A Practical Guide to Modern Polyamory

How to open things up, for the curious couple.

From left, Cleo, Tony, Kiki, and Atom. Photo: Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari
From left, Cleo, Tony, Kiki, and Atom. Photo: Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari
From left, Cleo, Tony, Kiki, and Atom. Photo: Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari

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If you live in New York, it’s very possible you’ve recently found yourself chatting with a co-worker, or listening to the table next to you at a restaurant, and heard some variation of “They just opened up, and they’re so much happier.” Or “My partner’s partner truly sucks.” Ethical non-monogamy isn’t new (The Ethical Slut, the polyamorous bible, came out in 1997), and it isn’t exactly mainstream, but it isn’t so fringe either (or reserved for those who live in the Bay Area). A curious person might be tempted to download Feeld or let their partner know over salmon they’re ready to let in a third. But though people don’t talk about it in hushed tones anymore — Riverdale just ended with Archie, Betty, Jughead, and Veronica in a quad, after all — it isn’t such a simple thing to do well. There are a million things that can go awry, from the small and awkward (oversharing about a date) to the enormous and life-imploding (ending an otherwise fine relationship). The poly-curious among you likely have questions about the day-to-day operations — how do you tell your kids about it? Where do you find people to date? What if your partner gets way more matches than you do? What if their new partner is way hotter than you? To that end, we’ve created an exceedingly in-depth guide. We talked to nearly 40 people — some who’ve had open relationships for decades, others who only recently opened things up — to figure out how to capably, or at least less messily, date non-monogamously.

Cover Story


Let’s Open Things Up

1. Is There Only One Way to Do It?
2. Wait, What Is a ‘Metamour’?
3. How Do I Broach This With My Partner?
4. Should We Come Up With Some Rules?
5. Where Do I Meet People?
6. Does My Wife Want to Hear About My Night?
7. Should We Sleep With Them on the First Date?
8. How Much Time Does This All Take?
9. Am I Being Nice Enough to My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend?
10. Should We Tell Our Kids?
11. And What About Co-workers?
12. What Can Go Wrong?

Is There Only One Way to Do It?

There are many, and choosing which one suits you depends on a lot of factors: Are you currently in a relationship? If you are, do you want other relationships to take equal priority? Do you want to fall in love with other people or just have sex with them? A non-exhaustive taxonomy.

Open Relationship: In a strictly technical sense, this is when you and your partner can have sexual, but not romantic, relationships with other people.

Swinging: A couple who have sex or dates with other people as a duo.

Hierarchical polyamory: When you and your partner can have relationships — romantic or sexual — with other people but have agreed to remain each other’s primary partner. You might pursue these relationships as a couple or separately.

Nonhierarchical polyamory: There are no primary partners in this scenario — everyone is on an equal footing.

Solo-poly: A single person pursuing multiple intimate or sexual relationships while trying to avoid riding the Relationship Escalator. This means you’re not particularly interested in, say, sharing a home or bank account with any one person.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

Wait, What Is a ‘Metamour’?

Becoming non-monogamous doesn’t mean you have to join a ten-person polycule or memorize ‘The Ethical Slut.’ Still, there are terms that many non-monogamous people will use while discussing their arrangements, and it’ll make things easier to familiarize yourself with at least a few.

Comet partner: A romantic or sexual partner who might live far away or appears in your life only occasionally. When around, you pick up your tryst, but there are no obligations to one another between these meeting points.

Compersion: The pleasure you derive from your partner enjoying romantic or sexual happiness or success with a person who isn’t you. The opposite of jealousy.

Kitchen-table polyamory: A style in which everybody in a polyamorous network — primary partners, tertiary partners, metamours — is encouraged to form close and friendly relationships with one another (without necessarily being romantically involved) to the point where they can all sit down and have dinner without its being weird.

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Metamour: Your partner’s other partners whom you are not also dating.

Monogamish: Often attributed to relationship columnist Dan Savage, this arrangement is at the halfway point of monogamous and open: You and your partner are exclusively committed to each other but allowed purely physical encounters on the side. Think of Cameron and Daphne from White Lotus, season two.

