Exclusivity Clauses in a Non-Exclusive Relationship [Polyamory Conversation Cards #14]

So you’re totally on board with this polyamory thing. Perhaps you and your partner have just recently opened up to polyamory, perhaps you’ve decided to give solo polyamory a go, or perhaps you’ve been practicing for a long time. Regardless of your circumstances, this situation might be familiar:

Your partner does a particular thing that they usually do with you – such as a sex act, a date activity, or a romantic gesture – with another partner (or lets you know that they want to.) Bam, you’re madly jealous! That’s your thing, damnit!

Now most people, at this stage, will do one of two things. They’ll try to work through the feelings, or they’ll attempt to prevent their partner from doing that thing with that person (or perhaps with anyone else.) Today we’re talking about the latter.

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:

“Is there anything that you’d prefer to keep exclusive between you and a specific partner?”

So today we’re going to talk about exclusivity rules, or exclusivity clauses, in polyamorous relationship agreements.

What do we mean by exclusivity clauses in a polyamorous, open, or non-exclusive relationship?

First, let’s clarify what I don’t mean. This post is not about polyfidelity (also known as a closed polyamorous relationship in which a group, polycule, or romantic network of three or more people agree to keep their relationship configuration closed to the possibility of new relationships.) That’s a different dynamic entirely and not one I feel particularly qualified to comment on at the moment.

Instead, we’re talking about polyamorous relationships that allow for the people in them to date and form relationships with new people.

Polyamory is, by definition, a non-exclusive relationship. However, that doesn’t mean absolutely every aspect of the relationship is non-exclusive. An exclusivity clause, then, is an agreement in which certain aspects of a relationship are reserved for one dyad (or, more rarely, for one triad, quad, or other group relationship.)

Most often, I see exclusivity clauses in polyamorous relationships fall into one of four categories:

  • Life sharing/escalator exclusivity (e.g. “you can only live with me,” or “you can only have children with me.”)
  • Sexual exclusivity (e.g. “don’t have sex with anyone else in my favourite position” or “you’re only allowed to have unbarriered sex with me.”)
  • Romantic exclusivity (e.g. “don’t tell anyone else you love them” or “don’t call anyone else by my favourite pet name.”)
  • Activity exclusivity (e.g. “you can’t take vacations with anyone else” or “sushi is OUR thing.”

There is overlap, of course, and there may be exclusivity agreements I haven’t thought of that don’t fit into these categories. Overwhelmingly, though, these are the key patterns I have noticed.

Why do people want exclusivity around particular aspects of their relationships?

When people ask me what I think of certain aspects of their polyamorous relationship agreements, what I find myself wanting to ask most often is “why?”

Why do you have or want that agreement? Why have you made that rule? And why do you feel so strongly about that specific thing? The answers, when we ask ourselves and each other these questions and dare to be honest about our answers, can be incredibly illuminating.

So why do people want exclusivity agreements in a fundamentally non-exclusive relationship?

Most often, the reason that people want exclusivity clauses in their polyamorous relationship agreements have to do with jealousy, insecurity, and needing to feel special. These are all real, valid feelings that we all have from time to time. But is an exclusity clause the best way to address them? Maybe, sometimes. Often, probably not.

In many cases, it is better to address the root cause of the jealousy or insecurity. Living happily in any kind of non-exclusive relationship requires this of all of us at least occasionally. You might find that it’s not about the actual thing your partner wants to do at all. You might be worried about losing specialness in the relationship (more on that in a minute), about being replaced, or about your partner enjoying that activity with someone else more than they enjoy it with you.

In some cases, the desire for exclusivity clauses than come from a place other than jealousy or insecurity. For example, agreements around nesting exclusivity (“I live with this partner and we’ve agreed we don’t want to live with anyone else”) can help to create domestic safety and financial security for the partners as well as for children or other dependents.

They are sometimes also made necessary by choosing a certain style of polyamory. You can’t exactly live with multiple partners if you practice parallel polyamory, for example.

So before you go any further, get really honest with yourself and your partner(s). Why do you want exclusivity around that particular thing? What fear, emotion, unmet need, or relationship desire would that exclusivity meet?

Are exclusivity clauses ever ethically okay?

I’m going to give a cautious “yes, sometimes” to this one, with a lot of caveats.

As a general rule, I do not believe in restricting partners’ other relationships. However, I also don’t think it’s inherently wrong, toxic, or even hierarchical to carefully and with great consideration keep some things exclusive to a particular relationship.

Here’s a very quick litmus test you might want to use to determine if your exclusivity agreement is fair and reasonable or not:

  1. Is it narrow and specific, or broad and sweeping? (“Please don’t take other partners to the restaurant where you proposed to me” is different from “you can’t eat Italian food with anyone else.”) I’ll go into this in more detail below.
  2. Does the agreement place an undue hardship or limit on another relationship? (“Can this particular favourite vacation spot be a special place just for the two of us?” is unlikely to place such a hardship. “You’re not allowed to ever travel with anyone else” almost certainly does.)

In addition, consider whether exclusivity agreements are available to all your partners or just one. Ideally, you should be free to create special and unique things with all of your partners, not just a spouse, nesting partner, or “primary” (if you subscribe to hierarchy.)

Personally, I’m not necessarily opposed to creating limited and specific exclusivity clauses with partners around special and personal aspects of our relationships. But that possibility is available to anyone I’m in a relationship with, not just my nesting partner.

Exclusivity can be ethically given or negotiated, but not ethically demanded

If you and one (or more) of your partners decide to keep something exclusive between the two of you, I’m not going to tell you not to. However, it’s important that you come to these agreements mutually and from a place of equality. It is never okay to unilaterally place a rule or restriction on your partner(s) and metamour(s) without their input.

In other words, ask for what you want and need rather than making demands. You might find your partner is happy to give it to you, or you might find that you can negotiate and meet the same need in a different way.

Exclusivity might help less than you think it will

You feel bad when your partner does that thing with someone else. So you’ll simply forbid them from doing that thing with anyone else! Problem solved, right?

Well, maybe not.

This seemingly obvious and intuitive answer to this problem often helps people less than they think it will. That’s because, as we’ve already discussed, difficult feelings such as jealousy, insecurity, envy, competitiveness, and fear of inadequacy aren’t usually rational. They don’t usually stem from the things that might initially seem to be their causes. Instead, they come from much deeper places – from personal fears and demons, past trauma, mononormative societal programming, and more.

This all means that simply instituting an exclusivity clause around a specific act or activity may not help you all that much. Because that particular thing might not be pressing your emotional button any more, but the button is still there. This means that it is only a matter of time before something else pushes it. And – assuming you want to be ethically, healthily, and happily polyamorous – you cannot simply place new restrictions or exclusivity clauses every time something pushes an emotional button.

Your specialness comes from you, not acts or activities

I understand the worry that, if your partner does the same activities or sex acts or goes to the same restaurants with other partners, you will lose your specialness.

However, your specialness to your partner actually comes from you. It does not come from the things you do, and it certainly cannot be diminished or taken away by the things they might or might not do with someone else.

Think about something you love doing with your partner. Now imagine removing them from the situation and slotting someone else in instead. Does the activity feel the same with that other person? Of course it doesn’t. Because doing it with your partner is what makes it special.

Even if your partner goes to the same restaurants, does the same sex acts, and says the same loving words to both you and your metamour, the experience will be different with each of you. Because you are different people. There is something innately and beautifully empowering in realising that someone else cannot possibly be better than you at being you.

Finding special things that don’t restrict others

I understand the need and desire for a sense of specialness in a relationship. It’s a need I hold very strongly myself. That’s why I think it’s totally okay – and even desirable – to have special things in a relationship. Some of those things might be exclusive to a particular relationship, by accident or by design.

Relationships don’t need to all look the same in order to be egalitarian. In practice, it would be deeply strange to attempt to make all your relationships look the same. I might find it a bit weird, for example, if a partner started taking me to all the places that were special to them and another partner. And I’d find it exceptionally strange if Partner B began asking to do things they’d never previously shown an interest in just because I’d done those things with Partner A.

The trick is to find and carve out special things with each of your partners. In good relationships, these will naturally emerge over time. There might be a special nickname you call them or a particular place you go together. A series you save to watch together, or sex toys or kink gear you buy just for the two of you. Inside jokes, funny anecdotes, and so on. All of these form part of the identity of your relationship, and keeping them exclusive likely feels natural and normal, creating no hardship in any of your other relationships.

Keep it specific and limited

In general, I advocate keeping your “exclusive things”, if you have them, quite narrow and specific. Think more “this particular event is a thing we do together whenever we can,” not “you are forbidden to ever attend kink nights/music festivals/costume parties with anyone else.” More “baby is a nickname we call each other and won’t use with our other partners,” less “don’t tell anyone else you love them.”

The specificity of these “special things” is one of the most beautiful aspects of relationships, to me. Who cares if no-one else understands why we love that stupid TV show so much? Or if our friends don’t get why we crease up every time we hear that particular word or phrase? Or if our other partners think our mutual favourite food is gross? Those things are special because they are ours. Because we have co-created them together.

Once you start thinking about all the little things that make up the identity of a relationship, you start to realise how many unique and beautiful things you and each of your partners already has between you. Each of those things is a tile making up – if you’ll pardon a possibly trite metaphor – the wonderful and entirely unique mosaic of your connection.

Stay flexible

Relationship agreements in polyamory (and really, in any relationship but particularly a non-exclusive relationship) are living, breathing, changing things. Therefore, it is important that you stay flexible and open to change. You or your partner may feel fine about an exclusivity clause right now, but decide you want to change it later on. A new lover or metamour might have strong feelings about it that need to be taken into consideration. This is not to say that you must change it, of course, but you should be prepared to at least keep lines of negotiation open.

You might also find that, as time passes, you no longer need the exclusivity clause. Perhaps the thing that felt intolerable earlier on in your polyamory journey now feels far more comfortable, or at least acceptable. You might also choose to keep it long-term, and that’s fine too as long as you do so ethically and fairly. Hopefully, whatever you choose, you’ll naturally find all kinds of beautiful and unique wonderfulness in each of your connections.

Do you have any exclusivity clauses in your polyamorous, open, or non-exclusive relationship(s)? How do they work for you and how did you come to them?

What is Couples’ Privilege and How Can It Impact Polyamorous Relationships? [Polyamory Conversation Cards #8]

Hardly anyone enjoys talking about privilege, and even fewer people enjoy facing and acknowledging the privileges that they benefit from. It’s deeply uncomfortable to recognise that we might be benefitting from unearned advantages, and particularly when those benefits come at the cost of harm to others.

However, if we want to create a more just and equal world, it’s vital that we are willing to look our privilege in the face and then begin to dismantle it. Today I want to talk about one of the most insidious and often overlooked aspects of inequality: couples’ privilege.

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:

“Do you prioritise any of your relationships over your other relationships and if so, in what way?”

I wrote a huge essay last year about hierarchy, priority, and power in polyamory. Executive summary: we all have different priorities in our lives and priorities can shift over time. This isn’t necessarily hierarchy. A hierarchy exists when one party has power over others, and/or when one party expects, demands, or is given priority at all times and in all situations.

Couples’ privilege is intimately linked with relationship hierarchy. But it is also a slightly separate thing and, in polyamory, manifests in specific and often harmful ways.

So what is couples’ privilege, exactly?

When we talk about “privilege” more broadly, we are talking about unearned benefits or advantages that are conferred on one group of people over others due to some aspect of their identity, background, or circumstances. White privilege, straight privilege, cisgender privilege, and male privilege are some common and pervasive examples you may be aware of.

Couples’ privilege, then, refers to the advantages and benefits conferred on those who are in (or appear to be in, or are assumed to be in) a socially-sanctioned monogamous couple.

There are layers to couples’ privilege: monogamous or mono-presenting couples who live apart have it, but nested couples have more of it and married couples have even more still. Some aspects of couples’ privilege are more readily afforded to those with children. And so on. Couples’ privilege intersects with LGBTQ+ oppression, but monogamous or mono-presenting queer couples can also have couples’ privilege.

How does couples’ privilege manifest in society as a whole?

As with other types of privilege, couples’ privilege is insidious because those who have it do not usually recognise that they have it. It becomes tremendously apparent, however, when you lack it. Before we get into any of the specific ways that couples’ privilege plays out in polyamory, let’s look at some of the ways it manifests in society as a whole.

Not all couples will necessarily benefit from all of these examples, but all couples will likely benefit from at least some (and often many) of them.

Examples of Couples’ Privilege in Society

  • Significant financial advantages, such as tax breaks, can come from marriage
  • Housing becomes much more accessible and affordable as a couple. Splitting the rent or mortgage with a partner is so much cheaper than getting a one-bedroom alone
  • Shopping and cooking for two is much more cost-effective than for one
  • If you want to have children, access to fertility treatments, fostering, or adoption is much easier if you are part of a couple in many parts of the world
  • Travelling alone is much more expensive (and, for some people, much less safe)
  • Everything from restaurant tables to hotel rooms to holiday packages are sold with the assumption that two people will be sharing them
  • In friendship groups where most people are coupled up, those who are not are often either left out of activities or made to feel like “the third wheel”
  • Invitations to events such as parties, weddings, and work socials that include a +1 come with the assumption that that person will be your romantic partner (and you’ll be pitied if you come alone or looked at weirdly if you bring a platonic friend or family member instead)…
  • …Or single people don’t get a +1 at all
  • The normative models of romance that society shoves down our throats – particularly around holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas – can make anyone who isn’t living that ideal feel less-than
  • Our society views committed, monogamous, romantic love as a default that everyone should either have or be looking for, casting single people as incomplete and people who opt for other relationship models as deviant

How does couples’ privilege manifest in polyamory?

In polyamory, the closer a couple appears to be to the societal monogamous ideal, the more couples’ privilege they will have. This means that married and/or nested couples enjoy numerous advantages that solo polyamorists and those in non-nesting relationships cannot access. In addition, those who present as “socially monogamous” and hide their other relationships often enjoy more couples’ privilege than those who are more open about their polyamory.

In polyamorous relationships, couples’ privilege can often reinforce relationship hierarchies and power structures, causing serious harm to partners outside of the privileged dyad. Let’s look at some of the ways that this can manifest.

Again, not all of these examples will be relevant to all situations. But it is likely that all polyamorous people in a marital or nesting relationship will benefit from at least some of them. Again, this is far from an exhaustive list.

