15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Polyamory

Today, 13 March 2024, marks my 15th anniversary of being polyamorous. Of course, knowing how to quantify such things or where to count from isn’t always easy. Personally, I count from the first day that I was in two romantic relationships at the same time (with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved, of course.) For me, this was the day I got together with my first girlfriend – the woman I call my firework – while still being with my then-fiancĂ©.

I’ve changed a lot, many times over, in those intervening fifteen years. Unsurprisingly, neither of those relationships survived for the long-haul. I’ve also learned a few things, even if I still feel like I’m winging it half the time.

So just for fun, here are fifteen things I’ve learned about polyamory and non-monogamy to celebrate fifteen years in this world.

1. You’ll probably never stop feeling as though you’re making it all up as you go along

The nature of non-normative relationships is that there are few roadmaps. Sure, there are books like The Ethical Slut, Polysecure, Polywise and so on but, compared to an entire world of monogamy-centric conditioning and assumptions about how relationships work, a lot of this is relatively unchartered territory.

As you navigate a non-monogamous relationship structure, you’ll likely always feel to some extent like you’re making it up as you go. Embrace it. That journey is part of the fun.

2. Being too rigid about relationship structures is the enemy of happiness

A lot of people enter non-monogamy thinking they know exactly what they want out of their relationships. A closed triad, an open quad, one male and one female partner, a sprawling polycule made up exclusively of neurodivergent queers…

It’s fine to have an idea of what sort of thing might make you happy, but being too rigid about the relationship structures you’re seeking can prevent you from connecting with the actual humans in front of you. Instead, stay open to possibility and accept that it will probably never look exactly like the “ideal” vision you thought you had when you first decided to practice non-monogamy. You know what’s really cool though? It might end up even better.

3. More relationships means more joy, but also more heartbreak

Being polyamorous has brought me tremendous joy. It has also brought me some of the most devastating heartbreaks of my life, including one very recent one.

When you have more relationships, you can experience more of those glorious highs that being in love brings. The flip side of this is that you also have more potential for heartbreak. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, at some point some of your polyamorous relationships will end, and it will suck every bit as much as it does when a monogamous relationship ends.

4. You cannot open a relationship without changing it

I recently wrote an entire huge essay about this, so I won’t recap all those points again here. But many couples come to non-monogamy saying “we want to do this without it changing our relationship.” To which, in the kindest possible way, I say “good luck with that.”

To transition from monogamy to non-monogamy is to change the fundamental structure, foundation, and nature of a relationship. There is no way to make this transition and to keep your relationship the same as it was before. This isn’t something to be afraid of, though. Change can be good. Change can be beautiful.

5. You will likely always feel at least some jealousy at least occasionally

A common misconception from monogamous people is that polyamorous people don’t get jealous. A common misconception from newly polyamorous people is that at some point they will trancend jealousy and simply… never feel it again.

Hah. I wish.

Jealousy is a normal human emotion that we are all susceptible to from time to time. You’ll likely always struggle with it at least occasionally. Instead of fearing it or placing restrictions on your relationships in an attempt to avoid it, though, it’s time to get comfortable with it. Learn to sit with difficult feelings, learn to understand what they’re telling you, and learn to communicate your way through them with your partners.

6. Compersion is lovely but it’s not essential

Compersion – that feeling of warm, fuzzy joy you get when you see your partner happy with one of their other lovers – can be absolutely wonderful. It’s one of my favourite things about polyamory. What it is not, though, is essential. Some people will never feel compersion and can still be happily polyamorous. Many people feel it sometimes but not all the time, with all partners, or in all situations.

Either way is fine. Chasing compersion is likely to just make it even harder to attain, and beating yourself up for not feeling it will make it downright impossible to find.

7. Look for community before you look for partners

When people decide to practice non-monogamy, particularly if they are opening up from an existing couple, they’re likely to ask “where can I/we meet potential partners?” And it’s a fair question, but it’s also not the first one you should be asking.

Instead of looking for partners, look for community. Join groups and forums, go to meetups, attend polyamory events and classes and workshops, and get to know other people doing this thing we call consensual non-monogamy. Finding people to date will fall into place, but you need non-monogamous friends and safe community spaces first.

8. With rare and specific exceptions, mono/poly does not work

I’ve seen a lot of people attempt a mono/poly relationship, where one person wants a monogamous relationship and the other person wants a polyamorous one. If you find that you and a partner or prospective partner have this incompatibility, the best and kindest thing you can do in 95% of cases is break up amicably.

When people attempt to make a mono/poly relationship work, most of the time one or both parties is utterly fucking miserable. Sure, you might be the exception to the rule. But in most cases, the polyamorous person will feel trapped and restricted or the monogamous person will feel sad, jealous and resentful… often both.

