15 Things I’ve Learned in 15 Years of Polyamory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. You cannot open a relationship without changing it

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

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

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

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

Hah. I wish.

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

6. Compersion is lovely but it’s not essential

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

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

7. Look for community before you look for partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Most metamour problems are actually hinge problems

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

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

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

15. There are no experts

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

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

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

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.

Three Great Things About Threesomes

I fucking love threesomes, and at this point in my life I’ve had a lot of them. Many good, a handful bad, and a rare few just explosively fucking brilliant.

Threesomes are, according to a bunch of studies and anecdotal evidence, one of the absolute most common sexual fantasies. The stereotype, of course, is that all straight men want a threesome with two women, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Making threesomes work isn’t necessarily easy, especially not the first few times you have one, but when they work they’re amazing.

Here’s three of the things I love most about the magical, mysterious menage et trois.

1. I get to watch my partner having fun

Seeing someone I love receiving and giving pleasure is fucking awesome. Threesomes allow me to see their pleasure in a whole new way. Through the way someone else touches them, I can learn new things about their body. From the things our Special Guest Star is into, they can pick up new tricks to bring back to their relationship with me. Watching my partner enjoying somebody else and being enjoyed by them just brings up massive feelings of compersion.

And let’s be real – what’s sexier than watching two hot people you’re wildly attracted to getting it on with each other, except watching this and also knowing you get to join in?

2. Getting to try different kinks and roles

There are some kinks and activities that simply need three or more people in order to work. For example, I’ve recently been having a lot of fantasies about having a submissive lower than me in the “hierarchy,” who I can push tasks or punishments off onto. I also generally have a lot of feelings about “Switch in the middle” type dynamics, where I have one person dominant over me and the other submissive to me. I really find group sex situations, especially threesomes with a more-dominant and a more-submissive partner, to be a great way to flex my Dom muscles in a safe way. Then again, I’m also really into subbing for two people at the same time – another one which, by definition, kinda requires three people to explore.

3. The warm fuzzies

No – seriously. This one might sound weird but it’s so true.

There’s the aforementioned compersion, of course, and how close and connected I feel to my partner afterwards. Then there’s the exhausted tangle of limbs in the bed when you take a breather or finally stop for the night. The warmth and cosyness of three-way snuggles. All the giggles and laughter and stupid jokes in between – or sometimes during – the fucking. The sense of awe and rush of deep fondness I usually feel for the person who has joined us, like “you’re so fucking great and I’m so fucking lucky to be getting to share this with you.” My best threesomes have been hot, yes… but they’ve also been happy, giggly, funny, silly, irreverent, sweet and affectionate.

Sometimes one of the nicest things about a really good threesome is in the morning, when your partner goes and makes pancakes for you and the girl you just fucked.