What Nobody Talks About When They Talk About Polyamory
Communication is hammered home to everyone who's new to polyamory as the key to the lifestyle, and for good reason: good poly is only possible with good communication. But despite talking everything to death, we somehow miss a lot of important points in those conversations. After over six years in the community (and a few more before I ever heard the word "polyamory"), two years of organizing poly social groups, and thousands of conversations about ethical non-monogamy, I'm still surprised at what's missing from our dialogue about poly life — both within our community and in the broader public and recent media coverage — and I want to see that change.
Don't get me wrong, the recent boost in poly media coverage has certainly led to some pretty amazing new conversations on topics that have been ignored in the past — about polyamory and mental health, polyamory and race, polyamory and class/education level, polyamory and hierarchy, polyamory and rules, polyamory and cheating, and polyamory and sleeping arrangements — but somehow, there's still a lot missing from the picture. With some input from my poly community, here are just a handful of things that could use some more airtime for a more rounded discussion of polyamory. But first, check out the latest episode of Bustle's Sex and Relationships podcast "I Want It That Way":
1. Solo Poly
Because the conversation so often focuses on couples or poly-fi arrangements (aka a relationship with three or more people who have no sexual or romantic connections with those who are outside the group), solo poly is rarely discussed and often misunderstood. Turns out though, not everyone is into co-habitating, sharing bank accounts, makin' babies, gettin' hitched to their bae, or otherwise tying their lives together in a tangible way, whether with one or multiple lovers — but that shouldn't be confused with casually dating, as it often is. Solo polies can and do often have deep, committed, and long-term relationships, they just aren't looking to take a ride on the relationship escalator.
When the topic of polyamory comes up, the main focus of the conversation tends to be sex and people’s feelings around sex. What gets missed here is a whole population of folk who aren’t super into sex. Somehow, we seem to think that if people aren't having sex, then they aren't having romantic relationships either — but that's just not true. Asexuality can range from being only interested on occasion to total disinterest to actual disgust, but in any case, there are plenty of ace folk in the poly world, happily engaging in romantic relationships.
3. Fluid Bonding
In an ideal situation, mono folk wait to fluid bond with their partner (aka have unprotected sex) until they have two rounds of negative STI testing six months apart and a whole lot of trust. More realistically, many folk tend to just slip into not using condoms with their main squeeze after a certain amount of time and (maybe I’m being hopeful here) a fairly recent "clean" screen. In either case, part of the process usually involves an exclusivity agreement — i.e., no bangin’ other people.
But what about poly folk? The conversation often either centers on couples, or on throuples or other closed networks and assumes they’ll be the only fluid bonded set. In some cases though, folk aren’t poly-fi, but they do have multiple fluid bonded partners. At a minimum, it requires a lot of testing and communication — but it's rarely discussed either in the poly world or by recent media coverage, and some conversations about how to safely fluid bond in non-closed relationships would be super helpful.
OK, so we talk a lot about jealousy — but a lot of the time, we talk about it in the wrong way, and miss some important aspects. There’s a lot of pressure to not be jealous in order to be "good poly," and a lot of the discussion centers around how to avoid or handle jealousy, often with the idea that the jealous party is inherently "wrong" somehow heavily implied. This can lead to a lot of internal pressure to smooth things over and keep quiet about how you're feeling — not to mention a lot of questioning about whether or not you should even have those feelings. That pressure to not be "that partner" is extreme in the poly world.
While you don't necessarily need to share every jealous thought you have with your partner, and it's great to examine those feelings on your own, it's also important to have real conversations about it and recognize that there are times when it's due to a problem that can be solved. It's OK to ask for what you need, and no one should shame you for feeling jealous as long as you handle it like a grown-up.
5. The Fear of Rejection
Rejection still hurts just as much when you’re poly. Mono folk have this tendency to assume, “well, at least you have someone to go home to,” but people aren’t interchangeable. Rejection hurts whether you’re single or have three nesting partners. Even with the addition of poly-friendly dating sites and features on mainstream ones, the reality is that the vast majority of the population is mono, and tend to respond to you coming out as poly with a "well that's OK, I wasn't looking for anything serious anyway."
Think about it this way: if you're mono and you have a crush on your bartender, you have to worry about her being in a relationship or just not being into you; poly folk also have to worry about coming out and if their love interest will accept their dating structure.
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