9 Things Monogamists Can Learn From Polyamory

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Image by Coralie Ferreira / CC BY

As polyamory increases in popularity and new evidence emerges that non-monogamy can be a viable and satisfying way to conduct relationships, it’s tempting to pit monogamy versus polyamory in a boxing match. However, both relationship styles have benefits. And the best relationships combine aspects of each to form “the best of both worlds.”

Here are a few things that monogamists can learn from polyamory.

1. Don’t assume. Communicate.

Communication is incredibly important in polyamory as well as in other alternative relationships where there are few cultural models to follow.

But communication is crucial for all relationships, even relatively traditional ones.

Building a relationship is a custom engineering project, and as architects, you need to communicate well in order to successfully collaborate. To design and manage this project.

As a general guideline: Say as much as needs to be said. And then once you’ve done that, say a little more.

It’s better to repeat yourself every once in a while than to leave out something vital.

2. Appreciate the people in your life. Don’t take them for granted.

While many polyamorous connections are people we see regularly and even live with (anchor relationships), it’s not all uncommon for poly folks to have long-distance relationships or loves they don’t see as often. What’s key in these situations is learning to appreciate the time you do have with them. To be present with them when you have the opportunity to see one another.

It’s easier to understand why this is important when you don’t see someone regularly or there are logistical difficulties in place that make it easier to drift apart.

But the truth is that nothing is certain in life. Shit happens. Divorce. Illness. Reversals of fortune.

Love people while they’re here. Take a second to appreciate, both privately and directly to them, what you love about them. And do so often.

Practice gratitude. Because as William Arthur Ward once said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

3. Support what makes your partner happy, even if it isn’t you.

“You can’t lose a homing pigeon. If your homing pigeon doesn’t come back, then what you’ve lost is a pigeon.”

Sara Pascoe, writer and stand-up comic

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It took me many years to understand the popular saying (attributed to educator Jess Lair): “If you want something very, very badly, let it go free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.”

I used to grumble and get really hung up on the idea of setting someone free. What that could mean. It didn’t sound loving or fair at all. I envisioned abandonment. A test where you leave the room and see if they come check on you.

But I’ve grown to realize that letting someone be free isn’t about abandoning them. Walking away. Hiding.

Letting someone be free is about not restricting the choices in their life. Even when those choices lead away from you.

It’s about finding the homing pigeon hidden among other birds.

For polyamorous people, this can mean that your partner has other lovers.

But monogamous folks have plenty of things that they share their partner with: Their partner’s hobbies, career, other friends. Support your partner’s interests.

4. It’s co-op, not versus. Don’t treat your partner a rival.

Several years ago, I had a boyfriend who viewed me as a rival. He worried more about girls liking me more than him than he did about losing me as a partner. It was a needless concern. I adored him, and there was no reason these imaginary women couldn’t potentially fall for both of us (separately or together). I viewed our connection as co-op, not versus. It was him and me against the world. Not me vs. the world and him vs. the world and let’s take a look at the high score list. But his fears persisted and drove a wedge between us.

I’ve also commonly seen this dynamic in monogamous couples who worry about who earns more money. So long as everyone’s contributing time and effort, it doesn’t matter so much who made out “better.”

Which leads me to the next point.

5. Avoid comparisons.

“Compare the best of their days, with the worst of your days: You won’t win…See the best of how they look, against the worst of how you are: Again you won’t win.”

-Morrissey, “Do Your Best and Don’t Worry” (lyrics)

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In polyamory, comparing yourself to your metamours (i.e., your partner’s other partners) is a sure recipe for disaster. Many newly poly folks struggle with wondering how they measure up. And worrying that their partners will compare them to other people and find them lacking.

In reality, we can like different people for different reasons, and while differences exist, it’s good that we’re not all the same.

Variety is the spice of life. There’s a concept in psychology called “habituation to a stimulus,” and I really believe the principle translates well to long-term relationships. When a person is around in a relatively unchanging way, they don’t stick out as much to you. New experiences and extra variables really have a way of making you notice each other again in vivid ways. It’s really cool. So new partners? Can help you see an existing partner with fresh eyes.

Understanding this and fostering a sense of emotional security is vital for poly folks to adjust to a relationship style that flies in the face of a lot of cultural myths about relationships.

Avoiding comparisons and getting away from zero-sum thinking (i.e., the idea that when one person wins, another loses) can benefit you even if you’re monogamous. Especially in the age of social media, all of us can benefit from being able to be happy for people when they experience success in life and not considering ourselves inadequate by comparison.

