Thank you to everyone who read this, commented and gave suggestions. This is very much an “it takes a village” kind of post. I’d love to hear more experiences to form a fuller picture- you can share your thoughts in the comments, or fill out this anonymous form. If I have capacity, I’ll aim to incorporate additions over the next few months. At the very least, I will share comments from the form as they come in (if I notice there are details that may de-anonymize folks I might remove those details).
Please engage kindly in the comments on this post. I know that the topics raised here are going to be really important to a lot of people, but I do have faith in our community’s ability to have productive discussions on this topic.
Why am I writing this?
I’m writing this post because I feel there is (or was) an elephant in the room when it comes to discussions of polyamory (poly) in EA and adjacent forums that have largely focused on the Bay Area, and its implications for the EA community. I want to talk openly about my experiences as a woman who is poly and living in the Bay area. I’ve observed a number of conversations recently (and over the past year) where people have discussed issues in the community and specifically poly in misleading, confusing and sometimes hurtful ways. This frustrates me - I want people to make informed decisions on their involvement with the EA community based on accurate information. This post aims to inform people about poly in an approachable way, and discuss the challenges of polyamory in the EA community.
For some context about me - I was monogamous for many years, and have been poly for some time now. I don’t think poly is right for everyone, and I’m not sure if it will always be right for me. I’m conflicted about my own role in complicating this issue, as someone who has (had) relationships with people in the community. The content in this post is based on my personal experiences (being monogamous and polyamorous), anecdotal observations and conversations with other (mostly highly engaged) community members. I also shared this post with several people who I think engaged in thoughtful discussions on the topic in the past (naturally, mistakes are mine).
I hope this post will be a step on the path towards a more careful, thoughtful and kind community. This post aims to inform people about poly in an approachable way, and discuss the challenges of polyamory as far as I have experience including in the Bay-based EA community.
I’m writing anonymously because 1) not everyone in my social network knows I am poly and 2) I expect that for at least some career paths I’m considering being openly poly and/or talking about it could make it harder to succeed in that domain.
What is polyamory in the context of EA communities?
If you’re unfamiliar with polyamory, I’ve written a very brief background with some common terminology in the appendix for reference.
Most people in the EA community are not poly. Poly is most common (and sometimes assumed) in the Bay Area EA community where I’ve heard an estimate that maybe 60% of EAs are poly. The EA community in the Bay overlaps a lot with the rationality community, where poly is also fairly common. Some reviewers of this post suggested that early members of the rationality community thought people were monogamous by default, and if people designed their relationships intentionally a lot more people would be poly - see this 2010 LessWrong post and discussion as an example.
Polyamory is fairly common in the Bay Area, but it’s more prevalent in the EA and rationalist communities than the Bay Area average. A higher percentage of the most engaged EAs are poly than the average in the community, and many engaged EAs are based in the Bay.
There are (to a much lesser extent) pockets of polyamorous people in the London and Oxford hubs. It appears to be less common in continental Europe (except perhaps Berlin, where there is also a big rationality community), and quite rare in Global South communities. While I’m pretty confident in these claims, they are based on my own personal experiences in some of these communities, and several conversations with friends in various communities.
Practicing poly in the EA community
I don’t want to say “don’t be poly” - that would be a little hypocritical. That being said, I do think it isn’t the right choice for (very roughly / not confident in this estimate) at least 60% of people for a variety of reasons, and can cause a lot of hurt and pain. It wouldn’t have been right for me a few years ago when I was still learning how relationships work and understanding how to advocate for my own needs. If you are considering poly, I would recommend reading this section and some additional points that are less specific to the EA community in the appendix.
I think it’s extremely important to have good strong norms in professional settings. This isn’t unique to poly, but is important to address. Flirting or making romantic or sexual advances in professional settings (e.g. conferences, professional retreats, in the workplace etc.) is generally a bad idea due to the potential for negative consequences, including making others feel uncomfortable and disrespected in the workplace.
It seems like situations are more likely to end in negative outcomes when you don’t know the other person well and/or do not have a good sense of how they will react, and especially if you are meeting in an unequal professional context (e.g. recruiting, networking, advice-seeking etc.).
It can sometimes be okay to meet someone in a professional setting and later, in a non-professional context, engage in such behaviors. If you’re a man, consider that, given that the gender ratio in most EA communities is unbalanced (70:30 men:women), even if individual advances may not be inappropriate, a woman may be approached by multiple men in a short period (say, at an afterparty), which may be off-putting or feel alienating. This may not always be actionable, but it might be worth considering using reciprocity.io (a site used by many EA community members to find romantic partners), because it will only show you a match if both people opt in. Also, by default it’s not appropriate to ask out someone who's given you a "no" repeatedly. Sometimes people might say "not now" which is sometimes accurate and sometimes a polite lie, which makes all of this more complicated. Repeatedly asking someone out can stress the person you're asking.