Examples of Couples’ Privilege in Polyamory

  • When an existing couple opens their relationship, they assume that they get to make the rules and incoming partners must abide by them
  • If unbarried sex is only available to certain partners, the marital/nesting partner will usually have access to it by default
  • Various relationship milestones such as living together, having children, or marriage may only be available to one partner
  • Financial and legal benefits, from inheritance rights to hospital visitation, may only be available to one partner
  • Permission dynamics in which couples have to ask one another before they can date a new person, escalate a relationship, or even see an existing partner
  • Rules that restrict certain activities, date locations, and sex acts to the original couple
  • If the couple is not “out” as polyamorous, other partners may not get to meet their partner’s friends and family, post about their relationship on social media, or appear as a couple in public
  • Conflict resolution is easier if you live together
  • If a couple has problems, they may close down the relationship again or end, restrict, or “backburner” other relationships in order to focus on their dyad regardless of the pain this causes to those other partners
  • “Not in our house”/”not in our bed” rules that put a significant logistical or financial burden on external relationships
  • Veto power, whether explicit or implicit. After all, it’s easy for a married or nested couple to say “we don’t have veto power”. But if one of them ever wants to close the relationship or puts an “it’s them or me” ultimatum on the table, other partners are not on equal footing and the more priviliged partner is far more likely to win
  • Unicorn hunting, which creates relationships with unequal power dynamics in which the original couple gets to make all the decisions

How does couples’ privilege impact other partners?

The problem with privilege, ultimately, is the harm it causes to those who do not have it. In polyamory, couples’ privilege primarily negatively impacts other partners who date one or both members of a couple.

Unfortunately, some couples choose – consciously or unconsciously – to wield couples’ privilege as a weapon. These couples are usually the ones who only date together, the ones with heaps of restrictive rules, the ones with heavily permission-based dynamics, and the ones who explicitly or implicitly use the threat of a veto to keep other partners in line.

In far more cases, though, couples’ privilege causes harm not through any malicious intent but through a lack of awareness and good intentions gone awry. Most of us are extraordinarily bad at truly recognising the extent and impact of our own privilege.

Falling in love with someone who is steeped in unexamined or unaddressed couples’ privilege is its own special kind of pain. At the extreme end of things, partners outside the privileged dyad may feel as though they can never truly be safe or secure, because an external party could restrict or take away their relationship at any moment.

They may also continually feel less-than, sidelined, or ignored. Having to hide your relationship while your metamour is openly acknowledged by your partner, for example, can be acutely painful. Similarly, it can be difficult to feel like an actual player in your own relationship if a third party is making the rules or has to be asked for permission before you can see one another, have sex, do a certain activity, or progress your relationship.

How can we mitigate the harm couples’ privilege causes in our other relationships?

In our current society it is, unfortunately, pretty much impossible to entirely eliminate couples’ privilege. The entire world, or so it seems, is built to uphold, promote, and support the monogamous dyadic relationship and the nuclear family.

Even so, there are actually lots of things you can do to limit the impact and mitigate the harm it can cause if you are a beneficiary of couples’ privilege.

When it comes to how to actually reduce the impact of couples’ privilege in polyamorous relationships, I’m going to come at this from two angles: reducing insidious and unintentional couples’ privilege, and how not to use couples’ privilege as a weapon. I think these are two slightly different issues.

How not to use couples’ privilege as a weapon

It’s really easy, especially when you’re new to polyamory, to use couples’ privilege as a weapon. Almost no-one who does this actually wants to hurt other people, though! In the vast majority of cases, people do it because it helps them to feel safer, more secure, or less threatened.

And I get that. I really do. Polyamory can be frightening and can drag up all kinds of fears, insecurities, and layers of pain.

Couples’ privilege can give the illusion of security, particularly when you’re new to non-monogamy. That illusion is incredibly seductive. After all, if things get too big and too scary you can just slam the lid back on and close the relationship. Or you can just add a few more restrictions and limitations until you and your original partner feel comfortable. Right? Well, not so fast.

Those other people who are dating you or your partner? They’re human beings with feelings and needs. And they have every bit as much right to be there as you do. (Yes, even if you’ve been there longer.)

What’s more, wielding couples’ privilege as a blunt tool to help you feel more secure won’t actually work. You don’t build security, trust, and safety in a relationship by restricting your partner or using other people’s hearts as collateral damage in assuaging your own fears and insecurities.

What you can do instead

Instead of using your couples’ privilege to keep yourself safe, work on building actual security in your relationships. Ask for what you want and need from your partners (and no, “I want more than my metamours get” doesn’t count.)

Work on your self-esteem and confidence, with the help of a therapist if possible. Seek out polyamorous communities, resources, and friends who can support you on this journey. When you feel difficult feelings, learn to sit with them. Interrogate them, ask yourself what they’re telling you, and learn how to communicate non-violently with your partners about them.

In the past, I’ve wielded couples’ privilege carelessly and harmfully in an effort to keep myself safe. It not only didn’t work, it harmed my partners, my metamours, my relationships, and myself. When I realised this, two things happened:

  1. I felt deep shame for my behaviours.
  2. I had to seriously question whether I was actually capable of being polyamorous.

Somewhere deep inside, I knew the answer to that second question was “yes.” However, it took years of deep personal work (with the love and support of my partners) to do the personal growth and build the skills toolkit I needed to actually do it well. Learn from my mistakes – do that growth and build those skills before you hurt yourself, someone else, or your relationships.

Reducing the unintentional impacts of couples’ privilege

In many ways, unintentional couples’ privilege is the hardest to mitigate. A lot of this stuff is societal and systemic, and that makes it almost impossible for individuals or couples to overcome. However, mitigating it as much as possible begins with awareness. You need to understand how couples’ privilege works and the ways in which you may not be able to see it.

I don’t have any easy answers to this. As with all forms of inequality, dismantling couples’ privilege and its harmful effects is an ongoing – probably lifelong – commitment. I do have a few thoughts on things that can help, though.

Question Yourself

Now that you’re aware of couples’ privilege and how insidious it can be, you can start to more consciously view your choices through that lens. When you make a relationship decision, ask yourself “does this protect or uphold the socially-sanctioned dyad at the expense of another person or relationship?” If so, chances are couples’ privilege is in play.

Question your motivations, too. Why do you feel the need to behave in a certain way? If it’s because That’s Just The Way Things Are Done, to assuage insecurities, to follow the social norm, or to reinforce the primacy of one partner or relationship… yup. Couples’ privilege.

Be Honest and Upfront

It’s absolutely vital to state any limitations that will apply to relationships upfront to new partners. If you already have a nesting partner and don’t want to live with anyone else, for example, that’s fine – but you need to be honest about it. This means that you are not leading anyone on with the hope of something you are unable or unwilling to offer them.

For plenty of prospective partners, this will work fine! Perhaps they’re solo, already have their own nesting partner, or are just happy to have a different type of relationship with you.

If you and your existing partner have a lot of rules, a veto agreement, or a permission dynamic, new partners also absolutely need and deserve to know these things upfront. Many people – including most experienced polyamorists – will opt out if your rules and restrictions are too extensive. But, if you are going to operate in this way, at least give people the information ahead of time and allow them to make an informed choice before their hearts get involved.

Come Out When and If You Can

This is a complex one, because there are all kinds of legitimate reasons not to be out as polyamorous or non-monogamous. Child custody, housing problems, and losing relationships with loved ones are just some of the common reasons I hear about.

I’m not going to judge your reasons and I’m certainly not going to tell you that you have to come out if it feels impossible, unsafe, or if the potential cost is too high. However, being open about one relationship and closeted about others can emphasise and perpetuate aspects of couples’ privilege.

I’m out to most people in my life, but not absolutely everyone. And I am very aware that, in those circumstances where I’m not out, this confers additional couples’ privilege on my nesting relationship.

If it’s safe and possible for you to do so, being out as polyamorous – even in a limited way and to select people – can help to reduce the impact of couples’ privilege and the pain of being “hidden” for your other partners.

Listen to Your Other Partners

If you’re not sure how partners outside of your married/nesting dyad are feeling about a choice you’ve made, ask them. And if they express that things feel unfair to them or that couples’ privilege is hurting them, listen. Do not get defensive, try to shut the conversation down, or tell them that they’re imagining things.

Pay attention to all partners’ wants and needs and, wherever possible, try to meet them. Never put one partner’s wants over another’s needs (and learn to tell the difference!) When you need to make a relationship decision, consult everyone who it impacts and seek compromise that honours everyone’s needs and the importance of all relationships as best you can.

Cultivate and Maintain Individuality

One of the most damaging societal narratives around relationships is that a couple is no longer two separate people, but a single unit. I find this creepy in monogamy, and outright harmful in polyamory. If a couple cannot operate in the world as two separate people, then they cannot build and maintain healthy and stable relationships with other people.

Seriously: individuality is one of the most powerful antidotes to couples’ privilege. Decoupling (not to be confused with breaking up!) is the process of stepping away from your joint identity as “a couple” and coming instead into identities as two separate people who are in relationship because you love each other and make each other happy. In other words, breaking out of the codependency and extreme enmeshment that modern relationship norms uphold and celebrate.

The Relationship Bill of Rights states “You have the right… to have relationships with people, not with relationships.” If you and your partner cannot decouple and function as individuals, you are absolutely doomed to mistreat and harm anyone who gets into an intimate relationship with either of you. Seriously. Being in a relationship with a highly codependent relationship, even (or especially) when you’re ostensibly only actually dating one of the people in it, is hell.

The article The Most Skipped Step When Opening a Relationship is an excellent primer on decoupling (unfortunately you’ll now need a Medium account to read it, but it’s worth it.)

Accept that Any Relationship May Change or End Someday

The final thing I’m going to say in this section is probably going to be the hardest for most people to swallow. To be successfully and ethically polyamorous, you have to be at peace with the possibility that any of your relationships may someday end.

If you view one particular relationship as essential and unendable, then you’re in a defacto hierarchy. That person (and that relationship) will always receive priority over others. This sounds nebulous, but I’ve found it to be one of the most important aspects of reducing unintentional couples’ privilege.

In my experience, it’s always people who believe they absolutely cannot live without one particular partner who display the most egregious and damaging levels of couples’ privilege. That’s because what this tells me is that – however much we love each other and however serious our relationship gets – I’m ultimately disposable and they’ll throw me under the bus to protect that other relationship if things get difficult.

Addressing couples’ privilege is a lifelong process

As I’ve said, there are no fast or easy answers to this. Our society affirms and entrenches couples’ privilege at every level and in countless ways. For those of us doing relationships differently, we have to accept that addressing and mitigating couples’ privilege is likely a battle we will always be fighting. That might sound daunting – and it is! – but I promise it’s worth it. When we challenge couples’ privilege and the social norms it upholds, we get to have richer, more fulfilling, and kinder relationships that can look a huge variety of different ways.

If we want to be ethically polyamorous, I believe that we have to be willing to face couples’ privilege and challenge it. I’ve seen too many times what happens when we don’t.

Let’s Talk About Money and Polyamory [Polyamory Conversation Cards #7]

Ahh, money. Is any subject – apart from sometimes sex – harder for people to talk about with their partners? Though I couldn’t find any reliable statistics to back this up, some experts say that arguments about money are the number one source of conflict in intimate relationships.

I hate to talk about money. It still feels so taboo, even though I know it’s important. It makes me cringe. And in polyamorous relationships, I’ve found I end up having more of these conversations because, well, there are more relationships and therefore more people to talk about money, financial limitations, and other such difficult subjects with.

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:

“What financial resources can you freely spend on your various relationships?”

So I thought it was time to do a deep dive into a relatively under-discussed reality of polyamorous living: the financial aspect. Let’s talk about money and polyamory.

“Monogamy? In This Economy!?”

This particular phrase has become something of a running joke and the subject of numerous memes within the polyamorous community. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek but, like so many jokes, there’s also a grain of truth to it.

Now, I don’t know of anyone who has actually chosen to become polyamorous specifically to bring in a higher household income and offset the cost of living crisis. I have, however, seen more polyamorous networks and families choosing to live together, pool their resources, share expenses, or otherwise combine finances to make everyone’s money go further.

With the right people, this can be hugely beneficial. You can potentially get a bigger place to live. Economy of scale means that things like groceries will be cheaper when you’re shopping and cooking for more people. And, of course, more people means that the loss of one income – if there’s a sudden illness, accident, or redundancy, for example – is likely to be less disastrous.

There are also challenges alongside these benefits, of course. Sharing finances requires a tremendous level of trust. You may or may not have this trust with all your partners and metamours. You’ll need to talk about money and finances regularly not just with one person, but potentially with several. And if you move in together too early out of economic necessity, this can do more harm than good to relationships and your entire polycule.

How Do Polyamorous People, Networks and Families Handle Finances?

As with almost any question that begins “how do polyamorous people…?”, there is no single answer and virtually anyone you ask will tell you something slightly different. So let’s look at a few common ways that polyamorous networks and families handle their finances.

I can’t tell you which model is the best for you and your family or polycule. It’s a personal decision and will depend on an array of factors including your relationship structure, length of relationships, levels of trust and communication between metamours, geography, and more.

Totally Separate Finances

Even in some monogamous relationships, couples maintain totally separate finances. And in certain types of polyamory, this is a pretty common way to do things. In this setup, you do not blend finances with any of your partners. Your income, accounts, debts, and financial obligations are solely your own. You may or may not even talk about money and financial matters with your partners.

It’s not possible to completely separate your finances from a partner’s if you are legal spouses. It’s also difficult if you live together, since you may have a lease agreement or mortgage in both/all names (and if not, you have a massive power disparity in favour of the person whose name is on the lease or mortgage) as well as shared bills. But if you’re solo, unmarried or non-nesting, this is a popular choice as it allows you to maintain the most financial independence and autonomy.

Blended Finances with One Partner

This is what you’ll see most commonly for polyamorous people who are married or have a nesting partner. In these situations, one dyad blends their finances to whatever extent works for them. In other relationships outside of that dyad, finances are separate.

This can make sense in some circumstances. However, it can also create difficulties. If your finances are highly entangled with one partner, for example, how do you go about paying for dates with other partners? It’s navigable but it requires careful negotiation and clarity about agreements. You’ll need to learn to talk about money openly, non-judgementally, and non-emotionally with your partners to ensure that things feel fair and equitable for everyone.

Blended Finances as a Family or Polycule

In this setup, more than two people combine their finances. This might include things like living together, sharing bills and other expenses, buying property together, and having joint bank accounts.

It’s a common misconception that you can’t have more than two names on a bank account or mortgage. In many places – including the US and UK – at least some banks will allow more than two people to share an account. In the UK, some lenders will allow up to 4 people to be named on a mortgage. And in the US, there is no legal limit but most lenders won’t allow more than 4 or 5 people. So you will need to shop around but, depending on where you live, it may be possible to get a bank account and rent or buy a property with your polyamorous family.

Of course, this requires a lot of intimacy and trust with everyone who is included in the shared financial network. It’s not something I recommend entering into quickly or lightly. And, of course, you should seek professional advice to ensure everyone is properly protected if things go south or something unexpected happens.

Partially Blended, Partially Separate Finances

Anecdotally, this is the most common arrangement I’ve seen for polyamorous people who have at least one nesting partner. In this setup, some financial assets are shared and others are kept separate. One common way to do this is to have a joint account for bills and household expenses, and then separate accounts for disposable income or “fun” money.

You can also do this with more than one partner, by the way. Want to have a shared account with your nesting partner to save for redecorating the kitchen and another account with your long distance partner to save for a trip together? Have at it.

