Polyamory 101: What the Curious Need to Know


"I am zero percent interested in my new relationship becoming strictly monogamous," my friend revealed to me recently. A decade after her divorce, a decade of healing, dating, disappointments, and soul-searching has brought her to a place where she feels open and excited about exploring polyamory. But what makes her feel ready? And how does one even get started?


I asked my friend, a mother of three teens, what had changed for her. She said she'd done a lot of internal work and had finally arrived at a place where she felt like she could take care of herself and make herself happy. She feels settled in herself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. "My life is beautiful and wonderful as it is, so let's see what we can find and explore and pull into myself."

But it's more than that. She's also felt a shift in how she wants to relate with other people. "I just feel like I really love having intensely close relationships with people, and that's what I do in my work, and that's how I behave in my life, and I'm just now having the courage to say that's what I want."

I think it's crucial that my friend is in this very grounded state of mind. She has just begun a relationship with a like-minded man and is looking forward to their adventures. This got us wondering about long-married couples who are also interested in exploring polyamory. How do you get started, and how do you make it a positive element in your relationship, especially if you're married?

We asked some experts for their advice. Here are their tips.

1. Make sure your relationship is in good health before you try anything.

"The key to any marriage, monogamous or polyamorous, vanilla or kinky, starts with safe attachment," says Jeffrey Sumber, licensed psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book, Renew Your Wows: Seven Powerful Tools to Ignite the Spark and Transform Your Relationship. "The experience of feeling safe with your partner, both safe to be yourself and safe to explore being someone else, is vital to the success to any long term partnership."

Dedeker Winston, a relationship coach, author of forthcoming book The Thinking Woman's Guide to Polyamory, and member of a polyamorous community, also says that this is an important first step. "Take inventory of your relationship. How well do the two of you communicate? Do you trust each other? Do both of you have a similar vision of what the ideal romantic or sexual life would look like? What excites you about the prospect of opening up your marriage and what terrifies you? What are your insecurities?"

2. Think about why you want to try polyamory.

"Be as honest and vulnerable as possible," Winston advises. "Be aware of whether you are making this choice to bring more love, affection, intimacy, and adventure to your lives or if you are making this choice to fix something in the relationship."

3. Do some research.

Winston recommends looking for stories from people who are practicing polyamory in a healthy way. "There are plenty of communities online, as well as numerous useful books." She recommends Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha and The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy. Winston is also a co-author of the informative blog and website Multiamory.com.

4. Communicate clearly.

"Communication is important in any relationship, and especially so in a non-monogamous context," says Winston. "It is of utmost important to be honest and active in your communication. Be honest about your desires, fantasies, insecurities, and fears, even if you're blushing like mad the whole time. Embrace these moments of vulnerability as opportunities for you and your partner to grow and deepen your intimacy. It can also be helpful to study particular communication techniques, such as non-violent communication and active listening."

5. Make sure any rules come from a positive place, not from fear.

"Because polyamory can be daunting, confronting, and scary, many couples start out making a laundry list of rules that are based in fear," Winston says. For example, "don't ask, don't tell" is about protecting yourself from hearing what could be a painful story about your spouse's adventures with a new person. Forbidding specific actions may come from a fear of being replaced.

"Instead of restricting your partner's activities, try communicating to your partner things he can do to help you feel more loved or more special," Winston suggests. "Instead of feeling like you need to keep each other 'in line' with a set of rules, communicate frequently what your desires are, and give each other opportunities to be considerate and gracious within those desires." Winston recommends creating an environment that's flexible and love-oriented, rather than harsh and regimented.

6. Create a Statement of Purpose.

Patricia Johnson, co-author of Designer Relationships: a Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory and Optimistic Open Relationships recommends writing a mission statement or mission of purpose. "Be clear, and try to be specific about your intentions and aspirations," she says. "Instead of thinking of this as a negotiation, think of it as an exchange of ideas, hopes, and desires for the future, while keeping in mind that you are seeking common ground, areas where your sense of purpose is shared or congruent." Consider it a work in progress, something you may change over time.

While you're writing your statement of purpose, you might want to consider questions like:

  • What do we love about the relationship, as it exists now?
  • Which of these qualities would we like to enhance?
  • What are our shared values?
  • What are our goals for the long term?
  • How will we know that we are acting in accordance with our ideals?
  • What are our concerns or sources of anxiety as we move forward?
  • How can we be sure that these concerns or any others that may emerge are not neglected?
  • What steps will we take to recognize and manage discrepancies, feelings of being out of balance, and individual interests or desires that are not shared?

7. Cultivate a spirit of shared adventure.

"Adventuring strengthens and deepens bonds and provides a kind of reservoir of common experience that can feed the relationship for years in the form of memory," Johnson says. "Skilled sexual adventurers are like mountaineers, roped together for their mutual protection, not bound but connected, functioning as a team, trading off between leading and following when necessary, and finding new routes to the high peaks of pleasure."

8. Don't rush anything.

This is the most important general principle, according to Johnson. "It is far better to attend an event or a party and to go home thinking, 'Wow, there’s so much more I could have done' than it is to wake up the next morning feeling some emotional backlash, tension between you, or a sense that you’ve gone too far."

What's more, you'll want to make sure you're exploring at a rate that's most comfortable for the more hesitant partner, not the most eager partner. No pressuring each other! Johnson's reminder is, "No one wins, no one loses; and there’s always next time."

"If the two of you are feeling strong and secure in your relationship, take the leap!" urges Winston. "It's always much scarier beforehand than it is in actual practice."

Have you considered trying an open marriage? Why are you interested?


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