Besides the emotional differences between monogamy and polyamory, there are some logistical differences.
The big one is, of course, scheduling, but there’s also the possibility of having to restructure how you communicate, prioritize time and energy, care for your health, and show consideration and respect in intimate ways to more people than you’re used to.
I’ve seen and participated in more than a dozen polyamory panels by now. Every single time an audience member asks “so how do you schedule all of your dates/ keep track of all of your partners/ make the time for everyone?” the panel choruses, as if rehearsed, “Google Calendars*!” Everyone laughs, and then someone says, “no, but seriously – Google Calendars is the best tool for polyamorous folks.”
Scheduling your life when you’ve opened a monogamous relationship up to a polyamorous one is a huge, huge change. Suddenly your default activity is no longer a default. What do I mean by that? Most monogamous people go home to their partners at the end of the day, if they live together. If they don’t live together, they compare schedules every week and pick date nights, or hang out most nights per week. If partners have been together for more than a year or two, they probably share domestic tasks.
When other partners enter the mix, suddenly you have to look at more than two schedules to find the gaps where quality time, caring for children, shopping/running errands, and dates go. Even if my partner and I are both free on Tuesdaynights, it may be that their partner is ONLY free on Tuesday nights, so there’s schedule change number one (a lot of compromising is also necessary in poly scheduling). If you have multiple partners whose homes you sleep at on given nights, how do you make sure that you’re not leaving one partner in the lurch when you go see another? If you share a home with your partner, how do you find time and space to be intimate with the partners you don’t live with?
To make scheduling easier, I suggest three things:
1. get everyone using Google Calendars
2. kitchen table polyamory
3. some introspection regarding how much time you have for each partner and how much time you need from each partner
1 – Google Calendars
Seriously, it’s the best tool I’ve ever seen for comparing multiple schedules at the same time. You can easily scan over an entire month, and see what nights are the best bet for a date with one of your partners. You can put multiple calendars of your own in one view, so you could even have a calendar called “dates with my sweeties”. It’s just a great tool. I’m a technophobe and resisted using it for so long, but my nesting partner basically took my phone out of my hands and downloaded GCal into it, and now I can’t imagine life without it. It has the added benefit of already being very popular among polyamorous people, so if you start dating someone new, they probably already use it.
2 – Kitchen table polyamory
The concept of kitchen table polyamory is that you are on good enough terms with all of your metamours (your partner’s partners) that you’d be happy to sit around a kitchen table together and chat. It’s very different from Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell polyam/open relationships. Now, this post isn’t about the benefits and drawbacks of kitchen table polyamory, this is just an explanation of how it can be useful for logistics. If you’re having trouble learning to schedule time with all of your partners, it can be extremely helpful for your partners to be on good terms with each other, so the conversation doesn’t just have to be you talking to person 1, and then talking to person 2, and then going back to person 1, and then talking to person 3…. It’s much easier to have everyone grab some coffee together, or put all of you into a Messenger chat, and say “hey, when are each of you free this week?” Most of those questions are solved with Google Calendars, but some conversations are just easier if you can talk face to face with everyone involved.
3 – a little bit of introspection
I’m a chronic over-scheduler. I tend to work an 8 hour shift at my day job, see one or two clients in an evening, come home and walk the dog, do paperwork for my second job, and then try to spend time with one of my partners. As you can imagine, I frequently go up to my bedroom to find my partner snoring away, as I’ve completely worked through our quality time together. When someone new and cute approached me, and asked if I’d be interested in dating them, I answered “interested, yes; able, not really.” I don’t have enough free time in my life for a third serious partner, and trying to start another time-heavy relationship would be irresponsible. (You can have casual partners that you only see once or twice a month, and that’s a bit helpful for scheduling, but casual partnerships can be tough for other reasons)
I’ve needed to do some serious thinking and changing over the years, as partners have occasionally come to me and said “I feel neglected and I want more time with you,” and I’ve needed to figure out what to do next. Similarly, sometimes *I* feel neglected, and feel like my partners aren’t spending enough time with me. When that happens, I need to communicate my feelings. I’ve done the opposite as well – I’ve known a metamour felt neglected by our common partner, and I’ve said to our partner “hey, I got to see a lot of you last week. Why don’t you go up to New Jersey and spend a few days with your other partner? I’m feeling good and secure in my relationship with you right now.”
You don’t automatically get 100% of your partner’s free time even in monogamous relationships. Your partner has family and friends and hobbies and alone time. This just takes a little bit of extra thought in a polyamorous relationship, as you acknowledge that someone else wants romantic time (like evening and weekend date prime time) with your loved one. At the same time, you need to a) stand up for your needs, and b) be respectful of everyone you’re dating, and the amount of time they deserve and desire with you.
Another polyamory logistical hurdle for new-to-polyamorous folks is needing to restructure how you communicate. What does that even mean? It means that a lot of dyads who are good communicators default to the “share everything all of the time” model of communication. And that can be a great and healthy model for a lot of reasons (like not dumping several months of anger into one fight, or working through issues when they first come up, or being on the same page), but when a third (and fourth, and fifth, etc) person enters the mix, you need to begin to take multiple communication preferences into account.