…And Other Arrangments?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about polyamorous people, it’s that we are a creative bunch. We can come up with nearly endless ways to structure, define, and personalise our relationships. So why not do the same with our financial arrangements? As long as everything is legal and fair, there are endless possibilities here.

Instead of doing what you think you’re “supposed” to do, ask yourself what actually works for you, your partners, and your metamours. Talk about money, talk about your wants and needs, and craft something accordingly that is entirely your own.

Let’s Talk About Money, Legal Marriage, and Polyamorous Finances

I am not any kind of expert and nothing I say in this section should be taken as legal or financial advice in any way whatsoever. You should consult a financial planner and a family lawyer in your area to advise you on how to manage your and your family’s finances.

With a few very limited exceptions, polygamy is illegal pretty much everywhere. In other words, if you want to get legally married, you can only marry one person.

There’s nothing to stop you having a committment ceremony, religiously or spiritually marrying without the legal piece, exchanging rings or other tokens of love, or calling each other husband/wife/spouse with as many partners as you want. But these things do not confer any of the legal or financial benefits of a marriage your government recognises.

The choice to marry can be a complicated one when you’re polyamorous. It can feel like you’re declaring one of your partners as “real” or “most important“. And even if you don’t see it that way… well, wider society (and the government) definitely will.

If you come into polyamory already legally married, a certain amount of unavoidable couple’s privilege is baked in. Open Relating defines couple’s privilege as: “the largely unchallenged mainstream acceptance of the inherent importance and supremacy of a dyad relationship (mostly exclusive and primarily between a woman and a man).”

I’ve known some couples take the extreme step of getting a divorce (while remaining in a romantic relationship) in order to eliminate this couple’s privilege. If you want to take this step, go in with your eyes open. By removing legal marriage, you potentially lose literally hundreds of legal and financial protections. Make sure you have an alternative plan and don’t do something this drastic as a symbolic gesture without thinking it through.

So What Else Can We Do?

Whether or not it makes sense for you to marry is a highly personal choice. If you live with and share finances with one partner, you might decide it’s the smart choice for the two of you. Conversely, you might decide you never want to marry – because you disagree with the institution, because of the hierarchy it can imply, or for another reason. If you’re solo polyamorous, a relationship anarchist, or otherwise prefer high levels of independence and autonomy, you might also make the personal decision that legally entangling your financial life with another person is off limits.

There are no right or wrong answers here. What matters is that you think it through and make fully informed choices that make sense for you and your loved ones.

In some cases, there are steps you can take to replace some of the benefits of legal marriage (or extend them to more than one partner.) Wills, life insurance policies, and medical power of attorney are just some of the options that may be available to you. Other benefits of legal marriage are, unfortunately, pretty much impossible to entirely replicate in any other way.

If you’re not married and don’t intend to be, consult a lawyer and financial planner to ensure that you, your partners, and any children or other dependents are protected in the event that something happens to one of you. If you are married or intending to marry one partner and you also want to share financial benefits and protections with another partner or partners… yeah, consult a lawyer and financial planner.

This stuff is complex. It’s also different in every country or state. I cannot stress this enough: get professional advice.

Rules and Agreements About Money in Polyamorous Relationships

If you’ve been reading my work on polyamory recently, you’ll know that I have come to dislike relationships with lots of rules. In general, I believe that adults shouldn’t be imposing rules and restrictions on one another and that all parties in a relationship should have an equal voice in the issues and agreements that impact them.

With that said, I see a lot of polyamorous people – particularly married, nested, or hierarchical “primary” couples – making strict rules around finances. This might include rules like limiting how much can be spent on other partners, setting a spending limit on dating, or requiring one partner to ask the other for permission before spending money on another relationship.

I understand the implse here. Financial struggles can be terrifying and you want to make sure the person you’ve entangled your finances with is going to meet their obligations. Here’s the thing, though: if they’re going to, you don’t need the rule. And if they’re not going to, the rule won’t protect you anyway.

My general take on this is that you should only entangle finances with someone you trust. If you need a rule to compel someone not to spend hundreds of dollars on a date when they can’t afford their portion of the mortgage, then you probably shouldn’t have a joint mortgage with that person.

So How Can I Protect Myself Financially in a Relationship?

This is not to say, of course, that I think polyamory should be an irresponsible financial free-for-all. Quite the opposite. When we enter into relationships with other humans, those relationships come with some obligations. In some circumstances, this can include an obligation to be responsible with money and meet shared expenses. I just don’t think that placing rules and restrictions on each other is the way to achieve this interdependence and mutual sense of responsibility.

What you can and should do, instead of trying to restrict your partner(s) or place strict rules on them about how they manage their money, is make agreements about shared money and set boundaries around your own money and relationship to financial matters.

Agreements about shared money can look like:

  • “We will each put $x into the joint account when we get paid each month. This money is for bills, groceries and household expenses but not for fun or discretionary spending.”
  • “We will each contribute $x to a shared savings account and this money is not to be touched unless we both agree to do so.”
  • “Money from our shared account is not to be used for dates, gifts, or activities with other partners.”
  • “Money from our shared account can be used for dates, gifts, or activities with other partners up to a limit of $x assuming other financial obligations are taken care of. Anything above that amount must be discussed in advance.”
  • “Our individual money is our own and, as long as we each meet our financial obligations to the household each month, we have no say over how the other chooses to spend their money.”
  • “Since one of us earns much more than the other, we will split shared expenses proportionally to our income unless otherwise agreed.”
  • “We will check in about our shared finances and re-evaluate our budget every six months or more often if a significant change occurs (such as a new job, job loss, or serious illness.)”

Personal financial boundaries can look like:

  • “I prefer to keep my finances totally separate so I don’t want to have joint accounts, share a mortgage, or get legally married.”
  • “I’ve committed to paying half the rent and I will honour that but I can’t cover your portion too.”
  • “I will not live with someone who doesn’t have similar financial values and goals to me.”
  • “I can’t afford to do that expensive activity right now so, unless you’re offering to pay for both of us, can we plan a cheaper date night?”
  • “It makes me uncomfortable when you spend a lot of money on me. Please don’t buy me expensive gifts without discussing it with me first.”
  • “I am not comfortable getting into debt so I will not take out a credit card, loan, or finance agreement.”
  • “No, I cannot loan you money.”

Other Rules and Agreements That Have a Financial Impact

Sometimes, rules in polyamory can have nothing to do with money on the surface… but still have a financial impact. For example, let’s say you have a nesting partner and you’ve made a rule that says they cannot bring their other partner back to your shared home. Unless your metamour can host every single time, this means they will be paying for restaurants, hotels, and so on every time they want to spend time together. This can get very expensive very quickly.

Another common example I see is when sex toys, BDSM gear, and other items are designated as being for one relationship only. And that’s completely fair – not everyone is as blasé as me about sharing these things. But if you want to use these types of things with multiple partners, the cost of buying several of them can add up fast.

When you discuss and negotiate your relationship agreements with your partner(s), it’s also important to talk about money and how those agreements might have a financial impact on one or both of you – even an unintended one.

The Person Who Has the Money Has the Power

Unfortunately, money is power in our current society. At a certain point, people who are wealthy enough can get away with pretty much anything they want. Now, it’s unlikely that you or any of your partners are billionaires or in the “untouchably wealthy” category, of course. However, financial disparities can still cause huge problems in relationships – both polyamorous and monogamous – and in some cases can become coercive or abusive.

Several times a week, I see people in polyamorous groups and forums asking a variation of this: “my spouse/partner is hugely controlling and imposes all these rules on me, but they’re also the breadwinner so I can’t leave.”

Of course, this isn’t a uniquely polyamorous problem. Financial abuse can and does occur all too frequently in monogamy, too. In fact, financial control and limiting a partner’s access to resources is on page one of the Abusers’ Playbook.

In polyamory, though, it does manifest in some unique and specific ways. Often, the person with the money (and therefore the power) will impose a double standard on their partner. For example, “I’m allowed to have sex with other people but you’re not” or “I’m allowed to bring partners home but you’re not because I pay for our housing.” It’s very, very hard – sometimes impossible – to stand up to someone and assert your autonomy when you rely on them for the roof over your head.

Explicit or covert vetoes and ultimatums are also massively complicated by financial disparities. If you live with one partner and are financially reliant on them, are you really going to say no if they put a “leave your other partner or I’m leaving you” choice on the table? Particularly if you don’t have an obvious backup plan, such as other partners, friends or family who are willing to support you financially? Exactly.

I don’t have any easy answers to this phenomenon, of course. Abusive and controlling people will likely always exist and, for as long as we live in a capitalist society, money will likely always be one of their first and most powerful weapons.

If you’re in a relationship with a person significantly less well-off than you, particularly if you’re married or live together, it is vital that you ensure they have access to money and resources without needing to ask you for them. You must also be incredibly careful not to impose unfair rules and double standards or to hold financial security over your partner’s head to make them do what you want. In other words, you need to make it possible for them to leave if they want to.

Because a person cannot meaningfully consent to a relationship if they can’t also reasonably and safely choose to leave it.

Honestly, this is why we need better social safety nets and community support. No-one should ever be forced to stay in a relationship that’s abusive, harmful, or just doesn’t make them happy because they don’t have access to the money they need to leave.

Jealousy, Insecurity, and Resentment When People Have Very Different Financial Circumstances

I’m far from wealthy but, prior to the cost of living crisis, I considered myself pretty financially comfortable. Now it’s more of a challenge as prices have skyrocketed and salaries have not kept up, but I’m still doing okay most of the time. Relative to many, I have a tonne of financial privilege and I try to pay this forward when I can.

I’ve been polyamorous for 15 years. In that time, I’ve dated people much richer than me and I’ve dated people much poorer than me. Both have come with their own challenges, but neither were insurmountable with good communication, empathy and honesty. I find that what matters far more than having a similar level of wealth is having similar values, goals, and the ability to talk about money in an open and supportive way.

Solutions to a wealth disparity in a relationship can include finding affordable date activities, splitting expenses in a way that is equitable according to our relative incomes rather than equal, and factoring in time, energy and skills as other forms of equally-valuable relationship currency (for example “you buy the ingredients and I’ll cook for us” or “I’ll pay for your ticket if you spend the time and energy travelling to me.”)

The most challenging aspect of a wealth disparity in relationships, in my experience, is not any of these practical matters. It’s the feelings that money issues can bring up. Here are a few of the most common I’ve encountered in my own relationships or witnessed in other relationships.

“My Partner Can Date More Often (or Go On More Expensive Dates) Because They Have More Disposable Income”

Imagine you and your partner are both trying to date outside your relationship. But they have vastly more money than you do, meaning that they can date more often and do more expensive activities with their other partner(s.) This can be tough to navigate and can bring up feelings of envy, jealousy, and resentment if you don’t navigate it carefully.

If you’re the person with significantly less money:

Is your partner willing to help you out financially so you can date more? Would you feel comfortable accepting that help? The answer to both these questions might be “no”, but it’s fair to ask.

If not, it’s time to get creative with your own dating life. You might not be able to afford expensive dates, but there are plenty of equally nnice and meaningful things you can do without spending a fortune. If you don’t have another regular partner or are actively dating new people, you might also need to be more choosy about which dates you go on. Screen more thoroughly to ensure you’re spending your limited resources on the most promising potential dates, and seek out people who place little value on material wealth.

Don’t forget to ask your partner for what you want, too. Are you feeling sidelined or neglected? Do you wish they’d take you on one of those fancy dates that they’re always going on with other people? Then tell them! And if you don’t want to hear so much about their activities with other people, you get to draw that boundary, too.

If you’re the person with significantly more money:

Consider whether you’d be comfortable financially supporting your partner’s dating activities outside your relationship. Perhaps you could have a shared “dating pot” that you contribute to proportionally and can draw on for external dates. This can allow things to feel more balanced without your partner having to feel like they’re asking you for money (which can have uncomfortable “parental” implications for many people.)

If you’re not willing to help, or they won’t accept your help, that’s fair. In that case, it might be wise not to share so much information with your less-wealthy partner about the pricey things you’re doing with other people. Don’t hide things from them, of course, but they probably don’t want to hear about your $500 restaurant bill if they’re struggling to find the money to meet a potential date for a coffee.

You can also help to mitigate this issue by making sure you’re not taking your existing partner for granted. It’s easy for resentment to set in if you’re taking new dates to expensive restaurants while all you do with your spouse is sit on the couch and watch reruns on Netflix. Make sure that you’re also taking them out on nice dates, setting aside money for experiences or trips together, and giving them nice gifts if they’re comfortable with receiving them.

“My Partner Wants to Do All These Expensive Activities But I Can’t Afford It!”

People who have plenty of money can be extraordinarily oblivious about the experiences of people who have less of it. This can lead to resentment as they suggest pricey date activities and the less well-off partner has to keep saying no. Or, worse, if the less-wealthy person stretches their finances in an effort to keep up.

This is a situation where honesty is critical. Practice saying “I can’t afford to do that” and remember that there is absolutely no shame in doing so. Someone who loves you will understand. A partner who pressures you to spend money you can’t afford, or judges you for not doing so, is a bad partner for you.

If your partner offers to cover the cost for both of you, it’s okay to accept this offer. It’s also okay to say no if this makes you uncomfortable and propose an alternative, cheaper activity.

If you’re the person with more money and your partner discloses that they can’t afford something, it’s important to be sympathetic and non-judgemental. Don’t say things like “but it’s only $50!”. That $50 might be pocket change to you but it might be a week’s worth of groceries to them. Don’t pressure them to stretch their finances more than they are comfortable, and never shame them for having less money than you do.

What you can do, if you sincerely want to, is offer to cover the cost for both of you. And if you want to invite a partner or date to an expensive activity, be upfront about whether you’ll be covering the cost or not. Simply saying “do you want to check out that new restaurant on Friday? My treat!” or “would you like to see this show with me? Tickets are $35 if so” takes away so much of the guesswork and anxiety.

“My Metamour is Richer Than Me and it Makes Me Insecure”

In researching this post, I remembered this classic Polyamory Weekly episode, “Help, I’m rich and I have a big penis!” In it, the caller is concerned he makes his metamours jealous and insecure because he has money to throw around and likes to spoil his partners. And, self-involved though this might seem, he’s probably got a fair point.

If your metamour is significantly wealthier than you, this might cause some understandable feelings of envy, jealousy, insecurity, or competitiveness to come up.

What’s most important here is to remember that your partner isn’t with you for your money or for the things you can provide. They’re with you because they love you! Ask your partner for reassurance and reminders of what they love about you if you need it.

It’s also important to remember they’re probably not with your metamour for their money, either! What else does your metamour bring to the table? They’re a human being with their own wonderful qualities and also their own quirks and flaws. Try to learn more about what your partner loves about them. Chances are it’s little or nothing to do with their wealth. This will help to humanise them and make them feel like less of a threat.

Get creative and find ways to connect with your partner and have meaningful experiences together without spending a lot of money. They might enjoy those fancy dates with your metamour, but I bet they’d enjoy a picnic in the park or a night of stargazing with you just as much.

