What Makes A Polyamorous Relationship Considered Successful?

I was hanging out with my ex-gf a few weekends ago, and, as we always do, we were talking about polyamory, our current relationships, and just life in general. I always forget how well we connect until we see each other in person. Near the end of our hangout, Alice mentioned that when she had told one of her previous exes that me and her had broken up, her ex said, “I knew that wouldn’t last!” And then that ex proceeded to try and get back with her. I laughed.

But that opinion from someone else really intrigued me. Why did she know it wasn’t going to last? Was it just ill-will because she was jealous, or were there actual obvious reasons it wouldn’t work? I considered the relationship very successful, even though it only lasted 2-3 months as an official relationship. And I assume that this particular person sees it as a failed relationship.

So, what makes a polyamorous relationship successful? Is it length of time you are together? The amount of sex you have? Whether it is primary or secondary in your life? Whether you drop everything for the person? If you vacation together? If you have children together? If everyone was happy? If everything was honest, mutual, and consensual?

Why Length of Time Is A Bad Measurement of Success for Any Relationship

In the monogamous world, relationship success is generally measured by the length of a relationship. People gasp and applaud when they here that it is a couple’s 50th anniversary. From the outside, a 10-year marriage is seen more highly than a 2-year marriage. People generally put a lot of value on length of time together.

However, when you look closer at the innerworkings of relationships, I feel like time is a terrible measure. Everyone has known the couple who has been together 20, 30, 40 years, yet are obviously very unhappy with each other. There are the people who just stay together for the kids, the abusive long-term relationships, the people who stay together because their religion doesn’t believe in divorce, and the list goes on. I wouldn’t count any of those long-term relationship types as a success.

This mindset of time equaling success does flood into polyamory as well. Just try Google-ing ‘successful short-term polyamorous relationships.’ All the results include ‘long-term poly relationships’: “Anyone has a long-term, stable poly relationship?”, “Are there any examples of successful long-term polyamorous relationships?”, and “Long-term polyamory success” are the first three headlines.

Yet, when you ask someone who has been in the polyamorous or open relationship world for a longer length of time, they will tell you that the length of a relationship does not equal success.

What Makes A Poly Relationship Successful?

Often when people ask how to make a polyamorous relationship work, people talk about communication and honesty. Therefore, you would think that the marks of a successful poly relationship would be those two facets. However, according to some users on a Facebook polyamory discussion group, the things that make a polyamorous relationship successful go beyond good communication and honesty (though those are both very important as well).

To these users, a successful polyamorous relationship includes mutual respect for each other’s autonomy, staying true to the commitments and promises made to each other, supporting each other, meeting each other’s wants and needs during the relationship, and everyone involved being happy and enjoying the relationship. All these things can happen in the short term as well as the long term.

Respecting Each Other’s Autonomy

One of the main tenets of polyamory is that everyone is their own autonomous person, able to make choices and instill boundaries that work for their life (while also respecting other people’s boundaries, of course). Therefore, to be successfully polyamorous, there needs to be a respect for the other person to make their own choices. The choices may not always be what you would pick, but that’s okay. The choices may be the exact opposite of what you would pick, but, as long as it is not a choice affecting your boundaries and it is within your relationship agreement, then it is okay.

Side note: I add all these caveats (‘as long as not crossing boundaries’ and ‘within relationship agreement’) because everyone does open relationships differently. Not everyone can operate as a relationship anarchist and that’s okay. I really like this article that breaks down how much freedom and independence people in a relationship have into 6 different levels of relationship autonomy, from monogamy to relationship anarchy.

Staying True to Commitments and Promises

When you enter a relationship with another person, part of that relationship includes being committed to one another in some capacity. You may have a commitment to see each other once a week, Skype once a month, or go out on a date every couple of months. Honoring these commitments and promises shows respect for the other person and for the relationship. Of course, there are times when emergencies may come up and plans must be changed. But I would generally count a past relationship as successful if you were able to honor the commitments and promises you made at least most of the time. Constant disappointment would make for a very unsuccessful relationship.  

Supporting Each Other

Whether you see each other every day or every other month, there will be some level of support in a relationship. It could be emotional, physical, financial, sexual, or mental support. Every relationship involves some sort of exchange. And I would count a successful relationship as one where all members feel comfortable, secure, and supported.

Meeting Each Other’s Wants and Needs

So, someone mentioned this and it’s a hard one to explain. You never should be responsible for meeting all of someone’s wants and needs; however, being in a relationship, you should be fulfilling some of the other person’s wants and needs. A tenet of polyamory is the point that one person cannot wholly fulfill another person. However, when looking back on a past relationship, I would not consider it successful if my partner didn’t fulfill any of my wants or needs. I feel like they must have added something to my life for me to consider it successful, whether that be fulfilling my need to communicate and process feelings, my want to watch reality TV, or my need to snuggle. Therefore, it doesn’t have to be even close to ALL of my needs, just ONE or SOME.

