When my husband and I first decided to explore non-monogamy, we did our research. Equipped with books, articles, and an incredibly thorough relationship agreement, I thought we were ready for anything.
But as with most things in life, nothing I read could fully prepare me for the actual experience of practicing polyamory.
So here’s my gift to you, dear reader. The following is a list of common polyamory pitfalls for people just starting out — from a person who’s living and loving through them.
Note: my husband and I practice hierarchical polyamory, which means we are primary partners and share finances, a home, and (someday!) kids together. That necessarily informs how we do polyamory, the problems that arise, and how we handle them.
#1: Doing things with a new partner that you wouldn’t do (or haven’t done) with an existing partner.
This doesn’t bother some people at all. But if your pre-existing partner is super excited to do a particular thing with you and you do it with a new partner first, chances are you will have some hurt feelings on your hands.
For some people, it’s more than hurt feelings. Not only because they feel like they’ve missed out on experiencing that thing with you ‘first,’ but because it can be easy to mistake your excitement for experiences with your new partner as slights against your older relationship, or a sign that you aren’t as invested as you used to be.
The thing is, dating someone new and the NRE (new relationship energy) that follows often makes us feel like our hearts are on fire. We can go years or even decades without experiencing this feeling, so when it hits we may act impulsively. That sometimes means doing things with a new partner without realizing the impact on our relationship(s).
Even though NRE is thrilling, it’s important to be thoughtful about your actions. You want to give yourself room to enjoy this new wonderful thing, while also making sure that your pre-existing partner feels cared for.
If there’s something you know your partner has been wanting to do with you, and for some reason you find yourself wanting to do that thing with a new partner first, it is probably best to talk about it before doing it. Of course you do not have to experience everything with your pre-existing partner first — for most people that kind of expectation is ridiculous — but communication is super vital in these situations.
#2: Sharing too much information.
As someone who has had a big mouth all my life, I am guilty of this more than I would like to admit.
I, Margitte, am an open book. But that does not mean that my partners are, and their wishes for privacy ought to be respected. This seems like common sense, but sometimes you really just need to vent about something your partner did or said.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you vent to your other partners, it can make for some uncomfortable dynamics. My partners are some of my most trusted confidantes, so it’s hard NOT to bring issues I’m having to them, and I fail at this a lot.
The problem is, if you share or vent too much, it’s easy for resentment to creep into your partners’ relationships with each other — and you.
Awhile ago I was seeing someone who, along with his primary partner, made a decision that limited how often we could see each other. But when the person I was seeing made this new rule known to me, he blamed it entirely on his primary partner. “I want to see you all the time,” he said. “But she’s just not able to handle it right now, it makes her too jealous.”
He then proceeded to tell me way too much information about the fight they had, and I was left feeling angry and hurt — and blaming his primary partner entirely for this new, (seemingly unfair) rule.
But the person I was dating agreed to these rules — so he should have owned up to the rule change instead of placing the blame on his partner.
These kinds of interactions and the resentment they breed all but guarantee that you will not be able to have a functioning, healthy relationship with your metamours. Your partners are some of the people who love you best in this world — try not to pit them against each other!
#3: Not sharing enough information.
The flip side of this is that there is such a thing as being too tight-lipped.
Generally speaking, it’s okay to choose not to share expressly private or otherwise irrelevant things about your relationships with partners who are not in them. But you know your partners. Are you keeping stuff from them that they would want to know?
If so, why? Are you trying to avoid a fight, or spare their feelings, or hide something from them because you know it crosses a line (or comes close to it)? When you find yourself keeping information from your primary or pre-existing partner about your new relationship — especially information about your own actions and feelings — you need to be real honest with yourself about what’s going on.
You may ultimately realize that something about your existing relationship agreement and/or boundaries isn’t working for you, especially if you find yourself consistently keeping information from your partner that you know they would want to know. If that’s the case, talk about it! It’s pretty much always better to hear the truth from you than to find out some other way.
#4: Taking your primary (or pre-existing) partnership for granted.
That gosh dang NRE, y’all. It can really do a number on ya.
