9 Things Polyamorists Can Learn From Monogamy

a painting of 2 lovebirds sitting on the branch of a flowering tree (looks like a cherry tree maybe). Behind them is a starry sky, and the sun is just starting rise
Image by Sweetie187 / CC BY

Last week we published “9 Things Monogamists Can Learn From Polyamory.” In that piece, we stated that both monogamy and polyamory have benefits. And that the best relationships combine aspects of each to form “the best of both worlds.”

We meant that. While we talk more about non-monogamy on this website, monogamy can be a beautiful thing, too.

Here are a few things that polyamorous people can learn from monogamy.

1. There’s Something to Be Said for Simplicity

One of the first polyamorous people I ever knew told me something that stuck with me: More loves mean more of everything. While this means more of the good stuff, it also means that we potentially open ourselves up to more of the bad stuff.

The emotional dynamics of each separate relationship stack. This applies to negative emotions, too. Just like there’s no scarcity of love, there’s no scarcity of disappointment. And negative emotional dynamics aren’t automatically cancelled out by positive ones in other relationships.

So in general it’s a bad idea to have more relationships just because you can. Ideally, you should be getting something out of and investing something into each relationship.

If you find that complicating things doesn’t bring added benefits, it might be better to keep things simple. (After all, there can be plenty of complexity, even in monogamy.)

2. When It Comes to Meeting Your Needs, Depth Can Be Just as Important as Breadth

I’ve known quite a few single people who tried polyamory because they were having trouble finding a single partner that met all of their needs. Sometimes I’ve seen this turn out great, with each partner fulfilling different needs and the end result a polyamorous web of happier, more satisfied people.

But other times? I’ve seen people realize that what they really want is an anchor partner. A highly entangled relationship. “Someone to come home to,” as one friend put it, telling me he had realized he couldn’t replicate that with a pile of more casual and/or lower entanglement relationships.

Some who came to this conclusion went back to monogamously dating. And others continued to date polyamorously, being upfront that they were very interested in establishing an anchor relationship in addition to their existing ones. Regardless of their approach, many of them met with success.

As always, people vary a lot in what works for them. What was key in getting what they wanted, however, was realizing exactly what that was. And part of that was understanding that  depth and breadth were very different for them, even if they matched up better for some folks.

3. Self-Control Is Important

Relationships are a lot like anything else. There are limits to everything. You will never explore every emotional connection. Not everyone is a suitable partner (they don’t reciprocate, they’re monogamous, wrong sexual orientation, too far away, busy for you, etc), and even if all you did was have relationships (inadvisable because you gotta do things like pay your bills and clean your house), you would run out of time.

It’s much the same way that you’ll never read every book. Monogamy usually takes less time, and if it’s a good match, it’s very stable.

Having a feeling and acting on it are two very different things, no matter how much of a hullabaloo some folks make about “emotional affairs.” The key difference is self-control. Having the initial emotion itself is not something within our control, but we certainly control our response to it and what actions we end up taking.

Let me tell you, if you can’t exercise self-control, then there’s no fucking way you should be poly. All that lies down that path is drama, bad behavior, heartache, and disappointment.

If impulse control is your problem, poly is not your solution. You bet your life you better have some self-control when a lover or a metamour pushes your buttons.

Thankfully, self-control is a skill that can be developed. Kelly McGonigal has a great book on the subject. Practicing self-control is interesting in that a lot of it is simple, but it snowballs. The more you practice, the better you get at it, and the easier it is to keep on practicing. And it applies to basically every part of your life.

But there’s a difference between having a feeling and acting on it. Wanting to do something and actually doing it are two different things.

As Pearl Buck famously said, “You cannot make yourself feel something you do not feel, but you can make yourself do right in spite of your feelings.”

4. Relationships Aren’t Always Going to Be Fun or Exciting, Even Good Ones

Seriously. Just like Hollywood (mostly) edits out bathroom breaks, the love stories we grow up absorbing over-represent exciting, peak romantic experiences and under-represent the everyday occurrences, whether they’re good, neutral, or even bad. Not a lot of tedium or drudgery in most love stories. In idealized movie romance, even the bad parts are interesting and entertaining to watch. Big old fight scene followed by a passionate reunion. Bring the popcorn.

But many long-term relationships aren’t marked by Movie of the Week level struggles. One person’s belongings thrown out into the rain.

Instead, a lot of happy times can seem relatively boring from the outside. And conflict can be the same kind of discomfort you feel during a long layover in a crowded airport.

New Relationship Energy (NRE) addiction isn’t just for serial monogamists. There are polyamorous folks who perpetually chase the new shiny to the detriment (or disposal) of existing partners. And while that can be fun, and older relationships can indeed experience a fresh wave of NRE from time to time (I find this to be especially the case when either my anchor partner or I experience NRE with a new partner; for us, the energy tends to carry over from that relationship into our own), relationships aren’t necessarily meant to always be intense. For one, NRE is exhausting. And while NRE gets a lot of attention, ORE has its own lovely mojo that’s undeniable.

5. Multi-Tasking Has Its Limits, Make Sure You Don’t Overextend Yourself, Take Time to Switch Gears

Juggling is more difficult than we consciously realize. As various cognitive psychologists studied multi-tasking, they found that doing too many things at one time actually lowers productivity. This is especially true if all of the tasks you’re tackling are complex ones, i.e., talking on the phone while driving.

