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Does Polyamory Work?

The answer depends on who you are, how you do it, and what you mean by "work."

When readers or audience members at a live talk ask me if polyamory works, I answer that, just like any other relationship, it depends on the people involved and how they handle themselves.

Who Are You?

Do you long for the serenity of time alone, feel stretched to your limit already with everything you have going on in your life, practice a religion that requires monogamy, are happy with one partner, dislike “processing” or find discussion of feelings tedious, are satisfied with your sex life, or most importantly prefer monogamy for any reason? Then polyamory is probably not a good choice for you. Monogamy—especially practiced as serial monogamy and/or cheating—is far more popular in the U.S. today than is any form of openly conducted non-monogamy. Even among non-monogamies, swinging is far better known and much more common than polyamory. Clearly, polyamory appeals to a minority of people.

Do you relish social interaction, want to examine your feelings and discuss them in detail with others, like trying new things, enjoy sharing, find yourself falling in love with more than one person at a time, have a high sex drive and/or want sexual variety, are willing to use safer sex techniques, and most importantly are open to the idea of honest non-monogamy? Then you might consider polyamory. Other common characteristics that appear to encourage interest in polyamory are things like being at least a little geeky, enjoying science fiction, an interest in kinky sex, working with technology, being economically self-sufficient (or having enough education that you could get a job if you needed to) thinking of yourself as open-minded, and either being non-religious or practicing a form of religion uncommon in the U.S., most often Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism.

How You Do It

When it is good, it is very good indeed

When people have long-term poly relationships that work well for them, their lives tend to run fairly smoothly without a lot of drama. By establishing boundaries that meet everyone’s needs, learning to communicate effectively, and consciously practicing relationships skills and techniques, these poly folks are able to maintain lasting, loving, and satisfying relationships. Just like some monogamous families are blissful and others are at each other’s throats, some poly families live caring and happy lives in which their multiple partners multiply their happiness.

When it is bad, it is horrid

When polyamorous relationships melt down, they can do so spectacularly. If things go wrong, the consequences are not limited to the people directly involved but can ripple outward through several levels of relationship. If a condom breaks, suddenly partner’s partners are figuratively there in bed, directly affected by what happens next. Do the folks using that busted condom get tested for STIs immediately and again in six months, inform other partners who would be affected, and take steps to protect others at all times? Or do they blow it off, hide it, or forget to mention it until someone sometime somewhere comes up positive for something and then accuse each other? What if it results in an obviously unintended pregnancy? Mistakes and bad choices have the potential to echo through others’ relationships, which is why trust is so important in polyamorous relationships.

What Does “Work” Mean?

Happily Ever After

If your definition of a relationship that works is one in which a couple gets legally married, has babies, and remains together in an emotionally intimate and sexually exclusive relationship until one of them dies, then no, polyamory does not work. The people involved in the relationship and the forms that polyamorous relationships take shift far too often to fit this version of working. Ironically, the high rates of divorce and infidelity indicate that the vast majority of monogamous relationships do not work this way either, and in that case, they are classified as “failed” relationships or “broken” families.

Meets Needs, Allows for Change

If your definition of a relationship that works is one that meets the needs of the people involved and can flex as those needs over time, then yes, polyamory works great for some people. These polys tend to emphasize emotional intimacy, mutual reliance and commitment, and their willingness to work through conflict by flexing with life transitions as key elements that help their families work. If their relationships change form over time it does not mean they have failed or are somehow broken, only that their needs and personalities have evolved. Even if two people no longer have sex they can still co-parent effectively, rely on each other for assistance in times of need, and remain emotionally supportive. The flexibility inherent in polyamory provides some relationships with a unique resilience that allows them to serve the needs of adults and kids over time.

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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