Polyamory is an increasingly popular type of unconventional relationship. Solo polyamory is a variant for people who don’t want to merge their lives with a romantic partner (or partners). Peter McGraw brings two polyamorists—Amy Gahran and Laura Grant—Into the solo studio to discuss solo polyamory, its best practices, and challenges.
Listen to Episode #129 here
People are single for 1 of 2 reasons. Many are single by choice, whether for now or forever. Others are single by chance, and some of the single-by-chance crowd want a relationship but want one that diverges from the relationship escalator. Maybe they don’t want to merge their lives or monogamy, but these folks may have a hard time partnering up because they keep dating escalator riders, and the relationships don’t work. Others simply can’t find like-minded people where they live.
For the folks who won’t merge and are open to multiple romantic relationships, one option is solo polyamory. It’s an increasingly popular form of polyamory, which also is increasing in popularity. I bring two solo polyamorous into the Solo studio to discuss being solo poly and its complexities. The first is Amy Gahran. She is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology, and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s working on the second edition of her excellent 2017 book, Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator, which is a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity.
We’re joined by Laura Grant. Laura is a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorous who enjoys first dates, job interviews, and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures, she finds great meaning in investing in her relationship with herself and others.
The three of us have a fun, fascinating talk about this fascinating potential relationship, and bonus material is back. Two conversations, in fact. In the first, we talk about jealousy in polyamorous relationships, and in the other, we talk about sex talk in these relationships. You can access bonus material as part of the Solo community, which you can apply for at PeterMcGraw.org/Solo. I hope you enjoy the episode. It may challenge your perspectives. Let’s get started.
Welcome back, Amy.
Hi, how are you doing?
I’m good. Welcome back, Laura.
Thanks. I’m excited about this one.
Laura is becoming a familiar voice on the show. She’s been flip-flopping from guest to guest co-host. She’s here as a guest now.
I contain multitudes.
Amy was an early guest. Is this our first time in person?
We’re here in the Solo studio to talk about solo polyamory AKA being solo poly. I have two experts here.
Amy is definitely an expert.
What would you call yourself, Laura?
What I lack in credentials, I make up for in reputation.
Let’s jump in. Let’s do a brief primer on what is polyamory, and let’s spend the lion’s share of our time on solo polyamory.
Polyamory is the departure from sexual and romantic exclusivity in relationships. It’s part of the non-monogamy umbrella. Under that umbrella is polyamory, which the root words would be multiple loves. It is many romantic, emotionally involved, committed relationships.
Two or more.
It’s being open to that, whether or not you have multiple intimate partners.
I can be polyamorous even if I have one partner because I would be willing to have a second partner.
There have been many times in my life where I have had one partner or none, and nobody has taken my poly card away.
Let’s unpack this for a moment if it’s okay since we have Amy here. Let’s talk about this in relation to the relationship escalator. We talk a lot about the escalator on this show. It’s impossible to talk about single living and being solo without having this rubric. Polyamory in general and solo polyamory specifically, in some ways, adheres to some of the hallmarks of the escalator and, in some ways, depart. You mentioned 1 or 2, depending on how you think of it, which is romantic and/or sexual monogamy.
Exclusivity for sex and romance is one key hallmark of the traditional relationship escalator, which is a bundle of social norms. They’ve accreted on each other like barnacles. Solo polyamory specifically is being open to being with more than one intimate relationship at a time with the consent knowledge of everybody involved. It is also diverging from the norm of merging in escalator land, which is merging the infrastructure of your life like cohabitation, merged finances, legal marriage, that’s a lot of merging there, merging your identity, thinking of yourself more as part of we than me. It’s a twofer for freaking out on the escalator.
It may be consistent in the following way, which is often a continuous relationship.
Maybe, maybe not. There’s a lot of diversity. There are a lot of people who consider themselves polyamorous who also may engage in casual sex, go to sex parties, or may be involved with the swinger community in some ways. There are also asexual and aromantic people involved in polyamorous relationships. I tend to think of it as intimacy writ large. However that means to you, and it’s not exclusive. How deep that exclusivity goes depends on the person. Whereas other forms of consensual non-monogamy like swinging, for instance, often has pretty sharp boundaries around emotional investment and commitment.
There are lots of things that fit polyamory, but the one thing that is in common is the potential for two or more typically romantic connections.
I think of them as overlapping.
People understand the difference between polyamory and solo polyamory because the crew reading this is curious about the latter. What makes a solo poly person a solo poly person?
It’s the same thing that makes a solo monogamous person a solo monogamous person. You choose not to merge the infrastructure of your life or your identity with any intimate partners, whether you prefer to have one intimate partner at a time or are open to more than one at a time.
Embracing autonomy as a course value of yourself and putting that above the joining of the enmeshment of your life with someone else regardless of your relationship with them. It’s not valuing things like presenting and operating as part of a group or a relationship. It’s saying, “The self is important that individuality and independence are paramount for those folks.”
You’re not losing the me and the we, regardless of how many we you’re involved in.
I’ve done my reading and research, but for a lot of people, these are brand new ideas. I do want to slow down a tiny bit before we get into even more nuance. What I hear you saying is the distinction between someone who is polyamorous and someone who’s solo polyamorous, like the two of you, has to do largely with, “I’m not going to merge my life with my partners and maintain this individuality, this autonomy, and not default into the partnership narrative. This notion of our identities becomes merged. Our lifestyles have become merged.” You have some distance, at least physical distance, between these people that you have a romantic and or sexual connection with.
I think that sounds good. You’re listening.
I’m like, “I’m going to do polyamory. I’m doing solo poly.” I need to get this right.
That seems congruent with what I know about you.
With the understanding that solohood is not for polyamorous people, there are solo monogamous people and solos who prefer not to be in any intimate relationships at all.
You can be solo and have friends with benefits. You can be solo and be in an otherwise escalator-like relationship. You can be solo and be a loner. There are lots of ways. This is an additional criterion that you put onto the stuff.
