10 Boundaries for Happy Polyamory

or…How to Not Get Polyfucked

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It’s a harsh but real truth: you can’t have happy, healthy nonmonogamy without boundaries.

Our time and energy are limited. Burning out trying to please everyone doesn’t work outside of relationships. It won’t work inside them, either.

You can certainly try. But nine times out of ten a lack of boundaries will eventually bite you in the butt. Ten times out of nine, they’ll do so at a very inconvenient time—causing conflict and putting one or more relationships at risk.

In a nutshell, a lack of boundaries opens you up to polyfuckery.

Polyfuckery: initiating what one or more parties hopes will be a mutual and loving partnership, then failing to put in the effort required.
Often, more effort is put into sexual aspects of the relationship, leaving polyfucked partners feeling emotionally unfulfilled or even used.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with pursuing multiple, consensual sexual relationships without becoming emotionally invested (or wanting to). Sexual nonmonogamy is great!

Polyfuckery isn’t about slut-shaming. It’s about naming the misunderstanding, miscalculation, or even intentional deception that happens when someone claims to be polyamorous or interested in polyamory—which suggests an interest in emotional growth—rather than communicating that they’re mostly or exclusively available for sexual relationships.

Polyfuckery, in my experience, leads to the vast majority of negative introductions to polyamory.

Who gets trapped in polyfuckery the most? People who struggle with boundaries.

This Isn’t Just About Polyamory

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

Good boundaries are essential to any healthy relationship, monogamous or not, romantic or not. Your healthiest friendships, work relationships, and family relationships are probably built on mutual respect for one another’s boundaries.

The need for personal boundaries is especially present, however, when engaging in partnerships that operate outside of typical relationship boundaries like sexual and/or romantic exclusivity.

Questioning and releasing monogamy as a boundary naturally begs the question of whether there are other boundaries we should release. Some you certainly can (for example, you don’t have to date with the goal of eventually living together, getting married, and/or having children).

Others are a bit more essential. Let’s talk about why that’s the case and then cover 10 boundaries you should hold on to for happy polyamorous relationships.

Books Worth Reading (tap to explore):

  • This book is widely known as the “Poly Bible”. I recommend it to everyone!
  • In addition to the Poly Bible, this is my go-to book rec for people looking to build healthy poly relationships.
  • If you experience jealousy, this workbook is an actual lifesaver.

Boundaries Start with You

An important thing to understand about boundaries is that at their core, they’re about you: the individual.

If you’re partnered, it can be tempting to approach boundaries first as a couple (or triad, or quad, or polycule, etc.).

Shared boundaries, or agreements, are also essential to happy, healthy polyamory.

Before you can identify shared boundaries, however, each partner must first acknowledge their individual ones. Once that’s done, they can compare these individual boundaries to discover natural overlaps, conflicts, and potential compromises to form a partnership agreement.

Starting with individual boundaries provides the greatest chance of creating a successful polyamory agreement. When each individual knows their essential needs will be met and that reasonable compromises result in their partners’ needs being met, the relationship is much more likely to proceed in a healthy way.

In practice, this is essentially a Yes, No, Maybe list for polyamory.

If you’re not sure what that is, check out my example list for nonmonogamy.

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Keep in mind that the above list is limited and focuses mostly on sexual acts. Polyamorists usually need to discuss other factors such as time commitments, emotional needs, relationship structures, and other things less tangible than sex.

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Creating good agreements is a nonmonogamous art form. Fortunately, you can start right now by identifying your personal boundaries when it comes to relationships. This will set you (and any partners you have) up for success when exploring polyamory and other forms of nonmonogamy.

Ready to get started? Here are 10 boundaries for happy polyamory I think every polyamorist should have.

10 Boundaries for Happy Polyamory

These ten boundaries represent a starting point for happy polyamorous relationships. As you read them, notice what preferences about boundaries or additional thoughts come up for you.

1. I will develop relationships with people, not dynamics.

It’s natural to have a ‘dream dynamic’ fantasy. Perhaps you would love a closed triad with two partners of specific genders. Or maybe you wish to one day be part of a sprawling genderqueer polycule large enough to start a commune.

While boundaries around your preferred dynamic(s) are fine, it’s important to remember that people aren’t characters in your fantasy—and you aren’t one in theirs. Whether the people you see prefer kitchen table or parallel poly, nesting or living solo, you’re connecting with the humans involved, not their relationship dynamics.

Growing attached to dynamics rather than one or more people is a recipe for emotional dissatisfaction. While it’s often fun to engage in this sort of role-play at first, the shine wears off when people realize that they’re valued for their role rather than who they are as unique, lovable individuals.

