Home » Posts tagged 'relationship advice'
Tag Archives: relationship advice
Much of the time I’m sufficiently opinionated that I just write unsolicited sex and relationship advice. But this time, someone actually asked a solid question and said I could answer it publicly. This person, who I’ll call Jo, had been to my poly architecture class and heard me make the claim that it’s ridiculously difficult (nigh unto impossible, it seems) for people in very serious secondary relationships who want a primary to find one. She wasn’t questioning the claim. But she was concerned, because she already has a wife and a serious girlfriend, but she just met The Perfect sub For Her (™). The problem is that Perfect sub, who I’m going to call Amy for the sake of simplicity, doesn’t have a primary and definitely wants one, and lives a long way away anyway. Jo was worried about Amy finding a primary if Amy was always sitting at her feet whenever they went to events together, and asked for my advice.
My advice is… hoo, boy, that’s a tricky one.
On the one hand, in some ways distance can work in your favor in that situation, because it tends to place automatic constraints on how serious the relationship can get (there’s only so much time you can practically spend with someone who lives a long way away). On the other hand, poly long distance relationships have a habit of becoming vacation-ships–you know, the kind where you don’t get out of bed for two days, do all your laundry and clean your house before and after “the date,” and ignore most phone calls from other people when you’re together? Vacation-ships are a big problem when you’re trying to build other actualrelationships because they make the other relationships seem so much less fun by comparison. Vacation-ships are like dessert, but people need solid meals to be healthy and happy. And yet. You need to eat vegetables, but they don’t look very tasty next to cheesecake, do they? Of course, you’ll actually enjoy the cheesecake a lot more if you eat your veggies. Go figure.
The other way that long distance becomes a problem here is that it makes my first automatic advice a lot more difficult to implement, which is: assuming that Amy is the kind of person who meets people at events, don’t go to many events “together”. For most kinky folks, even if they don’t actually meet a Person at events, they socialize and network at events in ways that ultimately can help them meet a Person. So if you go to an event and spend all of your time with the Person you already have, limiting your opportunities to meet new people, you make it really difficult to acquire the missing Person you’re looking for. BUT if you’re long distance, events often become your chief opportunity to spend quality time together.
The temptation here is the Rotten Compromise, where you say, “We will go to this three-night event, and even though we will be sharing a hotel room together, Amy and I must spend one evening apart so she can look for a date.” It sounds eminently reasonable, but sadly, it’s really not, in my experience. At a bare minimum, even people who are quite capable at the Pick Up need one night to search and another night to cement their search, so you really have to promise to spend two evenings apart. But if you’re sharing a hotel room (or cabin or tent), it’s ridiculously easy to just chuck your good intentions entirely and decide that a “night” apart in that context is from 7 pm to 10 pm. Suddenly your resolution not to spend too much time together and to enforce socialization with other people gets flushed down the toilet. Do I sound like I’m speaking from experience? Yeahhhhh…
And I haven’t even gotten to the basic day-to-day stuff where Amy struggles not to text you all the time, because she knows she’s not supposed to depend on you too much emotionally, but she still values you and the support you give her so much. And even though she knows she shouldn’t let it happen, you kind of become her rock. And dammit, she never meant for that to happen, but how is she ever going to find anyone who’s even as remotely awesome as you?
That latter point raises an important point that a lot of hierarchy discussions leave out: there really are some people who are That Awesome. I know a number of folks with a zillion partners, and several of their partners say they’d ideally rather have a primary; but since Awesome Person already has a primary (or two or three), they’ll settle for mostly being Awesome Person’s secondary or tertiary because Awesome Person is That Awesome. So if you’re That Awesome, it’s possible that Amy might kind of give up the hunt for other partners. Be prepared for this possibility. It’s happened to a lot of the people I know.
But let’s say you’re trying to stay super committed to helping Amy find a primary, and let’s hope that you’re better at managing all of this than I have historically been. What do you do?
Dump her. No, I’m kidding. Well, I’m kind of not… Except, you’re not going to, and I sincerely hope you aren’t the sort of person who’d do that because I told you to anyway. It’s still good advice, but I hope you, like me, are unwilling to take this good advice.
So what else do you do? First, you have to be very clear about the relationship boundaries and possibilities. Say, “I have a wife and a girlfriend, and I love you, but I cannot be the Person that you need, and I want to actively support your quest to find that Person.” Try not to accidentally raise unrealistic expectations. At the same time, don’t try to force yourself to stick to unnecessarily harsh relationship boundaries as a matter of principle. There’s a balance there, and no one but you and your partners can find it. That’s a matter of trial and error. If Amy asks you to do or be something for her, and you have the time and energy and inclination to do it, do it. Don’t say “no” just because you’re afraid she’s getting too dependent on you or that it will raise her expectations too high. Constantly doing boundary maintenance for the sake of boundary maintenance is futile and exhausting, in my experience. To use a plant metaphor, don’t try to create relationship topiary: get an approximate sized box to grow your relationship in, and don’t freak out every time it looks a little too big or too small.
Next, you should try be very careful about how you spend time in public places where Amy has good opportunities to meet other people. Unless Amy is the sort of person who is constitutionally incapable of meeting people in large gatherings, or the sort of person who goes to events all the time without you, try not to be her Event Girlfriend. Try to make sure that she goes regularly to quality places where she can meet–and will basically be forced to interact with–quality people without you. You can’t force her to meet other people, but you can make sure that you aren’t the human security blanket that most of us kinky oddballs love to have when interacting in big groups.
Most importantly, if Amy does manage to get another relationship, or even something that looks like it might grow up into one, graciously accept your back seat role. Don’t make her feel guilty for spending less time with you; tell her she’s wanted, but that you accept that whatever she is building with takes priority. Recognize that initially she’ll probably come running to you every time something goes wrong in that other relationship because you probably will remain her security blanket for some time. And then eventually she’ll either stop running to you because that relationship grows up, or for a different reason because they broke up. The hardest thing about anticipating and managing these kinds of relationship changes is recognizing that your role in her life may change completely once she gets her Person. Most of the people who are attracted to hierarchical poly over anarchical poly usually prefer stability; but when you start trying to build relationships over top of previous relationships instead of under them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen.
I don’t know how helpful this has been, because there really just aren’t any easy answers to this very serious question. To me, it often looks like one of the unintended consequences of hierarchical poly life is that some people just seem stuck in a pink-collar relationship ghetto–much like the beloved and well-treated secretary in your office who is never going to get a promotion and never going to get paid what she deserves. Everyone wishes they had a way to fix the system, but no one really has a fucking clue how. If anyone else has a fucking clue, I’d certainly love to hear it.
I wish you both (all) the best of luck.
I’d be really disingenuous if I claimed that I have ever at any point in my poly life engaged in full fledged anarchical poly. My entire poly life, I’ve been happily married and sharing a bank account and living quarters with the same person. But at some point I got frustrated with purely hierarchical poly for myself and sort of kind of mostly gave up on relationship labels and hierarchies in my other relationships. Over time, I accumulated an increasingly large collection of “partners” of various sorts, and the dynamics have only gotten weirder and harder to catalog.
But let me start with what anarchical poly means to me.
I guess to me anarchical poly is about loosely defining relationships. It means committing to a person more than committing to a particular relationship dynamic. It also means being flexible about redefining and reconfiguring relationship dynamics based on life changes (whether that’s new partners, new interests, new jobs, new life circumstances, or whatever). Sometimes it means that relationships get primarily defined by an activity (in my life this is especially true for rope partners); sometimes it means that they get primarily defined by emotional attachment (most obviously love); but more often, it means that they get defined primarily by time and energy.
