Relationship Structure and Troubleshooting: Navigating Poly Relationships

a first polyamory guide

Every relationship is different, and when you’re polyamorous, that means that you may have several different relationships going on all at once. One issue to think about is the relationship structure that works for you, and how to make it work with your partners. Remember that this can be in a constant state of evolution, but communication is necessary for changes to take place.

This is part of our series on polyamory! For more, check out:

A First Polyamory Guide

I Think I'm Poly: How Do I Initiate Open Relationships?

We mentioned hierarchical polyamory, and that’s a common approach; since people often come to polyamory by opening a previously-established relationship, it can feel like a natural way to structure things at first. This might appeal to those who want to make sure an established relationship stays strong and that other relationships are strictly casual or supplemental; there's no guarantee that a hierarchical approach will achieve that, mind you, but many newcomers to polyamory make that assumption. While a hierarchical structure will prioritize the needs of a primary relationship and/or partner over the needs of a secondary one, it doesn't give anyone the right to ignore the feelings, safety, or needs of a secondary partner entirely. If you have (or are!) a secondary partner, do keep that in mind.

Communication is extremely important so that everyone understands how their partners relate to them. If you view all your partners equally, for example, it might be upsetting to find that one of them considers you secondary to someone else. It can also be a comfort to know that someone isn't seeing you as their main or most important partner if you aren't up for filling that role. For some, a hierarchical structure will work long term; others transition to or start with a more egalitarian approach; even when living, sharing finances, or raising children with someone, not everyone will consider that partner “primary.” Some people use the term "anchor partner" to signify a partner who they are committed to but don't want to elevate over other partners they may see less often or in a less structured way. It's fine to use whatever language works for you, and if there isn't terminology you're wild about for the relationship type and structure you want, you're free to create your own! Or, just set aside titles altogether, if you like; as long as you all know where you stand, it doesn't matter if you have official words for your relationships or not.

In relationship structures where multiple people are dating each other, each relationship between two members is as important as the larger one as a whole. In other words, if A, B, & C are all dating, there will be times when A&B, A&C, and B&C need or want time to spend maintaining their own connections to each other. This is important, and doesn't mean that one person's deliberately being snubbed or left out (although if you feel like this dynamic is creeping in, that's something to address with your other partners).  Essentially, group relationships are both one big relationship and several smaller sub-relationships, and all of those deserve time and space to grow and become stronger.

However, this closed style of relationship can present its own communication challenges. If you're in a closed triad, for example, it's vital to communicate with both of your partners. If you only communicate with one by complaining or talking to another, and assuming that your issues will filter over to them, that's a problem. If you tell one partner something, you can’t expect the other to magically know it too, and it's not fair to expect one partner to be a messenger carrying information to the other. It sounds dorky, but having group check-ins periodically can be a great way to have a clear, transparent conversation that everyone is present for.

Have you ever been bummed out when a friend starts up a relationship and accidentally gets so wrapped up in their new romance that they ignore you and other friends? That's something that can happen in poly relationships, too, so be on your guard and don't let that wonderful, heady NRE of a shiny new relationship pull you so far away from other partners that they're feeling left out. It's ok to devote a little extra energy to a new relationship, and many poly people know how that goes and won't begrudge you that time, but if you have partners who start to say "hey, it feels like you don't have any time for me since you started seeing New Flame," or "lately you never talk to me about anything but this new person you've started dating," then it's worth taking the time to step back and reassess how you're spending your time and emotional energy. If you feel like a partner's doing this to you, it's ok to speak up about it and ask them to do the same.

What if we're long-distance?

Long-distance relationships have their own specific benefits and challenges, and when polyamory is involved, a few additional considerations need to be added to the mix. LDRs don't always — and can't always — feel the same way dating locally can, but there are ways to make it work. It isn't always possible to talk to, or visit, a faraway partner as often as you might want to, but setting up a routine of communication can keep the relationship feeling strong and let both members know they're valued, even when they might feel intimidated by physical distance. That routine might include making a specific schedule for Skype or phone chats, sending occasional letters or packages through the mail, playing a game together online, or getting in the habit of texting a sweet good morning message to each other. It's important to find ways to feel like part of each others' lives, but distance generally does mean there are going to be limitations on that. If a long-distance partner has a local partner as well, it might be harder to avoid feeling jealous: when you know a metamour sees your partner weekly and you can only see them twice a year, for example, it can feel unfair or stressful or make you less confident in your connection to your partner. If you're having those doubts or worries, talk them out! Maybe there are some other ways you can connect with each other and feel more secure in the relationship.

