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Advice for the Polycurious

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I regularly have people who are contemplating polyamory with various degrees of seriousness ask me for advice on becoming poly, and for tales of my own polyamorous conversion. So here goes.

Becoming poly is a radically different proposition depending on your current relationship status. The easiest way to become poly is if you’re currently single and you decide to “try poly”; this decision usually is most successful if you’ve already made the decision and don’t become effectively coerced into it by a situation. For example, there’s a world of difference between thinking, “I don’t know about this whole monogamy thing” and falling for a married woman, versus coincidentally falling for a married woman and sort of stumbling into polyamory as a result. If you’re single and want to date poly, it’s pretty easy: get on okcupid and claim to be “available” even though you’re technically single. Voila. Go to kink or pagan events, which tend to be frequented by poly folks, to pick up partners. Go to poly meet-ups. Not too tricky.

Turning your happy long-term monogamous relationship into a happy long-term polyamorous relationship is a much trickier proposition, however. I’ll start by telling my story, I’ll review some common problems with this dynamic, and then I’ll offer some practical tips and advice, most of which apply for poly singles and couples.

My Story

Once upon a time, I was an 18-year-old high school student who scoffed at the “doomed institution of marriage,” and doubted my capacity for successful monogamy after spending the previous summer engaged in wild crushes and flirtations with at least three boys at once. Lo and behold, I met Bastard, another 18-year-old virgin high school student who was the sexy geek I never dared dream about. I told him before we ever started seriously dating, “I doubt I can be monogamous,” and he said, “Good, because I doubt I could be either.” Well, that was easy enough. Time went on, and as our relationship grew more serious, we sort-of defaulted to monogamy (neither of us was exactly drowning in options, anyway), but we were miles away from a traditional monogamous dynamic either. Eventually, after Bastard and I had been together about four years, I accidentally fell in love with a good (female) friend; although that didn’t work out, Bastard was extremely supportive, and I had great faith that we could do this whole non-monogamy thing. I eventually decided that marriage might be a redeemable social institution after all, but we deliberately wrote monogamy out of our wedding vows.

That was back in 2003, and we inhabited a different world back then. I had never been to a pagan gathering and never met anyone who identified as poly (I had only been introduced to the word the year before). I went to my first pagan gathering in 2005 and met a whole passel of practicing polys. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people who were living my nervous fantasy. It seemed possible.

Bastard was always less nervous about embarking on a poly life than I was. We talked incessantly, processing the numerous possibilities and problems that might arise once we took the “poly plunge.” (I’ve discussed some of the necessary evils of poly processing here). Some of the issues I had to work through for myself were: worrying that if he fell in love with someone else, he wouldn’t love me the same way; being anxious about spending the night alone; believing that he was as okay with me seeing other men as he was with me seeing women; working through the fact that he has always harbored the desire to “share” a woman with me–a fantasy I find much less appealing. I was never worried about the prospect of him having sex with someone else. But neither of us found the idea of swinging appealing, so I knew I had to be able to deal with the prospect of him forming a relationship with someone else. I felt reasonably comfortable with all these things by the time we finally decided to finish being monogamous. Three things precipitated the timing of our eventual plunge into polyamory: (1) me finishing grad school, which greatly reduced the overall stress level in the house, (2) the two of us playing together in a public sex space, which we enjoyed very much, and (3) my increasing desire (bordering on need) to have sex with women.

Since taking the poly plunge, our greatest challenge has always been that I have a much easier time finding partners than he does. I don’t have any easy answers to that one; I wouldn’t say we’ve “solved” the problem. (For anyone reading this, my husband is an awesome catch. He’s just geeky and shy on first acquaintance). Our other big issue is the same one all poly people have: time. Our culture brings us up to believe you can’t be in love with more than one person at the same time, but I believe this is nonsense. We have an infinite capacity to love; what we don’t have is an infinite capacity to spend a healthy amount of time with an indefinite number of lovers (I’ve written more on that problem here). Again, this remains an ongoing problem that requires regular attention for us.