The Bottom Line on Polyamory and Money: Get Educated and Get Prepared

Financial matters are complex. This is true even if you’re in a traditional, monogamous relationship, and this complexity can increase tenfold if you’re polyamorous.

The most important things you can do are educate yourself, plan, and prepare. This means taking the time to talk about money with all your partners. It means understanding what your options are, understanding the limitations you’re under due to our current couple-centric society and legal system, and understanding what you and your partners all want and need.

It also means educating yourself and getting appropriate advice. Things like Wills, estate planning, inheritance, and medical decisionmaking can be more complex when you have more partners. It’s vital to understand what the law says in your area, what you can and can’t do, and how you can protect yourselves. Communicate, share your wishes and fears, and make decisions together with your partners, polycule, or family.

The golden rule? Think about what would happen in the worst case scenario long before you’re ever actually in it. If you died tomorrow, would your partners and loved ones have the financial protection you’d want them to have? If not, it’s time to take steps to ensure they do.

How do finances work in your romantic network or polycule? How do you talk about money with your partners? Tell me about it in the comments!

“Help, I Hate My Metamour!” When a Metamour Relationship Goes Wrong [Polyamory Conversation Cards #5]

“Help, I hate my metamour!” This subject crops up in the polyamory groups and forums I frequent multiple times a week, so I thought it was time I wrote about it.

Throughout the 15 years I’ve been polyamorous, I’ve had a mixed bag when it comes to metamours. In recent years, I’ve mostly been very lucky. My partners are smart and discerning humans with excellent taste and judgement, so the people they date tend to be pretty damn cool.

In the past, though, I’ve had metamour I disliked, metamours who disliked me, metamours who (accidentally or intentionally) triggered some of my deepest insecurities and traumas, and even a couple of abusive or excessively controlling metamours.

One of the hardest things for many people to come to terms with, when they start being polyamorous, is the fact that they cannot control who their partner chooses to date, have sex with, fall in love with, or invite into their inner circle.

In some cases, metamours click beautifully and end up becoming close friends (or, more rarely, becoming partners themselves.) It’s wonderful when this happens. Often, metamours will coexist happily and healthily without drama but not feel the need to spend a tonne of time together. This, too, can be great. But what if your partner chooses someone who isn’t at all the type of person you’d have wanted for them? What if they’re dating someone you simply cannot stand for some reason?

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:

“To what extent and in what way would you prefer to be involved with your metamours or others in your polycule?”

First, let’s get clear on our terminology. A metamour (sometimes shortened to “meta”) is the partner of your partner, with whom you do not have a romantic or sexual relationship [*]. So if I’m dating Alice and Alice is married to Bob, Bob is my metamour. If Cleo is dating both Dave and Emily, but their partners are not dating one another, then Dave and Emily are metamours. The mutual partner connecting two metamours is often referred to as a “hinge.”

[*] There are nuances and grey areas here, of course. Some people do have sex with their metamours regularly or occasionally. Me and my former meta used to do this but weren’t romantically involved, and we called ourselves “metamours with benefits.” You’ll settle on the language to describe your relationships that works best for you.

With that understood, let’s talk about hating your metamour.

Metamour Relationships Are Unique to Polyamory… Except They’re Not

People think of the metamour relationship as a unique facet of polyamory that doesn’t apply anywhere else. And this is sort of true, in that polyamory is the only context in which your romantic partner is likely to have other romantic partners that you’re aware of.

However, even in a monogamous context, your partner will have other significant relationships outside of you. Friends, family, coworkers, and so on. These relationships may include people you don’t particularly care for, or even people you really cannot abide. In this way, I think “I hate my metamour” is just a variation on “my mother-in-law is the worst” or “I can’t stand my partner’s best friend.”

The fact that your partner has a romantic and possibly sexual relationship with your metamour doesn’t actually change the fundamentals of this type of situation all that much. Remembering this may help you to realise that this situation is, in most circumstances, entirely navigable.

Why Do You Dislike Your Metamour? Getting Specific

When someone says “I hate my metamour,” the first thing I want to ask them is “why?” Because the answer to this question will inform the advice I give next. The reasoning can also be hugely telling in itself. The reason think you hate your metamour might not be the actual reason when you really dig into it. So, obviously, the first thing we’re going to do is… really dig into it.

You’ll need to be really honest with yourself here. Observe your feelings without judgement or reactivity, and see what comes up for you. What is it about your metamour that rubs you the wrong way? Where do you think those thoughts and feelings are coming from?

Sometimes, two people simply do not get along. Neither of them have done anything wrong, but they are too different and cannot find a way to gel. For all the often-true jokes about polyamorous people who date three different versions of the same person, it’s equally likely that your partners will be very different from one another… and that your metamours will be very different from you. This is really, really normal. Unfortunately, these situations can sometimes lead to personality clashes.

If you determine that the cause of your “ick, I hate my metamour” feelings are just a personality clash, that’s pretty easy to handle. In a nutshell: don’t hang out with them! We’ll talk more about how to achieve this in practice a bit later on.

In some cases, your metamour might remind you of someone else you don’t care for. Perhaps they look, sound, smell, or behave like somebody who hurt you or your partner at some point in your life? This might mean that you’re projecting past experiences onto them due to baggage or trauma. This is also surprisingly common, especially if your partner has a “type” and your new metamour reminds you of a previous, problematic meta.

Of course, it’s possible you dislike your metamour for a really valid reason. You might have seen serious red flags in their behaviour or heard damning things about them in the community. Perhaps you don’t like the way they treat your mutual partner (or their other partners, or someone else in their life.) This gets more tricky to navigate and we’ll get into it in more detail below.

It’s also possible that your issue with your metamour is actually about something that’s going on within you. This is what we’ll talk about in the next section.

Is It About Them, or About You?

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, metamours can inadvertently trigger insecurities, traumas, deep-seated fears, or other complicated and painful feelings. This is actually pretty normal and doesn’t necessarily mean anyone has done anything wrong. Realising that’s what is going on can even be pretty empowering. After all, if the issue is about your stuff, you have the power to work on and fix it.

Seeing your partner fall in love or lust or both with a new person can be challenging. This might be particularly true if you’re new to polyamory, if your relationship with your partner is having problems, or if you have particular traumas or insecurities that are getting triggered by the new relationship for some reason.

If you determine that your dislike of your metamour is more to do with your own stuff than with them, then you have several options. But before you do anything, take a breath. Don’t panic. You’re not broken or bad at polyamory or any of the things you’re probably telling yourself right now.

So what can you do next?

First, you can take a break from the metamour in question. We’re going to talk more about parallel polyamory a bit later on, but just know that it’s okay to minimise or pause social interactions with your metamour – even temporarily – if you need the space to get a handle on your difficult emotional response to them.

If you do this in a time-limited way with the intention of re-establishing contact and building some sort of positive relationship later, it can actually be hugely beneficial in the long run. There are also instances where staying parallel permanently (or at least indefinitely) is the right choice. You can decide what’s best for you with the help of your support network.

Alternatively, you can decide to consciously give your metamour a chance and try to build a positive relationship with them. We’ll look at how to do this more in the next section.

This is also the time to shore up your relationship with your mutual partner and ask for what you need. Do you need some reassurance, more quality time, a dedicated date night? You might have identified unhealthy patterns, unmet needs, or problematic behaviours from one or both of you that are being highlighted by the new relationship and need your partner to work on resolving these issues with you. Perhaps you just need them to hold space for you to talk through your feelings and difficulties in a non-judgemental, loving environment.

Finally, this is the time to work on yourself. Examine the things that the new relationship has triggered within you, and call upon your coping and healing strategies. If you’re not already, this is a great time to get yourself into therapy. Journal, find and consume relevant resources (Polysecure and Polywise, both by Jessica Fern, are two I highly recommend.) Reach out to your extended support network. Aim to build your self-esteem, confidence, and inner sense of security.

Can You Give Them a Chance?

The answer to this might be “no”, but I invite you to consider the possibility that you’re being overly harsh in your judgement of your metamour. Would you conceivably feel differently if you gave them a real chance? This is often a particularly beneficial option if you’ve determined that your issues with your metamour stem from your own trauma, baggage, or internal “stuff.”

Many people find that humanising their metamour by getting to know them is challenging initially but hugely beneficial in the long run. You’ll see that they’re neither a monster nor the embodiment of perfection. They’re just a person with their own quirks, flaws, wonderful qualities, and personality traits.

I’m going to write a whole piece on meeting your metamours successfully soon. In the meantime, though, here are some quick tips that might help you.

Timing is crucial here. I do not recommend meeting or instituting hangouts when you’re deep in the “I hate my metamour” rage-spiral. This will backfire spectacularly. Take the time to calm your nervous system, do some of your own internal work, and get to the place where you can genuinely meet them with an open mind and a generous spirit.

Whether you meet by yourselves or with your mutual partner is something you’ll have to negotiate. There are pros and cons to each approach. If your mutual partner will be in attendance, negotiate what levels of PDA you’re all comfortable with seeing and engaging in. Meet in a neutral space such as a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop rather than at someone’s house. It can also be helpful to bookend your time together with a built-in limit (e.g. “I’ve got two hours because I need to pick the kids up at 4.”)

Try to go in without too many expectations. The goal isn’t to become best friends. Remember that you’re just two humans who happen to love the same person. You’re both doing your best and, hopefully, want a good outcome for everyone involved. After that, just be yourself! Be polite and friendly, look for common ground, and treat them like you would any new person you’re trying to get to know.

This all assumes, of course, that your metamour is up for meeting you or hanging out. It’s never okay to force a meeting if one party really doesn’t want it or isn’t ready. But if things go well, you might very well find that this leap of faith does great things for your metamour relationship.

If they go badly, or if you really can’t bring yourself to give this metamour a chance? It’s time to consider going parallel.

Parallel Polyamory is Valid

Like many polyamorous people, I love kitchen table polyamory – the close, family-style structure where the various partners and metamours in a network are totally comfortable in each other’s presence and may even actively choose to hang out.

There are tonnes of potential benefits to kitchen table polyamory (KTP.) Your metamours can become dear friends and members of your chosen family. There’s more support for everyone when things are hard. There are more people to celebrate with when good things happen. If children are involved, there are more adults to love and care for those kids. There’s the potential for group outings, polycule trips and adventures, and even group sex if you’re all into that. However, practicing KTP is a personal preference and it won’t work for everyone.

Parallel polyamory is where you know about your metamours, but don’t spend time with them or have any involvement with them beyond essential information. Like parallel lines, the relationships do not meet or intersect. Despite having a bad reputation in some parts of the community, parallel polyamory is an equally valid choice. And in situations of dislike or animosity between metamours, it’s often the best one.

Some people even prefer parallel polyamory right from the beginning! It doesn’t have to come out of metamours disliking each other. Some just prefer to keep things very separate for all kinds of reasons.

Parallel polyamory can look a few different ways. The common thread, though, is that the metamours have little or no direct interaction. They may also prefer not to hear much or any information about the other person, or to have their own information shared. There’s also Garden Party Polyamory, a middle ground where metamours can be polite and friendly to one another in occasional social situations, but otherwise have little interaction and do not hang out independently of their mutual partner.

It’s possible to shift between structures over time as necessary or dictated by circumstances, too. You don’t have to pick one and stick to it forever! Like so many things in polyamory, it’s an ongoing journey and may require renegotiation over time.

Personally, as I’ve said, parallel polyamory isn’t my preference. But if there was ever a time when I had two partners who couldn’t get along with one another, or a metamour I really couldn’t stand (or vice versa,) I would accept it as the healthiest option for everyone in that situation. It’s not a lesser form of polyamory. It’s just different.

“I Hate My Metamour, But Our Partner Wants Us All to Live Together!”

I hear this (and its less extreme cousin, “I hate my metamour but my partner is desperate for us all to hang out”) so, so, so often.

It’s far too common for hinge partners to try to force closeness between metamours who don’t get along. This might look like trying to arrange group hangouts or social interactions despite the metamours’ wishes. At its most extreme, it can look like trying to force metamours to date (see: unicorn hunting), have sex, or live together.

If you’re one of the metamours in this situation: stand firm with your boundaries. You do not have to hang out with anyone you don’t want to hang out with. You certainly don’t have to date, have sex with, or live with anyone you don’t want to.

The fact that your partner wants it – even really, really wants it – is ultimately irrelevant here. You can hear and sympathise with their desires, of course. But you cannot and must not compromise your boundaries and needs for the sake of their desired structure. Doing so will just breed resentment and mistrust, ultimately destroying your relationships. At its most extreme, you may end up feeling coerced, violated, or abused.

If your partner continues to push for more of a relationship between you and your metamour than you want, and will not respect your boundaries when you state them clearly, then it might be time to consider leaving the relationship.

If you’re the hinge in this situation and trying to force a dynamic between your partners: stop it! I can’t overstate how damaging this is. Firstly, people tend to hate being coerced into things they don’t want. Secondly, let’s say they give in and do what you want. How do you think this is going to go? Does a social hangout with two people who don’t like each other sound fun to you? Does living with two people who don’t like each other sound fun!? Exactly.

I understand you have a dream for how you want your ideal polyamorous life to look. However, you’re dealing with actual people with actual personalities and feelings. When you try to force your partners to be friends, date, become lovers, or live together against their wills… chances are you’ll lose both or all of them.

If you want to be with these people, you’ll need to accept that (for now at least, possibly forever) they love you but care for each other much less. If anything other than kitchen table polyamory or nesting with all your partners is a dealbreaker for you, that might mean you need to end these relationships and find others that better meet your desires.

Friendship Isn’t Necessary, But Mutual Respect Probably Is

If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you’ll take this: you don’t have to like your metamour! It’s perfectly fine to feel indifferent towards them. It’s also okay to actively dislike them, though I hope you’ll first follow the steps I’ve outlined to examine where that dislike is coming from and if it is truly warranted.

How you frame things, both in your mind and externally, really matters here. In the vast majority of circumstances, hanging on to intense dislike, disrespect, or contempt for another person isn’t going to do you or your relationships any good. Can you reframe “I hate my metamour” to “my metamour and I are very different people who don’t really get along, but our goal is to coexist peacefully because we both love our mutual partner”?

In the end, mutual respect for your metamour(s) – even if you are not friends or dislike one another – is both possible and desirable in most circumstances. Here’s what that can look like in practice:

  • Accepting and fully internalising that they have just as much right to their place in your mutual partner’s life as you do.
  • Giving your partner space to have their relationship with your metamour. For example, not trying to infringe on their dates or spoil their time together.
  • Articulating and maintaining clear personal boundaries around things that you control: your time, your space, your energy, and your possessions.
  • Hearing and respecting your metamour’s boundaries around the things that they control, even if those boundaries are different from your own.
  • Respecting your metamours’ privacy and consent. This includes things like not expecting intimate details about their activities with your hinge partner, unless they enthusiastically consent to such sharing. It also means not trying to find or use personal information about them that they may not wish you to have.
  • Ensuring that agreements you make with your hinge partner do not negatively impact your metamour or their relationship.
  • Retaining a reasonable level of flexibility around things like scheduling and the use of shared spaces.
  • Not trying to convince your partner to leave your metamour, change their relationship, or view them the way that you do.
  • Not badmouthing your metamour (either to your partner or to others.)
  • Resisting the temptation to compete or frame your metamour as an adversary.
  • Wherever you can, assuming good will. Your metamour probably isn’t trying to piss you off, trigger your insecurities, or replace you.

