A polyamorous relationship involves an open, intimate or romantic partnership with more than one person. These types of consensual non-monogamous relationships differ slightly from open relationships, and include all sexual orientations. It all sounds pretty modern and progressive — so why is polyamory still stigmatized?
To help us learn more about what polyamory is — and what it isn’t — we spoke with couples’ therapist Marlee Rubel. With Rubel’s help, we’re debunking 10 common myths about polyamory.
Polyamory Myth: A polyamorous relationship is the same as an open relationship
It’s a common assumption that polyamorous and open relationships are the same, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
“Polyamory is a type of open relationship, but there are some key differences,” explains Rubel. “Both relationship types indicate a departure from monogamy, but the terms get to be defined by the partners involved, no matter the title. You’ll find the same terms being defined quite differently within the non-monogamous community.
“Often polyamory references a relationship structure that can include multiple emotionally connective romantic relationships. An open relationship involves agreements in an otherwise monogamous relationship that allows for some exploration outside of that relationship. These situations will vary based on how you choose to approach your relationship.”
Polyamory Myth: It’s hard to build trust in a polyamorous relationship
As with any relationship, communication is often the glue that holds everything together. Rubel helps us understand how trust operates in a polyam relationship: “Polyamory asks its participants to build security based on trust. So, using statements like, ‘I trust you to stick to the agreements we have decided on together or communicate if they don’t seem workable anymore,’ as opposed to rules, ‘you aren’t allowed to…,’ as an example. Ideally, this would be the case in all types of relationship structures. However, these conversations tend to happen faster and more in-depth in non-monogamous relationships where there are fewer assumed rules to fall back on.”
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Polyamory Myth: Polyam people don’t know what they want in a relationship
Just because you’re open to a new type of relationship doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know what you want.
“Exploring polyamory is a beautiful way to shed automatic or conditioned beliefs and expectations and allow more space for a person to consider what they want from their relationship(s) instead of simply what they have had modelled for them,” says Rubel. “Tremendous self-reflection and unlearning can occur by letting go of the normative (monogamous) narrative. That said, anticipate some challenging self-growth and the need to be emotionally available to yourself and others. It’s tempting for folks to assume they need to do this inner work ahead of time, and sometimes that may be helpful. Some believe this work is usually best done within relationships, not in preparation for relationships.”
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Polyamory Myth: Polyamorous relationships have too many rules
The concept of rules between polyam partners can be damaging, and it circles back to communication and trust. “I always encourage my polyamorous clients to move away from the idea of rules in their relationships. Instead, I suggest they express their needs and allow their partners to prioritize and honour those needs in their way,” recommends Rubel.
“It can be comforting to have some playful rules, such as, ‘this is our restaurant: I only want us to go there with each other.’ However, rules that demonize otherwise connective behaviour for your partner attempt to build trust and security using control,” Rubel notes. “An example of this is stating things like, ‘you can’t say I love you to anyone else — or you can’t meet anyone else’s friends,’ which, unfortunately, doesn’t tend to make any partner involved feel secure or trusted in the end.”
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Polyamory Myth: There are more arguments in a polyam relationship
Every relationship has its disagreements, but we shouldn’t assume they happen more often in a polyamorous relationship.
Rubel reminds us again that communication is essential to building a trust that helps folks avoid unnecessary arguments: “It can feel quite radical to consider how an open relationship could work without explicit rules, but this generally honours the intentions partners have when opening up (Example: ‘I want to feel free, I want my partner to experience having more of their needs met by more people, I want us to both be our own people, etc.’). This isn’t always a popular opinion, but it has been quite consistent that I’ve seen this kind of trust be more sustainable and security-building. Having agreements that are flexible and based on shared values tends to be more effective.”
Polyamory Myth: Non-monogamous couples have normalized cheating
Perhaps one of the more ignorant myths about polyamory is the idea that all non-monogamists are cheaters. Rubel helps break this down: “One of the most common and harmful myths around polyamory is the idea that non-monogamy is just ‘normalized cheating.’ This couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Like in monogamous relationships, the act of being unfaithful is about dishonesty and betrayal, which can occur no matter the relationship’s agreements, terms or structure,” Rubel explains. “In polyamory, folks can still be dishonest or feel the need to hide their behaviour for the same reasons as in monogamous relationships. Unfortunately, it can be just as harmful of a stereotype to assume those in polyamorous relationships escape these hardships. This often shows up as blaming the fact that a relationship is open for the difficulties being worked through. Seeking couples’ therapy from a therapist who is experienced in working with non-monogamy can be a make or break for the effectiveness of counselling for polyamorous or nonmonogamy-curious couples.”
Polyamory Myth: Polyamorous relationships lack connection
It’s unfair to assume that any relationship outside of the sphere of monogamy lacks a deep, emotional connection. Rubel describes connection by explaining that “monogamous relationships generally reserve high levels of emotional connection, all sexual experiences and most domestic expectations for one partner. Polyamorous relationships generally share some or all of these needs and desires among more than one relationship or person.” Connection depends on the people involved, not the specific type of relationship.
Polyamory Myth: Intimacy isn’t the same or doesn’t exist in a non-monogamous relationship
Intimacy is often an integral part of any relationship — and it can be just as meaningful and complex in polyamorous relationships.
“Non-monogamy asks partners to place their understanding of each other’s needs above their own comfort levels and fears at times, and coming through the other side of these experiences with a stronger bond can absolutely increase intimacy,” says Rubel. “This is not unique to polyamorous connections, but is perhaps more explicitly seen as possible to work towards due to its departure from assumptions that often define monogamous relationships.”
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Polyamory Myth: Polyamorous couples never get attached to someone
Another common myth about polyamory is the assumption that you can’t be attached to someone within the relationship. Again, this narrative doesn’t hold its weight in reality.
“Our attachment systems are not designed for a single person. We see this in the way we can have multiple parental figures and caregivers, multiple friends or close friends, and various romantic relationships throughout our lives (particularly in more recent generations),” Rubel shares. “It can sometimes be difficult to witness a partner grow attached to someone else or experience the process of falling in love with another person. It can also be equal parts beautiful and contagious to witness. Usually, it’s both of these things at the same time.”
Related: 10 signs You’re falling out of love.
Polyamory Myth: Polyamorous relationships only work if there is a hierarchy
Establishing a hierarchy in a polyamorous relationship can help build security, especially in relationships that involve child-raising and cohabitating. However, a hierarchy isn’t a must-have for the relationships to work.
Rubel acknowledges both structures and expands further: “Some forms of non-monogamy involve non-hierarchical relationships, which mean no partner is automatically prioritized over others. It is certainly possible to share space, children and other domestic aspects of life in these forms of relationships, too. Without assumed expectations, and with clear and consistent communication and adjustments, most setups are workable if all parties are committed and available.”