I laughed in his face when my then-boyfriend asked me to move in with him — and his wife. I had only learned about polyamory four months prior, and while things had been going great as I dipped my toe in the ethically nonmonogamous pool, the thought of moving in with him and his wife of eight years seemed like a disastrous idea.
Still, after some convincing, I said yes. I was 25, in love, and figured I had nothing to lose, besides the potential for a broken heart.
Eight months later, we broke up amicably when I decided to move to New York City. But in that short time, I learned more about myself, my needs, and my communication style than I had in any previous relationship. It changed the way I think about all my current relationships, regardless of whether they are polyamorous (in a romantic relationship with more than one person), open (sexual relationships with others while in a committed, romantic relationship with one person), or monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive to a single person). I’m what’s now being called ambiamorous — someone who’s open to the idea of all types of relationships, depending on what works best for me and my partner(s).
By practicing polyamory, I learned how to advocate for myself and how to set boundaries. Prior to being polyamorous, I was a partner-pleaser. I’d try to do everything I could for the person I was with, and when they didn’t reciprocate, I’d become frustrated. This type of martyr complex simply isn’t cute; it just builds up resentment. Being polyamorous forced me to adequately address what I want out of a relationship and also taught me not to feel shame asking for it.
Madison McCullough is a therapist listed on Manhattan Alternative, a network of psychiatric and therapeutic resources for kink, poly, and LGBTQ folks. “More often in monogamous relationships, people expect their partners to know what they want or need implicitly,” says McCullough. “[They’re] also more likely to fall into routines that leave less room to acknowledge and adjust for when wants and needs change. People in poly relationships are often navigating these types of conversations much more frequently, which can benefit them in any kind of relationship.”
McCullough also speaks to another way polyamory teaches healthy relationship skills: Certain topics need to be brought up consistently, especially as things in the relationship change. Prior to being polyamorous, I never told a partner, “This will be an ongoing conversation. When something changes in our relationship or one of us starts feeling a certain way about this, let’s talk about this again.” Before polyamory, I would typically have just one conversation with a partner about an issue we were struggling with, and then we would never resurface it. Ongoing conversations take into account that your needs and wants will change as a relationship evolves. This is true for all types of relationships — even platonic ones with family, friends, and coworkers.
Recognizing the difference between your own needs and wants, and balancing those with what your partner asks for is a particularly challenging, but necessary, part of poly relationships, explains Melissa Johnson, a licensed psychologist and director of Brooklyn’s Groundwork Therapy Psychological Services.
Johnson helps her polyamorous clients learn “when and how to compromise, what one can give up without resentment, and how to accept that one’s needs may not always align with [one’s] partner’s needs.”