Last year, Scarlet Johansson very boldly told Playboy: “I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person.” While the actress also noted, “I might be skewered for that,” she’s certainly not the only person in the world to criticise monogamy. Plenty of new relationship forms are becoming popular, including one that’s been getting a lot of buzz: polyamory.
But are some humans really not meant to be monogamous? And how do you know if you’re one of them?
First of all, what is polyamory exactly?
On their most basic level, polyamorous relationships are intimate relationships that involve more than two people, says relationship therapist Matt Lundquist.
But there’s a wide range of what polyamory can look like in practice. “A polyamorous relationship might include three or more relatively equal partners in an ongoing romantic emotional relationship either sharing a home or dating,” he explains. “Or there are also relationships where one or both partners have a more casual relationship ‘on the side.’”
This requires a lot of negotiating to prevent anyone getting hurt. “Thoughtful polyamorous relationships often come with rules and agreements ironed out early on,” Lundquist explains.
FYI, polyamorous relationships aren’t the same thing as open relationships. It’s also different than polygamy, says Gin Love Thomson, a relationship expert and self-help memoirist. The latter is “usually related to religion and is a male-dominated concept of the man having several wives,” she explains. “Polyamory, on the other hand, is not gender-exclusive.”
Before you take the polyamory plunge…
Every solid polyamorous relationship starts with taking a good, hard look at what you want and what’s going to make you happy. To help you decide if a polyamorous relationship is right for you and your partner, start by asking these seven questions:
1. How jealous are you?
Can you really handle seeing your partner date other people? “This is the most obvious question but also the most important and the hardest to answer,” says Lundquist. “Even when a given partner doesn’t want to be jealous or possessive, monogamy is so heavily ingrained in our culture some people just can’t get there.”
To a certain degree, it’s hard to know how you’ll really feel about your partner having another relationship until you dip your toe in the water, Lundquist says. But taking an honest look at how you’ve dealt with jealousy-inducing situations in the past can give you some important insight, he says.
There are a few specific questions you can ask yourself to test this: How did it feel that time you ran into your partner’s ex at a party? Do you find yourself getting uncomfortable when your partner keeps bringing up how much fun they have with their favorite coworker? Do you feel irritated when you see the bartender flirting with your partner? “I think life tests our jealous plenty,” Lundquist says. “We just don’t always look at the evidence honestly.”
2. Is this something you both want?
“Often, one partner is more into the idea of experimenting with the polyamorous lifestyle than the other,” explains Thompson. If that’s the case, it can cause a problematic power imbalance.
“The slightly hesitant partner, who is often participating to satisfy their partner and keep from losing them altogether, suffers,” she says. “As does the relationship.” If you’re looking to polyamory as a last resort or as a way to keep your partner from cheating, these are major red flags.
3. What is your (and your partner’s) motivation?
There are a few common goals that signal the arrangement might be a positive experience for you and your partner.
One major one: feeling limited by monogamy, says Lundquist. If you and your partner both feel that your monogamous relationship isn’t quite meeting your needs for closeness and intimacy (and that no monogamous relationship really could), it might be a signal that polyamory is a better fit for you.
A good motivation might also be as simple as “wanting more love and intimacy in your life, and wanting to see your partner be happy,” Lundquist says.
4. How secure do you feel in your current relationship?
“Sharing a partner creates shifts in the dynamic of trust and intimacy,” says Thompson.
That can be a slippery slope—especially if your relationship isn’t that solid to begin with. “Thoughtful polyamory takes more maturity and a stronger relationship from the start because the issues of jealousy and trust can be so difficult to navigate,” Lundquist says.
Figuring out how secure your relationship is isn’t an exact science, says Lundquist, but there are a few questions you should ask yourself before you test it. Are you and your partner good at resolving fights? Can you easily get on the same page about issues and goals for the relationship? Do you feel secure and not anxious about your partner’s love and commitment?
“It’s about looking at the evidence with sober eyes,” says Lundquist, adding it can also be helpful to talk these questions through with a therapist since someone outside the relationship may be able to spot potential issues more easily .
If the answer to a lot of these questions is no, it might mean your relationship is lacking the foundation necessary for polyamory.
5. What groundrules do you want to establish?
As Lundquist points out, polyamorous relationships require a lot more negotiating, so you should be prepared to talk out new challenges as they come up. “Once things get going, you might find yourself surprised that you aren’t always on the same page with your partner,” he says.
The best way to stave off these potential conflicts is to set up some guidelines with your partner on the front end. Before starting any new relationships, talk through the logistics: What behaviors are okay? Is anyone off limits? Will you spend time together as a group and meet your partner’s partners?
“Even for couples who’ve bought into the idea of a polyamorous relationship, being able to say, for example, ‘I’d like to skip lunch with your sister so I can go on a date’ can be pretty awkward—not to mention disappointing,” Lundquist says. Before going poly, make a specific list with your partner of which behaviors are okay and which ones aren’t—including how many details you’ll give each other about other relationships or dates.
6. How will trying polyamory affect your future together?
Is polyamory going to be a forever thing? “Discuss with your partner whether you intend to shift gears when you have a kid or at another life event in the future,” says Lundquist.
It’s also a good idea to talk about how you’ll handle it if polyamory no longer feels like it’s working for one of you. “Check-ins are an important part of this type of relationship,” says Lundquist. “Some couples use a therapist for this or even a friend who’s more experienced with poly relationships.” Put a standing date on the calendar (these can be as often as bi-weekly or more spaced out every month or so—whatever you feel most comfortable with) where you both know the explicit purpose is to talk about how the relationship is going, which can help remove any awkwardness around bringing it up.
The most important thing, he says, is that each of you feels comfortable expressing when you’re not cool with something. If you don’t feel like you can bring it up when something’s not working for you in the relationship, that problem is only going to get bigger the deeper you get into polyamory.
There’s no exact science to answering these questions, but if exploring them makes you or your partner uncomfortable in any way, polyamory may not be the right fit for your curent relationship—or you.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US
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