I’m no expert on non-monogamy. Nope. Not by a longshot. Sometimes people try to interview me about polyamory and I’m just like, “LOL, don’t ask me, I’m a baby. Go talk to Samantha or Kevin or Tristan or somebody. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
That said, I have learned a few things – mostly from doing shit wrong, and getting hurt by other people who were doing shit wrong. I’ve noticed that a lot of polyamory slip-ups happen as a result of clinging (consciously or not) to a monogamous mindset. We can’t quite inhabit a healthily polyamorous paradigm if we’re still living at least part-time in monogamy-brain, if you know what I’m sayin’.
Here are 5 of the most common manifestations I’ve seen of this problem. If any of these remind you of something you’ve done, maybe it’s time to examine that and think about whether you’d like to change this behavior or thought pattern. I’m definitely not saying my way of doing poly is the only way or the best way, but I do think eliminating these behaviors would help most non-monogamous relationships work more smoothly!
Implying you’re in competition with your metamours. (Just so we’re clear, a metamour is a partner’s partner. So if I’m dating Ben and he’s also dating Sally, then Sally is my metamour.)
I once asked a partner how he felt about another guy I was seeing, because there had been some jealousy afoot. He responded – ostensibly jokingly – “It’s okay; I think I can take him.” Pro tip: do not threaten to beat up your metamour, even as a joke!! Not only did I not find this even remotely funny, it was also hurtful to me; I care about all my partners and don’t like to hear them disparaged. I set a boundary with that person that he was not allowed to talk shit about my other partners unless he believed one of them was being genuinely toxic/harmful to me. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable boundary to set.
This problem can manifest in other ways too: self-pityingly joking that your partner probably likes your metamour better than you; trying to get your partner to admit your blowjobs are better than their other partners’; pouting when a partner opts to spend time with a metamour instead of you… It’s okay to feel your feelings, but you should process them yourself as much as possible, rather than looping your partner into a competition that probably only exists inside your own head. Their relationships with other people are not a threat to you – that’s the whole point of polyamory – and when you imply otherwise, you put your partner in a super uncomfortable position. Don’t do it!
Comparing your partners to each other. This is sort of the inverse of the previous point. If you don’t want your partners to feel like they’re in competition with each other, DON’T FUCKING COMPARE THEM TO EACH OTHER. EVER.
Sometimes there might be occasion to usefully elucidate the differences between your different dynamics, e.g. if you need to designate one partner as a primary and one as a secondary (hierarchial polyamory isn’t my fave, but it works great for some people). But putting any kind of value judgment on one partner over another – whether sexual, emotional, or in any other category – is not cool.
If you find yourself wanting to make an observation like “Partner A is more fun to have sex with” or “Partner B stresses me out less,” that might be a red flag about the overall well-being of the relationship. Or it might just be a signal that there’s an issue you need to address. Can you give Partner B some more explicit sexual instruction, or sit down with a Yes/No/Maybe list together to pep things up? Can you set some useful boundaries with Partner A so they aren’t, say, relying on you for all their emotional needs while you’re trying to spend quality time with another partner? Making unflattering comparisons is a sign that something needs rebalancing, somewhere. And it’s rude to communicate those comparisons to your partner unless absolutely necessary, because you will fill them with insecurity and doubt.
Only telling partners what you think they want to hear. Two weeks into my last relationship, my boyfriend started seeing someone else, but he told me he didn’t think it would get serious and that I would continue to be the “girlfriend” while this other person would just be his “lover.” I breathed a sigh of relief, which was, in itself, a bad sign; I was definitely still stuck in the paradigm that said anyone else entering his romantic life was a direct threat to me and our relationship. (I still feel this way sometimes, admittedly. It’s a process.)
Unsurprising spoiler alert: things did get serious with that other partner of his, and when I found out just how serious they were getting, it crushed me. I had believed I was “safe” from that kind of “intrusion” into our relationship, so I didn’t start processing that shift in our dynamic until it was already way too late. I’m not blaming my partner – I genuinely don’t think he knew things would unfold how they did – but if he had felt relationship-level feelings toward this other person right off the bat, I wish he would’ve told me that upfront, so I could have adjusted to it at my own pace and processed it in my own way.
Similarly, you shouldn’t tell your partner only bad things about their metamour (in an effort to make them feel better about themselves or more secure) or only good things (in an effort to be like, “See?! They’re not that bad!!”). Humanize your partners to each other. That means sharing the good and the bad, when relevant. (This process definitely benefits from metamours meeting each other in person, if they’re comfortable doing so!) Shielding someone from your true feelings in an effort to avoid hurting them usually just ends up hurting them more.
Using superlatives. Ohhh, this is a tough one for me! I didn’t realize this was a problem until there was a discussion about it in a poly group I’m in, and I went: Oh. Fuck.
Superlatives are words like “cutest,” “favorite,” “hottest,” “sweetest,” etc. I tend to use these a lot, in an affectionate way; I’ll call both my best friend and my brother “my favorite boy” (which is true, they are tied for the position of my favorite existing boy) or I’ll sometimes call someone “the handsomest” or “the cutest” when I’m flirting with them. I’ve been trying to be more mindful about this because it doesn’t really work once you’re in a poly situation.
A lot of language we recognize as “romantic” is rooted in a monogamous paradigm, and that includes referring to a person you’re dating as your “favorite [x]” or “the [x]-est” or whatever. This comes back to what I was saying earlier about comparing partners to each other: it’s a shitty thing to do, and also kind of misses the whole point of polyamory. My mom once asked me which of my two beaux I “liked better,” and I honestly didn’t even know how to answer that: I liked them both a lot, for different reasons, and also for some of the same reasons (their intelligence, humor, kindness, etc.) – so how the fuck could I pick a “favorite”? In poly, there should be no such thing. (Unless maybe you’re hierarchical and everyone involved knows that and is cool with that.)
Relying on your romantic partner(s) for all your social and emotional needs. Dean Spade says that polyamorists should treat our friends more like our lovers, and our lovers more like our friends. This has been an incredibly important insight for me – so much so, that I should probably write a full blog post about it sometime. It’s essentially the idea that you shouldn’t put all your emotional eggs in one basket – both because that’s hard on you, and because it’s hard on the “basket” (your partner[s]).
A monogamy paradigm teaches us that your partner is your “other half,” that they should be there for you through thick and thin, and that whatever you need, you can get it from them. This is fine for the people for whom it works, I guess (although I don’t know who those people are; even deadset monogamists often run into trouble when they over-invest in and over-rely on their partner). However, I think it’s safer and more respectful for everyone involved if you view each partner as just one piece of your support network, rather than the entire network in and of themselves.
That’s the “treat your lovers more like your friends” piece, but I’ve found the “treat your friends more like your lovers” piece to be equally important. This is not about sexualizing your friends or making them uncomfortable! It’s about valuing your friendships as much as you value your romantic relationships, putting effort into keeping those friendships healthy and mutually fulfilling, and asking for support from your friends when you need it. My close friendship with Bex, for example, is a foundation that allows my other relationships to thrive. If I didn’t have that intense, reliable, baseline intimacy with them, I would desperately seek that type of intimacy with other, potentially less trustworthy people, which might get me into unwise romantic/sexual situations.
It’s important to note here that people don’t exist to fulfill your needs. They can, but that doesn’t mean they’re obligated to. View people as people, always, and not just in terms of what they can offer you. That goes for friends as well as dates.
What monogamous-minded trope/pattern/belief have you had to unlearn?