I met Zach while I was on vacation in San Francisco. He was dating a woman who identified as polyamorous and was involved in more than one romantic relationship. I wasn't poly, but after a whirlwind weekend Ubering to his favorite haunts and flirting across black leather seats, I felt like it might be worth exploring.
We kept our flirting going when I returned home to New York, eventually evolving into cross-country courting. But I thought I could be cool about the third party in our relationship; the second I started Facebook-stalking him, I realized I couldn't.
From across the country, social media let me watch Zach's other relationship unfold in photos, comments, posts and tweets, like a movie I couldn't tear my eyes from. When she tagged him in a photo of a heart she drew in the sand, I felt sick.
While Zach kept assuring me he still wanted to be with me, his words weren't nearly as convincing as the pile of Internet evidence I thought proved otherwise. I was caught in a bizarre modern dating triangle, and it was proving torturous.
A generation without labels: At the time, this felt like a unique situation. But polyamory is rising in popularity. A 2013 study shows that approximately 5% of Americans are involved in consensual, nonmonogamous relationships, and a recent Nightline episode brought polyamory into the mainstream by showcasing a polyamorous married couple.
A recent Modern Love essay in the New York Times paints a picture of a trend for untraditional relationships, poly and otherwise. "We aren't supposed to want anything serious; not now, anyway," author Jordana Narin writes. "No labels, no drama, right?"
My brief foray into the world of polyamory did not convince me to give up on monogamy. (It did, however, almost convince me to give up on Facebook.) But it did prompt the question: If I was the only one in this relationship who felt miserable, what were Zach and his girlfriend getting out of it? And what could I learn from them?
I decided to dive in for answers, attending meetups and talking to couples and individuals within the poly community. Those who manage multiple relationships at once could surely offer valuable advice on how to navigate this confusing world of modern dating, right?
I discovered that whether you're polyamorous, monogamous, or lost somewhere in the sea of individuals who can't decide, we can all learn something from the honesty and emotional intelligence required to open our hearts and our lives to love (or, in this case, loves).
Here's what the modern monogamist can learn about love from polyamorists.
1. Jealousy is not caused by others. It comes from within.
With social media injecting itself into every corner of our romantic lives, jealousy triggers abound. Why did our partner just "like" that photo of that person from his past? Why does she look so happy? Why don't I have a nice house and an expensive car like him?
But instead of thinking, "I feel jealous of him or her," it helps to ask yourself, "What am I really feeling that's making me experience jealousy?"
Experts on non-monogamy note that when these emotions arise, we should look inside ourselves to deal with them, instead of blaming other people. "No one 'makes' you feel jealous or insecure — the person who makes you feel that way is you," Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy write in their nonmonogamy guide, The Ethical Slut.
Monogamists and polyamorists alike can gain valuable personal insight by dissecting the root of their jealousy. What are you self-conscious about? What do you wish were different? What are you afraid of? "Let jealousy be your teacher," author Deborah Anapol suggests in Love Without Limits. "Jealousy can lead you to the very places where you need healing."
2. Don't expect your relationship to always stay the same. Your partner is constantly changing, and so are you.
A woman I met at a polyamorous Meetup group in Portland, Oregon, once told me, "I wake up every day and decide whether or not I want to be with this person," she said of her husband. What she was essentially saying was this: Even though she knows she and her husband fulfill each other's needs in the moment, they know that might not necessarily always be the case.
"We're each evolving individuals," she explained. "We may not feel the same tomorrow."
In short, expecting someone to remain the same person they were when you fell in love with them is unrealistic and unfair. A lasting relationship requires a constant willingness to address change within ourselves and each other. It's a good thing that we're always growing, and if that means growing apart, then honesty and openness will hopefully help us cope with that shift.
3. One person will never check all the boxes.
I love to be outdoors, but a previous partner of mine preferred air conditioning to a fresh mountain breeze. I desperately wanted to share this passion with him, to hike together and fall asleep under the stars. He did not.
We had plenty of other things in common, but this unchecked box unnerved me.
Filmmaker Julia Maryanska, who is currently working on a documentary about alternative models for relationships, told me that I was being unrealistic: No one person can possibly be expected to fulfill all of your needs. By dating multiple people, polyamorists can find someone to check all of their boxes without pressuring any one person to be someone they're not.
If you're monogamous and you find yourself obsessing over your partner's unchecked boxes, it might do you well to stop thinking about checklists altogether. Find someone whose good qualities outweigh the bad and don't hold them to an unattainable standard. If there's something you like to do and your partner isn't into it, you can negotiate other ways to have your needs met.
4. It's OK to keep an open mind when defining your relationship.
The rise of polyamory might make dating more complicated, but it also has a clear upside: We're seeing more and more examples of alternative approaches to love and dating. Whether it's polyamory, monogamy or something in between, non-normative models of relationships are providing much-needed examples for people navigating our modern dating culture.
Polyamory doesn't work for everyone. It didn't work for me. But if we can't share lovers, we can at least share our thoughts and feelings with each other, as we all grapple to find love in our own ways.