Consider how people you date today might be connected to you in the future (e.g. as employers, employees, grantmakers etc.) Think about where you’re likely to work for or ask for funding from this person in the future, and also consider that this person may not be at the same role forever. Given the rapid turnover and proliferation of new projects and organizations in the EA ecosystem, it’s very likely you could be in a situation where you have conflicts of interest of this sort within a few years.
To mitigate some of these impacts, some people exclude certain groups of people from their potential dating pool (e.g. not dating people who you might work with, professionally mentor or who are less professionally established, some choose not to date within their field or profession, others choose not to date within the EA community at all). I recommend Julia Wise’s post on different power dynamics between people in EA for some examples of places you might draw a boundary. If you’re in a more senior position in the community, I think it’s important to carefully consider how you want to handle potential friendships and romantic conflicts. I think community builders in particular need to think about this in relation to their group members as well.
If you’re poly, there will be more potential for conflicts of interest because of more present and past relationships, and also because of the relationship between metamours (the partner of your partner, see this recent discussion as an example). It’s worth discussing principles for avoiding these kinds of conflicts of interest. My partner and I, for example, have agreed not to date people who the other person currently works closely with (e.g. an employee at the same organization), or is very likely to (e.g. a professional collaborator).
It’s harder to control social situations (e.g. parties, co-living) reliably, but here’s my stab at suggestions I think could make people feel more comfortable with coming across poly in social settings. These are some tips I have found for discussing all relationship preferences in a healthy and nuanced manner:
Over-communicate & speak with nuance: People will sometimes claim that some relationship structures are (morally) better than others. People who practice poly / non-hierarchical relationship structures, might say or give the impression tha polyamory is more ethical, or that non-hierarchical relationships are better or more “enlightened” (see Quinn’s comment for more). On the other side, monogamous people will say things that put down polyamory (e.g. it’s “just an excuse for sleeping around", "unwelcoming to and bad for women", "time-consuming and a distraction from valuable EA work"). I think this kind of discourse can often be unhelpful, especially if the critique is not related to whether a relationship is causing harm or is unhealthy for the person(s) involved. It can be reasonable to have concerns around relationships that are unhealthy, and it can sometimes be difficult to know from the inside whether a relationship is healthy (I’ll go into more depth later).
Sometimes people might be saying things they appreciate about their relationship style, but others might interpret them as saying that their relationship style is better. Sometimes discussions can also imply that most EAs are poly, that it’s a distinct/important feature of being in the community, or that becoming poly is inevitable as you get more involved in the community.
I don’t think it’s generally a good idea to have these conversations at EA community events or professional settings, unless the event is explicitly about a related topic and people opt-in. There are times where it can be appropriate to discuss the merits of various relationship styles, including the possibility that they can have positive or negative externalities, or that one is better for most people. If you think it’s an appropriate time, make sure everyone in the conversation is comfortable with it. I think these kinds of conversations are more likely to be productive off of social media or other places where nuance is difficult.
When discussing poly in the context of a potential relationship: In my experience, (even poly) people have extremely varying levels of familiarity with polyamory - so don’t assume that a given person will know what polyamory is, what the norms are and how it works. They may not have read a lot about it - so clarify that you’re using terms the same way (e.g. ask “what is an open relationship to you?”). They may not have had a lot of “poly” experiences - so they may find a “standard” poly experience difficult or unfamiliar. They may not be very good at setting expectations around the relationship as a result. Do your own homework and go into those conversations with more information - it never hurts.
Spend the time to communicate on what you mean, and err or the side of redundancy, especially with people you don’t know. If you meet someone who is poly, keep in mind that each relationship a person has can look very different from the other - with different rules, boundaries and expectations and that people will use the same labels differently.
Respect people’s choices: Some people feel pressured by others to change their relationship orientation. It goes without saying that shaming or judging people for their relationship orientation is bad, or asking someone to consider something they’ve said no to once repeatedly, without checking with them if they’re open to discussing the topic again.