We’re not islands. We exist in a web of interconnections. It’s how we form our home base that tends to look a little bit different from the relationship escalator.
This is interesting for you, Amy, because while you don’t live with your sweeties, you have roommates.
I own a house, and I rent out my spare room, so I have housemates. They are awesome and housemates. It’s a different type of relationship. I grew up in a crowded house. I’m 5th out of 6 kids. I’m used to having people around, but I need to have my own emotional space to myself in my living space. When I used to cohabit with an intimate partner, I didn’t have that.
How about you, Laura?
I like the term emotional space. I am both fiercely extroverted and love being around people, but home is quiet, solo, and a different thing altogether. It’s when I turn off all that extroversion and can be alone. That’s the way I like it.
We are the same in that way. My home is my refuge, and I don’t mind inviting people in, but I also want them to leave. When I throw parties, I tell people what time the party ends. That’s part of the invite. We have addressed this, but I want to jump in with the reader question because I think it’s relevant to this moment. It has more to do with polyamory. The question is from the Solo community, which you can sign up for PeterMcGraw.org/Solo, “What’s the difference between polyamory versus friends with benefits or what Amy would call a sexual friendship versus openly dating multiple people with honest communication between them?” Is that a difficult question, or is that an easy question?
No, it’s not difficult. It’s just there are lots of pieces to it. The invitation to have multiple committed, invested emotional relationships is the cornerstone of how polyamory is different than other brands or flavors of non-monogamy. A lot of those other examples were temporary. It is more a circumstance than a style or even an identity. Some people identify as polyamorous, and some people happen to be in a polyamorous circumstance at any given time. Those are both valid.
Stating around was another example that the questioner gave that implies that I am dating around with the goal of narrowing it down to one monogamous partner, or maybe that is not the goal. There’s no inherent judgment there on what are you dating around for? What is your objective there? If you’re a monogamous person, the objective is to find a monogamous partner. If you’re not, it’s not.
A lot of subtexts that go along with all the language that we use about relationships and a lot of the fine print that goes around with that little code phrase dating around is that none of them are serious. One thing I loved when I was doing the research on my book, Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator, somebody wrote in one of their surveys that they were solo polyamorous. They said, “This is perpetual pointless dating. We’re not trying to hit a destination, but it works. We’re going to keep doing it.” I’m like, “Rock on.”
If you are intrigued by this conversation, Amy’s book is a must-read because she dives deeply into this. She takes her time with all of this. She has an entire chapter to soloness. She has 1,500 interviews and survey responses. These are rich, authentic, personal responses throughout the book, which makes a lot of it feel less abstract and relatable because of those 1,500 people, there’s bound to be someone you go, “That’s what I want. That’s what I like.” If you’re feeling this way, you might feel less like on an island than you might be in your hometown, where everybody is riding the escalator, and if they are doing anything unconventional, they are hiding it. They’re not talking about it in the way that we are.
There’s a whole lot of diversity out there in relationships. What the questioner asked about were various parts of diversity within the spectrum of consensual non-monogamy. If you ask 5 different people what those things are, you’re going to get 120 different answers. Take everything that Laura and I are defining here with a grain of salt because everybody is defining it for themselves too.
I want to talk about who’s drawn to polyamory. It certainly seems to be the case that young people nowadays, especially, are trying out these other types of relationships. This is a 2020 YouGov Survey of 1,300 adults. Forty percent of Millennials say that their ideal relationship would be non-monogamous compared to 30% of my generation, Gen X, the invisible generation, let’s keep it that way.
I’m quoting another thing that says, “Research in 2016, synthesizing two different US studies showed 20% of respondents engaged in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point.” We don’t know anything more than that. These could be polyamorous people, who are monogamish, or in an open relationship. These could be those people who are dating around with or without a goal to ride the escalator and so on.
Depending on how people define monogamy, an open relationship might be going to a strip club with your partner. I am always astounded by where people draw their boundaries and how they define things around it.
We have enough of an understanding of poly and solo poly. I’d like to spend most of the time talking about solo poly, but to do that, we need to talk about egalitarian versus hierarchical polyamory, don’t we?
That’s an important thing that comes up a lot for solo polyamorous.
What is egalitarian polyamory, and what’s hierarchical polyamory?
We’re going to have to back up a little bit and give people some background. You are living in a couple-centric society. You are soaking in a social norm that says, “Couplehood is what everyone should want. It is the most important and valid form of relationship.” If you’re looking at relationship escalator norms, it should be exclusive couplehood.
Polyamorous come into a different way of doing relationships, but they still have all that overhead of the traditional relationship escalator. Historically, most people who came into polyamory came into it either from an established cohabiting, often legally married, partnership and would be looking to connect with other people in addition to “primary partners,” or they would be looking to establish. That’s where all that primary and secondary language came in, and that’s the hierarchy.
I don’t think people know about this primary and secondary language. What does that mean?
As soon as you start learning anything about polyamory, you’re going to hear those words a lot. What they mean is that one relationship, whether it’s a relationship between two people or sometimes more, a triad or quad, is a group of people who consider themselves to be in a relationship with each other. That one central relationship is intrinsically more important than other relationships that would be considered secondary. The primary relationship has a lot of powers that are not reciprocal across the network of relationships. A lot of times, it means the assumption that primary partners get to set the rules for secondary relationships, including whether or not secondary relationships get to continue.
You can get vetoed in hierarchical polyamory, not always, but often. It’s a lot of disproportionate power. Hierarchical polyamory comes out of a couple-centric society. The assumption is that this one couple should be important. If you are not part of that couple, how that picture looks and feels is different. Hierarchical polyamory can sometimes run people over, but not always intentionally.
I want to slow down. I think I get this. I want to repeat it back for people. In hierarchical polyamory, there is someone or someones who are primary and are higher on the ladder. They get prioritized, moreover, in some cases. They exert a lot of influence on secondary tertiary, maybe, or whatever other types of relationships their partners are engaging in.