New-relationship energy (NRE): The all-consuming, chemistry-altering high that accompanies the early period of being romantically involved with a new person. NRE, and the chance to experience it many times, is cited as one of the biggest perks of polyamory, but it’s also one of the biggest sources of anxiety when a partner is experiencing it with someone else.

Nesting partners: The partner(s) with whom you live. Not necessarily a primary partner.

One-penis policy (OPP): Probably the most-hated concept in the world of ethical non-monogamy; this is often when a cis straight man only allows his female partner to sleep with another person who doesn’t have a penis.

Polysaturated: When you’ve reached maximum capacity on partners and/or time.

Primary partners: For people who practice hierarchical non-monogamy, this is the relationship that comes above all others in terms of time, commitment, loyalty — sometimes the person you share a home, finances, or children with. If you have a primary partner, you might refer to your other partners as secondary or tertiary.

Relationship escalator: This refers to the way in which monogamous people, by default, “level up” their romantic relationships: how they go from dating to becoming exclusive to living together to getting married to merging finances to having children. A process that many non-monogamous people want to avoid or at least question.

Vee structure: A three-person arrangement in which one person acts as the “hinge,” or point of connection, while the other two don’t have a romantic or physical relationship with one another.

Veto Power: If you’re in a primary partnership, you may grant each other the ability to call for a change in each other’s outside relationships — whether they’re spending too much time with a person or you simply object to them dating that person as a whole. A controversial concept within the poly world.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

How Do I Broach This With My Partner?

There are so many ways this conversation could go wrong. So we asked three couples who handled it well — and one who might have handled it better — to tell us how they first proposed it.

Julia told Matt she had a crush.

Ages: 41 and 39
Open for: slightly more than a year

Julia: After we had our child, I went through a few years of lacking sexual interest. It got to the point where it felt like I might never be interested in having sex again and that would be fine. That began to change in May 2022. I started having a crush on someone. I didn’t know if I was even going to tell Matt, but I didn’t want to repress this part of myself. And I didn’t want to cheat on him. Eventually, I told him about this crush, how I was feeling different and vibrant. I said, “I’m feeling more open about my sexuality and more interested in exploring it.” He said, “Are you asking to open the marriage?”

Matt: We talked and cried for hours. But I knew it made no sense to hold her back. I was like, I’m not going to get in your fucking way.

Julia: It was still an unresolved idea, and we sat with it for a week. I never wanted to push it, I wanted to wait for him to be the one to suggest it. Eventually, he said, “I don’t want to hold you back from being yourself.”

Misty reminded Ari of an old conversation.

Ages: 29 and 29
Open for: 3 years

Misty: The conversation happened after Ari came out as nonbinary. I brought up these conversations we had had in college about having threesomes. I used to say, “I would only do it if it was two guys. I’m not gay.” He’d say: “I’d do it if it were two girls. I’m not gay.” So at the time we thought, Okay, well, then we’re never going to do this.

Ari: You had just come out as pansexual. You said, “Maybe we can talk about what it would look like for me to start exploring that part of my sexuality.” I was shocked at my own response because in the past I’ve been very territorial and heavily monogamous. But I was like, “Yeah, let’s start talking about it.”

Misty: You had the moral high ground of, “Oh, my wife is coming out to me. This is me honoring someone’s queerness.” Literally a few months later, at my birthday party, there was a girl there we were really into, and the threesome happened. The next day, we were like, “Wow, that was fun. Should we download Feeld?” I do think the first conversation was deceptively easy.

Steven and Andrew talked about flirting.

Ages: 45 and 39
Open for: 7 years

Steven: Andrew can tell me every single day that I look great, that I look sexy. And of course I want to hear those things, but there’s a difference between your husband telling you that and someone you’re not married to saying it.

Andrew: Every year, we’d go to this Christmas party. It was lots of gay men on Broadway. They were all beautiful, and it was a party full of flirting. I remember one time asking Steven afterward, “How do you feel about me flirting with other people?” Because I felt the same way Steven did — a beautiful man at that party can make me feel sexy in a way that my husband can’t. So we discussed those feelings and talked about how we both thought it was healthy. That was a gateway for us.

