Five Common Problems in Polyamorous Relationships and How to Avoid Them

With the growing popularity of Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), more and more people are trying polyamory.

With the growing popularity of Consensual Non-Monogamy (CNM), more and more people are trying polyamory. Polyamory is a relationship style that allows people to openly engage in multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships simultaneously, ideally with the knowledge and consent of all involved in or affected by the relationships. Some common problems crop up for people who are new to polyamory, and this blog counts down those snags and offers some strategies for avoiding or managing them.

5. Monogamous Mindset

In contemporary US culture, monogamy means two people agreeing to have sex only with each other and no one else. Even though many people in the United States do not actually practice monogamy (both cheating and consensual non-monogamy are quite common), the idea of finding a soul mate and living happily ever after permeates our culture. Religious beliefs reinforce the common assumption that monogamy is the only correct form for a relationship.

While there is nothing wrong with a monogamous mindset for monogamous relationships, it does not tend to serve polyamorous relationships very well. In a poly context, a monogamous mindset assumes that the couple is truly the center of the relationship, and all others are interlopers to be tolerated at best or threats to be eliminated at worst.

Combating the Monogamous Mindset

For those who choose polyamory, a monogamous mindset can make it incredibly difficult to befriend and trust partners’ partners. Acknowledging the mindset and consciously avoiding couple’s privilege in which the romantically connected pair is more worthy of recognition and privileges because primary partnerships are “inherently more important, ‘real,’ and valid than other types of intimate relationships.”

If you want a happy polyamorous relationship, then do not assume that the couple relationship is automatically entitled to more benefits and that other partners should automatically put their own needs aside and sacrifice to accommodate the primary partnership. Instead, assume that “every person you meet is just as important as you and your primary partner.”

If you want to try a primary/secondary model of polyamory, then clearly communicate to any new potential date that they will come second to your primary partner in all things – before they develop feelings for you.

4. Wrong Version of CNM

Polyamory is one of the most emotionally intensive of the forms of consensual non-monogamy currently popular in the US. Although there are no official rules for poly relationships per se, common poly expectations include long-term and emotionally intimate relationships negotiated through honest and compassionate communication among multiple partners who all know about and spend time with each other. Other forms of CNM do not expect people to abandon the monogamous mindset or become friends with their beloved’s other partners.

Fewer Emotional Demands

 For those who would prefer a version of CNM that requires less emotional investment in sharing with partners’ partners, open, swinging, and monogamish relationships provide a wide range of ways to structure non-monogamy. Open relationships are varied enough to be an umbrella term for consensually non-monogamous relationships based on a primary couple who are “open” to sexual contact with others.

Swinging is the best known and most popular form of CNM in the US. Most commonly, swinging involves committed couples consensually exchanging partners for sexual variety. These interactions can be tremendously diverse, ranging from brief liaisons between or among strangers at sex parties or clubs, to groups of friends who socialize for many years. Swingers have a reputation for being much more open to “girl on girl” same-sex interaction and often explicitly prohibit sexual contact between men at swing clubs or parties.

Monogamish relationships are those in which a couple is primarily monogamous but allows varying degrees of sexual contact with others. As with other non-monogamies, rules structuring these external sexual contacts vary by couple: Some allow only one-night stands (no second time with the same person) or only specific kinds of sexual activity (ie. kissing and groping are OK but no intercourse) and others have time (no more than a week) or location limitations (only when people are traveling or not at home).

Fewer Relationship Expectations

Relationship Anarchy is based on both suspicion of conventional cultural standards that prioritize romantic and sex-based relationships over non-sexual or non-romantic relationships, and resistance to placing demands or expectations on the people involved in a relationship.

Instead, RA often eliminates specific distinctions between or hierarchical valuations of friendships versus love-based relationships, so that love-based relationships are no more valuable than are platonic friendships. Each relationship is unique and can evolve as participants require, and people can have many concurrent meaningful and loving relationships that are not limited to the couple format because love is manifold and abundant. Furthermore,

RA rejects rules as inevitably leading to a hierarchical valuation of some partners over others. In RA, no one should have to give anything up or compromise in order to sustain a relationship; rather, it is better to amicably separate than to sustain an unhappy and unfulfilling relationship.

