I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately about polyamory, and some themes have emerged that feel enough like truth that I want to write them down. This is both a manifesto and a rough draft; I don’t know that I’m right about any of this, but this is how it has played out for me, and most of my friends seem to think I’m doing this poly thing right. I hope that you, dear reader, will in some combination gain some value and tell me I’m full of shit, and together we’ll learn something worth knowing.
You’ll notice a couple of things in the following paragraphs. I use the word “partner” to refer to the other person in the relationship. Don’t assume I only mean primary partner — every person you are in a relationship with is your partner in that relationship. That’s what I mean by partner. You’ll also notice that I’m mostly not talking about the logistics of managing multiple relationships. That’s because the act of being in relationship happens one person at a time. You don’t “get poly right.” You get one relationship right, and then if you’re lucky, maybe you get another relationship right at the same time.
First Principle: Love is infinite.
Some people who are not poly seem to have this idea that there’s only so much love. That it’s only possible to love one person at a time, or that an old relationship absolutely must cease to exist in all ways before there can be room for a new one. This bothers me for one simple reason: it’s not true for any other kind of love. You don’t abandon your first child when you have your second one. You don’t choose which one of your parents you love, or have only one friend at a time. You love lots of people, and your capacity to love is infinite. Romantic love may be qualitatively different from the other ways you love (or it may not be!), but in an absolute sense, love is love and there’s plenty for everyone.
Second Principle: It’s a continuum, not a switch.
Love shows up in a lot of different ways. You love your family, your friends, your pets, that service provider (hairdresser, massage therapist) who so totally gets you. You love your favorite teacher, the star player on your favorite sports team, the hot lead singer in your favorite band. Each form of love is a little different, but they’re all forms of love. When you love someone, it expresses itself on a continuum. There’s the kind of love that has common interests or common goals. There’s the kind that is easy and comfortable in silence. There’s the kind that goes out partying and laughs until the tears stream down your face. There’s admiration and crushes and being someone’s biggest fan. There’s the kind that shows up for someone when they are hurting. And there’s the kind that wants to give another person everything you have. There’s a sweetly romantic kind that just wants to give someone a daisy and kiss them on the cheek, and there’s a raw, animal kind that wants to tear their clothes off and swallow them whole. There’s a kind of love that transcends all of those — that goes deeper than friend and deeper than family and feels like it was ordained by God.
And you can feel any or all of those ways about another person in a given moment. It evolves. What it does NOT do is flip on and off like a switch. “Love at first sight” is a cute thing to imagine but it’s not how it actually works. You don’t start loving someone in the moment they kiss you, nor do you stop on the day you break up. Kisses and breakups are symptoms; events. They happen as a result or a reflection of where you are on the continuum.
Third Principle: Poly is both an orientation AND a lifestyle choice.
Monogamous people do not understand us. That doesn’t make them bad or inferior and it certainly doesn’t make us right. But perhaps this insight can help build a bridge between us: to understand poly as both an orientation (born that way, it’s just how our hearts and brains work and there is no “fixing” it), AND a lifestyle choice (it’s possible to be poly but not be in more than one — or even one! — relationship). Sometimes a poly person chooses to be in a relationship with a monogamous person. When they do that, they are choosing to forsake the lifestyle in order to connect to the person they love most. But that monogamous person will still need to accept that the poly person is no less poly for having made that choice. The poly person is likely to fall in love with other people. And they will have to make the choice, over and over, not to act on that impulse. Nothing the monogamous partner is, or does, or says, is going to change the poly person’s orientation, any more than you can “pray the gay away.” But if it’s what they both want, with tons of trust and communication, it can work just fine.
Fourth Principle: Every relationship stands or falls on its own merit.
