One of my friends hit me up on Facebook recently, asking if I might help a guy she knows. (Let’s call this guy Dave, specifically because his parents didn’t.) It turns out that Dave had been hitting it off with a woman he’d met recently, but he’d just found out she was polyamorous. Like a lot of people, Dave wasn’t quite sure what that entailed, and misinformation is all around.

The first thing I told Dave is pretty much the crux of every polyamorous relationship: if you want to know what it means, ask the people in it – in this case, his lady friend and potentially himself. Since our culture assumes that monogamy is the default – or even the only option – there really aren’t any guidelines in place for poly folks. When there’s room in their hearts and beds for more than one person, it’s really up to the polyamorous people themselves to figure out just how they’re going to play it.

For example, just what does polyamory mean, anyway? Yes, yes, it translates to “many loves” in a horrible mishmash of Greek and Latin roots that pedants will “jokingly” say bothers them, but that’s beside the point. The important question is, what does it mean to the people living it?

The word itself is used in a couple different ways. Some people use it to refer to any relationship style that’s not traditional one-on-one monogamy, with (this is the important part) their partners’ knowledge and consent to see additional people. It’s often called “consensual non-monogamy.” (“Non-consensual non-monogamy” is just another term for being a cheating doucherocket.) Some people use “polyamory” to refer to a more specific form of non-monogamy though. See, there are lots of ways to go about seeing more than just one person.

The more specific definition of polyamory is having, or being open to having, more than one committed romantic relationship at the same time. Example: Carol is in love with Max, and when she finds herself romantically interested in Ralph, it doesn’t change her feelings for Max. She just tells him that she’s thinking about possibly dating Ralph too, and Max encourages her to have a good time. A while later, she’s in a committed relationship with Ralph, and she and Max are still every bit as committed and loving with each other as when she and Ralph first struck up. Meanwhile, Max might also have other loving partners besides Carol while having just as much love, affection, and commitment to her as ever.

I’ll repeat that, because it’s critically important: if Max and Carol have other partners, it does not mean they love each other any less.

In this form of non-monogamy, some people consider all their partners to be in equal standing with each other and they all get equal consideration regarding time spent together; other people have a hierarchy, in which one or more “primary” partners take precedence over “secondary” and possibly “tertiary” partners.

Click to enlarge photochart

In the hierarchical model, Carol and Max could consider each other their primary partners – maybe because they’re married, they’ve been dating each other the longest, etc. – and they’re committed to each other even above their other partners. Carol might say she’d like to date Ralph, and if Max isn’t comfortable with the idea (Ralph was Max’s boyfriend ten years ago, for example, or Ralph drinks Coke instead of Pepsi), then Carol would accept that and not date him. Or maybe Max’s partner Jamie wants to go on a date on Saturday, and Max says, “Let me see if Carol wanted a date with me on Saturday before I give you an answer.” Carol and Max get priority over each other’s partners, because they’re each other’s primary partners and the others are secondary. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love and care for their secondary partners; Max would still like to see Jamie if Carol is busy on Saturday and Carol is a little wistful that Ralph wasn’t an option. They simply put each other’s preferences before anyone else’s.

In the non-hierarchical model, Carol would most likely still let Max know that she’s thinking of taking on another partner, but she wouldn’t need Max to green-light it for her. Max could go on dates with both Jamie and Carol on a first-come-first-served basis. Everyone should still be keeping their partners in the loop and making sure everyone feels included and taken care of – Carol will make an effort to see Max regularly despite being giddy over Ralph, and Max will make time to see Carol even if she’s slower on the draw than Jamie – but no one has preferential treatment or veto power over anyone else’s partners.

There are also forms of consensual, ethical non-monogamy that don’t involve both emotional and sexual intimacy with multiple partners. Much like “polyamory,” the term “open relationship” gets used a lot for any kind of non-monogamy; most of the time, though, it’s used to mean two people who have an emotionally committed relationship to only each other, and are also cool with each other having sex with other people. Some couples like to find casual partners to have three-or-more-way sex with together, and some will see other people independently; of course, some couples do both. The common thread is that these couples don’t expect to have a romantic connection with the sex partners who are outside of their two-person relationship.

