Curious about polyamory? Here’s what you need to know

The buzz word on everyone’s lips these days, polyamory promises a whole other realm of love and intimacy. When you look online, public opinion seems split. Half of folks believe polyamorous relationships are little more than an excuse for two people in a failing marriage to have sex with other people. The other half believe that polyamorous people are engaging in the only kind of relationships that stand any chance of promoting real vulnerability or joy.

As with everything, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Don't let those polar opposite perspectives on polyamory fool you: being polyamorous is about more than having sex with random people. It's about generating deep joy with many lovers. However, that doesn't mean it's the answer for all relationships everywhere. Life is nuanced, and different relationships work for different kinds of people. Some people thrive in monogamy, while others might love full-on relationship anarchy.

Don't know where you fit? Thankfully, polyamory is as diverse as it is luscious. What most people living the polyamorous life would tell you is that there's no one way to be poly - and with so many options, you may just see that there's a perfect way to explore polyamory for you.

More than one way to love

Thinking of polyamory often conjures up a visual of three people dating one another, but in reality, there’s no wrong way to go about it. As long as everyone is treating each other with integrity, there are limitless ways to play. There are, however, a few common ways that poly folks canoodle.

One couple, dating together

The most common way to dabble in poly, one couple dating a person together is often called a triad. When done right, this is a bountiful arrangement that has the potential for a lot of growth, vulnerability, and love for all three people involved.

Often, this is how couples start out in the world of polyamory. Unfortunately, there’s a pesky thing called couple privilege that can make even the most well-meaning couples into careless lovers.

When it rears its head, you may find the newest addition to your triad feeling left out. A new partner is often (unintentionally) treated as subpar, less important, and not as valuable as the other two. Sometimes, their needs aren’t prioritized and they aren’t consulted about new decisions that affect all three of them. When things get hard, this third person is almost always left in the dust.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By remembering at every turn that the newest partner is just as important and valuable of a human being as the partner you’ve had for ten years, everybody gets treated with respect, and you all three have a truly magical and life-changing relationship. 


A less common configuration is a quad, where four people date each other. This can be two couples dating each other, four strangers who found each other and fell in love, or a couple who dated a single person, who then found another partner they brought into the fold. These are full of unique arrangements, where not everyone may be sleeping with each other, but they all operate emotionally like a family. 

Primary partner, secondary attachments

It feels cruel to put the relationship in a hierarchy, but this configuration actually works for polyamorous people well when everyone is on the same page, and thrives with several different ways to love. Typically, you have one primary partner you go home to and love, but you also date outside of the relationship. You and your partner both have separate significant others you date. Ideally, a healthy dynamic means that you and your partner both know the names of each other’s lovers. This is called dinner table polyamory, because you literally have dinner together. Your partner’s partners are called your metamours, and they offer friendship and community, rather than a sense of competition. 

This may sound similar to an open relationship, but it's not. Open relationships are adjacent to polyamory, but have their own set of rules. In an open relationship, the emphasis is much less on love, feelings, or fostering relationships with multiple people. Instead, open relationships are essentially emotionally-monogamous relationships that let each partner enjoy casual sex with other people in a way that works for their (otherwise) monogamous relationship.

When you approach that kind of situation with a polyamorous lens, it's about more than sex, and isn't just swinging (although polyamorous folks are known to do that with consenting adults, too). You open the doors to creating a bond with more than one person. With this primary/secondary configuration, there's room for vulnerability, sharing, and intimacy with more than one person.

Relationship anarchy

If polyamory were a spectrum, relationship anarchy would be the furthest opposite of monogamy. People who practice this form of polyamorous canoodling think that when it comes to romance, the only rules are that there are no rules. Boiled down to a single sentence, people who are relationship anarchists don't believe in giving love a hierarchy, and shun the idea of a 'primary' or 'secondary' partner. In this shade of polyamory, you can play with who you want, when you want, and love everyone in equal and distinct measures. 

That's not to say this is all about sex. If that were the case, then every person in college looking to fool around would be considered a relationship anarchist. Relationship anarchy is still polyamory - and 'amor' is built into the word itself. Love is encouraged - just not the kind where one person takes precedent over another.

This kind of polyamory takes the most communication. Although you have no primary partner, you aren’t some inconsiderate player having sex without a care for others' feelings. Instead, you’re in tune with and equally valuing your partners’ needs, holding space for them, and forming deep bonds with no expectation of them adhering to some rules you make up.

At its core, relationship anarchy is rooted in the idea that nobody can be wholly fulfilled by one partner, and building up a community of lovers is a healthy way to foster closeness and intimacy.

