It’s probably no surprise, but I think polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy can be downright awesome.
That said, every good thing has downsides. For this article, I had conversations with four different folks who are all happily polyamorous asking the following question: What’s the worst thing about polyamory?
Here’s how it went:
Take 1: There’s a Potential For More Let Downs
“Sometimes I feel like dating multiple people is an opportunity to let more people down at once,” I say.
“That’s funny because I often feel like it’s an opportunity for me to be let down by more people,” she replies.
We trade stories about our latest difficulties: My feelings of guilt over times when I wasn’t able to be the kind of partner I wanted to be. Her feelings of dissatisfaction with how her partners are treating her. She makes me promise that I won’t share any details of what we’ve discussed in the finished article because she feels like it’ll throw more fuel on the fire. I think she’s overestimating the likelihood that her partners will recognize the situation, but I agree anyway.
What’s clear from this discussion is we’re both experiencing let downs. In my case, I feel like the problem stems from me (a general tendency I have). In her case, she feels like the problems stem from others (a general tendency she has). The truth in both of our situations is likely somewhere in the middle, away from our bias.
Either way, it’s stressful and difficult.
Take 2: Being Vulnerable to Multiple People Carries Its Own Emotional Risks
“You know what the worst thing about polyamory is?” I ask him.
“What’s that?” he says. He looks a little concerned. Which I suppose is natural, since he’s anticipating that I’m about to say something unpleasant. And possibly something that will directly affect him.
“It’s being vulnerable to multiple people.”
He laughs. “Maybe that’s a downside to you.”
“Seriously,” I say. “It’s terrifying.”
“Being vulnerable is part of being connected to people. You do it so easily that I’m surprised you’re listing it as a downside. And besides, you know it’s worth it.”
“I guess,” I say. “It just leaves you more open to nasty surprises. More disappointments.”
“When people let you down,” he says, nodding.
“More like when I let myself down,” I say, shaking my head.
“What do you mean?”
“When it ends, I always blame myself,” I say. “That’s my secret. It’s especially difficult when the letdown is something I never saw coming. If I let myself get optimistic about something that crashes and burns.”
“But sometimes you enter the picture knowing that the crash and burn is a possibility?” he asks.
“I do,” I admit. “And when something like that crashes and burns, that makes it easier.”
“Easier when it ends maybe,” he says. “But doesn’t that ruin the relationship for you? Don’t you spend the whole time dreading the inevitable crash and burn?”
I shake my head no. “No, because knowing it’s possible doesn’t mean that I dread it happening. I just know it’s a possibility… intellectually. I don’t feel it emotionally. So I don’t fear it. And I don’t ruin the time I have with them.”
“That’s why when your ex-girlfriend dumped you, you were so calm… like immediately,” he says, suddenly piecing it together.
“Yes,” I say. “Because I entered that relationship with my eyes wide open. I knew she was a long shot from the very beginning for a long-term thing. But I also knew she was worth the risk. So I took it.”
“Where when things ended with your ex-boyfriend, you grieved for months, even though you initiated that breakup.”
I nod. “Because I had let myself hope that things would be different than they were. I convinced myself that problems I knew were there, weren’t.”
“And you got vulnerable even though it wasn’t a good idea?” he asks.
“Look,” he says. “I’ve been there myself. I’m not going to judge you. And it’s like I said before. Being vulnerable is a risk you take to be connected to others. Don’t ever feel bad about that.”
“Okay,” I say. “You neither.”
“I make no promises!” he says.
Take 3: There Are Always Limits, They’re Just Different Ones.
“I really wish I had infinite time, money, energy.” he says. “I think that’s the worst part of polyamory.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I spent most of my life constrained by artificial limits. Believing that monogamy is the only possible way to ethically conduct relationships. And then I discovered polyamory and it was like I’d shot up through some false ceiling, you know?”
I nod. “I do.”
“But what’s on the other side of that ceiling?” he asks.
Suspecting the question is rhetorical, I wait.
“More limits,” he replies.
“Time, money, energy,” I repeat, remembering his words from a moment ago.
“In some ways,” I muse, “It’s just like the moment that I realized that there was no possible way I could read every book. Standing in my elementary school library, it suddenly occurred to me that it would take me quite a long time to read everything there. And that by the time I was done, more would exist. There was no way to read fast enough.”
“And that’s without even taking into account that your library didn’t have every book.”
“Right,” I say. “That dawned on me later. That there were other libraries. Other books I’d never find.”
“And other people,” he says. “People you’ll never meet.”
Take 4: The People You Want to Date Are Often Monogamous
“Don’t get me wrong, I love being polyamorous,” she says, “But it seems like everybody I’ve had a crush on for the past two years or so has been monogamous.”
I nod. “I feel that one.”
“You were mooning over that monogamous guy for a while, weren’t you? The one I thought was your boyfriend at that party because of how into each other you both seemed when you were sitting and talking. And because he looked so much like Justin… your one physical guy type. When it comes to you and guys, it’s like you’re building a clone army.”
I laugh and nod. “Yup. That guy. Monogamous, married, and asexual, for the record… so that’s a fucked up attraction.”
“I have a few like that myself,” she says. “Ones that aren’t gonna work out great for me. That at best will just be a constant nuisance.”
“I will say though there’s one improvement there nowadays that I’m openly polyamorous,” I say.
“Oh?” she says. “What’s that?”
“I don’t have to hide it from anybody. My other partners don’t really care that I’ve had this weird crush on the asexual mono guy. And even the guy knows. He’s flattered. There’s no shame in it. I do worry that it’s disrespectful to his wife, even having the crush. But I guess she doesn’t care either. It’s no big deal. Everyone knows that it won’t go anywhere since I don’t violate other people’s relationship agreements, and he’s not at all tempted to be physically unfaithful on account of his asexuality. So it’s just this silly thing that everyone knows about.”
“Where in the past, you’d get a stupid crush, and it’d burn and burn. And you’d feel bad for even having the thing, even though you weren’t going to act on it. And you couldn’t tell anyone, so it’d make it worse,” she says.
“Exactly,” I say. “Emotional affairs, I believe some people call them. I had so many. Fantasies cooked up in my head. Wondering ‘what if’ about one person or another. What would it be like to date them.”
“Definitely,” she says. “Same for me. But yeah… it’d be nice if I didn’t fall for so many partners who are completely off limits. Polyamory is nice because it gives me the freedom to date others if I want to… but that doesn’t mean that they have the freedom or interest to date me back. Sometimes it’s like having this huge credit limit but not being able to find anything I want to buy.”
I nod. “I know what you mean.”
“Not that people are things… but I think you know what I mean.”
I nod again. “I do.”
Having these talks and writing this article was a fun exercise.
That said, I’m sure if I talked to another four people, I’d have another four entirely different conversations. And I’m sure there’s a lot I missed in this article.
What do you think? What’s the worst thing about polyamory?