Eva gave Tomas an ultimatum.

Ages: 30 and 30
Open for: 8 years

Tomas: I was in Europe, she was in the U.S., and she wasn’t happy with the relationship. We got to a stage where she said, “Either we open it up or we have to break up.”

Eva: I obviously know now that in the literature there’s this idea of non-monogamy by coercion, and that isn’t great. But it was challenging to do long distance. Also, Tomas was my first serious relationship, and I had this fear that I would settle too early. I wanted to date other people.

Tomas: It was not something I ever considered. I always saw myself in a monogamous relationship and married with kids and all that. But we talked about it over a few months, which helped.

Eva: At the beginning, he thought I was trying to find a way to replace him. Over time, when he realized that wasn’t happening, he was more fine with it.

Should We Come Up With Some Rules?

Illustration: Jim Stoten

When couples start being non-monogamous, there are, in general, two kinds of rules they tend to set. The first is about the structure of the arrangement. Are you seeing new people as a duo, or is it okay to pursue an outside relationship on your own? Are you remaining each other’s primary partners, or are you eliminating the hierarchy entirely? Breaking these kinds of rules can feel like a violation or at least require serious negotiation. A few years ago, Alice and her husband opened their marriage. They knew they wanted to date together and had started seeing another couple but hadn’t set firm rules. One day, the four of them were together at a food festival in Brooklyn. “I had to go off somewhere, and the other husband had to go off somewhere. So my husband and the woman were left at this food festival and ended up going back to our apartment together and then slept together,” she says. “We hadn’t clearly said, ‘No, that’s not allowed.’ It was murky. But I felt really betrayed and devastated, which I think is hard for people outside of the lifestyle to understand.”

The second kind of rules are of the more tactical, logistics-y variety. Keep your wedding ring on always, for example, or no sleepovers at home, or no more than two dates with other people per week. Nearly every couple we spoke to said that these types of rules are more like training wheels: important to set up and follow in the beginning to make everyone feel safe but likely to fall off as people get more comfortable. Brittany and Roy gave each other curfews, which they stuck to in the beginning, until needing to be home at a certain time started to make them feel constrained and they realized they didn’t really care. It became a specific request for specific circumstances, like if one of them was sick. Blake and Paula had the “no sex in the shared bed” rule for a while, “but at a certain point I was like, ‘I personally don’t care anymore whether you have sex with someone else in our bed,’” says Paula. “This does not seem important to me. ‘Go forth and let’s see how it feels.’ And then you did it and I did it. And we were both like, ‘Oh, this is fine. We don’t care.’” Some non-monogamous people are skeptical of rules in general. “I think a path for success for an open couple is to be able to be very present, treat every moment as if it’s unique,” says Robert. His partner, Olivia, adds, “If you had a set of rules, it would almost feel very strict, like monogamy.”

Where Do I Meet People?

Unless you live in Brooklyn or San Francisco (and even if you do), chances are you’re meeting people on the apps. Many default to Feeld, the non-monogamy and kink-friendly dating app, but you could do just as well somewhere like Hinge, matching only with others who label themselves non-monogamous. If you and your partner are dating separately, you might consider acting as each other’s wingman. After Toni opened her marriage, she found that she was having trouble meeting women. “I joined several apps, and nothing was really happening for me,” she says. Her husband, Tom, started matching with people he could potentially set her up with on Feeld. To one woman, Clarissa, he wrote, ‘Hey, my wife would love to speak with you separately without me, are you okay if I connect you?” then put Clarissa and Toni in a group chat. The two of them dated for a few months.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

Does My Wife Want to Hear About My Night?

Some couples who date separately follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — this can work well for those who like a little secrecy or just don’t want to talk about everything. But more often, couples like to share at least some details about how their respective love lives are going. Some ways to make those conversations less fraught.

Don’t debrief immediately.