6. Stay socially connected. Don’t isolate.

A recent study by Terri Conley at the University of Michigan’s Stigmatized Sexualities Lab found that polyamorous people tend to maintain more friendships as they keep a wider social network. They are also less likely to cut off contact after a break-up.

When you fall in love, it can be tempting to just hole up with your new flame and wave goodbye to your friends for a good long while. Resist the temptation. Stay connected to people in your life. Have friends.

Just because a person is your only romantic relationship, it doesn’t mean they need to be the only person you interact with.

It’s a lot to ask one person to be your entire world.  Esther Perel nails this in Mating in Captivity:

Love, beyond providing emotional sustenance, compassion, and companionship, is now expected to act as a panacea for existential aloneness as well. We look to our partner as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of modern life. It is not that our human insecurity is greater today than in earlier times. In fact, quite the contrary may be true. What is different is that modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide. Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.

7. Understand the difference between New Relationship and Old Relationship Energy. And plan for it.

Everybody has that one friend. The one who finds The One, runs around in a lovesick haze for 6 months, and then reemerges with a fresh new ex, bitterly complaining “they aren’t who I thought they were.”

When you first start dating someone, everything is new and exciting. And then after a while, even a great relationship has a way of becoming routine. Even predictable. Granted, there are plenty of ways to keep love alive and make an old relationship feel new.

But just because the initial intensity fades, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the relationship (although there could be). In fact, this shift in intensity is expected. Polyamorous folks call it moving from New Relationship Energy to Old Relationship Energy.

And yeah, older, established relationships have different energy than new ones. But they’re just as alive.

Martial arts master Bruce Lee, of all people, drew a fabulous analogy:

“Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”

It reminds me of camping — when you want to build a cooking fire, you start with one that burns hot and bright, but it’s the coals you really want to do your nice even cooking. And this takes a bit of time. So once the intensity has burned away, that’s when the real magic begins.

But it’s subtle. And if you don’t know what you’re looking, if you don’t know how valuable or important those coals are, you can overlook them. And think the fire has burned out.

It can be a delicate balance between security and excitement, but loving someone you’re with? It’s well worth the effort.

8. Don’t assume there’s one way relationships have to be. Shoot for what you want, rather than what you’re “supposed” to do.

We’re raised to believe that romantic relationships all follow a particular pattern. When you start a relationship, you step on an escalator and magically progress to the top. It’s clear-cut, straightforward, uniform. But there’s no one standard template of what romantic relationships are supposed to be. Relationships are custom jobs. And there’s a dizzying variety to the types of connections we can actually forge with people. You don’t have to ride the relationship escalator.

For some people, this means polyamory or other forms of non-monogamy.

But even if you’re monogamous, you don’t have to follow all of the other “rules” of a traditional relationship.

Maybe you don’t live with your partner. Maybe you don’t have children. Or you never want to get married.

So long as everyone in the relationship agrees and is happy, there’s no right or wrong way for a relationship to unfold. Even if it might seem a little unconventional to others.

9. Know that being attracted to other people doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the relationship. Or with you.

As I wrote in “I Only Have Eyes for You,” of all the cultural myths we perpetuate about relationships, few are as damaging as the myth of exclusive attraction. The belief that if a love is true and valid, we will never, ever be attracted to anyone else. Ever. And if we are attracted to someone else, this means that our love isn’t true. Or we’re a horrible person. Or both. Probably both.

We do not expect this in other contexts. If we visit a pet shop and find ourselves oohing and ahhing over kittens (or puppies, parakeets, iguanas, whatever), it doesn’t mean that we no longer love the pets we have at home.

If we make new friends, we don’t view our best friend as somehow deficient.

We act as though romantic relationships are a special case and that noticing new people diminishes our appreciation of those we already know.

But the fact of the matter is that humans notice and appreciate new things. And as I mentioned in #5, new people and experiences have a way of helping us disrupt habituation and making the old seem new again.

There’s a huge difference between being attracted to people and acting on it. Thinking someone other than your partner is cute doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner or that you’re bad at monogamy.

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Whenever one of our articles gets enough readers, we inevitably will get a comment or two to the effect of “But that’s not just polyamorous relationships, that’s all relationships.”

This time we’re looking forward to it! What we learn from (and practice in) polyamorous relationships can apply to all relationships — whether polyamorous or monogamous, romantic or platonic.

Note: We wrote a companion piece to this one: 9 Things Polyamorists Can Learn from Monogamy.

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