Navigating Poly: What is Polyamory?

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Today marks the first in a probably infinite part series on polyamory. I’m inspired to begin this series by what I see in my own poly relationship as well as both the monogamous and polyamorous relationships around me. As an ongoing series, new pieces will drop as I’m able to tackle them and put them into words. Poly isn’t always easy to describe or define, which is why I’m going to do my best to start with definitions and explanations below. Enjoy!

Before we go into what poly is, let’s start with some myth busting about what poly is not.

Polyamory is NOT:

  1. Cheating - Ethical polyamory, like ethical monogamy, involves keeping relationship promises about what is and is not ok within the confines of that relationship.

  2. Swinging - Swinging is a different type of non-monogamy that primarily, but not always, deals with sex rather than love.

  3. A constant sex fueled orgy - I mean, it CAN be if that’s what the people involved are into, but it doesn’t have to be.

  4. A way to save your relationship - Like having children won’t save your relationship, adding a third person to an already struggling relationship will make things more challenging, not easier.

So if polyamory isn’t cheating, about sex, or a way to save a relationship, what exactly is it? The most basic definition is this:

Polyamory is a relationship dynamic that allows for those involved to ethically develop romantic and sexual relationships with new people.

This is likely the only universal statement one can make about poly relationships because they differs in quality and quantity far more than monogamous ones do. The three most common examples of poly configurations are:

  1. Closed Triad: Three people, not looking for anyone else, sometimes all three are romantically involved, sometimes only two of them. Either way, all people involved are close, even if that closeness is just as friends.

  2. One Person Dating Multiple: This differs from the Closed Triad in that one person is dating many people that are not involved with each other, even as friends.

  3. Always Open: This type of poly relationship is defined by each participant constantly open to and looking for new relationships.

None of these relationship configurations are based on gender or sexual orientation, but rather an openness and honesty with one’s partners about the relationships one wishes to engage in.

That’s it! Pretty simple! Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Right?

Well, past this most basic of definitions, shit gets really complicated. Not necessarily difficult, but complex. And a understanding of those moving parts is what’s going to make or break a poly relationship. Lemme give you an example…

Before Netflix was a thing, there was Blockbuster. If you are too young to remember, Blockbuster was a store you’d go into, pick out a DVD off the shelves, rent it for 2 days, then bring it back. If you went in there to pick out a movie with your long term partner, it was generally a simple task. You knew what they liked and, even if it was different from your tastes, you both have developed a system of compromise where you could find middle ground on movies to rent. In and out in 15 minutes maybe.

But then, there was that weekend when one of your high school friends was coming in from out of town and someone had the ridiculous idea of “Let’s go rent a movie!” Now you’re at Blockbuster with a new person. That only one of you knows really well. That may have changed a bit since the last time you saw them. And you have to learn new ways to compromise to find a movie you’d all watch. You’re in the video store for an hour, minimum.

Romantic relationships are, of course, more involved than selecting a movie to watch. But you and your partner have a system that you’ve navigated over the course of your relationship. Adding a third person will disrupt that system no matter how well intentioned you all are because that person is new to the relationship.

If you’re just opening up a monogamous relationship to a poly one, here are four key things to keep in mind:

1) It’s complex, and you may get it wrong at first: In fact, most couples that I have observed do get it wrong at first. My and my wife’s first attempt at poly was an abysmal failure. I mean that in absolutely every sense of the word. I didn’t know what I was doing nor how to balance the emotions of two people. My wife wasn’t sure what boundaries were ok to set and what weren’t. And the 3rd person had her own agenda to point of when I said, “We have an open relationship,” heard, “I want to leave my wife and need an excuse doing that.” It was wrong on every level.

We learned lots of hard lessons from that first attempt and grew closer together because of it. Remember, relationships are a set of skills. The more people involved, that more refined your skills will have to become. Forgive yourself and your partner if you don’t get it right at first. Grow.

2) Jealousy is super common and normal: Yes, even in poly relationships jealousy can occur. Regardless of your relationship dynamic, jealousy happens and it’s really important to understand why. Jealousy occurs when one person perceives someone else is getting something they are not.

Notice the word ‘perceives’. That’s the key here, because it may not even be true. People can get stuck in their heads. Old trauma and past relationship patterns can come up and lie to us. We can misunderstand something can it can cause us to feel jealous. And, of course, it’s entirely possible that the perception is true. The way out of it is communication. That communication starts like this: “I’m feeling insecure because of this thing that’s happening. Can you help me with that?” If your partner says this to you, the response is, “What about that makes you feel insecure?”

3) Communicate about everything: When we were first opening up to a poly relationship, one of the things we did right was communicate about everything. Every little step. Every baby tiny thing. It was a communication overload and it went like this…

“Since we talked about poly, I signed up for this dating site. How are we feeling about that?”

“Ok, so I made my dating profile. We still good?”

“I found someone I may want to reach out to. How are we now?”

“She responded to my message. Are you still ok with this?”

Every step of the way we stopped, checked in, and talked. Most of the time things were fine. Sometimes where was emotion that came up and needed to be addressed. Either way, the constant checking in gave each of us an opportunity to be honest about where we were and how we were feeling. It was a bonding experience that reminded each of us that we were the priority.

4) Things will come up that you couldn’t possibly anticipate: With a previous girlfriend, whenever I would spend the night at her place I’d come home in the morning with coffee or smoothies by around 9:00 am. It wasn’t spoken about, there was no rule in place, it just sort of happened for several months.

And then one time it didn’t. I wasn’t home until noon. I brought smoothies. They were delicious as always. While enjoying them, my wife shared with me that she had an emotional reaction to me coming home later than I had in the past. She wasn’t mad, but me coming home earlier made her feel important. So a rule was made that I’d come home around 9:00 am from then on unless otherwise discussed.


In time, things have changed with us. Because of that first experience, we’ve learned what not to do, which is just as important as what TO do. Jealousy is handled easier with both my wife and my girlfriend. Communication has changed, too. Due to that early experience of communication, we don’t need to talk about every detail as much because trust was developed. And the unexpected comes up less and less.

We’ll be looking at how to navigate and overcome common challenges in poly relationships in future installments of this series, so stay tuned!

If you have one in particular you’d like me to address, shoot me an email at damien@damiensullivan.com.

May the Force be with you!

Damien