“When we get home from a date with somebody else, that’s not the time to talk about it,” says Ethan, who opened his marriage three years ago. In that moment, he says, the most important thing is to reassure your partner: “Hey, I came home to you, and I want to be with you.” He adds, “Then, after some time has gone by, you can say, ‘How did the date go?’ It’s easier the second day.”

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And don’t go into every detail.

Even if you and your partner want to be transparent with each other, it doesn’t necessitate giving a play-by-play. For one thing, too much information could send your partner into a spiral of anxiety or insecurity. Plus it’s not always the most considerate to the partners who aren’t in the room. “It feels a little bad to talk about every little thing you did with somebody, especially if they don’t have the ability to tell their own story,” says Blake, who has been partnered for ten years and poly for seven. “It’s just bad manners.”

But do consider sharing breakthroughs.

The one exception to Blake and his wife Paula’s rule is when they have a sexual first. “The first time I fisted someone, I was like, ‘Oh my God, Blake,’” Paula says. Another time, Blake called her with news. “I was like, ‘I fucked a guy in the butt,’” Blake says. “We celebrated.”

And findings.

“There’s one guy that I was with, and it was just a fabulous experience,” says Emily, who is married to Ethan. “I told him I couldn’t squirt. He said, ‘I am telling you, you can,’ and at the end of a four-hour session with him, I squirted for the first time.” Upon hearing about this, Ethan felt insecure. “But then I said, ‘Okay, what did he do? Let me learn,’” he says. “Now I think we need to send him Christmas cards.”

Should We Sleep With Them on the First Date?

If you’re a couple on a date with another couple, there are things to consider that you don’t have to think about as a single on a date with another single. “We’ve been a lot of couples’ first dates after they’ve opened up their relationship,” says Amelia, who frequently dates other couples with her husband, Chris. Below, the two share some advice.

Amelia: We’ve been together eight years, and it’s exciting to see that charming first-date persona anew in your partner.

Chris: But we often notice that other couples seem unsure of what they want out of the situation. We will say, “What are you guys hoping for?” And they’ll say, “We never really talked about it.” So we’re often putting the brakes on. People will want to go out for drinks, then go back to their place, and it’s like, “No, it would be better if you guys went home, processed your feelings, and then let us know if you’re both interested.” A red flag is when one partner seems overly excited and the other is pulling back. And sometimes two people just clearly want different things. So we try to really communicate — like, we’ll say, “Hey, are you in this pile of eight people because you want to be, or are you in it because you feel like you need to be?”

Amelia: When dating together, we have pretty good game: We’ll tee each other up to be charming. But sometimes we just have more of a connection with only one of the people in the couple: Our current girlfriend and boyfriend both started out as part of other couples. Things didn’t work out with the other partner, but we kept seeing them.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

Am I Being Nice Enough to My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend?

If you’re not in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation, you may find yourself getting to know your partner’s partners, otherwise known as your metamours.

Don’t think of them as rivals.

When it comes to her husband’s girlfriends, Ali goes out of her way to avoid acting territorial. “I’m not in competition with these women. It’s not like, I’m more important because I am his wife. I am here to make sure that their needs are being met as well as mine,” she says. In the past, she’s given her phone number to new people her husband is dating in case they’re feeling unsure about him and want to talk. She’ll also intervene to make sure her husband is being a good boyfriend. “He has a girlfriend that he’s been with for two years,” she says. “I know the relationship is important, so sometimes I’ll facilitate. I’ll ask, ‘Have you FaceTimed or seen Daphne lately?’”

It’s okay to say, “Hey, this is our thing.”

Alejandra recently went on a trip upstate with Diego (her primary partner), Ivy (Diego’s partner), and Nathan (Ivy’s partner). It was the first vacation the group had taken together, and Alejandra pulled her metamour, Ivy, aside. “In bed, I refer to Diego a lot as ‘Daddy,’ and the one thing that I asked Ivy not to do in front of me on this trip was call him that because that might make me uncomfortable,” Alejandra said. “Ivy was like, ‘Oh, that’s totally fine. I’ve never called him that in my life.’ I was like, ‘Great.’”

But also, it’s not all on you.

