RIP monogamy, it was good knowing you: here’s your polyamory cheat sheet
From open relationships to throuples, we hear from daters who have broken up with monogamy and haven’t looked back
image Instagram via @trumanblack
words Lucy O'Brien
As we enter 2023, there’s one question on daters’ lips: “is monogamy over?” Fret not, serial monogamists, there will always be a place for exclusive relationships – and nobody’s asking you to give that up. However, monogamy is slowly losing its status as the default relationship model. Research has suggested that 17% of people in the UK have already tried open relationships or would like to in future - showing that non-monogamy is slowly moving away from the fringes and into the mainstream.
This growing interest in different ways of loving and living has coincided with the rise of apps like Feeld - a progressive dating app with over 20 sexuality and gender options, and which allows you to pair your profile with a partner. Feeld’s CEO, Ana Kirova, can attest that interest in non-monogamy appears to be increasing. “In just one year alone (2020 to 2021), over 240% of our users added ENM to their profiles,” Kirova explains. “Dating as a couple has emerged as a new normal, with paired profiles making up a third of Feeld’s most engaged cohort.”
If you’re new to the world of non-monogamy, it can feel a little disorientating - no matter how many times you thumb through polyamory bibles like The Ethical Slut and Polysecure. The Urban Dictionary defines non-monogamy as “a sexual relationship that doesn't disallow sexual expression or affection with other partners.” But (spoiler alert!) it’s so much more than that. People engaged in these relationship structures will often refer to it as consensual non-monogamy (CNM) or ethical non-monogamy (ENM), emphasising that everyone involved is consenting to and aware of the dynamics at play. However, these are really just umbrella terms for a wide rage of dating styles: from throuples to relationship anarchy.
Confused? You don’t need to be. Participating in CNM is more than just expanding your dating pool; it’s about changing the way you perceive socially-ingrained, monogamous concepts of love, commitment and relationships. When you’re switching from a (somewhat) universally agreed-upon set of rules for what a successful relationship looks like, you’ll discover that people have plenty of other ways of exploring intimacy according to their individual needs and responsibilities.
So if you’re thinking about giving non-monogamous dating a shot or are fantasising about opening your relationship, we’re here to help you navigate your way through. Here’s a rundown of the different types of non-monogamous dating, alongside advice from people in the community.
Let’s start with the big one: polyamory. Polyamory describes people who date, love, have sex and form relationships with multiple people at one time. But this is not to be confused with simply dating around – polyamory involves being willing to form committed relationships with more than one person at a time, with the consent and knowledge of all parties.
Polyamory might involve triad (more on that later) or quad relationships. It can also be hierarchical (this, admittedly, can be controversial in the community) involving a primary partner with certain exclusive privileges such as sharing finances or a home. Hierarchical polyamory may then involve secondary and tertiary relationships with defined roles and also comet relationships; often long-term partners who connect occasionally in person.
There are also different ways of how the partners of partners (aka metamours) might interact with one another: there’s parallel polyamory, where metamours don’t have much to do with one another, as well as kitchen table polyamory, where metamours might enjoy a friendly relationship. But don’t get too hung up on the terminology or theory - given the fluid nature of non-monogamy, roles and styles can change. It’s just up to everyone involved to candidly state their feelings and capacity for different commitments, and to deliver on their promises wherever possible.
“I always knew I was bad at monogamy,” says Dani*, who has been polyamorous for three and a half years. “I had cheated on people before and always had multiple love interests. So I gave poly a shot and it worked for me - it makes me feel more free, but it also allows me to feel like I’m not restricting my partners.”
Solo polyamory is a subset of polyamory but there are some pretty crucial distinctions. Yep, in solo poly you’re often engaging in multiple relationships but you are your primary partner. Solo poly people prioritise themselves in each relationship they form, which normally involves maintaining a more independent or single mindset while dating multiple people. For some people, this may mean that they choose not to cohabit with partners, share finances or get married.
Charlie*, who has been solo poly for around 18 months, sees this process as being able to “acknowledge a capacity for multiple loves” while making sure they’re prioritising their own romantic and emotional needs. “The solo part for me is about making sure that I'm still my number one priority. What has made solo poly work for me is having a really strong relationship with myself, so I don’t get lost in the relationships.”
