Learning My Way Through My Poly Fears

Are you having feelings for more than one person at a time? Are you interested in being romantically involved with more than one person, otherwise known as consensual nonmonogamy or polyamory?  If either or both are true, you probably already have experienced that this can be tricky to navigate.

Polyamorous people have less to guide them than monogamous⁠ folks. Polyamory is becoming more widely talked about than it used to be, sure. More open minded representations of polyamory are cropping up, especially within TV series such as Netflix’s ‘Feel Good’ and ‘Sex Education’, but couple-dom in still generally the norm. It still might not be possible to ask your friends, since their experiences of relationships might only involve being in a couple or having tried poly once or briefly. So it can feel very isolating, and can make it hard to figure out⁠ how to healthily and safely explore polyamory.

I know these feelings well. I experienced them myself in the early days of my own current polyamorous⁠ relationship⁠ .

I’m in what’s sometimes called a “polyfidelitous triad⁠ ” - I have two partners and we all date each other. For us, it’s more or less the same as being a couple, except there’s three of us instead of two. In fact, we prefer to use the term ‘throuple’ to explain our dynamic. There are lots of different forms of polyamory, which you can read more about in the First Polyamory Guide here on Scarleteen, and none are better or worse than any other, it’s just about what works for you and your particular relationship and everyone in it.

I've been with one of my partners for nine years - we met our other partner⁠ two years ago. At first, we didn’t expect the relationship to become serious. We had discussed what bringing another person into our relationship would mean, and what we were both comfortable with. We agreed that we wanted our relationship to be a primary one (polyamorous people sometimes use definitions for their different relationships, and for many, a ‘primary relationship’ means one that has the most day to day impact on your life, or is the one you are going to prioritise). Our new partner felt the same way at first - she was only looking for something casual and wanted to continue to date other people besides us. But gradually our feelings for one another began to change. We realised that we wanted to spend more time together as a party of three, and that we wanted to do things together that initially we hadn’t thought would factor into the relationship - like going on holiday. This created some challenges and made us all do a lot of careful thinking to figure out if we were comfortable with the dynamic changing.

A lot of anxieties surfaced in the early days of this three-way relationship dynamic, as I began to reassess what I wanted.

I worried that the new relationship would push aside my current one, or that it showed that our feelings for one another weren’t as strong as we thought, or as strong as they had been in the past. But by airing these concerns with my partner, and having an honest conversation about how we both felt, I was reassured that this was not the case. In fact, being in a three-person relationship has only strengthened my relationship with my longer-term partner. Being able to see how a person is in a relationship with someone other than yourself can be a great way to understand them better, and to understand things that might come up in your own relationship with them. You get a new perspective on a partner, and this can really help to create empathy and understanding.

Dynamics like mine require a lot of honesty, and often speaking honestly can make you feel vulnerable, but showing vulnerability to a partner is a good way to build trust and intimacy. At the same time, you learn a lot about yourself as you're forced to ask yourself tough questions and to think carefully about what you want from a relationship and why - in turn, this makes you appreciate the reasons you want to be with your partner(s), and what it is about being with them that makes you happy.

Mine is just one of many possible dynamics for polyamory (in fact, one of the great things about polyamory is that you can be totally free to create whatever relationship works for you). But whatever set up you choose or create, the key to making it work will be the same: communication⁠ , communication, communication. Often, anxieties and jealousy (because, yes, jealousy does come up in polyamorous relationships just like in monogamous ones) were rooted in insecurities and catasrophising - basically, in false thought processes or entirely imagined scenarios that only existed in my mind. By communicating these, I was able to dissect them, figure out where they were coming from, and ultimately manage them.

But don’t you get jealous?

I — like many polyamorous people — get asked this a lot. The answer is simple: yes, of course!

Polyamory isn’t about being immune to jealousy. People who are in polyamorous dynamics can experience jealousy just as much (perhaps, at times, even more) than people in monogamous relationships.

Jealousy isn’t in and of itself a negative thing - it’s just an emotion, something that can crop up without you having much control over it. It’s important to remember: you never have to apologise for how you feel, only for how you act. Jealous feelings are normal and healthy. It’s jealous actions you need to watch out for.

If you do experience jealousy, you can first try to take a moment and think carefully about what has caused this. In the early days of my relationship, I experienced jealousy when my partners started working out together. At first, this seemed completely irrational, but then I realised my jealousy came from a feeling of insecurity around my own fitness level (something I have always been a bit self-conscious about). I made the completely illogical leap of thinking that my new partner was somehow better than me, or a threat to my relationship, because they shared this interest. I quickly realised this was nonsense - my partner shares an interest in sport with lots of their friends too, and I don’t feel jealous about that. This didn’t need to be different. I explained how I’d felt to my partners and they confirmed what I already knew: that they’d had no intention of upsetting me, and of course they don’t think less of me for not sharing that one interest with them. We talked it through, and quickly the feeling of jealousy evaporated.

We’re sometimes encouraged to think of people as competition, particularly in romantic⁠ contexts (just think of phrases like ‘love rival’ or of the competitions on shows like Love Island). And in polyamory it’s important to try to challenge this concept. Different people can offer different things. For example: I love horror films and so does one of my other partners, but the other hates them… rather than get jealous about this, they think, “That’s great, they can go to the cinema together to see scary films together, and I don’t have to!”