A lot of the responsibility lies with the hinge, or mutual partner, in making sure nobody feels neglected. “When you are the middle person, you need to make sure that you’re giving equal amounts of attention to those two people,” Alejandra says. “It can be mental gymnastics: Okay, I held this person’s hand. So I have to hold this person’s hand. Oh, I gave this person a kiss. Oh, fuck, I want to make sure that everyone feels loved.” On their trip upstate, Diego, the hinge, was openly affectionate with Ivy in front of Alejandra, but later, when Alejandra began feeling insecure, he reassured her. Alejandra describes the situation: “I’m like, I’ve gained about 20 pounds, so I do not feel super-comfortable in my skin, and Ivy’s gorgeous. As soon as I felt that, I just started talking about it in front of everyone, and Diego told me some nice things, that I’m superhot and fuckable, and that’s what I needed. He did a great job. I would love to go on a little trip with them all again.”

But if your metamour is giving you a genuinely bad feeling, don’t ignore it.

Ali recalls a former metamour who grew angry after she and her husband tried to set boundaries. “She told him she had HPV, which is not a scary thing to most people, but I have a family history of cancer,” Ali says. “I said that certain sex acts are off the table, and she ended up exploding on him on his birthday while he was with his family, just keeping him on the phone for hours and hours.” The relationship ended on its own, but if it hadn’t, Ali would’ve intervened. “The language would have been, ‘I noticed so-and-so is treating you in this way, and I feel like you deserve better.’”

How Much Time Does This All Take?

You might be thinking at this point, I have a job, and a partner, and friends, and hobbies. How in the world am I going to make time for dating, and then talking about dating, on top of all of that? Some non-monogamous couples keep shared Google calendars or reserve one night a week for each other. Julia, who is in an open marriage with her husband, Matt, breaks down how they manage their week-to-week and what she’s had to give up to make room.

Matt and I have an agreement about how much time we can spend with another person weekly. Spending a whole evening out once a week, either Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, is totally fine; usually, it’s after we have dinner with our young child, so from 7 p.m. till 1 a.m. And then we’re okay with each other sleeping over somewhere else once every two weeks.

Right now, I feel at capacity with one secondary partner and my husband. If my one secondary partner were way more casual, then maybe I could date two people. In order to keep my nuclear family my priority, the amount of time I put toward this other relationship has a maximum. I’d guess it takes up, or keeps me away from Matt, eight to 12 hours a week, depending on if I stay over at my partner’s or not.

I think I’ve ended up sacrificing my more introverted hobbies. So I’ve done less reading. The gardening and yard work and just a lot of home-improvement stuff I let go to the wayside. I’ve done less crafts. I think Matt has too. I know he’s put aside house projects because he needs time to go on dates. He used to do a lot more woodworking.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

Should We Tell Our Kids?

Some poly people prefer not to tell every single person in their lives — it simply seems unnecessary, or they don’t feel like explaining or receiving judgment. Others find it more challenging, logistically and emotionally, to keep it private. (What if someone spots you out and thinks you’re cheating? Or you need to tell work you’re leaving early to pick up your partner’s child?) Writer Molly Roden Winter explains how she navigated talking to her children about her and her husband’s open marriage.

My husband and I never planned to tell our children about our open marriage. But seven years after we took our first fumbling steps toward non-monogamy, I got off a plane to find a series of text messages from my then-13-year-old son, Daniel. “Mom,” he wrote, “are you and Dad in an open marriage?” My husband, Stewart, had left his OKCupid profile open on his laptop, and Daniel had seen it.

I found a spot against the wall of the Houston airport to call him. When Daniel picked up, I began by telling him how happy his father and I were, how we were always honest with each other. But Daniel’s main question surprised me. “I get that Dad has time for it,” he asked. “But when do you do it?” This question brought me relief: Like many mothers with a full-time job, I’d worried that I wasn’t spending enough time with my children, and using precious nonworking hours to go on dates made me feel particularly guilty. Here was proof that, in Daniel’s mind at least, I was around so often he couldn’t fathom my managing to be anywhere else.