For all that anarchical poly claims not to be hierarchical, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who managed to do it with no hierarchies at all. In practice, there almost always ends up being at least one simple and important kind of hierarchy amidst the anarchy: people I make time for, and people who get the time that’s left. And in reality, there’s often still a hierarchy of people I make time for (“Joe is busy and so is Mark, so I can go out with Ellen”). So maybe I’m just really bad at this anarchical poly thing. Or maybe it’s just a fairly theoretical ideal to start with.
Time is fluid
Because I’ve mostly built my anarchical relationships around the idea of time spent together, it’s easy to define the relationships in those terms as well. But the sticky thing there is that time is fluid. Being a professional teacher, I get summer vacation, which means that I have a lot more time in the summer. If I had a partner who was a teacher too, we might get to spend a lot of time together in the summer, but a lot less time together when school started back. It would seem really sad to say that our relationship was “less serious” because school was back in, but in some sense, it might be true.
And this is where anarchical poly feels very different than more standard hierarchical arrangements. If my “girlfriend” and I both have summers off and then start back to work again in the fall, I don’t think that either of us would be likely to perceive ourselves as being more or less girlfriendly based on our employment situation. But in an anarchical poly situation, we’d sort of be (at least temporarily) redefining our relationship dynamic as “more serious” in the summer and “less serious” in the fall if we use time as our key relationship metric.
Conversely, if someone gets overwhelmed at work, and you barely see them for a month, in an anarchical arrangement, does that mean that you don’t really have a relationship with them anymore? In my mind, the answer is, “it depends on whether you’re holding space for them.” By “holding space,” I mean if you’re not really trying to replace them in any sense, and if you expect them to go back to basically the same place in your life that they were in before they got overwhelmed at work.
But the one that can get really weird is polyunsaturation. Polyunsaturation is, of course, a classic situation for poly dominoes because it’s easy for people to “upgrade” relationships beyond where they belong. You and your partner both break up with more serious partners, and both find yourselves with way more available time than you once had, and end up filling it with each other. Sometimes, this ends happily; often, it doesn’t, because there was a good reason (or ten) that the two of you were less serious to start with. Lacking firm definitions and clear boundaries about what your relationship means, is, and should look like (this was the point of the anarchical poly, right?), you just sort of drift into a new relationship pattern that doesn’t necessarily work well.
On the other hand, the whole point of the anarchical poly was supposed to be that you were flexible, right? You can enjoy spending a bit more time with a polyunsaturated partner, or a temporarily underemployed one, or one on a protracted vacation, and you can promise yourself that you’ll adapt when things change again. Because that was what you signed up for. (And by the way, you have to do that in hierarchical poly too. Or monogamy. It’s called “life”). But it can be disconcerting if you let yourself wonder too much what things will look like once whatever the situation is changes.
It’s so goddamned easy to just walk away
This is, unquestionably, the thing that I hate most about anarchical poly. If you make no promises to someone beyond, “I’ll stick around until I don’t,” you’ve made it ridiculously easy by definition to just walk away. And the problem with that kind of flexibility is that real relationships (friendships as well as romantic relationships) get messy sometimes, and take effort and work and thought and time and energy. In hierarchical poly and more traditional relationships, there usually are a lot of pragmatic considerations that help keep people together which often aren’t part of anarchical poly life. Fortunately for me, I’ve never really thought this way (knock on wood), but if I ever got super super pissed at my husband, the shared bank account, mortgage, cats, and friend networks would provide a helluva lot of pressure for us to work things out. But if I get super super pissed at my “partner,” the ties that bind are pretty fucking loose. What does leaving really cost me? Changing my google calendar and updating my fetlife relationships?
I’m enough of a relationship anarchist at heart that I really WANT my husband to stay with me just because he wants to and not because of the bank account/mortgage/cats/etc, and I really WANT my partner to stay with me just because he wants to and not because I’ve let him store a bunch of shit in my shed. I want all of my partners to think that I’m awesome enough that that alone motivates them to work stuff out with me when things get hard. But I think it would be the height of naivete to pretend like the practical shit is unimportant when life gets messy. After all, shared living quarters kind of necessitate working shit out with my husband, but a shared google calendar doesn’t really force me to work anything out with anyone else. Especially when there were no promises made with that calendar.
I don’t think there’s any way around that problem. I think a lot of people are attracted to anarchical poly because it’s easy to leave. But the converse is rather comforting: people are more likely to be with you because they genuinely want to be rather than because they can’t figure out how to leave.
It’s tricky to change with someone
People change. All the time. Sometimes they change for the better, sometimes they change for the worse. But I can just about guarantee that whoever you’re with will probably be fairly different in a year than they are right now. And this inevitably means that the shape, color, dynamic, and structure of your relationship is likely to change too. The art of successful long term relationship management is the art of changing with someone. Your partner decides they need to lose weight, so you find a shared exercise regimen. Your partner decides they need to get out and socialize more, and you both join a gaming group together. Your partner decides they need more variety in their sex life, so you both join the BDSM scene together… etc. etc. And part of the reason why that happens is because committed relationships mean committing to work with and move with someone as they change and grow.
But doing that in anarchical poly dynamics is a lot more difficult. In more traditional dynamics, the relationship itself defines the relationship. Your boyfriend is your boyfriend because he’s your boyfriend. But anarchical poly relationships often seem to get largely defined by what people do together (“my dom,” “my skiing buddy,” “my rope top”) and if one or both of them stops doing the thing, the relationship falls apart quickly. Or if time spent together defines the relationship, there is an inevitable degree to which that tends to be time spent doing a thing.
Which means that as people and their interests shift, it can be difficult to keep the relationship together in a meaningful way. Really, it often only works when people coincidentally change at the same time, because there’s just so much less motivation (or more depending on how you look at it) to change with the other person. When you use yourself as your own anchor rather than another person, when you get tired of the harbor, it’s pretty easy to just haul up and move along. But when you’re anchored to someone else, you’re kind of forced to move together or move apart.
It really doesn’t sound like it on paper, but I still have a lot of faith that anarchical poly is actually the most sustainable form of poly over the long haul. Except for my husband, all of the partners I’ve been able to hold onto for the longest were ones to whom I committed to them and not to a particular relationship dynamic.
After a few years with someone, I learn not to be insecure about it. But in the salad days (which I’ll go ahead and admit are way longer than I would like) of relationships, I still can’t help but feel insecure about it.
I mentioned in my earlier post on how to manage and deal with new relationship energy that people have a bad habit of cursing NRE (New Relationship Energy) when what they’re actually cursing is the fact of new relationships. It’s really tricky to separate out which one of these things is the “real” problem, especially when they tend to be so intertwined and both can cause problems. Frequently, you kind of need to take all the things that I mentioned earlier about managing NRE into account and all the shit that I’m going to explain here about managing new relationships into account as you’re trying to grow your poly garden.
Hey, I never said poly was easy. RELATIONSHIPS aren’t easy. With poly you just get (all that relationship trouble)^(number of people involved).
Everything that I’m going to talk about here applies to basically all poly, whether you’re doing more anarchical or more hierarchical poly. However, things manifest differently depending on which one of those you’re doing. The real wrench is circumstances: whether you’re transitioning your previously more-or-less monogamous relationship into a polyamorous one; or you’re a previously not-poly person entering into someone else’s already well-established polyamorous relationship dynamics; or you’re trying to start a new relationship (or set of relationships) and keep them poly from the start; or you’re in an existing poly relationship and starting a new relationship (which feels like it should be the easiest of all of these, but isn’t always).