3. Money

Dating takes resources. Meeting for drinks, coffee, or dinner means spending money eating out, and going to a show or event often means spending money on tickets or entrance fees. This can create issues for people who have already established themselves as a joint financial unit, especially if money is tight or one person goes on lots of expensive dates and another person is not dating much or does less expensive things with their dates.

Budget for Fun

People who share money and date others can avoid problems by considering their budget together and identifying how much money they can set aside every month for fun. Each person then gets an equal share of the fun money to spend as they wish – dating, a spa day, save up for a trip, or whatever they wish. This can mean running out of fun money before the month is over, in which case people must get creative and date in ways that do not cost money.

2. Time

Like money, time is a precious resource when dating multiple people. Unlike money, you can’t make more time by taking on an extra job. Because time is a finite resource and people who love each other like to spend time together, time can easily become a proxy for how much people care about each other in CNM.

Make a Date

Scheduling is crucial for many polyamorous relationships and can help to alleviate conflict over time. Be sure to make time for special dates with your long-term partner(s) as well, not simply setting dates with new people.

Hang Out Together

Sometimes there is just not enough time in a day or week to have a special date with each person. In that case, many polyamorous folks have group dinners or go to the movies together rather than scheduling individual dates. This does not work for everyone every time, because spending private time together can be an important element of intimacy for many people.

However, spending some time together as a larger groups help to bond with partners’ partners and alleviate some of the time crunch.

1. Jealousy

While monogamy is no guarantee against jealousy, most people in monogamous relationships don’t usually pursue jealousy-provoking situations the way that polyamorists do. Because they invite situations that would make any reasonable person jealous, polyamorists must invent ways to manage jealousy and the associated emotions of insecurity and anger.

Gentle Introspection

Begin by compassionately looking within yourself to understand what is underneath the jealousy. Are you also feeling afraid of losing someone or that you might not be as sexy/smart/fill in the blank as someone else? Jealousy is often fueled by insecurity, and facing those issues within yourself can help to start dealing with the jealousy directly.

Three D’s

It is also useful to address the jealousy head-on with the three D’s: 1) Discuss it with each other honestly and compassionately; 2) Distract yourself from stewing on what other people might or might not be doing by having fun yourself; and 3) Do each other – cuddle or have sex to reconnect.

Support

You can also get social support from others who have had similar experiences. Finding support online is fairly easy, because there are many websites dedicated to polyamorous life. If you live in a medium or large city, look for Meetup’s that bring people in your region together. You can also find professional support from a coach or therapist.

Practical Jealousy

Finally, it is important to listen to what the jealousy is telling you. Sometimes jealousy is a reaction to an unequal or unfair situation, and changing practical things can help to address the inequality. If one partner is always stuck at home eating macaroni and cheese with kids and watching Netflix while another partner is out eating steak and seeing live music with a new date, the stuck-at-home partner is highly likely to feel jealous. Making sure that everyone gets equal access to free time and other resources — regardless of whether they are dating or not — can go a long way to alleviating feelings of jealousy based on practical issues.

Although following these five steps will not guarantee an effortless polyamorous relationship, they can certainly help to deal with some of the common problems that crop up. For more help dealing with issues in polyamorous relationships, you can read a one of these books or check out one of these websites.

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Dr. Elisabeth Sheff
Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamorous families with children. Sheff’s first book, The Polyamorists Next Door (2014), details her 15-year study of poly families with kids and was just reprinted in paperback, and her second book Stories from the Polycule (2015) is an edited anthology of writings by poly folks. When Someone You Love is Polyamorous (2016) is Sheff’s shortest book that guides family members and significant others who are trying to understand a polyamorous loved one. Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual minority families, kink/BDSM, and issues facing trans* people. She is the CEO and Director of Legal Services at the Sheff Consulting Group, a think-tank of experts specializing in unconventional and underserved populations. Visit Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff for more information.
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