Should polyamorous couples share everything?

Sometimes couples considering a poly relationship are told the only way to make non-monogamy work is to share every detail of every outside encounter with their original partner. In this way of thinking, not sharing everything inevitably leads to jealousy, deception, and resentment, threatening the relationship.

This advice, though well-meaning, can be misleading. The truth is, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how to do poly right. What works for one couple won’t necessarily work for another. Every couple and group needs to negotiate their own boundaries, on their own terms, according to the reality of their own experiences and feelings, as things unfold.

In my practice, I’ve worked with many poly couples. There is tremendous diversity in what these couples are comfortable with. Some share absolutely everything, but many, perhaps even the majority, prefer not to know details of encounters with other partners. I’ve also worked with people who don’t want to know anything at all about their partner’s outside relationships, and that’s perfectly fine, too.

There’s a reason people give well-meaning but misleading advice like this. It’s much easier than exploring the complicated truth of relationships: that there’s no one template, no script, no guidebook to follow that will guarantee success. Every relationship has to be negotiated, and nothing is set in stone.

Moreover, it’s very likely that the boundaries of your relationship will change and evolve with time. In the transition to a polyamorous relationship, people are often surprised by what they discover about themselves and their partners. Maybe one partner was certain that she wanted to know everything about every encounter, but now she’s obsessing over the details and wishing she hadn’t heard. Maybe another partner thought that learning what happened would make him jealous, but now he’s curious about what his partner experienced, and wants to learn more. These partners will have to keep talking, keep negotiating, and keep learning. Just as what works for one couple may not work for another couple, what works for one partner may not work for another partner. A relationship is not a set of rules, but a continuous conversation.

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all relationship. A relationship is something that people create. It is remade, in every moment, by the unique and complex individuals within it. Its rules are whatever you agree on. There is no one right way, only the way you discover together.

Rules for polyamorous relationships? It’s not that simple.

Sometimes couples considering polyamory are advised to create a rule book laying out the boundaries of the relationship. This is a common idea about polyamory: if you have enough rules, everyone will feel safe and secure. Partners simply promise not to engage in activities, or under circumstances, that make one another uncomfortable. However, creating a rule book is a much more complicated idea than it may seem.

One problem is the assumption that we can predict with any accuracy what will make us uncomfortable and under which circumstances. Especially for those new to polyamory, there is no way to envision how you will respond to any particular circumstance or situation. I’ve seen people surprised in every possible way; some are not jealous when they were sure they would be, and others experience lots of uncomfortable emotions they didn’t expect to feel. This can even be true for those with lots of experience. Every relationship is unique, and brings unique gifts and challenges.

Another problem is that many people, whether monogamous or not, have difficulty making and keeping agreements. In order to make an agreement about relational expectations and preferences, one needs a very complex skill set. You need to be able to do three difficult things:

  1. look inside, and take an internal read on what you think, feel, believe, and prefer, separate from whatever someone else might think.
  2. feel grounded enough to share this with a partner even if you think they might not feel comfortable hearing it.
  3. stay grounded, curious, and steady when a partner shares with you something YOU don’t feel comfortable hearing.

I refer to this trio of skills as differentiation of self. Differentiation is a lifelong growth process, and some are more practiced at it than others. As a relational therapist, it is a given that I see people in relationships that are struggling in some way. Very often, difficulty with some aspect of differentiation is the culprit.

Why is this important to polyamory? Because if you can’t figure out what you think, feel and want, it is very difficult to make an agreement you are able to keep.

Imagine that a couple, Joe and June, are negotiating the boundaries of their relationship. June pressures Joe to makes a particular agreement. Joe thinks “Sure, I don’t agree with that, but I care about June, and it sounds reasonable, so I’ll try to keep that agreement.”

That is a much shakier construct than if Joe were able to identify his feelings and beliefs and tell June, “I wish I could say I can do that, but honestly I’m not sure I even believe in it.” For many, that type of sentiment can seem like the beginning of a nasty disagreement. To well-differentiated couples, however, a difference of opinion or preference is an invitation to get to know one another more thoroughly and explore the options more deeply. That kind of solid foundation allows for flexibility, and flexibility is what is required when surprises are likely–as they are in open relationships.

There is a lot of evidence that flexibility is the quality most likely to build healthy, happy families over time, regardless of relationship structure. Let’s face it, life is always handing us surprises–illness, death of a loved one, unexpected pregnancy, changes in sexual desire, changes in job situations, and a zillion other things we can’t predict but just need to get through for one reason or another. Families that can have deeper and more personally courageous (that is, differentiated) conversations are more likely to do well when challenges come around. The key is sitting down together and discussing feelings, differences in perception, and experience, and being genuinely curious about our partner’s perspective.

Good Sex Over A Lifetime

Our bodies are diverse in shape, size, color, and ability, among other things. Every body is unique. One thing, however, binds us all together. We all age, and as we age, our bodies change.

One of the things that is likely to change over the lifespan is sexual function. Over a lifespan, hormone levels shift, as well as muscle tone and flexibility, and vascular function. Bodies experience illnesses, pregnancies, and health/lifestyle shifts for the better and worse. All these things have an effect on how the body responds to arousal and how pleasure is experienced.

Many people have the best sex of their lives later in life. However, if body changes in midlife make it more difficult to have familiar and well-practiced kinds of sex, the changes can be painful and distressing particularly when negative meanings are made of the changes.

Lifestyle choices, like eating a healthy diet, reducing and managing stress, and incorporating regular exercise into your routine, can make a big difference, so consult with your doctor. However, one of the most productive changes is to think about change differently, and respond more skillfully.

A sexual repertoire for a lifetime must include multiple activities that do not depend on any particular body part, function, or experience. If we define sex as “penis-in-vagina penetration”, or “orgasm,” or any other particular experience, I can guarantee at some point things won’t go as planned. However if we define sex as “activities that are pleasurable,” or “anything sexy,” or “connection plus pleasure,” the likelihood of creating a satisfying sexual encounter skyrockets.

I’m a strong advocate for making this shift in thinking early. When a young couple comes to me to work with a particular sexual challenge, they often feel quite broken, because everything is “supposed to be easy” sexually. But I always feel very optimistic about their long-term sexual connection. This is because we can learn this shift of perspective early in life, later in life, or never. The earlier we get good at this, the more good sex we have. Simple as that.

What are we learning in order to support a lifetime of good sex?

  • Improvisation. There is no script, and the more you follow a script, the more things go “wrong”. The more improvisation, the more fun you discover.
  • Encourage your sexy, creative brain. That’s the part of you that comes up with ideas, tries them out, shares curiosity with a partner, and makes sex playful.
  • Control your naughty brain. I’m referring to your meaning-making brain. The part of your brain that says: “I’m not sexy because I…..”. “This wouldn’t be going like this if my partner were still into me”. Any thought that makes you feel bad about yourself or your partner during a sexual interaction is not helpful if pleasure OR connection are your goals.
  • Recognize that things not going as planned is just part of the landscape. Everyone experiences it and HOW you respond is the key to good sex.

Here’s an example: If your partner loses his erection, will it be more fun and productive to
a) begin to make meaning about not being attractive, or even comfort your partner with “nobody’s perfect” messages, or
b) tell him how hot he is, that you love his erection but don’t need it, and initiate an activity that you both enjoy and that doesn’t require an erection?