9. Humans are extraordinarly bad at predicting how things will make us feel

“Experience shock” is a phenomenon wherein how we think we’ll feel about something in advance does not align with how we actually feel about the thing when it happens. It’s incredibly common and so, so normal. Most of us are really bad at predicting how we will feel about something ahead of time.

Make room for experience shock as you explore non-monogamy, both your own and your partners’. Learn to say “this feels different in practice to how I thought it would in theory.” Learn to talk through difficult feelings as they come up and give yourself and your partners permission to say “I don’t actually know how I will feel about this.”

Most importantly, never ever berate yourself or a partner for having experience shock.

10. Rules and restrictions are almost always a bad way to deal with difficulties

When there’s a challenge in your relationship – particularly a spousal or nesting relationship – or one of you is feeling something difficult, is your impulse to bring in rules and restrictions on outside relationships in an attempt to solve the problem or eliminate the feeling?

I understand the temptation, but this is almost always the wrong approach for several reasons. First, your or your partner’s outside relationships are just as important as the one between the two of you. Those other partners are people with feelings and should not be collateral damage in your relationship issues.

Secondly, if your partner doesn’t want to consider your needs and treat you well, the rules won’t actually compel them to (and if they do want to, the rules are unnecessary.)

Finally, restrictive rules do not build trust and security. If anything, they stifle its growth by strategising around problems instead of actually addressing them.

11. No matter how many partners you have, you will still feel lonely sometimes

Of all the things I’ve learned about polyamory, this one might be the hardest to swallow. Loneliness is a reality of life no matter what relationship structure you practice. Some people think they can avoid loneliness through non-monogamy. After all, if I have enough partners I never have to be alone… right?

Yeah, sorry, it doesn’t work like that. Even if you have ten partners, there will be days when they’re all busy or on other dates or working or sick or otherwise not available to you. And sometimes you’ll feel lonely even if you’re surrounded by people, because that’s just how humans work.

Learning to be comfortable in your own company is a vital skill not just for polyamory, but for relationships in general. Feeling okay alone allows you to approach relationships from a place of curiosity and possibility, not one of desperation, and helps to prevent you from staying too long in relationships that are not working for you.

12. You can probably handle one fewer partners than you think you can when you’re starting out

How many serious relationships do you think you can manage, nurture, and sustain at one time? If you’re new to polyamory or have not yet tested this theory, substract one from the number you just said. That’s more likely to be your actual number.

Polysaturation is real, and oversaturation can be tremendously damaging, both for the person experiencing it and for their partners. To avoid becoming oversaturated, start one relationship at a time and give that relationship plenty of time to grow, mature, and settle into the form it wants to take before you start any others.

I have met very few polyamorous people who can successfully handle more than three serious relationships. Those people exist, but they are the exception.

13. NRE is fun, but long-term love is where the really good stuff is

New relationship energy (NRE), also known as the honeymoon period, is that giddy love-drunk feeling at the start of a new relationship where you can’t get enough of the other person. Polyamory allows you to experience NRE multiple times throughout your life without needing to lose any existing relationships.

NRE is a lot of fun. It’s also finite, kinda exhausting after a while, and can cause its own problems. Long-term love, though? That’s where the real magic is for me. When you’ve overcome challenges, had each other’s backs, and seen each other at your worst and you’re still totally in love. For me, the security and comfort and safety that comes with this kind of love – and the ability to have that with multiple people – is one of the greatest joys of polyamory.

14. Most metamour problems are actually hinge problems

Not getting along with your metamour – your partner’s partner – is a real concern for many polyamorous people. However, I’ve realised over the years that most problems with metamours are actually problems with the hinge partner (that is, the person in the middle.)

If your metamour’s behaviour is damaging your relationship with your shared partner, they have a responsibility to manage the situation. They should be setting boundaries, advocating for their relationship with you, or keeping the relationships parallel. They should not be playing you and your metamour off against each other or sacrificing your relationship to placate another person.

If you think you have a metamour problem, you probably have a hinge problem. This isn’t universally true, of course, but it is true the vast majority of the time.

15. There are no experts

Whenever I’m writing, speaking, being quoted, or teaching a class about polyamory, I am always very firm that I am not under any circumstances to be referred to as a “polyamory expert.” This is because I don’t believe there are any experts. We’re all just imperfect humans working this thing out as we go along (see #1 on this list!) Some of us are sharing the wisdom we’ve gathered, but none of us actually have it entirely figured out.

Not to mention, in the last few years we’ve seen what happens when certain voices are elevated and exalted too much and for too long in this community.

So there you have it. Fifteen things I’ve learned from fifteen years in polyamory. Whether you’ve been doing this for five minutes or for so long it puts my mere decade and a half to shame, I’d love to know the most important lessons you’ve learned about non-monogamy on your journey!

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