(I’ve noticed more and more people sort-of drifting into poly recently in a way that didn’t used to happen much. I’m getting more “please help!” messages from people that go something like, “Well, he was poly when I started dating him, and it seemed like the thing to do, but we never really talked about it, and man… that shit got messy fast.” Call me crazy, but to me, that’s kind of the relationship equivalent of saying, “Well, he was into skydiving when I met him, so I figured, ‘why not?’” That might turn out awesome for you, but chances are, it’s going to get messy and need a lot of frantic education and training in order to avoid a messy crash. All of which is to say that ANY poly that isn’t pure luck requires some real thought and serious communication if it’s going to be anything other than a set of very casual disconnected relationships. And that adding new partners in a poly dynamic where everyone is just sort-of “dating” or doing that “I’m-not-sure-what-we-are” thing looks pretty different than adding new partners when you’re, say, married.)
So. With all that as background, here’s some advice on how to deal with new relationships in the midst of previously existing relationships. I’m writing this in problem-solving mode, but it’s entirely possible that everything goes just fine and none of these problems appears. You know, in fantasy relationships…
First off, always remember that “dealing with new relationships” is a three+-person endeavor.
New relationships affect everyone in a poly set: the old partner who might feel left behind, the old partner in the throes of a new relationship, and the new partner(s). Any of these people as individuals might be handling things badly or well, and any of the relationship units in there might be handling things badly or well. You might be insecure; your partner might be acting like an asshole; or both things can be true (I’ve learned that when people don’t treat me particularly well, it tends to make me insecure. Go figure). It’s important to notice everyone’s behavior here, and try not to pinpoint any individual as the sole source of a problem. Sure, you may be annoyed because your new metamour is texting your boyfriend constantly, but the real problem for you is that he keeps texting herback. It’s really important to keep all that in perspective and focus on the part of the problem that you can solve (i.e. your own relationship, and not the other relationship[s]).
Don’t try to pretend like nothing has changed
This is an awful strategy that people frequently employ to avoid dealing with the realities of their new relationships. Even if the only thing that has changed is that now you’re less available for spontaneous dates, something has changed. The question is whether whatever has changed matters much to you and the other people involved.
Try to have compassion for your partner’s anxieties, even when they seem weird or silly
This point follows directly from the previous one. People tend to manage new relationships (at least in their platonic ideals) very differently in hierarchical and anarchical poly relationships. In hierarchical poly relationships, new partners can pose threats to cherished statuses and relationship positions. People often take solace and security from the idea that they’re “your only boyfriend,” “your only sub,” and even weird things like “the only person who fucks your ass” (a strangely common one) or “the only person who chokes you.” People use those designations as a way to convince themselves that they’re special and matter to you. So if they suddenly find that they’re not your only boyfriend, sub, person fucking your ass, human choker, etc., they may panic and worry that they’re no longer important to you at all (even though what they actually mean is that they’re no longer important to you in the way that they were. And let’s face it—that’s probably true).
Don’t kid yourself or trivialize your partner’s anxiety about these things. There really is a pretty big difference between being your only sub and being one of two for all kinds of reasons. Also, don’t try to kid yourself into thinking that going from “being your only dom” to “being the only person who chokes you” is really going to provide the same kind of status-comfort. I try to constantly remind myself that relationships are more important than titles, but there’s no denying that psychologically and sociologically, titles and relationship distinctions mean something. There’s only so much you can do to replace them.
Don’t try to manage your partner’s other relationships for them
This one is just general basic poly advice, but still applies here as elsewhere. Your job is to state and manage your own needs/wants/desires as honestly as possible to your partner; then your partner needs as honestly as possible to tell you what they can do to meet them, given the needs/wants/desires of their other partners. You’ll create all kinds of poly stresses if you say things like, “I’m worried that you’ve been spending too much time with me and not enough with your wife.” Far more reasonable is, “Do you think that, given the constraints of your other relationships, the amount of time we’ve been spending together is going to be sustainable?” Or even, “I’m worried that the amount of time you’re spending with me is making your wife jealous and resentful towards me. This makes it really hard to spend time with the both of you. What kinds of things would help change that?”
Treat the other new relationship as an opportunity to clarify your relationship
A lot of times, especially in these days of fuzzy dating norms, people tend to drift vaguely into relationships that they don’t clearly define for themselves or each other. But sometimes, the presence of a new relationship can force the conversation where you define each other as “boyfriend/girlfriend,” or where you admit that you like each other a lot but aren’t really in love, or where you finally confess to each other that this really isn’t working as well as you want it to. You can also use the new relationship as an opportunity to try to force yourself to articulate your favorite things about the relationship and try to make sure that those things persist in it.
The subset of this one is the emotionally clueless version where you realize through your jealousy or by missing certain things how much the person meant to you when you hadn’t realized it fully before. This one is mostly problematic because it’s a lot harder to get something back than to keep it and let it grow. Generally speaking, you’re better late than never here, and you’re probably better off being honest. But ideally, you want to clarify your relationship while it’s still going strong and not after it’s deteriorated a bit from other relationships.
Use the other relationship as an opportunity to find and fix cracks in your relationship.
Following from the previous point about clarifying the relationship and what it means to both of you, new relationships tend to put pressure on small relationship cracks of existing relationships (well, they also put pressure on big relationship cracks that destroy them, but that’s a different issue). You may have been pretending that those cracks weren’t a big deal for a long time. You don’t get to do that once there’s so much outside pressure on them, and so the new relationship forces you to do some relationship housecleaning.
Unfortunately, this housecleaning often comes with the cost of harsh contrast. It’s unfortunately really common for people to be blissing out in NRE with their new partners and undergoing a lot of hard relationship processing with their older partners. This contrast only makes the new partner seem more attractive by contrast (because the new relationship feels easy by comparison). As long as you remind yourself that this is what’s happening, you can often come out of this housecleaning stronger. But it can be especially alarming to the outside person in the new relationship as they wonder what the hell kind of mess they’ve stumbled into. Don’t be surprised if they get nervous or wary as a result.
Try to stay focused on YOUR relationship
This may be one of the most effective ways I know to combat jealousy, and it’s also a way to combat the temptation to try to manage your partner’s other relationships. Stay focused on what the new relationship is doing to yourrelationship, and how it is affecting you–directly and indirectly. Try not to focus on the fact of that other relationship’s existence, but instead on the concrete ways it affects you. For example, it doesn’t necessarily matter much if her long-distance girlfriend is kind of a bitch if she always goes to visit her. If you want to live the giant poly train station house thing (where all the partners come and go frequently in a big happy poly blob), it matters a lot more. But you have to pick your partners differently if you’re committed to that fantasy than if you’re not.
New relationships, like NRE, don’t have to mean Big Scary Relationship Doom. In the best case scenario, new relationships can mean that there’s a new awesome person involved in your life (a new metamour) and sometimes they also come with a whole package of cool friends and lovers themselves as an added bonus. Basically, in the ideal poly world, new relationships can mean new friends and new bonding opportunities. But manifesting that ideal requires some really careful and strategic cultivation of all of the relevant relationships, and preserving an underlying sense of security among everyone.
One of the biggest challenges in poly life is new relationship energy, often abbreviated to NRE. My best friend and I actually worded that acronym (pronouncing it nuh-ree) and would go around squealing it whenever relevant like a couple of birds. (me: “omg she is so cute have you seen her hair and she always wears the best shoes and unf and she texted me like 100 times yesterday” her: “nuhree! nuhree!”).
