Just a few years ago, the question of opening up a relationship was mostly asked in hushed tones. “So, they’re sleeping with other people now?” one person might whisper. “Wait, you’re dating how many people?” another may murmur. Fast-forward to 2024, however, and these kinds of conversations have morphed into kitchen table chitchat.
Polyamory seems to be everywhere. From splashy headlines and viral TikTok clips to teen dramas and dating app profiles, ethical non-monogamy, as it’s sometimes termed, is very much the subject du jour. A lot of the recent interest is thanks to one woman, Molly Roden Winter, whose debut book, More: A Memoir of Open Marriage, details how the 51-year-old married mother of two decided to reinvent her sexual self through polyamory.
“I felt like there were no stories from the mainstream about it, and I felt very closeted,” Winter told The New York Times in a now-viral profile. “It often feels like mothers are not supposed to be sexual beings.” Well, it looks like that’s all changing. According to YouGov, one-third of Americans (34 per cent) describe their ideal relationship as something other than complete monogamy. Meanwhile, according to one survey by YouGov from July 2023, 35 per cent of Britons think humans are not naturally monogamous.
But as knowledge around the practice increases, so does confusion for those not in the know. What does it actually mean to open up a relationship? What kind of person do you need to be in order for it to work? What kind of relationship do you need to have with yourself and your primary partner? And how on earth do people make the time?
The trouble is that the lack of understanding around polyamory can be off-putting for those who might be curious about trying it. Hence we wind up relying on tired cultural stereotypes to fill in the blanks – think Nip/Tuck and Vicky Cristina Barcelona – but not all poly people are excessively horny, hairy Europeans that look like Javier Bardem. In fact, the majority are regular, conventional citizens who happen to live slightly less conventional love lives. And we could all learn a lot from them, say the practice’s advocates – regardless of whether or not we’re interested in dipping our toes into polyamory’s infinitely deep waters.
“Polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy require excellent interpersonal skills, and a willingness to sit with uncomfortable emotions,” explains Annie Undone, non-monogamous peer supporter and writer. “There will be times when someone is jealous, or upset (just like in monogamous relationships) and it’s essential to learn, as I say, that ‘big feelings are OK, bad behaviour is not’. You’ll need self-soothing and coping skills.”
The skills a person needs in order to excel at polyamory overlap those that one needs to excel at monogamy: clear communication, boundaries, the ability to be flexible, and emotional intelligence. “One thing I ask people when they are seeking multiple relationships is, ‘Do you know what one healthy relationship looks like?’” adds Undone. “If not, you may want to consider whether you are ready to approach more than one.”
Among the uninitiated, there is also a degree of skepticism surrounding polyamory. How do you know if you want to open up a relationship, or if you simply want to end the one you’re currently in because you’re attracted to someone else? Do you want a poly relationship, or do you just want to cheat on your partner because you’re unhappy? If these are the sorts of questions you’re asking, then polyamory might not be for you.
“I knew I was ready for polyamory when I started to feel this internal urge to explore this attraction that felt so exciting and expansive to me,” says Imaginatrix, a kink and erotic hypnosis educator who has been polyamorous for six years and currently has two partners.
“I knew that I loved my partner, who I had been with for 13 years, but I also knew from a deep place that love for me wasn’t finite. And when I let myself explore that, I realised all the ways I’d been unconsciously limiting my intimacy with other people, controlling my behaviour around others in a thousand tiny ways to not ‘give them the wrong impression’.”
You really need to be quite assertive and know what it is you want and don’t want in order to not lose yourself in multiple relationships
Making the change was liberating, even if it meant divorcing her previous partner of 13 years. “I’ve never regretted the choice I made to live in a way that felt more authentic to me, even in the hard moments,” she adds. “The connections I’ve made since I’ve been polyamorous have been so much deeper and joyous and vibrant than I believe I could have had as a monogamous person.”
It may sound obvious, but basic organisational skills are also key given the logistical task of dividing your time between multiple partners. “Love is infinite but time and energy are very much finite and if you are unwilling to manage your own time and energy, your relationships will not thrive and nor will you as an individual,” says polyamory educator Laura Boyle. “A willingness to question norms of how relationships ‘must’ go or ‘how things are’ in romance is also essential. This is why people often find folks who seem a little ‘counter-culture’ in polyamory; they’re used to questioning other norms so questioning them in this sense is natural.”
Even though we’re making leaps and bounds in terms of how unconventional relationship styles are viewed, it’s important to remember, too, that there is still a significant amount of societal taboo attached to polyamory. Subsequently, you need to go into it with a strong sense of self.
“You really need to be quite assertive and know what it is you want and don’t want in order to not lose yourself in multiple relationships,” adds Leanne Yau, who runs the educational blog Poly Philia. “A lot of people think you need to be extroverted but I think you just need to know how to express yourself and have a healthy degree of curiosity and a sense of adventure. You don’t need to be super outgoing; I know many poly people who aren’t.”
There are some people, however, that should steer clear of polyamory, particularly given how much its success relies on solid communication and a strong sense of self-worth. “Polyamory does press on a lot of people’s attachment wounds from childhood,” says Ro Moëd, who runs an educational account – entitled @unapolygetically – on Instagram.
“In monogamy, people can feel that they are someone’s whole world, their entire universe, and they can come to rely on this dynamic to feel safe. If a person has severe attachment wounds and doesn’t feel capable of facing them yet, polyamory will probably be intensely triggering for them.”
In order to have a successful poly relationship, you need to be entirely emotionally literate when it comes to how you navigate your relationships – and only certain people are going to be able to do that in practice. “I often say that non-monogamy is much like alcohol in that it acts as an amplifier for whatever is going on for you,” says Natasha Jewry, community lead at the WeAreX dating app.
“Whether it’s insecurities or confidence issues, it will shine a light on that. This usually results in one of two things: the person/people working through that and finding a positive outcome, or the breakdown of a relationship.”
If you decide to open up as a couple – a specific form of polyamory known as “hierarchical polyamory”, whereby you have a primary partner and also pursue other romantic and sexual relationships, either individually or together – then your original relationship also needs to be in a particularly strong place beforehand. “Not everyone likes a hierarchical approach, but if you do, there needs to be an understanding that you are not a single unit,” adds Yau. “There needs to be a good amount of independence and being able to recognise each of you as separate individuals with different needs and desires, while also not taking on their emotions as your own.”
Be aware, too, of how things might get conflated or misunderstood in the early stages. “I think at first things can feel really messy and there can be instances where, even if someone hasn’t done anything wrong, it can cause quite a lot of upset that stops you from exploring the things you were doing,” says Yau. “But if you capitulate to your partner’s emotions every time they are upset or insecure about something, you never learn to get comfortable with whatever it is that you’re doing. So it’s about thinking in the long term as well as the short term and being able to sooth and reassure each other without stopping everything you’re doing.”
In short, venturing into polyamory might not be easy and will require a significant amount of unlearning the social conditioning that has told you love is about two people committing to each other, getting married, and having several children (and/or small animals). But if you find yourself contemplating it more and more from a place of curiosity and excitement, it could be worth giving it a go. “Take a chance,” suggests sex educator Emily L Depasse. “If the thought keeps returning to your mind even when you attempt to silence it, it’s probably a sign it’s not something that’s going to go away.”