especially when they are discovered “after the (f)act.” With polyamory, there’s no illusion of “one way” to do things so we are forced to talk about what works and doesn’t work for each of us. This requires a lot of communication, but hopefully results in greater clarity around our relationship dynamics, comfort levels, and boundaries.
With monogamy, most or all of our needs are expected to be met within the relationship. This can be a challenge when only one partner enjoys spooning all night or PDAs or winter camping or strip poker or BDSM or … well, you get the idea. With polyamory, it is more likely we will find relationships that fulfill us without needing to pressure our other partners to do things they don’t enjoy. On the downside, this can also raise the bar for our original partners, which I will discuss below.
Life is hard sometimes. You’re home with the flu. Work sucks! A family member is in trouble or passes away. Having multiple partners to bring chicken soup or vent about your boss with or cry on their shoulders can offer incredible emotional and physical support. And when living together, combining incomes and extra help with household chores and raising kids can make life much easier for everyone.
Lest we become pollyannaish about polyamory, here are some of the downsides of loving multiple partners:
While also a problem in monogamous relationships, opportunities to experience jealousy and FOMO are more common when there are multiple partners. Those new to poly may even feel disgust or repulsion towards metamours, particularly if they are icked out by coming into secondhand contact with others’ bodily fluids. Feeling jealous is a very natural emotion and doesn’t mean you’re bad or not cut out for polyamory. However, it can be very unpleasant to experience (on both ends!) and suffering can also become a self-fulfilling prophesy. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Exploring what is beneath these feelings and how we often unconsciously play out cultural narratives can often help sort them out.
While the feeling of love is abundant, time and energy are often scarce resources and polyamory demands a lot of both. Balancing schedules and parenting duties (when kids are involved), processing emotions and relationship dynamics, and striving to meet diverse expectations can sometimes make poly feel like a Cirque du Soleil act. More relationships can also mean more heartbreaks and “growth opportunities.” Sometimes it can all just feel like too much to handle and make one yearn for the simplicity and sense of control (at least imagined) within monogamous relationships.
Obviously, being with multiple partners, who themselves may have multiple partners, increases the chance of becoming infected with an STD. Yes, safer sex reduces these risks, but the key word is “safer”, not “safe.” and no technique is 100% guaranteed. And there’s perhaps no easier way to strain the relationship between metamours than by introducing an STD into the equation.
While being openly poly generally does not carry the legal, professional, and even physical threats that being openly gay did (and still does in some places), polyamory is generally considered unacceptable behavior and “coming out of the poly closet” can risk prejudice and ostracism from parents, family, and friends. As a result, secondaries often pay a heavy toll when their partners do not acknowledge them publicly. They may not be invited to family functions; they may be invisible on social media; and they may not be allowed to engage in PDA in public or in front of their partner’s children.
SMALL DATING POOL
It is hard enough to find one partner who is within an acceptable age range, geographically available, physically attractive, and emotionally compatible. Adding polyamory as a dating criteria reduces this pool of potential partners considerably, especially in less populated areas and locations where there is widespread intolerance of alternative lifestyles. And men tend to have an even harder time finding poly partners than women, which often leads to imbalance and frustration within open couples.
All relationships evolve over time and change is difficult enough to negotiate between two people. In poly relationships, there is both more change and more people to negotiate with, which makes boundaries and expectations an ever moving target. New partners might fall deeply in love and want more than was originally agreed to… A primary partner might decide to become monogamous and demand that you do likewise (it happens!)… When only one partner wants to change (or not to change), the result is often heartache.
RAISING THE BAR
With polyamory, it is common to get certain needs met in new relationships to an extent you did not expect or even think was possible. You may develop a deep intellectual connection with someone that makes your old partner seem dull in comparison. Or a new partner takes your sex life to a whole new level and you are no longer interested in the vanilla sex (or lack of sex) you had before. This can be scary for the original partner, especially when it seems their worst fear is being realized by their partner being lured away by a [younger or more beautiful, intelligent, compatible, etc.] lover. OR, it can be an opportunity to appreciate and accept our differences and perhaps even to explore new ways of relating to those we love.
It is often said that couples should not have a child in order to “fix” their relationship and this is also true for bringing new people into poly relationships. While full of growth opportunities and NRE, new relationships can also make it easy to avoid the hard and often painful work of resolving problems and maintaining passion within existing relationships.