NRE is also sometimes known as “twitterpation, ” which is a term I know some people despise as patronizing and trivializing. I think it’s adorable, especially given the original context:
The clip provides a decent overview of the concept: NRE and twitterpation are both associated with giddy and semi-obsessive feelings around the object of one’s affection. People in the throes of NRE also tend to be blind or at least uncaring about the object’s faults. And there’s a sense in all of this that NRE/twitterpation is more hormones and pheromones whizzing and banging than the kinds of feelings that help you establish and maintain lasting relationships.
One of the reasons I actually prefer the term “twitterpated” to “NRE” is because “NRE” implies that time is the crucial factor in all of this. My own experience suggests quite adamantly that it’s not always the case. On multiple occasions, I’ve become twitterpated with people I’d been playing with for over a year. Although I could argue in all of those cases that the precipitating factor was the new relationship, rather than the new relationship. My point is that the term “new relationship energy” can be misleading. If you have a years-long play partner you fall in love with for whatever reason, NRE can still apply.
Now before I go any further, let me hasten to add that NRE also still definitely happens to monogamous people. It’s also very problematic for monogamous people, as it is for polyamorous people, but for entirely different reasons that I’ll mostly elide. Suffice it to say that NRE often leads monogamous people to try to settle down with the wrong people, and mono folks who are addicted to NRE often become serial monogamists without really understanding why.
Wait, “addicted”? If that sounds like a strong term, let me assure you that it’s not. Twitterpation really basically is a drug (and psychologists have even studied it as such), and it feels reeeeeeally good. And just like with most drug addicts, there are functional NRE-addicts, and super-destructive not-very-functional-at-all NRE addicts. I’ll write a post-script post on how to deal with NRE addiction.
I don’t think most poly people are NRE addicts, but NRE nevertheless remains a very challenging aspect of poly life. The two most common questions about my life that I get from mono muggles is “how do you deal with STDs?” and “how do you deal with jealousy?” The most common question I get from more experienced poly folk about my life is, “how do you deal with NRE?” So here’s some basic advice from my own experience for managing NRE in poly life.
First off, as best you can, try to differentiate issues which arise from the “new relationship” versus issues that arise from the “new relationship energy”
This one is so tricky that most people barely even seem to try. Technically speaking, there are some very practical differences between anxiety brought on by seeing your partner form a new relationship and anxiety brought on by seeing your partner giddily forming a new relationship and not paying as much attention to you. However, these issues are in fact so different that I’m going to post separately about managing new relationships in poly life, which is a different question (and in my opinion, a much harder one).
Admittedly, this is easier advice when you’ve been with someone for, say, a decade than when you’ve been dating them for less than a year. But the fact of the matter is, you probably really have no way to tell if the person your partner is currently gooing over is going to stick around or not based on the fact that they text all the time and have 30 million photos of the person on their phone. Give your partner some time (you decide how long) to be ridiculous and enjoy the highs of this New Person, and then wait to see if this New Person actually turns into New Relationship.
For Goddess’ sake, don’t assume that NRE is necessarily a problem
Poly folks have a bad habit of talking about NRE like it’s this horrible thing that’s out to destroy them and their precious primary relationships. It really doesn’t have to be. If you have a good relationship, your partner’s NRE with someone else can actually be good for it. A rising tide raises all boats, and all that. People in the midst of NRE tend to just be happier all the way around, their libidos tend to get higher, they tend to engage in more courtly and romantic gestures… and when it works out well, everybody benefits from that, not just the new partner. Especially if your partner was previously polyunsaturated, NRE can be great.
Don’t demand compersion from yourself or your partner
Another bad poly habit is thinking that people who don’t experience compersionaren’t “true polys.” There are a lot of things that go into compersion, and you’re doing a serious disservice to yourself and your partner if you think that a lack of compersion is the same as a lack of love and emotional support. Settle for a lack of active jealousy or anxiety, and treat compersion as a bonus emotion if it happens.
Don’t trivialize the new relationship
People sometimes use “twitterpation” and “NRE” as weapons to trivialize the significance of the new relationship in contrast to their own. These are statements like, “oh, my husband is just caught up in NRE with his new girl” (with the implication of “but our marriage is real and what really matters to him”). There are some inescapable realities here—a partner’s 3-month-long relationship probably does look kind of insignificant next to your 13-year-long marriage, but you don’t need to throw that in anybody’s face. Similar comments include, “but you just met them!” Trust me, that doesn’t get you very far. Feelings are not objective rational realities, and you’re going to make things messy if you trivialize the feelings of your partner.
Don’t take the old relationship for granted
This one seems to be the one that most people fear. I love the metaphor of poly architecture, and the idea of relationship houses. On the one hand, if you’ve got a well-constructed stable relationship, it probably really does not require the kind of maintenance and upkeep that a brand-new “under construction” relationship does… but it still requires SOME. Check in with your old partner regularly to see how they’re feeling about the new partner, the new relationship, and the old relationship. There’s a beautiful world of difference between having your partner come to you and say, “How are you feeling about my new relationship?” versus having to be the person coming to the other person and saying, “I’m feeling anxious about your new relationship. Can we talk about it?” The fact that you checked in alone can go a lonnnnng way towards making the other person feel valued.
Don’t let NRE blind you to what’s happening to your other relationships
To my way of thinking, it’s okay to sink into the bliss of NRE and let yourself be temporarily blinded by someone else’s faults. Go ahead and lie to yourself that you can build a relationship with someone who’s entirely wrong for you. It feels good. You’ll learn from your mistakes. But there’s no excuse in poly life for letting NRE blind you to what’s happening in your other relationships. In poly life, you can’t calculate the cost of a relationship solely in terms of how it affects you. You have to calculate how it affects you AND your relationship set.
Don’t blow yourself out on your other partners
In the blissful throes of NRE, people have a terrible habit of cheerfully destroying themselves and their genitalia on their new partners and then coming home to their old partners exhausted and bruised. This is a terrific recipe for breeding all kinds of resentment from the old partner, who starts to really feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. On top of that, people will also sometimes further damage the old relationship by doing things like “saving their energy” up around the old partner for the new one…. Don’t do that shit. It’s really bad for you and your old relationship. Be respectful of your old partners, and try to keep giving them what they’re accustomed to in terms of your alertness, energy, sex, etc.
Try not to treat the relationship aspect of twitterpation like it’s super-special
I don’t know about you, but I get twitterpated with all kinds of shit—books, movies, and especially hobbies. Keeping me as a partner means dealing with the way I will inevitably become obsessed with something new all the fucking time because that’s just kind of the way I am. But lots of other people are like that too. It can be helpful sometimes to treat a partner’s excessive enthusiasm for their new partner as basically the same as if they had taken up running or rope or boxing with passion. You might share the interest in the hobby (and you might share the interest in the new partner), or you may be perplexed and bored by it. But you should both deal with it in a similar fashion regardless—i.e. manage how much time it takes up, how much conversation energy gets devoted to it, how distracted they are by it, how the two of you manage it together, etc.
Don’t be an asshole
I don’t know why people seem to think there’s some magical secret to managing NRE. There isn’t. It’s not special (see above). You manage NRE exactly the same way you manage everything else about your relationship: with respect, love, compassion, tolerance, and good communication.
I read this blog post awhile back on casual love, and the idea instantly resonated with me. My take on the basic idea is this: falling in love doesn’t have to be a devastating, life-altering event. In a world that is not constrained by monoamorous expectations (i.e. the idea that you can only be in love with one person at a time, and ideally you should only ever fall in love with one person in your life), romantic love can just be a thing that happens between two or more people with no real expectations or needs. It doesn’t mean we should pick out china patterns, or spend the rest of our lives together, or even share google calendars. It can just be a fact: I love you.
