How to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too: 5 Things That Make Polyamorous Relationships Work

Is it really so bad to have your cake and eat it too? Is it possible to have it both ways? The expression speaks to our culture of austerity and provincialism, where character building and morality are associated with refraining and abstention. On one hand we are a culture of tremendous gluttony and indulgence but with a puritanical underpinning that tells us “you can look but don’t touch.” No wonder so many people are confused about what they want.

Although there are no official statistics about the number of people entering into alternative relationships, anecdotally it appears as though there is increasing interest and cultural awareness of polyamorous relationships (see TLC’s Sister Wives or HBO’s Big Love). Polyamorous which means “many loves,” can take a number of different forms but typically includes a person having more than one significant emotional and/or sexual connection. One of the underpinnings of polyamory is that we are capable of loving connections with more than one person at a time and that we cannot expect one partner to meet all of our need either emotionally or sexually. We have an infinite capacity for love, and a connection with one person does not necessarily diminish that with another. Some polyamorous people have primary partners as well as other people with whom they date or have sex with. Other folks opt for non-hierarchial arrangements where relationships are not placed in order of importance.

Increasingly in my clinical practice I see more people opting out of the traditional structure of monogamous partnership or marriage. Although gay men have been said to own the market on open relationships, I am seeing people all across the gender and sexual orientation spectrum that are choosing polyamory or open marriage/partnership as viable alternatives. They identify as variably as cis-gendered men and women, trans, gender queer, straight, gay, bisexual, queer and heteroflexible and range in age. And some young queer people in New York City even cite a pressure within the community currently to be non-monogamous.

So when an individual or couple comes into my office and describes their relationships and what they want for themselves, my job is to help them figure out, “How can we make this work?” As I’ve moved through exploration of relationship possibilities, and challenges people encounter in creating the lives they want, I have been thinking about why one person (or a couple, triad, and so on..) can make poly relationships work and why others can’t.

When I tell people about my work, they are usually fascinated by the possibility of living differently. Often their eyes light up at the potential of not having to repress their needs or desires for something different sexually or emotionally. They typically say, “Is that possible? Can it really work? Don’t people get jealous and insecure?” and inevitably, “How do I go about getting my wife/husband/ boyfriend/girlfriend/ partner/date/sweetheart to get on board with this idea?”

Let me just say this upfront: non-monogamy takes a lot of emotional work, but then again, so does monogamy. When you sign up to be in a relationship with more than one person or are in a relationship with someone who is in a relationship with other people as well, I can guarantee it’s going to take up a lot of time and energy. Like monogamous relationships, poly relationships can range from tremendously gratifying to devastating.

So in a very over simplified form of what I’ve learned in working with people striving to create polyamorous relationship structures, here are:


1. All people involved have to really want it. Entering into a polyamorous relationship is no light undertaking. All partners have to be invested in the process and the experience. With regards to primary relationships, when both people are committed to the idea that the maintenance and care of multiple relationships is desirable, the primary relationship has a much better chance of thriving. When one person agrees because of reasons like a) she worries her significant other will leave her if she doesn’t go along with the idea, b) she is trying to make the other person happy or c) she thinks the partner will eventually change and become monogamous, it typically results in resentment and hurt. Now that said, some couples go through a trial period, where they are essentially “trying on” polyamory with an agreement that they will decide if it’s the right construct for their relationship. Conversely, sometimes partners may enter into a poly relationship willingly only to discover that one of them would prefer to be monogamous. Being in a poly relationship requires ongoing conversation and acknowledgement that feelings are fluid and changeable.

2. Accept that difficult feelings will come up. Individuals succeed in poly relationships when they accept that dealing with feelings like jealousy, insecurity, fear, hurt and anger will be part of the process. How the person or couple deals with these feelings is more significant than their presence alone. When jealousy or hurt feelings come up, it may be helpful just to feel them and know that they will pass. It may also be helpful to ask for reassurance from your partner and to make sure that the relationship between the two of you is being nurtured and tended to adequately. New relationships can be very exciting so it’s a time to be particularly cognizant that the older relationship still needs special attention and looking after.