Sometimes Metamours Really Are Terrible

In the vast majority of circumstances, your metamour probably isn’t actually a bad person. They might be perfectly lovely but simply not one of your people. They might have their heart in the right place but still exhibit some behaviours that rub you the wrong way. In these situations, mutual respect, a little courtesy and goodwill, good communication from your mutual partner, and minimising unnecessary interactions will probably be all you need to keep things harmonious within your polycule.

But what if you’re right? What if your metamour actually is kind of terrible? Perhaps they hold horrible, oppressive views or regularly do unethical things. At the worst end of the spectrum, perhaps they’re abusing someone – your mutual partner, another partner or partners, or even a child.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: this situation fucking sucks. It’s also probably largely out of your control. You cannot force your partner to leave someone, even for their own good. There are times when going parallel will sufficiently mitigate the issue. There are also times when it won’t. Firm boundaries, strengthening your relationship with your mutual partner, and calling on the rest of your support network can all help, too. Sometimes, though, even all of this won’t be enough.

Sadly, problematic metamours can sometimes lead to the end of a relationship. I once ended a relationship because my metamour was so controlling – and my partner was so willing to capitulate to all their demands – that we couldn’t actually have a relationship. Leaving devastated me, but ultimately staying would have been worse.

What About Abuse?

This article is about what to do when you dislike your metamour. But what if you suspect (or know) that your metamour is abusing your mutual partner?

I’m going to write a whole article soon about handling abuse within your polycule. That subject deserves thousands of words of its own and there isn’t space to delve deeply into it here.

I just wanted to acknowledge that this can happen, and that it’s heartbreaking and painful on a whole other level when it does. The reason I’m not going into it in this piece is that I want to give it the attention and space it deserves, taking the time and doing the background research to make sure I get it right.

In the meantime, Eve Rickert has compiled this incredible list of resources on abuse in polyamorous relationships.

Do You Have a Metamour Relationship Problem, or Do You Have a Hinge Partner Problem?

In polyamorous spaces, you’ll often see people say things like “metamour problems are really partner problems.” This isn’t always true, but it’s often true.

Take, for example, the controlling metamour I mentioned above. Ultimately, the problem was that my partner chose to follow all the arbitrary rules and restrictions they laid down. My partner had a choice there, and they could have refused. They weren’t powerless. They could have advocated for me and for our relationship. The fact that they didn’t is actually what ended things between us.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to situations of abuse. In those situations, your partner may really be powerless in a very real way. But if your metamour is behaving unreasonably but not abusively, it is your partner’s job to manage the situation and ensure your metamour’s behaviour doesn’t spill over onto you and your relationship too much.

It’s almost impossible, in anything but the strictest form of parallel polyamory (and probably even then), to keep relationships from impacting each other entirely. After all, if I’ve had a fight with one of my partners and am then due to go on a date with another partner, that is likely to impact my mood and energy levels even if my partners have absolutely no interaction with one another.

The choices you make in one relationship can, and often do, affect your other relationships. This isn’t necessarily a bad or problematic thing in itself. It does, however, require intentionality and care to manage it well. That’s particularly true if the metamours do not get along.

In some cases, your partner’s choice of partners or behaviour in other relationships might directly impact how you view them. Let’s imagine, for a second, one of your partners knowingly brings home someone with extreme and violently right-wing politics. This problem isn’t going to be solved by going parallel. This problem is deeper, in that it says something pretty fundamental – and pretty damning – about your partner and their values.

One of the most important skills in polyamory is partner selection. This extends to being able to trust your partners’ judgement in their partner selection. Unfortunately, when “I hate my metamour” turns into “I hate that my partner chose this person and what that choice says about them”, there might be little you can do but leave the relationship.

Last Words

Wow, even for me this has turned into a mammoth essay! Like so many relationship-related subjects, it’s nuanced and highly contextual. To sum up, though, my 10 key points are as follows:

  • You do not have to be friends with your metamour, like them, or even ever meet them if you don’t want to.
  • If you’re deep in the “I hate my metamour” space, start by asking yourself why and really interrogating it.
  • Examine what your feelings about your metamour are telling you about what’s going on within you.
  • Give them a real and fair chance if you can.
  • It’s fine to be parallel polyamorous.
  • You never have to interact with your metamour in a way that violates your boundaries or consent, and your partner should never pressure you to.
  • Mutual respect, even in the face of indifference or dislike, will go a long way.
  • Metamour issues are often, but not always, really hinge partner issues. Hinge partners have a lot of responsibility here.
  • Relationships can and do impact one another, which is one of the reasons good partner selection is so vital.
  • It’s okay to end a relationship over unresolvable metamour issues, especially if your mutual partner isn’t respecting your boundaries or advocating for you appropriately.

Have you ever found yourself saying “I hate my metamour”? How did you handle it? Any horrors, cautionary tales, or success stories to share?

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.

Polyamory Will Change Your Relationship: Navigating Change Well [Polyamory Conversation Cards #3]

“How can we do this without it changing our relationship?”

This is one of the most common questions people ask when they’re new to polyamory or consensual non-monogamy and exploring it from the place of a pre-existing relationship. On the surface, it’s a reasonable question. You love each other. You love the relationship you have, and you view polyamory as a way to add to your happiness together and separately, not detract from it. So how can you transition to polyamory without changing your existing relationship?

You can’t.

If there’s one thing I want new polyamorists to understand – right alongside “unicorn hunting is bad” and “jealousy is normal, what matters is how you handle it” – it’s this: polyamory. is. going. to. change. your. relationship.

There is simply no way around this fact. If you are not prepared for change, you are not ready to be non-monogamous.

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:

“What practices in your relationship help you feel safe when navigating change in your relationship dynamic?”

Okay, so let’s talk navigating the changes that will inevitably come when you’re exploring polyamory and non-monogamy for the first time… or when you’re significantly changing another aspect of your non-monogamous relationship in some way.

Why Polyamory Will Change Your Relationship

All relationships are constantly changing and evolving. Whether you’ve been with your partner for a year, a decade, or just celebrated your 50th wedding anniversary, chances are you do not have the same relationship now that you had on day one.

When you make big changes in your life, your relationship changes along with them. Perhaps, in the time you’ve been together, you and your partner have got married, had a baby, bought property, moved to a new city or country, changed jobs, or suffered bereavements? Any and all of those things, and so many others, can change a relationship.

Moving from monogamy to non-monogamy is, whichever way you slice it, a huge change. You are fundamentally altering the structure, the style, the modus operandi of your relationship. Even if you both want it desperately, this transition is likely to be challenging and sometimes difficult.

Polyamory brings new people into your lives in close, intimate ways. You cannot know in advance how those new people, those new relationships, will influence and change you as individuals and together as a couple. All the significant relationships in my life have changed me, and chances are yours have changed you too. This doesn’t just apply to your own romantic relationships either, by the way. I’ve had metamours and metamour relationships that have profoundly changed me in all sorts of ways.

Polyamory might mean exploring feelings, interests, and desires you’ve previously buried or didn’t even know you had. It might change practical life things such as your schedule and how you manage your finances. It involves personal work and relationship work. It’s going to change things.

The good news is that…

Change Does Not Have to Be Bad

The first step in navigating change successfully is understanding that change does not have to be a bad thing.

Let’s revisit those other big life changes we touched on above. So many things have likely shaped and changed your relationship in the time you’ve been together. But would you consider any of those changes “bad?” They might have been challenging. You might have had to work hard together to navigate them. But did you ultimately come out of them with a healthier, better relationship? Chances are that, often, you did.

The changes that polyamory will bring about don’t have to be bad, either. In fact, they can be profoundly joyful, healing, and life-enhancing.

Good Changes That Polyamory Can Bring

Perhaps, despite what I’ve said above, you’re now descending into a panic spiral about the impending change to your existing relationship that I’ve just told you is inevitable. Okay, slow down. Take a breath. Here are 20 positive ways that polyamory can change your relationship.

  1. It gives you opportunities to be vulnerable, share your feelings, hold space for one another, and support each other authentically
  2. Exploring dating, relationships and sex with new people will introduce you to new facets of yourselves which you can then bring home to each other
  3. Polyamory demands personal reflection, self-work, and internal growth which inevitably strengthens relationships
  4. You might get to see your partner through someone else’s eyes as they date new people, introducing you to new parts of them to love
  5. Experiencing new relationship energy (NRE) elsewhere can often spill over, causing an injection of romantic and/or sexual energy into your existing relationship
  6. You’ll have more people to support you through difficult times
  7. One or both of you might learn about new kinks, sex acts, or ways of being intimate that you can enjoy together as well as with your new partners
  8. Spending time apart in order to date separately can be scary, but absence really does make the heart grow fonder and you’ll enjoy your time together even more for it
  9. The scheduling demands of polyamory will require you to schedule quality time and date nights with each other as well as with your new partners
  10. If you have children, polyamory can potentially introduce new loving, supportive adults into those kids’ lives
  11. You’ll build security as you see that, even with the freedom to date or have sex with whomever they please, your partner still loves you and keeps coming back to you
  12. If you’re practicing kitchen table or garden party polyamory, your new metamours might become treasured friends or family members
  13. If one or both of you has hobbies, interests, or kinks that the other doesn’t share, you can get those wants and needs met elsewhere
  14. Seeing your partner happy and in love with someone else can bring about compersion, a hugely positive emotion in which you take joy in their joy
  15. You’ll both grow your relationship skills, communication skills, and emotional intelligence
  16. Polyamory can expose cracks in your relationship, which may sound scary but actually gives you a golden opportunity to face them, fix them, and enjoy a stronger relationship in the long run
  17. Polyamory can help you to break unhealthy unconscious patterns such as codependency
  18. You’ll face, tackle, and ultimately overcome deeply ingrained fears and insecurities within yourself, leading you to become a happier and healthier person
  19. You’ll enjoy more freedom, independence, and individuality without sacrificing the safety and comfort of your long-term relationship
  20. Hopefully, you’ll both be happier for having made the transition, which can only do good things for your relationship

Of course, not all of these will be true for every couple opening up. But if you and your partner approach this journey with communication and compassion, I bet at least a few of them will be true for you!

Navigating Change Positively in a Newly Polyamorous Relationship

Okay, so you’re ready and prepared for the possibility (certainty) of change as you transition to polyamory. But how do you actually navigate it well? Though I’m approaching this topic primarily through the lens of a transition from monogamy to polyamory/non-monogamy, these tips are also useful when you’re navigating any other significant change within your relationship.

Those changes could include a renegotiation of your relationship agreements, nesting (moving in together) or denesting (going from living together to living separately), a new partner, a break-up, or even a fundamental change of relationship style or structure. I found many of these strategies helpful when shifting my nesting relationship with Mr C&K from a hierarchical structure to a non-hierarchical one.

Reaffirm Your Love and Commitment Regularly

Fear of loss is one of the reasons that change is scary. When things start changing, even if it’s change you want, you might fear losing your partner or aspects of your relationship that you value. When you’re transitioning from monogamy to non-monogamy or navigating change in any area of your relationship, it can help to reaffirm your love for and commitment to one another regularly.

Learning each other’s love languages will help you tremendously here. There’s no point trying to show your partner you love them by doing the dishes when they’d rather you told them in words, or buying them a gift when what they’re really craving is quality time together.

If in doubt, start by saying to your partner something like “I love you and I am committed to the future and health of our relationship. How can I help you to feel loved and secure as we go through this transition together?”

Talk About Everything

A golden rule to live by: if you’re not sure whether you need to communicate about something, then you definitely do.

When you’re first transitioning to polyamory or navigating change in your polyamorous relationship, it’s hard to over-communicate. If something feels important to you, even if you can’t quite articulate why at first, you need to talk about it. If something bothers you, even if you feel it “shouldn’t,” you guessed it. You need to talk about it.

In the early stages in particular, but honestly throughout the duration of a polyamorous relationship, you and your partner should be talking about everything. This can take the form of scheduled, formalised check-ins (Multiamory’s RADAR is a good framework,) informal as-and-when conversations, or a mix of both, depending on your communication styles and individual needs.

Understand Your Own Values, Boundaries, Needs, Deal-Breakers, and Bottom Lines

I caution against setting lots of rules in polyamorous relationships. Some people think that polyamorous relationship rules are useful training wheels when you’re new to non-monogamy, but I tend to disagree with that, too. Having lots of rules offers an illusion of safety, but at the price of disempowering everyone involved and often treating incoming new partners pretty badly.

Instead, focus on understanding your own values, boundaries, needs, deal-breakers, and bottom lines. These will serve as your guiding lights in how you act within all your relationships.

Values are the things that are most important to you, the core principles on which you want to operate. Think about what’s most important to you in life and relationships, and come up with 3-5 words that encapsulate those values.

Boundaries are about yourself – what you will and won’t do or allow when it comes to the things that belong to you. Your body, mind, space, possessions, and so on. For example, “I will only have unbarriered sex with people who test regularly and take reasonable safer sex precautions.”

Needs are the things you require to feel happy, safe, secure, and loved in a relationship. For example, “I need my partner to show that they love me and value our relationship by spending quality, one-to-one time with me regularly.”

Deal-breakers and bottom lines are things you absolutely will not tolerate and that would cause you to leave a relationship. For example, “I will not be in relationship with someone who lies to me.” Ensure that the things you specify here are genuine deal-breakers, and not rules or attempts at control in disguise.

Focus on Adding, Not Taking Away

In a certain light, when you transition to from monogamy to polyamory, you are losing something. Specifically, you’re losing exclusivity and the (illusion of) security that it brings. However, you’re also adding so many wonderful things (refer back to the list above.) The same is true for many kinds of changes.

So, as much as possible, focus on what you can add to your relationship. How can this change make it better? For example, when you become non-monogamous, you might lose spending every night at home together. This makes sense because you’ll both be going out on dates and spending time with other partners. But can you make your time together a greater quality of time? Can you add in a dedicated regular date night to nurture your connection? In this way, you turn a perceived loss into a net gain for the health and happiness of your relationship.

Get Real About Your Feelings (But Don’t Let Them Rule You)

Navigating change of any kind, particularly a big change like transitioning to polyamory, can bring about intense feelings. You and your partner will need to get really real and vulnerable with each other to weather changes together successfully. Talk about your feelings, including the ones that make you feel scared or small or ashamed. Make space for the things that come up for you both, even those irrational and painful and trauma-based feelings.

There’s a difference, though, between honouring your feelings and letting them rule you. Emotions can offer tremendously valuable information (for example, Paige at Poly.land says that jealousy is a “check-engine light.”) They’re not always very specific, though, and the things they tell you won’t always be accurate.