It just so happened that I originally read this post a couple of days before demo bottoming for BlueRisk’s “In the Lover’s Ropes” class. The class is about what I think of as Tantric Rope (where rope both substitutes for and augments the role of breath in traditional tantric practices), but I think most rope people including BlueRisk would be more likely to just label it “Connective Rope.” Be that as it may, his teaching in the class was grounded in an implicit ideology of what was basically casual love–the idea that you can go have deeply connective, intensely intimate, and even romantic rope scenes with people, with the option of then hugging and saying, “toodles.” In the lazy cuddly post-class aftercare, I told him that I thought he had been preaching “casual love,” which I summarized as “I love you. No big deal.” He thought about it for a moment, and then said wisely, “I think it’s better to say that casual love means, ‘I love you, and it is a big deal, but not necessarily in the way that you think it is.’” Amen.
The truth is that I fall in love almost embarrassingly easily, and not just with living people. I’ve been far more passionately in love with some characters in novels than several people that I’ve dated for months. I have fallen in love like falling off a cliff: I have fallen in love at first sight, and I have fallen in love with someone I barely knew with a kiss—one minute I wasn’t in love, and the next moment I was. I have also fallen in love with dear friends in such a slow and gentle fashion that I couldn’t possibly have told you when it actually happened because it never really did. No lightning bolts there–more like a sensation of slowly sinking into a calm and warm ocean.
Even though (and perhaps because) I fall in love so easily, I remain ambivalent about engaging too much in casual love for myself. Once I give someone a piece of my heart, I tend to let them keep it unless they do something really hurtful that forces me to try to get it back. Getting it back is a lot of work; it can take months to get a big piece back that I handed over in a reckless and passionate night. Consequently, I personally prefer to only hand out pieces of my heart to people who I’m reasonably certain aren’t going to require an arduous reclamation process. Call it “safer love.” I’ve never gotten good at doling out teeny-tiny pieces of my heart that I figure I won’t miss much; I tend to give out pretty big chunks, and when I love, I love for keeps. The metaphor of “falling in love” is good: it’s easy to fall off the cliff in love, but getting back up requires climbing equipment, the help of friends, and a lot of time and work.
And yet. And yet…
Falling in love may be easy. Staying in love in a consistent and committed way takes a lot more effort.
A common poly aphorism is that “love is infinite; time is not.” I think that’s certainly true, but I think there are a lot of subtleties and nuance to the nature of romantic love and relationships that it misses. Just for starters, it’s hard to stay in love with someone without some sort of regular communication or contact. It’spossible, but it’s hard. There are people who you can just sort of meander in and out of their life, and it’s almost like you fall in love with them all over again every time you get a chance. That’s sweet and lovely, but rare, and not really conducive to building a long-term relationship. For many people like me, falling in love takes almost no work at all; but for almost everyone, relationships require considerable feeding and care.
A dear friend and I fell in love with each other, and his initial response seemed to be, “Well, this doesn’t really change anything except that we feel more for each other, right?” And my response was, “It doesn’t have to, but if you want promises that this warm fuzzy feeling will stick around, and more out of this overall, you’ll have to put more in.” And his reasonable response was, “More what?” The answer isn’t simple, because “more” is everything that makes a relationship: time, communication, energy, thought, understanding, commitment… and romantic feelings. I usually think of those as the things that nurture romantic relationships (although I assume that people prioritize them differently).
Romantic relationships usually require a seed of romantic feelings to become possible, but they do not suddenly burst forth into being fully sprung because two people say, “I love you.” Sustainable relationships require: both active and passive time spent together; open and honest discussions of needs, wants, desires, and the sometimes bewildering way those can shift and change; a desire to support the other person in good times and bad; taking the other person into account in thought and deed; understanding the other person and being able to reasonably accurately predict how they will think and feel; and some sort of assurance that the level of these things will remain basically the same for the foreseeable (and in some cases the unforeseeable) future. Time is only one aspect of the fundamental limitation on sustainable relationships: the major limitation is how well you and another person can fit each other into your lives overall. The depth of the sustainable romantic attachment you can cultivate with someone is ultimately going to be more-or-less proportional to the degree that you can make room for each other in your lives.
I tend to think of strong relationships as being like nice sturdy evergreen trees; but there are also wildly passionate relationships that are more like flowers that bloom seasonally; and then there are those pretty flowers that bloom for a night and maybe they’ll be back next year if the weather is good. I’m a greedy relationship Whorticulturist, and I like keeping a nice variety of plants in my relationship garden. But those trees are definitely the backbone and center of the whole affair. And sheer will and pure affection are insufficient to nurture and sustain those demanding trees, no matter how sincere, well-intentioned, or passionate that will and affection.
I know some people are able to flit about and engage in intensely emotional connections with people and then just walk away. I’m not dissing that; I envy it, because I suck at it. I don’t like engaging in intense physical intimacies that I then abandon, and I sure as hell don’t like engaging in emotional intimacies that I then walk away from. But I can’t deny that my heart does seem to have a great capacity and tendency to develop attachments that vastly exceed its ability to form sustainable romantic relationships from. Casual love is easy; casual relationships are possible, but always inherently limited. And so most of the time, I end up harshly reminding myself, “I can love you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I can do much else.”
…Because no matter how much I might want them to be simple, easy, and free, the truth is that real relationships take real work.
…or: “how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”
Polyamorous folks often celebrate and idealize the concept of compersion, which has been defined as the “opposite of jealousy.” Compersion can happen whether you’re in a hierarchical dynamic, or an anarchical poly dynamic. The shape and feel of compersion changes, depending on which of those dynamics you’re in, but the overall idea stays the same. I would go so far as to say that the poly subculture tends to imply that if you don’t feel compersion, you’re not a twu poly. Since poly folks have a bad habit of not understanding jealousy well (more on that in a later post), it’s not surprising that they have a bad habit of not understanding the “opposite of jealousy” well either. People tend to mistakenly assume that the capacity for compersion is a characteristic of individuals, rather than a characteristic of a complex interplay of relationships.
Let’s start with you. I’m not going to assume that you’re someone like me, who was born thinking monogamy was stupid, and who informed her first boyfriend when she was 17 that she didn’t think she could ever be monogamous. I’m going to assume that you’re what seems to be an average polyamorous person, who comes in two types: 1. The person who’s only had one or two very serious relationships in their whole life, and somewhere in their late 20’s/early 30’s decides after a lot of discussion to “open up” with their partner (I technically also fall into this category myself) or 2. Someone who was never very comfortable with monogamy, but had several serious relationships that were ostensibly monogamous, usually with very poor results and has decided to kind of give up on monogamy (either as a single or as part of an existing pair). People arrive at polyamory from lots of different directions, but these seem to be the most common.
So as an average poly person with sense, you approach this whole poly endeavor with a certain degree of nervousness. In particular, you worry that your partner won’t have enough time and energy for you once they have someone else, that they might be more attracted to the other person more than you, and that you’ll get jealous (if you’re genuinely worried about them leaving you for their other partners, then just don’t even try this poly thing until you feel more secure. It won’t go well for anyone). You do the thing that naïve poly people love to do (I did it myself), and reassure yourself by getting “veto power” over your partner’s other potential partners. You tell yourself that it’ll be okay, and that they won’t date anyone that you don’t like.
Except that it turns out not to be that easy. Your partner meets someone on okcupid, and you’re nervous about it. You tell them not to have sex until you’ve approved the relationship, but they want to know what counts as “sex.” The other person is new to this too and feels awkward about the restriction, but goes with it. Finally, the three of you arrange to meet, and you feel pressured to agree to let them have sex, and so you do—even though you (correctly) felt like you barely know the person, and are feeling super-insecure about where this new relationship might be headed.