Happiness and Enjoyment

To me, this is one of the most important facets of a successful relationship. I feel like the people involved should have been happy and enjoyed themselves for a good portion of the time. I wouldn’t consider a relationship where you are miserable 90% of the time very successful. This doesn’t mean that there were not bumps in the road or issues in everyday life. However, I feel like if the relationship was successful, you should be able to look back on the relationship and think mostly positive thoughts.

Good Communication and Honesty

Ah, the most well-mentioned topics in open relationships! I’m sure you’ve heard or read or even typed, “Communication! Communication! Communication!” The big part of communication is that you have to both be able to speak your thoughts and also listen effectively to the other person’s thoughts. One partner could be amazing at putting his thoughts into words, but if his partner is not a good listener, the thoughts could be misinterpreted or ignored. Or one partner could be a great listener, but that doesn’t really help much if the other partner can’t properly communicate. If all partners were able to understand the other and feel understood themselves most of the time, then I would count that as a successful relationship.

Communication in an open relationship also needs to be open and honest. Whatever you’ve agreed upon sharing should be shared. Keeping secrets is not good communication. Do you have to share everything? No, of course not, but within reason, especially if it is something that would affect the partner you are talking to. Caveats to this would be a DADT policy, in which you wouldn’t share anything, or a completely open agreement where you share everything, which if that’s your agreement and everyone involved is okay with that, then go for it (which brings us to ethics and consensualness).

Ethics and Consensualness

Of course, all interactions you have with others should be ethical and consensual, so this permeates into open relationships as well. You should always want the best for your partners, stick to their boundaries, and make sure they are comfortable in any given situation. This applies directly to interactions with partners, but also to sharing details about partners with other partners. You should always make sure it’s okay with the person you are sharing about before you share details, whether personal or sexual, to another partner. If cheating or lying was a part of a past relationship, I would not consider that a very successful relationship.

Why We Broke Up But I Still Call It Successful

So, if I saw my relationship with my ex-gf as so ‘successful,’ why did we break up? And even further, why do I view my very short-term relationship as successful when others may look at that as an obvious failure since it only lasted a couple months?

Pandemic

Well, as many of us in open relationships have discovered during this pandemic, it is hard to navigate multiple relationships while also trying to stay safe and healthy. There’s families, kids, and other partners to think about. Things become complicated when you think about the fact that your girlfriend also sees a lover who has a girlfriend who is seeing another man etc. etc. The polycule web can go deep.

The pandemic also limited places that we could meet for dates, especially early on when everything was closed down. And now that things are opening up, I’m still one of the wary ones that doesn’t like to venture out into closed public places if I don’t have to.

So, in terms of the looming doom, we all need to give each other a break when relationships break up during this unprecedented time.

Time

Besides the pandemic itself, time is a huge issue, especially when you both have families. Between multiple partners, multiple children, friends, and family, it was really hard to find time to hang out. Of course, there are no specific time requirements to be in a relationship. I actually think Alice would be okay still being in a relationship now and only seeing each other once a month or so. But for me, I think I would rather hang out once a week with a partner. And feeling as though I cannot provide that time makes me feel like a bad partner, in which case, I’d rather be a friend.

Primary relationship issues (Yes, we have a hierarchy, and she does too)

So, the straw that broke the camel’s back was that I was having so many mental/emotional issues due to my primary relationship (pretty much everything going on in my previous 6-7 blogs about jealousy and etc.). Alice has always been there for me (and me for her) to talk about poly things (and other things). So, she was listening to all of my complaints and issues and she said, “Do you think we should take a break?” And I said, “I don’t want to, but yes, we probably should.” I didn’t feel I could give her the proper focus that I would like to give a girlfriend. I was so self-consumed in my own agony of trying to figure out if polyamory was even for me, that it seemed like the best step to take.

Why It Was Successful

Despite only being together 2-3 month, I count my relationship with Alice as very successful. I feel as though it would have easily continued without the external issues. We ticked off all the boxes for a successful relationship: respected autonomy, kept promises, supported each other, met certain wants and needs, were happy and enjoyed time with each other, and had great communication with openness and honesty.  For me, our breakup was ‘see you later,’ not ‘goodbye forever.’

Conclusion

The length of a relationship does not equal success. I feel like only the people actually involved in a relationship can evaluate whether it was successful or unsuccessful. They experienced the communication, the promises, the honesty, or lack there of in any of those areas.

What do you count as a ‘successful’ relationship? Looking back on your past relationships, whether monogamous or polyamorous, do you tend to focus on how long they lasted, if you were happy, or something else?

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