3. Communicate beyond your wildest imagination. I could write a whole book on this point alone. If you’re a poor communicator, I urge you now to retreat to monogamy. It will still be difficult, but not as difficult as being poly. If you don’t like to process A LOT, don’t go down this road. When you are navigating multiple relationships well, you are talking all the time. You have to negotiate everything. The bible of how-to-do poly relationships, The Ethical Slut, as well as Tristin Taormino’s new book Opening Up, have great questions couples can use as conversation starters to envision and negotiate the kind of relationship they want to have. For example, Sally may say to her girlfriend Rebecca, “Well I want you to be my primary partner but I want to have sex with men as well.” It sounds relatively simple at face-value (or maybe not) but what does that mean really? For example: What does it mean to each of them to be “primary?” What value do they place on emotional fidelity and commitment to the relationship in the long-term? What kind of sex can they have with other people? Maybe oral sex is fine but penetrative sex isn’t. Where and when will it take place? At sex parties, only out-of-town, in their apartment? How will they navigate safer sex? Does Sally want to sleep with strangers, people with whom she has minimal attachment, friends, ex-partners, etc. Each detail requires a negotiation and agreement by both partners. When couples adopt a “let’s wait and see how it goes” approach, it usually goes badly. I tell clients, “you really have to spell out everything. The tiniest little thing that you think your partner should intuitively know, he doesn’t. You have to tell him.” (This is often true in monogamous couples as well. We think we know what our partner is thinking, feeling,  or needing or that he should know what we think, feel, need just by virtue of having been together, but attempting to mind-read leads being misunderstood and misread).

You also have to be willing to share feelings, hear those of your partner and be honest to the point of willingness to say things that may be difficult for your partner to hear. The difference between open relationships and cheating is that you take betrayal off the table. All your partners know what you are up to and there is no lying or deceit. Most couples who wind up in therapy because of infidelity due not so much because their significant other had sex with someone else, but because of the betrayal and lying that usually come with it. So it may be difficult to say to your spouse, “I met someone new I’d like to go on a date with” or ask him, “how would you feel about my having sex with Sarah?” but for the relationship to sustain, honest communication has to be a priority.

4. Come from a family that made you feel loved and secure.  In my experience, I’ve seen that poly relationships tend to be more difficult for people who have deep fears of abandonment. In Daniel Siegel’s book, Parenting from the Inside Out, he gives a good description of different ways in which we attach to our parents depending on how attuned they were to us (think of attunement as being “tuned in” to a baby or child’s needs). When a children grows up feeling safe, secure, loved and valued, typically they internalize a sense of safety, calm and self-worth. This fundamentally critical experience can help a person navigate poly relationships: a partner’s connection with someone may not elicit old fears about being left or discarded.

In households where abuse, violence, neglect, alcoholism, the loss of a parent through divorce or death or other kinds of disorders (like a parent’s major depression) children are less likely to receive the parental attunement they so badly need to internalize the same sense of safety or self-worth. As children, we literally need our parent’s physical and emotional presence for survival. When we don’t get it, our “fight/flight” response gets activated because literally our survival is being threatened. I’ve observed in a number of clients that when an adult partner is investing time and energy in a new relationship, it may ignite old trauma and fears of being left. That trauma can feel completely overwhelming and engulfing, requiring a person to address the early trauma and come to discern that her feelings are rooted in these early experiences. Certainly coming from a background with abuse or trauma does not make being in a poly relationship impossible, it just may be a bit more challenging to cope with intense feelings of panic and fear of abandonment if they arise.

5. Get support from people who can affirm your relationship choices. Coming out as polyamorous is quite similar to coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There are people who will understand and support your relationship(s) and people who won’t. Poly people often deal with judgements, being called immoral, fearing discrimination by employers or family and friends. Consequently, they may strategically choose to remain closeted in some aspects of their life.