Finally, secondaries in relationship with a member of a couple can often feel the needs of their metamour come before their own. Boundaries may be set around when, where, and how much time a secondary can spend together with their primary partner; there may be constraints around what kinds of activities, emotional or sexual involvement are permitted; their relationship is often put in the closet, and they have limited access to the partner’s everyday life. Check out Morgaine’s post on The Challenges of Being a Secondary for more.
Polyamory is clearly not for everyone, but then again neither is monogamy. Like any style of relationship it comes with pros and cons that we each need to weigh for ourselves. Hopefully, polyamory will eventually become just another choice that is available without social stigma or judgement. Until then, I appreciate those who are openly loving multiple partners as it is making it easier for those who follow and it is also challenging some antiquated cultural narratives in order to allow more love in our lives.
Please add your thoughts about the pros and cons listed here, and perhaps new ones we should add, in the comments. Thanks!
23 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Polyamory”
You made a concise discussion here of poly’s highs and lows. It took multiple books and lengthy, contentious dialogues to reach these same points, so bravo for sharing them here.
I hope that you and your family navigate this dynamic shift successfully in the near future. Family burns bright in my romantic heart, as my people would tell you. I commend you for putting your challenges out here to share with the rest of us.
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Thanks Brett. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and share my passion for family.
BTW, I have to laugh. I checked out your blog and when I saw the headline “Let’s get you whipped into shape.” and what on first glance looked like a silver shackle on someone’s wrist, I wondered what kind of blog this was. But then I saw that it was a whistle and you offer physical training services.
Love this post! It’s a great summary of all the complexities of polyamory. I’m in year five of a difficult start, but things are starting to calm down and feel good – it is an ever-changing landscape! Something I read a long time ago about poly said that you have to be open to wherever the multiple relationships lead you. When I follow the thought of “what if my husband eventually wants to leave me, or I want to leave him?” I have to remind myself that I will be fine, no matter what. I think the ability to be poly is directly linked to your ability to love yourself (as cheesy as that sounds), and I do love myself. It’s fascinating that after 25 years you are hitting that cross roads. I do hope you keep us posted!
Where to begin…. My wife also came to me after months of hiding that another guy who is married and in an open relationship was chasing her. We were in a very bad place on our relationship and the fact that she had been hiding things was disasterous. We fought, cried, she got sent to jail for assault on me, we were absolutely horrible to each other. We finally reconciled and decided to give it a go with a friend of ours who had been great, nothing is perfect but he does try. During the start up of this my wife had some more contact with the initial guy, let’s call him Max. It was hidden and almost ruined everything, I tried to let her meet other guys but every one was only concerned about what he could get. We finally settled on the man we’re with, we’ll call him Brutus. He and I aren’t homosexual and don’t interact sexually with each other only when we’re all three together. My wife has played me finding a woman for me and her to share but didn’t want to put any effort into it which is one of my desires. I just think it would be more fun, also she would get to have more if a say and help weed out undesirable behaviour. In all truth, everything is all for her and Brutus. I live them both but I don’t see our relationship surviving without my desires being met. I have been as straight forward and honest as possible for anyone to be about this. I am thinking about divorce so any advice would be fantastic.
Hi Tim. Thanks for sharing some of your story. It sounds like it has been a rocky road and my heart goes out to you. I also resonate with your desire to get your needs met and know how challenging this can be in this situation. It sounds like you want your wife to help you find a partner, but she isn’t putting effort into it. Is that right? I’m wondering what YOU can do to meet your needs regardless of how your wife or others respond. This has also been a growing edge for me, so I’m with ya bro! What other needs are you experiencing that aren’t being met in the relationship? And, again, what are you doing to meet them? I think poly is a great way to meet a lot of needs, but it also requires each of us to stand on our own and to clearly articulate and advocate for what we each need. A friend once said, “Everyone should ask for 100% of what they want and then negotiate the difference.” Do you think this is happening in your relationships? Good luck!
Hi Art, I appreciate your post very much. I have been poly for several years (I am now 71) and am in relationship with three partners. Two of whom I have been with for several years but as we get older things change. Some women lose their interest in sex and even intimacy in their post menopausal years and this has been the case with my first two partners. I still have a need both for intimacy and sex and so I have started a relationship with another woman.