Learning how to sit with your feelings, talk about them, and unpick them to ascertain what is real, what is your fear talking, and what (if anything) you need to do about them is one of the greatest non-monogamy skills – and relationship skills in general – that you will ever learn.

Get Some Outside Help

There’s abolutely no shame in getting a little additional help as you go through big relationship changes. In fact, I advocate enormously for this approach!

This can look a few different ways. If it’s within your budget, I hugely recommend seeking out a polyamory-friendly relationship therapist. They are trained to help you improve your communication, strengthen your relationship, and navigate all sorts of challenges together.

You can also seek out community and resources. All of us were new to polyamory once. Most of us remember exactly what it was like and how scary it can be. Some of the resources available to you that you might want to make use of include:

Trust Yourself and Your Partner

You are wiser than you know, and you know yourself better than anyone. Part of navigating change is learning to trust yourself and your partner. Trust that you can get through this transition, even the hard parts. Trust in your collective relationship and communication skills enough to know that you can face challenges and come out stronger.

Trusting your partner can be hard when you’re going through big changes such as a transition to polyamory. But it is so, so important. Remember that they love you and they’re with you because they choose to be. Look out for all the ways that they show you their love and commitment.

Trusting yourself, though, can be even harder than trusting someone else. When you’re transitioning to polyamory or navigating change within your relationship and finding it difficult, you might doubt your own abilities. You might even doubt your own mind, your own feelings, and your own perceptions. Self-trust will get you through and keep you focused on your eventual goal of a happy, healthy polyamorous relationship.

Navigating change is one of the biggest challenges to success in a newly polyamorous relationship. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I believe in you and I hope you can believe in yourself, too.

Sapphic, Lesbian and WLW Erasure in Polyamory, Kink, and Other Alternative Sexuality Communities

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Those of us who are active in alternative relationship and sexuality communities such as polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, and kink like to believe that we’re operating in a utopia. We so want to think that our little bubble is apart and separate from the rest of the world, unaffected by society’s ills. It’s a seductive narrative, but it is a lie. Today I want to talk about one of the most pervasive and insidious issues I experience as a sapphic, non-monogamous, kinky femme in these communities.

A quick note on terminology: I can’t write about this topic without acknowledging the ways in which the the anti-transgender hate movement has co-opted the concept of “lesbian erasure.” Anti-trans activists often erroniously claim that to accept trans women as women is to erase or undermine lesbian identities and that cis lesbians routinely experience pressure to transition to male. I absolutely and unequivocally reject these ideas. Trans women are women. Trans sapphics are our sisters and are just as much a part of the community as their cis counterparts.

With that said, I want to talk about the systemic erasure and devaluing of sapphic, lesbian, and women-loving-women (WLW) identities and relationships within polyamory, consensual non-monogamy, kink, and other adjacent communities.

Who Counts as a Couple?

Let’s start with the obvious: many non-monogamous spaces, particularly those geared around casual sex and swinging, are simply not set up in a way that allows for any configuration of people that isn’t “one man and one woman in a relationship” or “a single cisgender person.” The most obvious example of this is gendered pricing. This has tonnes of its own problems anyway and completely falls apart when you account for anyone who isn’t straight, cis, and in a relationship that appears monogamous from the outside.

Many lifestyle events, clubs, and parties would class my girlfriend and I as two single women if we attended together. (Whereas, of course, if I attended with a male partner they’d class us as a couple.) Two women could be literally married to each other, and this would still be the case. Because in the eyes of those spaces, a “couple” is a man and a woman.

“But you’ll get in cheaper if they count you as two single women!”. Yeah, this isn’t the gotcha you think it is in this situation. I’d much, much rather pay the same rate as any other couple rather than have my relationship minimised, othered, and erased on account of our genders.

It’s often more insidious than these fairly blatant forms of discrimination, too. When people talk about “couples” in non-monogamous spaces, they will often casually refer to “the man” and “the lady” (or, worse, “girl”) as if that is the only configuration for a couple to take. If I refer to a partner without gendering them, most people will assume I am talking about a man. I really don’t believe this is malicious in 99% of cases. At worst, I think it is privilege-blind and clueless. But that doesn’t make it any more right or any less hurtful.

The Aggressive Gendering of Kink

I love the BDSM community in so many ways. I’ve been finding my home, my place, and my people within it for the best part of 15 years. But the longer I stick around, the more I see that the kink community still has a fairly pervasive gender-norms problem that we still need to address.

Absent very explicit context to the contrary, people will still broadly assume that men are Dominant, that women are submissive, and that kinky and D/s relationships will look broadly heteronormative. And sure, Femdom exists. But all my Dominant women friends have countless stories of men treating them as little more than fetish dispensers, expecting them to service those men’s needs and follow precise directions while pretending to be in charge and without regard for their own needs and desires.

There is very, very little representation of kinky sapphic relationships of any description in our media, our online spaces, our educational materials, or our event leadership demographics. Why is that? Because it sure as hell isn’t “because kinky sapphics don’t exist.”

I suspect it’s for a few reasons. First, a lack of imagination that assumes all kinky relationships must play out a sexy version of 1950s gender roles. Second, because cisheterosexism still means that – even in alternative spaces – men are more likely to hold positions of leadership and influence. And third, because certain parts of the community can be pretty damn unwelcoming and unsafe for queer people and especially for queer women.

More than once, when I’ve played with other women in public kink spaces, we’ve been interrupted by men either trying to give unsolicited advice or trying to insert themselves into our scene. On one memorable occasion, I was topping for an impact play scene with a friend (who, in her words, was “having a perfectly lovely time”). Out of nowhere, a man I’d never met came over and tried to physically grab my flogger out of my hands.

Because I was a woman, I was assumed to be incompetent. Because we were two women playing together, we were assumed to need a man. Our happy little play bubble was totally ruined by some random dude’s ego and entitlement.

This isn’t an isolated incident, either. Virtually every queer woman I know who plays in mixed kink spaces with other women has a similar story. Is there any wonder we’ve started making more and more of our own spaces?

To be fair, this does seem to be slowly getting better. But there’s some way still to go.

“But You Still Like Men, Right?”

When I mention my girlfriend to people who know I’m non-monogamous (or can reasonably make that assumption, such as at a lifestyle party or social), one of the first I’ve been asked on numerous occasions is whether or not I also date or fuck men.

My friend Violet calls this the “are you heteronormative enough for my comfort zone?” question. Which… no. No I am not. #toogayforyourcomfortzone.

My usual response to this, until now, has been to say yes but emphasise that it’s fairly rare for me to fancy a man enough to want to do anything about it. In the future, though, I think I might change my response. “Why do you ask?” or “well I’m not sleeping with you if that’s what you’re really asking” are currently strong contenders.

I want people who ask me this question to ask themselves why it’s the first place their mind goes on learning that I’m sapphic. After all, if a woman mentions a boyfriend or husband, almost no-one is going to ask her “but you still date women too, right?” Ultimately, what they’re asking is whether I am still sexually available to men – a thing that patriarchy both demands of women and villifies us for.

There’s a strong connection between all of this and the commodification of sapphic sexuality in service of the male gaze.

Sapphic, Lesbian and WLW Sexuality for the Male Gaze

People often believe that there is no sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure issue in these communities because there are so many bisexual, pansexual and queer women in them. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s quite that simple. In reality, my experience – and the experience of many sapphic friends I’ve spoken to about this – is often not so much one of acceptance but of fetishisation, followed by devaluing when we refuse to conform to a safe, male-gazey idea of what our sexuality should be.

I’m reminded of the man at a polyamorous speed dating event about a year ago who aggressively quizzed me about what my former metamour-with-benefits and I got up to in the bedroom, and was then clearly bored and put out when I refused to engage. In the 16 years or so I’ve been out, I really thought we’d moved past men asking sapphics “but what do y’all do in bed anyway!?”. Apparently we have not.

I’m also reminded of the man who hit on me and my girlfriend in a gay bar on Pride weekend. Because apparently what two sapphics in love desperately needed in that moment was his dick. I have literally dozens of other examples like this that I can pull out with very little thought.

Expectations of Performativity

In sexualised spaces, people continually expect queer and bi+ women to perform their sexuality in a way that appeals to the male gaze. Two different male exes of mine became extremely upset or angry when my girlfriends were either not their physical type or not willing to sleep with them. This made me feel like my sexuality, my relationships, were only valid as long as they provided benefits to men. Which, of course, is a classic way that society devalues and commodifies WLW relationships.

One of these partners literally asked me what was “even the point” of me being queer if I didn’t perform it in a way that fulfilled his lesbian porn fantasy. Other male partners and male metamours over the years have tried to demand titillating details, photos, or even the right to “watch.” I’ve been hit on by so many men who want me to play with their wives. This is inevitably not because she wants a sapphic experience, but because he wants her to perform one for him.

Patriarchal entitlement to women’s bodies persists, even when we are tell you we are far more interested in each other than we are in you.

Unicorn hunting is another extremely common variation on this theme. In those dynamics, the original male/female couple will often pull a bait-and-switch tactic in which they use the woman to lure other queer women in, then spring the boyfriend or husband on the unsuspecting “unicorn” as a package deal. I hope I don’t have to tell you how grossly unethical this is. That’s why I now run from prospective female dates at the first signs that they’re going to expect me to be sexually available to their male partners.

And that brings us to…

Are Women Less Threatening, or Are You Just Homophobic?

This particular trope is so common within non-monogamy that it’s now a cliché. A cisgender man and woman open up their relationship. The man then tells his partner he’ll allow her to date other women, but no men. (In practice, what this means is “no-one else with a penis“, which is also transphobic.) The reason? Women are just less threatening. They don’t make him feel emasculated or threatened in the way that a man (or penis-haver) would.

The subtext? His wife could never leave him for another woman. She could never like having sex with another woman more than she does with him. She could never gain more fulfillment from a sapphic relationship than from a straight one. A man could steal her away, but a woman couldn’t. So his place in her life is safe. Right?

This comes from a place of believing that relationships between women are less real, less valid, and less important than hetero-appearing relationships. In other words it’s straight up, common-or-garden, fucking boring homophobia.

These men, by the way, are often the same men who expect their wives’ sapphic relationships to offer them something in terms of sexual access or live-action lesbian porn on tap then get very upset if they don’t.

But of course, lesbian, sapphic and WLW relationships are just as deep, meaningful, and sexually satisfying as hetero ones. Hell, for many of us they’re often more so. If you believe your wife can’t possibly glean as much happiness or fulfillment from a relationship with a woman, you might be in for a very rude awakening. If you see another man as a threat but not a woman, all this tells me is that you believe men are inherently superior and hetero relationships are inherently more desirable or important.

The fact that this practice and way of thinking is so common tells me, in itself, that there’s still a lot of homophobia towards lesbian, sapphic and queer women within non-monogamy.

So What Can We Do About It?

I try to make these blog posts something more than just rants. So if we accept that sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure are huge problems in these communities, what can we do about it?

Here are a few of my ideas for how we, as a community, can start combatting this issue within our spaces:

  • Stop all gendered pricing for events, now. If you want to limit numbers of single men, fine. You can sell only a certain number of tickets or vet them carefully or both. But pricing according to gender, and defining “couple” as meaning a man and a woman, is homophobic, cissexist, and exclusionary.
  • Vote with your feet and your wallet. Attend events that are inclusive and avoid those that are not.
  • Stop asking queer women whether we also sleep with men. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Either way, it is solidly none of your goddamn business unless we’re going to sleep with you. And unless we make it very clear, you should probably assume we’re not.
  • Stop asking queer women for details of our sex lives. This includes asking if you can “watch,” asking for pictures or details, or treating us as lesbian porn fantasies.
  • If you’re a man with a queer female partner, ensure that you are giving your wife or partner’s sapphic relationships equal weight to your own.
  • Do not assume that hetero-presenting relationships or marriages are “primary,” more important, or take precedent over queer ones in non-monogamous networks.
  • Push back against unicorn hunting and one penis policies wherever you see them. Let people know that they are fetishising, homophobic, transphobic, and all-round gross.
  • Use non-gendered terms when talking about kink roles such as Top, bottom, Dominant, submissive, and so on. Do not assume that all Dominants are men, that all submissives are women, or that all kinky relationships are heteronormative.
  • Uplift and support queer women as educators, speakers, organisers, and community leaders.

Of course, fixing this kind of stuff takes more than just a few steps. Sapphic, lesbian and WLW erasure is deeply ingrained and pervasive. Undoing it will require a massive cultural shift both within our little subcultures and in wider society. It won’t happen overnight, of course. But I do believe we can get there.

Broken Agreements, Breaches of Trust, and Cheating in Polyamory: What Now? [Polyamory Conversation Cards #2]

“What is cheating in polyamory?”

“My partner did this thing that really upset me. Did they cheat?”

“Is it cheating if I…?”

I see variations of these questions multiple times a week in polyamory groups, forums, and other discussion spaces. Cheating in polyamory is a complicated subject, and a divisive one. Often, when the subject of what constitutes “cheating” in polyamory comes up, something has happened that breaches a relationship agreement (or, sometimes, an unspoken assumption) or leads to someone feeling that their trust in their partner has been broken.

In case you missed it, this post is part of a series I’m doing 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.

This week’s card asks:

“If your partner cheats on you or breaks an agreement, how can they best communicate this and what do you need to restore any damaged trust?”

Ahh, cheating in polyamory and broken relationship agreements. I have a LOT to say about this one, so let’s dive straight in.

Does Cheating in Polyamory Even Exist?

Some people think it’s impossible to cheat in an open relationship. After all, in monogamy-land, “cheating” is typically defined as “doing romantic or sexual things with someone who is not your partner.” But an open or polyamorous relationship explicitly allows for those things, so how is it possible to cheat?

This belief comes from another, to which I also do not subscribe: that polyamory or consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is a no-holds-barred free-for-all. In fact, all the successful polyamorous relationships I know are carefully negotiated and based upon mutual respect and well-crafted relationship agreements that serve everyone’s best interests.

So yes, cheating in polyamory is a real thing. If you go behind your partner’s back, don’t notify them about something they’d reasonably expect to be told about (such as a new partner or a change in sexual health practices), you might be doing something that could be defined as cheating.

However, when a breach of trust or a broken agreement has happened, I also believe that “is this cheating?” is almost always the wrong question.

Why I Think “Is It Cheating?” is the Wrong Question

“Cheating” is such a loaded term in our society and relationship landscape. It comes with so many assumptions and beliefs, many of them neither helpful nor true. Consider, for example, the maxim “once a cheater, always a cheater.” This is demonstrably false. Making a bad choice once, or even many times, does not doom a person to continue to make it for the rest of their lives! Many people have cheated on a partner, then decided not to repeat that behaviour in that relationship or others.

Cheating is destructive and cruel, and it is something that I take a pretty hard line on in my relationships. I won’t stay with a partner who cheats on me and I won’t get or stay involved with someone who is actively cheating on another partner. However, I also have a fairly narrow and specific personal definition of cheating. I would only consider one of my partners to have cheated on me if they deliberately and willingly broke a relationship agreement we made and lied to me about it.

