Cons of Polyamory
From a polyamorous person
I’ve noticed a gap in discussions of polyamory, which is that there isn’t much accurate, frank discussion of the disadvantages of polyamory. From monogamous people you get “actually, all poly people spend all their time overwhelmed with jealousy” or “what if your girlfriend ignores you to spend all her time sleeping with Chad” or “poly people are not capable of love.” From poly people you get “well, polyamory leads to personal growth, and some people just don’t like personal growth.” (Looking at you, More Than Two.) Neither of these is what I would call a satisfying set of cons.
So let’s talk about why you might not want to be poly, from a happily polyamorous person.
My advice comes from my particular perspective. As such, it’s mostly about problems of polyamory for people in heavily polyamorous communities, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, and many college towns. If you’re in a community without many other poly people, you’re likely to experience different problems.
You might be obligate monogamous. Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
Some people are just not capable of polyamory, just like I’m not capable of monogamy. There are lots of deeply personal, individual reasons why someone might be obligate mono, just like there are lots of deeply personal, individual reasons why someone might be obligate poly. You never have to justify your decision to be monogamous to anyone.
Polyamory is not supposed to be difficult. Of course, there are difficult times in any relationship. There’s a natural process of adjustment to polyamory, especially if you’re opening up a previously monogamous relationship. But polyamory is supposed to make you happier and your life better. If you’re regularly sobbing yourself to sleep because you’re so jealous while your partner is on dates, then you are probably either in a bad relationship or obligate monogamous. If you feel like your relationships have lost some kind of specialness because you’re sharing sex and romance with multiple people, you’re probably obligate monogamous. You don’t have to do things that hurt you.
But in my experience most people can be either polyamorous or monogamous! So let’s talk about some other reasons you might not want to be poly.
Marginalization. This is another obvious one, so I’m not going to belabor it. The closet sucks. People concern-trolling about how you deserve better or how you’re going to get HIV and die sucks; people helpfully informing you that your partner is cheating on you sucks. In some locations, poly people face medical discrimination from their doctors. Some people lose jobs or child custody; some people’s families stop talking to them. In some countries, you can be deported for being polygamous. It’s a real cost.
Once you’re poly, you tend to stay poly. There’s an asymmetry between polyamory and monogamy. Once you break up with your monogamous partner, you’re free to begin a monogamous relationship or a polyamorous relationship. When you break up with your partner and you’re poly, you’re usually still dating other people, so you’re going to stay poly.
Of course, in theory, you can break up with all your partners and become monogamous. In general, however, people tend to have feelings about being broken up with. Breakups can end not only the romantic relationship but also the friendship; even if everyone involved is committed to preserving the friendship, breakups can strain the relationship for months or years afterward.
It’s also a huge load to put on a new monogamous relationship. You’ve been with someone for six or eight weeks, they’ve asked to define the relationship, and now you have to decide whether you’re going to fundamentally alter the nature of a bunch of relationships of eight years’ standing. It’s an enormous amount of commitment to make relatively early on, in a way that exclusivity isn’t for people who were straightforwardly single before.
In my experience, once people become polyamorous, even if they’re in theory capable of both monogamy and polyamory, they almost never become monogamous unless they have actively discovered that polyamory does not work for them.
Lack of role models. This is related to the marginalization point, but distinct. Millions of people have put decades of effort into making monogamy work. There are any number of advice books for monogamy-specific problems, like recovering your relationship after an affair. If you have a polyamory-specific problem—like “I think my partner’s husband is abusing her, what do I do?”—then you’re kind of making it up on your own. There are no best practices or explanations of common experiences. Sometimes, you’re the only person in your friend group who’s ever faced this problem. It can be quite lonely.
Similarly, a lot of the rules can be unclear. What can you do with a new partner without asking old partners? What does it mean for someone to be your primary partner, and what obligations do you have to them? Are you—as the Internet parlance goes—the asshole? It can be difficult to go somewhere without this sort of social norm.