Some people start to explore polyamory as a way to get emotional or sexual needs met when an established partner is far away. That's not a problem on its own, but it's important in those cases to make sure that any other partners are treated with respect and are aware of the expectations and level of commitment you're bringing to the table. No one wants to feel like they're just a stand-in for an absent partner, or a temporary solution to a problem. Also, because you might not get a chance to meet or interact with metamours at all, it's a good idea to be as clear as you can about expectations, and to make sure that everyone involved is aware of and consenting to your relationship.

If you feel like breaking up or other significant conversations about a relationship are best done in person, and you know an in-person discussion might not be possible for a long time, you might find yourself in a relationship that's turning sour long past the time you would have otherwise addressed the issue. It's important to keep in mind that some habits or preferences that might work for local relationships won't translate directly to long-distance ones, so you may have to make some allowances for those differences and challenges that LDRs present. For example: if the spirit of your "break up in person" rule is "give this person the respect a serious relationship deserves vs. firing off a one-line breakup text," you might have a difficult or emotional talk during your weekly Skype call, or ask to chat at a time when neither of you will be distracted by other people or commitments.

Red Alert!

Any kind of relationship structure can come with red flags, and polyamory is no exception. When you see a red flag, it’s time to stop, assess, and decide what you want to do next, and as with every relationship, communication is the key to resolving issues. It’s perfectly normal to ask your partner to stop and have a conversation about something in your relationship that’s making you uncomfortable, and if your partner doesn’t want to have that conversation? You guessed it: that's a red flag too.

Here are some common issues we see popping up in dysfunctional poly relationships, or those that may be headed for trouble:

The rules. Setting boundaries in a relationship and discussing with your partner(s) what you are and aren't comfortable with is an important way to help minimize conflict and misunderstandings. However, a set of rigid "rules" for having polyamorous relationships can be a bad sign, especially if the list of rules to follow is long and detailed. If one person is so constrained by rules that it's hard to let a date, or an entire relationship, progress in what feels like a natural and organic way, it's unlikely that things are going to work out long term.

In addition, one common rule that comes up in polyamory, especially in the framework of an established couple transitioning to an open relationship, is "you can have sex with other people, but emotions aren't ok." Rules like this are never going to be successful, because people can't control how and when they develop emotional attachments. It can be helpful to examine the intent or worry behind a rule: does "don't develop feelings for someone else" mean you're worried about a partner finding someone they like more than you, if they explore other relationships? Can you talk about ways to make sure your connection stays strong, instead of trying to make a rule about how they're allowed to feel?

This doesn't mean you aren't allowed to have hard limits or say no to something a partner is suggesting; those are always options. But if it feels like the only way polyamory feels safe to someone is if they can establish a lot of very specific rules about how things are allowed to progress, that may be a sign that a poly relationship style just isn't a great fit for that person.

Information sequestering. You might hear from an established or potential partner something like “I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t tell me"or "my partner doesn’t care what I do as long as they don't hear about it.” This is something we call “information sequestering,” where a partner is suggesting that open communication isn’t necessary, and that it’s actually totally fine to not talk about what’s going on in your poly relationship. At best, it suggests that someone involved in the situation may be uncomfortable with opening their relationship, and someone will get hurt. At worst, it could mean that someone is cheating, and keeping their partner out of the loop is a deliberate way to avoid the truth coming out.

If you find yourself wanting to tell a partner “I’m fine with you dating other people, but I don’t want to hear about it,” ask yourself why that is. It could be a sign that you’re not actually comfortable with opening up your relationship but you feel like you have to if you want to stay together. You and your metamours don’t have to be best buds forever, and in fact you don't have to meet or interact at all, but asking your partner to pretend that those other relationships just don't exist is often a recipe for disaster. Of course, there's a world of difference between saying "I'd rather not hear about your sex life with other partners in detail" and "don't talk to me about them at all"; it's okay to want some level of boundaries in place! But if you find yourself upset or uncomfortable knowing anything about them or even that they exist, it may be time to re-examine whether or not you are up for polyamory at all.