Also, and this is important: you’re allowed to be upset about something even if it doesn’t meet anyone’s reasonable definition of cheating in polyamory! To use a totally hypothetical example, let’s say a partner of mine skips my birthday party to go hook up with a new person. No-one would reasonably call that “cheating”, but it’s still unkind, inconsiderate and unloving behaviour about which I am legitimately within my rights to be pissed off.

So, if one of your partners does something that hurts you or violates an agreement, don’t leap straight to “did they cheat?” Instead, ask yourself how their actions make you feel. Perhaps you’re hurt. Angry. Betrayed. Scared. A mix of these emotions, or something else entirely. Allow yourself to feel those feelings, then consider what to do next (which we’ll get into below.)

Are Breaches Inevitable?

Another refrain I hear a lot in polyamorous spaces is, “the problem with rules is that they always get broken.” I don’t necessarily agree with this, though. In my early days in polyamory, my relationships had a lot of rules attached to them. I no longer think this was a particularly good or healthy approach, and now practice non-hierarchical polyamory that prioritises mutual agreements, personal boundaries, and care and consideration for everyone involved over rules.

However, what I did not do is break any of those rules when they were in place. To do so would have been dishonest, unkind, and relationship-damaging. So no, I do not necessarily believe that any rule you put in place will get broken, and I certainly don’t think that mutually-made relationship agreements will.

What is pretty much inevitable, though, is the occasional miscommunication or mistake. We’re all imperfect humans and we will sometimes misunderstand our partners, genuinely forget to communicate something important, or realise that we were interpreting the terms of an agreement differently to the other person or people involved.

The bad news is that, when these things happen, they suck. For everyone. The good news is that they’re often entirely recoverable.

Someone Cheated, Broke an Agreement, or Breached Your Trust. What Now?

Sometimes, someone will make a bad choice or one that causes hurt to their partner(s). It would be wonderful if this never happened, but we’re all humans and we live in the real world. The chances of it happening to any of us at some point are fairly high.

I’m approaching this section from the perspective of talking to the person whose trust was broken. However, if you’re the one who did the agreement-breaking, there should be plenty in here for you too.

So, your partner cheated, broke an agreement, or otherwise did something to violate your trust in your polyamorous relationship. What the hell do you do now?

Get the facts and assume good faith

When your feelings are hurt and you’re feeling scared, betrayed, or angry, it’s very easy to assume the worst of everyone involved. You might feel as though they don’t care about you at all, or even that causing you pain was their intention. However, this is often not the case.

Sure, some people are malicious actors who operate with absolutely no regard for their partners’ feelings or even set out to hurt their partners intentionally. The vast majority of people, though, are not like that. Many breaches of trust happen due to thoughtlessness rather than malice. Misunderstandings, forgetfulness, mental health issues, and intoxication are just some of the other non-malicious causes (or contributing factors) that can be behind hurtful choices. They’re not excuses, of course, but understanding that your partner did not harm you intentionally can be helpful in the immediate aftermath of a broken agreement.

Until you know all the facts, try to assume good faith on the part of your parter(s) and anyone else involved. It is far easier to recover from someone doing something stupid but thoughtless than it is to recover from someone intentionally and knowingly choosing to betray you.

The other important thing to do here is watch for patterns. If this is the first time your partner has done something like this and they seem genuinely remorseful, your reaction will likely be (and probably should be) different than if this is the fifth time they’ve done the same thing with the same excuse.

Decide whether repair is possible

You might be someone who considers a broken agreement to be an instant, relationship ending dealbreaker. And you get to make that choice! However, for most of us, this is likely to be contextual.

Choosing to break a safer sex agreement (e.g. not using a condom with a casual hook-up, if that’s what you’ve agreed) in the heat of the moment and then disclosing it to your partner straight away isn’t good, but it’s a world away from repeatedly and deliberately having unprotected sex for months without telling your existing partner(s.) The former is far more likely to be repairable than the latter. Misunderstanding the terms of an agreement in good faith is quantifiably different from understanding the spirit of an agreeement but rules-lawyering your way into violating it anyway.

If your partner has broken an agreement, cheated on you, or otherwise damaged your trust, only you can decide if repair is possible. In other words, are you going to stay and do the work with your partner to fix things, or are you going to leave the relationship?

Either choice is valid, of course. However, I’m personally big on forgiveness and not a fan of throwing relationships away over mistakes. A breach would have to be both huge and clearly deliberate for me to walk away from a relationship over it at this stage.

Feel and express your feelings

We touched on this above. It can be tempting to skip this step, because the feelings these kinds of incidents bring up can be painful and even traumatic. However, it’s essential that you allow yourself to feel and express your emotions. Repressing them doesn’t do anyone any good.

Note that expressing your emotions does not mean completely flying off the handle. However, it’s fair to be in a heightened emotional state and – as long as you’re not doing anything abusive such as screaming at your partner, using verbal abuse, showing physical aggression or violence, or threatening harm to them or yourself – you shouldn’t necessarily feel an obligation to tone this down. It’s okay to cry, to express anger, and to show how hurt you are.

Where possible, try to use “I” statements and to be as specific as possible. For example, “when I found out you’d had sex without a condom, I felt disregarded and uncared for” is better than “you obviously just don’t give a fuck about me.” If you need to take a little time and space before you can express your feelings in a healthy way, that’s fine too.

What do you need from your partner?

Assuming your partner made a genuine mistake, they are likely feeling remorseful for their actions, regretting hurting you, and wanting to make amends. Take the time to think about what you need from them for repair to happen.

This can look a bunch of different ways. I’ve had situations where all I needed was an explanation of what happened and why followed by a genuine apology, then we could forget the whole thing and move on. Other situations have required more intensive repair efforts.

Some of the things you might ask for include:

  • An apology
  • To talk through exactly what happened and why
  • A commitment that your partner won’t repeat the behaviour and for them to outline the steps they will take to ensure it doesn’t happen again
  • Some quality time with your partner to re-establish your connection
  • Some space from your partner. (Ensure that this doesn’t lead to you stonewalling them or giving them the silent treatment as a punishment. Time-limit it and let them know when you will return. For example, “I’m going to take until tomorrow to process this and care for myself, I’ll call you after work.”)
  • For the two of you to see a relationship counsellor or therapist together

…or something else that I haven’t thought of! Your partner doesn’t have to give you what you ask for, of course. This is about requests, not demands. But how they respond to your reasonable requests for reconnection, amends, or trust-rebuilding will probably tell you a lot about how they feel about having hurt you and how committed they are to repairing and strengthening your bond.

Resisting the urge to punish or retaliate

This part can be difficult for some people, but it’s essential. If your partner has cheated, violated an agreement, or breached your trust, you might feel a lot of anger. That’s understandable! What you must do, though, is resist the urge to punish them or retaliate from a place of anger.

I’ve seen this look various ways. In cases of agreement breaches or cheating in polyamory, two of the most common are “you have to be monogamous to me but I can still be open, because you broke the rules” and “I’m vetoing the person you made a mistake with, so you have to break up with them.” The other common version in all relationship structures, of course, is “you cheated on me so now I get to cheat on you and you can’t say anything about it.”

Assuming you’ve decided to remain in the relationship, the goal must be to repair, reconnect, and come back together having learned from whatever happened. Depending on the severity, this may not be easy and it may take some time to rebuild trust. However, punishing your partner or retaliating will actually lead you further away from a positive resolution. It may also irrevocably poison your relationship in the long run.

Give it time

Trust is often fragile, particularly for people with trauma histories. It can take a long time to repair when someone breaks it. So don’t expect overnight repair, no matter how remorseful the person who broke an agreement is or how sincerely they commit to ensuring it never happens again.

The best apology, as the saying goes, is changed behaviour. So see how your partner behaves in the aftermath of the trust breach. Do they make sincere efforts to display trustworthiness and make you feel loved and valued? Do they take steps to make sure they don’t repeat the mistake? If so, you’re good.

Broken agreements, trust violations, and cheating in polyamory are incredibly painful and can cause massive ruptures in relationships and polycules. But they don’t necessarily have to mean the end of everything.

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In Healthy Polyamory, No Veto Power Does Not Mean No Say [Polyamory Conversation Cards #1]

I recently received my set of Polyamory Conversation Cards, created by Odder Being, a project that I backed on Kickstarter months ago. With 49 questions across 7 different categories, these cards are designed to get you thinking, help you to discover your needs and boundaries, and spark open and constructive conversations with your partners. They are non-gendered and make no assumptions about relationship configuration.

I decided to use them as prompts for blog posts for this year. I’ll pull a card at random, one at a time until I’ve got through the entire deck, and use them to inspire a piece of content here. Some of them might be practical advice pieces. Others may be essays, personal pieces, or even rants. We’ll see! (And I am not putting a hard and fast timeframe on this because I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life. I’m going to aim for roughly one a week or getting through the whole deck in approximately a year, but we’ll see.)

Today’s card asks:

“To what extent are you okay with your partner(s) having influence over your romantic and/or sexual connections with others?”

This has made me think about the subject of veto power in polyamory. This controversial practice refers to giving one partner the power to unilaterally demand that you end an outside relationship at any time, and reasonably expect that you will comply. Most often, the person wielding veto power will be a spouse, “primary” partner, or nesting partner.

I am absolutely, unequivocally against veto power. I believe it’s abusive in almost all circumstances. Personal experience also tells me that, even if it is never actually used, the mere threat of a veto from one partner prevents emotional safety from ever truly existing in any other relationships. After all, how can you ever possibly feel safe if your metamour could yank your relationship away at any moment?

Just a few other reasons I’m against veto power include:

  • It reinforces relationship hierarchies and couple’s privilege.
  • It is a poor way of building safety and security, and simply outsources risk and pain onto others rather than actually confronting and working through difficult feelings.
  • Its intended impact is rarely its actual impact. In fact, in most cases, using (or even threatening) a veto will cause such resentment that it will irrevocably damage or end the relationship of the person who issued it.
  • It treats human beings with feelings as disposable toys.
  • It places the veto-giving partner into an authoritarian or parental role, rather than the role of an equal partner, and removes autonomy from their partner(s) and metamour(s).
  • In extreme cases, it can lead to sexual coercion or sexual violence (e.g. “if your partner won’t have a threesome with us, I’m vetoing them.”)

In healthy relationships, we do influence each other

It’s a myth, and a deeply toxic one, that healthy polyamorous relationships involve total autonomy without any cross-relationship or inter-relationship influence. Autonomy and self-determination are important, but they should not come at the expense of treating the people we love well. Moreover, they don’t have to.

If you take away nothing else from this post, please at least internalise this. It is entirely possible (and not even that difficult!) to both have autonomy and to practice kindness, consideration, and care for your partners and their feelings.

As humans, we are social creatures and we are influenced and changed by those around us, and particularly those close to us, in all sorts of ways. This is normal. This is healthy.

I am influenced by my partners and my close friends all the time, and mostly in very positive ways. They inspire me with their bravery and brilliance, they make me want to be the best version of myself, they challenge me when I am wrong, and they offer unique and valuable insights into all aspects of my life. In positive relationships (both romantic and otherwise,) we learn from each other. We are often changed by each other, and by our relationships, in profound and beautiful ways.

Loving people means caring for their feelings

Another toxic myth in the polyamory community is the idea that “your feelings are your problem.”

This started from a good place: that we all have a reasonable responsibility for our own emotional wellbeing and that we should not weaponise our feelings to control our partners. However, in its current guise, it has morphed into something deeply damaging. It has led to people thinking that there is something wrong with them if they have anything but positive feelings about anything their partner does. It has led to people utterly disregarding their partners’ valid needs and emotions to the point of cruelty or even abuse.

Because loving people and being in intimate relationship with them does include caring for their feelings. Emotions do not typically spring, fully formed, from nowhere. They are often reactive, though what they are in response to and how that response manifests can be changeable, unpredictable, at times hard to identify, and not necessarily an obvious straight line.

If you are in an intimate relationship with someone of any kind, you do have a degree of responsibility to care for their feelings. This doesn’t mean doing whatever they want, allowing them to dictate all the terms of the relationship, or allowing them to control or limit your other significant relationships. It does mean creating emotional safety, receiving their feelings – especially difficult or vulnerable ones – with love, and working with them to meet their needs. There might be times where it means not doing something you would have otherwise liked to do.

Case study: temporary frustration for the long-term good

I have, on a small handful of occasions, chosen not to pursue a casual hookup at that time because one of my serious partners was in a bad place emotionally and did not have the bandwidth to process or handle it.

If this was happening all the time we’d need to have a conversation. But once in a while? That strikes me as a normal part of being a loving and considerate partner to somebody in a serious relationship.

Some polyamorous people would balk at this, saying that my partner was being controlling or exerting undue influence. The key, though, is that the choice was ultimately mine. Nobody issued a veto or forbade me to do anything. I made an assessment and made a choice to act in the way I did – a choice that, ultimately, was more than worth the temporary frustration for the long-term benefit to my partner’s wellbeing and our relationship overall.

Important clarification: I view a situation like the one above as fundamentally different from curtailing another significant and serious relationship, which is not something I would ever do. That’s because, in the context of a serious relationship, all my partners have certain rights and certain things they can expect from me. Those things include not having another partner or relationship interfere with ours in a negative way.

There’s a huge difference between influence and control

Where I think this question gets really interesting is when we pick apart the difference between influence and control. At first glance they can seem similar, with the difference more semantic than substantial, but I actually think they’re enormously different things.

One crucial difference is that influence in a relationship is bidirectional, whereas control flows only one way. I consider my partners’ needs and feelings in my decisions, and I feel confident that they will consider mine in a similar way. A veto, by definition, does not consider the needs and feelings of either of the people whose relationship is being vetoed. It is designed to serve only the person issuing the veto. (And even then, it usually fails. Again: issuing a veto against one of your partner’s other relationships is likely to seriously damage your relationship with that partner, if it doesn’t end it entirely.)

Another difference is that, in the case of influence, we each ultimately still have the power and the space to make our own decisions. When control is being utilised, we do not. Influence can allow for negotiation, make room for compromise, and seek to come to solutions that serve the good of everyone affected by the situation. Control does none of those things.

Case studies: expressing a need vs. making a demand

Here’s an example. I might say to one of my partners, “I feel as though I’m not getting enough time with you lately, and that makes me feel sad and neglected.” This would lead to a conversation, and might result in some aspect of their behaviour changing. They might take more proactive steps to arrange time with me, move things around in their schedule so that we can see each other, or change how we spend time together so it’s a higher quality of shared time.

What I do NOT have the right to do is to say “you’re not spending enough time with me, so I demand that you break up with your other partner (or curtail/downgrade your relationship with them) to make more time for me.”

To give another example, let’s say I feel particularly insecure about a new metamour for some reason. I can say to my partner, “I’m feeling really insecure about your relationship with X, so I’d prefer it if you could share fewer details with me/hold space for me to talk things out/hold off on introducing me to them until I’ve worked through these feelings.” I cannot say, “they make me insecure so you can’t see them any more.”