Polyamory can be time-consuming. Polyamory doesn’t have to be time-consuming. In fact, polyamory often works very well for people who are married to their jobs, highly introverted, or otherwise lacking the energy for a primary relationship: they can easily maintain one or two secondary relationships with much less time commitment, and still experience sex, romance, and love. In some cases, they can even take the “uncle”/”aunt” role, and get to be involved in a child’s life without interrupting their personal ambitions which would get in the way of being a parent.
But let’s be honest here. A primary relationship and a couple of secondary relationships? Is pretty time-consuming! It can be very difficult to balance polyamory with work, hobbies, or raising a child. It’s easy to wind up neglecting your partners or other parts of your life that you care about.
Polyamory puts sex/romance on the table. For many people, monogamy is freeing, because they no longer have to manage the possibility that relationships will become romantic. The answer to “is this a date or not?” is “no.” You can be emotionally intimate with people without worrying that you’re leading them on or causing them to expect something you’re not willing to give them. If you invite someone over to watch a movie with you on your couch, they are not going to assume it is a euphemism for sex. “I have a boyfriend/girlfriend” (or, in very poly communities, “I’m monogamous”) is a polite way to turn people down without hurting their feelings.
In my experience, this benefit of monogamy is particularly useful to people who really want to network or for other reasons maintain Definitely Platonic connections with a lot of people, people who are not romantically interested in the vast majority of people they want to have friendships with, and people who find the process of dating very stressful and would rather just be done with But Do They Like Me Or Like Me Like Me.
So many long distance relationships. Poly people get into so many long distance relationships. Some people say that this is because long-distance relationships are low-cost if you are already living with someone you’re dating and because there’s often a shortage of poly people in many communities. However, poly people will totally get in long-distance relationships even if they have no partners in town and there are plenty of poly people around them. So I have no idea what’s up with this but I do want to warn you that polyamory comes with a high risk of knowing the current time in Australia off the top of your head.
Poly drama. In my experience, poly drama is kind of overrated. This is not because it isn’t common, to be clear. It’s because poly drama isn’t really poly drama, it’s community drama. Becoming polyamorous is like marrying in to a large immigrant family or moving to the shtetl. There are suddenly dozens of people who are relevant to your life, and you can’t get rid of them, and you got zero input into choosing any of them, and some of them you hate like burning fire, and sometimes Alice has a massive problem with Bob’s startup and for some reason no one can clearly explain this means that you can’t invite Carol to Eve’s party.
This is an unusual problem to have in our atomized individualist modern society, and so it makes sense that people attribute it to polyamory. But I think it’s pretty familiar to anyone who has spent time in, like, a church. If you want the benefits of community, then you have to put up with the drama inherent in communities.
Polyamory can also complicate drama: romance and sex tend to elicit strong feelings, which creates such perennial problems like “I want to have this person as my primary partner and they want me as their secondary,” “my partner is neglecting me for their shiny new lover,” and “your partner’s STI boundaries make me feel unimportant because I can’t do my favorite sex act anymore.” But I don’t know man it’s not like the shtetl is free of sex drama either.
Everyone is constantly all up in your business. People say that polyamory allows you to design your own relationships that work for you. This is true, in that doing anything that deviates from society’s expectations allows you to design your own relationships that work for you. But in another really important sense, it’s kind of… wrong?
If you’re monogamous, a lot of decisions only affect you and your partner. It’s really no one’s business what birth control method you choose, or how you allocate chores, or whether you consider it to be cheating for your partner to like selfies of hot girls on Instagram.
If you’re polyamorous, and you’re barebacking randos off Grindr without taking prep, this affects how much risk dozens of people have of getting HIV, and they will have opinions, and you will have to hear all of them. STIs are an example where the effect on other people is pretty obvious, but this happens with all kinds of shit. Your girlfriend absolutely has an opinion on your terrible relationship with your boyfriend that you’re not leaving for Uh Reasons Probably. Your metamour gets jealous when they don’t get to meet their boyfriend’s new partners and so now you have to come to board game night. You’re in new relationship energy with your girlfriend, so your other partner is spending more time with their best friend because they’re spending less time with you, so the best friend’s husband has gotten into Minecraft YouTube and now he wants to tell you about Wilbur Soot and against your will you have learned that he is half-fridge and fucked a salmon.
