Monday, January 2, 2017

Polyamory, a primer

One of the goals of this blog is to talk about polyamory. People tend to have questions about it, and I find myself talking to other poly folks who want advice a lot. Well, let's start with the basics. This post is an overview of polyamory and some general advice on how to start a polyamorous relationship.

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is a blanket term that covers a lot of relationship structures. At it's broadest, polyamory means "Many Loves." A person who is polyamorous experiences romantic love for multiple people simultaneously. This can be applied to people who have casual relationships they lower-case-l-love while having an upper-case-L-Love relationship with one person. It can also be a person who upper-case-L-Loves a dozen people at once. Within this spectrum you have polygamists (one man, many wives or one wife many husbands), swingers, hierarchical poly, solo-poly, triad/quad/communes, hot-wife/hot-husbands/cuckolds/cuckqueans, and relationship anarchists. There are a multitude of other setups, but I feel like this list covers the bulk of them.

Woah, that's a lot of new terms. Break it down for me.

This is all broad strokes. One thing you'll learn when talking with polyamory crowds is that there's a lot of nuance, and everyone has a label they like to wear.

Polygamists are people with multiple marriages. People who practice this are frequently religious in the U.S. It's actually illegal here, and it frequently has an air of misogyny that doesn't sit well with the strongly-liberal poly circles I am in. There are folks who hold 'commitment ceremonies' with their partners. While these do not carry any legal weight, I have seen general support for the practice. The difference seems to be about consent and broader cultural attitudes. I have deeper thoughts on this matter, which may come up in another post. Update: Polygamy can be broken up into Polyandry, one wife, multiple husbands, and Polygyny, one husband, many wives.

Swingers are on the other end of the spectrum. Let me be clear - I am not a swinger and I generally don't date people that are. I apologize for any mischaracterization and will happily update this with more accurate information that is provided without aggression. Swingers are into casual sex. Typically they will have a network of trusted friends who will get together and eventually have sex. I've heard it described as "like high school, with more boning." Usually swingers will have a "primary" partner, such as a husband/wife, girlfriend/boyfriend. 

Hierarchical poly is a relationship structure where a person has a "primary" partner and one/many "secondary" partners. Typically primary partners will live together, maybe have a family. Secondary partners are just that... they frequently do not have equal stakes in their partners' life, and as such will usually have fewer responsibilities (such as raising children, paying mortgages, etc).

Solo-poly is how I identify. I live alone, and love my partners. I'm not afraid of commitment, and I will take a bullet for my partners. (Did that sound defensive? It might have been a little defensive.) Solo-poly is attractive to people for a variety of reasons: maybe they're introverted and need a good deal of alone time, maybe they're busy in a professional sense and cannot provide enough time to be there for someone with regularity,  Maybe they feel "absence makes the heart grow fonder" is a way of life. We aren't ideal candidates for a nesting partner, and it can be easy to overload us with attention. However, we make great secondary partners, and some are good fits for casual relationships, although we might catch feels you didn't intend. I've yet to date someone else who identifies as solo-poly, but it does sound nice to me.

Triad/quad/communes are probably the most common version of polyamory. There are a few different structures, but generally speaking these relationships are between 3/4/n people with no additions permitted. A lot of "closeted" poly families are in this category, but that isn't a requirement. You'll also see a lot of people who are new to polyamory go this route a la "My husband and I want a girlfriend..." There is some caution among polyamorous people when confronted with triads and quads for this reason.

Hot-wife/Hot-husband/Cuckold/Cuckqueans I'm lumping these together as in practical terms they're similar... but motivations and feelings involved can be different. Typically there is a primary relationship, and one partner is "shared," typically for sex. I'm a little uncomfortable with that phrase as it implies ownership, but that's what the hot-* folks use so... there it is. The cuck* do the same, only there's an element of dominance and humiliation involved.

Relationship anarchists are my favorite. It's a bit of a misnomer, as they have rules - in some cases a lot of them. What they don't have are labels. Each relationship is allowed to be it's own thing. If a relationship anarchist falls in love with a solo-poly person, the solo-poly person isn't asked to cohabitate. If they fall in love with someone who's a monogamist, they aren't pushed to see other people. It's a flexibility in fitting in to relationship structures that I am a little envious of, and I'm grateful that these people are out there.

What polyamory isn't

Cheating. In the same way that rape is not sex. If your partners aren't aware your the nature of your relationships you're doing a bad thing. By and large, polyamorous people will not give cheaters a sympathetic ear. Consent is king here.

Poly is also not a good way to save failing relationships. A lot of people try to be poly when they're having problems with their existing relationship and have found a new relationship. If I know anyone who's successfully saved their marriage by trying poly, they haven't mentioned it to me. I'd advise people to attempt to work out the problems of their first relationship before "opening up." Polyamory gets a reputation for "never working" because of this scenario. It's a bit of a hobgoblin in my social circle.


Modern poly communities are very much in the shadow of the LGBT movement. That means you are likely to encounter left leaning people, I consider myself to be socially liberal but at times it can be overbearing for me. If you can't be tolerant of tumblr at it's most radical, you may have a hard time finding an already existing place for you. If you vote for a republican, or heavens, a libertarian, it may behoove you to look for like-minded people in your existing social circle and branch out from there.

You will encounter people not like you in polyamorous circles. We're a small crowd, and there is little patience for infighting. 

Lifestyle vs Orientation

There is some debate over whether someone chooses to be polyamorous, or if they are polyamorous by nature. I suspect the truth is that there is a spectrum, similar to bisexuality. It's largely a philosophical issue, but occasionally you'll see flair ups over it. Generally speaking, don't assume someone chooses to be poly and you'll be fine.

Dos and Don'ts

Don't ask don't tell is where you and your partner agree to have other relationships, but not discuss them. This rule is usually implemented with the intention of protecting a partner. It's problematic because 1) it provides cover for cheaters, 2) you cannot consent to activities you do not know about. Please don't do it.

One penis policies or One pussy policies (OPPs) are set up when one party is bi, and the other is uncomfortable with metamores (a partner's partner) of the same gender. These usually considered to cover an insecurity or to ease transition into polyamory. I have heard of people living happily with these policies, but it is frequently considered misogynistic or discriminatory. It also becomes an issue if someone is attracted to a person who does not identify as the gender assigned at birth. I generally advise against these, and they can be a warning sign of a relationship that's in trouble.

Communication is really what makes polyamory work. Discuss your boundaries and repercussions with your partners. How do you add someone to your network? What happens if someone has a condom mishap? How will you handle holidays? How do you tell your friends and family what you're doing? It all needs to be talked about. Early and often.

Manage your time Polyamory has been accurately described as a Google Calendar fetish. It's important to know roughly who is with who and when. Maybe you want to see a movie with Alice, but Bob wants to get a drink the same night. Putting something on a shared calendar is a great way to let everyone know when you're free and when you're not. Get one set up as soon as possible.

Other Resources is a frequently recommended web page, and there's a book of the same name. I've referred to their site for specific topics, but I haven't read the book. is an awesome resource for whatever stage of polyamory you're in. I'm frequently in there and giving advice. has a lot of polyamorous groups. There general groups, community-level groups, secret groups, public groups... you name it. I strongly recommend joining a group if you're more than a little curious.

I hope to do more specific advice on this blog. I may pull questions from Reddit or other poly communities I'm involved in, but I welcome requests for advice in the comments.