Secondary partners are expected to defer to the interest of the primary partner. You’re supposed to put the interest of the primary relationship first, even though that’s not a relationship you’re in.
You’re saying that this is the vestiges of couplehood or the escalator.
It’s an artifact of couple centrism.
An egalitarian relationship issues this.
Nobody needs to be primary. You can be if you want. Hierarchical polyamory is a valid way to practice polyamory, as long as you are honest with yourself and others about it with clear front disclosure, not just, “This is my primary partner.” What does primary mean, and how will that affect other people?
I have a question for Laura. Hearing Amy speak about this, she doesn’t sound like a fan of hierarchical polyamory.
She’s a solo polyamorous. I can tell from just listening to her.
Why is she not a fan of this?
As a solo polyamorous, you are embracing your autonomy, and you are most likely not going to be in the relationship that is considered the primary relationship.
You’re already less likely to have a primary innocence.
It’s not impossible. You can design your own relationship however you want, but it’s more likely that you’re not in that specific relationship, so you’re not entering into a hierarchical relationship. You are going to be secondary.
Some people assume, “You’re solo. That means that you only want to have secondary relationships.” It’s like, “No, say that to my face.”
Some people do.
That doesn’t work for me.
Amy said, “Sometimes you get run over by this.” Give an example of what it means to be run over by the hierarchical folks.
It’s not being able to allow your relationship with a person to unfold and develop in a way that feels natural to you because somebody else is not comfortable with how your relationship is developing. They might say, “You might not be allowed to have certain kinds of sex with my primary partner unless I say it’s okay. My primary partner might not be allowed to sleep over at your place unless I say that’s okay.” There are a lot of rules-based things, but even more subtly, there is often the presumption that if there’s a difficulty in the primary relationship, the secondary relationship should be put on hold or backburnered.
You were saying earlier that a lot of people come to polyamory because they’re already an existing couple. They’re trying this, and then they have some additional partners that come aboard, but that hierarchy is still there.
Even a lot of the literature is getting better, “Welcome to polyamory. You’re probably wondering what it is. Let me tell you. It’s when you and your spouse decide to date other people.”
One of the first books that came out about this, not the very first, but it’s probably about several years old now, is Opening Up by Tristan Taormino. Think about that title, Opening Up, from what?
This never crossed my mind because when I think about partners, I think about them swinging perhaps or having an open relationship. I don’t think about them adding another potentially romantic partner to it. This is a good background to understand it. I get the sense that the polyamorous community can be a little small in places. You’re at a Meetup, out, an app, or whatever, and you meet someone who’s also polyamorous, and you’re like, “That person is freaking hot. Let’s go.” You have coffee, you meet whatever, and they say, “I have a primary.”
If people practice hierarchical polyamory, and they’re upfront about that. They can say, “I practice hierarchy. Here’s what that means. Here’s how we roll with that.” That’s one thing. What you got to watch out for is sneakiarchy. It is a hierarchy that is not disclosed, or it is not disclosed in sufficient detail that people know what they might be signing on.
Suddenly, they’re like, “I can’t come over this weekend.”
It is also like, “My wife isn’t comfortable anymore, bye.”
It can create some instability, some uncertainty, and hurt feelings.
That doesn’t always happen in the first few months. I was effectively vetoed in one relationship after several years. This was a case where hierarchy had never been specifically discussed. I didn’t know enough at the time to discuss it, but it sure appeared. The relationship ended because I ended up getting vetoed.
That’s unfortunate. I’m sorry to hear that.
It happens, and I learned a lot from it.
I can imagine that it would lead to a set of behaviors when you’re meeting someone new in terms of exploring what might the limits be.
How much awareness that other person has of their own patterns, habits, and how deeply steeped they are. None of these privileges or has defined egalitarianism.
We’re going to get to that, but I want to hear if, Laura, you’re willing to disclose a time you got run over by?
A common one is if you are dating some couples or groups of people, date as a group. That’s a slightly different dynamic, but that group, assuming that’s the primary partnership. They say, “You can have a relationship with us, but it has to be with all of us.” You are not permitted to go on a date, which is one of us, or have sex, which is one of us. It’s a package deal, all or nothing. If it turns out that you form a deeper relationship organically with one person versus the others, that scene is not okay. That’s another example.
I think I’d struggle with that one.
It works in some cases for some people if they can communicate well about it. The way I explain it is hierarchy isn’t bad. It is more challenging to be ethical. You can do it. That’s how I characterize it. If there’s some power imbalance, these are all things that have to be understood and communicated by everyone. Having a good sense of how you’re going to feel in that situation before it arises is a challenge. When buying new clothes, I’m like, “Am I going to like it tomorrow?” You’re saying that your primary partner will have power over my relationship that they’re not even in. I hear you say that. I’m agreeing and saying, “I’m okay with that.” Even that self-awareness to know whether you’re going to be okay with that or not is hard.
I want to digress for a moment because you alluded to these complexities at the beginning of this. They’re on full display now. Why does anyone do this given how complex and challenging? We haven’t even got into that part of it.
The relationship escalator is not easy. I’ve been there. I wrote it all the way up to the top. All the fine print and rules that go along with it and the things that dictated how I could interact with other people because of it was complicated. It is easier for me to get to know people as people, see what we each bring to the table, and let the relationship form from that. That’s easier for me.
I was being a devil’s advocate when I asked that question. I get the appeal in a sense because it can allow you to live your best life. The escalator doesn’t work for you and you have a lot of love to give, all of these kinds of things.
Sometimes I got none.
When you’re solo, that’s great because you don’t have to share the bed. I like to say, “The grass is greener, but it’s equally hard to cut.” There are going to be challenges with relationships, no matter how simple or complex they appear, because it’s people, love, sex, cooperation, coordination, and occasionally compromise. What’s interesting I could see, especially, and maybe you could say this better than me, how a solo person would chafe at the power that a primary person may have over their life.
Ask any kinky people you know. Undisclosed non-negotiated power imbalances are a bad thing. When there is an imbalance of power in a situation, and you don’t talk about it and say, “What it means to agree to be in this role and what powers I have versus what powers you have to roll along and wing it, not knowing where that power imbalance exists?”
