What Does a Polycule Actually Look Like?

Meet Nick and Sarah and Anna and Alex …

Photo: Pierpaolo Ferrari and Maurizio Cattelan
Photo: Pierpaolo Ferrari and Maurizio Cattelan

When Nick, a boyish and optimistic 30-something, was dating in New York in his 20s, he learned the unspoken code among the city’s daters: “Everyone’s non-monogamous until you have to define the relationship.” People meet, they date each other, but they also date other people until either one person reveals they are unwilling to commit and ends things, someone lies and keeps dating around while pretending they are only dating you, or there’s a mutual decision to transition into monogamy and ride the relationship until the wheels fall off (or, alternatively, until marriage). “It’s like there’s a general standard that everyone agrees to and you don’t really have to dig into the details or negotiate the specifics, and it just works for most people.”

Perhaps it was his naturally entrepreneurial spirit (Nick is in tech) or the way first loves can become the template for all other relationships — he realizes now that when his high-school girlfriend left for college and they agreed to stay together but date other people, it was actually his first time in an open relationship — but Nick noticed when he got to the DTR moment, instead of “We should break up,” or “Okay, just us for as long as we can, hopefully forever,” he could say, “I want to commit to you, but I want to keep dating other people, too.” And maybe someone would agree to that. He found one someone and then, eventually, his now-wife, Sarah.

“Non-monogamy is really just designing the bounds of what we want in our relationship and what we’re comfortable with,” he says. For Nick and Sarah, the relationship design looks like this: Nick and Sarah are married. Sarah has had multiple other committed relationships while married to Nick. Currently, Nick has a girlfriend, Anna, who has a husband, Alex — all the names in this story have been changed to protect their privacy — and Alex has other people with whom he explores his desires.

In terms of the (frankly alienating) ethical non-monogamy glossary, these two couples are part of a polycule. They’re practicing polyamory, meaning they each have partners and maintain concurrent romantic or intimate relationships, not just a side of casual sex partners, though they can have those, too. They are part of the same friend group and sometimes wind up at the same parties and have semi-regular one-on-one hangs.

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The easiest way to explain all of this might be in the love language of most ethically non-monogamous people: Google Calendar. Sarah and Nick share a calendar. Nick and Anna share a calendar. Alex and Anna share a calendar. Sarah and Anna do not share a calendar but are aware of who has Nick’s time on any given day; same for Nick and Alex. They are Sarah and Nick and Anna and Alex, a modern polycule, living, laughing, loving, and doing a lot of therapy.

What they’re doing is not really new, but it feels utterly au courant as an increasing number of people consider what it looks like to add a person or persons to their relationships.

Nick has noticed more of his friends testing it out, he tells me. His large friend group tends to share interests in things like changing the world and psychedelics, and he mentions how many of them wind up hooking up with each other, hooking up with each other’s partners, and attempting to initiate play parties, he explains. “It’s like, ‘Come on, guys, not everyone is there!’”

“It gets sloppy,” says Anna.

In the modern era of ethical non-monogamy, in which Jessica Fern’s 2020 book, Polysecure, has become this generation’s The Ethical Slut and the dating app Feeld makes it easy to find people who want the same relationship structure you do, polyamory feels less like a caricature (horny Park Slope parents or Bushwick Gen-Zers in a commune) and more like just another way to date — the romantic equivalent of being plant-forward instead of vegan. At least from the outside. On the inside, achieving a successful polycule isn’t always so simple. Just ask Sarah and Nick and Anna and Alex.

Although they’d known each other for years, Nick and Sarah, a willowy brunette who oozes composed vulnerability, first got together at — where else? — a Burning Man camp. At the time, Sarah was “on a journey to reconnect with my body and learn about myself as a sexual being,” she says. She grew up in a small southern town, and her conservative and religious upbringing made her feel disconnected from desire. In her 20s, she’d started exploring sex-positive parties and learned about all different kinds of relationship structures, and she realized some form of ethical non-monogamy was appealing to her, she explains, to “not just live life in the traditional format I was sold as a kid.”