That’s the difference between having a say (influence) and having a veto (control.)

What if one of your partners is concerned about a prospective partner, date, or hook-up, or vice-versa?

This is usually the first question that comes up when I say I don’t believe in veto. “But Amy, what if one of your partners wants to date someone really, truly terrible? Or what if you want to make a horrible dating choice, and your partners have no recourse to stop you?”

It’s a fair question but, I think, takes the wrong approach. It assumes that polyamorous people are all just waiting to make terrible dating choices, get involved with the worst kinds of humans, or casually disregard our own values, and that strict rules or the threat of a veto are the only things keeping us in line. The reality, in my experience, is quite the opposite. In fact, all the successful polyamorous people I know operate with the highest levels of integrity and seek to make good choices in partner selection and in the ways that their relationships are conducted.

The key here is to trust your partners’ judgement and intentions, both in the ways they manage their own dating lives and in any opinions they may express about yours.

Do I worry about one of my partners bringing home my abuser, a neo-Nazi, or (to use a less extreme and more common example) a monogamous person who has expressed a desire to cowperson them away from the rest of the polycule? No, because I trust their judgement. I know them well enough to know they wouldn’t do something like that, so it never occurs to me to worry about it.

With that said, we all have blind spots. We’re all capable of overlooking glaring red flags, falling for someone with bad intentions, or just making stupid decisions in the heat of lust. This is where that influence thing comes in again. Influence allows your partners to share their concerns with you and have their voices heard (and vice versa) without demanding that you choose one specific course of action.

That’s why you should talk to your partner about if it you have any legitimate concerns about someone they’re interested in. It’s also why you should listen if they bring up similar concerns about a prospective partner to you.

If your partner finds faults, concerns, or “red flags” in everyone you want to date, chances are there’s something deeper going on. They might be feeling jealous or insecure, or simply be having a hard time with trusting you to make good decisions for yourself. These are all common issues within polyamory, particularly – but not exclusively – when you’re newer to it.

If either of my partners raised a concern about someone I was interested in, though, I’d listen. This does not necessarily mean I’d always choose not to pursue the person in question. My eventual decision would depend on the circumstances and on a whole array of factors. But I would listen to my partner(s), I would hear their concerns, and I would give those concerns serious consideration. If I choose not to pursue the new connection as a result, that’s not veto power. That’s me making an informed decision based on all the information to which I have access.

My partners are smart and emotionally intelligent people who love me, know me very well, and have sound judgement. If they tell me they have a concern, I know that they legitimately do and are not simply trying to control or limit me.

The bottom line: what I will and won’t accept with regards to veto power, influence, and control

This card asks, “To what extent are you okay with your partner(s) having influence over your romantic and/or sexual connections with others?”

Ultimately, my answer is that I’m fine with them having a reasonable level of influence. I actually think that’s a good and healthy thing. What I won’t tolerate is anyone seeking to have control over my other connections, and I would be unlikely to stay long in a relationship with someone who wanted that control. Likewise, I want to have influence with my partners but I do not want to have control.

My answer to this question also depends, to a fairly significant extent, on what type of relationship we are talking about. My serious partners are always going to be far, far more important to me than one-off or casual hook-ups. This naturally means that they get a much higher level of priority and enjoy a greater degree of influence in the decisions I make and the ways I choose to operate.

What I won’t do, however, is accept veto power or be in a relationship with someone who has given that power to any of their other partners.

No-one gets to decide the reality, outcome, or direction of any of my relationships except me and the other person in it. I will never give anyone veto power or permission-granting/permission-refusing power over any aspect of other connections. But I will always take my partners’ needs and feelings into consideration and strive to make sure they feel loved, heard, and prioritised. Because no veto power does not mean no say.

The Polyamory Community Has a Huge Slut-Shaming Problem

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When I started practicing consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, I expected to get hit with slut-shaming from monogamous friends, family, and wider society. And predictably, I did. (“So she’ll just open her legs for anyone like a 24-hour supermarket?” was one memorably horrible quote said by an old childhood friend about me.)

What I never expected, though, was to encounter slut-shaming from within the non-monogamous community. But this has happened to me multiple times over the 15 years or so I’ve been polyam, as well as to many of my friends and lovers. And I have come to realise what a significant and pervasive problem it actually is.

Before I dive in, I want to shout out the other polyamory writers, thinkers, and educators who have spoken on this issue, especially Leanne Yau of PolyPhilia, Mainely Mandy, Eldiandevil, and Ramona Quaxli. Their perspectives and insights are tremendously valuable and have informed, validated, and helped to shape my own.

What is slut-shaming?

Planned Parenthood defines slut-shaming as “accusing someone — usually girls and women — of being “too sexual,” and using that as an excuse to humiliate, bully, or harass them.”

Slut-shaming can take the form of calling someone derogatory and sexual names (such as “slut”, “whore”, or “slag.”) But it can also take forms such as:

  • Criticising a person for wearing sexualised or revealing clothing
  • Blaming the victim or saying they “asked for it” in cases of rape, sexual violence, revenge porn, sexual harrassment, and so on
  • Gossiping, making assumptions, or spreading rumours about someone’s sex life or sexual behaviour
  • Criticising or shaming a partner for their sexual history prior to your relationship (or during it, in the case of consensually non-monogamous relationships)
  • Acting entitled to someone’s body because of their actual or perceived sexual behaviour (e.g. “if she puts out for other guys why not me?”)
  • Accusing someone of being a “sex addict” for their level of desire, number of partners, kinks and fetishes, or other actual or perceived sexual behaviour

In short, it’s anything that is designed to put a person down or make them feel guilty or ashamed of the ways that they express their sexuality.

But how can there be slut-shaming in non-monogamy!?

When people enter the non-monogamous community, they often come in with certain expectations. One of those expectations is that it is going to be a free love utopia, apart from and unaffected by any of cisheteromononormative society’s hangups about sex. I mean, our unofficial community Bible is literally called The Ethical Slut. We’re all totally enlightened and sex-positive over here in non-mono-land, right?

If only.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I’ve been guilty of perpetuating this, in the past, just as I have been a victim of it. But the polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM) community has a huge, enormous, glaring, and under-addressed slut-shaming problem.

Let’s look at a few of the ways it manifests and why they’re problematic.

“It’s not all about the sex!”

Polyamory Weekly, which ran from 2005 until 2022, is by far the longest-running and best-known polyamory podcast. When I first started listening way back in around 2009, I didn’t think much of the goofy little tagline at the end of the show: “and remember, it’s not all about the sex!” On the rare occasions that I dip back into the PW back catalogue these days, I cringe a little every time I hear it.

The purpose of this section is not to call out PW specifically or exclusively. It’s a great resource. I’m glad it existed for 17 years and I’m glad its 600+ episodes live on for new polyamorous folks to find. But I do think this tagline is an example of a wider narrative within the polyamorous community.

I understand the purpose of phrases like this. Mainstream society aggressively sexualises non-monogamy and casts aspersions on our collective character as a result (itself a form of slut-shaming). In much the same way that LGBTQ+ identities had to fight to be seen as more than sexual fetishes, non-monogamists are now fighting a similar battle. But, in striving for this more nuanced recognition of our identities, we must be careful not to shame those for whom sex does play an important role in their non-monogamy.

Some people are non-monogamous, in part, to have more sex and to experience more sexual variety. As long as those people are honest with their lovers and taking reasonable steps to be safe and considerate partners? I do not think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.

Other versions of this trope include “just because I’m polyamorous doesn’t mean I’m a slut!” and “I might be polyamorous but I still have standards!”

“But amour means love”

The equally insidious sister to the above is something I see all the time in the polyamory groups, forums, and other online spaces: “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY. The amour means love!” This one comes out when a person talks about having a lot of casual sex. However, it also comes out when a person is struggling with sexual difficulties, sexual incompatibility, or sexlessness in one of their relationships. Its purpose is clear: to slut-shame the individual because sex matters to them.

If you’ve ever uttered this sentence, you might not like what I’m going to say next: for many of us, sex is part of how we love. For some people, this is intimately connected to physical touch as a love language. Sex with someone you love can be tremendously bonding and connective, helping you to feel closer and more intimate – both emotionally and physically – with your partners. Sex can make you feel desired, allow you to express love and care through touch and the giving of pleasure, and give you an opportunity to be exploratory and playful together.

In addition, in a newer relationship, sex can help you to bond, deepen and strengthen your connection, and feel out whether you’re compatible for a long-term relationship.

In short, sex is allowed to be important to you. Leanne Yau says, “I can have sex without love, but I cannot have love without sex.” I’m not sure I’d go that far for myself, but I know I would really, really struggle in a sexless romantic relationship. It is only recently that I’ve stopped feeling shame around that fact.

So yes, sure, “polyamory” means “many/multiple loves.” But love can take many forms and, if sexual compatibility matters to you or if sex is an intrinsic part of how you express romantic love, that’s not only valid but super normal and common. Those “many/multiple loves,” by the way, can also include friends with benefits, comet partners, and other forms of connection that don’t look like traditional romantic relationships, if you like.

Phrases like “it’s polyAMORY, not polyFUCKERY” place non-sexual love as inherently higher, more pure, or more real than sexual love. And I think that’s bullshit.

“Sounds like you’re just a swinger.”

People outside the CNM community conflate swinging and polyamory all the time. However, while it’s certainly possible to be both, the crossover is probably significantly smaller than you think it is and they are quite different cultures. In fact, it has sadly been my experience that a lot of swingers do not like or trust polyamorous people very much, and that this feeling is very mutual. I believe this has less to do with any inherent differences or incompatibilities, and more to do with misconceptions, snap judgements, and in-group/out-group politics.

In many polyamorous spaces, there is a huge amount of policing of other people’s non-monogamies. This includes the oft-heard cry of “that’s not polyam, it sounds like you’re just a swinger!” in situations where casual sex, group sex, or promiscuity are involved.

I think it’s telling, in itself, that so many polyamorous people see “swinger” as an insult. What gives us the right to place one version of non-monogamy on a pedastal and look down on others? Sure, the mainstream hetero swinging community has its fair share of problems. However, so does the polyamorous one. When we set ourselves apart and cast judgement on swingers, all we are doing is perpetuating the same slut-shaming, sex-negative rhetoric that the mononormative world perpetuates against us. And that harms all of us.

As polyamorous people, most of us also have sex with multiple people. Do you think that cisheteronormative, mononormative, sex-negative society will spare us its judgement if the sex we have is for Twue Wuv Only while we loudly shun the swingers for their casual shenanigans? Because I promise you it won’t. But it would love for the different schools of consensual non-monogamy to get distracted tearing each other apart rather than banding together to tear down the sociocultural structures that harm us.

Whether you are polyamorous, a swinger, both, neither, or somewhere else entirely on the spectrum, I believe that all of us under the consensual non-monogamy umbrella should be allies and need to stick together. We’re on the same damn team.

The one penis policy

The infamous one penis policy, or OPP, is where a polyamorous cis man tells his (usually cis women) partners that they can date other people with vulvas, but nobody else with a penis. It’s highly problematic in a bunch of ways, from cissexism and trans erasure through to simply being a bad way to handle jealousy and insecurity. I’m going to write an entire piece about it soon.

Increasingly, I believe it is also tied to slut shaming.

At the root of the one penis policy, very often, is the belief that sex is only “real” when it involves a penis. Men who enact the OPP often believe (even if on an unconscious level) that there is something inherently bad or wrong about their female partners having a lot of sex or multiple sexual partners, but convince themselves that it only really counts if those sexual partners have a penis. This allows them to keep seeing those partners as “pure,” as long as they only have sex with fellow vulva-owners.

Many polyamorous men explicitly or implicitly devalue their female partners when or if they have sex with multiple penis-owning partners. You’d be amazed at how often, in online polyamorous spaces, I see variations on this theme: “my wife just had sex with her boyfriend for the first time and now I can’t help but see her as tainted.” Which is a pretty fucking rough deal for straight or bi+ polyamorous women.

This is by no means a comprehensive list

This piece is not intended to provide a comprehensive list of all the ways that slut-shaming shows up in polyamory and CNM. Like all systems of oppression, it is insidious and multi-faceted and not always easy to spot. It takes many forms and harms people in many different ways.

There is, however, one consistent truth that sits at the heart of this phenomenon:

It’s misogyny, isn’t it?

Purity culture is deeply and inherently tied to misogyny. Purity culture “encompasses the way society and popular culture reinforces the idea of sexual purity as a measure of a person’s worth” (John Loeppky for VeryWellMind) and is used to control, police, shame, and curtail women’s sexuality and sexual agency.

Just like mainstream purity culture, slut-shaming and sex-negativity within the polyamory and CNM communities are intimately tied to misogyny. A person of any gender can be slut-shamed. However, in reality, it is always going to mostly weaponised against, and have a far greater impact on, women, femmes, AFAB folks, and anyone socialised as female.

When we begin to unpack sex-negative and slut-shaming beliefs, misogyny – including internalised misogyny on the part of women and other marginalised genders – is almost inevitably at the core of it. To dismantle slut-shaming requires us to take a close and critical look at all the things our society and upbringing have told us about gender, sex, and sexuality, and to consider the ways in which those narratives are doing a disservice to ourselves, our loved ones, and our wider community.

Towards an expansive and inclusive version of CNM

None of this is to say that your polyamory or consensual non-monogamy must include casual sex, or must include sex at all. It is entirely possible to have no interest in sex whatsoever and to never slut-shame anyone else. I do believe, however, that everyone in these communities has a responsibility to intentionally cultivate a sex-positive attitude.

As a reminder, my working definition of sex positivity is as follows:

“Supporting the right of all consenting adults to have sex, or not, in whatever ways work best for them, free from stigma or shame.”

The point of sex-positivity isn’t that more sex is better. The point is that we all have a right to choose how much and what forms of sex we have, and that all consensual and freely made choices are of equal moral value.

We must recognise that the CNM world is not a sex-positive utopia, much as we might wish it was. The first step to addressing our sex-negativity and slut-shaming problem is to identify it, talk about it, call it out when we see it, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t an issue.

We all carry toxic beliefs from our upbringing or our society, and it is our job to address and unlearn them. This is hard, long-term, potentially lifelong work. Fighting the tide of cultural norms isn’t easy, and I am not trying to downplay or simplify it. But, if we want to build truly radical and inclusive communities, it is absolutely necessary.

Finally, we must stop this in-fighting. Stop shaming and attacking our own. Whether we’re polyamorous or swingers or relationship anarchists, whether we’re asexual or demisexual or hypersexual, whether we have orgies every weekend or only have sex in committed romantic relationships, we must stop throwing each other under the bus for crumbs of respectability from a culture that seeks to judge and repress all of us in exactly the same ways.

Cisheteromononormative society shames us all enough. We like to think we’re better than to also do it to each other. And right now, we’re not.

But what if we could be? How radical and awesome would that be?

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