Be aware of implicit social pressures (and how they interact with attributes of poly). Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple or obvious. In the EA community, poly is more prevalent amongst more engaged / higher status EAs and in communities like the Bay. When people are getting more involved in EA in those contexts, they can feel implicitly pressured to because it’s a norm in the community, and/or people they know, respect or like are doing it. It can be especially hard when you like someone who is poly, because you can be in a very vulnerable place and it can be really difficult to say “no, this relationship structure won’t work for me”. If you are someone with high status in the community, it’s likely you could unintentionally pressure people, even when you don’t mean it. I think it’s important to reflect on this, and seek advice from others if you’re not sure whether it’s a good idea to ask other people if it’s a good idea, and go slowly and check in over time about expectations. Using reciprocity.io could help avoid some of this social pressure, as you only see if you’ve matched with someone if they’ve matched with you as well.
People new to poly are more vulnerable to being mistreated: Newer poly people often don't have any sort of poly-related scripts to help tell the difference between normal difficulties adjusting to a different relationship style and actual red flags - either about poly in general not being a good fit for them, or the relationship itself. Regarding the relationship itself, a bad actor could mistreat their partner and then justify their behavior as being "normal for polyamory" and pathologize their partners as being "bad at poly" for objecting. Jealousy is a really hard emotion, and it’s easy to want to suppress it (I’ve definitely felt this).
This is a complicated topic because a lot of people have successfully "polyhacked" (made themselves more open or okay with poly). While it's important not to censor discussion of people's experiences, people discussing polyhacking should be more careful to disclaim that not everyone can do it - some people have a hard time noticing that polyamory is not for them because they assume that any problem they have is something they can just fix eventually.
You and your preferences matter. Be careful of anyone telling you you shouldn't have a boundary/preference, and explore and advocate for your own needs. Inexperienced poly people should feel able to ask poly people they're not dating for a "is this normal?" check. One reviewer also suggested that the book Polysecure can be useful for this as well. Experienced poly people should keep an eye out for that happening among their friends.
Contact people in the EA community
If you have issues, or want to share feedback or thoughts, you can contact:
- The CEA Community Health Team
- For New York City, there is now an EA NYC Community Health Contact, and lots of other city and uni groups have their own points of contact
I think therapy can be really helpful to work through situations you come across (whether about a romantic relationship, or just issues in the community). The Mental Health Navigator can help you find mental health resources and care. The Navigator also lists some life coaches, some of whom would be happy to help navigate relationships as well.
I’d also suggest talking to non-EA friends and family who may be able to provide you support when dealing with these kinds of issues without being directly involved in the community.
Learn more about poly
These are just popular suggestions, but do your own research. Some books are Polysecure, The Ethical Slut, More than Two (note that the author has had several allegations made against him. I read the book without knowing this and did find the advice it had helpful), and the multiamory podcast. Ozy is part of the EA / rationality community and has written about their experiences (more recently here). I’ve found their writing to be a pretty accurate description of what parts of the EA / Rationality Bay Area poly scene look like.
Talk to poly people about their experiences and how it’s been like for them in practice. I’m happy to answer questions via Forum message. Amber Dawn has also graciously offered to be a point person to talk to people about poly issues as well. If you approach others, be respectful of their boundaries and what they’re comfortable sharing - especially keeping in mind the personal / professional mix of the EA community.
A (very) brief background on polyamory
This is not a comprehensive account of polyamory. Please do your own research - I don’t have a treasure trove of resources, but these links seem helpful (1,2,3) It’s trying to give people enough context to make sense of what polyamory is in the context of the EA community.
Polyamory (also shortened to poly or polyam) is an openness to multiple romantic/sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all parties. Polyamory falls under the broader umbrella term ethical or consensual non-monogamy.
Some people want the chance to have intimate, romantic and sexual connections with different types of people. If you are generally very compatible with someone and love them, but they don't or can't give you something you really value, you are free to seek that from other romantic partners. Some people also feel happiness at seeing their partner in a relationship with other people (compersion) and don’t feel strongly about restricting their partners' choices.
For some people being poly can be easier than monogamy, and it can be more natural for them. Some reasons could include not having to deal with complicated monogamy-related rules (is it okay to be friends with your ex or how emotionally close can you be with someone before it's an "emotional affair"), feeling less internal pressure to meet your partner's sexual or romantic needs because they can always find that with someone else (a good partner won't pressure you but it can be psychologically easier to know they have alternatives) and not wanting relationships that go up the relationship escalator it’s easier.
On the other hand there are downsides to being poly (mostly stolen from Ozy’s great post on the topic). Poly is not a mainstream lifestyle choice. You can experience marginalization, have a lack of role models and need to be especially good at communicating rules and boundaries. There aren’t a lot of established best practices, and even when they are, people don’t always know about them. Polyamory can (but doesn’t have to) be time-consuming if you have multiple serious, committed relationships. Polyamory puts sex/romance on the table when it otherwise might not be - for people who want to maintain clearly platonic connections with a lot of people, or don’t want to have romantic relationships with their friends, or find dating very stressful, poly might not be a good fit. There is more complicated interpersonal conflict with people who are relevant to your life that you can’t get rid of and you don’t have that much input in choosing, and feelings can be stronger than in friendships or other platonic relationships - and it can also be harder to avoid exes.
I’ve sometimes seen words misused in discussions:
- Polygamy (many + marry) is the practice of having more than one spouse. The most common form of polygamy is polygyny (polygyny - many + women) where one husband has many wives. Polygamy is sometimes used interchangeably with polyamory due to the linguistic symmetry with monogamy, but it is a separate concept. Unfortunately there is no “monoamory”, the term “monogamy” covers both marriage + relationships. (more on terms).
- A polycule is the network of people who are dating each other. People sometimes live together with members of their polycule, which is also (confusingly) called a polycule.
Poly relationship structures
Being poly is more an orientation or openness to more than one relationship, rather than a current state of affairs (e.g. you can be poly but only be dating one person, or could have multiple casual flings and not be poly).
There are many possible relationship structures in poly - ranging from multiple committed relationships, one more central relationship, casual relationships or a mix of different structures. Here are some examples of different relationship structures:
- One common relationship structure is for someone to have a “primary” partner, who is more established or central than other partners (the “secondary” partners). These are hierarchical relationship structures. People who are married, have children together or live together often are in hierarchical relationships but not always. If two partners live together they may be called “nesting partners”. From anecdotal observation, many long-term relationships tend to be in primary relationships (either explicitly, or de-facto). There are also “monogamish” people who may be seeking something similar (but again, how people interpret these phrases varies)
- Multiple close (sometimes time-intensive and/or exclusive) relationships, which can be be non-hierarchical
- Relationship anarchy, which can be a more radical version of non-hierarchical relationships. It can be sometimes referred to as “having no rules”
- Some people are soly poly who choose not to ride the relationship escalator, but can still have deep relationships
- Many less serious / more casual relationships (e.g. casual dating)
Sometimes, even if you aren’t in a hierarchical relationship but are further up the typical relationship escalator, people may assume. It’s good to communicate clearly about what your expectations are.
If you’re considering poly
Do some homework - learn more about poly: It can be helpful to learn more about poly and what it’s like before starting a new poly relationship or opening an existing relationship. We just don’t really have a roadmap for how to do polyamory - it’s a relatively new practice. There are more challenges and less support, which can be difficult enough - but layered in with a personal/professional community can be even harder. If you have a therapist (especially one who understands polyamory / is poly-friendly), I’d also recommend talking to them about it if it could work for you, and things you could do to test your fit and make sure it’s right for you. (suggestions)
Be honest with yourself - can you ask for what you need? Poly relationships take a lot of communication, openness and vulnerability. Do you have the time to invest in one or more such relationships? Do you feel comfortable advocating for what you need? Do you feel you could ask for something that feels stupid or irrational? This is one way where poly can interact badly with EA norms. Sometimes your feelings won't make sense to you. Like, you may "rationally" think it's fine for your partner to go on a date, but actually it makes you feel anxious. I think self-acceptance of one's own feelings, and more importantly accepting and validating your partners' difficult feelings, can be really important here. You don’t have to be perfect at this, but I’ve seen too many people, including myself, (in all kinds of relationships) go through emotional turmoil because they put themselves in really difficult situations when they weren’t ready for it.
This is especially true if you have less dating experience (and especially if you’re younger), entering a poly relationship could exacerbate issues that you’d need to work through in a monogamous relationship - e.g. knowing what you want out of a relationship, facing challenges in the context of relationships, talking about your own needs, etc. For example, it can be common to have to deal with feelings of insecurity and jealousy in any relationship, but it’s much more likely you’ll be in situations where you will feel insecure in polyamorous ones. There’s also generally more emotional turbulence as more relationships means more potential ups and downs. I’d encourage you to consider taking things slowly, even if it feels unnecessary or overly cautious.
Be careful with who you date: This might sound like boring parental advice, but I think it’s important to flag that just because you can date anyone, doesn’t mean you should, or that it’s good for you. I think this is true for any context, but when I reflect on my own experiences with poly, I feel very lucky that my first poly partner was extremely kind, caring and communicative. If I’d had a partner who didn’t respect my boundaries and encourage me to share my needs, I think I might have been turned off or had a really negative impression of poly. Also, beware of potential present or future conflicts of interest (see above).