If you’re not familiar with polyamory, it’s the practice of, or desire for, romantic relationships with multiple partners, in which everyone involved is on board.
But in a world where monogamy is the end-all, be all of many relationships, that's a hard concept to understand.
“People think we’re just like the swinger community or that we’re just extra slutty,” says Matie, a 39-year old sex shop owner, and queer woman in a relationship with a long-term, long-distance partner and a lesbian couple.
Here's what life and love is actually like with multiple partners:
1. IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT SEX
There’s a common assumption that the reason people would want to have multiple intimate relationships is that one partner simply can’t give them enough sex—or the right type of sex.
“For a lot of polyamorous people, some of their relationships don’t even involves sex," says Matie.
While yes, being polyamorous gives you the opportunity to have sex with multiple partners, it’s not unlikely that being polyamorous will actually result in less sex. “We probably talk more than we have sex,” says Ruby, a 45-year-old social worker and sex therapist who has a husband, and also dates two women. “There’s a whole lot of communication that has to happen for polyamorous relationships to work.”
2. JEALOUSY ISN'T REALLY AN ISSUE
“The first thing I’m always asked about is jealousy,” says Minx, host of the Polyamory Weekly podcast in Seattle. The 49-year-old has two partners who both have other partners of their own. “It’s really hard not to role my eyes, because jealousy is probably not the thing that’s going to doom your polyamorous relationship,” she says. “It’s actually pretty easy to deal with jealousy, but our society has taught us it’s an untameable force.”
On the other hand, some people assume poly individuals must be immune to jealousy, says Matie. “But jealousy is the price I pay for admission into the life I want.” It's all a matter of finding a way to get past those feelings before they drive a wedge in the relationship, says Matie.
“If I’m feeling jealous, I ask myself what I can do to help myself in that moment. If you can learn to handle the jealousy of a partner being intimate with someone else, everything else, like them choosing to spend time at work, or with their best friend, over you, is cake,” says Minx.
In the end, it’s typically not jealous feelings that lead to breakups in polyamory, she says. “More often it’s a lack of communication, self-awareness, and the ability to be vulnerable and honest. Kind of the same things that end every other type of relationship.”
3. POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE ARE NOT COMMITMENT-PHOBIC
“The most common misconception I hear is that we don’t want to commit,” says Ruby. “Commitment isn’t about being with one person, it means sticking to what you’ve agreed upon in your relationship with someone, and being accountable to that individual.”
In polyamorous relationships, that dynamic can look a number of ways, but the important part is that it’s agreed upon by all parties. And following through with that is the same as following through with monogamous expectations. “People perceive my relationships are more casual, because I’m with a few people, but that’s not what it’s about,” says Matie. “I also look at my life as being committed to multiple partners and myself. I have a primary relationship with myself and taking time to maintain all the relationships in my life, with friends and lovers.”
Many polyamorous people also aren’t necessarily dating or looking for additional partners all the time. You can have multiple partners and not consider your relationship open, if you and/or others involved don’t want to add any more partners. Some people call this closed polyamory.
4. POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE AREN’T JUST LOOKING FOR A WAY AROUND CHEATING
“A lot of people think it’s just an excuse for the man to cheat,” says Ruby.
Minx agrees. “People assume that it’s always the guy’s idea and it’s about him getting more sex or getting around cheating.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I’ve been producing a podcast for years, and here’s the kicker: nine times out of 10, it’s the woman’s idea,” says Minx. “It’s the woman in a relationship coming forward and saying I want this.”
And, says Minx, while some men are excited at this news, being polyamorous can be difficult for them. “It tends to be easier for women to find additional partners than it is for men. So this misconception that it’s just to benefit men is totally false.”
5. POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE DON’T HAVE MORE STIS THAN ANYONE ELSE
“There’s this assumption that we all have diseases, or that we’re more likely to catch one,” says Ruby. “But the thing is, we are probably tested more than any other group.” Because they have multiple sex partners, and new partners may be added often, Ruby says, polyamorous people take safe sex very seriously. “We get tested constantly and are very open with each partner about what’s going on with other partners.”
6. NOT ALL POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE LOOK THE SAME
Ruby, Matie, and Minx say there's a misconception about polyamorous demographics—that everyone is white, young, upper middle-class, metropolitan, bisexual, and childless. Those stereotypes make it even harder for people who don’t fit this mold to be open about their relationship style and feel welcomed in the polyamory community.
“I’m black and my husband is white and we don’t look like the typically-presented polyamorous relationship,” says Ruby. Minx has spoken to all kinds of polyamorous people for her podcast, too. “There are people of colour who are polyamorous, 60-plus people, teens, people in all economic-ranges, people in the suburbs with families,” says Minx. “It includes the whole gender, sexuality, and racial spectrum.”
7. IT’S NOT AN EASY LIFESTYLE
Polyamory might sound like a dreamy lifestyle to some, but it’s certainly not a carefree, rule-less existence—the expectations are just different, and it can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. Logistically, there are more people to spend time with, and that can get tricky. “The most essential tool to polyamory—after communication—is Google Calendar,” says Minx. “But it’s not about trying to spend the exact same amount of time with each person. It’s each individual’s responsibility to say what they need, and for everyone to check in to make sure those needs are being met.”
It’s also difficult for polyamorous people to be open about their relationships, as they can face harsh discrimination. “Not being monogamous often isn't seen as a forthright thing, it’s not seen as something you could do with ethics, and people could lose their jobs,” says Matie. “And it’s hard for a lot of parents and families to wrap their heads around.”
Still, for these women, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. “This lifestyle brings me so much joy,” says Matie.
“When I’m really honest in one area, I’m honest in others too, and being polyamorous has put the focus on how every level of my life needs to be something that I feel good about” says Matie.
And living her life more authentically isn’t the only plus. “I feel most secure in relationships that are poly, because people are really choosing to be with you. Like, you can be with anyone in the world, but you still want to come back to me. You know people are showing up not because they’re lonely and you’re there, but because they want and need to be with you.”
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US