I categorically reject every form of blaming relationship failures on third parties. Marriages don’t fail because of mistresses. Friendships don’t die because of new friends. There’s no such thing as a “homewrecker.” What CAN happen is that a third person can be a mirror that shows you what is not working. A third person can show you that you have not been honest, either with yourself or with your partner. A third person can show you that a need is not being met. A third person can show you that there is something you like, or want, or lack. But they have no power over your relationship that you do not give them. When your spouse cheats on you, it is your spouse who must be held to account, not the person they cheated with. And they must be held to account not for being attracted to another person, but for violating trust and consent. Loving is not the problem. Lying is the problem.
Every speed bump you hit in any relationship is what I like to call a sternly-worded invitation. It’s an opportunity to dig up the part of your foundation that isn’t holding up, tear it out and rebuild it. Whatever other form your relationship may take, the foundation under it must be one of trust and friendship. Everything else is just a bad romantic comedy.
When your foundation is solid, you can make it through anything. When it is not, please don’t try to convince yourself that some third person had any power to dismantle what you failed to build.
Fifth Principle: Fear is the opposite of love.
Whether you are monogamous or poly, whether you choose one relationship or several, whether you allow yourself to love people deeply or not, the thing that will make or break your ability to show up fully in love is your ability to let go of your fear. I believe that love and fear are the only two emotions. Everything else stems from one or the other. And they are as different as matter and antimatter — they cannot coexist. If you approach a relationship from a space of fear, you will allow things like envy or jealousy, suspicion, competition, and dishonesty to pollute it and you will miss out on the full expression of love. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t serve you or your partner, and it is not sustainable. Whenever you sense any of those things creeping in, it’s time to find more gratitude, more compassion, more trust, more gentleness. Add love to your cup until the fear spills over the sides and washes away.
Sixth Principle: Trust is the only non-negotiable success factor.
There’s a Savage Garden song called “Affirmation” that includes the lyric, “I believe that trust is more important than monogamy.” (The first time I heard this on the radio you could have knocked me over with a feather.) Truer words were never spoken. I absolutely believe that if a relationship matters enough to you, it can survive without common goals, without common interests, without sex, without money, even without love (ask generations of nobility who made arranged marriages work). But without trust, you have nothing. A relationship without trust is by definition founded more on fear than on love, and it is not sustainable. (See “fifth principle” above.) If you are in a relationship and feel like it is lacking something it needs, start with trust. Talk constantly and honestly. Speak your truth and ask for what you need. Tell your partner what you like and what you don’t like. Tell them what you need to feel wanted, appreciated, loved. Ask them what they need, and give it to them. When you do that with conviction and consistency, you will build the foundation that will allow you to feel safe and loved no matter how many relationships either of you may have.
Seventh Principle: No one person can be your everything.
Inasmuch as poly people fancy themselves “enlightened” by comparison to monogamous people it is for this reason: it’s because we have figured out that it’s not possible to get everything you need from one other person. The alien invaders from the Hallmark Planet have sold us a bill of goods that your “soul mate”, once you find them, will fulfill absolutely every need you could ever have — will be your best friend, lover, confidant, parent of your children, partner in crime, playmate, and faithful servant. Why would you put that kind of pressure on someone you cared about? It’s a monumentally unfair ask for a bunch of reasons. Before you met them, you had friends, family members, all kinds of people in your life who met various needs for you. You had your workout buddy, your drinking buddy, your “work husband”, your friend who loves Game of Thrones as much as you so you always talked the morning after the new episode, your cousin who wears the same size shoes as you. Is this “soul mate” of yours supposed to replace all of those people? And also be everything from dishwasher to sex goddess, all day every day, no matter if you have four kids, one of you gets cancer, or you are caring for an aging parent? We need to be realistic about our expectations. Poly is not for everyone and I’m not saying it’s better than monogamy. I’m saying that regardless of how we approach our “primary” relationship (marriage or co-parent or person we commingle our money with), we can, and must, be reasonable about what we demand from any one other human being.
My final word on poly is this: being in two relationships is more than twice as hard as being in one, and it goes up exponentially from there. But none of that means that being in ONE relationship is easy. The risks and the pitfalls are the same, whether you take them with one person or with many. The point of love is not that it’s easy. The point of love is that it’s worth it.