My Advice to Couples

As you and a partner consider polyamory for yourselves and your relationship, I would encourage you to think about some of the following things. First, what do you each of you as individuals hope to get by opening your relationship? Second, what do each of you hope that your relationship will get by opening it? Answering these questions will help you decide if you just want to “open” your relationship, or if you want to be polyamorous. This diagram (not mine) is both a hilarious and accurate depiction of the many varieties of “open relationship” forms. I don’t personally have any experience with open relationship forms other than polyamory. The term “polyamory” remains hotly debated, and in my opinion, the word “poly” is more of an identity and subcultural label at this point than a clear indicator of relationship preferences.

It’s important to discuss your biggest fears about polyamory with your partner beforehand. I think of becoming polyamorous as being very similar to the decision to have a baby: it needs a lot of talking about beforehand, and it works best when both partners want similar things. Also, much like having while it can solve some of your relationship problems, it definitely can’t solve most of them–and it can make many a helluva lot worse. The difference between poly life and parenting is that you usually have more role models for good parenting than for successful polyamory.

My Advice to All Polycurious Folks

Regardless of whether you have a well-established monogamous relationship or are a single embarking upon “poly dating,” it’s still important to try to get a sense for people’s “poly rules.” Everyone has different poly rules, and there’s no way to know what they’ll be ahead of time.
• One of the most basic has to be rules for safer sex (which I promise I’ll write a separate post about soon).
• Another common rule is that many people (including me) have primaries with “veto power” over their relationships–that is, the primary reserves the right to approve the other person’s relationships. While this rule might sound comforting to new poly couples in principle, my husband and I learned rapidly that it’s only really useful very early on in a relationship. You risk a lot less telling your partner that someone makes you uncomfortable after their first date than if you tell them after they’ve been dating for six months (at that point, you pretty much have to try to gently talk them into breaking up). If this veto power dynamic sounds appealing to you, I strongly recommend biting the bullet and introducing your dates to your primary ASAP. Yes, it’s often awkward, but not nearly as awkward as going forward with a relationship that (either) partner is deeply uncomfortable with. In short, don’t kid yourself. If you’re dating a married woman and think her husband is a douche, then your relationship probably has a quick expiration date, unless she also thinks her husband is a douche, in which case you’re going to get cooked in a hot mess.
• Try to get a sense for how much time you and your partner are willing to spend away from each other every week (both days and nights). When embarking upon a new relationship, never deceive someone about how much time they’re likely to get with you.
• Be alert for what I consider a Big Poly Red Flag: namely, extremely restrictive poly rules. Not only are these rules often very difficult to keep to (and thus a recipe for Poly Fail), to me they are also indicative of people who aren’t really comfortable with polyamory. That’s entirely subjective, but you don’t want to fall into somebody else’s poly trap, and you don’t want to create one yourself. Examples that I have seen include, “Monday night is my night with him. Period.” “No one else can call after 9 PM and on holidays” (no, I’m not making that one up). I have talked to many people, and the main reason these rules are so destructive (aside from being hard to remember) is that shit happens. People’s parents die, they fight with their best friend, they lose their job, they go to the hospital, etc. (And don’t think age negates these things. My friends are in their late 20’s, and in a single six month period, my husband’s girlfriend at the time went to the hospital, my boyfriend at the time went to the hospital, and I had to take a dear friend to the hospital. Trust me. SHIT HAPPENS). Even if they just have a really bad day, people need to be able to get (extra) support from their partners, or the relationship is doomed. (Of course, if shit is constantly happening, the relationship is likely doomed for other reasons). All partners need to understand that when shit happens, plans will fall through. If they can’t deal with that without getting sulky, angry, or depressed, they can’t deal with polyamory. Period.

After discussing angst, worries, and rules, I want to end this post on a more positive note. People tend to frame the decision to become polyamorous as one of loss and risk. They rarely consider the idea that monogamy also can be risky, as I pointed out here. Imagine if we lived in a culture where polyamory was the default and couples had to make the decision to be monogamous. Imagine the cautions and warnings we would give people: you’ll have to be really careful because most people admit that they’ve cheated on a partner at some point, you’ll lose the opportunity to enjoy and experience lots of other people, your social support network will be much more limited, you might end up trying to parent with only two people, and you’ll have to try to fulfill all of each other’s sexual needs. Put like that, does polyamory really sound like such a bad idea?

I encourage readers of this post to reply with their own stories in the comments section and post links to favorite posts and articles. I would love to create a resource here for polycurious folks.

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