When I see people talk about polyamory, one concern they often have is that the partner who’s more attractive (or female) will be out every night sleeping with a new person, while the partner who’s less attractive (or male) will spend all their nights alone crying into their bowl of ice cream while watching Netflix.
There is a grain of truth to this. In my experience, it’s very rare for everyone in a primary relationship to be dating exactly the same number of people. Lots of primary poly relationships include one partner who is dating four or five people or having a lot of casual sex, and another one who isn’t. And certainly it’s much easier to have casual sex if you’re more attractive or if you’re a woman.
A lot of people assume that this situation is naturally the sort of thing that makes the left-out partner miserable. They might feel insecure, like their partner is more attractive than they are; they might be envious of their partner’s relative level of sexual success; they might be jealous; they might feel humiliated. And I don’t want to say that those dynamics never happen.
But I think the level of distress caused by one’s partner dating lots of other people is often pretty low, assuming that the rest of the relationship is healthy. Obviously, people are often sad if their partners are neglecting them for other people, or won’t stick to their agreements, or want a less committed relationship than they want, or similar. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about sadness caused solely by your partner dating lots of people when you aren’t dating very many at all. And I do think that’s less common than a lot of monogamous people think.
One reason this is true is that the number of people you date isn’t just related to how attractive you are: it’s also related to your extroversion and your pickiness.
Some people thrive on having lots of relationships: there’s nothing they love more than having a brunch date with Sally Saturday morning, grocery shopping followed by a long walk with Alex Saturday afternoon, and going out dancing with Josh Saturday evening– and then repeating it all on Sunday. For other people, this sounds like a newly discovered tenth circle of Hell.
Obviously, that second group of people are going to have way fewer partners.
I called this “extroversion”, but it’s not just about extroversion. It’s about how you choose to spend your time. Some people prioritize having lots of romantic partners and sex. Other people prioritize writing their novel, or having deep and rich platonic friendships, or maintaining open-source projects, or climbing the corporate ladder, or binge-watching Netflix. If you’re into writing novels, and your partner is into going out on lots of dates, you’re probably not going to be sad that you have fewer boyfriends than your partner does. You’re going to be like “great! He’s busy and not bugging me, so I can really dig into the edits on Chapter Three.”
And of course this is particularly an issue for casual sex. Lots of people don’t have much casual sex because they find casual sex unappealing. And many people are not at all jealous about not participating in their partner’s unappetizing and incomprehensible hobby.
Another factor that affects how many people you date is pickiness. I have a friend who, at any given time, has a crush on about half of the women he interacts with. Inevitably, whenever he meets someone new, two days later he’s PMing me to go “so-and-so is pretty.” Naturally, he is dating a rather absurd number of people.
Now, I don’t mean to insult my friend’s girlfriends, all of whom are lovely people the appeal of whom I entirely understand. I’m not saying “some of the people your slutty partner dates will be ugly as fuck” (although this is sometimes true). But if you are only interested in shy, petite, multilingual girls who enjoy tabletop roleplaying, love children, and never raise their voices, then you will be totally uninterested in your metamours who are tall, loud, outgoing, monolingual, and aggressively childfree and who think dice only come in six-sided. In my experience, it does not hurt nearly as much for your partner to date lots of people if all the people they’re dating are unappealing.
Moreover, there’s a certain fairness to it. You are aware that if you liked as many people as your partner does, you would be able to date as many people as they do. Your partner dates lots of people because they like lots of people; you don’t because you don’t.
In general, extroversion and pickiness matter more than attractiveness when explaining why one person is dating more people than their primary partner is. In general, with some exceptions for people with unusual tastes, people tend to date people who are about as attractive as they are. (And quite often if your primary is more conventionally attractive than you are but is super into you due to your unusual traits, you will be pleased to have scored such an attractive person and accepting of their increased romantic success.) So most of the difference within relationships is about extroversion and pickiness.
I am not saying that there’s no such thing as jealousy in poly relationships– there is– nor am I saying that no poly person is ever insecure, neglected, or envious. But quite often when one person dates many more people than their partner does, it is because that person wants to date more people than their other partner does. The person with fewer partners might need more alone time, be putting energy into something other than dating, or simply have a hard time meeting people they’re interested in– and that means they’re dating exactly the number of people they actually want to date.