If you embark on a polyamorous life, especially as a newbie, sex and dating can leave you feeling a bit like a kid in a candy shop. However, if you fuck up your poly life, you risk a lot more than cavities and an upset stomach.

Monogamy is almost always simpler than polyamory.  If you get into a serious monogamous relationship, you know you're done.  That's it.  You'd better stop looking.  It's quite straightforward.  But if you embark on a polyamorous life, especially as a newbie, sex and dating can leave you feeling a bit like a kid in a candy shop.  However, if you fuck up your poly life, you risk a lot more than cavities and an upset stomach.  The subject has been on my mind lately because I recently hit the point where my friends are asking me with raised eyebrows, “Just how many people do you think you can handle?”  I figured I'd better come up with a good answer.

I had the amusing privilege of being the first person to define “polysaturated” in urbandictionary.  It's a term I hear poly folks float around a lot to refer to the experience of having as many relationships at one time as they can handle.  This might sound like something that's easy to determine, but it most definitely is not.

Consider the parameters that go into managing relationships.  There is, least importantly, presumably sex.  (In practice, many poly folks have “platonic” relationships with people they consider “partners” that do not involve sex).  Most people only want so much of it, and there are physical limits to what bodies can tolerate.  Then there is emotional energy.  Your brain needs time to process and deal with the experience of being in love, and it can only handle some limited amount of information at any given time.  (I learned that I've exceeded my polysaturation point when I stop being able to pay attention to audiobooks, which are normally something I love.  I'm just too distracted thinking about my lovers to concentrate).  If you're in anything resembling a serious relationship, your lovers are going to require a certain amount of emotional support from you, especially if they experience any sort of crisis.  One of the dangers of poly life is that it is possible for most of your lovers to be going through a tough time emotionally all at the same time, and you need to have few enough of them that you can emotionally support them all for at least a short period without necessarily getting equal support in return.

But by far the scarcest resource in poly life is time.  You need enough time to be able to maintain your minimum relationship needs with someone: check in with them regularly through whatever method you prefer, communicate about what's happening in your life, cuddle, have sex, eat dinner, etc.  But you also have to have enough time available that you can spend time with them not doing those things—you need to have enough time that you can just chill with them.  If most of your relationship is spent doing relationship “work,” and trying to make the most of every moment, you and/or your partner and the relationship will eventually break.

The problem is that it is very hard to know when one is going to hit the point of polysaturation before it happens.  One of the only ways to know is previous experience with polyamory, which means that polyamateurs often cheerfully acquire a whole set of new relationships only to watch most or all of them fail from being undernourished.  Another problem is that it is nearly impossible to predict the trajectory of a relationship in advance.  The fastest way to become polysaturated is to fall madly in love, and most people are only mediocre forecasters of their chances of falling hard for a particular person.  Thus the most complicated principle of polysaturation is that it is easily possible to maintain three or four relatively casual relationships without becoming polysaturated, while also possible to become (at least temporarily) polysaturated within a simple but very serious and emotionally intense dyad.  In particular, when trying to establish marriages or marriage-like primary arrangements, many people find it difficult or impossible to maintain other relationships, unless those other relationships are very well-established secondary relationships.

Doing polyamory is a bit like putting together a relationship puzzle.  It's not just a matter of having enough time to pay attention to all of your partners.  In the ideal poly life, in order for all the interconnected relationships to work, they all have to fit together somehow.  It's not as simple as whether or not person X gets along with each of her partners, Y and Z.  In some way, Y and Z's relationships with X have to complement each other and make sense as larger relationship components, even if Y and Z rarely come into direct contact with each other.  You exceed the point of polysaturation when the puzzle pieces are too big to fit each other.  But you achieve the right poly dynamic when the individual relationships with each of your partners work better because of your relationships with all your partners.  And that should feel very, very good.

About the Author

Elenorofa - Writer - Active Contributor

Elenorofa has a Ph.D. in Sociology and is a professor at a university in Washington, D.C. She is a P^3 (pansexual polyamorous pagan) and blogs about sex, kink, and polyamory extensively on fetlife as IPCookieMonster and has a personal blog at slutphd.com. Her current research focuses on the BDSM scene, polyamory, and paganism. When not busy "working," she is usually busy spinning fire with her troupe HVBRIS or poledancing.