Just like coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, poly people need to seek out others both in and out of the poly community who support and understand their choices. Dan Savage wrote an excellent article last November in New York Times Magazine about the need for more honest discussion around infidelity and monogamy in marriages. He makes such a good point when he discusses how monogamy is only one aspect of marital satisfaction, but yet it’s the one that we often judge others by. He suggests we reframe fidelity to understand that it is so much more than sexual exclusivity. Marital satisfaction can be about a sense of bonding to another person, joy, honesty, a long-term commitment to be there for that person and one’s children. It can be a commitment to care for one another and experience life together. Each couple needs to define fidelity for themselves (assuming that’s something they value in the first place). I have seen plenty of monogamous couples who lacked fidelity, where one or both of the partners always had a foot out the door. And I have seen primary partners who are polyamorous that are tremendously committed to a life together and share of sense of knowledge that whatever happens – whatever circumstances arise – whatever feelings come up – they will walk through it together.

29 thoughts on “How to Have Your Cake and Eat it Too: 5 Things That Make Polyamorous Relationships Work

  1. Great post. I know a trio that’s been thriving together for 30 years. And another trio that’s coming up on 15. I envy them the balance that is within their larger relationships. I feel badly that their “marriage” has to be closeted and they can’t share the real dimensions of their love with many.

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  3. I think the “have your cake and eat it too” thing refers to the fact that if you eat your cake, you no longer have it.

    ….but that’s still friggin’ stupid, because why would I want to HAVE a cake. I’mna eat that dang cake.

    Both the real one and the metaphorical one. Cake is great.

  4. Reblogged this on Gizzardgulpe and commented:
    I thought this was a great read and a good follow up from my last post about human systems. We have all these definitions but, more and more, they are breaking down and relationship diversity appears to be flourishing.

  5. Thanks for this post–I was referred from Polyamory in the News. I can say through my very limited experience with polyamory that what you say is true for me. I just have one little question, and it’s about #4–Come from a family that made you feel loved and secure. So, here’s my question–do these families exist? Do these people with strong security in themselves actually exist? What do these people look like (not physically)?

    Now, being someone who has come from a family where there was severe depression, addiction, rage, and incest, I know I’m not a candidate and will spend the rest of my life working on these issues. I may, or may not, be able to handle even monogamous commitments, much less poly commitments. But I just have to ask–do these people truly exist? Do these families exist? Where? My therapist says there are “good enough” parents out there, but no one comes out unscathed. I tell her, “you are a therapist–you hang out with a particular crowd, come on.” Anyway, because it was put so cleanly–come from a family that made you feel secure…well, there are so many self help books out there for “us” and I’m researching writing a book about the “other side.” Not for people who are from these uncommon families, but for everyone else, about these uncommon families. I want to know their secrets. I really, really do.

    • Hi Leelee – Thanks for your comment. It’s a good question as to whether these families actually exist. Obviously I am working with a skewed sample, in that by definition, people with more difficult backgrounds are more likely to end up in therapy. And I agree with your therapist that no one comes out unscathed. No parent is perfect and certainly I think the notion of having a “good enough” parent is sound and fundamental. I do know some people that have grown up with an enduring sense of feeling safe, valued and loved. They still have their issues but they seem to walk through the world with less fear and anxiety.

      I’ve gotten a bit of negative criticism about Point #4 along the lines of “well of course having that kind of family would have been great, but I didn’t so where does that leave me in terms of poly.” My point really was that in poly relationships (like every relationship) you can expect the dynamics that occurred in your family of origin to appear in some form or another. For people that suffer with fear of being abandoned, they will need to work on the original trauma and be able to separate out the childhood fear of abandonment (which is an overpowering, often all encompassing feeling) from the feelings of loss or anxiety one might experience in an adult relationship. As children we literally need our parents for survival – so the threat of one or both of them leaving (emotionally or physically) literally puts our life at risk. When this primal fear gets triggered as an adult, it can be completely debilitating. People in poly relationships may just need to work that much harder to find ways to self-regulate their nervous systems when fear of abandonment is triggered.