When I first started dating my long-distance partner, I was enamored with them. We live in different time zones, so I would move heaven and earth to make sure we had at least two night-time phone dates and one weekend video chat per week — sometimes, to the detriment of my primary partner’s needs.
Now I don’t typically take my husband for granted. He is my best friend, my forever love, and I still feel that giddy, schoolgirl-crush feeling for him the way I felt it the first time I told him I loved him over 7 years ago. But when I was experiencing NRE with my long-distance love, my primary partner had to sit me down and plainly tell me that he didn’t sign up for a version of non-monogamy where he was only getting 50% of my love, attention, and care.
It hurt to hear that he was hurting, and that I was the cause of that hurt, and it sucked (at first) to think about what I would need to do to make things more balanced again, because I knew it would mean talking to my boyfriend less, not texting with them while I was having intentional time with my husband, and prioritizing my primary partner’s needs over my own desires when the two conflicted.
Since then, my husband has also been through NRE so we’ve dealt with this issue from both sides. I’m not gonna lie, it can feel incredibly painful (and sometimes scary) when you feel like you’re being taken for granted.
When this happens, the best we can do for our partners (and ourselves) is to be honest, listen to each other with care and kindness, and do whatever we can to remind each other that we are on the same team. It’s also helpful to schedule distraction-free romantic time with your primary or pre-existing partner, because we sometimes forget to do that!
#5: Treating relationships like a competition.
You should never, ever compare your partners to each other. Ever. Full stop. Even if they ask you to, even if they believe they really want to know who is smarter, or whose jokes make you laugh the hardest, or who is better in bed — it’s never helpful to make these kinds of comparisons, and you should really try to avoid doing so even in your own head.
No two relationships are the same, and comparison can make your partners feel like they’re competing for your love and attention — a competition that everyone ends up losing.
Similarly, you should try not to compare yourself to your metamours. And if you start to feel like you’re in competition with them, ask yourself why. What are the feelings and fears at the root of your desire to compete with them, to come out on top? Can you address those feelings and fears instead of focusing on your metamour and your partner’s relationship with them?
Feeling like you need to compete for your partner’s love is never fun. It’s up to you and your partner to address the behaviors and anxieties causing this feeling. With enough love, dedication, and communication everyone can be a winner.
#6: Making your new partners feel like shit.
Sometimes in our struggles to prioritize our primary or pre-existing relationship, we inadvertently make our other partner(s) feel like shit. I told you polyamory was hard!!
You should respect all of your partners’ time and resources and try to keep your commitments to them as often as humanly possible. Things, of course, come up — and I imagine this doubles or triples for people with children — and sometimes you have to cancel a date or other plans. Sometimes multiple people need you at once, and its up to you to figure out how to manage those needs.
For new or secondary partners, it can be very easy to feel secondary or less important, like you get whatever is left over after your partner pours the majority of their energy and resources into their other partnership. Sometimes these feelings are unavoidable, the nature of the beast that is this kind of polyamory. But there are things we can do to make sure our new or secondary partners also feel prioritized, cared for, and loved.
- Keeping them in the loop when you are unable to keep a commitment to them and making up for that lost time as soon as you can
- Not inserting them in the middle of drama so that they feel like your other partner doesn’t like them or doesn’t want them in your life
- Making sure the time you spend together is as distraction-free as possible
- Not making unilateral decisions with your primary or pre-existing partner about your new relationship without your new partner’s input
- Finding things to do together that are just “yours” (e.g. watching a TV series together or going on a day trip to a place you both love)
- Finding meaningful ways to incorporate them into your life so they feel important
And of course, it never hurts to check in and see how they’re feeling. Let them know that their feelings are important to you, and make sure they feel like they’re allowed to be honest with you about those feelings, even when it’s hard for you to hear.
So I’m gonna be honest. I’m really terrible at a lot of these things.
But that’s kind of how I know what works and what doesn’t — because I mess up so much!
If you’re just starting out with non-monogamy, you will definitely make some mistakes. Your partner(s) will make some mistakes. You may get hurt, or cause hurt, and it will probably really suck.
But that doesn’t mean this wild ride called polyamory isn’t worth it. And just because you mess up, it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for this. At least, that’s what my therapist tells me. <3