Some people assume that it’s more “enlightened” to be in a non-monogamous or polyamorous relationship. It’s true that in order for a non-monogamous relationship to be effective and happy, it does require a number of more enlightened habits, such as honest communication, and emotional responsibility. But like any relationship, even non-monogamous relationships can grow unhealthy and act as a backdrop for dysfunction and abuse.
We live in a world where we are taught monogamy as a default, so it seems like familiar territory pointing out dysfunctional dynamics in traditional relationships: lying, cheating, ultimatums, etc. But when it comes to the relatively new ground of non-monogamy, it gets a little more tricky. We don’t have a social script explaining the “correct” way to have a non-traditional relationship, leaving most non-monogamous folk with the task of re-writing the relationship rule book. In this re-writing process, there is fertile ground for an abusive partner to dictate the way things “should” be done — controlling the narrative with emotional manipulation, guilt, and power games.
I spoke with a number of my coaching clients, fellow community members in the poly scene, and other relationship professionals to identify the biggest red flags. As a relationship coach specializing in non-monogamous relationships, you can find non-traditional relationship advice in my book, The Smart Girl's Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know about Open Relationships, Non-monogamy, and Alternative Love — but these are a good jumping-off point for identifying unhealthy behaviors.
You feel terrible before and after going on a date with someone new.
Whether you are just opening up a formerly monogamous relationship or if you’ve been in non-monogamous relationships for a while, there’s no avoiding running into people’s emotions, including your own. Dating someone new is full of unknowns, usually exciting to you and often unnerving to other partners you may already have in your life. It’s important to be compassionate and understanding of the feelings of insecurity or jealousy that your partner may be experiencing as you head out the door to a romantic evening with someone else, but for many people, that compassion can turn into a slippery slope of compromise.
“When someone you love is upset, it can be easy to allow them to push on your boundaries for a while in an attempt to help them, or even simply to make them feel better. Occasionally someone can begin to take advantage of this, even unintentionally,” shares Auryn, 29. “If they aren't working to actually take charge of their own insecurities, and in good faith give their partner the freedom they require, it often becomes a pattern of boundary breaches that are unhealthy and damaging for all the relationships.”
If your partner consistently has emotional breakdowns before and after you spend time with someone else, if they regularly insist that you cancel your plans last minute for non-emergency reasons, or if you find yourself having to put out fires via text message when you’re in the middle of a date, it’s time to reconsider.
There’s a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
It can be awkward talking to your partner about the relationships, flings, or hookups you are having with someone else. For some people, the only thing more awkward than talking about it is having to hear about it as well. Instating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” or DADT policy seems to make sense on paper — you get the freedom to pursue others but without all those pesky, uncomfortable conversations!
Choosing to be discrete may not be entirely inappropriate for your relationship, but it heavily relies on what kind of dynamic exists between you and your partner, as well as what it is that the two of you are looking for in being non-monogamous.
“I know plenty of people (mostly gay men, but also some male/female couples) who have successfully done DADT, but it was mostly around hookups and flings,” says Michael, 30. “So a couple who is dedicated to the primary status of their relationship, but wants to have some fun on the side, I think can healthily maintain DADT if it's clear that romance and dating others is not cool.”
However, be wary of any decision to communicate less rather than more. This isn’t to say that you need to subject your partner to every intimate detail, but it’s wise to avoid agreements about communication that require you to regularly cover up important information or tell lies of omission. At the very least, the spectrum of communication between you and your partner should be wide enough to allow each of you to share information about the sexual health and safe sex practices of the people that you are engaging with. If your partner refuses to hear any information whatsoever, it may be a sign that she isn’t so keen on non-monogamy in the first place.
You have no privacy.
Just as concealing information can be potentially destructive, being expected to share any and all information can also do a number on a polyamorous relationship. The tricky thing about having a full-disclosure policy is that on the surface, it seems like a solid communication practice. You and your partner share everything with each other anyway, so it shouldn’t be a problem if your partner reads the text conversations you have with other people, and gets to know graphic details of your last hot hookup, right?
