“Monogamish.” “Ethical slut.” “Polyamorous.” “In an open marriage.” These days, it can that seem there are as many words for people who engage in non-monogamous relationships as there are LGBTQIA+ signifiers. If you have friends who are non-monogamous, you might be curious: How does it work for them, and how could it work for you? Respectful questions are all well and good, but take it from someone who has been poly for many years: There are some things that we are really tired of having to explain. Let’s debunk some of the most common myths about polyamory so that the next time you broach the subject with your friends, you can breeze past the basics and get to the juicy details.
1. Polyamory is all or nothing, right? Poly people have sex and fall in love with whomever, whenever.
There are hundreds of different relationship models beyond the default mode of monogamy. I highly recommend Opening Up by Tristan Taormino for a primer on how different structures have worked for various people (and what to do when they don’t work for you). But you can also come up with your own design. You and your partner might be cool having sex with other people as long as you’re both involved in the encounter. You might be comfortable playing together at group parties. You might be fine with you or your partner having sex but not falling in love, or falling in love but not having sex. You might want to live with multiple partners, or have babies with certain partners but not others. You might have clearance for flirting, for surfing hookup apps, for doing sex work, for exchanging nude pictures with friends.
The great news is that opening a relationship means designing it the way you and your partner(s) want. You might not get everything your heart desires, but boundaries and self-discipline can feel surprisingly good, sometimes even better than getting everything you thought you wanted.
2. Once you’re open, no one will ever be hurt by cheating because cheating doesn't exist.
Being poly does not give you a license to do whatever you want indiscriminately or without consequence. If two people in an open marriage decide that, for example, co-workers are off-limits, and the husband sleeps with his secretary, that’s a violation of their agreement! What really happens in a poly relationship is that each individual knows their own desires and boundaries. Each couple, throuple, or group discusses where those desires and boundaries overlap and which ones require compromise.
You might think of monogamy as an off-the-rack garment, while polyamory is a bespoke suit that you design yourself! Since you customized this relationship, a transgression is just as (if not more) hurtful as it would be if you were monogamous.
3. Poly people never deal with jealousy.
Jealousy doesn’t just disapear when you open up your relationship! Rather, you commit to addressing those strong emotions and working through them with your partner(s). Poly people have a word for the opposite of jealousy: compersion. Compersion basically means feeling happy that your partner is happy. For example, you might feel compersion that your partner is going on vacation with their other partner, instead of jealous or envious or resentful. I tend to react to my own feelings of jealousy by asking myself what’s behind that emotion: It’s usually something like fear of inadequacy, or yearning to be special. Once I start addressing my own fears, I find that I can focus on feeling happy for my partner(s) instead of bad about myself.
4. Every poly person is up for anything when it comes to sex — threesomes, bondage, you name it.
While it’s fair to say that poly people tend to be more open-minded about things like gender fluidity, kinks, and group play, it’s still not fair to make assumptions. Every poly person has personal preferences and tastes just like monogamous people do. You can never assume that dating a poly person means, for example, endless threesomes or trips to the sex dungeon every Friday. But the great thing about poly is that if one of your partners isn’t interested in that, you might be able to find another partner who is and date them both!
5. Poly people are best friends with their partners' partners (or also sleep with them).
Within poly communities, we have a term for your partner’s partner: your metamour. It’s like a paramour but, you know, meta. You might really get along with your metamour: After all, you both love (and/or love to sleep with) the same person. But just because you have that person in common doesn’t necessarily mean you like one another, and that’s O.K.! Learning to be civil and kind is a good practice, and if you have a metamour, you shouldn’t feel pressure for your relationship to be more than cordial. After all, one of the benefits of poly is for each partner to have separate interests; if you’re too close to your metamour, your partner’s relationship with them may not feel like a separate space anymore.
6. Poly people are all super edgy, cool people whose whole lives are "unconventional".
Sure, being non-monogamous means you’re living your life outside the box, but poly people come in as many shapes and sizes as monogamous people do. I know poly people who get together for LARPing in the park, poly people who are obsessed with fermenting vegetables, poly people who go to PTA meetings and football games. Open relationships work for people of all classes, ages, races, orientations, religions, and more.
7. Polyamorous women are bi-curious, but the men? Not so much.
Sadly, I have seen this double standard in action, especially in the straight swinging scene (in which couples “swap” partners): Women are encouraged to explore sex with women (while their male partners watch), but men are not encouraged to indulge the same curiosity. I’m positive there are many poly guys who would like to play with other men but hold themselves back because of toxic masculinity stereotypes. Meanwhile, queer communities have been pioneering non-monogamy for decades, with all kinds of fluid permutations. The truth is, many men are bi-curious, and being in an open relationship can be the perfect way to explore sex with people of different gender identities.
8. Poly is a phase some people go through — it’s not sustainable over a lifetime.
Personally, I’ve always felt that being non-monogamous is as innate a part of me as being queer. I was born this way! I have some friends who were dirty cheaters before they found ethical poly, and some people who have been poly since they were teenagers. I know some people who came to it after thirty years of monogamous marriage. One thing I know for sure is that poly is not just something you do when you’re young, wild, and looking to sow your wild oats. It’s something that can improve your loving relationships and sexuality for your entire life.
9. Opening up a relationship will save it from destruction.
I’ve seen polyamory improve the relationships of lots of struggling couples. Sometimes the resentment or tedium of a relationship can be reinvigorated by the novelty of other partners, by the deep, hard conversations that poly requires. But I’ve also seen people open things up only for the polyamorous structure to show the deep fissures that already existed in the relationship. In cases like that, it’s not the poly that killed the relationship: Instead, opening up showed a couple what wasn’t working.
On the flip side of this coin, if a couple decides to open up their relationship, that in no way spells doom for their bond. Poly isn’t for everyone: It requires constant communication and extremely emotional conversations about insecurity, jealousy, possessiveness, identity, and more. But I can attest firsthand that when it works, it works.