Everything that polyamory can teach monogamous relationships

From knowing how to manage jealousy to the importance of communication, three experts talk about the lessons that everyone can learn from this lifestyle

An image from the movie ‘The Dreamers.’

As soon as the trailer for the movie Challengers, starring Zendaya, was released, everyone’s attention focused on the polyamorous relationship that her character, tennis star Tashi, has with Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Mike (Art Donaldson). Although it is increasingly common for well-known personalities to make headlines by confessing that they are polyamorous, in reality polyamory continues to make many uncomfortable, even if the opinion polls are beginning to reflect a certain open-mindedness.

According to a study by online dating service Ashley Madison, 60% of the platform’s users no longer believe in monogamy, while 23% claim to be dissatisfied and 23% say they feel trapped in monogamous relationships. “These studies show that each person has their own emotional and affective needs. In addition, not everyone has the same beliefs and ways of understanding the world. A traditional monogamous relationship where they find fulfillment and happiness may work for one person, while another may find this satisfaction in polyamory. Both models are valid,” explains psychologist Lara Ferreiro, an expert in couple relationships and collaborator of Ashley Madison.

Sandra Bravo, journalist, therapist, non-monogamous activist and promoter of the Hablemos de poliamor (Let’s talk about polyamory) project, points out that “the word polyamory has practically become an umbrella term to refer to very different forms of non-monogamous relationships. Because until recently it was a kind of ‘closeted’ relationship, information on the matter is still scarce and many people’s idea of it is based on clichés and stereotypes, so there can be a great distance between the theoretical definitions and the practice. Non-monogamous relationships can involve a greater or lesser degree of openness, priorities and agreements of all kinds. In order to be called ethical, they must in all cases include transparency, honesty, consensus and consent. Something that, again, wouldn’t hurt to have in monogamy – in an explicit, spoken way, not only from a tacit agreement made at the beginning of a relationship.”

“Since polyamory has no sexual or affective exclusivity, we can establish romantic and sexual-affective ties, romantic ties without sex, or just sexual ties. You can have a main relationship, which would be hierarchical polyamory, in which the main relationship is the primary one. Such ranking does not depend on who you love the most, but on privileges such as who you live with; from there, other relationships will depend on time management, emotional involvement and your ability to create and care for bonds with affective responsibility and commitment. Otherwise it’s pointless, because it is not about consuming bodies or romantic relationships.

“Within polyamory there are throuples or quads, in which three or four people become linked at the same time in a romantic relationship, which may or may not be sexual. Then there is group polyamory, which involves different people, and polyfidelity, which is basically when a group of people have romantic or sexual relationships, but cannot have those ties outside of that group. There is also non-hierarchical polyamory, where there is no ranking and everyone is the same. Sometimes, within the category of polyamory, there is relationship anarchy, so we cannot rank or label them,” says Noemí Casquet, author of Éxtasis (Ecstasy), who points out that sometimes the difficulty lies in the fact that some put emotional narcissism first, while a key aspect is to avoid the consumption of bodies, prioritizing care.

When talking about what monogamous relationships can learn from polyamory, Casquet is quick to clarify something. “The fact that we are polyamorous doesn’t mean that we relate fantastically; we take a lot of care, we are super affectively responsible, we have super intense emotional self-awareness and an amazing management of emotions and jealousy. It is important not to romanticize polyamory,” she points out.

One key aspect is communication, which in non-monogamous relationships has to be open, direct and honest. “Non-monogamous people work on this a lot, because we have deconstructed a lot and we are very aware of what care, bonds and affective responsibility are. This is often not taken into account in monogamy, because there has been no deconstruction of it. Non-monogamous people have had to break with the idea of romantic love, reformulating it from a different place. Communication and quality time are crucial. What can monogamous relationships learn from this? The importance of making a relational agreement establishing a series of issues that sometimes are uncomfortable, but must be discussed. This agreement would have to be made even in monogamous relationships, as many things become automated in them and they have no quality time. To have healthy relationships we must have uncomfortable conversations, due to the emotional involvement they entail,” says Noemí Casquet.

In the movie Challengers, the polyamorous relationship begins to tremble as soon as the secrets and insecurities come into play. This is why it is important to always analyze what is behind the jealousy, to be aware of what is causing it. “Jealousy must be listened to, because under this term lies a very wide range of diverse emotions that provide information about what we are feeling and experiencing in the relationship. It is important to distinguish the emotion from the way we manage it. Feeling jealous is something human, fair and understandable; treating our partner with contempt for it, violating their privacy or going into violent dynamics is not justifiable in any case, no matter how much jealousy we experience. This difference is crucial.