She had a long-term partner, but they were open, and that week at Burning Man, she was seeking an “intimacy partner” — someone to befriend, to talk to, to touch, to maybe have sex with. She found that someone in Nick. She recalls wanting to take the gamble with him; he seemed joyful and open-minded and comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. They had a “powerful, tremendous” week together that continued to reverberate even after they left the desert. For months, she called him from the West Coast, he left voice-note messages from New York, and they went on dates when they were in each other’s towns. They soon realized it wasn’t just a trick of the Playa.

Because you can cheat in a polyamorous arrangement, in spending more time together Nick had to acknowledge that the way they were dating violated the rules of his other relationship (for one, he was really only allowed to date other people casually). “I found myself wanting to push that a little bit and also being a little fearful that if I didn’t go explore this thing with Sarah, I wouldn’t know what kind of life I’d be missing,” recalls Nick. They were both sure enough that the intensity they were feeling wasn’t just “new-relationship energy,” the dopamine rush that someone gets when they start dating a person that can make for the scariest part of non-monogamy. “When your partner meets someone else and suddenly wants to spend all their time with another person,” says Nick, “it raises questions of, What does that mean for our relationship?

In this case, it meant those other relationships were at their end. Sarah moved across the country to be with Nick. They knew they wanted to be together; they also didn’t want to close themselves off to others. Just as they were figuring out what arrangement worked for them, COVID quarantine hit. For some time, their non-monogamous structure would be a theoretical exercise.

The thing about doing something in theory is that it leaves a lot of space for panic, for anxiety, for hypotheticals that sometimes feel truer than the actual situation. For example, in Nick’s previous relationship, there had been clear-cut rules: “You can hang out with your other partner once a week; always use condoms.” At first, he tried to impose the same rules when setting up guardrails for his dynamics with Sarah. “From the beginning,” said Nick, “Sarah resisted that. She was like, ‘I don’t understand why we would set a one-day-a-week max,’ or she would push it and be like, ‘Can we do two days a week?’ And then I would be like, ‘Whoa, what does that mean?’”

Sarah’s approach to all this is less labels-based and less rules-based, she explains: “I feel really deeply committed to the journey of the truth of my own soul. And I believe a lot in self-awareness and self-knowledge. That’s something that is always undulating and changing for me.” She has a habit of slipping into advanced therapyspeak, but as lofty as that approach is, she recognizes it takes some very real slogging in shit to make it work.

She describes the fears people often experience when they attempt a high-wire act like adding a whole other human to their existing relationship: What if you love someone else and then you leave me? In therapy, she talked about her need to possess someone fully, working through hypotheticals like, “If they even give a Christmas gift to this other partner of theirs, then somehow I’m not safe.” Even though they’d been in non-monogamous relationships before, they hadn’t been in non-monogamous relationships with each other. (“I often paraphrase that quote from Anna Karenina: “Every open or poly relationship is open or poly in its own way,” Nick says jokingly.) Eventually, she realized that everything was scary because it was new, and it wouldn’t stop being scary until they could “have the embodied experience that the heart can love many people.” To put it in human terms, they wouldn’t stop being afraid of all the what-ifs of polyamory until they actually did it.

Now Nick can’t remember any actual rules they set. “With Sarah and I, it’s a lot more values- and trust-based.”

While it seemed counterintuitive to the nontraditional relationship they were designing, not long after he met Sarah, Nick found himself wanting something with her he’d never wanted in other relationships — marriage and children. Nick proposed in the spring.

By then, the conversations they had during quarantine had stopped being theoretical. Sarah’s had a few other partners, and with each, it resulted in Nick’s having to sort through his own jealousy. When one of Sarah’s most recent relationships moved from casual to something serious, Nick felt the three of them needed to lay out clearer boundaries — together. When they got together to talk, Nick said he was fine with them hooking up, but he wasn’t comfortable with them having sex. “I thought, Okay, I’m giving you guys enough here,” he recalls. “You’re able to do everything besides that. Sex is a bigger thing.

