Dearly beloved, we’re gathered here today to discuss this thing called polyamory: What it is, what it ain’t, and how to navigate it if you so desire. It’s not the same thing as its cousin polygamy, which is the practice of having more than one spouse. (That happens to be illegal in all 50 states — yes, even for Mormons in Utah — so if you’re fantasizing about a harem, let that pipe dream go.)
Polyamory refers to having multiple consensual relationships (no, your work wife doesn’t count). Cheating on your partner is not polyamory, nor is turning a blind eye to your partner’s cheating. In a polyamorous relationship, all parties are equally informed, give equal consent, and (ideally) are equally satisfied.
We may never know the truth about the rumors that continue to swirl around Jada Pinkett Smith and August Alsina. But if there was a consensual relationship and Will Smith gave his approval and had some type of friendship with August as well, that is a poly relationship. (If Will just gave his permission but didn’t have any association, that would be more of an open relationship.)
Yes, polyamory exists. And yes, with the right boundaries and discussion, it can work. But most of the time, people jump straight into bed for the sex portion of the program.
It’s difficult to track reliable statistics on Americans who are in these kinds of relationships, but it’s likely that between 20% and 30% of adult couples have at one time had a poly situation poppin’. One of them happens to include a good friend of mine, whose real-world experience was an eye-opening look into the complexities of poly relationships. Here’s the story of her tawdry tale, told with permission. (For the record, no one in this scenario is me.)
A few years ago, a man and his wife wanted to inject a little excitement into their sex life. They decided to add a third party — a woman who was interested but was also married. They made arrangements for both couples to have a few meet-and-greets over drinks. Things clicked, and one night, that foursome met up at an area hotel, where they all had sex. A few weeks later, it all went down again.
There were never any conversations about the rules of engagement. It was simply two couples that were attracted to each other having some fun.
I heard about this arrangement for months. It was all about this spicy new sex, which made their challenging adult lives — soul-crushing jobs and raising young children — more bearable. My friend called it a polyamorous relationship, but I knew better. Polyamory is often about much more than just sex; it’s an actual relationship. I kept my thoughts to myself, though, mostly because I wasn’t asked.
Over time, the two couples’ relationship morphed from strictly sexual to something more. The women set up poker nights with friends on the weekends and met at Starbucks for the occasional post-yoga coffee. The two men went to sports bars and watched gaming events often. The four people enjoyed each other’s company in and out of the bedroom. Eventually, they all began to attend their children’s sporting events and school activities together.
That’s the part that made me raise an eyebrow.
Within a year, the love square was one big, happy, poly family. Aside from the sexual foursomes on the weekends, during the week, the couples took turns picking up the kids from school and babysitting if necessary. I watched this poly relationship grow over time, and I wondered to myself, did they ever set any boundaries? Turns out, they had not.
One day, the two dudes got into a minor tiff over a golf game. They stopped speaking and expected their wives to follow suit — but the wives had no intention of doing such. They lied to their husbands and began sneaking around to hang out. Eventually, the weekend sex continued… without their husbands.
In time, the shenanigans came to light. They all went into therapy to set boundaries, but it was too late. Both couples divorced.
Kicker: The two wives are now in a relationship together.
Yes, polyamory exists. And yes, with the right boundaries and communication, it can work. But most of the time, people fast forward past that part and jump straight into bed for the sex portion of the programming.
If you just want to be adventurous, have a ménage (or an all-out orgy). Have the whole thing start and end with risqué sexytimes. But if you want to delve into true polyamory, go to therapy first.
After watching my friend’s life go left, I’ve learned that a polyamorous relationship takes planning and forethought because a poly relationship is only as strong as its weakest person-to-person bond. I truly believe that my friend’s poly relationship could’ve made it had both couples sat down, both separately and together, to discuss what they wanted and how they’d handle various scenarios (like, say, a conflict between the two couples).
I’m not a sex therapist. I’ve barely experienced all of the things I’ve written about in this Dear Level column. But at 46 years old, I’ve seen enough to know that polyamory is one of the trickiest relationships known to humankind. For many, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth.
Are you built for it? Ask your partner the following:
- What do we do if one of us begins to feel uncomfortable or jealous?
- What do we do if we no longer want to participate in the sexual part of the relationship?
- What do we do if anyone at all feels anything off, ever, at any point in time?
If you can go in with those three questions answered, either between you or with the help of a professional, your relationship might be able to handle the risks.
Or, you know, you can both just find a similar porn category and enjoy it all risk-free. No third wheel — or second thoughts — necessary.