Couples can fall into a polyamorous lifestyle in a few different ways. Some decide they want to search for a third member of their relationship, whereas others simply fall into the polyamorous community and find it works out better for them.
A common misconception of polyamory — the word for having multiple romantic partners — is that it’s all about people wanting to have their cake and eat it too. This may be the case for those who go “unicorn hunting,” but others in successful polyamorous relationships don’t see it that way.
As is the case with all sorts of relationships, there are many misconceptions about polyamory. Business Insider spoke to people in polyamorous relationships to find out what it’s really like.
1. They don’t really get jealous
Many people get jealous in their relationships, whether they like it or not. It’s an ugly, upsetting emotion, but it’s also basically inevitable in love. So introducing multiple people into your love life might seem like a recipe for disaster.
But according to Alex*, who has been polyamorous with his wife for several years, it’s not really like that.
“I do feel jealousy in all my relationships sometimes, but for me I have learned that I feel jealousy mostly when something is wrong in my relationship with my partners,” he told Business Insider. “It’s not discomfort about them seeing other people. Jealousy for me acts as a warning sign that I am feeling insecure or stressed about my relationship with someone, and when I address whatever is causing that worry (usually with lots of reflective conversation) the jealousy goes away.”
Dr Elisabeth Sheff, the author of “The Polyamorists Next Door,” has been studying polyamory for over two decades and is also in a “monogamish” relationship with her wife. She told Business Insider that some people genuinely never experience jealousy. However, she has also seen cases where people believe they are unable to feel it, only to come back years later after learning they actually can — it just took the right situation or person to trigger it.
2. It’s not all about sex
Sheff said she travels a lot for work, which is why polyamory works out well for her relationship. Sometimes she can be away for two months at a time, so she likes her wife to have someone to keep her company while she’s away. But that doesn’t mean they act on it all the time.
“We have a lot of flexibility, but we don’t tend to act on it very much. Me because I don’t have a very high sex drive, and her because she’s been working like a fiend,” Sheff said. “She’s very serious about her career, and spends zero time trying to date. It’s only happened the once, where she met someone she really connected with.”
Still, since polyamory is about getting a variety of needs met, sex is still an important factor. Sometimes one person may not be able to give you everything you want — but that doesn’t mean you want to break up with them.
“A lot of people report having different kinds of desire for sex, like one person wants BDSM or kinky sex and the other really doesn’t, and that’s hard to manufacture in a satisfying way,” Sheff said. “If your partner can find someone who is totally psyched for that, nobody has to have the kind of sex they don’t want to have, and everybody gets to have the kind of sex they find fun and appealing.”
3. Sometimes people just fall into the lifestyle
Alex and his wife Claire* talked a lot about all the reasons polyamory wouldn’t work before they tried it. They then met and became friends with a lot of polyamorous people, and since then, they haven’t looked back.
“We learned a lot about how poly worked for them and soon it was quite a normal thing in our social circle,” he said. “It did make us more relaxed about other things, we became more comfortable telling each other when we found someone else attractive or had fun flirting with someone or whatever.”
Sheff said that unless a couple goes out in search of a third member, couples can find themselves falling into polyamory.
“Polyamory just happens to people,” she said. “Like they find themselves falling in love with their best friend, get drunk one night, have an accidental threesome, and say ‘Oh wait, all three of us are in love, what is this?'”
4. It involves a lot of communication
Talking with each other is key in polyamory. In fact, because couples have to be so honest with each other about everything, many couples believe it has made them closer.
“When Claire told me she felt like she was falling for a friend of hers, we knew we could talk through how we felt and what it meant for our relationship and things,” Alex said. “That wasn’t initially easy, but we found we were able to work things out for ourselves through lots of honesty and conversation and being loving and considerate in a way that has also made our relationship much deeper and stronger.”
5. It’s not always easy
Alex and Claire made it clear to each other that their relationship comes first by default. They are planning for the future, want to have children, and make choices in light of those things. Alex believes that despite this, they are both still very capable of making their other partners feel loved.
“That doesn’t always mean it’s easy,” he said. “I was recently dating (for a few months) someone who found that she wasn’t comfortable with falling into emotional attachment while being persistently aware that we would never have the sort of shared-life-building relationship that Claire and I have. So we were really into each other… and wanted to make things work, but had to take the decision to stop.”
Alex said this was very sad, but they couldn’t find a way of forming a relationship that made them both feel happy and secure.
As for the impact dating other people has on their marriage, Alex said they aren’t really concerned.
“There is very rarely any worry that one of us will meet someone we’d prefer to be with,” he said. “Being married is for us an expression (social scripting and all that) of our enthusiastic intention to carry on building a life together and make things work when it’s difficult, and be a team because we recognise that we’re at our best when we’re doing that.
“So it’s not that we separate the fact that we’re married from being interested in other people — being married is a sort of permanent fact about us as individuals as well.”
6. Kids don’t complicate things as much as you might think
According to Sheff, polyamory can improve couples’ relationships with their children — if they have them — because they are already very good at communication.
She said children don’t usually have more than their two parents. Any others who might be around are adult friends, who are there for support, but they don’t often take on disciplinary roles.
“The children are very clear on who their parents are. They’re never confused by that,” she said. “That person is much more likely to be seen as an aunt or uncle, extended family of some sort, but not an actual parent. But certainly an adult who they can rely on and go to for help, support ideas, and maintain a lasting connection with.”
She added there are three cases where children might have more than one parent, but it’s rare: it occurds if the child is very young when they meet the partner, that partner lives with the child, or the relationship has lasted for many years.
As “romance” happens in private, children aren’t necessarily ever aware of it. They just know there are lots of people around to play with.
7. It doesn’t always work
Sheff tends to work with people who are happy in their polyamorous lives, and so admits she is looking through rose-coloured glasses at the situation. In bad polyamorous relationships, things may get complicated and messy.
In fact, before meeting her wife, Sheff’s husband suggested polyamory to her — he wanted to find a bisexual woman for them to share, but she wouldn’t be allowed to sleep with other men. In the end, Sheff realised she was being manipulated, and that’s not how a healthy polyamorous relationship should go down.
But when it’s done right, Sheff believes it can be an ideal lifestlye for many people. Couples can be more satisfied with their lives overall, and children are unaffected or even benefit. They have more freedom, a large support group, and open communication, and end up more independent and self-sufficient as a result, she said.
* Names changed for anonymity.