“So I’m seeing this guy,” she says. “And he says he’s poly, but…”
“He’s so not okay with my seeing other people. He has a bunch of other partners. Seems like he falls in love every five minutes. But the second I look at someone else, he’s a mess.”
“That sounds frustrating,” I say.
“It is,” she says. “I don’t get it. He’s been poly for years, so what’s his deal? Why can’t he share? I thought sharing was what poly was all about.”
“Well,” I say. “It seems to me like when you say ‘poly’ and he says ‘poly,’ that you’re talking about different things.”
The sole prerequisite for polyamory is the ability to love more than one person at once.
Polyamory (from Greek πολύ poly, “many, several”, and Latin amor, “love”) is the practice of or desire for intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the knowledge of all partners.
“When did you know you were polyamorous?” the host asks the panelists.
“Oh, practically forever,” one woman says. “As long as I can remember anyway. I’d watch fairy tales where people were jousting to win the heart of the princess and think the whole thing was stupid. I’d wonder why she had to choose. Why couldn’t she date both?”
“I always had crushes on multiple people. It’s just the way am,” someone else answers, nodding.
Whether or not someone chooses to identify as polyamorous often seems to hinge on whether they’ve experienced simultaneous romantic attractions or at least believe that they can.
Polyamorous self-identity most frequently seems to be linked with wanting to be in polyamorous relationships, or wanting poly.
However, the successful maintenance of simultaneous intimate relationships takes more than just simple desire to have them. The realities of wanting poly and having poly are starkly different things.
Some who are good at wanting poly aren’t good at doing the work to keep their relationships healthy, which can include (but is not limited to):
- Acting with integrity
- Responding with courage and vulnerability to difficult situations
- Engaging in open, honest communication
- Practicing adequate time management skills
- Understanding your personal limits in a way that ensures you do not overextend your emotional, attentional, or logistical capacities
- Employing appropriate safer sex and contraceptive measures
- Abiding by your relationship agreements
The act of juggling multiple relationships makes different emotional demands than the state of simply desiring them, so a person who is good at wanting poly relationships may not be any good at having poly relationships.
And finally, the act of sharing in polyamorous relationships is its own category altogether. While there are some polyamorous people who naturally do it well, many others come into their first polyamorous relationships without knowing how to share time and attention with other people in a mature and equitable way.
Sometimes this results in overt bids for more time. In other cases, there can be manufactured emergencies in order to command more of a partner’s attention.
Still others quietly struggle emotionally with feeling left out or ignored until they can adjust, challenging all-or-nothing beliefs surrounding relationships and learning to make the most of the time they have.
Some polyamorous people do state they never experience jealousy. However, many others struggle with insecurity and jealousy — at least occasionally. And instead of working through insecurities, they instead discourage their partner — whether through direct or indirect means — from having other relationships. Even if they themselves have multiple partners or have in the past!
Just like wanting and having, wanting polyamorous relationships and sharing in polyamorous relationships are not the same thing at all.
A Mix and Match
What’s been interesting to me in my travels as a polyamorous person and working with poly clients is that you can find any combination of the three among a person who identifies as “polyamorous.”
Sometimes you’ll meet polyamorous people who are strong in all 3 spheres: Wanting, Having, and Sharing.
Other times, you might meet someone who is only great at Wanting. They love picking up new partners, but they’re terrible at managing those relationships and fall apart when their partners want to date others.
Or perhaps they’re good at Wanting and Having, but Sharing is the killer.
Poly Without Wanting
While most people do seem to state Wanting Poly as a prerequisite (like the quotes above), I have known a few individuals who identified polyamorous but weren’t necessarily driven to have relationships with multiple people. In fact, I am one of them.
I mentioned in an earlier piece on polyamory and monogamy being a spectrum (not a binary) that I personally consider myself able to have poly or mono relationships and to be happy with either. It really depends on the situation. I could definitely limit myself to a romantic and sexual relationship with one person, so long as I was allowed to be emotionally vulnerable outside of it (and have done so happily in the past).
That said, I’m told by my 3 partners that I’m good at managing relationships, and while it took me some time to adjust when I was newly polyamorous, these days I’m fine with sharing (all my partners see other people).
But then again, my foray into polyamory wasn’t born from dissatisfaction with monogamy but rather an exploration that I made with an open mind. And while it was a rough transition at times, I found many unexpected benefits and made it work for me.
She listens to all of this. And once I’ve explained, she leans forward and says, “Wouldn’t it be easier if ‘I’m poly’ had a little asterisk next to it, and we could just get a breakdown. ‘Oh, Wanting, Having, and Sharing. Very good!'”
I laugh, “‘Hmmm… Sharing and Wanting. Well, we can’t have everything, can we?”
She smirks. “Life would be so much easier with a quick readout.”