#50: Writing Polyamorous Relationships

Today’s question comes from @thepoetjean on Twitter, who asks:

Any tips on how to write happy, healthy poly[amorous] relationships clearly & respectfully?

Dear Jean,

Yes, I have many tips for this! And I’m thrilled that you want to write polyamorous characters; those dynamics don’t show up in fiction much and can be lots of fun to play with.

(Throughout this post I’m going to use the abbreviation polyam for polyamorous, as p/Poly is used by people from Polynesian cultures.)

I’ve seen and been in a great many polyam and non-monogamous arrangements, some functional and some not. The ones that last the longest and keep people the happiest have generally had the following qualities:

  • Lots of honest, kind communication. Famously, the three rules of polyamory are 1) communicate, 2) communicate, and 3) communicate. But just talking about how you feel or asking for what you want isn’t enough; you also need to be able to listen respectfully and discuss topics thoughtfully, with understanding for where your partners are coming from. There must be space for each person to be their genuine self, modulated through kindness toward others.
  • Similar priorities for use of resources. This is a basic point of compatibility in any relationship. Resource scarcity—meaning a person not having as much time or energy or focus to devote to one’s partners as those partners would like—is the primary cause of stress in polyam situations. Having similar priorities for how to spend those resources helps a lot, just as having similar priorities for how to spend money helps in any life-entangled relationship.
  • A structure that suits all the people involved. Some people love hierarchy and rules; others are relationship anarchists. Most fall somewhere in between. What matters in the end is that the structure or lack of structure in the relationship is a type that works for everyone. If two members of a triad want rules and the third wants flexibility or vice versa, that triad is not going to last very long unless a comfortable middle ground can be found.
  • Willingness to change and adapt. Long-term relationships have to change as the people within them change, and every additional person who interacts with a relationship can be a catalyst for transformation. Trying to solve problems in a marriage by dating someone new will usually exacerbate those problems (this is often mocked as “Relationship broken, add more people”), and even the most stable dynamic can be upended by someone who questions your local status quo (this is the topic of Franklin Veaux’s polyamory memoir, The Game Changer). You have to be flexible and willing to change—which includes admitting where you’ve been doing things badly or just plain clueless—to survive those disruptions.
  • Approaching problems and conflicts with confidence rather than fear, generosity rather than stinginess, and compassion rather than ego. Anyone can get jealous, anyone can have an emotional hot button stepped on, and anyone can be hurt or upset by a partner’s actions. What gets people and relationships through those challenging times is solid emotional grounding. I say confidence rather than trust because trust can be very conditional and specific, and I’m thinking more of each individual person’s attitude and approach. Most of the polyam folks I know have done at least one round of talk therapy; unpacking one’s own emotional baggage is essential to juggling the complexities of multiple relationships.
  • A good division of labor. “Good” doesn’t mean “equal,” especially if one or more members of a group is disabled, but it should feel fair to everyone and not overload any one person. Emotional labor is very much a part of this equation, and is the biggest part for people who don’t live together.
  • Some amount of safety and support from others. The more stress is put on a relationship by outside forces, the harder it is to keep that relationship going. Different people are willing to make different compromises; for example, some people are very comfortable being closeted at work, which others find very stressful. But in general, the fewer compromises you have to make and lies you have to tell to parents, teachers, neighbors, colleagues, fellow churchgoers, etc., the better. The more societal privilege the participants have, the safer they will generally be.

None of this says anything about the particulars of a relationship, because every relationship is shaped by the people in it. That’s the beauty and joy of polyamory, and also a source of tension as one constantly pushes back against societal forces that try to make people adapt themselves to prescribed relationship structures. Monogamy is supposed to be a one-size-fits-all concept, but most polyamorous arrangements are bespoke (though some people do work with off-the-rack polyam concepts such as closed triads or primary/secondary hierarchies). Every dyad (pair of people) has a unique dynamic, and each mix of relationships has a unique dynamic. It takes quite a lot of work to design human relationships from the ground up, but when that work pays off, the comfort of the custom fit is sublime.

A few more polyamory facts and busted myths:

