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Emotional Intimacy in Polyamorous Relationships

Is it really possible to love more than one person at the same time?

Almost every time I speak to a general-public audience about my research on polyamory, someone eventually asks if poly people’s desire for multiple partners means that they don’t really love each other are not truly emotionally intimate. Because serial monogamy—the practice of establishing a romantic relationship with one person, breaking up, and engaging in another subsequent relationship with a new person—is the norm in contemporary US society, other kinds of relationships contrast as poor substitutes for the “real” relationship form.

Monogamous Marriage is Considered a Rite of Passage

For people in monogamous relationships, it can be hard to imagine how polyamorists can nurture emotional connections with multiple partners simultaneously. In a society with too few rites of passage, “settling down” into a monogamous relationship is one of the few remaining hallmarks of maturity. Non-monogamy, in contrast, can appear immature, insincere, and insecure.

Some polyamorists, however, report that the process of negotiating relationships outside of the norm inevitably fosters emotional intimacy through the amount of communication, honesty, and self-growth that comes with crafting these unconventional relationships.


Communication is one of the most distinguishing features of polyamorous relationships: Poly people rely on communication to negotiate relationship boundaries and safer sex agreements, express their feelings, and get to know each other. Essential to the care and feeding of nearly every poly romance, communication is the primary vehicle polys use to establish emotional intimacy. While poly folks often enjoy sexuality, and sexual intimacy can certainly contribute to emotional intimacy, very few polyamorous (or monogamous) relationships can thrive without consistent and intentional communication.


People in poly communities often emphasize non-violent communication (using “I statements” and listening compassionately) and radical honesty (telling the truth even if it is not comfortable or convenient) as methods to establish intimacy and work through conflict. Key to both of those practices is honesty, with self and others. Telling lies means negotiating in bad faith, a breach of poly community norms that prize honesty above all else. Most importantly, without honesty, it is very difficult to feel safe and trust that partners will live up to safer-sex and other agreements.

Building trust takes telling the truth even when it is difficult or inconvenient.


While some poly people claim (and even occasionally appear) to be immune to jealousy, most people in multiple-partner relationships have had to deal with jealousy at some point. Polys often talk about jealousy as being a symptom of other emotions such as insecurity or anger and position candid communication as the route to managing potentially challenging or painful feelings. All of this communication and honesty routinely leads to self-growth borne of introspection and working through relationship conflict. Self-knowledge can be painful to accrue but rewarding in the long run.

Having to face their insecurities, question their motives, and consider their own boundaries almost forces poly people to either get to know themselves or leave the relationship style. Much like some serial-monogamists, those polys who neither come to grips with their issues nor leave the relationship style tend to go from one dramatic relationship explosion to the next.

Enough Love to Go Around

When discussing their relationship style, polys routinely point to their abundance of love and often compare loving multiple partners to loving multiple children. Polys point out that parents do not stop loving the children they have simply because they have another child. Rather, their love grows to encompass that new child and still includes previous children. In that same way, polys can still love their former partners even though they fall in love with someone else as well. Love can be platonic in poly relationships as well.

For polyamorists, love need not be a zero-sum game, and loving one person does not mean they have less love for someone else. That does not mean that some polys are not in it for the sex — and they do not need an excuse; they are upfront about wanting to have sexual variety. Most significantly, this sexual variety does not have to come at the expense of emotional intimacy. Some poly people really can have their cake and eat it, too!

The Downside

This is not to say that every poly relationship hovers in blissful defiance of reality. Though love may be infinite, free time is often in short supply, and when time spent with one comes at the expense of time with another it can lead to jealousy and hurt feelings. Some polys deal with this by spending time together in groups so no one is excluded. Some poly relationships can pack as much drama into 6 months as others do in 25 years. 

Dr. Elisabeth "Eli" Sheff

"Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff is a researcher, expert witness, coach, speaker, and educational consultant. With a PhD in Sociology and certification as a Sexuality Educator from the AASECT (the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists), Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual minority families, consensual non-monogamy, and kink/BDSM. Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamorous families with children and her 20+ year Polyamorous Family Study is the only longitudinal study of poly families with children to date. Sheff’s first book, The Polyamorists Next Door (2014 hardback and ebook, 2015 paperback and audiobook), details the findings of the first 15 years of her research on polyamorous families with children. Her second book, Stories from the Polycule (2015), is an edited anthology of writings by polyamorous folks. When Someone You Love is Polyamorous (2016) is Sheff’s shortest book that guides family members and significant others who are trying to understand a polyamorous loved one."
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