You may be thinking about trying polyamory for the first time, or you may have already started. Below are a few observations from a fellow traveler about some of the hurdles that must be crossed if one wants to keep at it. As you will see, I don’t think they mean people should avoid polyamory, but I think it is good to know and understand the risks you are taking on some level before you jump in. Some people aren’t ready for these challenges. Those people are going to struggle a lot harder with polyamory than others. Some people aren’t ready, but then rise to the occasion when the obstacle presents itself. Those people are the ones that can use polyamory for something positive. Actually, no one is really ready, but the willingness to grow, change, and keep moving, even if you are moving at a snail’s pace, is what will help you navigate your relationships, and your life in general, even if you decide polyamory isn’t your thing. With that being said, here are some of the “ugly truths” about polyamory that people may not warn you about up front.
1) Polyamory will change you, and it will change the people you are close to.
Relationships are a mirror that help us to view ourselves through the eyes of another person. Other people are also infinitely variable, and no two people will reflect the same image back to us. As poetic and cheesy as the previous two concepts might sound, they are extremely true, and extremely relevant to anyone who enters a polyamorous relationship. The more people you have to relate to, the more you learn about the ways you relate to others, what feels good and what doesn’t, and what you really want out of life and relationships.
This can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, having more experience will help you to find more relationships that work for you, but on the other hand, the way to gain that experience is usually through making a lot of mistakes first, which can be a painful growth process (see point 3). The increased opportunities to learn raise the chances that you will be able to do more growth and actualization if you are prepared to do that kind of work, but they also raise the possibility that you and the people around you will grow into and out of relationships at different rates than anyone planned for or expected (see point 2).
Even if you ultimately decide polyamory isn’t for you, a person that you are in love with may decide it is very much for them. In that case, you will need to decide if you want to remain connected to someone who is poly while they have polyamorous relationships, see if they are willing to lead a monogamous lifestyle with you, or accept the reality that the two of you have now become incompatible, which means that you will still be leaving your polyamorous experience with a lot of changes to process and deal with.
It is a rare person or couple who can come to polyamory and walk away for any reason without having learned something new about themselves and/or their partner(s) that they can’t unsee.
2) If you enter polyamory in a relationship, even if the two of you intend to be primaries and lifemates, you are not safe from having that relationship change or end, even if neither of you does anything wrong.
Humans are humans. We change, sometimes drastically and very quickly. Our hearts are fickle, and there are many things about ourselves and the world we don’t know. No matter what our intentions are, sometimes we simply don’t know and aren’t prepared for what the world gives to us. This can mean falling out of love with someone we were absolutely convinced we’d spend the rest of our life with. This can mean falling deeply in love with a new person in a way that we never thought we could accomplish while still being in love with another.
The harsher version of this harsh truth: You should mistrust people making promises to you about “always” or “never.” They might be right, and they might be able to hold to those promises, but those promises can easily become something toxic, especially if they were made in a different mindset than the one a person is currently in. If someone promises to “always love you more than anyone else,” then it is very likely going to feel like a betrayal if they fall in love with someone on comparable if not identical levels. If someone says, “I’ll never want to have children with anyone but you,” it is likely going to feel like a betrayal if they meet someone amazing and suddenly have a strong desire to have children with that person.
These kinds of promises can also be a cage. If I promise to want to be by your side forever, I may feel guilty if I fall out of love and if I decide I want to leave. I may stay in a relationship that doesn’t feel good to me anymore (which isn’t fair to me or to you). I may feel like I have betrayed you and that I am an awful person for that.
The bottom line is that life and people are unpredictable. You may feel dead certain of something today. That doesn’t mean tomorrow is going to look like you think it will. It is better to avoid the comfort and temptation of making or asking for these kinds of promises. It is better to ask people not to make them to you and to refuse to make them yourself. Leave yourself and the people in your life room to grow. You’ll be happier for it in the long run, even if things get scary and challenging in the middle.
Now, there are some things, like treating people with respect, consent, and the best form of love they have available to them at the time, that seem like they might be reasonable to make these kinds of promises for. This is understandable. But people still fuck up. If someone acts disrespectfully, violates your consent, or treats you in cruel and unloving ways, this is already going to suck. Do you want the additional feelings of betrayal over a broken promise on top of that?