  • Many polyam people are not white, well-off, or bisexual.
  • Many polyam people do feel jealous and insecure sometimes.
  • Many polyam people are not unusually libidinous and focus on loving multiple people rather than on having multiple sexual partners. (As an acquaintance once tartly remarked, “It’s polyamory, not polyfuckery.”)
  • Long-distance relationships are common in polyamory, as polyam folks are relatively rare and finding one who’s local and is also someone you click with can be quite a challenge.
  • Some people do polyamory because they’re wired for it and simply can’t be comfortable being monogamous, but others would be equally comfortable in monogamous relationships.
  • Some polyam families happen when a single person joins a couple, but many happen in other ways.
  • Some polyam people form families, some have extended networks of relationships, and some do both.
  • Some polyam people are promiscuous, but many are most comfortable with a limited set of close relationships.
  • What relationships look like from the outside may have little to do with what they look like from the inside. For example, three people may appear to be a triad (three romantic connections) but see themselves as a V (two romantic connections and one friendship or familial relationship); they may appear to be in a closed relationship (with a rule against outside partners) but actually have long-distance relationships or just be too busy or tired to date other people right now.
  • Polyam relationships don’t need to involve romance or sex. Some people form familial or queerplatonic relationships that are just as important to them as romantic or sexual connections are to others.
  • Polyam people can cheat; telling a lie or breaking a relationship rule or promise is just as devastating in polyamory as it is in monogamy.
  • Most polyam people who have multiple sexual partners are extremely diligent about safer sex, contraception, and regular STD tests. Having unprotected sex without the advance consent of your other sexual partners is generally seen as a relationship-ending offense.
  • Many polyam people raise happy, healthy children who benefit from having lots of engaged adults in their lives.
  • Many polyam relationships last for years and years. Polyam breakups do happen, for all the reasons that any relationship breakup can happen—incompatibility, infidelity, abuse, boredom, dishonesty—but relationship evolution is quite common. For example, if two members of a family of four find that they’re no longer interested in romantic involvement with each other, they may continue living together as platonic family members. In urban areas large enough to support polyamorous communities, that community will be full of former partners, former lovers, and former friends all doing their best to coexist.
  • Polyam relationships, like any relationship, can contain patriarchy, racism, anti-queer and anti-trans attitudes, abuse dynamics, etc.; being polyam is not an instant cure for societal ills.
  • Even for people who don’t have rules limiting their number of close relationships, practical considerations such as limited time and energy tend to establish an upper bound. I’ve never seen someone successfully manage more than six or seven close relationships at once, and those situations usually involve a couple of close life-entangled partners and a number of long-distance or otherwise lower-energy connections.
  • As I mentioned, resource scarcity is the primary cause of tension in polyam relationships. Scheduling challenges come second. I’m old enough to remember when the quintessential polyam accessory was a Palm Pilot; these days it’s a shared household Google Calendar.

And here are some real-world examples of happy non-monogamous arrangements that I’ve seen (all names changed):

  • George and Martha are married and live in one city, Alexander and Eliza are married and live in another, and Dolley lives in a third. George, Alexander, and Dolley all work in the same industry. If you see them at home, you’ll have no idea they’re polyamorous—but George goes to industry events with Dolley while Martha stays home, and Martha and Alexander have a comfortable long-distance relationship mostly conducted over the phone.
  • A member of a household of four is dating a member of a household of five. They all hang out together for movie nights.
  • An all-male closed triad raises three children in a house with an actual white picket fence.
  • A married couple goes to swinger events and plays with other married couples.
  • A husband and wife both have other intense and casual partners with a well-defined hierarchy of priorities.
  • While a teen girl is at summer camp, her boyfriend starts dating another girl. When she comes home, she befriends the girl’s other boyfriend.
  • A woman has an intense BDSM relationship with her dominant and a very vanilla one with her wife.
  • Lisa has a husband and a boyfriend. After her husband dies, everyone expects her to marry her boyfriend. Instead she marries someone else and her boyfriend stays her boyfriend, because that dynamic works better for them.
  • Jim and Jane’s mutual partner, Tuesday, moves in with them; Jane’s boyfriend and his wife live down the street. All five of them parent their kids together and have family meals several times a week. Most of them have other partners as well, some local and some long-distance.
  • Dave’s wife and girlfriend can’t stand to live together, so he alternates nights at their separate houses.
  • Nathan’s two spouses are lovers and very fond of each other but not romantically involved. Nathan is romantic with them both but rarely interested in sex. He also has a number of queerplatonic relationships that are emotionally intimate but not romantic or sexual.
  • A loose and shifting collective of somewhere between 10 and 20 people in a large city are linked by a web of current, past, and hoped-for romantic and sexual connections and cohabitation arrangements.

I could go on, but you can see that just about any arrangement is possible as long as everyone involved is happy with it.

From a writing perspective, what matters is being true to your characters. What are their priorities? If they could have any kind of relationship they wanted, what would that look like? How do they react to new connections (their own or a partner’s)? How do events in the past influence their perspectives and reactions? What are they best at in relationships, and where do they struggle? In other words, it’s a lot like writing relationships for monogamous characters. The major difference is an approach of “How can we make this work for all of us?” rather than “It’s too bad I have to choose one of you.”

Further reading: I recommend the webcomic Kimchi Cuddles for some great depictions of a wide variety of polyamorous situations. Franklin Veaux’s website More Than Two (and the book by the same title) has good basic information on what polyamory is and some ways that people go about doing it. There are some useful FAQs and other links on the alt.polyamory website, particularly this compilation of ways polyam folks have met one another, which is a gold mine of meet-cutes and general inspiration.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

P.S. I have a follow-up post that gets more in-depth about writing polyamorous romance.

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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