Long-Distance Polyamory: How Does It Work?

Polyamory is a relationship dynamic for people who practice non-monogamous relationships with the full and willing consent of all the partners involved. It’s nothing new, and in fact has formed the basis of many societies through history. It’s still the norm in a few cultures today, though in the West it’s generally consigned to religious sects and in the rest of the world it’s prevalent mostly only in tribal communities.

However, with the growth of social media in particular, polyamory has come out of the shadows and is now a signal of pride and affirmation for its adherents. There’s something unique about polyamory, and it lies in the relationship dynamics.

Long-Distance Polyamory

The unusual thing about polyamory isn’t simply the inclusion of multiple consenting partners. It’s that a remarkably high proportion of polyamorists are involved in long distance, online relationships. That’s not to imply polyfolks don’t have local, in-person relationships, most poly relationships involve an element of both physical and virtual. But a noticeably large amount of poly folks maintain relationships with people who live dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of miles away.

There’s a lot of reasons for this, and we’ll cover them in this article. But it’s worth noting up front that much of it is to do with how poly adherents meet each other, and the new ease of sustaining a long distance relationship with some emotional distance too.

The Meet Cute

Our culture still favors serial monogamy with good ol’ fashioned cheating to consensual non-monogamy. That makes it unlikely to meet another polyamorist locally by chance, especially if they live in more conservative or less populated areas. (It is of course possible to shift the dynamic of a monogamous relationship to a poly one organically, but, again, it’s not all that common.)

Therefore, poly folk have to find other ways to meet each other. There’s almost always an online component to this, with various communities and forums dedicated to finding poly partners. Then, the poly community is relatively well served in the US with conventions such as the Southwest Love Fest, Sex Down South, Atlanta Poly Weekend, Relatecon, PolyDallas Millennium, Poly Living in Philadelphia or Denver, Endless Poly Summer, or one of the many international polyamory conventions. The problem is, even at conventions, the attendees often travel long distances to be there, meaning there’s no guarantee a poly partner will live locally.

Online dating can help to find interested partners by filtering the search by distance, increasing the chance of finding partners close by, but limiting the pool of partners available. And realistically, except in rare cases, this is only productive in large cities where there will be thousands or millions of people within a few square kilometres. While people in more rural locations might relocate to be with their partner, more often than not it will develop into a long distance relationship – at least for a while.

New Relationship Dynamics

Poly folks tend to belong to the professional middle class and to be degree educated, meaning there’s a lot of potential for them to move around for education and work. Today, this needn’t need to spell the end of a relationship, and instead maintain their connection online – especially because they may be prohibited from dating others in their new location. 

Moving around so much can put a strain on a relationship. In order to remain monogamous, partners must either relocate together, convince their partner to stay, or try to maintain their monogamous while apart from each other. Any one of these options is likely to change the dynamic of a monogamous relationship, or result in significant tension.

Polyamory is, for many people, secret option number four. It allows a person to remain faithful even while seeking other partners in their new location. This can strengthen the relationship with the distant partner, leading to long term, sexually fulfilling, long distance relationships, usually with one primary partner, and multiple secondaries, who can either be permanent or entirely casual.

Elizabeth Sheff, Ph.D, is an expert on polyamory. She adds this interesting thought:

“In polyamorous lingo, NRE stands for New Relationship Energy: the bubbly, exciting, glowing feeling people get when they are thrilled about a new relationship before they know each others’ flaws, when everything the other person says is fascinating, and all of their habits are adorable. People in other kinds of relationships feel it as well, and sometimes call it infatuation or falling in love.”

Polyamory permits a certain amount of emotional distance and independence from a partner, while still enjoying the perks of intimacy, support and affection. That’s really attractive to many people who are resistant to emotional dependence. It also allows people to take only the good bits from a relationship. For example, you might be highly attracted to someone but disagree with their politics. Polyamory can offer you the sex you want with that person, without those political differences getting in the way, since you can have other partners with whom you are better aligned. 

It’s Good To Talk

Poly folk are very imaginative in the ways they communicate long distance. They often establish regular date nights that are enjoyed over services like skype, which can offer a sexual outlet too. And generally speaking, as with most monogamous long distance relationships, they will be in near constant communication with messaging apps.

While it’s no substitute for meeting in person, it can help maintain and sustain a complex polyamorous relationship in the long term.

Written by: Stuart Nugent

With 16 years in the adult industry, including many years at LELO, it's fair to say Stu has been around the sex toy block a few times. As LELO's resident sex geek, he's been featured in the Independent, the Guardian, HuffPost, Vice, Cosmopolitan, and anywhere people talk about sex. Here on Volonte, he turns his spotlight onto the important events affecting sex right now in a regular op-ed. Views are his own.

2 comments

  1. Hello Stuart,

    Nice to meet “LELO’s resident sex geek”

    “Therefore, poly folk have to find other ways to meet each other. There’s almost always an online component to this, with various communities and forums dedicated to finding poly partners.”

    As a fellow “poly sex geek” can you tell me where to find these various online communities?

    “Then, the poly community is relatively well served in the US with conventions such as the Southwest Love Fest, Sex Down South, Atlanta Poly Weekend, Relatecon, PolyDallas Millennium, Poly Living in Philadelphia or Denver, Endless Poly Summer, or one of the many international polyamory conventions.”

    Conventions are a thing of the past. Even the Democratic National Convention was postponed, is anybody hosting “virtual conventions” where poly people can meet up and hook up online?

    • Hi!

      You’ll have the best chance of finding a local group on the website fetlife.com. Fetlife caters to all manner of kinks and fetishes, so you’ll have to sift through a lot of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to you, but if you search your city in the forum and members list, you’ll likely turn something up, since fetish lifestyles often overlap with poly and swinging relationships.

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