Dear Poly Dude: Is there a Right or Wrong Way to do Polyamory?

Dear Poly Chick/Poly Dude is a collection of anonymous queries that have been submitted by people through the Site, our Facebook page or Email. The answers provided are our opinions, formed through years of being immersed in polyamory. Take our advice with a grain of salt (or pepper). We have no boundaries, so ask us anything! If you want a Chick-specific or Dude-specific answer, let us know; otherwise, we’ll surprise you!


Dear Poly Dude,

Is there a right way or wrong way to do polyamory?


We all like to be successful in life. It’s easy to think there must be a right and wrong way to go about each goal we set for ourselves. Relationships are no different. It’s natural to want to know the winning formula; the last thing any of us want to do is make any grave mistakes that could jeopardize existing relationship(s) or limit our ability to forge new ones. Here’s the kicker: just like in monogamous relationships, there isn’t a “right way” or “wrong way” to structure polyamorous relationships that works for everyone.


To illustrate, let’s consider a monogamous marriage. Is marriage only between a man and a woman? Is interracial marriage wrong? How about arranged marriage? Throughout history, there have been countless types of relationships judged by one party or another as right or wrong; yet, people still have had fulfilling and beautiful unions, even when others have said they’re going about it in the “wrong way”.


In the world of polyamory, there are as many different ways to “do” polyamory as there are polyamorists. The Poly Chick touched on this last week; none of them are right or wrong.  However, there may be one that fulfills your particular needs the best. Here are just a few ways that people have structured their polyamorous relationships:


* Hierarchical (Primary/Secondary/Tertiary):  People using a primary/secondary hierarchy establish a set of rules intended to protect their “primary” relationship.  For example: some primary pairs have “veto” power, a “no sex with others in our bed” rule, rules around how time is prioritized between partners, and agreements that financial partnerships, home ownership, or children are only to be with the primary.

* Triad:  In many triads, three people have equal partnerships (non-hierarchical) with each other (often seen in Triangle).  There are effectively 4 relationships in a triad: Partner A to partner B; partner A to partner C; partner B to partner C, and all three partners together.

* V (or Vee):  One partner has two equal partners.  This differs from a triad in that partner A has relationships with partner B and C, but B and C are not romantically involved.

* Tribe:  A tribe is a loose construct that has multiple partners, typically living in the same place, with any number of partner pairing types.

* Non-hierarchical: This could be also seen as someone having multiple secondary relationships. People who practice polyamory in this way tend to shy away from labels and let the nature of each individual relationship organically form and drive how they prioritize their time and interactions with their partners. Because of its inherent looseness this type of polyamory can be challenging to practice if there are partners involved who feel they need to better understand their position or status to be secure in the constellation of relationships around their partner.


These are just a sampling of the different ways people structure their polyamorous relationships. However, there are not any hard lines; some combine several of these varied structures to define their relationships over time.


While, there isn’t necessarily a “right” or “wrong” way to structure polyamorous relationships, there are some essential factors to ensure healthy and fulfilling partnerships.  It’s important to recognize that you will screw up from time to time. This is usually because of a lack of adequate communication; open relationships die without open communication.   We have to be brave enough to communicate what we really feel about how our partner(s) are/are not meeting our needs. We have to be secure enough to hear from our partners when we are not meeting their needs. We have to tell the truth, no matter what.


As you can see, the world of polyamory can be a complicated soup of terms, flow-charts, rules, and needs.  While there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to go about it for everyone, having the ability to openly communicate about how it will work for YOU and YOUR PARTNERS, and to make the necessary time commitments to grow those partnerships is essential for forming happy, fulfilling, and long lasting polyamorous relationships.



  1. Franklin Veaux
    May 7, 2013

    One of my sweeties likes to say “there’s no one right way to do polyamory, but man, there sure are a lot of wrong ones!”

    Because we live in a subculture that’s frowned on by mainstream society that tells us everything we’re doing is wrong, it can be very tempting to reject the idea of right and wrong completely–there’s no wrong way to do polyamory! Anything is OK if it meets your needs!

    Unfortunately, what that hides is the fact that not all poly relationships are healthy. Just as there are unhealthy monogamous relationships, yes, there are unhealthy polyamorous relationships. Being poly does not automatically grant us a ticket to relationship utopia.

    Insecurity, fear, mistrust, poor communication, narcissism, desire for control–being poly doesn’t make us immune to any of these things, and these things can and sometimes do lead to unhealthy relationships.

    There is no one structure that is always healthy or always unhealthy. Triad relationships or tribes or fees–all these structures can be healthy or unhealthy.

    But there are common trends in the relationships I have seen that last for a long time and whose members are happy; and common trends in relationships whose members are unhappy. The things I’ve seen that lead to strong, vibrant, happy relationships over and over again are courage, communication, willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own emotions, respect for the autonomy of others, compassion, and empathy.

    Closed triads are not automatically unhealthy. But when someone says “I want a closed triad because I am jealous and insecure, and I demand that you not have any other partners because it makes me jealous,” that tends in my experience to lead to unhappy relationships. Why? Because attempting to control other people’s behavior in order to navigate our own emotions, rather than trusting our partners, moving forward with courage, and considering the needs of our partners, is more likely to lead to relationships where people feel loss of autonomy and feel unhappy.

    Similarly, open networks are not automatically unhealthy. But when someone says “I want complete freedom to do anything I want because I am unwilling to honor my existing obligations and I see commitment as an infringement on my freedom,” that tends in my experience to lead to unhappy relationships. Why? Because it does not create a foundation of trust; it doesn’t encourage a partner to rely on commitments you make.

    So it’s not about the structures–but yes, there really are ways to do poly wrong. In each case, the “right” way to do poly (in the sense of the way that seems statistically most likely to create a happy relationship) is to talk about your fears and insecurities, talk about the ways your partner can support you, honor your commitments–but do it without being controlling, without passing rules on other people designed to protect you from your own emotional triggers. Above all else, trust that you don’t have to control your partner because your partner, given the freedom to do anything, will want to cherish and support you, and always, always move in the direction of greatest courage toward the best possible version of yourself.

    • admin
      May 7, 2013

      Yeah. One of our writers recently had a conversation with someone she was dating and had to convince the guy that he was doing polyamory “wrong”. He responded with absolute denial, so she explained to him that there are in fact some cornerstones that are fundamental to polyamory, such as honesty and openness (neither of which he was utilizing). Like you said, an unhealthy relationship (that he was having with his other partner).

      All great points, Franklin! First and foremost, relationships should be healthy; this is something that I think most people (poly or otherwise) can agree on.

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