I was surprised to hear this. If a person is open to being open, isn’t sex part of that, even if knowing your partner is with someone else is painful? Nick still isn’t sure what he was afraid of, he says. Over the phone, he unfurls his thoughts as though they’re still being processed. “When you’re having a sexual experience with someone, you can be like, Wow, that was great, and this person’s great, but it doesn’t change how I feel about my partner,” he says. “But if you’re on the other side of the situation, you have all these fears: If they have sex together, maybe it’ll create this emotional bond that I’m not able to compete with, or maybe that person will perform better than me.” In retrospect, Nick realized he just wanted some control over the situation.

Backed up against Nick’s boundaries, Sarah felt frustrated. Instead of accepting his terms and moving more slowly, which she realizes now might have been better, she tried to resolve his jealousy, asking abstract questions instead of more practical ones — “How can we get curious about what the psychological experience is for you? How do you need to feel loved by me?” — while gently pushing for no veto power. Eventually, Nick agreed.

Around the same time, Anna was navigating her own bumpy relationship moment. All of the friends traveled to a destination wedding, including someone Anna had started dating a couple months before — really the most substantial relationship she’d had since she and her husband, Alex, had opened up. But that relationship had just ended. (It’s fine now, Anna says. She saw it coming.) At the wedding, feeling emotional over the breakup, she confided in Nick and found herself opening up to him in a way that surprised her. She had known him for years, since a game night at his apartment when he taught her how to play Settlers of Catan. (“He was so excited to teach me,” Anna recalls.) While he comforted her, it should be noted — because Anna noted it — that because it was a tropical climate, he had his shirt unbuttoned. She’d never noticed before that he had “sneaky abs.”

Nick had only recently learned Anna had opened her marriage. The boundaries had expanded, and in that expansion, Nick felt emboldened to act on an attraction he’d had since that Catan night, and he asked Anna out. Despite the sneaky abs, Anna declined. She was still too heartbroken, but for three months they kept chatting. Finally, she sent him a text: “How about that coffee?”

The coffee was not really a date, but she still asked Alex if he was comfortable with it. When that went well, Nick and Anna had their first date two weeks later. They’ve been together since, Anna recalls from her plant-filled apartment. She goes puppy dog remembering going to his apartment, which he’d negotiated with Sarah to have for the night. They had takeout and conversation and then a “really beautiful, sexy make-out” that surprised her. “I thought it was going to be very cute and casual, but there were intense sparks.”

She came home to Alex, and as is their post-date care ritual, she gave him a big hug and checked on his day, making sure he felt loved and supported. Occasionally, on nights like this, she would shower before bed — especially if she came home smelling of a strong cologne. “But Nick doesn’t wear strong cologne,” Anna says with a smile, as if Nick had fit the glass slipper, a perfect addition to her relationship. The time they’ve dated has been “so wonderful and lovely and heart-opening and healing,” she gushes. “I’ve never called anyone my boyfriend before in a non-monogamous context. And now we’re at 11 months, and it’s just been one of the most heart-expansive experiences outside of my marriage.”

When a polycule is well oiled and running smoothly, even the stickier situations are part of what makes it good. Some time after the polycule coalesced, Nick and Sarah had a wedding — well, less a “wedding” and more a party that was an expression of love and community and what they stood for in their relationship. Alex and Anna were there. Over the course of the party, Anna recalls feeling like everyone was checking on her — wondering how she felt about Nick getting married, wondering if it was awkward or painful for her. In reality, she and Alex were supporting one of Sarah’s partners, she recalls. “I was really the only one at the wedding who understood the challenge around the dynamic and tried to support them through visible sadness and the angst and discomfort. I think a lot of people then perceived, because another partner was going through it, that I must also be going through it, but I honestly was just having a great time.”

