Polysaturation: How Do You Know When You’re Polysaturated? [Polyamory Conversation Cards #4]

It’s safe to say that the polyamory community likes its cute wordplay. We’ve got “metamour,” from meta (beyond or after) + amor (love), to mean your partner’s partner. We’ve got “polycule”, from poly + molecule, to mean an interconnected network of relationships (because when we draw out our romantic networks they can kinda resemble scientific models of chemical molecules.) Then there’s the subject of today’s post: polysaturation, or “the state in which a polyamorous person has as many significant relationships as they can handle at a given time” (definition courtesy of Multiamory.)

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series inspired by Odder Being’s Polyamory Conversation Cards. Once a week or as often as I can, I’ll pull a card at random and write a piece of content based on it. There will likely be some essays, advice pieces, personal experiences, rants, and more! You can read the whole series at the dedicated tag. And if you want to support my work and get occasional bonus content, head on over to my Patreon.

This week’s card asks:

“How much time, energy, and other resources do you have left for potential new attachments?”

My personal answer to this is “very little,” but that doesn’t make a very exciting post, does it? So let’s delve into the topic of polysaturation, how to know when you’re at your relationship limit, and what do to about it.

What is Polysaturation?

Polysaturation is the point at which a polyamorous person has the maximum number of relationships that they can handle. Typically, when people are polysaturated, they stop actively looking for new relationships and may become entirely closed to the possibility of new relationships until or unless their circumstances change.

Polyamorous people feel differently about polysaturation. Personally, I kind of love the feeling of polysaturation. I find “dating” and actively trying to make romantic connections difficult and demoralising, so being at the point where I am comfortable and satisfied in my romantic life is wonderful. Others dislike it because they feel it limits their options for making connections if they happen to meet someone incredible but don’t have time to pursue a relationship with them.

What is an Average Polysaturation Number?

There’s no one right answer to this, because it depends on so many factors. Physical and mental health, work, child rearing and other caring responsibilities, life stage, geography, finances, and the status of existing relationships are just some of the factors that can play a role in determining someone’s polysaturation point.

I will say, though, that I have been polyamorous for 15 years and I’ve encountered very few people who can manage more than three serious relationships well. Overall, two and three are by far the most common polysaturation numbers.

My own polysaturation point, in case you’re wondering, is currently two serious relationships. I can enjoy situationships, friends-with-benefits, and casual encounters (such as occasional sex parties or swinging) alongside those relationships, because these casual dynamics demand very little in terms of ongoing time commitments or emotional investments. But actual, Capital-R Romantic Relationships with people I’m in love with? Right now it’s two, and I am struggling to imagine that number ever being higher than three.

More Partners =/= Doing Polyamory Better

I know or have known of people with five, seven, ten romantic partners. On the surface, it might look like these people are absolutely killing it in the realm of polyamory. In reality, though? When you look closer at this type of situation, you’ll often see an exhausted, burned-out person who’s massively overcommitted themself and a lot of neglected, pissed off, unsatisfied partners.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But not many.

What you need to let go of here is the idea that having more partners means you’re doing polyamory better. The goal of polyamory isn’t to constantly add new people, to “collect them all” à la Pokémon, or to compete to have more partners than anyone else. The most experienced and successful polyamorous people I know tend to be in anything from one to three committed romantic relationships at a time.

By the way: it’s totally possible to identify as polyamorous but go through a period where your polysaturation point is one partner, or even zero partners. Polyamory is an identity defined by the desire and ability to love and be in relationship with more than one person at a time. It doesn’t mean you always have to be actively doing so. There’s no “poly card” that someone will revoke if you don’t have two or more partners at all times!

How Do I Know If I’m Polysaturated?

When you first started exploring polyamory, you might have had some idea in your head about how many relationships you thought you’d be able to handle. If you’ve been practicing for some time, you might have found that that number is lower in reality than it was in theory. If so, that’s super normal. Many of us underestimate how much time and energy relationships take up, especially with the added complexities inherent in polyamory.

One of the keys to happiness in polyamory, I’ve found, is learning to identify when you’re polysaturated before you accidentally become polyoversaturated. That is, in more relationships than you can actually manage.

Polysaturation feels slightly different for everyone. I experience it as a lack of something, primarily. Specifically, a lack of any desire or inclination to add new romantic partners to my life. It also feels like a sort of “enoughness”, like my needs are being met and I’m satisfied. Kinda like the relationship equivalent of being comfortably full after a great meal, but not overly stuffed!