Charlie was introduced to non-monogamous dating after matching with a poly person on a dating app - and hasn’t looked back since. “Every relationship I have needs to give me something. I know that sounds quite transactional, but I don't want to have anyone in my life that isn’t providing me something really positive," they say. "I have a partner who gives me really amazing intellectual conversations and then other relationships that are a lot more sexual.”
Being a relationship anarchist means rejecting traditional or conventional expectations and rules in a partnership other than the ones which have been mutually agreed upon by those involved. For relationship anarchist Morgan, this means that “we design dynamics without any assumed, coerced or mandatory hierarchies.”
If I want to date a married person, I would only do so if their spouse doesn’t have the power to dictate how and when I date them," she adds. "Only the people within a relationship can negotiate those terms.”
Designing her own rules with the partners she chooses helps Morgan feel more in control of her love life: “I felt hopeless in monogamy. I was resigned to the grim reality that I would either cheat, or resent my partner. But there’s liberation in anarchist relationships, because we discard all the shoulds and instead ask, ‘What do I actually want?’”
Throuples – not to be confused with a threesome, which is a sexual exchange between three people – is a relationship between three people. Also known as a “triad”, throuples challenge the idea that romantic relationships only functionone-on-one.
Contrary to what you might see in tv shows like Gossip Girl, there is actually a lot of variation among triads. They can involve a “V” relationship: where one partner is in relationships with two people who are not in a relationship with one another. It may also involve a primary relationship between a couple, where both individuals have the same secondary partner. It might result in a three-way partnership between those involved, where everyone has equal status in the relationship.
There are also plenty of other configurations which don’t conform to these models. This is the case for Chrissy and Bria, who opened up their relationship about four months ago. “Initially, we were looking for something casual,” Chrissy recounts. “But, true to our romantic hearts, we met three amazing women around the same time and started falling hard for them. Now we are in three throuples.”
“For us, being in a throuple feels very natural to how we love,” she goes on. “Being in a committed relationship with each other has always felt good, so it has not surprised us that we prefer that same style with our new relationships. It involves more communication and effort, but the payoff is having multiple supportive partners to share in the ups and downs of life.”
An open relationship describes when two partners can, with the consent of the other, pursue sexual and sometimes emotional attachments with others outside of their primary relationship. Rather than polyamory (see above), in which you can participate in multiple committed relationships, being open generally means you are in one relationship at a time but are able to date other people.
There are plenty of things to consider with open relationships - specifically the level of disclosure you and your partner want concerning your other dating activity. Do you want a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario where your dating lives are separate and not discussed? Or is sharing this part of your life important for the security of the relationship? It’s up to both of you to hash that out - as well as discuss what your boundaries and limits are and if you’re interested in dating together as a couple.
Jane has been in an open relationship with her long-term partner for two years, and thinks that this was the best thing for both of them. As she explains: “Early on in our relationship, we agreed that we wanted to be romantically monogamous, but both wanted to have complete sexual autonomy. So we decided that each of us could have sexual encounters with other people without needing permission.”
“We're both pansexual so it's nice to be able to have sex with people of all genders and express all parts of our sexuality,” she adds. “I know that I can have a sexual adventure if I want to while being completely in love with my partner. I'd advise people embarking on non-monogamy to listen to two podcasts; Savage Lovecast and Multiamory – they helped me immensely.”
Why label it?
Of course, you might find it assuring to label your dating interests to make sure your preferences are aligned with those you romantically engage with. But know that there’s no pressure to do so. In fact, many people participating in non-monogamy don’t operate under any label, and just organically pursue the relationship dynamics that work for them.
This is the case for Sarah, who, alongside their current partner of three years, decided at the beginning of their relationship that they wanted to be non-monogamous. However, the two of them did not place any expectation on what this might look like.
“It wasn't necessarily that monogamy was a problem in my previous love life, it was the fact that I felt like I had to act in a way that I didn't choose – instead I acted in the way that I thought I needed to in order to be in a successful relationship," they explain. "With my current partner, we’re constantly figuring it out – we’re choosing. It’s also helped me feel way more confident in myself as a sexual being.”
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