Celebrating your lover while they marry their partner while supporting your lover’s lover’s lover while they go through it is an example of what Anna calls “living life on hard mode.” “There’s a real sense of connection that I think comes from doing hard things, and I’m someone who likes to do hard things,” Sarah explains further.

“Some people like to run marathons. We like to do polyamory, complex relationship stuff. Sarah’s favorite activity for the two of us to do is couples therapy,” Nick says, smiling. “Navigating the relationship dynamics is kind of generally a fun thing for us. It’s like for relationship nerds.”

For Anna and Alex, maintaining the health of their primary relationships is the most important element in all of this. “If there were a situation where Alex said, ‘Hey, I don’t feel comfortable or safe with this,’ I would have halted the coffee with Nick right away,” Anna says. Fortunately, she says, Alex has been supportive. They had opened their relationship after almost five years of being together. Alex, who had grown up in a less traditional family structure, wanted freedom to flirt or pursue attractions as they came up. Anna loved Alex’s analytical mind, but she also wanted someone who could provide more emotional intimacy, she tells me. To some, that might seem like a reason to end a relationship, but a perk of polyamory is if one person can’t meet all your needs, you can add someone new who fills in the holes. Early on, they set rules. They could only date together, and they could never date friends. Then they reset those rules, agreeing they could date separately — as long as the focus was always on strengthening what they had.

The polycule soon fell into a groove. Nick felt comfortable if Sarah wanted to have up to three overnights a week with her partner, though it normalized into one or two — she found she was actually too busy for any more than that. Nick and Anna have one date night a week, but sometimes he sees her every day, just for little bits. Nick and Anna have been able to take a weekend trip to Nick’s place outside of the city after negotiations and scheduling conversations with Alex and Sarah. At this stage, Nick has told his parents about Anna, and Anna, though she’s not out to her parents, has told her brother, who is mostly supportive.

Even over Zoom, Anna has features that instill jealousy — thick brown hair, camera-ready cheekbones, intense green eyes — and in considering how jealous I would feel if Anna (or honestly any of this polycule, because yes, reader, they are all hot) were my metamour, I imagine what it would be like, how destabilizing to watch your partner grow closer and more intimate and happier with another person; how impossible it sounds to really keep the foundation of your own relationship and your own self from getting totally rocked. I calculate how much energy it must take to adjust and adjust again and readjust some more. If one couple needs the apartment, where can the other couple go? If one person is sick and needs care, does that mean the other partner feels neglected for some time? If one couple is blissfully in love, what happens if the other begins to unravel? Does a breakup disturb the entire balance? In our talk, Anna wonders aloud what Sarah would have felt about her and Alex’s dynamic if Sarah hadn’t had a partner at the same time they got together. It’s not petty; it’s a necessary consideration. You have to think about what happens to the whole collective when any one part evolves separately.

Recently, Sarah moved out of her and Nick’s apartment and into a sublet of her own. She needed space to work through some “relationship issues” she was having with Nick. She’s broken up with her last partner. She’s got a lot of work. Nick was supportive of the decision and remains so — she recently decided to keep renting her own place for the next couple of months. “Since the beginning, I’ve kind of known our marriage is going to be a lot more like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s, where they lived on the same compound but had different houses,” he explains.

Still, he says, “supporting your partner while they are post-breakup is really weird.” The experience has activated some of his own abandonment fears. It’s left him wondering things like, Why am I alone tonight? Does Sarah really want to be with me? Are we always going to have to be in this complicated dynamic? Is she going to be there to support me?

Supporting your partner through their partner’s breakup is also weird. Nick and Anna had to have some conversations. “I needed to understand,” says Anna. “Will Sarah need some more support during this time? More care? From a logistics standpoint, will she be needing the house?” She and Nick are figuring out how Sarah’s choices affect their relationship, too.

