Love is Love

Poly Basics

By on September 8, 2017

Thinking of going poly, opening your relationship, or starting to date folks who are consensually non-monogamous? Or perhaps you’ve always had an open heart and you’re looking for more ethical options in order to find the best relationship structures for you and your loves. Having a sense of broader possibilities and the language to express your needs and wants can help make your relationships and adventures much more successful. Let’s start with some key concepts that you might not have considered:

What’s Included?

There are so many ways to open our hearts! Perhaps you want to be sexually monogamous but emotionally open, or the reverse. Maybe you’d like lots of people to make out with and fewer to sleep over. Perhaps you want a giant, communal family with diverse connections, all living nearby and sharing the tasks of living together. Maybe you want several people in a giant bed every night, but don’t want anyone looking outside the relationship for other connections. Or it may be that you really are your best self as a free agent and need partners who respect that. If you aren’t sure of the directions in which you want to go then it will be difficult to communicate your desires with others and to know when you’re meeting people who may share similar goals.

Relationship Types

There are more ways to structure your relationships than anyone could count and a rich history of consensual non-monogamies that extends as long as humans have been creating families and communities together. All of these relationships, when done respectfully and ethically, share a core concept of consensual non-monogamy, meaning that everyone knows what’s going on and consents to participate in the relationship structure. Some folks may want to know more than others, but that can also be part of the consent agreement. Perhaps the agreement is to participate in anarchist poly, which means little or no rules or obligations. Or perhaps your polyamory looks like a closed triad that lives together, meaning the three of you have no other sexual or love partners. Other structures combine the emotionally connected, on-going relationships of poly with opportunities for casual sexual connections with others. Recently, polyamory is getting some more press, especially the idea of heterosexually-paired couples who engage with a third person. (In other words, guy-gal pairings with a boyfriend, girlfriend, queerfriend, etc.) However, I’d encourage you to consider more options to find what creative structures feel most authentic to the ways in which you love, and share that with your loves while inviting them to do the same. You might also look at some guides together, like this great comic on questioning and expanding ideas of what poly can look like.

How will this make everyone stronger, better, happier?

When I work with couples who are in the process of opening up, I ask them to co-create a shared goal statement for having an open relationship. How will their chosen type of poly help make them a more intimate, caring, supportive, and strong relationship together? This also goes for other types of poly. If you’re into solo poly (you like to join other relationships without having a primary, home-base kind of love relationship) it’s important you find that the overall trend of your relationships that helps make you happier, stronger, and more yourself. Are you already in a polycule (poly formation of some sort)? Make sure that, even if some of these relationships are not primary, everyone involved is being treated as equally valid. Being not-a-primary doesn’t mean you’re disposable or there to serve the whims and fantasies of others! I recommend the book Opening Up by Tristan Taormino as a great guide that includes more on this.

It’s Ok for Relationships to End

When a relationship ends, that doesn’t mean it was a failure. Some relationships turn out to have expiration dates, but they are still part of our life’s journey. Sometimes, if we’re honest, we also mess things up and maybe it might feel like more of a failure than a natural ending point. That’s okay, too. It might mean poly isn’t right for you, or it may mean that polycule wasn’t right for you. Or maybe it just means you’re still learning and growing and becoming ever more awesome. When married, monogamous people divorce, you don’t usually hear people decrying the entire idea of marriage or monogamy. Instead, you may hear people suggesting that it be approached in new, potentially more successful ways. I’d suggest that we approach consensual non-monogamy the same way. When a relationship or set of relationships end, then we may use the experience to learn or just see it as a sign that it’s time to move on.

Find Community

Monogamous relationships get to rely on some powerful, shared community standards for what it means to be ethical and what expectations one might have without ever having to say them out loud. For poly people, it can feel like blazing your own trail every day. I’ll be honest with you here. I’ve always had a non-monogamous heart; for me it feels like a sexual orientation. But before I had the language and mentorship to help me learn, grow, and develop my own sense of relationship ethics, my non-monogamy was messy and harmful for me and my partners. Community support is important for the success of both monogamous and consensually non-monogamous relationships. If you can’t find community where you live, or it’s not safe to be out right now, then look online. Read books. Consider attending events near or far from home. Meeting wonderful people and learning about how to be honest, transparent, communicative, and ethical can make a world of difference. Poly and other forms of consensual non-monogamy have a rich, diverse history, and knowing that can also help. You might start with the book Sex At Dawn by Christopher Ryan & Cecilia Jetha. You can also find a wealth of relationship therapists and coaches who are poly savvy if you’re willing to ask directly and do a bit of hunting. We all deserve supportive experts to help us be our most healthy!

Polyamory holds opportunities for immeasurable joy, intimacy, satisfaction, connection, growth, and more. But these higher intensity relationship structures are more complex, and complexity means working harder to keep everything balanced and running smoothly. Take your time, be gentle and kind with yourself and your partners, and work together to find the best, most authentic place for your hearts to hold each other.

Want to learn more? Read Four Important Skills You Need in a Polyamorous Relationship.

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About Author


Dr. Ruthie Neustifter is a Canadian university professor, researcher, and psychotherapist. They are proud to be a co-chair of the longest running sexuality conference in Canada and a co-host of Sexually Charged Radio. They’re also a poly, kinky, sex- and gender-queer force with which to be reckoned. Dr. Ruthie has been professionally slinging dildos and spreading pleasure since the late 1990s and especially enjoys working with diverse sexualities, genders and relationship structures, as well as survivors of trauma. Dr. Ruthie's writing and talks should never be considered a replacement for professional medical or psychotherapeutic services, and their opinions are strictly their own. Visit Exploring Intimacy for more information on me.

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