Five Ways Polyamory Can Fail

Recent research suggests that monogamy has no monopoly on happiness.

Posted Jan 27, 2013

With polyamory gaining more and more visibility and acceptance it seems likely that more and more people will be giving polyamory a try. Researchers are starting to discover that neither monogamy nor consensual non-monogamy has a monopoly on positive outcomes or benefits, but this doesn’t mean that either choice is easy.

I figure that since many people haven’t had the benefit of past experience with polyamory, it’s only fair to give everyone a leg-up by sharing the wisdom gained from past mistakes. I’ve certainly made plenty of mistakes in my own explorations of polyamory. Guess it goes with the territory of being a trailblazing adventurer in these realms. While many people would like to believe that they won’t make these same mistakes, I’ve watched them do so over and over.

I’m also in the position of the doctor who sees only sick patients. Few people come to me for coaching because their poly relationships are going so well – although there is that rare minority who decide to get some preventive support.

Today’s blog is for the rest of you – those who are not investing in prevention, but would if you realized the cost of muddling your way through all the potential sandtraps.

Pitfall #1  Using the same words to mean different things 

The Oxford Dictionary defines polyamory as “(1) The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; (2) the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.” These two alternate definitions are themselves a source of confusion for many. Jenna had the impression that polyamory refers to the “simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more others” and, when she got involved withGary, was intrigued by the prospect of exploring how this worked. But whenGary described himself as polyamorous, he had the second definition in mind and was intent on engaging in multiple sexual relationships regardless of the degree of emotional closeness. Neither was aware that they had very different expectations about their relationship, and both were shocked and dismayed when they discovered they were operating according to different game plans. Resentment toward the other for having a different agenda was quick to undermine their budding romance.

Considering how few people risk having any conversation at all with a prospective partner about their intentions around sexual exclusivity, it’s not surprising that Jenna and Gary failed to recognize that they had different expectations about polyamory. They were headed in the right direction, but without some guidance, they didn’t quite arrive where they wanted to go.

Pitfall #2  Taking on more relationships than you actually have time and energy for

In the early days of polyamory, the pool of available partners who were willing and able to embrace consensual non-monogamy was not as big as it is now. Without internet dating and polymatchmaking sites and with so many polyamorous people committed to staying in the closet, few people felt concerned about spreading themselves too thin. Nevertheless, as an early adopter, I decided that I wanted to find out how much was “too much” and life almost immediately responded by bringing me a flood of partners.

Some had been friends for years and suddenly decided that they wanted to explore polyamorous relating with me. Some were people who’d only recently crossed my path, and one was a man I’d been interested in for months but was unavailable because he’d taken a vow of celibacy. Within two weeks I was faced with the prospect of ten new beloveds, in addition to my two steady partners. I didn’t want to say no to any of these attractive possibilities but I soon realized that the very thought of another date with anyone was distasteful. Had I gone deeper with all of these people at once, I would have found myself desperately looking for excuses to distance from most of them.

Pitfall #3  Agreeing to polyamory and then having a “secret” affair

Ellen and her husband Doug had been happily married for twelve years, and while they’d agreed from the beginning that their marriage would be open, neither had gone beyond the playful flirtation stage.

Suddenly, unexpectedly Ellen found herself head over heels with William, a man whom both had been acquainted with for years. She’d kept the depth of her feelings a secret from Doug for several months, not wanting to upset him and afraid that he would interfere with her newfound joy. Meanwhile, William, knowing that they had an open marriage, assumed that Doug was fully informed. When Ellen finally confessed that she was in love with William, Doug predictably felt angry and betrayed, feared that she would leave him, and wanted to retreat to monogamy. The habit of keeping secrets can be deeply engrained, even when couples agree to have an open relationship.

Pitfall #4  Making promises you can’t keep

It may seem obvious with hindsight, but few people anticipate that making a commitment to one partner that involves the cooperation of another partner requires first getting agreement from all concerned. For example, if Joe promises Stephanie that he will attend a family reunion in another state with her next summer and he has a standing agreement with Mary that he won’t go out of town with another partner if she has to work overtime and can’t pick their children up from the day care center by closing time, Joe may find himself in trouble if he hasn’t first cleared this exception with Mary. 

Pitfall #5  Trying to transition quickly and smoothly from being discovered engaging in a secret affair to creating an open relationship 

Modern life has conditioned most of us to trade short term gain for long term challenges we hope will never arrive. Many people choose to embark on a secret affair because they don’t want to risk their partner’s anger, rejection, or jealousy by openly discussing their desire to open the relationship. When the affair is discovered, they find they must now deal with healing the betrayal which has more to due with a break down in trust than a fear of loss, before considering the option of open relationship.

Izzie had an illicit affair with Sally which was soon discovered by his lover Amelia. He then urged Amelia to get over her jealousy so the couple could embark on an open relationship. Amelia, not surprisingly, was resistant. Izzie would have gotten better results if he’d acknowledged his betrayal, demonstrated that he was taking responsibility for it, asked Amelia’s forgiveness, and allowed time to rebuild trust before asking her to work with him on the jealousy that might arise for both of them in a consensually open relationship.

Polyamory, like many complex and potentially rewarding lifestyles, involves a learning curve. These five lessons are not the only ones you may encounter, but if you can avoid these no-no’s you’ll definitely have a better chance of success.

Excerpted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, published by Rowman & Littlefield, July 2010, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.