“In my best times, I see it as an amazing opportunity to confront things and work through them,” Nick says. “In my worst times, I’m like, Oh God, why didn’t I choose a normal relationship, where, yes, I’m sure I would’ve felt claustrophobic and domestic and boring and not fully expressed. But it would’ve been stable and comfortable and maybe would’ve allowed me to go explore other things instead of having to spend so much of my energy navigating relationship stuff.”

Meanwhile, in her sublet, Sarah is reading books and making art and writing poetry. She and Nick have date nights, going to dinner and sometimes back to their place, but she returns to the apartment to be alone. “Something that comes up in polyamory is that you are navigating privacy,” she explains to me in a voice-note message. Sarah is more reserved, especially when it comes to sharing details about “tender” situations, and she’s also protective of the other members of her polycule. What one part of the polycule says about another could have huge, messy ripple effects throughout the whole group. There are things between her and her exes that Nick doesn’t know about, there are things between her and Nick that Anna doesn’t know about, and there are things she’s working through with herself that are just for her.

“I feel like last time we talked, I didn’t talk about the joy,” she says, changing the subject on a recent Zoom. She’s in her apartment, taking a break from mountains of work. “We just jumped into breakups.”

I’ve caught her on a good day. She’s in a cheery neon-green sweater, her hair thrown into a ponytail. She wants to talk about all the amazing moments her polycule (and other partnerships) have given her. She dated someone who loved gemology, and she loved learning about gems. She’s better at conflict resolution now. There are specific moments she cherishes: sitting between two partners on the couch, being at an event and holding her two partners’ hands at the same time. “Even though life isn’t the smoothest, when you can feel multiple people loving on you at the same time, I think that’s one of the greatest joys in life,” she says.

She thinks about the way her mother has aged and gotten sick, all without a strong support system. Then she remembers how last year Nick’s birthday and her grad-school graduation fell on the same day. She was so stressed out, but Anna stepped in to make his birthday cake and throw his party. “I’m just horrible at making birthday cakes! It’s like if my entire identity hinged on I have to be the perfect birthday-cake-maker — now I can recognize that’s not my love language.” If there’s any jealousy about Nick and Anna, it’s overshadowed by the realization that Nick, in being with Anna, is a fuller version of himself.

In her time alone, Sarah has realized how often she’s forced herself to be a “fake Pollyanna” (no pun intended) in situations because she feels as though she has to defend polyamory because people still don’t understand it. She’s struggled with time management. If there is one well-known joke about polyamory, it’s that it’s really just people with a scheduling kink — maybe true — but time is a finite resource and “making time” quickly becomes an expression of desire, of prioritization. For Sarah, there was never enough time to commit to people the way she wanted to. And there was jealousy.

She’s a bit obsessed with the concept of jealousy. When we land on the subject, which in conversations about a polycule, you do quite often, she jokes that she could spend hours talking about it — why it comes up in some relationships but not others, the different types of jealousy, how attachment styles fit into it. While she feels good about Nick and Anna — they’ve all settled into a happy rhythm, one that makes her feel safe — it wasn’t always like that with other partners. She still has to adjust when she sees a partner of hers engaging in PDA with someone else at a party — she just chooses to leave the room. She cites feeling uncomfortable if another friend casually mentions what a partner had done at a play party with someone else.

It’s little things like that, and her need for alone time, that have made navigating polyamory tricky for her. Right now, in a step back from ethical non-monogamy (or a “poly pause,” as it’s sometimes called in ENM-speak) — she’s not dating anybody else, and she’s focusing on working things out with Nick (and her career, and herself in general, she adds, a.k.a. mid-30s shit). But she’s realized the one thing she really appreciates about non-monogamy is the fluidity. “The ability to navigate commitments to yourself and what you need and commitments to other people from a place that says, ‘Okay, what do you need and what do I need?’” she says. “Instead of, ‘This is our only option and this is how it must go.’”

What Does a Polycule Actually Look Like?