Poly people are the world’s biggest gossip addicts.
This problem is mostly avoidable if you date people who don’t know each other and then— and this is crucial— don’t introduce your partners to each other. I think this is called “solo poly” or something and it definitely has its merits in terms of drama reduction. On the other hand, it makes it much harder to organize movie night. Up to you.
You have to know facts about people. Asocial introverts of the world: you might think that polyamory is a clever lifehack to get your extroverted partner to leave you alone so you can read. But you may not have considered that you might have to know who people are. Not only are people doing all of the above social modeling about you, but you might have to do that social modeling about other people. Having to pay attention to complex relationships with lots of history is inevitable if you’re in a serious relationship with a poly extrovert, and that is not for everyone.
I think this point is maybe not relevant to most people but if you are the kind of person who reads it with dawning horror maybe don’t be poly.
You are no longer able to avoid your exes. This is kind of a variant of the first two problems but I want to explicitly emphasize it. I understand that monogamous people are often not friends with their exes, to the point that some people think it is a red flag to be friends with your exes. You cannot do this if you’re poly. Your ex you had a messy breakup with is inevitably going to turn out to be your boyfriend’s best friend, or your metamour, or the housemate of the guy you had a one-night stand with and now you have to awkwardly avoid eye contact in the bathroom while you’re brushing your teeth. No matter how much you hate your ex’s guts, they’re going to always be ambiently Around, leaving you with fantasies that they move to New York City1 or take up ice dancing or otherwise develop a rich and fulfilling life somewhere else.
If you are lucky, your friends are tolerant of all this. If you’re unlucky, your friends get sick of only being able to invite one of you to a party and start making pointed comments about how being friends with your exes is an important sign of emotional maturity (see two points above).
It’s really easy to only socialize within your polycule. You’re going to go to a movie tonight! You can invite, let’s see here, your girlfriend, your other girlfriend, their boyfriend, the boyfriend’s husband, the husband’s girlfriend who is also your girlfriend’s girlfriend, that guy you slept with in the last point whom you want to talk to in some ex-less context, and of course Alex who was your metamour a few years ago but when you dumped your boyfriend you kept him because he’s great. Hm, maybe you should also invite Joanne. You’ve slept with Joanne a couple times, but it didn’t work out, so you’re basically platonic friends. Right? Right.
This is the flipside of a good thing, which is that your metamours are preselected to be cool people that you want to be friends with. But it has some problems if you’d like your social life to have traits like “ever containing monogamous people.”
Conflict of interest hell. This is a very specific problem for when you’re in a very specific situation, like San Francisco queer activism, where everyone is working for the same twelve nonprofits and also constantly dating each other. (In San Francisco, it is compounded by the fact that everyone is also living six people to a seven-room apartment.) It’s usually possible to avoid the most obvious conflicts of interest: “your ex is your grantmaker,” for example, or “you’re having sex with your boss.” But the same person might be dating three people at the same organization, or your metamour might decide whether to hire you, or you hooked up with the woman who’s going to give your organization a grant a couple times and then ghosted her, or all your coworkers are going to the same sex party…
This is bad for a couple of reasons:
It is basically impossible to avoid what would, in monogamous contexts, be severe conflicts of interest.
While it’s far from inevitable and lots of people manage these dynamics well, it’s a setup for lots and lots of sexual harassment.
You think that “unable to avoid your ex” is bad? Now you can’t even go to work and avoid your ex.
It can be exclusionary to monogamous people, keeping them from valuable networking, because:
As previously discussed, people often only socialize within their polycule and therefore don’t make friends with monogamous people.
Sometimes networking literally happens at sex parties or other places that monogamous people are naturally not going to go to.
This solves nothing. It is a law of the poly universe that every time someone you like moves to the other coast you never see or hear from them again, and any time your ex moves to the other coast they’re flying back every other weekend.