What’s the Deal with Poly, Anyway?

As a (relatively) young gay man, I’ve dealt with a few stereotypes for a lot of my life: Apparently, we’re wildly promiscuous, fail at long-term relationships and can’t handle monogamy. Well, at least one of those applies to me.

It was Dan Savage who first familiarized me with the term “monogamish”: a relationship that is primarily monogamous, but with wiggle room. To some degree, it’s just open relationship — but one that emphasizes the partnership and diminishes extracurricular activities.

A few years into my current long-term relationship (more than 8 years running!), my partner and I discussed opening our relationship. I felt certain that I was fully satisfied with the status of our relationship, but that I was not fulfilled sexually in all the ways that I wanted to be. And so I found my way into a few hookup apps to pursue fleeting encounters — an experience far easier in my 20s!

These experiences still left me somewhat unfulfilled. While my physical desires were being (mostly) filled, the lack of an emotional connection made it harder to enjoy the couplings. Plus, very few partners were interested in repeating the engagement, so there wasn’t as much opportunity to experiment and learn one another’s interests, kinks, turn-ons and turn-offs, etc. How do you introduce the idea of (informed, consensual) exhibitionism to a one-night stand?

What I started trying to find was a friend with benefits. I’m good at making friends with queer men I was attracted to, so how hard could it be to turn one of them into a sexual partner as well? As it turns out, pretty difficult: For a lot of the people I hooked up with, the moment that sex entered the equation, the friendship balanced out of it.

This year, though, I slowly found my way into a new philosophy: polyamory. I was invited by a friend to participate in a Facebook group for poly-identified people in Pittsburgh. At the time, I protested — “I’m not really poly,” I argued. “It’s just an open relationship.” But all the same, I lurked through the comments and attended social events. I like people.

And then I met someone. In a typical fashion for me, we got physical immediately — our chemistry was undeniable. I was eager to repeat the activity and, it seemed, so was he. We started to see each other more regularly — at first as friends, and then … I wasn’t sure.

In a world of assumed monogamy, I’d be faced with a choice. Which one makes me happier? Which one fulfills more of my needs and desires? Which one has greater long-term potential?

Instead, I confided in my poly friend. “Hmm,” she said, knowingly, “that sounds a little poly to me.”

There is a lot that the strictly monogamous can learn from the poly community. Chief among them: No one person can be your everything. If you are choosing to remain monogamous, you have to accept that you’re not going to get some of the things you’d like from a relationship. It’s not fair for your partner if you expect them to provide all of that.

In the poly community, my long-term partner would be called my “primary.” Not every poly relationship is oriented that way, however. Many people in the poly community have triads or larger relationships in which there is no hierarchy and the partners involved may (or may not) be involved with one another as well.

What’s important for anyone involved in a poly relationship is that each person involved is honest and forthcoming about what they are looking for and willing to offer. Herein lies a second important lesson for monogamous people: Communication is key. Responsible non-monogamy only works when everyone involved is clear on rules and expectations.

If I am planning to spend the night with my secondary partner, my primary and I discuss it beforehand. My secondary does not sleep at the house I share with my primary. My primary reserves the right to ask any questions about my carnal relations with my secondary, which I must answer completely and honestly.

Establishing rules like these are crucial to managing successful poly relationships, but could be incredibly valuable for monogamous relationship as well. Being honest about your feelings — and, importantly, being open to hearing your partner’s feelings — allows you to better manage the insecurities and jealousy so often inherent to any kind of intimate relationship.

My relationship with my primary partner is, I would say, strengthened by the one I have with my secondary partner. Each person can offer me things that he enjoys and does not have to feel pressured to do something he is not comfortable with. My primary partner can trust that my secondary isn’t going to steal me away, because he knows what I appreciate about both partners and that I’m not seeking different fulfillment — rather, it’s additional.

You might be surprised to find how easy it can be to share your partner when you do it well.

Douglas McIntyre is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate now working in marketing for the Tepper School of Business. He serves on the board of the Renaissance City Choir, Western Pennsylvania’s only LGBTQIA chorus. In his spare time, he is proud that he has a friend group consisting exclusively of other queer-identified people.