It means it’s almost always certain that somebody is going to end up feeling ripped off or hurt by the situation, or perhaps significantly abused or taken advantage of. That’s true for any power imbalance. You even see it in the workplace. In the workplace, hierarchy exists in a lot of companies, but it’s explicit and overt, and it has HR policies to deal with. In relationships, it’s mushier, and not knowing the power imbalances that affect the most vulnerable. It’s the most vulnerable part of yourself. Not knowing what forces can play on that can take you by surprise and floor you.
It sounds to me that best practices for hierarchical polyamory have a high degree of disclosure. This power dynamic is open, and you get to decide to opt into it or not. You can decide if it’s a fit or not. I’m sensing that the alternative egalitarian polyamory is a, in your opinion, appealing alternative. What is that?
It tends to work better, especially for people who prefer the solo approach to life and love. The reason is that it’s egalitarian because it starts from a flat power dynamic. The people getting involved have the assumption that you are on unequal footing with the other person you’re forming this relationship with. That third parties, regardless of what other connection they might have to you, do not get to override you within your own relationship.
It also means that nobody has to come first. You deal with issues that come up situationally based on what the people involved need at that moment. The thing about hierarchy is it’s not about labels. It’s about defaults. It’s about whose interests tend to win out in some or most situations. In egalitarian polyamory, that is always up for grabs.
I remember this from our previous conversation, Amy, the most common dynamic in polyamory is three people with the hinge. In terms of like, that’s the most basic in a sense.
It will be a network of overlapping relationships. It’s not necessarily that you can have three people in a relationship together, which would be a triad, it’s usually called, but it also could be where you have a hinge, but people get a little hung up on the geometry of it. It’s not about geometry. It’s about people. When you have egalitarian relationships, it’s easier to see all the connections between two individuals and how that relates to other connections between two individuals.
My only reason to bring that up is to talk through that situation. That is no anyone person in that triad has any more power than any of the other people.
It wouldn’t be a triad. It would be a vee. I’m using geometric terminology, and I hate geometric terminology. The thing is that when you have one person who has more than one intimate partner, you have a type of relationship known as metamours. Metamours is if you’re dating somebody, it’s your partner’s other partners. I have two sweethearts, Bill and Ted, the excellent adventure. Bill has a relationship with me. Ted has a relationship with me. Bill and Ted know and like each other. They would be considered metamours to each other, and they get along and hang out. It’s like partners in law but no laws involved.
I recognize there are an infinite number of possibilities here. This is a common one, but I wanted to point that out to give the reader a visual of what might be happening and the idea being. Even though you sit at the hinge, if you practice egalitarian polyamory, there’s not one relationship that’s more important than the other one.
They’re both important to me, and so are the other closest people in my life too. My sweethearts don’t necessarily take prevalence over what I consider to be my family of choice in origin.
One of the things that has always bothered me about the escalator is how easily friends get tossed aside. I find it to be abhorrent when someone comes along, someone else starts having sex with that person, and that friend disappears on you and may even come back in. This is related to an episode that we did to ask you for a gift, attendance at a wedding, or something like that.
When they break up, they expect you to pick up the pieces for them.
I’ve always struggled with this idea that this person, yes, you may be intimate and emotionally connected, but you have a twenty-year friendship with someone, and it’s to be tossed aside. When they come back, there is no apology. There’s even no understanding of this.
That’s part of the couple’s privilege.
You’re expected to defer to this behavior. A couple’s privilege is internalized, including by the people who don’t benefit from it.
I don’t think this makes someone a bad person. They lack awareness, haven’t read Amy’s book, or haven’t read the blog post.
That brings up another good point. We’re talking about everyone having equal footing. That doesn’t mean all your relationships look the same. I can be lawfully married to someone. I could be with someone for 12 years versus 12 months versus 12 minutes. The relationships will be different. People are different.
It’s not equal but fair.
There’s no default power dynamic going on between the different relationships. If I am co-parenting with someone, that relationship might take more resources than if I’m casually dating someone. It doesn’t mean that one of those people has power over the other. It means if my kid is sick, that takes my energy and my focus more than if you have a hangnail. It’s not going to inherently look the same everywhere. That is not what egalitarian polyamory requires.
It’s about diversity, not division. A lot of times, people think about your time, resources, or whatever. Everybody, once they’re adults, they have their own priorities, goals, resources, constraints, and limitations that go with being human. That doesn’t matter if you are married, single with no partners at all, polyamorous, or parent or not. You will have your own stuff that you’re bringing to it. To say that only people who have preexisting relationships that check certain boxes that their priorities, goals, etc., automatically outweigh everybody else’s that’s a problematic assumption.
That’s something useful if I could comment on it. What you’re describing is this egalitarian approach transcends romance and sex. This has to do with family members, friends, and so on.
It can. That’s how we’re talking about it, but other people might see it differently.
Some people might have a hierarchy with regard to their lovers. The purest form of non-hierarchy is this flattening of relationships. I have friends who come in and out of my life. Sometimes they’re prominent and sometimes less because of where they are, where I am, and so on. It doesn’t diminish that friendship in any way. Yet, that seems reasonable for friendships, but people struggle with this the moment sex gets involved.
A lot of times, people who hear about egalitarian relationships and especially egalitarian polyamory for the first time say, “That can’t exist. Somebody I started dating should be on my mortgage along with my spouse of 40 years?” When people are on equal footing with their own partners, that means that every relationship has its own chance to grow and expand. It doesn’t mean they’re all starting at the same foot or need to be identical. Egalitarianism is not identical. As Laura said earlier, it’s about everybody mattering completely as a human being and being on equal footing with their own partners in their own relationships.
I want to get into best practice before I do egalitarian poly. How does that work for you?
I’m a big extrovert. I have three partners in addition to some friends with benefits, and others may be sexual or romantic partnerships that I wouldn’t add that same label to. One of my partners is monogamous. One of my partners is married and looks a little more hierarchical. One of my partners is also a solo polyamorous. All different flavors and combinations are there.