Full speed ahead! Sometimes, someone will want to open up an established relationship because a particular person has caught their eye. That's not a problem on its own, but if that person pressures their partner to rush through the process of thinking about opening up the relationship, or to agree by a certain time frame (say, before a particular party or trip where hooking up will be possible), they're likely not giving them the time and space they need to think things over on their own, free of coercion, before agreeing to a poly setup or not. Rushing anyone through an important decision like this is going to be a bad idea, and if someone's rushing you, that could be a sign they aren't as concerned about your feelings or well-being as they should be.

What's mine is yours. Triad relationships are fairly common, it's true, but don't ever assume that dating someone immediately means you're going to be dating their other partner or partners - and no partner of yours should be pressuring you to become romantically or sexually involved with someone you aren't particularly interested in.

No time to yourself. Once the opportunity to date multiple people opens up, the possibilities can seem endless. And sometimes they are! What's not endless, though, are your time and your energy. If you find that you've booked all of your free time with fun and attractive new partners, with no time for your friends, your hobbies, or just to sit quietly and be with yourself, you'll probably hit a burnout point sooner rather than later. If someone's pushing you to overcommit yourself, they probably don't have your best interests at heart, and if you find yourself pushing...take a breath, step back, and make sure you have downtime that's just for you. All your relationships will be better for it.

Unicorn chasers. You may have heard of unicorn chasers before: A (usually) straight couple seeking a (usually) female “third” to “join” their relationship. Sometimes this also takes the form of a person "giving" a partner a threesome for a birthday or other special occasion, and if the idea of a sex partner being a "gift" makes you uncomfortable, you're not alone in that. Some people are happy to have casual sexual experiences with established couples, and there's nothing wrong with that if it's what you're interested in. Unicorn chasers, however, tend to be looking for the equivalent of a human sex toy: basically, someone both partners think is “hot” who will be available when and where she’s wanted, and then quietly disappear the rest of the time. If you’re looking for an emotionally fulfilling relationship with people who want you to be part of their lives, be cautious when invited to join a couple’s relationship, and sit down at the outset to express concerns and set boundaries.

“Girl on girl doesn’t count.”  This is generally something we see in relationships where straight men are partnered with straight or bisexual women: the male partner is ok with his partner dating women, but not men. Setting aside that this ignores the large number of people who don't fit neatly into either group, this view is dismissive of the validity of romantic and sexual relationships that women have with each other, and often ties into possessive or territorial feelings that aren't a great look for anyone. If you’re a woman dating another woman, your relationship is fully valid on its own; it's not some sort of lesser version of a male/female relationship. Don't let anyone tell you that those relationships "don't count" or are by default less real or serious.

Our relationship is floundering, let’s open it up. If you’re struggling with relationship problems, the last thing you need to do is open up your relationship, because you need to focus on communicating and working through things, not adding a new dimension, and new people, to your relationship. Some people do come to polyamory by opening up an established partnership, but that should come from a place of security and comfort in your relationship, not a last-ditch attempt to keep a partner from straying or hold a relationship together.

Don't be such a prude. We live in an era where many people feel free to express and explore their sexuality, and this is amazing! But sometimes it means that people are labeled “prudes,” "uptight," "immature," and so on for not wanting to do the stuff that other folks may be doing, whether that’s polyamory, kink, group sex, different sexual positions, or having any sex at all.

You are your own person and you get to dictate your own comfort level. If you are being pressured into something, it’s not enjoyable, but it's also not consensual. If your partner is pressuring you to open up your relationship and it’s something you adamantly don’t want or aren’t ready for, it’s not because you’re square, prudish, boring, repressive, not sexually liberated, or whatever the flavor of the month is. It’s because you know that you’re monogamous, or that monogamy is your speed right now, and that is fine.

Not being interested in polyamory now, or ever, doesn’t mean you’re making a judgment about those who are polyamorous — you’re just saying it’s not for you, and there's nothing wrong with that People making judgments about you based on your relationship preferences are not likely to be great partners in other ways; even if someone's disappointed that you aren't into the same thing they are, it's not ok to pressure or belittle you based on that.

This might feel like a pretty intense list of pitfalls to watch out for, but don't let that scare you away if you're feeling really excited to explore polyamorous relationships. We want you to have the tools and knowledge you need to create the most positive relationships you can, no matter what those relationships look like, but remember that just because a problem or roadblock could exist doesn't mean you'll ever encounter it. Sure, navigating polyamory can feel a bit more stressful, busy, or overwhelming than monogamy at times, but it can also be deeply fulfilling, grounding, and just plain fun.