There’s a typical romance trajectory most of us grew up believing in: Date around a little, find The One, settle into a committed and monogamous relationship, and live happily ever after (while maintaining a sizzling hot sex life, naturally). But as anyone who’s ever dated before can attest, that’s surprisingly hard to pull off! So maybe the problem isn’t with ourselves, but with the narrative we’ve been told to play into. According to one 2016 study, about 20 percent of people are exploring another kind of happy ending—the kind that involves multiple relationships with multiple people.
You’ve no doubt heard of nonmonogamy, and while there are many different forms of it, polyamory—the practice of having more than one romantic or sexual partner at the same time—is definitely gaining the most visibility in popular culture. It was the fourth most frequently searched relationship term on Google in 2017. But even if we’re aware that polyamory is a thing, plenty of us don’t understand how it actually works. In fact, even people who practice polyamory struggle against some of the assumptions about what it means to be “poly.”
So let’s look at some of those assumptions and see whether they’re still relevant to the polyamory conversation, or if we should throw them to the wayside.
Myth 1: Polyamory is mostly about having a lot of sex.
It's easy to assume that the appeal of polyamory boils down to sexual relationships. After all, even die-hard monogamists tend to feel pangs of desire for others. It’s only natural. That said, the first thing most poly people will tell you is that they aren't into polyamory for the sex—or at least not just for the sex.
"Although poly entails a certain openness that I haven’t found in other relationship models, it’s not a free-for-all fuckfest," says writer Charyn Pfeuffer. "For me, it’s about cultivating meaningful, ongoing relationships with the potential for falling in love."
In fact, many polyamorous people build what they see as a sort of extended support network where some, but not all, of the connections involve a sexual component. "When I began my journey into polyamory, there was so much sex. SO. MUCH," says sex educator and Sex Ed A Go-Go host DirtyLola, 36. "What I found beyond the sex were friendships, a support system, and family. Many of the relationships I formed didn’t have a sexual element at all, but what they did have was a deep love and respect for one another."
And finally, some people get into polyamory because they’re interested in a romantic relationship without sex. "There are a lot of people in the polyamorous community who identify as [asexual],” says Dedeker Winston, author of The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory. “They find polyamory appealing because they can still have an emotional, romantic relationship—or multiple relationships—but their partners aren't also forced to be asexual or celibate.”
Myth 2: It’s for people who don’t want to commit.
Traditional relationship mores dictate that we shouldn't spread ourselves too thin, and instead direct most of our attention, affection, and love toward our significant other—one significant other. But if you’ve ever struggled to squeeze your S.O. into your calendar, you can probably appreciate just how complicated this could get as the number of relationships you’re maintaining expands. This, in fact, is one of the key challenges of living a polyamorous life, one that most people attempt to manage through good communication, a clear effort to balance multiple partners’ needs and desires, and, for the sake of practicality, shared calendars.
"My capacity for loving my partners has deepened as time has passed. That doesn't mean that it's not difficult. But the resource that has proved to be the most finite and problematic isn't affection; it's time,” says Boston-based filmmaker Christopher McKenzie, 43.
Myth 3: Polyamory can never really work because humans are jealous by nature.
Sharing is hard, especially when it means giving up something that's important to you. Even so, many people assume that poly folks are above feeling jealous. They aren’t. The major difference, however, is that poly people learn to respond to feelings of envy with openness and curiosity, rather than shame.
"A lot of us get this idea of what it's like to be a perfect poly person, which we take to mean that you never feel jealousy and you're always perfectly happy about what your partner does. And that's not realistic," said Liz Powell, a sex therapist and speaker. "Humans are messy creatures. We have messy hearts that feel things strongly. That doesn't mean that you're doing it wrong or that you're bad at poly, it just means that you're having feelings. I think it's worth looking at those feelings and acting on what they are telling you."
Says McKenzie, "I still get bitten in the ass sometimes by jealousy, usually right as I think everything is going just fine. And it's almost always the result of poor communication—not going over concerns or fears with my wife or partner—because I don't want to rock the boat or have conflict.”
Myth 4: Orgies are the name of the game.
Not quite. In the same way that polyamory isn't all about sex, it also isn't all about group sex.
"Sure, group sex happens in certain relationships under certain circumstances, but there are plenty of poly people who never have group sex. And those who do don’t necessarily have it all the time," says Page Turner, 36, a relationship coach and writer of the blog Poly Land.
Plus, even when group sex does happen, it’s rarely the out-of-control, partner-swapping crush of naked bodies we often see in porn. "Most of the more intensive sexual contact happens between members of a couple, and things are typically linked between the couples by groping or kissing,” Turner said. “So what you are seeing in a sea of swirling bodies is actually a handful of triads or couples getting it on with their usual partners.”
Myth 5: Polyamory is for commitment-phobes.
Nope, most poly people aren’t poly because they’re afraid to settle down. In fact, like a lot of pieces of the poly puzzle, things are a lot more complicated than that. "Being one of several partners [doesn't mean] that my partner isn't 'really' committed to our relationship, or that he can't 'be with me,’” said sex writer Anabelle Bernard Fournier. “He is with me. All the time. We just don't live together, and we're not married. Commitment is not a function of co-living. Commitment is about being there for the other person."
Myth 6: Poly people are more at risk for an STI.
Sex with a number of different partners ? Isn't that…risky? Well, it certainly could be, but what you may not know is that polyamorists tend to play it safe. Very safe.
"I’m actually slower to jump into bed with people than I was when I was single and looking to date monogamously," said Turner. "That’s because being polyamorous forces me to be very risk-aware in a way that I wasn’t when it was just my health I was considering."
In fact, Turner (half-jokingly) refers to the care and negotiation that must go into every new coupling as a "sex bureaucracy," one whereby each partner is bound by various agreements and protocols about the partners they have, the safe sex practices they use, and the STI testing they receive.
"Studies and surveys have shown that people in non-monogamous relationships tend to behave in safer ways when it comes to safe sex practices," Winston said. "If I go out on a date with someone I'm going to sleep with for the first time, I have to have the conversation where I'm like, 'I'm sleeping with two other people, and these are the safe sex practices I'm using in those relationships, and these are the barriers and practices I'd like to use with you, and this is my STI status, and this is the STI status of the people I'm sleeping with.' This is all so that this person can give fully informed consent about what's going on in my entire intimate network. Contrast that with the way most people approach casual sex or casual dating, where people are less likely to openly address the fact that they're also sleeping with other people at all."
Myth 7: Polyamory practitioners never get attached to anyone.
People who practice polyamory tend to use the word abundance to describe the wealth of love, affection, and possibility that having multiple partners tends to bring to their life. The downside is that more love can also mean more potential for heartbreak. "With much love comes much heartache,” DirtyLola said. “It doesn’t matter how well you communicate, how good you are at meeting your partners’ needs and desires, or how strong you think your connection is, some things just aren’t meant to last.”
If there's one lesson here, beyond all the myth busting, it's that polyamory isn't one-size-fits-all. Or maybe it's that love isn't one-size-fits-all, and we can each choose to do it a little differently, in whatever way fits.
“For me, monogamy was never a perfect fit, or an even almost-perfect fit, like the half-size-too-small shoe you force your foot into because it was 50 perfect off at the Neiman Marcus Last Call Sale,” Charyn Pfeuffer said. “Polyamory allows me to love on my terms—who I want, how I want, and for how long—with the consent of all involved.”