Daniel, the eldest of my two boys, had always been eminently reasonable. As an infant, he cried only when he needed something, and in elementary school, Daniel’s teachers often commented on his extraordinary comfort level with adults and his ability to mediate conflicts among his peers. With him, I had always leaned toward honesty: I’d told him about my limited drug use as a teenager, my fraught relationships with eating and body image, and my family’s history of mental illness. But speaking to my son about my sex life felt far more difficult. “I don’t do it very often,” I lied.

Daniel seemed satisfied, but over the next few weeks, once I returned to Brooklyn, he was consumed with curiosity about my whereabouts. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Are you really going to see a friend? Are you sure you’re going to the gym?” Stewart, meanwhile, continued to come and go as he pleased. “Why doesn’t Daniel ask where you’re going?” I asked Stewart one night. “Why doesn’t anyone seem to care if fathers have sex, but every mother is supposed to be the goddamn Virgin Mary?” Stewart offered to speak to Daniel, who afterward apologized to me. “I’m sorry I’ve been asking where you’re going all the time,” he said. “I know it’s private.”

“It’s okay, honey,” I answered. “It’s just that I don’t think you actually want to know if I’m on a date. And sometimes I really am just going out with friends or to the gym.” Daniel nodded. He’d try not to ask, he said, “but if I do, can you just lie if you have a date?” He seemed to agree: My dishonesty was also in his best interest.

While Daniel had always been compliant and even-tempered, his younger brother, Nate, had a penchant for emotional extremes. At the end of our phone call in the Houston airport, I’d asked Daniel to put away his father’s laptop; while he may have been mature enough to handle the truth, I hoped to keep our open marriage hidden from his younger brother as long as possible. But four years after Daniel called me in Houston, I was in my bedroom when I heard a scream from downstairs. Nate burst in with Stewart’s old iPhone in his hand. “Mom!” he shouted. “Dad’s cheating on you!” He had found pictures of Stew with his girlfriend.

Rather than asking questions stoically and matter-of-factly, as Daniel had when he first discovered Stewart’s dating profile, Nate’s eyes were wide, his breathing rapid. “Are you getting a divorce?” he asked. No, I said. He asked me who the woman was. “You don’t need to know who,” I said. “The important thing is I know who she is, and Dad isn’t cheating on me. Cheating means you lie, and Dad and I always tell each other the truth.”

There I was, standing on the same line between boundaries and honesty, exactly where I’d stood with Daniel four years earlier. Yet what I’d learned from Daniel was only halfway applicable. While Daniel was a classic introvert — often cutting discussions short in order to process his feelings alone — Nate was more like me, an extrovert who preferred to talk through complex emotions. Tell Nate too much, and he’d be anxious. Tell him too little, and he’d fill in details with his own worst fears. I checked my mind and my gut for signs of the old shame, but it registered only as a weak flicker. Calmly, I told Nate that his father and I had an open marriage. “Should we FaceTime Dad at his office?” I asked. While Stewart and I had spoken to Daniel separately when he first found out, I’d come to understand the importance of presenting a united front. Stewart and I proceeded to tell Nate our beliefs about open marriage — our commitment to each other, the emphasis on honest communication, the affirmation of each other as our life partners of choice. There was one question Nate came back to over and over again. “Just promise me you guys still really love each other,” he said.

In the months after, additional questions arose. “Are you sleeping with my orthodontist?” he asked. “No,” I responded. “Non-monogamy doesn’t mean you sleep with everyone. And I would never get involved with someone you know.”

“Cool,” he said, relieved. Then, a few days later: “Do you and Dad still like having sex with each other?” I said “yes,” to which Nate replied, “Okay, okay. Don’t say anything more!” Over time, Nate’s questions became less frequent. Stewart and I had always been affectionate with each other in front of the kids, but now I often saw Nate peeking around corners when Stew and I hugged, or jumping between us happily when we held hands on weekend outings or family vacations. And if Stewart and I fought in front of the kids, we tried to make sure they bore witness to our reconciliation as well.

