Why Your Open Relationship Isn't Polyamory

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Over the past few years I have encountered lots of people who claim to be polyamorous only to hear them explain a few minutes later that their definition of poly means they live at home with a spouse and children, and occasionally they go on dates and/or have sex with another person on the side who never meets the spouse and never knows the family.  This is not the same thing as polyamory, this is simply an open relationship, and I feel like the two often get lumped together in a very confusing and frustrating way.  

I should clarify that there is nothing wrong with open relationships or the people who choose to engage in them.  If that’s what works for you and your life, that’s totally fine.  I just get frustrated when people who are in open relationships refer to their relationship structure as polyamorous.  For outside people who don’t know the difference, it can wildly skew their understanding of what polyamory truly is.

Open relationships are where there is a primary core relationship of two people.  At some point along the way, they reach a decision to allow each other the freedom to engage in intimate activities with individuals outside of the primary relationship as long as certain rules are followed.  Each situation is different, but here are some common examples of open relationship rules:

  • It’s ok to see other people, but the other primary partner always has veto power if they don’t like the other person.
  • It’s ok to have sex with someone else, but you must always come home to sleep in our bed afterwards, no spending the night.
  • It’s ok to see another person, but the other primary partner wants nothing to do with him or her.
  • It must be clearly communicated to the other person that they are a secondary relationship and will never be more than that.
  • It’s ok to see another person, but they will never be invited to family gatherings, introduced as significant others, or otherwise acknowledged as being special in any way.
Want to learn more about polyamory?  We also recorded a podcast and another article here.

The vast majority of open relationships don’t start as open from the very beginning.  Instead they are often a result of either one or both people being unsatisfied in some way, or as a result of infidelity by one or both people.  In addition, most open relationships often get that way by one person having to persuade the other to give it a try.  As such, rules like the ones mentioned above are put into place in order to mask insecurities that are present in the relationship and within the individuals themselves.  And when a relationship is already this unhealthy, there are usually plenty of insecurities to go around.  

People think that by opening the relationship they can fill in some of the holes that exist.  But when you do it under this type of construct, all you are doing is inviting more drama into your life.  It is impossible for a person to foster and develop a completely isolated and separate relationship with another person without it detracting from the existing primary relationship.  Feelings develop, things change.

But what if instead of isolating the outside relationships and keeping them separate, you joined everyone together?  I don’t necessarily mean in a sexual way (though it’s fine if it ends up that way), but emotionally at least.  The meaning of the word polyamory is to love many.  Having casual sex on the side while maintaining an isolated primary relationship is not “loving many” in the truest sense of the word. You may be having sex with many, but if you have a rule in place that says some partners will always be secondary, and if your primary partner is worried (even subconsciously) that you will leave them for another, then you are not really loving many.

I believe that for true polyamory to be successful in the long term, and for everyone to get the full benefits of what it can bring to your life, you need to engage in what is known as all-inclusive polyamory.  The goal of your polyamory should be for everyone involved to experience the expansion of love beyond what can be achieved with just two people.  If one or more people in the relationship are isolated, then your love can only divide, and not expand.  This is not sustainable and can potentially destroy all of the individual relationships contained within the poly arrangement.  

Having a person on the side, outside of a primary relationship, is in many ways no different than simply cheating on your spouse. The only difference is that they know about it.  But you’re still having to maintain two (or more) separate relationships and your attention with all of them will always be fractured.  Not to mention there will always be some sort of conflict of interest going on with one of them.  

Whereas if everyone is together, forming solid emotional connections with everyone else, then there’s less potential for secrets to develop or insecurities to manifest.  And if they do, then it’s much easier to bring it up with everyone and have a healthy discussion about it.

So how does one go about finding this type of arrangement?  Well, as with any kind of relationship, it’s most ideal if it happens organically.  As in, you meet someone whom you both become friends with first, and then you both develop emotional connections with them, and then it progresses to intimacy and possibly a relationship.  It’s less ideal (though not impossible) to go looking for someone to fit your mold on a dating website or something like that.  

Dating sites can be alluring because in theory it helps you narrow down people that are already interested in a polyamorous relationship.  But in the end you are still dealing with meeting a complete stranger and hoping they fit into your mold and hit it off with both of you equally.  And in the end the odds of that happening are probably less than if you both just happen to meet someone organically and become friends with them first.  Plus you’re not having to deal with the drama of going out on dates with random idiots, which can put a strain on an existing relationship.  It’s all artificial and contrived and ultimately unhealthy because it fosters a sense of longing and dissatisfaction.  Instead you should be appreciative for what you have already and foster that instead.  

Also, it is important to identify what you and your existing partner want out of a poly relationship.  For example, if you want a partner or partners who don’t have kids and are self-employed entrepreneurs that love to travel for weeks at a time, then it doesn’t make sense to spend time developing a relationship with a single mother who works a 9-5, no matter how great she may be.  As with any type of relationship, trying to force a new person into a predefined mold will never work.  

It would probably even be helpful for you and your existing partner to each make a list of what you are looking for in another partner.  Then you can compare the two lists and talk about it to make sure you’re both on the same page.  You may find that you and your existing partner are in wildly different places and it’s essential that you get that sorted out before you start adding new people into the mix.  

It is also super important to keep in mind that no two relationships develop in the same way, and that just because you may be developing a relationship with a potential new partner, you cannot expect your existing partner to develop a relationship with that new partner in the same way and at the same pace.  Every personality is different and every relationship between two people is different.  And if you assume otherwise then you will just be setting yourself up for failure.  If you have to force your existing partner and your new partner to get along or spend time with each other, then you might as well forget about it.  If it’s not happening organically on it’s own already, then it’s probably not going to work and you should seriously think about moving on before someone gets hurt.  

The key here is patience.  It can be exciting to realize that you and your partner wish to engage in a poly relationship, and it’s natural to want to make it a reality as soon as possible.  But again, as with any kind of relationship, forcing anything is never the best way to go about it.  Just focus on getting your own house in order, so to speak, and open yourselves to the possibility of a new person or persons coming into your lives.  The more grounded and stable your existing situation is, the more likely you will encounter the polyamorous relationship you are looking for.

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