Solo Poly

This is a catchall term for someone who isn't in any committed relationships with other people. Unlike relationship anarchy, solo poly people may be interested in having a primary beau one day, but they don't have one currently. Going solo poly, people are free to date and have sex with whoever they want. As relationships with other people evolve, folks who do solo poly learn about the different things that work for all parties involved. If you try out solo poly, it may be a prime learning experience, and you may realize you’re a relationship anarchist, or be delighted to learn you nestle perfectly into a quad.


The most serious of all polyamorous relationships, there may not be one place in the States where polygamy is legal yet, but many people find ways to make this work through legal documents giving one another mutual rights over a house, or to be legal guardians of each other's children. Polygamy is consensual non-monogamy taken to a whole other, monogamous level. With this kind of arrangement, everyone is committed to one another, and multiple people share their lives together. Think of these polyamorous relationships like monogamous relationships between more than two people.

Polyamory may fall under these categories pretty often, but the true limit is only your imagination, and the number of other polyamorous people in your city. These makeups only skim the surface of all the beautiful things polyamory has to offer. There’s no wrong way to do it as long as everyone is consenting to the situation. If you want to get started in any of these kinds of relationships, the ultimate way to start is by learning about the core tenet of polyamory: compersion.

Want success in polyamory? Cultivate compersion.

A word that's slowly being added to the lexicon across the United States, compersion is best described as the opposite of jealousy. Instead of feeling that green-eyed monster rear its head when we first delve into more open relationships, compersion teaches us to calm down and see the joy of our partner really enjoying themselves. No polyamorous relationship will work without compersion. Arguably, monogamous couples could learn a thing or two from this dynamic as well. compersion is a powerful emotion that can best be described as joy at seeing another person’s joy. Love works best when we honor each others rights. Reserved for the most tender moments, polyamory thrives when compersion is added to sex.

We’re all raised in a society that tells us that marriage is between two people. Until recently, we were all even force fed the notion that it’s only between a man and a woman. Nowadays, we know better. Still, sometimes it’s hard to surrender ourselves to feeling happy that our partner is brimming with new love for someone that isn’t us. That's where compersion comes in.

Compersion means feeling joy for our partners getting pleasure, even when that pleasure is found with someone else. Trust your partner to love you while they pursue what’s best for them. If you feel jealous, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, acknowledge it, let it go, and think about how you can feel more compersion for them instead.

The word is so new that research in mainstream circles is limited. However, that's changing with books like The Jealousy Workbook by Kathy Labriola (rights reserved), which uses compersion-building techniques to help show monogamous and polyamorous couples alike new ways to approach their love.

All that being said, compersion isn't some miracle that comes to us overnight. In fact, it would be unheard of if it did. When we're constantly fed a diet of media that romanticizes violence, toxic sex, jealousy, and sexual domination, polyamory goes against the grain of everything we've been taught. It doesn't matter if we're told to stop being jealous - what matters is learning to overcome it. When you're first exploring polyamory, notice the emotions that arise in you. Seeing your lover having sex with someone else may make you one jealous lover at first, but take a breath. Step back, acknowledge your feelings, and do your best to let it go. Over time, embracing the joys of a non-monogamous lifestyle will be easier to come by.

But as rewarding as it is, it isn't always easy. Polyamorous people put a lot of work in, and spend a long time cultivating habits and mindsets that make their relationships thrive. While it may sound like polyamorous relationships could just lead to more complications or heartbreak, something beautiful happens instead. When you all feel able to care for each other or more complications this way, it actually leads to deeper connections with all the people you're seeing.

When you act with compersion, you re also fostering consensual non-monogamy, where everyone in the polyamorous configuration you set has a clear head about the kind of relationships you're all entering in.

Start slow

You may be fantasizing about getting fully out of monogamous relationships and descending straight into a quad, but if you're in an existing monogamous relationship and want to keep on loving that person, go slow. You have the rest of your life to practice consensual non-monogamy, and a long road in front of you bursting with polyamorous relationships, a fulfilling sex life, and multiple romantic entanglements you may never have dreamt of before.

Polyamory is all about the expansion of love, and to make it sustainable, you need to go into it with intention, every step of the way. Check in with them at every turn. Contrary to popular belief, polyamory is far from selfish. Your partners’ feelings matter at each and every step - and with polyamory, your partner's feelings are given honest and unfettered attention.

You know now that it's about way more than sex. It's about cultivating raw relationships with people who deserve your love. If you think you're ready, you're in for quite a revolution. The only problem? You may have to bake double the cookies next February when Valentine's Day rolls around.

Now's the time to live your life - explore polyamory, and fall in love with new people every day.