9 Red Flags in Polyamorous Relationships

6 broken heart cookies, that together comprise 3 complete broken hearts. two of the hearts read "bite me" and "love hurts." the cookies are sitting on black and white checkered pattern paper
Image by sbogdanich / CC BY

When polyamory is good, it’s very good indeed. And when it’s not? When it’s bad, it’s horrid.

Whether you’re polyamorous, monogamous, or somewhere in between, here are some relationship red flags to look out for:

1. Your partner is putting you in double binds.

A double bind is when a person sends out two different messages, both of which conflicts with the other. This causes situations where no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to do “the wrong thing” and be criticized. A double bind is also known as “being between a rock and a hard place” and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” No matter what you do, you’re a terrible person.

Double binds are a huge source of confusion, anxiety, and stress. They are often used as a form of control without open coercion. The fact that they are so confusing makes them difficult to address to or resist.

If someone is putting you into double binds repeatedly, it is emotional abuse.

2. When you repeat what they’ve just said to them back, they’re uncomfortable or say “That’s not what I said.”

Healthy functional communication, especially during times of conflict, requires that both parties repeat and paraphrase what the other has said. Counselors train to do this, and many good listeners learn this intuitively. However, a very common controlling habit is when a person refuses to accept any paraphrase and may even reject direct quotes of what they’ve just said to you. You can repeat their exact words back, and they tell you, “That’s not what I said.”

You may even find that they argue one thing, you acknowledge it, and they turn around immediately and argue the opposite, putting you into double binds (as in #1). It’s almost as though they’re on the run from you. In a way, they are.

Since the goal of communication is ultimately to understand one another, if they refuse to let you understand their point of view, then in a twisted sense, they “win.” And wearing you out through your efforts to connect with them is a one-two punch. You become so exhausted that you don’t have time to make any points of your own.

3. They isolate you.

The worst romantic partners I ever had all had one thing in common: They wanted to keep me as isolated as possible. They would discourage me from making new friends. And constantly complain when I’d hang out with my existing ones.

In some cases, this need to isolate me meant that they were completely opposed to having any discussions with me in front of other people, even an unbiased listener like a therapist. That way they could be in charge of the ever-changing conflicting messages (tying in with #1 and #2).

4.  Their anchor partner seems miserable.

One of the great things about polyamory is that we have a ready-made reference for how a person behaves in relationships: Their other partners!  True, in a monogamous context, you can always check with exes, but sometimes a falling out can have a way of damaging opinions on both sides of a breakup, skewing any potential read.

But in polyamory, we have metamours as a reference. We can observe how those older, established relationships seem to be going to get a glimpse of Christmas Future.

Sure, every relationship is different, so our mileage may vary. But pay special attention to how your partners treats your metamour when they’re in conflict. Are they respectful? Mature? Or are they disrespectful or cruel? Conflict is nigh inevitable in relationships, and you’re likely to be in your metamour’s shoes someday.

5. They have a long string of short relationships that don’t last.

Do they have a long string of really short relationships? While it’s true they might just be running into some bad luck, it’s also possible that they’re addicted to New Relationship Energy.

As a polyamorous person, I’ve learned to pay special attention to how anyone I date treats other partners. And if they’re neglected (as in #4) or if they’re dropped as soon as the NRE runs out? It’s a bad sign. Because as the exciting new shiny relationship, I may be a kitten today, but tomorrow I’ll be a cat. Better to know someone is “kittens only” now than down the road, after I get invested.

6. They move very quickly in their own relationships but expect you to move at a snail’s pace in your own.

While there are many wonderful polyamorous folks out there committed to allowing their partners the same freedom that they enjoy, there are also some that don’t want to share. They get into poly because they want to gorge themselves but have no desire to work through their insecurities.

I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in polyamorous networks. Those most skilled in providing emotional labor and exercising self-control end up picking up the slack and making sacrifices for less reasonable partners. Sadly, this means some of the people who are best at managing poly relationships end up care-taking the folks with the short fuses rather than getting to actually enjoy the fruits of their labor.

When they work hard at their relationships, their reward is often more work. They’re the ones who go painfully slow with new partners while their established partners go out and screw half the town with ‘nary a thought.

When they’re finally permitted to hold hands with their new love on the eighth date, they report back to an established partner on what happened (per their one-sided agreement of “permission for everything, report everything,” designed to assuage their fears of being replaced), and the hot hand-on-hand action results in a 7-hour up-all-night crying and processing session.

7. They lack self-control.

Polyamory is a terrible replacement for self-control. While being able to date multiple people at a time gives you more freedom, you still have to control yourself and exercise reasonable caution. In fact, you arguably have to control yourself even more because there are more people involved. Which means that more people get hurt when you mess up.

8.  They use polyamory as an excuse for bad behavior.

Like many things, polyamory isn’t a unitary concept. There is no one true way poly operates. Just because you’re polyamorous doesn’t mean that everybody gets to do whatever they want, no matter the consequences.

Although if you establish a rules-light agreement, more power to you.

But “You knew I was poly when we met!” is not a Get Out of Jail Free card. Nor should it be.

9. “You’re the kind of person I wish I’d married. If I’d met you when I was dating them, I would have dumped them and gotten with you instead. ”

Saying anything that sounds remotely like this? Is basically committing poly relationship treason. Unfortunately, I’ve had this sentiment said to me twice, by 2 different individuals.

Even if it were true (and NRE schmoopy love chemicals make the objectivity of these kinds of comparison-based assessments suspect), who SAYS that? How is that supposed to make a person feel good? Especially when you have a preexisting primary partner of your own. Do they want you to reciprocate in kind, disavow your own primary? Do they stop to consider how awkward this could potentially make metamour interactions?

Even setting all that aside, it is a very monogamous way of looking at things – as though there was one slot for Truly Significant Other and everyone else is a Side Thing, and somehow you outgrow your britches by being cooler than anticipated. Ew.

If you don’t want to be with your spouse, fine, don’t be with your spouse, but there’s nothing saying that you need only have space enough for one spouse-like person. That’s the whole fucking point of polyamory. It’s not Highlander – “There Can Be Only One” doesn’t hold a lot of water here.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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