Humans are generally really bad at predicting themselves, their feelings, and their future behavior. This effect will multiply with added people. Be prepared for that. Make space for that.
3) You will likely experience more heartbreak, and it can even happen in more than one relationship at once.
Polyamory may be attractive to some people because they are looking for relationships that fill perceived gaps in their lives, or needs that aren’t being met. However, polyamory rarely acts as a fix for problems that are more adequately solved with personal growth. People may not take into account that if the possibility of one relationship ending is frightening, then it is exponentially more difficult to deal with more than one ending at the same time, or in quick succession.
This isn’t to say this is a guaranteed outcome for anyone who explores polyamory, but it is wise to make sure one is exploring polyamory for the right reasons. Polyamory will not fix insecurities, fulfill empty places in your heart, or do anything to fix an otherwise broken or toxic relationship. Polyamory is relationships on advanced mode. Instead of learning to communicate well and interact in a satisfying way with one other person, you have to learn more than one person at a time. Each individual is a universe unto themselves, and it is even more difficult to develop and maintain healthy intimacy with more than one other person than it is with one other person.
I talked in point 1 about how polyamory changes people. It is very relevant to this point as well. On top of keeping track of relationships to two other individuals that can grow and change at their own pace, you will need to be able to keep track of your own change and growth. Sometimes, you will find that you grow right out of all the relationships you are in at the moment, and that they either need to change or end for you to move forward in a healthy way. Being able to process and accept such a massive change is one of the most difficult and potentially most rewarding things that can happen in one’s life, and polyamory, in my experience, makes this sort of event far more likely to happen. It is good to be prepared, as much as one can be, for this possibility.
One of the quickest lessons many people who are new to poly learn is that you are ultimately learning how to have a good relationship with yourself. If you can’t do that, you are going to struggle to succeed in other relationships. Even though we all need love and affection and support as social creatures, we quickly learn that we can’t rely on those things from others to feel fulfilled. Learning how to self-soothe is important, especially when we take the risk of having our heart broken in more than one place at once.
4) Polyamorous people are not all enlightened relationship experts. There are still predators, otherwise toxic people, and holier-than-thou judgmental individuals in every community.
In my experience, many poly people and communities spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, how they relate to one another, and finding ways to do it all better. To an outsider coming into a community or interacting with other poly people for the first time, it can feel like you’ve stumbled into a nest of insight and enlightenment.
There almost assuredly is a lot of value and positive things to learn from these people. They probably do have perspectives you will benefit from.
However, it is good to remember that everybody grows in different areas at different paces. Someone who is incredibly enlightened and emotionally mature in one area can regress to a frustrating and childlike immaturity and irrationality in another.
Because of this, you will need to do your own work as well as learning from the work of others. You will need to learn to be able to discern the kinds of things that are right for you and what kinds of things won’t work for you at all. No one can do this for you. People you look up to might tell you you’re wrong, and they might be wrong. You won’t be able to just rely on other people to tell you how to do relationships right. Many of us are still learning. The wisest ones will recognize that, but even those people fuck up from time to time too. If something doesn’t feel right, pay attention to it. It could very well be that you have things you’re avoiding, but it could also very well be that something is wrong, even if a more experienced person is telling you everything is fine.
5) I’ve missed some pitfalls here.
These are just the main dangers that I’ve noticed that await the person trying out a polyamorous lifestyle for the first time. I’m one person, and this is a large, still-somewhat-uncharted territory. New philosophy about love and relationships is springing out of the polyamory world every day. Old philosophy that didn’t catch on right away or only caught on in isolated communities is just now finding its way to the mainstream and social media world. Not all of the mistakes have been made. I’m going to keep making mistakes. You’re going to keep making mistakes. The people you love are going to keep making mistakes. Our information will always be somewhat incomplete.
However, there is a bright side to all these hard truths, one that is a hard truth itself. They’re all necessary. The pain, the fear, the doubt, these are all tools we can work with to find our way to better selves and better relationships. Finding these truths out the “hard way” is often the best way, and sometimes the only way, to get to a much better place. As hard as these things will be to manage in their time, you can do it. If you really want to do better, none if this can stop you. If you really feel it in yourself to love not only multiple other people, but yourself as well, these are likely the price you will have to pay.
It’s been worth it for me. You are the only one that will decide if it is worth it for you.