My third partner is new to poly and has been open to it but is very challenged with jealousy as well as the desire to have me all to herself. We work on it almost every day and this is the point of my comment. Poly is a LOT of work. It requires not only clear communication but sincere compassion for all involved. That doesn’t always come easy, particularly when needs conflict. My advice to anyone considering this lifestyle is to be prepared for long nights, deep misunderstandings and very hurt feelings. We must be prepared to hold our ground but to do it in such a way that those who are suffering are given a lot of support from the others in the relationship matrix. It is not easy.
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Thanks James for your comment. I completely agree with you that poly can be a LOT of work. I’ve been poly for over 25 years and the last two have been perhaps the hardest yet! Still, I feel it is pushing the right edges for each of us to grow into the people we wish to become. So, while intensely painful at times, I also appreciate how it can all be “world work”.
Thank you for sharing your experience and for being honest about the pros and cons of polyamory. I took some years to realise that I would like to try this type of relashionship, however, in my country this is still a difficult subject, specially for women, and it’s hard to share my doubts even with people of the same age (23). I talked with my boyfriend about it, but he’s not prepared for this type of experience so we decided to wait until we are on the same page. Anyway, in the beginning of the experience did you felt guilty for being with another person? I know this is contraditory, but it is one of my fears. I’m afraid that if we decide to try it I might be limited by my “traditional” education and cultural context. Do you think this means that maybe I’m more monogamous or not necessarily? Confusing thoughts/feelings.
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Thanks for sharing. It was easier for me as it was my wife who wanted to open our marriage and it was only after three years of her exploring outside relationships before I put my toe in that water. I CAN say that one of the biggest revelations of polyamory for me has been realizing how much of how we think and feel are influenced by our cultural stories — “You can only really love (and be loved by) one person.”; “Anyone who tries this is a slut.”; “Multiple romantic relationships can never work because of jealousy.”; etc. I would encourage you to sit with whatever feelings arise and keep asking yourself, “Is this how I’m really feeling and/or is this how I’m ‘supposed’ to feel based on my cultural narratives.” You may find that you are taking on feelings that aren’t actually genuine to your experience. This was true for me, at least, and was a liberating experience once I realized what was going on. I then went on an inner rampage asking, “What else have I been told to believe and feel that might not be true?!” 😉 Good luck and best wishes…
I really enjoyed your post and reading the other comments. My husband and I have been married for 33 years. He is my soulmate and bestfriend. 16 years into our marriage we decided to bring another woman in. This was something I wanted to do for him since I had a lot of sexual hang ups due to sexual abuse I had as a child and didnt feel like I was giving my all to the sexual side of the marriage and he deserved more. We meet our first love that lasted 2 years until she decided to move on. We had several other women through the years but nothing serious. A year and a half ago we meet our first couple. They have been married for 24 years. This is their first relationship outside of the marriage. They are a lot like us in many ways. It has become a polyamory relationship. Of course with any relationship it has had its challenges. We have a very open communication between the 4 of us and it has worked well for us. There were a lot of concerns with our close friends that if this goes south will everyones marriage survive. Speaking for my marriage I have no doubt it will be fine. Of course with any relationship Monogamy or polyamory it would be devastating and heartbreaking since we are emotionally involved. We just enjoy the time we are in and it has been a lot of fun. Would love to hear stories from others that are in the same situation.
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That’s really great! Thanks for sharing!
Man I don’t even know where to start since I’m a little nervous talking about it… But I do like this guy.. he’s amazing, he treats me very well, he’s nothing but a gentleman… just everything a woman would want basically… but while I was getting to know him he told me he was polyamorous.. at first I didn’t think much of it, but at the time i don’t think i really understood what that would mean since I’m monogamous.. I honestly don’t know what to do because I really like him. I’ve been trying to weigh the pros and the cons. I’ve tried to weigh if I would be able to be in a relationship with someone that would want to have different lovers, but I would only want him. I mean i guess all I can do is ask for advice since the final decision would ultimately be mine, but I honestly am trying to further understand him and the fact he would want different lovers if we were to date and I don’t want to hate myself for not giving him at least a chance, but I also don’t want to hate and torture myself because I would want him all to myself, but I know deep down that wouldn’t happen..
Thank you for your comment Duchess. I resonate with your struggles as I was in a similar position when my wife (of one year at the time) wanted to open our marriage. Of course you will need to chart your own course with this partner, but I encourage you to read my blog post describing my journey towards polyamory at https://consciouspolyamory.org/2016/03/18/you-say-poly-i-say-good-golly/ and let me know if it is helpful in your decision-making process. Best of luck with whatever you choose!