Daniel, who is now an adult, recently confessed that back when he was 13, he’d been more upset about the open marriage than he’d let on. Like Nate, he’d equated open marriage with infidelity, fearing that any arrangement outside the conventions of monogamy was verboten. Would his parents stay together? Would the foundation of our family crumble beneath his feet? “It’s okay, though, Mom,” he said, registering my panic. “I’m fine with it now.” What helped, he said, was that nothing actually did change: My and Stewart’s marriage remained strong. Plus, he said, he grew up. It is tempting to believe that the choices we parents make are helping to shape our kids into confident, secure adults, but our children, ultimately, will become who they will become — maybe thanks to us, maybe in spite of us, and maybe a little bit of both.

Portions of this article are from the book MORE: A Memoir of Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter, to be published on January 16, 2024 by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Molly Roden Winter.

And What About My Co-workers?

Katie Coyne, the environmental officer for the city of Austin, suggests being casual about it.

I’m married, and we’ve been poly for about two years. I have a public-facing job. It’s really important for me to feel like I’m not hiding anything about myself or hiding people who are important to me. I have it sort of worked out now. With people I’m closer with, I’ll just slide it in casually. For instance, when I was dating someone who has kids, I was going to soccer games and doing some part-time co-parenting. So at a happy hour with my staff, when someone asked what I was doing over the weekend, I said, “I’m going to my partner’s kid’s soccer game.” He was like, “Oh, I didn’t know you and your wife had kids.” I said, “Oh, we don’t. It’s my partner; I’m polyamorous.” The only person I was afraid to tell was my boss because he’s pretty religious. But the day after another partner and I broke up, we had an all-day executive-team coaching retreat. At the end of the day we were going to happy hour, and I said to him, “Hey, most of the rest of the executive team knows this about me, but I wanted to tell you that I am upset because my girlfriend and I broke up last night. I’m polyamorous.” He didn’t know how to react, but he’s adapted. A few months ago, I even took a date to a fundraiser. One of the organizers was like, “Oh, is this your partner?” And I said “No, actually, we’re on a date!” And my boss was like, “Great to meet you.” Everyone’s kind of rolling with it.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

What Can Go Wrong?

More people means more interpersonal dynamics — double or triple the giddiness, maybe, but also double or triple the jealousy, anxiety, abandonment, and painful breakups.

The hierarchy might shift.

For the first five years of our open relationship, Eva and I were each other’s primary relationship. Any outside relationships never got super-serious. I was under the impression that that would always be the case. Then, two years ago, Eva met this other person and they fell in love. She started spending more nights at his house, and the relationship developed to a stage where Eva was very emotionally involved. Now her other boyfriend and I are on an equal footing in terms of the importance in the relationship. We celebrated her birthday together this year. — Tomas

You might become a third wheel.

One time, we met a girl who showed interest primarily in Ethan but said she was also interested in me. We had her over for drinks, and when things carried into the bedroom, it was clear that the focus was really him. It was our first threesome. At one point, we were talking about what we all wanted. So I said to Ethan, “What do you want? I want you to have what you want.” And he said he wanted to fuck the other girl. Then they went off to do their thing and I wasn’t involved. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I left the house. —Emily

Your partner might date someone who wants you gone.

The first time that Blake fell in love with someone else, it felt clear to me that she hoped that she would win him over and that he would leave me for her. When I met her in person, it didn’t feel to me like, Oh, she’s not ready to meet me. It felt like, She’s bummed about me. She was sad. She did not want me in the picture. Since then, I’ve met other women Blake has been in love with and it’s been great. And I’m able to look back and say, “The vibes were really off.” —Paula

They might realize they’d rather be monogamous.