Mapping the poly fuel is a fun thing that you get to do when you’re non-monogamous. It maps everybody out and who they’re seeing. All these relationships are dynamic, and I am focused on letting each relationship organically grow. The limiting factors are time and emotional bandwidth. I don’t even think love is a finite resource. My three partners at this moment work well for me. Those levels of commitment that we’ve all negotiated, agreed upon, and have naturally come to be seems to be working out for me pretty well.
These are pretty longstanding relationships at this point.
3 years, 1 year, and in some new relationship energy, 6 months or so in 2022. I do live alone. I have lots of hobbies. I am grateful to be financially independent, and I’m not particularly family-oriented, which is not a requirement for being a good solo polyamorous, but it fits well for me, and I have a large friend network.
Thanks for fitting us in. Thanks for showing up.
That’s important to me.
Let’s talk about best practices with regard to solo poly in particular. I’m going to assume most people reading, if they’re inclined to explore this, are a little bit more likely to try the solo thing. I could be wrong. At the very least, it’s going to help me to think about these things. Let’s imagine the solo reader who feels like a complete person feels whole and they’re not looking for someone to complete them.
They have a pretty heavy self-reliant autonomous streak and are open-minded about living unconventionally. They’ve already practiced non-monogamy or stepped off the escalator in some ways, but this all still seems new and perhaps exciting. What are some of the best practices for them to consider? Where do you start? How do you do this? It sounds like there has to be a lot of honest communication.
This is the only type of relationship where that’s important.
It feels like you can’t rely on default rules.
Whenever you’re departing from the norm, you’re trailblazing a little bit. Certainly, this has been around a while. We’re getting language around it and normalizing it more, but when you don’t have the defaults or you’re not doing things the way your mom and dad did, you have to communicate well. All of my parents did it great.
Another one is to engage with other people who are three-dimensional and have a good sense of autonomy. It’s not a relationship style that lends itself easily to people struggling with codependence. It’s not impossible. It may be even a good way to work through some of those issues that are a struggle you’re trying to get a pattern or get out of. People who gravitate towards this style tend not to struggle with those issues, and their partners tend not to.
It’s a type of person who excels in this world.
It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but codependency feels like the opposite in both yourself and the partners you seek out. If you’re joining into a partnership with someone who does struggle with codependency and you demand or assert your autonomy over again, that could be a source of friction.
That could be unsettling and threatening for the person.
This isn’t the best practice, but it’s something to realize up front. If you have been able to achieve a fair amount of autonomy in your life, or even circumstantially, the circumstances of your life don’t necessarily depend on any intimate partners at this time. You have an unfair advantage or superpower. Dependence always complicates relationship decisions.
If you are making a choice about whether to get involved with somebody, stay involved with somebody, develop a relationship, or allow a relationship to change or end one. If that is also going to tie up the mess with your housing, health insurance, sense of identity, social network, and sense of family, those things all make it hard to sit down, look at the relationship for what it is and make decisions about it.
What makes someone solo and someone, I like to say, and you have helped me with this, Amy, is that it has much less to do with relationship status than people think that it does. When you are solo rather than single, you can move in and out of relationships, and you’re doing it of your own volition. Whether it be departing or entering, there’s not this sense of sacrifice or losing oneself. That’s a good note. If you’re going to excel in romantic and/or sexual relationships, or even friendships for that matter, some element of having your house in order, your financial, emotional, and psychological, is going to allow you to thrive.
Another theme along the lines of best practices is don’t make it all about individualism. There is a lot of talk about being your own home base. Some people refer to it as being your own primary partner and solo polyamory. That can make it sound like, “It’s all about me.” For some people, it may be that way. It is also possible to view this as a way to be the best person you can be. You have a lot more to give to the people you care about, whether they are friends, family, sweethearts, community, or through work that you do. Interdependence is an important part of life in general. That is especially true if you are a solo.
Some ways that people do interdependence is expressed through polyamory. That can also be expressed through other ways. It’s easy to dismiss solo polyamory as being selfish and individualistic. I don’t know about you. I spent most of 2021 helping my brother. I help my friends all the time. I’m the president of my HOA board. I do a lot of things in my life for individuals and communities I care about. Don’t look at this as a trivial way to lead a selfish life. It can be the cornerstone of a well-connected, interdependent life that enriches everybody you are involved with and who’s involved with you.
Listening to Laura’s situation, in some ways, sounds incredibly selfless. There are all of these people that you’re connected to, and there are moments where you go, “I need a little break.” It’s not starting with, “This is all about me.” There might be moments where you’re able to. The more fascinating conversations I had, as for the show, were about the value of solitude.
The world is scared of loneliness. There are people who are deeply clinically lonely, isolated, and so on, but we never talk about the people who are lonely and have no time to themselves or the people who live in a house of six siblings constantly are surrounded by folks and never have a break. The idea being is that some people thrive in that world, and some people are oppressed by it. It’s a matter of finding that right space. Soloness is not about loneliness or being alone. Although we do have people who listen, who are loners, lone wolves, and so on.
It’s also not necessarily about being selfish. Some individual people may be that way. It can be a way to express care and to bring a lot to other people.
What are some other best practices?
I would say join a community, especially for folks who are new to this and learning about it. If you say, “I want to play the piano,” you’re probably going to go to a piano teacher, not join a band. It’s the same thing. People are like, “I want to be polyamorous, non-monogamous, or something other than what I am used to be. I’m going to jump in and do it.” You can.
There are lots of other great resources, but having a community to talk it out and being with people who’ve done it before, you avoid a lot of the common pitfalls. Unfortunately, when you’re talking about relationships, common pitfalls can mean heartbreak. If you can avoid it, it’s a little cheat code there. Talk to someone who’s been there before.
What do these communities look like?