Hi Art, good points you have there. I think it is very important to lay down the rules in the beginning, and determine for yourself who the primary partner is for you. Usually it is the partner you come into the polyamorous world with, but people also change and grow over time. However, if you don’t stick to, and be loyal to your primary partner, where is the love foundation for this world you’ve come into?
Thanks for your comment Climt! I’m curious. Do you feel there must always be one primary partner?
Unless there is a systematic way to decide from the beginning an equal fractional right in a partnership, with consent from all parties, love is complicated enough on its own to assume its ability to run freely to navigate through all the struggles of life. Relationships usually start in pairs, and thus a primary partner helps to set those rules. While love is free, we humans more often than not seek structure
I agree that good communication and agreements are essential to any healthy relationship. And, my sense in the poly world is that relationships are often overlapping and nonlinear (i.e. don’t follow the typical “relationship escalator”), so don’t always start from a primary partner pair.
Wow, I would just like to say how hopeful this blog has been for me. I have, some what recently, came out to my husband of 15 years that I am interested in a polyamorous relationship. And let me just say, so far, it is very difficult to have the conversations about what poly would even look like for us. My husband is very resistant to the idea of *separate* relationships. Are these feelings a result of jealousy? I’m still trying to figure out what a poly relationship would be like and its as if he is putting up boundaries before we’ve fully discussed it. And I feel like we are shedding light on all the things that could possibly hurt our marriage. How do I turn the conversation positive? My husband is a very open minded person and I know he can get there, I think we are just hung up on insecuritiesof me leaving. I’m terrified that I’ve just blown his world to smithereens. I could really use some guidance.
Hi Chelsea. Thanks for your kudus and comments and best of luck on your journey. If you haven’t already I encourage you to check out the posts “Exploring Polyamory with a Reluctant Partner” (https://consciouspolyamory.org/2016/03/18/exploring-polyamory-with-a-reluctant-partner/) and “You Say Poly, I Say Good Golly!” (https://consciouspolyamory.org/2016/03/18/you-say-poly-i-say-good-golly/) and see if they offer any useful guidance.
Art, If I put all the pieces together, do I understand correctly that when your wife wanted you to drop your other deeply committed partner, you did.
Can you shed some light on it because It is stories like that that make poly feel deeply unsafe if you aren’t the married partner.
Hey Justine. Thanks for connecting. The time you’re referring to was perhaps the most painful period in the lives of myself, Guin, and Morgaine. I felt deeply torn between wanting to support Guin in her deep depression following Lance’s departure and wanting to support Morgaine (who had just found herself stuck in another country!) and continue my relationship with her. I tried my best to meet everyone’s needs and initially did limit – but not end – my visits with Morgaine, but it became increasingly clear that there was no “middle way” in this situation. Morgaine and I did negotiate periods where we didn’t see each other and I focused on my marriage with Guin, but Morgaine and I were always in communication (much to Guin’s chagrin). After many months of counseling, it became clear that my being polyamorous was no-longer acceptable to Guin and I made the most difficult decision of my life — to leave my marriage of almost 30 years. I do understand and regret how Morgaine felt unsafe during much this period. Honestly, I think we ALL felt unsafe, but I wish I had taken a firmer stand immediately after the shit hit the fan and told Guin that I was not willing to limit my relationship with Morgaine in order to somehow “protect” Guin’s feelings. While I did champion Morgaine’s needs (albeit unsuccessfully), real change only happened through my waking up to my own essential worth and the fact that my needs matter as much as Guin’s and, unfortunately, that didn’t happen overnight….
Oh my God, I’m really sorry you all three were not able to reach an agreement about the situation, but it honestly makes me happy to hear that you stood up for your principles and needs and did not let your (ex-)wife colonize your feelings and willingness to live a polyamorous lifestyle. I’m sure the whole experience has made you grow so much as a human, albeit through a lot of pain and sleepless nights. No one said polyamory would be an easy road to walk… 😦 How do you find yourself nowadays emotionally? Cheers!
That’s sweet of you to say Anita. I’m feeling great! Guin and I are still officially married (and living in Auroville, an int’l community in south India) and are beginning our process of Conscious Uncoupling and intend to divorce this summer. We would have done it all sooner, but I got caught in the U.S. for almost 2 years (due to COVID restrictions) before I could get a new visa to return to India.