Monogamy or Polyamory: Feeling Special as an Only Child or in a Big Family

a bunch of purple grapes with one green one
Image by Giacomo Da Ros / CC BY

Most people who haven’t been polyamorous assume it’s difficult because you have learn to share your partner. And while this is true for many people, for me the hardest part was how much I shared myself.

Because one of the things I struggled with most when I began to practice polyamory was feeling like having multiple partners meant that I was shortchanging them. By not giving any one of them my all.

When I was monogamous, being a great partner to a person I loved was a large part of my identity. And the idea of being anything less than my best? It just didn’t feel right.

I had yet to learn that special and only are different things, even if they sometimes overlap.

Monogamy Can Make You Feel Special By Default

Before I tried polyamory, I didn’t think it was possible to make more than one person feel like they were special to me.

If there’s one thing that happens fairly easily in monogamy, it’s feeling special.

When you’re in a monogamous relationship, you are someone’s one and only. You have this special feeling by default.

But You Can Have Multiple Partners Who Are All Special to You

You can have multiple partners and have them all be special to you. And it’s a bit of work, but it’s definitely possible to make sure they all know it.

Until I tried being in polyamorous relationships, I was like a lot of people: I didn’t believe that you could really love multiple people at the same time. And if you did, I thought there had to be a ranking system. There would always be a person you loved more. And what you felt for that person? That was the real love. What you felt for other people was a shadow of that. You didn’t really love them. What you felt was… something else. Liking, lust. Something inferior to True Love.

I’ll tell you — I was incredibly surprised the first time I experienced love for multiple people at the same time as a poly person. The feelings were undeniably there. And ranking them was impossible. The connections were all unique, individual. Comparisons made little sense, let alone assigning any labels of better or worse.

Monogamy Is Like Being an Only Child, Polyamory Is Like Being Part of a Large Family

Parents of multiple children experience this ability to love more than one person every day. You love all of your children, each in a different special way, for different reasons. Love for one child doesn’t take away from loving another.

But just because you know each of your children is special to you,  they don’t necessarily know that you feel that way. Unless you tell them and find ways to show them, they can easily feel lost in the crowd.

Because being in a monogamous relationship is a lot like being an only child, and being in a polyamorous web is like being a kid in a giant family, Brady Bunch style. The Poly Bunch.

In some large families, everyone feels special and wanted. Like they’re a part of a winning team.

And in others? Kids feel extra. Like they’re in the way.

What does research say about the optimal family size for happiness? It really depends on who you ask. A 2014 study by Myrskylä and Margolis says that 2 kids is the magic number. 

But researcher Bronwyn Harmon  has found families with four or more children to be the happiest.

In any event, it doesn’t seem to hurt children to not be only children.

More Isn’t Always Merrier

That’s not to say that when it comes to poly relationships that more is always the merrier. On the contrary, if a person isn’t great at juggling commitments and treats people like they’re interchangeable, it’s no good.

Back before we dated, Skyspook and I were very good friends who talked with one another frequently about our complicated love lives (as we were both polyamorous and knew lots of the same people). Skyspook was busy dating multiple women who had quite a few other partners themselves. He had a lot going on but invariably felt very secondary and unimportant to those he was dating. Held in reserve on the back burner as a last resort when his partners didn’t have anyone else to see or spend time with. And most upsetting were the frequent cancellations of plans, time that he would set aside for them.

“I don’t need to be anyone’s one and only,” he said. “But I’d really like someone who I could count on to be there. Who makes me feel like I’m important to them. You know what I mean?”

I did. And it was part of why, even though I was really attracted to Skyspook, that I had reservations about getting into a relationship with him. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to give him enough since I was already seeing 4 people as it was, and 2 of those relationships were rather serious. I considered myself a person with 2 primaries and didn’t know how I could manage another relationship with that level of investment.

But as the months wore on and especially after I moved closer to him, Skyspook and I did eventually go on to date. And we fell head over heels.

“I don’t even feel like I’m sharing you,” Skyspook would say. “It doesn’t even feel like you have a bunch of other partners. When you’re with me, you’re really with me. You make me feel primary. You make me feel important and wanted in a way I’ve never felt before. Not even when I was in a monogamous relationship.”

And he’s always been that way to me, too, no matter how many people he’s been dating at any time. Though these days we use a different term than primary: An anchor partner. Stable. Solid.

Special Through Intentional Acts, Rather Than by Default

People tend to vary when it comes to their capacity to make the people they love feel special. Some people struggle to do that with one partner. And then there are those who are born hinges, who find it natural to foster special connections with multiple people.

The good news is that many of the relevant skills can be built upon. Time management, mindfulness, effective communication, and active and empathetic listening go a long way.

 

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