      • Thanks for replying and answering at length. It’s encouraging to know that, given the state of our culture, there are people out there who can come through for their children and raise them to feel somewhat secure and, as Brene Brown puts it, live a life that is Wholehearted. I often wonder, given the nature of human beings and our propensity to project, if someone who was naturally secure through a solid upbringing came around–if I’d even recognize this person as someone who had that. If it is it true that we can only “see” what we “know” (not sure) then it would stand to reason that even if these people do exist out there, I’d not be able to tell them from anyone else. I also wonder if the line between people who are secure and grew up loved and those who didn’t is entirely so clear. That would be another question.

        As for implications with poly–very keen to begin to talk about separating the overpowering feeling of abandonment from the feelings of loss and anxiety one might experience in an adult relationship. I’m truly excited to meet and work with people who can navigate relationships and know the difference, and it’s helpful to kow they’re out there.

    • Absolutely they do.

      I felt loved and supported by my parents and I believe that I have provided the same environment for my children. My parents’ marriage did eventually end when I was 17 but by that time, I was old enough for the split not to cause any problems and my parents dealt with the implications of their divorce maturely, taking my and my brother’s best interest to heart. My wife’s family was similarly supportive and none of us has suffered any real problems in our upbringing.

      What this has not resulted in however, is a polyamorous relationship because that is not what either my wife or I wants. I read this article with a sense of morbid fascination but I can safely say that I want a polyamorous relationship as much as I would like pancreatic cancer.

      Having said that, it is not my business to judge other people’s relationships and if it works for some people, good luck to them and I hope it makes them happy.

  6. so much contemplation now needs to be done in my brain.
    until a couple weeks ago I never expected that I’d ever be placed in this situation. Even when the girl I was starting to date brought up the fact that she didn’t want a monogamous relationship I never thought ‘d actually be sticking around long enough for it to be an issue.
    now I don’t know…
    I really like this girl. She’s flirtatious with everyone, and I think it’s cute, but i’m not really threatened by it for the most part.
    The idea of her having sex with other people doesn’t bother me too much. I’m not a very physical person and she is, so this is probably something that could help, & one guy she’s involved with is also in a very stable primary relationship.
    She encourages me to communicate, something I’ve never really had much purpose for in the past. she’s been extremely patient with me, allowing me to be slightly reserved and being clam while I panic about little things. She’s the type of person I really need in my life at the moment and I don’t want to lose her.
    she has the power to be an amazing influence in people’s lives, who am I to limit her to being with only one person?
    I guess I should be verbally processing this with her rather than here…

  7. Pingback: Making Poly (And Other) Relationships Work | My Sex Professor: Sexuality Education

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  9. This is a wonderful and very needed post. I’m wondering about #5 – coming out as poly being a similar process to coming out as GLBT. I’ve long held this belief, but haven’t really found support in the literature or from my colleagues. Do you know of any studies that look at this, or have you found that there are common experiences in your practice? Thanks again.

    • I felt exactly the same way after reading this. I am also in a poly relationship and it has been difficult for me at times because of some deep seeded issues from my childhood. It really helps to know where the feelings are coming from.

  10. Pingback: Why Be Polyamorous? « Poly Puppy

  11. This is an outstanding post. My own experiences support all five points.

    I have one minor nitpick: I don’t like the term “primary” partner, for the same reason I don’t like the term “best” friend. There’s no need to rank friends or partners; it causes unnecessary hurt and the extra clarification is rarely necessary.

    It’s much better to deal on a case-by-case basis. A general rule of thumb might be something like “If both partners have a similar level of need, I would have to take care of my wife before my girlfriend.” However, if my wife had a hangnail and my girlfriend sliced her finger with a knife while cooking, it would be obvious to all three of us what would need to happen.

    If a situation comes up where it’s not obvious how to do this kind of triage, that means we need more communication during the specific situation, not more rules for the relationship.