But in short, you’ll know you are polysaturated when you know – emotionally, intellectually, or both – that you are in a space where you cannot reasonably add any new partners to your life.

What If I’m Polysaturated But Meet Someone So Amazing I Simply Have to Pursue It?

This is a difficult one and I can’t give you a simple answer.

One of the realities of living a successful and happy polyamorous life is accepting that there are simply too many shiny people in the world to ever be able to build relationships with all of them. Sometimes, you have to let a potential interest go because you just do not have enough time in the day and it wouldn’t be fair to yourself, your existing partners, the new person, or others who also rely on you (such as your children or other dependents) to pursue something.

So your first option is simply “decide you don’t have the bandwidth, and leave it alone.”

It’s possible that this new relationship will be a low-time-and-energy-investment one, in which case you might be able to shift things around to accommodate it with relatively little pain and stress. But if it’s a relationship requiring a higher level of investment, particularly in the new relationship energy (NRE) phase, you might have some difficult decisions to make.

What you shouldn’t do, in almost any circumstances, is dump or demote an existing partner to make room for the new one. This is a profoundly shitty thing to do to someone you claim to love. Of course, if one of your relationships isn’t working or isn’t making you happy, you have the right to end it. But you should really be doing that at the point that it’s making you unhappy and isn’t fixable (or worth the energy to fix), not at the point that there’s a New Shiny to step in and fill the gap.

So if this new relationship seems too good to pass up, what can you do?

Be Honest with Yourself and Your Partners

What can you actually offer this new person in terms of time, energy, and current or future commitment? How will those choices impact you and your existing partner(s)?

Be unfailingly honest with everyone, yourself first of all. Don’t convince yourself you have energy or hours in the day that you simply don’t have. Don’t overcommit yourself to the new person just to let them down later. And don’t lie to or mislead your existing partners to get their buy-in if they are understandably reticent about you adding someone knew when you’re already at your polysaturation point.

Look at What Else You Can Move Around

If you decide you do want to pursue the new connection, something else in your life will likely have to give.

You might be able to shift some things around in your life to accommodate the new relationship with minimal disruption to your existing relationships, if you get creative. Is there a hobby or activity you’re willing to let slide (or dedicate a little less time to?) Will the grandparents take your kids for a few hours after school one evening a week to allow you to visit your new sweetie? Do you have the means and flexibility to take one fewer shifts at work or to move your working pattern around a bit?

The answer to all of these things might be no. But if nothing can realistically change and you don’t have the time or energy, then I’m back to my original advice: don’t pursue this new relationship.

Negotiate a Casual Relationship

When you meet someone new and make a connection, you don’t initially know what shape that connection might naturally take. So consider whether you and your new interest would be happy with an occasional, casual, friends-with-benefits or comet-style relationship.

Some relationships cannot be casual. Forcing a relationship that wants to be serious and committed into a casual box will hurt everyone involved and probably blow up in your face. But if circumstances allow and your needs and desires align, negotiating a low-key casual style relationship can be a great way to navigate this situation.

Avoiding Polyoversaturation Before It Happens

“Kid in a candy store syndrome” is a slightly snarky name for the phenomenon of newcomers who discover polyamory and immediately leap into DATING ALL OF THE PEOPLE ALL OF THE TIME. They’re overwhelmed by possibility and the next thing you know, they’ve got twelve partners and their Google Calendar is packed until August… of next year.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation then… I’m sorry. It’s an easy mistake to make and a hard situation to be in. I can’t tell you what to do about it, because it’s obviously not as easy as “just break up with six to eight of those partners to bring your polycule down to manageable numbers.” I will say that a lot of people make this mistake in the early days and things usually even out over time. Still, you might be in for a bumpy ride in the short term.

Experienced polyamorists, by the way, typically won’t date people who do this. We’ve seen it all before and we know the pain, neglect, and frustration it causes.

Fortunately, if you’ve not yet made this mistake, it’s fairly easy to avoid. Instead of seeing polyamory as a smorgasbord where you can indulge yourself without limits, approach dating and relationships with intention. Where possible, build new relationships one at a time (two will be doable for some people, but not for everyone. You know yourself and your capabilities best.) And before you get involved with a new person, take a clear-eyed and critical look at your current situation. Do you actually have the time, energy, and bandwidth?

Remember, to go back to that food analogy: the goal is “pleasantly full,” not “uncomfortably stuffed.” With time and self-awareness, you’ll get to know what that feels like for you.

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