But it turns out that the new person is super needy, kind of obnoxious, and no one that you’d ever want to hang out with normally. You keep trying to get along with them, but it really doesn’t work. Nothing about the relationship seems to make your partner really happy either; they come home stressed from almost every date, but they insist that the relationship is going great. And you wonder: what the hell ever happened to compersion? You feel no inkling of joy at the idea of your partner with this annoying, clingy person, and you’re genuinely irritated that they spend so much time together. And whenever you express concerns about the other relationship, your partner gently dismisses your concerns as symptoms of jealousy, and assures you that you have nothing to be jealous of. And your protests that you’re not jealous don’t sound very convincing to either of you… and both of you wonder if you’re “really poly.”
You keep reminding yourself that you’ve got that veto card in your back pocket if this ever really gets to be too much for you, but eventually you learn the hardest lesson of hierarchical polyamory: “veto power” is nothing more than a brutal ultimatum where you say to your partner, “them or me.” Those aren’t words that wise folks say after their partners are in love and in an established relationship. Veto power really only works at the very beginning of a new relationship, but if your partner really wants someone, they’ll probably just try to talk you into giving it a chance. It turns out that the heart of successful polyamory is being able to trust your partner enough to believe they’ll make good relationship choices in the first place.
It may sound like I’m voicing some sort of bitter personal experience here, but I’m not (knock on wood). I’m actually describing a pattern that I’ve seen over and over again among poly folks of my acquaintance (and that I feel I have inflicted on my poor dear husband a few times). Again and again, I hear people asking in hushed, and sometimes even skeptical or suspicious, tones: how does one manifest this elusive emotion known as compersion? Is its absence symptomatic of imminent poly demise?
The simple answer that people lose sight of over and over again is that compersion is a three-way street. It’s basically impossible for you to be happy about your partner’s new relationship if you think that relationship is crap. Also, you tend to end up feeling lessened because your partner is spending time with someone you perceive to be so inferior instead of spending time with you. The reality is that it’s really, really hard to experience compersion unless you feel comfortable with your partner’s partner and their relationship. If your partner seems unhappy and stressed about their relationship—and especially if that stress takes a toll on your relationship—it’s really fucking hard to feel happy about that relationship. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up feeling jealous over a partner’s bad relationship with someone else unless you view it in fairly condescending terms (“Well, they have to make their own mistakes.” “Well, at least they’re dating somebody.” “Well, I know I’m gone a lot, so they need company.” And my personal favorite: “Well, hopefully dating that crazy asshole will just make them appreciate me more.”).
In some ways, I think it’s easy to overstate the importance of compersion for successful poly dynamics. Generally speaking, cheerful tolerance of a partner’s other relationships is sufficient to maintain a happy poly existence. In my experience, cheerful tolerance rarely results in profoundly compersive feelings. Outside of my triadic experience, or some group sex experiences that I was actually present for, I can’t honestly recall ever feeling some strong sense of compersion. When they’re with people that I like who seem to be making them happy, I’m happy that my partners are happy. I have learned that the name for this general feeling of being happy at the happiness of others is mudita, and it’s a much better characterization of my experience of vicarious poly. There’s not a big difference for me between feeling happy about my husband being well fucked, or my feeling that he’s happy about being out to dinner with his friends. However, in general it feels more like the absence of jealousy, and I can’t really characterize it as a strong or even particularly meaningful emotion. I do think that compersion is essential for a successful triadic+ dynamic, however. In order to maintain a complex three+-person relationship, you’d damned well better be a lot more than merely cheerfully tolerating your partners’ relationships with each other.
At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the importance of constructing a cooperative poly dynamic. If you ever find yourself faced with the unlikely choice between the girlfriend you adore who your wife can barely tolerate, and the girlfriend you are quite attracted to who your wife gets along with great, pick girlfriend #2 every time. Compersion may not really be necessary for most poly dynamics, but it sure as hell makes them way easier. And if you’re wondering how you do that, the answer is simple but annoying: date people your partner(s) already like. And if you’re waiting for the answer to the question I posed at the start of this post–“how can I feel compersion when he keeps dating total assholes?”–the answer is: you can’t.
There’s nothing easy or automatic about compersion. Its absence should never be used as the litmus test for whether an individual is “really poly,” nor is it necessarily a sign that a relationship set is doomed. The appearance of compersion, on the other hand, is usually a good sign that everyone is doing well together, and that is undoubtedly our poly ideal. But I say: let’s settle for an absence of jealousy, and not try to demand its opposite to call our dizzyingly complex poly lives “successful.”
 For purposes of simplicity, let us forevermore refer to all such people who are “innately poly” and who usually depend upon variety in some degree for sexual satisfaction and interest as “polysexuals.” This helps distinguish them from folks who are “polyamorous”—people who, for whatever reason, seek multiple intimate relationships. Polysexuals are often polyamorous, but polyamorous folks are only sometimes polysexual; polysexuals tend to be extremely highly motivated to make some form of ethical non-monogamy work in their lives in a way that most polyamorous folks are not.
It is one of the most often misunderstood truisms of hierarchical polyamory that stable and highly functioning primary relationships are essential for successful (hierarchical) poly life. It’s not the truism itself that people misunderstand; it’s that most people misunderstand *why* you need a stable and highly functioning primary relationship for a successful hierarchical poly life.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to rely on a metaphor of architecture and houses. In this metaphor, hierarchical polyamory tends to involve building a house with someone (your primary), and then coming up with ways to incorporate other partners (a guest bedroom; four guest bedrooms; a cottage in the back; a shed in the back; a dungeon in the basement… you get the idea).
Fact: You need a firm foundation so the house doesn’t fall down
When most people think about the idea that you need a strong primary relationship for your poly life, they think that it’s only for this reason. And Goddess knows it’s important. Almost any relationship stress will threaten to compromise an unstable relationship–from the death of a loved one, to a sick pet, to having a baby, to losing a job, to a partner getting a lover. (By contrast, lots of things that could be stressful—such as having a baby or a partner getting a lover–can become a bonding mechanism for strong relationships). If the foundation isn’t firm, then any outside pressures threaten the stability of the house.
In my experience, people rarely say to themselves, “Well, yeah, we’ve got some serious problems in our relationship, but we’ll be fine being poly together.” Far more frequently, people say to themselves, “Well, sure, we’ve got some problems in our relationship, but everyone does. We’ll be fine being poly together.” It’s easy to underestimate how big those small problems can become as those niggling insecurities and lack of faith and trust can erode the things holding your house up. Sure, the plumbing doesn’t work during the day, the floors are uneven, there are mice in the walls, and there’s duct tape on half of the windows, but none of that’s going to make the house fall down, right? I mean, it’s cozy, and it’s home. But bring someone else into the house, and you end up seeing it with new eyes. Suddenly, those small problems can start to feel a lot bigger (probably bigger than they actually are) when compared to the shiny glow of New Relationship Energy with another partner. You end up seeing the house through a stranger’s eyes, and all those comfortable imperfections start looking a lot less homey. And just to make it even harder, the guest room has carpets over the uneven floors, frilly curtains to hide the duct tape on the windows, and a canopied bed so it’s easy to ignore the rest of the house… Which only makes the rest of the house feel more derelict by comparison.
And of course, none of that even begins to encompass what you’ve done to the house by trying to build on that guest room/cottage/shed, etc. Some houses accommodate the additions easily, and others find that the cracks in the foundation were spectacularly compromised by the building process alone. I could keep elaborating on this metaphor, but I think it’s relatively intuitive: if you want to keep your primary, you’d better have a pretty fucking solid relationship with them if you want to do poly with them. The things that matter most here are a sense of real relationship trust—the belief that your partner loves you, is good for you, that you’re good for them, and that they know all of these things too. Everyone has occasional doubts, but anything more than that is likely to start nibbling away at the foundation of your dear domicile.
