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Many people believe that every person should seek a single soulmate, apart from whom they should need no one else. Many others believe that each person should have only one romantic partner, at least at one time. But others don’t think that a single individual can fulfill all of their relationship needs, and therefore they prefer having many partners.

Polyamory, or consensual nonmonogamy, is the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or just romantic, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved. Polyamory is generally not gender-specific; anyone can have multiple partners of any gender.

At least one in five Americans has had a consensually nonmonogamous relationship at some point in their lives, and about one in 20 is in one right now. A growing body of research shows that partners in such relationships find their bonds to be just as satisfying and fulfilling as those of married people, and derive just as much happiness from them. But there are serious challenges as well: Polyamorous relationships demand openness, consent, trust, communication skills, clear boundaries, and mutual respect. Feelings of jealousy may arise, especially when a new partner joins the relationship, and debates over how to raise children can also disrupt connections.

What Is Polyamory?

Polyamory is distinct from other forms of open relationships, such as swinging—which involves couples having casual sex outside of the relationship, without any emotional attachment. It is often confused with polygamy, or being married to more than one person at the same time, but they are very different. Polygamy specifically involves marriage to multiple people of the opposite gender — most frequently, a man having multiple wives — while polyamory, although it often involves married partners, describes a wider range of relationships, both heterosexual and LBGT.

Due to the stigma that it often attracts, polyamory is often practiced privately and may be kept secret even from close friends and family. At least one in four polyamorous individuals have experienced discrimination, according to the non-profit organization Loving More.

What are the different kinds of nonmonogamous relationships?

People may take part in many different kinds of nonmonogamy. These extra-dyadic sexual relationships range from polyamory to polygamy to swinging to open relationships — which generally involve committed partners who, either individually or jointly, engage in sexual activity with secondary partners. Other arrangements may include polyfidelity, a closed relationship involving sexual and emotional fidelity to a group larger than two, and relationship anarchy, which rejects conventional cultural standards for relationships.

Is polyamory a sexual orientation?

Legally, polyamory is not recognized as an orientation. But the question of whether it should be is a subject of much debate, even among practicing polyamorists. For sure, many people in consensually nonmonogamous relationships believe it is their orientation, and core to who they are — such individuals often report struggling to find satisfaction in monogamous relationships before “coming out” as poly — but other partners, even those in long-term polyamorous relationships, still see it as a personal choice or lifestyle.

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How Does Polyamory Work?

Some polyamorous people have a primary relationship and engage in casual hookups, but most begin secondary relationships with the consent of their primary partner, to whom they are generally married or committed. Introducing a secondary partner requires the primary couple to agree on a set of stipulations, such as date times and the type of intimacy allowed. Research has found that, despite the complications, polyamory offers benefits ranging from greater satisfaction and extra help with child care to increased relationship commitment.

How do partners decide to become non-monogamous?

Many polyamorous relationships started out that way. Others began as committed relationships involving two partners, in which one expressed a strong desire to open things up. When your partner wants non-monogamy and you don’t, it can be a relationship-threatening challenge. Couples therapists have found that these situations often involve a partner making a last-ditch attempt to save a relationship, or seeking an excuse to get out. But when a partner’s interest is sincere, and the other’s openness to change is real, it can succeed, with small steps, consistent communication, and a willingness to admit when it’s not working.

What are the threats to nonmonogamous relationships?

New relationship energy, or NRE, is a common threat to polyamorous relationships. In this scenario, a new partner is welcomed into a polyamorous relationship, bringing excitement, fascination, and a glow that the original long-term partner may find threatening. Experienced polyamorists prepare for NRE and compensate for it: The partner bringing in the new person may remind themselves to devote more attention to their long-term partner, while the other may be patient and hold steady to their long-term commitment until NRE dissipates and their larger relationship takes a new shape.

The Benefits and Struggles of Polyamory

The reason why polyamorous relationships are not as common as others is not that people find them unappealing; interest in polyamory is in fact rising, and research on polyamorous partners finds them to be, on average, as least as satisfied with their relationships as others. But polyamorous relationships are highly challenging to construct and maintain. Simply finding a partner willing to enter a relationship with the same honesty and ground rules is difficult, especially in a culture that favors serial monogamy, and mismatched desire for polyamory also upends many partners, especially if one sees it as a lifestyle while the other perceives it as their sexual orientation. For this reason, communities arise in which those who are "poly" can meet, often initially online.

Are open marriages happier?

In the culture at large, many people cannot imagine that consensual nonmonogamy can make people happy: The very idea of a committed partner sleeping with someone else is an immediate deal breaker. Research, however, finds that people in polyamorous relationships are in fact, often quite happy with their arrangements: They report the same levels of relationship satisfaction as married partners, as well as high sexual satisfaction. Studies also suggest that such people have better communication skills, higher levels of trust, and lower tendencies toward jealousy than married individuals.

Who does polyamory work best for?

People who relish social interaction, have found themselves to fall in love with more than one person at the same time, have a high sex drive, and are open to new experiences generally find more satisfaction in polyamory. But significantly, consensual nonmonogamy tends to require more work than a marriage, since it involves meeting the changing needs of more than one other person at a time, and may evolve in unexpected and complicated ways over time.

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