There are also swingers – people who are monogamous in the day-to-day, but have group sex at prearranged times or events. This might mean going to orgies together, and it might mean going on group dates that include sex with other couples. There are communities of swingers whose members get to be friends and high-five as they have sex with each other’s spouses. Single people might also identify as swingers (just as single people might identify as polyamorous) if they would prefer to have a relationship that includes swinging instead of doing the orgy scene solo.

There’s also a relationship style called “polyfidelity.” That’s when more than two people have an exclusive relationship with each other, but no one else. This is most often done in groups of three or four, but larger numbers aren’t unheard of. If you’re in a three-partner polyfidelitous relationship, you’re dating two people, they’re both dating you, and they might be dating each other, too. Some might also say that all three as a trio should be considered a relationship on its own (whether your two partners are dating each other or not), and not just see it as two or three different couples.

There’s also the possibility of a monogamous person dating a non-monogamous person of any kind. There are times when someone says, “You’re the only one I want, but it’s cool if you see other people besides me.” As long as everyone is getting the love and attention they need, and everyone is operating in full honesty, mono/poly relationships can be just what they need.

In any kind of consensual non-monogamy, birth control and STI safety need to be taken very seriously. STIs can spread quickly among common partners, and unintended pregnancies can have serious consequences for everyone; imagine finding out that your primary partner and their secondary partner have a pregnancy in the works, or that you or your partner became pregnant at a swingers’ party and you don’t know whose sperm it was. What kinds of precautions you’ll be using needs to be discussed with each and every partner (or at least well-established and agreed-upon rules for swingers’ clubs). Regular STI testing is vital, especially if you have casual partners; even if everyone tests STI-free and no new partners are around, regular testing is always a good idea, just like for any sexually active person.

Discussion of specific boundaries (like “let’s not have sex with other people in the bed that we share” or “we’ll only wear the Xena and Gabrielle costumes with each other”) is critical. There’s also the question of how much partners want to know about each other’s outside sexual exploits. Some people don’t want to hear about them at all, and some just want a general idea (“Hey, honey, I slept with someone from the party tonight.” “Cool, I hope it was fun.”). Some people want to hear all the details – maybe to feel included and in the loop, and maybe even because it turns them on.

It’s common for people to be happy for their sweeties to have other sexual partners, but to not want them falling in love or otherwise getting too close emotionally. What counts as too close? Only the people in the relationship can answer that. Are you cheating if you go to a strip club, or flirt with strangers at the bar? Discuss it with your partner. Can you take your secondary partner as your date to a family wedding? Discuss it with your primary. These questions will have different answers depending entirely on the people in the relationship.

click to enlarge… credit to the artist

And that’s one of the benefits of non-monogamy besides the extra cuddles: being successful at it requires so much communication that you have to get really good at it. You have to calmly and cooperatively talk and negotiate with your partners, keeping each other’s interest in mind and not just your own; regular check-ins are a good idea, too. You end up exploring and talking about your needs, your worries, and your hopes for the future more than most people do in monogamy; a lot of monogamous people who decide explore non-monogamy together find that all the new communication helps them become even closer than before. Even people who decide to go from non-monogamous to monogamous after a while (yep, that happens, too) can still benefit from all the extra practice they got.

Now read this part carefully, because it’s super important: non-monogamy is cool, but monogamy is, too. Consider your options, explore if you’re interested, but don’t feel like you’re behind the times or puritanical if it’s not for you. Monogamy isn’t any less valid or less mature than any kind of non-monogamy. That’s what non-monogamy is supposed to be about in the first place – finding what works for you and your loved ones, and doing exactly that.

There’s a lot of reading to do on the subject. Try The Ethical Slut, Opening Up, and The New Love Without Limits, to name a few.

© Todd Veros