If it feels like you’re simply filling a predetermined role for the person you’re seeing and/or any partners they have, it’s okay to point that out and share your needs and limits.

2. I will honor and communicate my needs.

When it comes to happy polyamory, you are responsible for knowing, communicating, and honoring your needs.

For example, when it comes to what you need to feel secure and happy in your relationship with each partner:

  • How much time do you need to spend with them?
  • How often do you need to exchange messages or chat?
  • How much physical touch do you need?
  • How often do you need to have sex?
  • How much do you need thoughtful gestures?

The answer to some of these might be ‘not much’ or even ‘none’. That’s totally fine. But if some of these (or other things) are very important to you, communicate them to partners and potential partners.

Some people can’t or won’t meet your communicated needs. When this happens, you honor your needs by brainstorming ways to meet them without violating your partners’ needs and limits. If this isn’t possible, it may be time to think about adjusting your expectations of that particular relationship.

The list above is just a few of the many relationship needs you may have. Think about this: What does a secure and happy relationship look like for me?

3. I will honor and communicate my limits.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Limits are the other side of the needs coin.

Your limits are your capacity for delivering on partners’ needs (and desires). You are responsible for knowing, communicating, and honoring your limits.

For example, when it comes to what you can provide in a relationship:

  • How much time can you commit to spending with a partner?
  • How often are you available to exchange messages or chat?
  • How much physical touch can you reasonably provide?
  • How often are you sexually available?
  • How much energy do you have to put into thoughtful gestures?

The answer to some of these might be ‘all the time’ or ‘plenty’. That’s great! But if some of these (or other things) are very limited for you, communicate that to potential partners.

In some relationships, someone’s needs may be greater than you can meet given your limits. When this happens, honor your limits by brainstorming ways those needs can be met without violating your own needs and limits. If this isn’t possible, it may be time to think about adjusting your expectations of that particular relationship.

The list above is just a few of the many limits you may have. Think about this: What would it look like for a partner to ask more of me than I could provide?

4. I will check for the consent of all involved to a degree that satisfies me.

Unfortunately, there are people out there who misrepresent others’ consent to nonmonogamy.

It’s perfectly valid to not want to be involved with someone who is cheating on a partner. Morality aside, becoming attached to someone who may never be as available as you’d like or might suddenly end your relationship if the secret is revealed usually doesn’t lead to happiness long-term.

That being said, not every happily nonmonogamous ‘other partner’ will be thrilled to hop on a video call to give you the green light. (Though if that’s a firm need for you and you’re willing to not move forward with relationships that don’t have this level of openness, more power to you!)

Think about how much assurance you need that everyone involved is ‘in the know’ and comfortable with your potential relationships. If you feel like you can take your new beau’s word for it, great! If you prefer a little more proof, think about what satisfactory proof looks like for you.

5. I will respect the needs and limits of others.

Consent to nonmonogamy is really just a baseline to happy, healthy polyamory. Once established, an ongoing effort to respect the needs and limits of others helps prevent breakdowns and conflict.

You can’t control other people, of course. You’re only in control of your own actions and reactions. Additionally, you can only respect needs and limits that have been communicated to you.

When needs and limits are communicated or become apparent, insist on respecting them when doing so is in your control.

For example, imagine your meta (your partner’s partner) doesn’t want anyone having sex in their bed if they themselves aren’t present. If your partner invites you to ignore that request by having sex while your meta isn’t home, you have every right to refuse. This is your role in ensuring the happiness and health of your polyamorous relationship.

Additionally, you have the right to ask your partner what makes them want to ignore your meta’s communicated need. You can’t stop your partner from disrespecting others’ needs and limits, but you can refuse to be a part of it and point out that their desire to do so concerns you.

Don’t beat yourself up for honest mistakes due to a lack of communication or forethought. When that happens (and it will), take time to let any intense emotions reduce to a bearable level and initiate a compassionate conversation about what happened and what everyone needs to feel safe moving forward.

Relevant Reads (tap to explore):

6. I will ask for clarity when I need it.

Photo by Christina Morillo

Polyamorous relationships operate outside of typical relationship ‘scripts’. As a result, there’s a lot to talk about when defining and negotiating dynamics.

Inevitably, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’re feeling unsure about something. You might wonder whether texting your partner while they’re on a date with someone else is okay, for example. Or you may want to know whether your meta is comfortable being tagged in social media posts about polyamory.

Happy polyamory depends on all partners clearly understanding one another’s needs and limits. Asking for clarity when you’re unsure is reasonable. It’s the right thing to do if your goal is a healthy long-term relationship.

If you’re confused about someone’s needs or limits, it’s tough to honor them. Partners should be happy to provide clarity and reduce confusion to avoid sparking unintended conflict.