We’re fortunate to be where we are here. In Denver and Boulder, we have a lot of different communities. When I was first learning about non-monogamy and getting a lot of that language, I joined Denver Metro Polyamory Group, which was a crowd of people who had been doing this for decades, and they weren’t doing polyamory 101 stuff like, “I get jealous.” It was deep soul searching next level figuring out how to be their best self.
You skipped undergrad and went PhD.
I didn’t have the answers, but I could see people who had figured all that out, all the things that seemed difficult to me at the time, and who were still investing in themselves as good people in relationships.
It’s growth-oriented. I don’t know that many people who have been in relationships for 30 years are doing deep work on improving their escalators.
None of this stuff they talked about was all that specific to non-monogamy. It was how to be a good person in a relationship.
Before we get to some pitfalls, are there other best practices like finding your tribe or community?
Find a community because other people’s hearts are not your crash test dummies. Go slow. This is about any potentially intent, especially in an emotionally intense relationship. Take your time getting into it. Pace yourself, especially in terms of your own sense of emotional investment and commitment. Most horrible situations can be dealt with if you take your time getting into a relationship and pacing yourself on how committed you feel about it.
I’ve seen many people say, “I’m in this terrible situation that has 50 million red flags waving, but I already fell in love with this person, so leaving isn’t an option.” No, it is an option. Keep your head about you. This is where you have an unfair advantage being solo, and it makes it easier to say, “I can step back from this.” Some people are scared about that because it makes it sound like solo polyamorous have one foot out the door. We don’t. We take our time walking through that door, most of us, not all of us.
PSA, love does not conquer all. You can fall in love with people who are bad for you. You can fall in love with people, and they’re not going to solve your problems. You can fall in love with people, and you can’t solve their problems. Love is fun and exciting. It has that getting swept away, but when you’re noticing the red flags, feeling uneasy, and seeing a negative pattern repeating itself, you might have to step back, reassess and recognize that you might have to pass on this loving feeling.
On that point, some people seem to think that cheating can be a stepping stone to polyamory. Sometimes it can be. In my own case, my first foray into polyamory began with me cheating on the man I was married to at that time. I found a way to finally talk to him about it because I realized I suck at lying, and I can’t do that.
I was trying to find a way to be true to myself when I didn’t even have a vocabulary to explain it. The catch is that it can be people’s path to consensual non-monogamy polyamory, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes people cheat because, for whatever reasons, they have difficulty being honest. If you have difficulty being honest, polyamory is not where you should be.
I think about divorces way more than I ought to as someone who’s never been divorced. I’ve thought a lot about this. There are two types of divorces. There’s a type of divorce where there’s in reconcilable differences, like people hate each other. They can’t trust them. They’ve stolen money. They’ve cheated or whatever it is. Any trust, connection, and love are gone in that relationship. That relationship should come to an end.
There’s another class of divorce, which is like, “What if we relax some of the hallmarks of the relationship escalator, and we can stay connected because I still love you. You’re still my friend. We still have this bond. It’s just that I don’t want to live in the same house with you anymore. I have feelings for someone else, but they don’t diminish my feelings for you.” Some people either lack the language, experience, or even the willingness to put forth that idea like, “I don’t want to get divorced, but I don’t want to keep doing the things the way we are. Can we unmerge?”
That’s disruptive and scary.
The world doesn’t want you doing that, certainly.
To get back to the point Laura made about community. Find friends who, whatever way you are thinking of diverging from social norms, are already doing that. Find a community that’s already doing that. It is a lot easier to reframe your mental mindset and how you think and feel about situations that you are in, might be in, or want to be in if you already know people in real life who are already doing it.
This show is designed in part to do that. It’s to normalize single living, thinking, and being solo because there are a lot of people who live in places where they don’t know anyone else like them. They don’t know anyone else with the same values or lifestyle. I had a conversation with a 21-year-old woman who lives in Oklahoma, and she’s like, “Peter, I don’t want to ever get married and have children.” I said to her, “Do you know anyone else who thinks that way?” She says, “I don’t.”
She does. She just doesn’t know that she knows them.
They don’t feel comfortable talking about it either. Find these communities, experts, podcasts, and books.
You don’t start polyamory by finding people to date. You start it by finding and making friends.
My story falls along those lines to say, “It seems a lot scarier and difficult if you’ve never seen it modeled.” That’s one of the challenges of polyamory, and specifically, solo polyamory is finding role models, finding someone who’s done it ethically. Who’s done it so that they are happy. Usually, you can think of at least one couple you’ve met in your entire life that seems to be doing monogamous marriage fairly well. How many people do you know who are in a relationship that looks the way you want yours to look?
I’ve never done solo poly, and the first person that I know who’s done it is sitting across from me right now. I have a role model that I didn’t know even existed. No pressure, Amy. I’m saying, “For the average person, they don’t have that.” That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do this, knowing that the average reader may not be the right fit for them. For those out there that are, it’s a good place to start.
That’s why I encourage people who are diverging from any important social norms to the extent you feel safe doing because, for some people, there are lots of repercussions, but be as out as you feel you can be. It helps to not hide these portions of your life. More importantly, people find it hard to have reflective negative prejudices against a group of people when they happen to know some of those people. This is how same-sex marriage came about. It wasn’t all about big protests. It’s about people knowing more people who had the guts to be out about preferring same-sex relationships.
The key there is to the degree that you feel comfortable.
It’s safe. It’s different than comfortable because, here’s the thing, privilege makes people comfortable. When you’re diverging from social norms and are out about it, you’re going to give up some comfort. People are going to be discomforted by your choice. They’re going to have some opinions about you if you are willing to navigate some discomfort but not necessarily sacrifice your safety or the safety of other people. All I’m saying is that if you choose to be out, you’re doing a good thing by making the world a little bit safer for everybody else who is like you.
For some people, this is a moral issue, and they will treat you badly if they find out you’re non-monogamous, polyamorous, swing, whatever this might be, or even that you don’t even want to find a partner.
Talk to asexual people. They will tell you.
Other best practices?