However, these effects are evident only when trying to do 2 things literally at the same time or when switching quickly from one to another.

Fortunately, countering these effects is a relatively simple matter. Just because you have multiple relationships, it doesn’t mean you’re multi-tasking. Because the fact that you talk on the phone and drive on the same day doesn’t mean you’re multi-tasking either.

What’s key is paying full attention to whatever you’re doing at the time. And allowing yourself time to switch between contexts.

This is true whether you’re talking about managing different relationships or different tasks.

6. Honor Your Commitments, Value Loyalty

Even when you have multiple partners, you need to be loyal. In a lot of ways, honoring your commitments is more important when you don’t have sexual exclusivity as a strong indicator of loyalty to fall back on.

The best monogamous relationships are ones that are faithful in terms of both loyalty and fidelity.

There’s a difference between loyalty and fidelity. Loyalty is about supporting your partner and having their back.  And fidelity, traditionally speaking, is about not having sex with people outside of your relationship.

Fidelity isn’t just for monogamous relationships. Consider polyfidelity. Polyfidelity is a relationship style where multiple people are all exclusively committed to one another. If you were in a polyfidelitous triad, it would be different from monogamy in that everyone involved would have multiple partners (in this case, two partners apiece), but it would be similar to monogamy in that no one would be permitted to date new people outside of the triad.

Even if you’re monogamous (or polyfidelitous) and sexually faithful, you can act in ways that are disloyal to a partner’s interests. Constantly insulting a partner to others. Being competitive with your partner in a way that undercuts their own ability to succeed.

I have always drawn a lot of inspiration from the happiest monogamous couples I know. They make sure they are practicing fidelity and loyalty.

And while I might have relationships these days that are sexually open to new partners, I do my best to abide by any relationship agreements I’ve made. Because it’s still possible to cheat in open relationships. Cheating is breaking the rules of your agreement, whatever they are.

Many polyamorous people have agreements surrounding vetting, safe sex, informing one another of new partners, etc, and it’s a serious matter if a partner doesn’t abide by those agreements.

And cheating in a polyamorous context can be particularly devastating. Because as I said before, the funny thing about polyamory, and about non-monogamy in general, is when you stop defining faithfulness as only sleeping with one person, other loyalty becomes paramount.

7. Don’t Skimp on Self-Care

Unhealthy self-sacrifice can happen in polyamorous relationships just as easily as in monogamous ones. In fact, I think that polyamorous folks are at higher risk for neglecting important self-care (especially caretaker hinges). There’s a lot of societal pressure, especially for women, to sacrifice yourself to take care of others. Even women who don’t have children are expected to put romantic partners first. And the cultural mythos goes that if you love someone enough, there are very few sacrifices that are too much.

And I experienced this firsthand when I was polysaturated (arguably oversaturated). The relationship that suffered the most was the one with myself. I had no free time.

Self-care and exactly what that can entail can look very different to each person.

But roughly the difference between setting self-care as low priority or high priority is something like this:

Low self-care priority: Once I’ve taken care of every other important person and task in my life, then I’ll start taking care of myself.

High self-care priority: I will take care of myself, and then I can take better care of every other person and task in my life.

Self-care can feel selfish, especially if you’re used to putting yourself last, but in practice, we are best able to help other people when we’re in good shape (emotionally, physically, and otherwise), which involves taking good care of ourselves.

Like many things on this list, self-care isn’t just something monogamous people do well (nor something that all monogamous folks do well). But I do draw a lot of inspiration from the monogamous folks I know who draw healthy boundaries that work for them.  And who know their limits.

Because self-care isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about what you decide not to do. And for some of the monogamous people I know, that means not exploring polyamory even though they find certain aspects of it intriguing. I respect that, even if I walk a different path.

8. Make Sure Your Partners Feel Special

I have a very good (and very polyamorous) friend who says that the greatest thing about monogamy is that you feel special by default. Since you’re someone’s one and only.

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.

Parents of multiple children experience the 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.

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.

That’s not to say that when it comes to poly relationships that the 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.

9. It’s Fine Not to Be Saturated, There’s More to Life Than Dating

As they say, while love may be infinite, time and energy aren’t. And furthermore, not dating up to your full capacity can have benefits.

Once upon a time, I was a busy hinge, pulled in ever so many directions. Sometimes it was really fun. I loved the layers of feelings, the variety of experiences. And having more people to talk to about the things that mattered most to me? Well, it was great.

But it wasn’t all upside.

When I was polysaturated, what I missed most of all was having time to myself. Not just having the opportunity to be alone but also feeling like I had first “dibs” on my availability.

As more lovers entered my life, the hardest part was feeling like I was beholden to more people. This caused constant strain as their needs and desires conflicted. Coordinating standing appointments was like solving a quadratic equation. I had to check in with more people. Things got even worse if partners refused to schedule or just expected me to be available. To drop everything when they were free.

These days, I consider myself an underdater. I have a great anchor partner, and while I’m open to dating other people (and sometimes do), a lot of times? My dating bandwidth is taken up by other pursuits. Writing on its own is like another relationship.

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As with last week’s piece, none of these qualities are exclusive to monogamy. They can be present in any relationship (which is the point). If you’re polyamorous and already doing these things, then groovy. Get down with your bad self.

And if one (or more) of them isn’t your bag, no worries.

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