We met on OKCupid and had both set ourselves as non-monogamous. We’d both just gotten out of eight-year relationships. She and her ex had decided to be non-monogamous to try to save their relationship. Over the course of ours, she basically figured out a poly relationship was not really what she wanted. I was encouraging her to date. I thought over time she’d become more comfortable. But she didn’t. She’d get really anxious and have a lot of fear and jealousy when I was trying to date. She’d say, “Hey, please don’t do this. I’m not ready for it.” There was this sense that I was somehow hurting her, and she felt like she was cheating on me when she went on dates with other people. I felt constricted. And then there was the fact that we kind of wanted different things — like, she wanted to have a child very soon. Over time, once we realized this feeling wasn’t going away, we started talking about ending the relationship. We’d do this thing sometimes where we’d lie around and scroll through OKCupid and try to find people for each other. She came across this one guy’s profile one day, and I was like, “Oh my God, you have to, like, go out with him. He’s just like me except better for you than I am.” And she did, and she ended up married to him, and they had children soon after. —Nikhil

You might tire of your secondary status.

I was dating somebody — I’ll call him Michael. And he was in a primary relationship with Michelle.

At the time, they were making a lot of space for loving other people and inviting those lovers or boyfriends into their home and on vacations with them. I was their secondary. I was very connected to them, and I very much fell in love with Michael. Michael very much fell in love with me. I was supporting Michael while he prepared to propose to Michelle. But then I went through a really rough period. I needed more emotional support than he could give me. I was impulsive and broke up with him. I knew Michelle was consoling him for many months afterward. A few years later, Michelle reached out to me. She’d asked seven of his lovers and former lovers to come surprise him for his birthday. We tied him up and throttled him in complete silence. So it was ultimately a happy ending. —Sonya


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They might leave you behind.

Seven years ago, I met this woman. I was mostly monogamous and single. She was very up front that she had a boyfriend and they were open. We started dating, and for those two years, I wasn’t dating multiple people — I just was dating her, and she really just wanted one female companion and him. The beginning of the end was when her and her boyfriend’s relationship started to become codified in traditions. He proposed to her, and it threw me. It made the balance beam that I was on feel uneven and one-sided. He invited me to the wedding, but she was like, “Uh, no.” She said she didn’t want to have to explain to her family who I was at the wedding. It felt like she chose him over me, like, “You’re not fully included.” I think I saw her one more time after the wedding, but it was just awkward. —M.J.

You two might drift apart.

A few years after my husband and I opened our marriage, I met this woman. We fell in love really, really fast. One morning, after she slept over, my husband said, “Seeing you this excited about someone else really freaks me out.” But I’d seen him happy with people over the years we’d been open, so he let me give it a shot. Eventually, he even suggested she move in. Now, I live in very separate worlds with them in the same house. He’s a very tidy person. She loves to play music, cook, be messy. He’s reserved; she loves to give attention. My husband and I haven’t had sex in over a year. We love each other, but our connectedness just doesn’t run as deep as mine and hers. —Caroline

Or it might just break your relationship.

My partner and I started dating in college, and we stayed together after. She was always interested in alternative relationship modalities, and over the years she brought it up a couple of times. I’d be like, “Okay, that’s interesting. Let me think about it.” Eventually, when we moved cities, I was like, “Why don’t we give this a shot?” In the beginning, it felt really fun. Then she got more serious with someone and it became more difficult to talk about with each other. She was never anything but transparent about the facts. I would ask her what she was doing one day, and she’d say, “Oh, I’m seeing this person.” At one point, they started taking trips together, so I knew they were getting more serious.

I felt upset and wondered if I should be doing something similar. I started looking around more on Hinge and found somebody I had amazing chemistry with. Eventually, my feelings toward her and hers toward me grew so strong that I was like, I have to make a decision. It’s gotten out of hand, emotionally. The main relationship was suffering. Neither of us was putting the same attention into that that we were into the other relationships.

I ended up breaking things off with my partner. The conversation was consuming. I feel like I’ve never been so focused on something. I walked around the city for days and days thinking, What should I do? At one point, she asked, “Well, would you change your mind if I ended things with the other person?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t know. The cat’s kind of out of the bag.” And she said, “Well, honestly, I don’t know whether I’d be able to do it and hurt the other person in this way.” I don’t know if we’d have stayed together if we’d stayed closed. Or if it would have been the right decision to stay together. —Lucas

All names have been changed at the request of the subjects.

A Practical Guide to Modern Polyamory