I have one last, and that will transition well into maybe some common challenges. Mine is to be upfront, upfront. I learned this the hard way. When you are diverging from the norms, all of a sudden, you’re dating pool seems so much smaller. Saying, “When I’m going on a first date with someone, I’m not going to tell my social security number and my shoe size. They don’t need to know everything about me. It’s the first date. It’s just coffee.”
If you are doing something that diverges from the norm, if you put it out there earlier, you’re going to save yourself a lot of time, effort, and heartbreak. You’re going to signal to people who are looking for that, that you are that. That’s a good thing. It doesn’t get easier to disclose these things over time. It gets harder.
People feel misled, especially the more unconventional your desires are.
Every good dating poll needs a good filter. Be your own filter. The other tricky part is this is the relationship style that often doesn’t seem problematic to people at first. When I’m going for that first coffee date with someone, I’m not thinking about marrying them. I’m not thinking about moving in and getting joint bank accounts. If you said, “I don’t want to move in and a joint bank account.” I’d be like, “That’s fine. No worries.” It’s like, “Now I’ve fallen in love with you. We’ve been dating for several years. You’ve met my parents. When are we going to move in?” “I told you on our first date that’s not something that’s interesting to me.” “Yes, but I didn’t know you that we weren’t in love then. Now it’s different.” “No, this is part of who I am and how I do relationships.”
That advice is good. I am personally on a first date, and even if I meet someone on an app, I say, “I don’t want kids.” I’m clear about that on a first date, in case someone doesn’t read closely. I also tell people that I’m not interested in living with someone, and I don’t foresee that changing. I even put that caveat in there.
That’s another good point when you talk about change. Amy touched on this earlier. When there is a change, such as maybe a change in someone’s health, the loss of a job, or housing instability, the social norm is that you lean on your romantic partner or partners. That is the norm, “You’re experiencing housing instability, and we’ve been dating for eight years, move in with me. I don’t see why you’re making such a big deal out of it. Of course, you would move in with me. I love you.” As either the solo polyamorous or someone in a relationship with one, that can be more challenging.
You might want to move in with a friend rather than that.
It’s a fair criticism of solo polyamory that a lot of people criticize it for being ableist. In some ways, it can be. Not everybody has the ability to physically live on their own. Some people need to have people around for physical or mental health reasons, whether it’s disability or illness. Some people are not able to put together the financial resources to have their own living space or even to pay rent at all. These times are hard out there for a lot of people.
To some extent, I used to feel differently about this, but I’ve come around to the perspective that if people, whether somebody is solo polyamorous or not, is up to them. If they happen to be married, living with somebody, and still consider themselves solo polyamorous, in my opinion, that comes down to how they behave and how they treat people they are in relationships. I’m not going to say, “You say you’re solo polyamorous.” Whatever label somebody applies to themselves, watch their behavior and see if their behavior indicates that they may or may not be compatible with you for however you might be looking to be involved with them.
It sounds to me that two people could be solo poly, and it wouldn’t work well between them.
No, we’re not Legos. Here is another pitfall. You’re straddling communities. You got a foot in the solo, single-life community and a foot in the relationship-focused community. It’s like, “Am I allowed to read Peter McGraw’s show if I’m solo polyamorous and I have three partners? Am I allowed to go to polyamorous meetups when they’re talking about relationships and when I think of myself as a single solo person?” Anyone who straddles communities in this way knows that it’s a little harder to fit in any community when you’re exhibiting behaviors of multiple communities.
I’m guessing that honesty is probably a good solution. One of the things about these labels, and I’ve been working on a little pet project inspired by the escalator to start to go, first of all, the language is confusing.
It’s only because we grew up steeped in a different jargon that we don’t think it’s jargon anymore, but it is.
There are colloquialisms, friends with benefits versus sexual friendships, and there are these terms, which, as you pointed out, Laura, polyamory. It has a translation and etymology, terms like relationship anarchy. There’s a lot of stuff out there. One of the things that I have thought about, and I’ve thought about this myself, “Am I a solo polyamorous? Could I be one?” Some of it depends on who I meet. This might be a permutation at some stage in my life.
It could be your circumstance during a time.
Something else might be monogamish, and another time, I’m not dating at all, so I’m a pure solo. If someone asks me, “What are you?” That’s a difficult question to answer because I haven’t tried everything else out. I can imagine one situation where I’d be X and in another situation where I’d be Y. My default now is I’m trying to practice relationship anarchy. That is like, “Let me figure this out with whoever’s in my life at the moment that’s there.”
Label is the start of a conversation.
I could see someone wouldn’t exactly fit or might be straddling, as you said, different communities.
Be entering the world of non-monogamy, not knowing where they fit yet, not having honed, or being a changing dynamic person who is figuring it out.
It doesn’t know how to be upfront, upfront, for example, as they’re figuring these things out.
I have a pitfall for people who date solo polyamorous. One pitfall is only being okay with it as long as you can pretend they’re conventionally single. This has happened to me a few times when I’ve started dating somebody who may or may not have some prior experience with polyamory, but they see me, no matter what I tell them, as a conventionally single person. They’re okay with it until they’re like, “She’s dating other people, and they aren’t going away.” I have to acknowledge the reality of that. If I have a birthday party for myself, all the people I care about are probably going to be there, and I’m going to be behaving with them, how I behave with them.
If there’s a party, maybe another partner will come too.
They’re okay with dating me until their feelings for me get strong. All of a sudden, they’re not okay with me being polyamorous anymore or maybe solo. This is why I advocate for going slow and pacing yourself. I always feel more committed and involved with the relationship. This is best practice after we’ve navigated some bumps. The bumps are usually what break things up. If you can navigate some bumps, get through that well, negotiate well and feel good about how you navigated them, that’s a good sign that this relationship is probably one that’s worth sticking with.
What are some others?
We talked a little bit. Amy mentioned it before, and Peter, you’ve talked about it. It’s the misconception that solos or solo polyamorous are selfish, and we have a fear of commitment. I’m committing to myself and multiple other people. I have a lot of commitment in my life and I take it seriously. That is a common misconception. There’s this feeling of, “You want to have all the benefits of being single and in a relationship. You want your cake and eat it too.” Another part of it is not believing you deserve to have everything you want.