There are endless examples of situations in which you’ll need clarity. When this happens, ask for it and expect an honest, helpful response.
If you often feel left ‘in the dark’ or confused despite asking for clarity, that’s cause for concern. Confusion does not support relationship security.

7. I will participate in decision-making that affects me.

Continuing with the theme of being kept in the dark, you deserve a say in decisions that affect your well-being and sense of security.

It isn’t uncommon for someone, or a pair or group of someones, to quickly make decisions that feel obvious and easy. When those decisions will impact others, however, those others should be a part of the decision-making process rather than informed after the decision is made.

For example, I’ve heard stories about people moving new partners into their homes without consulting partners already living there. As real as the housing crisis may be, it’s reasonable to expect to have a say in who you share your home with.

If a decision gets made without you and you’re not sure you had a right to be a part of the process, try revisiting your needs and limits. If the decision sacrifices your needs or exceeds your limits, speak up.

If a decision affects you in an unexpected way that hasn’t yet been discussed, there’s no time like the present. Decisions that make you feel very unsafe, insecure, or unhappy absolutely warrant a conversation.

8. I will compromise within reason.

As the song says, “you can’t always get what you want.”

It’s reasonable to compromise some of your wants or desires for the sake of one or more partners’ (or even metas’) needs.

For example, say you really want (but don’t need) to attend an upcoming kink party with a partner named Elle. However, when Elle tells her other partner about the party, he panics. Once he calms down, he asks Elle to skip this party so he can have time to think about the source of his fear and see if he can overcome it before the next kink party occurs.

Clearly, this other partner of Elle’s needs some time to feel safe and secure about you and Elle attending a kinky party together. And since you don’t need the party to feel safe, secure, and happy, you’d likely be willing to make this compromise.

Of course, if Elle’s other partner never gets around to investigating and addressing his insecurity, you may grow impatient as party after party passes without being able to attend. If resentment sets in, that could spell trouble.

If over time you realize that you need a partner who has more freedom than Elle does, that’s worth a conversation.

As always, if a relationship requires sacrificing your needs it’s time to brainstorm ways to meet them without violating your partners’ needs and limits. If that isn’t possible, it may be time to think about adjusting your expectations of the relationship.

9. I will practice self-love.

Photo by Maik Kleinert

While floating in the magic (or drowning in the schedule commitments) of polyamory, it is incredibly easy to lose touch with yourself.

Take care to nurture your individuality and separateness from your partners and dynamics. This doesn’t require spending lots of time alone when you could be enjoying cuddle puddles. Rather, it’s remembering that while the cuddle puddle is lovely, so are you.

The danger of forgetting to practice self-love isn’t just present in polyamorous relationships. You surely know someone who went through a monogamous breakup or divorce that left them feeling lost and unsure of who they were.

Have meaningful friendships outside of your polycule. Stay close with family members you love. Engage in hobbies, clubs, or pastimes your partners don’t engage in.

With lots of self-love, you’ll always have yourself to turn to, and you’ll always know you’re loved for being truly you. You’ll also have a much easier time honoring your boundaries.

10. I will remove myself from incompatible and harmful relationships.

Sometimes the moment comes when you realize a partnership is simply incompatible or harmful.

Over the course of a relationship, many things can happen. Needs and limits change. Major life events occur. Past trauma rears its head and disrupts the present. Disaster strikes. People decide to move, go back to school, change careers, or have children. Differences reach a point where they can’t be ignored. Worldviews shift.

In some cases, revisiting needs and limits and renegotiating boundaries can bridge the gap. In others, the gap turns out to be too wide.

No one has to be at ‘fault’ when you realize a relationship has reached a point of transition. Sometimes, just as in monogamous relationships, people grow apart.

It’s difficult, but it’s okay. You love yourself, remember? And to continue loving yourself, you have to remove yourself from situations that aren’t working.

With time, you’ll see that you’ve made room for something new and wonderful.

Books Worth Reading (tap to explore):

Boundaries: Powerful and Necessary

Photo by Helena Lopes

In healthy poly relationships, boundaries are compassionately communicated and mindfully negotiated. You can help ensure this in your relationships with reasonable compromises that don’t leave anyone feeling unbearably unsafe, unhappy, or insecure.

While this list of boundaries is a great starting point, chances are you have additional boundaries of your own. I encourage you to think about and even write those down so you can remember them when needed.

And, of course, don’t forget to communicate them to existing and potential partners.

Need help identifying and communicating your poly boundaries? Check out my free Talking About Sex activity book:

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Shannon Burton, SXI

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Published by Shannon Burton

Sex educator and writer by day, poet and flash fiction author by night, I occasionally manage to get out of the house to enjoy New Orleans as it's meant to be.

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