Fact: You need a sizable well-built house to accommodate those new people
It’s easy to see how having boyfriends and girlfriends could further de-stabilize a rocky marriage. What most people miss is the major problem that your unstable primary relationship will jeopardize your OTHER relationships. Oh, it won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen for several months or possibly longer, depending on how serious those other relationships are. But given time, any guest who spends long enough in your house is going to step on a mouse in the middle of the night, get annoyed that the damned toilet doesn’t flush half the time, and try to open those duct-taped windows. Tolerance on the part of guests is, of course, essential. However, you will probably notice over time that it gets increasingly difficult to attract partners with high self-esteem to stay for long in your derelict domicile. The people who will stick around in your guest room are the people who (at least feel like they) don’t have anywhere else to go.
You and your primary are the ones who build the guest room, but if you don’t clean it (sometimes together) between relationships, it can accumulate an astounding amount of junk. People are used to talking about “relationship baggage” as an individual property, but in Poly World, the relevant baggage can accumulate between you and your primary, not just you. A series of annoying and possessive ex-boyfriends can make your husband incredibly mistrustful of the newest one, because he just looks like another one in a long string. And if your husband is still mad about Boyfriend #2 and you’re on #5, you’d probably better do some spring cleaning. Constantly tripping over the open suitcases from your exes isn’t going to endear you to your new significant others.
I recently astounded a long-term poly friend with the observation that he couldn’t expect his girlfriend to get along with his wife better than he did. I pointed out that as long as he and his wife were arguing (especially about things that tangentially or actually related to his girlfriend), the girlfriend was bound to end up accumulating irritations and resentments at one or both of them. But as long as she actually liked him, most of that resentment was likely to end up at the feet of his wife (probably unfairly), since the wife came across as the person interfering with their relationship. Moreover, the girlfriend lacked the background to fully contextualize the arguments, and didn’t get any make-up sex either. And I further pointed out that if his wife didn’t trust him, is it really likely that she’s going to trust his girlfriend? It’s possible, but unlikely, even if she likes her. Succinctly put: if you try to build serious, close relationships with other people, your primary relationship is bound to affect and impact those other relationships. It’s a transitive property of relationship tension: if things are tense between you and your primary, isn’t that likely to make your secondary feel tense about your primary, too? And then to make things tense with your secondary too?
Put the house in good repair before you invite guests into it. Otherwise, their stay isn’t going to be very comfortable, is it?
Some people try to circumvent this problem by having a metaphorical cottage or shed in the backyard for guests—by trying to compartmentalize their relationships and shield them from each other. In some sense, this strategy can be pretty successful (it’s the only way to have any hope of trying to sustain relationships with other people if your primary relationship isn’t so hot). But usually, it turns out that the cottage is missing a few walls, or alternatively, that it’s so damned cramped in there that no two people—no matter how claustrophilic—could possibly fit. After awhile, this strategy a. this starts to feel a lot like cheating (“I know he has a wife, but he almost never talks about her… It’s weird”) and b. it usually seriously curtails intimacy and trust (“hey, it’d be great to be fluid-bound with her, but I’ve only met her husband once and I have no idea how he’d feel about it. Also, I’m not even sure they still have sex…”). (For a more humorous take on this arrangement, see my friend’s tumblr)
Fact: You need to respect the threshold
When it comes to both real and metaphorical poly households, threshold maintenance is a helluva tricky affair. You and your primary build the guest room, but your primary has to leave you and your secondary to mostly decorate it yourselves. If you and your secondary have a really different decorating style than you and your wife, that can require some major adjusting. The biggest problems arise if people are criticizing the décor on either side, or trying to deliberately rearrange things on either side of the threshold. It’s especially hard because one of the things that makes for successful poly is if your relationship with your wife is distinctively different from your relationship with your girlfriend, but that’s exactly the thing that can make it hard for everyone to get along unless they are all very respectful of those differences.
For primaries, there’s such a fine line between making sure the guest room is tidy, and interfering with the decorating scheme. For secondaries, there’s such a fine line between politely requiring that the room remain decorated to your tastes, and making unreasonable demands. And no one should be doing things that could damage the integrity of the structure as a whole!
Fact: You are very unlikely to be able to build your house over your guest room
It is one of the great puzzles to me of poly architecture that I have never even heard of anyone building a primary relationship (even one that quickly failed) around a stable very serious secondary relationship without the secondary relationship promptly falling apart (and I’ve rarely even heard of people getting that far. Usually the secondary relationships were a disaster before the primary relationship appeared). I know a lot of people with very serious secondaries who really want primaries… and all of them have literally been looking for years. It feels like the poly equivalent of “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.”
But consider the construction process of hierarchical polyamory: you can imagine building a house over top of some pitiful shed in the backyard, but it’s pretty hard to imagine building your own house over the fancy guest quarters you have set up at someone else’s house. How do you have time and energy to build a house with a potential husban when you keep spending lots of time in your nice guest suite at your boyfriend’s house? There are a whole host of reasons why it’s hard to build a primary relationship over a preexisting sturdy secondary one. But perhaps the most salient of these is that your very hypothetical starter home with someone can look awfully pitiful compared to the comfy guest quarters you already have.
In conclusion, for better or for worse, hierarchical poly life is almost always a trickle-down affair. Successful hierarchical poly really has to start with a stable primary relationship (please, by all means, someone tell me how wrong I am, but I know of no examples), and the stability of that primary relationship is the groundwork for all the other relationships. Primaries come first, literally and figuratively, in hierarchical poly life, and all poly relationships have to be built with care. Of course, all relationships should come with a “Warning: Under Construction” sign, but I think we all know that some relationships have a lot more repairs and maintenance to do than others.
Build your nice, sturdy home. Then build your guest room(s). You and your guests will be very glad you did it in that order. Then make sure that everyone is committed to keeping it running well.
“Boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “husband,” and “wife,” are really the only labels that we grow up learning a pseudo-intuitive meaning for in our culture. Of course, as it turns out, everybody’s definitions are different for those terms, so they’re nowhere near as helpful as we fantasize they are. That is, we think we know what they mean, but in reality, everyone has highly individualized notions, expectations, boundaries, and “meanings of relationships.”
Even in monogamous world, those labels have proven spectacularly inadequate. Young people tend to participate in a hook-up culture these days, which deliberately blurs the lines between “in” and “not in” a relationship. Even older friends of mine who have tried to date monogamously seem to have found that dating in our culture has become—to use sociological jargon–anomic. That’s a fancy way of saying that nobody knows what the hell the rules are anymore, and that dating tends to be accompanied by a lot of angst and uncertainty partly because the rules are so vague.
But as crazy as things are in MonoWorld, they’re a helluva lot more complicated over here in PolyWorld.
There are two basic types of polyamory that I’ve discovered: hierarchical poly and anarchical poly. Hierarchical polys try to simplify the mad complexities of poly life by labeling relationships and dynamics like crazy: husbands, boyfriends, friend with benefits, play partners, lovers… and then often surreptitiously layer labels like “primary,” “secondary,” and very occasionally “tertiary” on top of those (how often do you hear someone introduce someone with, “This is Beth, my secondary”?). Anarchical polys, on the other hand, try to disengage from the labels altogether and often pretend like there’s no real prioritizations happening between and among their relationships. They tend to eschew relationship labels and titles altogether, frequently just introducing people with the incredibly nebulous title “partner.”
