Holiday shopping is complicated no matter who you’re shopping for — a parent, a partner, a friend. I pride myself on being something of a gifting connoisseur; every year I get giddy at the thought of my loved ones opening gifts from me that are both perfectly tailored to their tastes and totally unexpected all at the same time. For SPY, I’ve even written about the most romantic gifts to give a luxury-loving shopaholic like myself. I’d like to think I know exactly what to gift in any situation, but what if you and your partner(s) are in a polyamorous or open relationship? How does ethical non-monogamy extend to holiday gift giving?
I’m a pretty monogamous Mary myself, but I believe that gifting and more generally speaking — shopping — transcends all lifestyles, relationship structures, and forms of love; it is a universal language, if you will.
Polyamory is becoming more mainstream, especially among Gen Z and Millennials, and I wanted to know how to approach gifting when you have more than one significant other to shop for. To learn more about polyamorous gifting, I enlisted the help of some close poly friends (and some of their close friends). After speaking with poly folks, I learned that many of the principles for gifting in a monogamous relationship are shared in a polyamorous or open one — thoughtfulness, personalization, being able to balance sincerity with novelty. And for the rest, I deferred to the experts to create this etiquette guide for all things gift giving in poly or open relationships — complete, of course, with some suggestions for gifts themselves.
Balance Is Key
“Gift giving seems like an extension of the overall practice of balancing energy and attention between partners,” says Tess Joseph, 34, Cofounder of Squirm, an adult sex education platform. This sentiment came up a few times in doing research for this piece — the notion that, with multiple partners, care needs to be given to make sure the thought behind the gift matches the dynamic between you and that person. This is particularly important to remember if you have a primary or long term partner.
“I’ve now been through several gift-giving seasons with various poly partners and my most important tip is not to neglect getting thoughtful gifts for a partner you’ve been with for a while,” says Bird, a 35-year-old poly woman who works in corporate sustainability and wishes to remain anonymous. “I get very excited about getting gifts for new people I am dating and it’s easy to throw all of my energy into that. I’ve learned to try to balance the energy I put into gifts for all partners to make sure everyone feels cared for.”
It’s also important to consider how your partner might feel taking that gift home, says Bird. “I’ve also received a couple of gifts that have felt a bit difficult to bring back to my house with my husband (e.g. custom art of me with another partner),” she says. “I’d say it’s helpful to consider how the gift will impact the receiver and their other partners, if there are fraught dynamics at play and you want to avoid rocking the boat unnecessarily.”
Finding balance is not only important with long term or primary partners. Bird says she was in a triad at one point, and they tried to make sure the gifts they gave each person were similar in cost and type, and that things like cards or notes were always read out of sight of each other.
The throughline in every conversation I had is, conversation is key — the same open communication necessary to foster a healthy dynamic with multiple partners is critical when it comes to gift giving. Expectations, fairness, attention — all of these factors are at play whether you’re gifting to a new partner and considering a long-term one, or gifting to multiple partners with whom you share the same dynamic.
Consider Finances (And Be Open About Them)
This balancing extends to finances. If you’re planning to gift extravagantly or if you share finances with your long term or primary partner, folks I spoke with all said it’s important to be transparent with them about how you’re gifting to your other partners.
“If partners have joint finances, it’s probably wise to clear it with the financially implicated party before spending a ton of money on another partner (‘a ton’ is subjective),” says Joseph.
This also extends to time spent together she says; don’t book a week-long getaway with a partner without telling your other partner if that’s not something within the dynamic of your relationship. Some folks I spoke with have more concrete financial guidelines they work with. “As a courtesy, I’d probably check in with my husband — with whom I share finances — if I were going to buy something over $200 for another partner,” says Bird.
Personalization Is Always a Good Idea
This is one of those tips that really extends to every kind of relationship — gifts that are thoughtful and special, and that show you really know a person always land the best. That personal touch is extra important when you’re gifting to more than one partner.
“I think when you’re dividing your time and attention between multiple people, the important thing is to make sure that you do something unique for each person you’re buying or creating a gift for,” says Matthew, 39, who works as an editor and wished to go by his first name only. “It’s a nice way to make them understand that they’re not just one of some random collection of people, and it helps define the unique value they add to your life and your relationships.”
Everyone I spoke with touched on this — the meaning behind the gifts you give doesn’t have to come from how much you spend, but from how much they reflect your understanding and affection for that person. Get creative! Some folks said they tied their gifts specifically to trips they took with partners or places they visited together; others suggested tailoring your gift to a partner’s kink or tastes or another intimate part of your dynamic.
What to “Add to Cart(s)”
Everyone I spoke with stressed that gifting in open and poly relationships is not all that different from monogamous ones — so it’s tricky to compile a list of specific gifts. These gifts could certainly work in monogamous relationships or even with friends, but here are a few suggestions that I’ve compiled with the help of my experts.
Scavenger Hunt: Do this somewhere that has meaning to your relationship; maybe where you met or took your last vacation together — or combine it with an upcoming trip.
Gifts Handmade by You: Joseph mentioned that one of her favorite gifts was from a partner who’s a leather maker — a handmade wallet. If you’re a craftsperson or maybe just plain crafty, something handmade is a great expression of the heart.
Location, Location: Think about a place that’s special to the two of you and gift your partner something from a local artisan there. Maybe it’s pottery from your favorite seaside town; maybe it’s tea from a shop you always frequent; maybe it’s a painting of a spot that holds meaning for you.