Managing Polyamorous Relationships

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Written by: Mayte Parada, PhD

More and more people have decided that monogamy is not for them and are choosing open, or polyamorous, relationships (poly = “many, several” consenting partners). With different kinds of relationships, comes different kinds of issues that you may not have previously considered or may have never had to navigate before. Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, authors of the book,The Ethical Slut discuss some of the more common challenges of polyamorous relationships and how to navigate through them.

Managing Jealousy

Jealousy can be one of the biggest obstacles to tackle in polyamorous relationships. Jealousy can be a very powerful emotion for some and dealing with it effectively can open up new doors for self-understanding and growth.

Confronting this feeling allows us to understand what jealousy truly means for us. Many times, jealousy can disguise itself as other emotions like anger or hatred. It can also express a person’s insecurity , fear of rejection or abandonment. It may even represent the loss of personal territory or a form of competitiveness.

Each person needs to spend time for self-reflection to assess what their jealousy represents in order to be able to come to terms with it and move past it. This may be a difficult task for some. The most complicated representations of jealousy may be rooted very deeply. They may also be very difficult to confront on one’s own. Often, our feelings can be projected onto others and can be damaging to our relationships.

If you think this describes you, make the time to talk to a good friend about it, join a group, or make an appointment with a therapist to unlearn and give less power to your jealousy. Working together with a couple’s therapist, even if there are more than two people in the relationship can be very rewarding.

Embracing Conflict

Part of building intimacy in your relationships involves shared experiences of vulnerability. When problems present themselves it’s always good to think about what we hope to get out of these situations and the answer, according to Hardy and Easton, is rooted in learning how to give freedom to our partner along with maintaining our own. This includes having good ways to deal with conflicts when strong emotions are at stake.

Fighting Fair. It may be necessary to agree ahead of time how and where fighting can take place (ex. Not when drinking, not in front of children, etc.).  It should be a safe place where you can get loud, if need be. Keep in mind that a good fight is not abusive. There is respect for safety and mutuality so that everyone is allowed to express how they feel. They will also come out of the fight feeling stronger but also closer in the relationship. In other words, everyone should win for a fight to be successful. If not, “losing” fights because you felt overpowered or shouted down only results in resentment and a continuation of the problem. Scheduling a fight, as odd as that might be, also helps to avoid fighting during intense emotional states which can cloud judgement and interfere with the process.

Triggering. Sometimes, triggers can set us off into these intense emotional states which can get in the way of dealing with problems constructively. Walking away from the moment for 20 minutes helps to reduce the stress response to normal and helps with thinking clearly. Another option is to write down how you feel or draw your feelings and check-in with yourself in about 15 minutes. If you aren’t feeling better yet, continue. When you are ready to come back to your partner(s) do something easy that you all enjoy (go for a walk, get something to eat, cook, etc.). Finally, be self-forgiving and try not to be too hard on yourself for having strong emotional reactions to conflict. The point is that you are taking steps to be constructive in a tense situation.

I-Messages. When communicating during conflicts try speaking in terms of “I” sentences. For example, “I feel bad…” tells the other what you are feeling without ambiguity and doesn’t accuse them of anything. Stick with expressing the emotion you feel at that moment as opposed to a belief like, “I feel that you are wrong”. This only results in resentment since people don’t typically like being told they feel. Most importantly, when your partner(s) is telling you how they feel, listen and validate. It’s important to learn through other people’s perspectives so that we can come up with solutions that everyone is satisfied with.

Making Agreements

In all relationships there are unstated agreements about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Many times these agreements are similar within couples. However, in polyamorous relationships, they may need to be made more explicit from the start. It’s important to talk with the people in your life about those agreements. It’s also important to negotiate what is acceptable and unacceptable to everyone involved. According to Hardy and Easton, making flexible agreements is also important in avoiding major problems and allows for individuality, growth, and change.  

Part of making a good agreements is consent. This means that the feelings of all others, including children, other partners and people that are affected by these agreements are considered. This may not be an easy task so getting verbal reassurance from everyone is important. Make sure to avoid blame, manipulation, bullying, or moral condemnation. Getting consent this way is not actually consent.

Acknowledge that, in your relationships, you and your partners will have different visions of what the relationship will be like. Agreements won’t be the same for each person, but should represent the boundaries of each person involved.

Finally, agreements always have some emotional cost but weighing the extent of those costs is important in feeling comfortable. If the emotional cost seems too great, consider negotiating an agreement that feels better for you.

Some examples of agreements:

  • Neither/none of us will (specific act) with other partners
  • We will check in to confirm safety after a get-together with a new partner
  • Everybody chips in for the babysitter
  • Tell me/us everything you did with other partners
  • No sex with other partners in our bed/house

Asking for help

There are many resources for helping you in managing polyamorous relationships. It’s a really good idea to take the time to use resources that are available like books, classes, workshops, and even private couples counselling. Consider putting some time into improving your relationships and do it along with your partner(s) to get the most benefits. Working on these aspects of polyamorous relationships ahead of time will help you avoid serious crisis sooner than later.