What You Need To Know About Polyamory Before Going Into It, According To Experts
For those who don’t understand it, polyamory can be a very difficult concept to grasp. It’s this inability to understand, as well as get over the jealousy factor, that might explain why only 4 to 5 % of people in the U.S. are in polyamorous relationships, according to a 2014 study published in the German Journal Fuer Psychologie. For many of us, the idea of sharing someone we love with another person — or multiple people — seems unconscionable. But plenty of people find that polyamory actually feels like a better fit than monogamy.
“To understand polyamorous people you need to understand the difference between jealousy and compersion,” Daniel Saynt, founder of The New Society for Wellness (NSFW), a sex-positive members-only club that hosts sexual education workshops in club-like settings on topics of kink, sexuality, and openness, tells Bustle. “Jealousy is an emotion based on loss, the idea that you might lose someone or have less love from someone triggers feelings of inadequacy... Jealousy is our mind's alarm system [that] warns us that we might be losing someone or their attention.”
However, compersion is the complete opposite and, as Saynt explains, is similar to empathy.
"[Compersion is] the feeling we get when we share in the happiness of others," Saynt says. "Imagine the feeling you get when a friend gets a job after a bout of unemployment or when a parent gets through a tough medical procedure. It’s the feeling of joy for the joy of others."
When this idea is applied to a relationship, compersion lets you delight in the pleasure your partner is receiving. It's this thinking that makes polyamory work for some and not work for others. Here are nine other things experts want you to know about polyamory before you get into it.
1. Biologically, We're Led To Be Monogamous
"Our brains have these hormones that are naturally released," neuropsychologist, executive and relationship coach, and Amazon bestselling author, Dr. Cynthia L. Dougherty, Ph.D, tells Bustle. "We are genetically monogamous."
But Dr. Dougherty points out, evolution is key here.
"I don’t believe that we were specifically created to be monogamous," Dr. Dougherty says. "After all, mating with only one partner lowered the chances of producing as many offspring as possible."
Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, fundamentally, sex is about procreation — but just as we've learned to move away from that absolute thinking, we can apply the same logic to relationships.
2. But We Can Possibly Rewire Our Thinking
"The re-wiring is really understanding our triggers, which in this case is often attachment based," Dr. Dougherty says. "It’s really re-wiring our thoughts regarding insecurity and attachment. And the story that you tell yourself... sex with other people is not a potential threat to our relationship."
Over time, love changes from infatuation to attachment. It's when you've reached attachment that the letting go and sharing may feel difficult unless, as Dr. Dougherty suggests, you rewrite the script of what you know.
3. It's More Than Just About Sex
"There are a couple of common misconceptions about poly," Saynt says. "The first is that it’s just about sex. For some people, that might be the primary motivator for opening their relationship: The idea of sex with one person for the rest of their life seems limiting."
But the word polyamorous isn't even about sex, per se. It's translation is literally "multiple loves."
"That feeling of falling in love for the first time doesn’t go away," Saynt says. "You find yourself in love more often and feeling love from others regularly. It can be intoxicating to be loved by more than one person in such an intimate way and it’s a major reason the lifestyle is attractive to many. Who doesn’t like falling in love?"
4. Polyamory Involves Critical Thinking
"Learn to control those frontal lobes!" Dr. Dougherty says. "[It's about] critical thinking. You can’t repress how you feel when you are jealous, but you can shift your thinking about the outcome. Communication is key. This change in thinking for your brain requires feeling secure in your relationship."
Communicating, of course, involves setting boundaries for a polyamorous relationship, as well as talking about your feelings, desires, and concerns.
"Perspective is key," Dr. Dougherty says. "Think about what your partner is thinking and feeling."
5. You Need To Understand How Jealousy Is Processed In The Brain
"Jealousy triggers fear, anger, and insecurity" in the brain, Dr. Dougherty says. "[T]he cingulate cortex and the lateral septum ... are associated with social pain and bonding. The emotion jealousy triggers our testosterone and cortisol hormones."
According to Dr. Dougherty, our need to be monogamous is to protect our minds from the social pain that other options might cause. Jealousy can be painful, but understanding it as a morally neutral emotion is critical, no matter if you're monogamous or not.
6. Then, You Need To Understand Your Own Jealousy
"When you are feeling jealous, and that inner chatter starts, check in with yourself and ask yourself if this emotion of jealousy is true?" Dr. Dougherty says. "Is your fear true? Think of the love in your heart for your partner. Breathe and cool yourself. Disarm your thinking process."
While talking yourself out of a jealous rage may not be easy for many, when you take the time to understand your own jealousy and where it comes from, you can limit the rage and see things more clearly.
7. It Requires Changing How You See Your Relationships
"There are two types of relationships you’ll maintain if you’re thinking of going poly; primary and secondary," Saynt says. "Primary relationship is usually reserved for the partner you are currently with. Over time, you can have more than one primary partner and there are usually additional benefits allocated to your primaries that might not be offered to secondary partners."
As Saynt explains, primary partners are the ones with whom you have a stronger set of boundaries and rules.
"This could include simple things like 'we always agree to sleep in the same bed together,' or more complicated things like 'we share a home, a life and children'," Saynt says.
As for secondary partners, Saynt compares them to the spices you add to "your relationship gumbo."
"You may only see a secondary partner once or might have ones you see over longer periods of time," Saynt says. "These people can share in your relationship or you may play with them without your partner. You could have one secondary partner or hundreds over your life. It’s really dependent on your limits and agreements with your primary partner(s)."
8. Polyamory Isn't A 'Fix' For A Broken Relationship
If you think that opening your relationship or becoming polyamorous is going to fix a relationship that's not working, that's just not going to happen.
"I've seen polyamory work like a dream, and I've seen it eff a marriage up beyond recognition," CalExotics' resident sexologist, Dr. Jill McDevitt, tells Bustle. "If the relationship is healthy, happy, and secure, polyamory seems to fare better than if an open relationship or extradyadic relationship is tried as a way to 'fix' things, get major emotional or sexual needs met that aren't met in the primary relationship, or to put a band-aid on infidelity."
In other words, you go into polyamory because it's something you want to explore or introduce to your healthy relationship. You can't go into it thinking it's going to fix your relationship problems.
9. Polyamory Isn't For Everyone
Although there are more than few reasons why polyamory might not work for everyone, the two major aspects are the social risk and the inability to harness compersion.
"Polyamory is a social risk and is often seen as against the establishment," Dr. McDevitt says. "So [it] may attract folks with experience and, perhaps, developed skills around doing and being something marginalized by society."
As for the compersion part of the equation, according to Dr. Dougherty, "if you cannot get past [jealousy], monogamy might be more up your ally."
"In order for polyamory to work, everyone needs to be very clear about their needs, expectations, and feelings," sex expert Dr. Logan Levkoff tells Bustle. "While lots of people may fantasize about having an 'open' or 'poly' experience (and those are not the same thing), not everyone is capable of putting in the emotional work necessary to maintain a successful poly relationship. Consensual non-monogamy can definitely work, but it requires comfort with vulnerability and communication."
So if you're considering a polyamorous relationship, it's best to take a long look at the relationship you're in at the moment. Although adding more people is like adding more spice, as Saynt puts it, it can also add more pressure on your primary relationship. And it's important to know if that relationship is able to take it.