“We live in a culture that, on one hand, justifies certain violent and control behaviors displayed ‘out of love’ and, on the other, invites us to deconstruct ourselves to the maximum expression to become little more than people who do not feel any kind of emotion that can cause the tiniest discomfort. I wish we would bring more ethics, communication and mutual respect into our relationships and have more empathy with the problems of emotional management that some people may experience. Jealousy, like any other emotion, is contextual, it has to do with the relationship itself, with our personal experience, with how the other person treats us and with all the tools and obstacles that intervene in our day-to-day lives,” explains Sandra Bravo.

The sexual side

Regarding the field of sexuality, Casquet brings up an important matter to take into account: “Despite what many think, polyamorous people don’t spend the entire day having sex, nor do we have many partners by default. Polyamory gives you the opportunity, but not the obligation to do so. Non-monogamy is not a magic wand: it neither makes you a feminist nor does it automatically turn you into a good lover. What we should learn is to communicate and create spaces of security, trust and release; to support the journey of the other person and to communicate our desires and intentions. Care is vital; it is a systemic and social aspect that is not exclusive to non-monogamous relationships.”

Psychologist Lara Ferreiro says that monogamous relationships can learn from polyamorous relationships to adopt an open mind, although she clarifies that this does not imply that they open the relationship if they do not want to; rather, that they experiment in their own sexual relations. “Being open to new sexual experiences helps to break free from monotony, to learn about new tastes and sexual fantasies of the partner and to create an atmosphere of trust. There are couples who have been together for many years and are used to a series of sexual dynamics that don’t satisfy both members. For this reason, relationships should focus on mutual sexual satisfaction, something that is very present in polyamorous relationships. Seeking mutual sexual satisfaction implies learning about the sexual tastes and preferences of the other, something that can be achieved with open communication during sex and devoting quality time to the other person, looking for those intimate sexual encounters and explaining the needs of each one,” she says.

Autonomy, jealousy and freedom

“Monogamous relationships can learn a lot about managing quality time and care. Also about affective responsibility and being aware that we are creating a bond that must be cared for. We have to communicate, be honest, constantly touch base with each other to find out what our emotional state is and to be able to share it, as well as create protocols (for coexistence, communication, arguments) and even put them in writing. Relationships are an agreement between two people, so the clearer that agreement can be, the fewer problems we will have,” says Naomi Casquet.

Lara Ferreiro continues: “In addition to the aforementioned aspects, another important aspect is the autonomy within the couple. Members of polyamorous relationships highly value personal autonomy and freedom. Although within polyamory this is has to do with having sexual freedom and creating connections with other people, monogamous people can practice it within the couple. This can be reflected in each other’s individual quality time; that is, that each person has their own pastimes and spends time with friends and family outside of the relationship,” she explains. “Monogamous couples can learn to overcome the possessiveness that is often associated with this type of relationships. Polyamory destroys that idea of possession, control and excessive jealousy that we often associate with traditional couples. A monogamous couple should be based on commitment and mutual respect, but it must be emphasized that each person is a separate individual who doesn’t depend on anyone; we don’t belong to someone just because we are in a couple.”

Sandra Bravo adds other important lessons: that friendships are not a consolation prize and that the partner should not be everything. “That is the great message of monogamous, heteropatriarchal romantic love. Interacting in a non-monogamous way does not magically remove this burden from us, but it invites us to question it, which is, without a doubt, one of the most important points: to break the isolation of the couple and generate alternative family and relationship models to relate in a more communal way, where care can be better distributed and not always fall on the same persons,” she points out.

Finally, what are the myths and prejudices that surround polyamory? Sandra Bravo responds: “Some believe that we are people who are addicted to sex, afraid of commitment, with psychological problems and too much free time. If we think of polyamory as the multiplication of monogamous dynamics, these clichés may make sense to a certain extent, but it is time for us to broaden our view and become aware that many of us relate in a non-monogamous way with a critical conscience, to reject the imposed mandates, to interact in a more collective and interdependent way and to welcome our diversity, because we see love, or sexuality, as something that is not exclusive or belongs to anyone. Many people experience it as a dissolution of the couple where very enriching and diverse forms of committed relationships fit, instead of being a multiplication of it.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS