What Polyamory Taught Me About Platonic Friendship

For several years, I had an incredibly dysfunctional dynamic with one of my closest friends. It wasn’t just the occasional conflict: any number of things were likely to set us off — from money, to politics, to who got credited first on the student films that we worked on.

If either one of us said the wrong thing, we’d spend the next hour arguing about it — or else one of us would storm off and leave the house/party/bar altogether.

We knew, intellectually, how destructive this was, and yet neither of us had any idea how to fix it. Fortunately, growing into our late twenties mellowed us out a bit, and finding some success in our work and social lives took the edge off of our competitiveness.

So did learning about polyamory. While the principles of polyamory are essentially about romantic relationships, they have a lot to say about friendship too.

Here are three takeaways from my journey into polyamory that helped redefine the way I think about friendship:

1. You don’t need a “best friend” any more than you need a “true love”. One of the concepts behind polyamory is that no one person can fulfill all of your relationship needs. Maybe your partner just isn’t into sports, or cooking, or travel. Polyamory acknowledges that you may need additional partners to fill those roles — and it’s OK to look for them outside of your primary relationship (with consent, of course).

I’d applied this lesson to my dating life — I wasn’t looking for a “soulmate” on OKCupid — but I couldn’t seem to shake off the impulse to find a “best friend”. I had a pre-conceived notion of how that would look — trips to Burning Man, co-operative living, psychedelic epiphanies. It bugged me that Derek and I couldn’t see eye-to-eye about some of these things, that I couldn’t count on him to share all of my interests.

Reading about polyamory helped me look at things in a new light: the connection that we did have was important to me, and our shared interests weren’t going away. It didn’t cheapen our friendship if we had other interests too, and built up new friendships to pursue them.

Rather than try and get him to accept my interests as his own, we could connect in the ways that came naturally to us and give each other space where they didn’t.

2. Negotiate clear boundaries. Whenever I attend a workshop or discussion group related to polyamory, a major emphasis is placed on affirmative consent. At the Human Carcass Wash at Burning Man, every participant is asked, “What are your boundaries?

Clear boundaries are important in polyamory, because unclear boundaries can lead to … well, jealously, betrayal, or worse. Maybe you and your spouse are free to date other people, but does “other people” mean one new lover, or three? Casual dates, or long-term partners?

With friends and roommates, it can be even more difficult to set clear boundaries. It’s awkward to have a text messaging policy, or hang a do-not-disturb sign on your door. We think we know each other well enough that we can take these things for granted.

But in my case, Derek and I had very different communication styles and different ideas of what our boundaries were. Whenever we hit a rough patch, he would retreat to his room more and more; whenever I knocked on his door, he felt intruded upon.

General requests like “Give me space,” aren’t helpful in these kinds of situations, because what sounds reasonable to one person might be crossing a line to another. Communication is the only way to make it work.

Try: “I feel stressed when we talk about roommate issues late at night — let’s set aside one day per week to discuss them.”

“Ok — I won’t knock on your door after 10PM. But if it’s a time-sensitive issue, can I send you a text message?”

Negotiations like these can be key to salvaging a dysfunctional friendship. Rather than arguing over vague assumptions, they bring everything out into the open. They can help you to see when a boundary has been crossed deliberately, and when it’s just a miscommunication.

3. Compersion. Another cornerstone of polyamory is the concept of “compersion” — sometimes referred to as the “opposite of jealously.” Compersion is the ability to find joy in someone else’s happiness — even if it means you have to sit on the sidelines for a while.

In a polyamorous relationship, a person might practice compersion when their partner goes on a date with another lover. Rather than give in to jealousy, they’ll remind themselves of the positive things the new lover brings to their partner’s life — and by extension, their own.

Compersion applies just as well to platonic friendships. My friendship with Derek was nearly destroyed by petty competition and jealousy. If we both made a video project, and his got more recognition than mine did … I’d get jealous. If he started working on a script with another writer, without me involved, I’d get jealous. We’d spend hours arguing over whose Vimeo account to post a new project on.

It took years for me to overcome these insecurities. Ultimately, I had to remind myself that if I cared about Derek’s well-being, I should be happy that he’d found more creative partners to work with, and more viewers who enjoyed seeing his work. I began to look forward to watching his projects on Vimeo and sharing them with other friends too.

I might feel a twinge of jealousy if he tweets about an event that I wish I could go to. But when it comes down to it, I’m glad he’s having fun and finding success in life. I’m happy to be a part of his projects and to learn from his experiences when his path overlaps with my own.