It may feel good to be totally transparent with your partner, but you may be forgetting that the person you are talking about probably didn’t consent to having their personal details and text messages shared with a third party. Kathy Labriola, a counselor who specializes in polyamorous relationships, makes a clear distinction: “Privacy is not the same as secrecy or lying, and some poly people don’t seem to grasp that very important difference.” Remember that whether you are in a relationship with someone or just having a night of fun with them, they deserve to have their privacy respected as well. Keep lines of communication open between all parties for disclosing issues of health and safety, but be careful of over-sharing personal conversations.
Unfortunately, your privacy and the privacy of your partners may be violated despite your best efforts. As Labriola points out, snooping through a partner’s personal accounts is a relatively new phenomenon. “Before the advent of email, cell phones, and social media, no one would have even suggested opening their partner’s mail or listening in on their phone conversations, and that was a good thing! For some reason, now that we have devices that allow us to surveil our partners, we believe that just because we can, we should, and that we have a right to know where they are at every moment and exactly what they are doing with whom.”
If you’re unconvinced, here are 15 reasons snooping is a terrible idea.
You’re expected to become romantically involved with anyone your partner is dating.
If you’re in a polyamorous relationship, people may often make the assumption that you’re in it for the sex, or that you’re having orgies all the time. Even your partner may make the assumption that because you want multiple partners, that must mean you are down to have sex with multiple partners at the same time. Threesomes and other forms of groups sex are great fun, but they should never be compulsory.
Not everyone who is in a non-monogamous relationship wants kinky group sex, just as not everyone who is in a monogamous relationship wants only vanilla sex. Even if you identify as kinky, bisexual, sex-positive, poly, or all four at once, you have the right to give a “fuck yes” or a “hell no” to any sexual experience that’s on the table. If you’re being pressured into sleeping with someone just because your partner happens to be sleeping with them as well, it may be time to take a step back and re-evaluate.
Sometimes this pressure may not be coming from your partner, but from your metamour (your partner’s partner), with potentially disastrous results. “I have an ex-metamour who would try to force or encourage group sex situations despite many attempts by several of us to put up boundaries,” shares Kenzie, 24. “So it wasn't at all that my partner was expecting me to get involved with him; he was the one who felt the need to be included. This lead to her breaking up with him not long after she and I started dating.”
You or your partner insist on having veto power.
Veto power is a controversial and divisive topic within the polyamorous community. Many couples first opening up will give each other the power to “veto” any potential dates or sexual encounters that the other partner may be interested in. This may seem a quick fix for any insecurities, but bear in mind that you’re handing over a lot of autonomy. Handing over that kind of power may seem like an important act of trust and security, but it may feel very different the moment that your partner nixes your next hot date right out the gate.
Deciding to give each veto power to other may seem romantic at the beginning, but once it’s acted upon, it often causes a lot of heartbreak, hurt feelings, and resentment that can poison the very relationship you’re striving to protect. Some people think that a lack of veto power means a free-for-all, which is hardly the case. Your partner’s opinion and feelings are probably quite important to you, and they may even help you when you’re seeking out other partners.
“It makes a lot of sense to check in with your partner about anyone you are considering getting sexually or romantically involved with, to see how they feel about that person and to see how they feel about you getting involved with anyone right now,” advises Labriola. “Any new relationship you develop will affect the partner or partners you already have, and will have an impact on those relationships, so they deserve a heads-up on your plans to date someone new, and they deserve an opportunity to voice any concerns they have. You would be wise to listen carefully to their concerns, as they may be seeing some red flags that you have overlooked due to lust and NRE (new relationship energy).”
So there you have it! For more on how to have a healthy non-monogamous relationship, check out my book, The Smart Girl's Guide to Polyamory: Everything You Need to Know about Open Relationships, Non-monogamy, and Alternative Love.