For my entire life, I’ve been the most monogamous person on the planet. Or at least I thought I was. I am obsessed with rom-coms and Disney movies. I cry at every wedding. But I’ve also dated polyamorous people and couples. I’ve even been cheated on. So perhaps the word “monogamous” never exactly fit.
When I evaluate my dating history, I notice that I was primarily led by fear in my relationships/situationships. I craved the security of a relationship so badly because of what I thought it implied — that I was worthy, valuable, and loved. That desire has always clashed with my internal understanding that I’m already those three things. And when I am dating outside of the traditional, monogamous landscape, I truly feel like I am those things.
Recently, I made the decision to try dating polyamorously and see if the lifestyle suits me. Admittedly, I don’t quite know what that makes me or how I’m supposed to behave. I mean, what do I even say on dates? What are the rules and boundaries I need to establish for myself to honor my emotions and the emotions of others in this process? I reached out to some very amazing nonmonogamous and polyamorous folks for the answers.
1. Be upfront about being poly.
“I make it clear to any sexual partner that I’m poly before we engage in sex,” says Ani, 18. “They always have an option to opt out if they were going into the encounter with the expectation of exclusivity and aren’t comfortable with [polyamory]. This also lets me guage that person’s relationship with sex and exclusivity and whether or not it might hurt me later on.”
Consent is often perceived as agreeing to a specific sexual behavior, not agreeing to that behavior in context. But when you’re poly, consent is broader and more informed — as it should be. I mean, how many times has someone told me they were single only for me to discover that was incorrect after we’d slept together? I love that so many polyamorous people emphasize seeking informed consent.
2. Be honest with your partners.
“The only rule my partner and I have is complete honesty,” says Gem, 24. “We don’t check in after every sexual encounter but if it comes up, we share. Being able to tell my partner the truth about everything and [having] the trust that she’s [doing the same] has been revolutionary. I’m not losing sleep about her finding anything out. I’m not worried when she goes on dates. It’s allowed us to develop a real friendship in addition to our romantic relationship.”
There are some thoughts I’ve gotten used to keeping to myself, like considering someone besides my partner attractive or that I would like closure from a previous partner. In a poly relationship, I suspect I’d be allowed to embrace an all-encompassing version of honesty that is, in my opinion, more reasonable.
3. Put work into all of your relationships, not just the “primary” one.
“Being present for secondary relationships is a benefit for everyone,” says Grant, 29, who identifies as open. “They involve work, checking in, and all the unsexy stuff of seeing anyone. If it’s more than a very casual thing, [the secondary partner] needs to be comfortable with the relationship.”
People assume that if there’s a partner in the picture already, you don’t have to be compassionate with or accountable to anyone else, but the people I spoke to very adamantly disagree. The poly community tends to look at relationships as intentional endeavors, not experiences you fall into.
4. Don’t expect a new partner to fix your “primary” relationship.
“The most important rule that I keep for myself and my partners is that I need my polyamorous relationships to be exploratory instead of therapeutic,” says Rae, 27. “It can be easy for couples exploring the lifestyle together to seek additional partners because they think the change will repair their preexisting relationship, which can be really damaging. It sets you up to fail and makes you apt to use someone else for sexual and emotional labor.”
I’ve heard a lot of language around new partners arriving to fill gaps in a relationship that actually wasn’t thriving, so this feels like an important rule to adopt. This isn’t about outsourcing relational labor, it’s about creating an entirely new connection with someone else that hopefully enriches both of your lives.
5. Speak up about your feelings.
“My partner and I try to be self-aware enough to realize when one of us isn’t allocating our time in a way that works for the other,” says Polly, 28, who is married and has a girlfriend. “[This also means] not being afraid to go, ‘I’m feeling left out’ without it being accusatory.”
So far, having the room to be aware of and speak up about the things I need has been super empowering. Friends have expressed concern that I am opening myself up to experiences of neglect and abuse. But I feel way less neglected so far — and if I didn’t, I would speak up.
6. Set clear boundaries.
“I like to keep the bedroom ‘our thing,’ so to speak,” says Sylvia, 30, who is married and lives with her partner. “No matter what’s going on, it allows us to have a space that’s just for us. [It’s] a safety kinda thing, but it’s also a compartmentalization thing.”
I don’t currently live with a partner, so I hadn’t even thought of the logistics of polyamory in the long-term. But I can imagine wanting my personal space to remain my own, so this rule makes total sense.
7. Get tested for STIs regularly.
“I get tested on the third Friday of every month, no matter what,” says Gem. “I know I’m [promiscuous], and I never want to put myself or anyone I’m sleeping with in harm’s way.”
A lot of the stigma around so-called slutty behavior is that it’s unkind and dirty. Setting a monthly testing date immediately dismantles that. Some polyamorous folks even go with their partners to get tested. Caring about your own health and the health of others is thoughtful, loving, and certainly the cleanest thing you can do.
Before considering polyamory, I had no idea how much intention, boundary-setting, and compassion it involved. And while I’m pretty sure there are even more rules to consider, these seven are sending me on my way.