Great news, Boston! Aida Manduley, 25, just moved to Roxbury to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Aida is a productivity geek, experienced sexuality educator and seasoned trainer who advocates for healthy relationships. We’re lucky to have her! She debriefs today about being ethically non-monogamous.

Growing up, my dating opportunities were pretty limited. Not only did I attend a small K-12 school in Puerto Rico, but I was raised under the very conservative Jehova’s Witness faith, which heavily frowns upon casual dating (and many of the other things I was interested in doing). That, among other things, meant heterosexual monogamy was not questioned, and that any consideration of the world beyond stayed firmly in the realm of the theoretical. I wouldn’t have predicted I’d end up a happily and respectfully polyamorous person (who is openly queer, to boot).

Amanda, Aida and Ian (from left)

What being poly means to me is that I have the desire and capacity to form deep romantic and sexual connections with more than one person at a time. What that looks like in practice varies and has changed through the years, but currently I’ve been with Ian for almost five years and we’ve both been dating Amanda—who’s married to someone living out of state—since earlier this year. I also have partners of various stripes in New York City, but sadly I don’t get to see them as often due to the distance. For a more visual way of understanding these configurations and my theory behind it (as well as the explanation of how my seventh-grade science class helped me figure this out), check out my blog.

But how did all of this even start, anyway? Having already renounced the faith I grew up with, moving away from my family and starting college gave me unprecedented freedom, as well as access to new ways of looking at the world. Sophomore year at Brown University, I began a relationship with a polyamorous man (let’s call him Taylor). For some reason, the poly situation didn’t feel terribly fraught. Yes, there was a lot of soul-searching (What IS this? Is this OK? Am I doing it right?) and some feelings of inadequacy—being a 19-year-old dating “An Adult” who’s married, has a Ph.D. and is almost 10 years older has its generationally awkward moments—but despite there being some bumps along the way, it was pretty smooth sailing.

When I began on this path, though, I didn’t consider myself poly at all. I was open to it (pun intended), but didn’t know if I would ever choose it for myself. Looking back, I can identify a host of things that made it easier for me, like not having to share space with Taylor’s other partners for a while. When we did, though, and had potlucks together or were affectionate in one another’s presence, it was actually much better than expected, and something about it felt right. What was fascinating was that most of the weirdness I felt was meta: “This doesn’t feel weird, so should I feel weird about how it’s not weird?”

By the time that relationship ended a few months later, I was firm in my identity and desire to pursue non-monogamy. Meeting poly people in the flesh gave me firsthand experience with how this kind of thing could work, and my ravenous online research and tendency toward introspection helped immensely. Still, most of the literature I found centered on the experiences of middle-class white people, and there was never a mention of imbalance in power dynamics due to issues like race or class. Even the discussions of gender and orientation weren’t as deep as I would’ve liked them to be. That’s the kind of thing I ended up having to navigate on my own, and, in the hopes of broadening the discussion around this, I’ve decided to start a video and writing project to address non-monogamy with a focus on polyamory through a more social justice-oriented lens.

Would I have done things differently in my first relationship if I knew what I know now? Heck yes—many things! So here’s my nutshell advice for those of you hoping to wade (or jump) into non-monogamy:

  1. Get to know what you need/want (or be honest about not knowing!) and gain skills in communication so you can be assertive. Communicate well and often.
  2. Ask yourself why this is interesting to you and see if the reasons are coming from a place of authenticity.
  3. Research non-monogamy broadly and see what “type” or “types” seem like a good fit for your life, and how open you want to be with all this.
  4. Get tested for STIs regularly, learn what you are being tested for, and learn how to have safer sex in comprehensive ways (not just “put a condom on, I guess?”).
  5. Be aware of how your identities (and those of your partners) affect your interactions.
  6. Think about language! When deviating from a dyadic relationship model, figuring out what words make sense for what you’re doing and who you’re with can be trickier.

Relationships overall have ups and downs, but healthy ones are a source of support and happiness. Polyamory, like any other relationship style, will come with challenges, but it should not all be rocky territory. If you or a friend is in a situation that feels controlling, manipulative or raises red flags, reach out for help. A great local organization to poke is The Network/La Red, which specializes in helping victims and survivors of abuse that are poly, kinky and/or LGBTQ.

For me, another important piece in having healthy relationships has been to center accountability and fairness, over equality, in the process. In conversations, we examine our feelings and are honest about their roots, and we are accountable for how our feelings impact others. As far as fairness (or equity) goes, it doesn’t make sense to share resources (e.g. time, money) in equal amounts when there isn’t equal need or even desire for them. Establishing and practicing these things takes time, but as a whole they make my bonds much stronger and more functional.

Now that I’ve moved to Boston from Providence, R.I., to pursue a master’s degree in social work, a new chapter has begun—one where Ian, Amanda and I all live in the same state. To hear more about that process or if you just want to get in touch, give me a poke; I’m terribly easy to find online!