Just because someone else can offer something you can’t, this doesn’t make them more and you less. You just bring different things to the relationship. This idea can take time to get your head around, and nobody is going to be able to overcome this socially-constructed concept of romantic competition overnight - but as long as you keep communicating openly with your partners you can get there.

But you can’t love more than one person at a time, can you?

Yes, of course you can. There are different types of love, of course, such as love for a partner, for a friend, and for a family member, and people don’t question that these can exist (or co-exist) at the same time. If you have a brother or sister, no one tells your parent or guardian they can only possibly love one of you! But with romantic or sexual⁠ feelings, we tend to think that these need to be exclusive⁠ - or that developing these feelings for another person pushes aside the feelings for the first, even though we don’t usually think that way about other kinds of love. This does not have to be the case - in fact for much of history people didn’t think this way, and around the world monogamy is not actually the norm.

Just as we don’t question that you can love different people in different ways, we also don’t tend to question that you can love different people at different times in your life. Although some people believe in finding The One or in the idea of ‘soulmates’, most people would tend to agree that a person can fall in love more than once during their lifetime. You might have loved an ex-partner, and now be in love again with someone different. Both relationships are valid and the new feelings don’t invalidate the previous ones.

In polyamory, as with love in other kinds of relationships, feelings of love simply overlap and co-exist. People often find this hard to understand because being in love can be a very overwhelming feeling - it can feel all-encompassing and like there’s no ‘space’ left for anyone else. For some people this is true, and being in love with more than one person can feel like a lot to manage. But not everyone experiences love in the same way, and you might not develop feelings for different people in your life in the same way or at the same rate. People who tell you you can’t love more than one person at a time might not be considering that their experience of love differs from yours.

Shame around polyamory

A lot of people experience feelings of shame when they first start exploring polyamory. There’s a feeling of "Whoa, can I really do this?” A lot of people confuse polyamory with cheating because they don’t understand the vital difference: cheating involves lying or other kinds of dishonesty or deception. Polyamory is about open honesty and taking everyone else’s feelings into account. There’s also the all-too-common aspect of ‘ slut⁠ -shaming’ (of making someone feel guilty about the number of sexual partners they’ve had), which is based in out-dated moral codes that need to be consigned to the history books as quickly as possible. As long as you are being safe and healthy, there is no one acceptable or unacceptable number of sexual partners - ANY number is fine (including zero).

Something to think about

Polyamory involves work and a lot of communication with your partners and with yourself. Self-reflection comes more easily to some people than others, but an approach I’ve found useful in lots of different situations, including when I haven’t felt sure of my own feelings, is to ask myself the following questions:

  • How do I feel right now in this moment? Am I upset because I’m imagining a scenario, or am I upset based on factual events that have actually occurred?
  • Do I feel this way - or am I worried about what other people will think?
  • Can I remember another time that I have felt this way? Were there any similarities between that situation and this one that might help me to figure out where my feelings are coming from?
  • What would be my ideal solution to this problem? Why does this outcome make me happier/more comfortable?
  • Self-communication takes practice. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t always get to the bottom⁠ of why you feel the way you do, that’s completely human and understandable. But, as ever, don’t bottle up your feelings. It’s always better to say ‘I feel this way, but I’m not sure why’ than to suffer in silence. Sometimes, talking with others can help you to come to realisations about yourself too.

Monogamous relationships involve this too - in fact, communication and self analysis should be a central part of any relationship - but a simple difference with polyamory is that there are more people involved, so naturally more feelings to take into account and more people that you need to be open to communicating honestly with. If you’re interested in exploring polyamory just because you think it sounds like an easier approach to relationships, you might want to reconsider - are you interested in polyamory or just in avoiding honesty and intimacy?

Polyamorous therapists are a thing

There are a number of therapists out there that specialise in non-monogamous relationships. If you’re struggling with your own feelings, or having problems in a polyamorous relationship, they will be able to help you in a judgement free way.

Seek out people who are like you. There are loads of amazing accounts around polyamory on Instagram and TikTok - finding a community and reaching out to people who have been where you are can be enormously helpful. Don’t think that you’re alone in these feelings, or that there is anything wrong with the way you feel.

You might try polyamory and decide it’s not for you, and that’s okay

Never feel that by trying out a certain relationship model you have to commit to it. It’s completely fine to decide that polyamory isn’t for you. No relationship model is more or less valid than any other - it’s only about what suits you.

Also, what suits you may change throughout your life or throughout a relationship over time. People change, and so our desires and needs in relationships can change too. Polyamory might work for you at one time in your life but not another, and you might decide that you’re interested in polyamory but not quite ready to try it in practice just yet. Speaking of my own experience, I wouldn’t have been in a polyamorous relationship when I was younger, or when I was in an earlier stage of my relationship with my first partner. Whereas some of my other polyamorous friends say polyamory worked for them when they were younger, but has less appeal for them today.

Also, for a lot of people polyamory is more a state of mind than a behaviour. You might find that you identify with the ideas behind polyamory, but in your day-to-day life don’t want to have multiple relationships. Often when it comes to sexuality and relationships, how you identify is about what you believe or feel, not how you act (a bisexual⁠ person, for example, can be bisexual without having had sexual experiences with more than one gender⁠ ).

Remember that your choices about your relationships don’t define you. Sexuality is not a personality trait. And who you choose to form relationships with doesn’t define who you are. This is all just part of the multiple interesting and exciting things that make you, you.

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