|Beginner’s Norms||Intermediate/Advanced Norms|
|Opening up the relationship because one person wants it that way.||It’s much, much better if both people are really enthusiastic about trying out non-monogamy.|
|Opening up a relationship when your existing relationship is feeling unstable/rocky.||Only introducing new people into existing relationship structures when things are feeling solid in your existing relationships.|
|Don't Ask/Don't Tell||Talk about your new person with your partner. At least a little bit.|
|Don’t meet your metamour. Instead, fantasize/worry about how amazing your metamour is.||Meet your metamour. See that they are human, just like you. They have some lovely qualities and some not to lovely ones.|
|Tell your partner to stop doing something the moment you feel jealous||Examine why you feel jealous and see if there is something you can ask for besides restricting their activity that might help you feel less jealous.|
|Veto a relationship||Learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings as they arise.|
|Read your partner's and metamour's emails, texts, etc.||Respect your metamour's privacy. Just like you'd want them to respect yours.|
People can have wonderful, loving relationships that don’t follow monogamous scripts. As someone who has over fifteen years experience working and playing with people engaged in polyamorous and ethical non-monogamous relationships, I’ve seen numerous examples of how it can work incredibly well. At the same time, I’ve heard and witnessed a lot of horror stories. That translates to a lot of broken hearts and too much unnecessary pain.
As polyamory becomes less stigmatized in modern society, more people are trying on polyamory to see if that feels right for their relationships. Often this takes the forms of existing couples opening up their relationship. While there’s no rule that says that these couples can’t achieve success (and I know several couples who are in fact rocking it out), my experience is that they often don’t.
Why is it so challenging for many couples to open up their relationships?
First off, if you’re thinking about opening up your relationship and experimenting with polyamory, please do so after careful consideration, discussion, and some soul searching. These are conversations that you can have with or without the help of a therapist. Chances are that if you don’t, it’s going to be unnecessarily painful for you, your partner, and/or anyone who you end up trying to date. A good rule of thumb is that opening up your relationship is something that you should do only if both members of the couple are really enthusiastic about it. Of course it’s normal to have some fears about it, but you’re going to need that enthusiasm when things get rocky. Which they likely will.
Likewise, there is no relationship problem that is fixed by opening up a relationship. As Franklin Veux, writes, “relationship broken, add more people” almost never works. Polyamory has a way of exposing existing problems in your relationship. It certainly won’t mend a damaged relationship. If things aren’t super-duper solid in your existing relationship, it’s probably not a good idea. Opening up relationships means adding more people. More people always makes things messier.
It can make them more joyous, fulfilling, and meaningful. But also messier.
It’s Better to Know Than Not To Know
A good rule of thumb is that if the only way you are ok with something happening is if you have to pretend like it’s not happening, you’re not actually ok with it. Accordingly, “don’t ask don’t tell” policies are generally frowned upon by people who are happily doing polyamory. I’m not saying that you need to be eager or even willing to hear every juicy detail, but you should be able to acknowledge this other person’s existence.
Also, sometimes it can be really good to meet your partner’s partner (who is called your metamour). As my dear friend and colleague Dossie Easton notes in The Ethical Slut, in your imagination, your metamour is likely incredibly good looking, smart, funny, and likely dynamite in bed. In contrast to you, with your fading looks, tendency towards anxiety, and a few sexual hang-ups. Meeting your sweetie’s sweetie can help alleviate anxiety considerably, as you realize that this other person has some nice qualities, and is also nicely human. Almost nobody is as intimidating in real life as we imagine them to be when we don’t know them. (It can also be a good antidote to those who deal with insecurity by demonizing and/or devaluing people who they find threatening. Ideally you’ll be able to see your metamour as a human being, with both wonderful characteristics and some annoying ones).
Restricting your partner’s activities is a common “solution” for many people who are starting out/exploring polyamory. The thought seems to be that if your partner doesn’t do this (or that, or that, or that) special thing with someone else, you can know that you are specially loved and cared for. And while it’s important to know that, it often doesn’t work effectively.
The problem with this “solution” is that it can lead to increasingly restrictive requests. It also doesn’t help the person who is feeling jealous understand or manage those feelings of jealousy. Yes, feelings of jealousy, while horrible and painful, are feelings. And they can be listened to, so you can have better information about what those feelings are trying to tell you. But they don’t have to be in charge. Your feelings of jealousy get a say, but they shouldn’t get to say everything.
Another solution I’ve heard about is people asking to read their partner’s texts/email exchanges with their other sweetie. I’ve heard the argument made by these same people that if “you’re not hiding anything, I should be able to see what you’re saying to each other.” People who are more experienced in polyamory, however, usually think that reading the intimate correspondence should be verboten. It is, after all, a violation of your metamour’s privacy. Did they consent to having you read them? All of them? Would you want someone you don’t know that well reading your most intimate communications?
It’s not uncommon to be uncomfortable with the idea of your partner being emotionally intimate with someone else. For someone who is more experienced with polyamory, this discomfort could serve as an important opportunity to try to understand what it was your partner being (emotionally) intimate with someone else that felt threatening. Does it bring up feelings of jealousy because you aren’t getting her own needs for emotional intimacy met? If that’s the case, it could be a good sign that you two need to work on creating more opportunities for emotional intimacy.
Ask for What You Want
People who practice polyamory successfully are more likely to ask for what they want in relationships rather than asking their partners to restrict what they give to other people. The idea is that if something makes you jealous, you can ask for that, too! And if you ask for things, you’re way more likely to get it than if you use subtle clues, wishful sighs, and/or passive-aggressive hints.
I know of one couple where someone was able to use her feelings of jealousy about a trip her wife took to Bermuda to decide that she also wanted to go to Bermuda. And voila, several years later she did, with another lover. I think we can all agree that more trips to Bermuda is a good thing! (And unlike trips to Bermuda, which are a limited resource because of the cost of time and expense, emotional intimacy is not a zero sum game. If you are emotionally intimate with someone, it doesn’t mean that you will be less able to be emotionally intimate with someone else).
In polyamorous circles, having the power to end your partner’s relationships is called having a veto option. This is generally frowned upon by people who are more experienced with open relationships. It privileges the comfort of the members of the couple over the experiences and feelings of the person who is not in the couple.
The distinction here is nuanced, but crucial. I am encouraging you to ask for what you want in your relationship(s). I am also noting that asking to veto another person is frowned upon. Of course, if that person is abusive, you should express your concerns. But otherwise, it’s really not fair to the other person.
As polyamory becomes less stigmatized in modern society, more people are trying on polyamory to see if that feels right for their relationships. As this happens, there are emerging norms. These norms involve veto policies, don’t ask/don’t tell, and meeting metamours. These norms have developed for a reason. I don’t suggest that they are the end all, be-all, or that they are the ONLY way to do polyamory. I would, however, suggest that you at least be familiar with them, and the reasons they have developed. You are always at liberty to discard them, but you should be doing so from a considered stance.