Dear Kiki: Is polyamory worth the trouble?

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Dear Kiki,

Is polyamory worth the trouble? Lay it out for us.

Signed, Polycurioush

Dear Polycurioush,

Well, that all depends. Are you polyamorous?

Polyamory is one of the many things outside the societal norm that is often erroneously referred to as a lifestyle choice. And, certainly, people can choose to engage with it or not. But the question of whether or not it is “worth the trouble” boils down to something intrinsic and innate.

Let’s look at the central element of polyamory: compersion. The convenient website defines that term as, “our wholehearted participation in the happiness of others.” It’s used in poly circles to describe the feeling of joy you get seeing your partner happy with someone else.

But not everyone experiences that feeling of joy. It threw me for a loop the first time I realized that some people do not take thrill or pleasure in the happiness of others, sexual, romantic or otherwise. It wasn’t until adulthood that I discovered some people view some or all types social interaction as transactional, and when someone helps them or arbitrarily gifts them something, they feel a crippling sense of obligation in return, and would never want anyone else to feel that on their account.

I spent my youth giving, giving, giving — I always loved the feeling of basking in others’ happiness. When I found out the “truth” about Santa Claus, my first reaction was to become Santa for my family and drop random gifts under the tree without admitting they were from me. I genuinely thought I was a bad person for wanting to help people because it didn’t come from some sense of “doing the right thing,” but from a selfish desire to feel that ancillary joy.

If you are wired to experience compersion, and that compersion extends to intimate relationships, then polyamory is absolutely worth every inch of “trouble” it brings with it (really, it’s all just coordinating calendars). You will thrill to your partners’ joy, and their pleasure in your happiness will only serve to deepen it. But if you interact with the world more transactionally, then — while you can still choose a poly lifestyle and succeed — the work necessary to make it a success will drain you. This will be especially true if your primary partner (if you have one) does experience compersion and you do not.

Ultimately, Polycurioush, like any other “relationship style,” you need to look inward first when deciding whether it’s for you. If you are poly, it will be a whole lot of unrewarding work to spend your life in a monogamous relationship. If you’re not, consider other types of ethical nonmonogamy, like swinging, where you can sow your oats but still fall back on a central partnership. Or consider just being single. There’s nothing wrong with playing the field and not “settling down,” despite the lies society tells.

Also remember that, like all relationships, polyamory must be built on a foundation of radical honesty and trust. If you or your partner aren’t ready for that, then you need to work on your partnership first (ideally with the help of a poly-friendly couples counselor) before you introduce other human beings into your dynamic. More people can’t fix a flailing relationship; you wouldn’t, for example, have a baby to solve your problems, and adding other adults to the same mix won’t help either. We all deserve more respect than that.

xoxo, Kiki

This article was originally published in Little Village’s February 2023 issues.