  12. To clarify my earlier point: I sadly realized that some of the increasing interest and cultural awareness might not apply to all polyamory, just to the oldest-fashioned versions. 😦

    “…anecdotally it appears as though there is increasing interest and cultural awareness of polyamorous relationships (see TLC’s Sister Wives or HBO’s Big Love)…”

    …but in both Sister Wives and Big Love, each of the women is still having a heterosexual relationship with the man and not romantically interested in any of his other women, right?

    Are there *any* reality TV shows about poly families that include a woman romantically interested in more than one man and/or include anyone romantically interested in a member of the same sex?

    Likewise, it appears as though there is increasing interest and cultural awareness of BDSM relationships (see 50 Shades of Grey)…

    …but in 50 Shades, the younger woman is still submitting to the older man who dominates her, right?

    Since 50 Shades became a bestseller there’s been far more BDSM erotic novels for sale – but the increase seems to be all male-dominating-female novels, with female-dominating-male novels and same-sex BDSM novels just as rare as before.

    So, how much of this interest has to do with actual present-day polyamory and BDSM and their differences from past rigid traditions, and how much of it has to do with fantasizing about the traditional “Good Old Days”?

  13. Thank you so much for this post! More of this needs to be out on the internet, for sure. My boyfriend and I had been monogamous for 3 years, and we recently decided to embark on a poly-amorous trio with one of our mutual friends. My boyfriend had fallen in love with her, but he still felt love for me and was tormented when he thought about leaving either one of us. We’ve all been together sexually before and I’ve grown to care for her as well, though I think we’re more of an “angle” than a “triangle,” at least sexually, because I’m bi and she’s straight. I’m a little frightened of how things will progress and how we’ll all settle into it, because we’re all so young (still in college!), but I’m more excited for the future… naturally, I want to learn all about this and hear people’s opinions on it and get advice, and it’s people like you that I know are going to help us do this the right way! I’m especially interested in finding communities for support, because we have almost no one to reach out to about this…. having all come from homes with Christian parents in America. We plan to move to Europe eventually, and settle into a life together rather than “coming out,” which was hard enough for me to do before. It would really mean a lot if you knew of any good blogs or sites dedicated to polyamory. Thanks! 🙂

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  15. From a monogamous point of view, “having your cake and eating it to” would mean having your spouse/partner and loving the stuffing out of them. To me polyamory is “having your cake at home while you go out and eat pie because even though you chose the cake, now you want pie. And cake. And maybe some cookies. Oh look! Cheesecake!” It speaks to me of an inability or unwillingness to deny every little whim or craving. An inability to commit fully. And considering my husband has confessed a restlessness and desire to explore, it’s really disheartening to be “stale cake”.

  16. I was going to share this article until I read #4. That part annoyed me. While it might kind of be true, I didn’t like the way it was written. I know it wasn’t your real meaning or intent, but it does read like a dismissal and an insult to people with abandonment issues, which would just reinforce their issues. Look, abandonment issues make all types of relationships harder – it has nothing to do with polyamory. In my case, they’re actually why I prefer polyamory. I have never been in a monogamous relationship, because monogamous people always “abandon” me. It was only my poly relationships where I felt like my partners actually gave me a chance, and communication was key. What drives me nuts isn’t polyamory, but casual dating. That’s where my abandonment issues kick in and I start to lose my mind with anxiety…. because I get attached no matter what, if we are dating continuously. But because it’s casual, communication is always next to non-existent, and they actually get mad at me if I get anxious about them (I find the opposite is true for committed relationships). I always try to make it work, but it’s usually a disaster. I hope I have finally learned my lesson after the last one.

    • You make a good point. People can be abandoned in any kind of relationship – monogamous or poly. Abandonment issues do make every kind of relationship potentially harder, and they are incredibly painful and difficult to work through. Culturally there is an illusion that monogamy safeguards one against being abandoned, feeling jealous, feeling insecure, but we know that it is just that: an illusion. People with abandonment issues often struggle to cope with anxiety and fear that they will be left, that their partner(s) will stay, that they are enough. I like your point that it was in poly relationships where people were more transparent and communicative. I imagine that would help anyone feel more secure. Thanks for your comment.

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