For several years, I’ve been practicing my own form of pseudo-anarchical polyamory with a husband/primary and a collection of my own “partners.” Unfortunately, in spite of my current lifestyle, I don’t think that anarchical poly is my native relationship language. I like my world ordered and precise and I reeeeeeally like security and stability. All of these preferences are antithetical to the way that anarchical poly functions. And yet, I find that anarchical poly has seemed to be the best way to meet my own and my partners’ wants and desires for quite some time. The thing I find myself questioning regularly is does it meet my needs? How valuable is the security of a label?
Do you actually get more from someone because he calls you his “girlfriend”? There might be peace of mind in the label and the feeling of security that comes with it, but what does it ultimately really provide? If someone does all the things you expect a boyfriend to do, does it matter if you call him your boyfriend? Obviously, it matters to me on some level or I wouldn’t be writing this. But that doesn’t mean that it should matter.
The thing is, when you have a bad day, and you doubt someone’s feelings for you, the relationship titles give you something to fall back on. Sure, she got busy and didn’t text you this morning, but she’s still your girlfriend. At the same time, the titles can be expectation traps: it’s okay if your “play partner” didn’t text you, but it’s not okay if your “girlfriend” didn’t. In the end, what do those labels really give you except an illusion of stability and security?
I can get over the vocabulary awkwardness; but the real biggest challenges of anarchical poly life for me are 1. That it feels impossible to plan for the future more than two weeks from now (who knows what the “relationship” will look like in a month? Can we take for granted that we’ll spend time together at x event? How do we decide who’s staying with whom? Am I doing this wrong if I assume I’m staying with you?). And 2. That it feels so fucking hard to say “I love you” and have it mean the same thing to the person I’m saying it to that it means to me. At the point where you’ve abandoned all the standard social norms of relationships entirely, it’s like you need to invent a completely new vocabulary just to explain the way you feel about someone. Part of me imagines having this stupidly awkward conversation that goes something like, “I have very deep and intense feelings for you that in no way resemble the ones I have for my husband, and I would never under any circumstances consider living with you for more than a few days at a time, but I care greatly about your happiness, I miss you a lot when you’re not around, and I think being with you greatly enriches my life, so I think that means I love you.” Are you allowed to say that to someone?
In some ways, anarchical polyamory feels like a spectacularly immature way to do relationships—as if we’re bundles of hormones who are terrified of commitment because it might limit the number of people we get to fuck. In other ways, it seems extremely sophisticated and vastly more realistic than any other relationship system I can imagine. It acknowledges the ever-changing nature of humans and their relationship needs, and most importantly, I think it takes into account a truth which our society mostly just doesn’t get: love is contextual. Love—even romantic love—is absolutely not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and that was the truth which polyamory was supposed to encompass all along. You should take for granted that I don’t love you like I love my husband, because that just wouldn’t make sense anyway. You and I are what we are, and what we are is sexy and powerful and loving and special; trying to find a fetlife box to check to legitimate it in the eyes of other people or ourselves probably won’t make us even a little bit happier, and I seriously doubt that it will extend the longevity of our relationship by a day, and stressing about it is likely to shorten the length of the relationship considerably.
That sounds true, at least.
My friends and I discovered a paradox of dating/picking up long ago, which I have discussed before slightly differently: essentially, humans have an ironic and disastrous habit of assuming the people they’re more attracted to aren’t attracted to them.
Let’s take a moment and dissect that. The people you think are hottest, the people that you reeeeally think you might click with, the people that you really fucking want are the ones who you’re most likely to think, “Aw, s/he’s just not that into me.” I’ve had many conversations with people where they readily admitted that they couldn’t tell someone was interested in them because of their own interest; behaviors that appeared flirtatious from someone they were not interested in immediately became ambiguous or neutral because they wanted that person.
Why automatically assume that someone is not interested in you if you’re interested in them? It causes a disastrous cycle of dating failure; it’s spectacularly self-defeating in three crucial ways.
The first is that whoever the object of your attraction (OYA) may be, regardless of gender, they are less likely to be attracted to you if you believe that they’re not attracted to you. Don’t believe me? True story. They did an experiment where they didn’t let some poor guys bathe for 48 hours. Then at the end of it, they let some of the guys put on some scented body spray and some of them unscented deodorant, asked them to rate their feelings of confidence and then took the guys’ pictures and had them make videos. The guys who were scented rated their self-confidence higher than the unscented guys. Now here’s the kicker: they showed the pictures and videos to a bunch of women (who had no idea what the premise of the experiment was), and the chicks thought the guys who had on the scented body spray were hotter than the guys who didn’t. Now, unless women have developed some magical method of smelling men through photographs, the logical conclusion from this weird experiment is that guys are genuinely more physically attractive to women when they feel more attractive and confident (someone should try replicating this experiment with women). Which means that if you walk up to someone you’re attracted to, convinced that they aren’t into you, the chances that they’ll be into you are probably substantially lower than if you walk up to them, reasonably certain that they will be into you (overconfidence probably goes too far in the other direction).
The second problem with the conviction that the OYA isn’t into you is that you’re less likely to notice when they’re flirting with you, trying to make moves, or showing interest. Believing that they’re uninterested, you hesitate to interpret anything shy of, “Can we please fuck now?” as actual interest. (And I’ve even heard the insecurity extend past that point too! [Eeyore voice] “Well, she wanted me for sexxxx, but I doubt she wants to actually go out with meeeee”). If you get into a situation where both people are like this, then you have a fantastic recipe for a hookup or a relationship that is just never going to happen.
By now you should be able to see what the third problem is: if you continually “fail” to pick people up—because they’re genuinely less attracted to you because you think you’re unattractive, compounded by your failure to notice their cues of interest—then you end up “confirming” your own belief that you’re “not that hot.” Every time you fail to pick up someone you’re interested in, you become that much more insecure the next time you try… and less attractive to potential partners… and so the cycle of what we nicknamed “the self-defeating flirtation” goes.
But as obnoxious as this spiral of learned helplessness is, the thing I hate the most about the self-defeating flirtation is that it means that people often end up partnering with people that they’re less attracted to. If you’re terrified to approach the people you’re reeeeeally attracted to, and either don’t approach them at all or do so awkwardly, but more confidently approach people that you’re merely attracted to, you’re more likely to catch the people you’re merely attracted to than the people you’re really attracted to. And what a fucking waste. Go fuck the people you reeeeeally want!
“But how do I break the cycle?”
I’d be lying if I pretended like there was some easy way to just suddenly say to yourself, “I’m reasonably attractive. I might even be hot. There is a better than 50% chance that Person X that I am interested in wants me.” Me and my best friend realized that this cycle existed, and then pinky promised each other that we would try to always believe that people we wanted most found us desirable; in our cases, the pinky promise and Aphrodite worship worked. For some people, just being aware that they’re shooting themselves in the foot helps them try to change their thought processes and behaviors. If you genuinely, deeply believe that you’re unattractive, I don’t think any blog post will be enough to change your attitudes or behaviors on its own; that type of change requires something deep and powerful. But I feel like the majority of people that I know are insecure about how attractive they are in ways that are more changeable: the sort-of casual, everyday belief that one “just isn’t hot enough” has a hope of being overcome through practice, application, and the support of one’s friends.
Personally, I just find the reminder that the person is more likely to say “yes” if I believe they will to be a pretty damned good incentive.
I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve been told, “Just because you have awesome sex with someone doesn’t mean they should be your boy/girlfriend/partner/husband/wife!” Other variations include, “Sexual chemistry doesn’t equal relationship chemistry!” and “Just because they’re great with the lights off doesn’t mean they’re great with the lights on!”
Fuck. That. (more…)