Many things that are enjoyable in life have a downside.
There are downsides to solo living, whether you’re polyamorous, monogamous, or single by choice. Things like, as you age, what’s that going to look like? If you aren’t married and don’t have kids, a lot of the legal, financial, and housing infrastructure is based on the idea that people should have those things. What if you have multiple partners that you’re involved with? What’s that going to look like? What’s it going to look like if one of your partners is suddenly disabled and you have to pitch in and help them? Are you willing to give up some of your autonomy to help them through that? There are a lot of situations where it is not all about you.
I hate this term commitment-phobe. I don’t like when people talk about selfishness. If you’re a selfish person, I don’t think you invite the complexity that polyamory can provide to your life. There are a lot of trade-offs that exist. You have to be good at communicating. There are times when you’re going to have to disappoint someone. Those are not selfish acts. In many ways, to do that well is a selfless act. That’s certainly a good one to bring up.
Trailblazing in any context is a little harder. You said, “What’s that going to look like when I’m older, and I don’t have a partner, children, or I have multiple partners, and they’re children or whatever.” I loved your Golden Girls episode to say, “Here’s a rare example of people living as older people in a community.”
Getting married and having kids as a hedge against getting old is a terrible idea.
People do it.
It’s a terrible bet, especially if you’re a woman because you’re going to be on the losing end of that most of the time. I do think that taking a thoughtful approach to aging, retiring, and dying solo is important.
Let’s not forget lobbying local governments about restrictive zoning codes that don’t allow more than a certain number of unrelated people to live in a family together. That is hard on solos as they age.
It’s un-American, frankly.
Why should anybody be involved with that?
In Boulder, you’re not allowed to have more than five people in a residence who are unrelated.
Regardless of the size of the residence and some of those houses on Mapleton Hill.
Some of it comes out of managing the college kids but nonetheless, why can’t I put together a house of five people if I wanted to, like friends or whatever the relationship.
Especially during a housing crisis.
Let’s do two things here before we close. One is if someone is not interested in polyamory and they’re still reading, what can they learn from this world that they might not have already learned?
First of all, even if you’re not interested in polyamory or consensual non-monogamy at all, I guarantee you, you know people who are. You don’t know it because they, for reasons of social stigma, probably have reasons not to want to tell you. They’re afraid of how you react. Signaling that you know about this stuff by taking the effort to educate yourself a little bit will help you make the world safer for people you already know. It will help you make the world a safer place, in general, by acknowledging that diversity of all kinds exists.
That is okay because people are different. That’s not going to be news to anybody. You can also learn a lot from people who have diverged from all kinds of social norms because it makes you think hard about what those norms are. If you want to align with those norms, fine, but make that a conscious choice. Don’t make it a default.
I’m glad to have had the invitation to unlearn some things. The first big thing that I chose to unlearn is that there’s a relationship escalator that the only and most important valid relationship choice is monogamous merit and heterosexual marriage. These are things I have chosen to depart from, and it was a little difficult because I’ve been swallowing those messages for decades. We’re inviting you. Here are some people who are diverging from the norm in a way. As a solo, you’re probably diverging from the norm in a way. What other ways can you diverge from the norm in order to be your truest, most authentic self?
I’m going to add one thing to this. This is well said. It’s difficult to know whether what you’re doing at the moment is right for you unless you entertain other possibilities. Is monogamy right for you? One of the ways is to consider and think about how you would do ethical non-monogamy. If merging feels right to you, maybe it’s worth considering how an unmerge life might look for you.
Even getting exposed to these other ideas can either make you say, “I am doing the right thing for me, rather than defaulting into it.” Now you get to opt into it, which is much more empowering. You might also go, “Maybe, at some point in my life, a second partner would add value and wouldn’t undermine my relationship.” It’s worth having an open mind about it.
In terms of what monogamous people or monogamous leaning people might learn from polyamorous people is how to take some major sources of tension out of your life. Whenever there is competition for anything, there’s tension in competition. Being able to see that there’s room in your life for things that previously you might have thought or mutually exclusive or need to be in competition with each other can calm down a lot of situations.
Once you get past the inevitable, “This is new, and I don’t know what I’m doing here.” Once you’ve settled down into it a little while, it is amazing for me how much tension is out of my life now that I don’t see a lot of things that I used to see as threats or competition as such. Now they are simply things that exist. Some of them work for me, and some of them don’t, but I don’t view them as automatically being in tension and feeling a lot of tension because of that.
This has been fabulous. I’ve learned a lot, and I think some people’s heads might be spinning now. It’s a fascinating way to live. It’s been around for a long time, but it also feels like it’s having a moment.
It’s a lot of hard work. It normalizes.
Because it’s having a moment, it has its backlash too, and that’s part of it. If you’re going to step off the escalator or diverge from many important social norms, put on your Kevlar undies because you will face backlash. You’ll learn a lot about the people you already know, and you may find allies that you didn’t expect.
Amy, it’s great to see you again.
You as well, Peter.
Laura, this is getting to be a habit.
It’s such a pleasure.
She’s good. Keep her.
- Amy Gahran – LinkedIn
- Stepping Off The Relationship Escalator
- PeterMcGraw.org/Solo – Solo Community
- Opening Up
- Denver Metro Polyamory Group
- Golden Girls – Past episode
About Amy Gaharn
Amy Gaharn is a writer and journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. When she’s not writing about energy, technology and business, she’s researching and writing about unconventional relationships and the power of social norms. She’s currently working on a second edition of her 2017 book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator” — a research-based guide to intimate relationship diversity.
About Laura Grant
Laura Grant is a child-free, sex-positive solo polyamorist who enjoys first dates, job interviews, and crafting complex spreadsheets for pleasure and profit. When not traveling to experience different cultures she finds great meaning investing in her relationships with herself and others.