There is a bit of an expectation that what someone tells one member of a close couple, one has told both members (unless they explicitly say, “please don’t tell anyone INCLUDING your partner”). When you have an intimate relationship with a second person, suddenly you have to juggle some pretty intense and private pieces of information. What do you do if your original partner wants to know all the details about the sex that you have with your new partner, but your new partner is private about that kind of information? Or if your original partner doesn’t want to know when you’re going on a date, but your new partner feels uncomfortable at the idea of being what looks like a side piece?
There’s no clear fix or answer to this issue, but it does involve a lot of trying, failing, and restructuring. Expect to fail and be ready to try again. At some point, you will accidentally share too much information, or not give enough. Introspect carefully around you needs and ask your partners to do the same.
Prioritizing time and energy is related to scheduling but involves doing a little more emotional juggling. What do you do if you have a date scheduled with your new partner and your existing partner has an emotional emergency? Likely, most people would say sorry to their new sweetie, and go stay home with their long term partner who just had a horrible review at work, or something. But what do you do if you have a date scheduled with your long term partner, and it’s your new sweetie who needs a comforting hug? How do you prioritize those people differently? Is everyone in agreement with how you prioritize them differently, or prioritize them the same? These are conversations you need to have with your partner as you begin the transition into a polyamorous relationship.
There are some ways that we are there for romantic partners that is often different from how we are there for platonic friends. (I don’t personally agree with those differences – romantic primacy is not something I subscribe to, but let’s save that for another post.) When you have more than one romantic partner, your priorities in how you spend your time and energy will change. Everyone needs to be forewarned, and needs to be willing to say BOTH “I am hurt with how you chose to prioritize your time in that situation” as well as “your other partner needs you more than I do right now – go be with them.”
Each person should care for their sexual health for their own sake. Having an STI is not the end of the world, just like getting poison ivy isn’t the end of the world, but it certainly sucks to need to manage a chronic virus, or to buy and take medication to wipe out something bacterial or fungal. So, step one is taking care of your sexual health, because you should take care of your health in all circumstances. You make choices about your own sexual health by yourself. Say your partner has genital HSV2 – when you begin having sex with them, you get to make your own decision about if contracting HSV2 is a risk you’re willing to take for the sake of getting to date a great person like your partner.
Next, when you have a long term partner, suddenly taking care of your sexual health becomes a two person activity. You choose to use condoms or not as a duo, and you talk about STI testing and results as a duo.
But what happens when more people get added to the mix? Even if you’re comfortable with the risk presented by having sex with someone who manages the viral load of their STI with medication, is your partner comfortable with that risk? What happens if your existing partner doesn’t use any kind of long-term birth control, so you use condoms, but your new partner has an IUD – do you forego condoms with someone you only started dating recently? What do you do if you’re only interested in having sex with your existing partner, but they like the idea of having sex with new partners all of the time – what kind of STI risk is present for each of you?
You’re no longer making sexual health decisions just for you – now you are a piece in a broader polyamorous network. You need to get tested regularly (every 6 months is the general advice, and more often if you’re having unprotected sex with new partners), and talk very plainly about your testing status, STI risk, and barrier contraception usage with multiple people. If your partner isn’t comfortable having that talk with their partners, you give them a kick to the pants and tell them that they must. If you get STI tested and discover that you have a new STI that wasn’t present the last time you checked, you need to inform all of your partners and make sure they tell all of *their* partners. It’s pretty easy for something like chlamydia to sweep through an interconnected web of sexual partners, if you don’t catch it and take care of it ASAP.
This isn’t intended as a scare section – having multiple sex partners can be safe and rewarding! But it does add a new level of logistical figuring and communication that isn’t present in a monogamous dyad.
The next logistical change is how to handle showing consideration and respect in intimate ways to more than one person. The usual example for this is bedsheets. Some polyamorous people feel very uncomfortable thinking about sleeping or having sex on sheets that another person slept/had sex on. So what do you do if you only have one set of sheets, you didn’t do laundry this morning, and your new partner is coming over for a date tonight? Panic! No, but seriously, you might need to buy more sheets, or do laundry more often. This particular quandary gets some pushback in the polyamorous community (the counter-argument being that demanding fresh sheets is a sign that you’re uncomfortable with your partner’s other sex partners, or that you view sex as dirty), but regardless of the broader conversation, you need to be respectful of your partners’ preferences on the matter. Multiple times, I’ve planned to sleep at a partner’s house, and then had to cancel because they hadn’t done laundry after having another partner over for sex and sleeping. That’s a firm limit for me, and my partners recognize and accept that.
There are a few other things that fall under this umbrella, like grooming habits (if one partner prefers that you trim your pubic hair, and the other prefers a wild bush [we’re assuming for the sake of argument that you don’t care either way]), sexual preferences (this is a bit of a silly one, but it can be tough to keep track of several different kissing styles or sexual fantasies!), and dietary preferences (who likes salt & vinegar chips again?), but the sheets conversation seems to be the biggest/ most common one that I’ve seen.
This is not an impossible transition – I know this seems like a lot to keep track of, but careful communication and a desire to build a healthy community will serve you well here.
*One of the best features of Google Calendars is that it allows you to see multiple peoples’ calendars all at the same time. See the first comment for an example of my polycule’s google calendar for a week.