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Polyamorous Relationships: What You Need to Know

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Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
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created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
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Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
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created by Josh Green
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  • Polyamory is the practice of being in a relationship with more than one person at the same time. 
  • Polyamorous relationships are not just about sex, although that is an important part. They are also about creating a deep emotional or intimate bond with more than one person. 
  • For people who have grown up in monogamous relationships, the idea of polyamory can feel alarming, but it might be more common than you think.
  • The key to a successful polyamorous relationship is trust and good communication.
  • If your current relationship is not fulfilling you in the way you wish, it can be tempting to explore the idea of polyamory but you should proceed with caution if you don't first address the issues in your current relationship.

The idea of polyamorous relationships can be divisive. To some people the thought of polyamory – of being in a relationship with more than one person – is unimaginable. While to the polyamorous community, it’s simply a way of life. And one that can even serve to enhance emotional connection and sexual desires.

Let’s take a look at what it’s all about.

What are polyamorous relationships?

Put simply, polyamory is about having multiple loving relationships at the same time. To polyamorous people this is very different to an open relationship. It’s about developing emotionally and physically intimate relationships with a number of different romantic partners. It’s not considered cheating as everyone involved knows exactly what’s going on. It’s up to each couple to decide what the ‘rules’ look like for them and, crucially, where the physical boundaries lie. An open arrangement, while also a type of non-monogamous relationship, tends to encourage extra-relationship sex, but usually nothing deeper.

Poly relationships can work in many ways. There might be one polyamorous individual or primary couple around whom an arrangement exists. Or there may be a situation where a number of polyamorous couples engage in a sexual relationship together. It’s also perfectly possible for a monogamous person to remain with a partner who is polyamorous.

There is definitely no one size fits all.

How common are polyamorous relationships?

While not necessarily something you come across every day, polyamorous relationships might well be more common than you think.

In fact, a 2021 study focusing on single people in the US, found that 1 out of every 6 adults (16.8%) has a desire for polyamory. And not only that, 1 out of 9 adults (10.7%) have engaged in polyamory at some point during their life.

So what is it about this type of relationship that gives it such a bad reputation among those in more traditional monogamous relationships?

Is polyamory always a bad thing?

If you want our honest answer? No, it’s not always a bad thing, but it does depend on why you want to explore this idea. Put another way, there are good and bad reasons to get involved. If you see it as a solution to not getting as much sex as you would like in your relationship with your current partner, it’s unlikely that polyamory will work for you both. Instead of bringing you closer, there is a chance it will build resentment, with your primary partner viewing your secondary partner as a threat.

That said, a little jealousy can be a useful tool as you begin to explore how a polyamorous relationship could work for you. It offers clues as to where your boundaries might lie. It helps you work out what you need from your partner. And whether something needs to shift to ensure you’re comfortable with the situation. Do you need to put more effort into intimacy with each other in order to feel confident exploring your sexual identity with another polyamorous partner?

The key to successful polyamory is trust. That and good communication. Interestingly, engaging in polyamorous relationships is thought to improve communication skills. After all, it becomes vital to be able to find out how to keep your partner happy as well as learn to express your own needs clearly too.

But is it genuinely fulfilling?

In one study published in the Journal of Sex Research, participants reported high levels of need fulfilment and satisfaction in both of the relationships they were engaged in. In fact, the authors concluded that the study provided "initial evidence that polyamory may be a viable and fulfilling alternative way of conducting intimate relationships”.

And if it’s good enough for Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who are we to argue?

How to broach the idea of poly with your partner?

So, if you want to talk about the idea of other sexual partners with your current spouse or partner, where should you begin?

Communication is key. Emotions are complex. Ask yourself whether you are really OK with your spouse sleeping with or enjoying an intimate relationship with another person. Because in reality, that’s what you’ll be faced with. We’ve got some tips for talking to your partner about your fantasies or desires that might help you with the conversation.

And you will need to make sure you’re both wholly on board with the idea. It’s not something that will work if one of you is unsure. You’ll need to open up, be honest with one another and negotiate exactly what you are and aren’t prepared to accept.

Often, problems creep in when there’s a violation of trust or someone oversteps the boundaries. So it’s worth exploring whether either of you are the type of people who might struggle with the emotional side. How closely do you both tie sex to emotional bonding and closeness? Or are you able to separate the two things?

You may be able to get past this by establishing some strict boundaries and being sure to be respectful of them. It might be that sex is allowed with a certain person, but all communication must go through a group chat, for instance.

And it goes without saying, make sure you keep everyone safe by taking precautions to protect yourself and others from STIs.

Polyamory probably isn’t the answer to your relationship issues

If you’re considering polyamory because you’re not getting the intimacy or sex you desire at home, adding other people into the equation is unlikely to be the answer. Unless both partners are completely open and honest about their needs and their intentions it will be difficult to invest equally in a polyamorous arrangement.

It would almost certainly be advisable to address the problems you have first.

Need some help in that area? We have a complete guide on sex therapy that can lead you in the right direction. Take our assessment to find out what your relationship is missing. Then we'll give you a relevant plan with guided exercises to get that spark back.

Moors AC, Gesselman AN and Garcia JR (2021) Desire, Familiarity, and Engagement in Polyamory: Results From a National Sample of Single Adults in the United States. Front. Psychol. 12:619640. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.619640 
Mitchell, M., Bartholomew, K. and Cobb, R., 2014. 'Need fulfillment in polyamorous relationships', Journal of Sex Research, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 329-39.
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