Is It Taboo for Polyamorous People to Tell More than One Person “I Love You?”

a girl in a sweater and plaid skirt wearing her hair in 2 braids. She has a wand held high over her head and appears to be conjuring a dragon from it as she stands in what looks to be a living room.
Image by Wendel Fisher / CC BY

Hi Page,

I read you a lot, because you offer a really realistic and balanced view about poly. I’m not poly, and probably never will be. Monogamish at best. 

I do wonder about something though, talking to a newer friend of mine, who is polyamorous. His primary relationship is complicated, to say the least. Something he said made me wonder, have you encountered relationships where actually telling the person you love them is taboo? I mean, they are fine with expressing their love, or accepting expressions of love via actions and maybe words that skirt around those actual three words, but they will most probably get mad and run for the hills if those exact three words come tumbling out their partner’s mouth directed towards their metamours.

I just find it really selfish, and kind of, I dunno, manipulative? Like they are using the person but maintaining plausible deniability, sort of thing? Would be really interesting to hear your viewpoint as I’m coming at this from a mono POV, and I accept that there are definitely gaps in my knowledge. Maybe this is normal for poly, where the relationship web is a tad more messy? I just feel like I should say something to my friend, but at the same time, I did not want to overstep where I know so little. Cheers!

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No, It’s Not Par for the Polyamorous Course

No, only being able to tell one of your partners that you love them is not a standard practice in polyamorous relationships in general.

I don’t think it’s a good sign or par for the polyamorous course (although you’ll run into the occasional relationship where someone might have an understanding like this in place). I’ve never had such a limitation in my relationships, and I personally would hate it if my partner placed that restriction on me, that I could only say “I love you” to one person.

I would almost certainly screw it up. That phrase comes out of my mouth a lot. Sorry, not sorry.

“I Love You” Isn’t the “Expecto Patronum” of Relationships

As an aside, I get that certain words can have special meaning, but I feel like outlawing them in an attempt to protect an existing relationship is taking things a bit far. I mean, cripes, we’re not in Harry Potter. “I love you” is not Expecto Patronum. Words don’t actually work that way.

It’s More Common for Swingers to Have This Sort of Restriction

I will also say that it’s a fairly common rule that swingers have — I actually dated a woman who identified as a swinger for a while who clearly loved me but wasn’t allowed to say it (or to call me her girlfriend). It felt kind of weird. If I had been less secure in myself and my other relationships at the time, it would have been deeply hurtful. But even in this best case scenario where I wasn’t, I still found it pretty silly (an assessment I kept to myself, focusing instead on what was going right with us). It’s not like her saying those words would have ruined her other relationship.

But yeah, she was a swinger, and that subculture of nonmonogamy tends to have more trepidation about emotional bonds outside of a primary relationship (oftentimes, they’re completely banned).

When This Is a Restriction in a Polyamorous Relationship

In the rare situations I’ve encountered polyamorous relationships where that was a rule, I found that at least one of the following was true:

  • Someone involved was new to polyamory. (Newbies often have wacky nonsensical rules that effectively serve as “training wheels” that they later discard once they get more comfortable– especially people who have been polyamorous for two years or less.)
  • Someone involved hadn’t worked on their insecurity issues.
  • Both of the above. (And to be fair, it can take time to work on building personal security and learning how to deal with jealousy in a productive way, so it’s very often both of these.)

“I Love You” as a Territorial Marker

As I wrote in an earlier piece, we get this idea about what makes us or our relationships special, and then we turn them into territorial markers. I could easily see the words “I love you” as filling this function, essentially acting as a symbol that the existing relationship is special.

I will note that other polyamorous bloggers have argued extensively for rules governing the reservation of certain acts between any set of partners as a symbol that the connection is special and exclusive, in lieu of traditional monogamous sexual exclusivity. For example, a common one is that there may be a specific restaurant that only the two of you go to. Or you may only go to new release movies with a said partner. In the bedroom realm, some folks I have known have reserved certain sex acts, for example, no vaginal sex. Or no kink with anyone else. Or no sleepovers at other people’s houses and you always sleep in our bed (which sounds good in theory but doesn’t work for long-distance relationships).

And ever so occasionally yes, sometimes these suggested restrictions involve words. An exclusive right to “I love you,” or in other situations the use of the label “girlfriend/boyfriend” was prohibited.

But I am not one of those polyamorous bloggers who advocate for this. And I’m not a big fan of this approach. The reason is that I have seen these reliance on territorial markers backfire so many times. Sometimes, frankly, people forget and/or screw up and do the forbidden thing anyway, and then it’s even more hurtful than if it had never been off-limits in the first place. But the larger problem is that relying solely on symbolic exclusivity is at best a short-term fix. And as I wrote in another recent piece, I find that people who rely on these strategies too much inevitably suffer long term. Similar difficult situations continue to crop up for them. Much like when you clip off the leaves of a weed and leave the root structure intact under the soil.

It actually turns out to be less work long-term to just suck it up and pull up the weeds in this analogy. Address the underlying issues.

But It Is His Life, and Most People Hate Unsolicited Advice

All that said, it is his life and he’s allowed to make his own choices. And unsolicited advice on these kinds of matters is rarely welcomed, let alone followed.

Your best bet is likely just to not say anything and watch with an open mind. If he asks you what you think, especially after you’ve had a chance to gather more information about the situation, then sure, then it’d be time to speak up.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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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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