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Looking inwards, looking back: What people said they wished they’d done and known
When I asked people what they wished they had done and known in retrospect, their answers were heartbreaking (and again, painfully familiar). There were common themes of (1) Lacking self-knowledge–both not understanding what they needed to be fulfilled as doms and subs, and also not understanding when they were experiencing burnout (2) Failing to successfully communicate about problems in the relationship/dynamic (3) Believing “this” was the best they were going to get and later finding out they could, in fact, get much better (4) Admitting when things weren’t going well and seeking help from others in the community.
I am quoting these accounts at length because I think there is a lot of wisdom in each one, and all weave together some or all of the themes I’ve just highlighted:
From M (sub woman): I wish I had understood my submission more, my partner’s limitations more, and that our D/s could shift into something more comfortable but in a healthy way, instead of us both being hurt in the process. I wish I knew we could change without it being a failing on either of our parts, because we both still blame ourselves from time to time. I wish I would have known it would be okay, because in the end, we are partners and not just our dynamic.
I wish I would have talked about how I was feeling when I felt it. Our dynamic had an emotionally painful drop, and neither of us could communicate what was happening. My partner admitted after several years he just wasn’t dominant outside of play, and I realized I needed 24/7 total power exchange in order to truly be submissive.
I wish I had known why I couldn’t take pain from my partner anymore; I wish I had known why it felt like he was actually hitting me instead of it feeling like playtime. I didn’t understand why I had absolutely no pain tolerance with this particular partner, but was able to receive pain from others with no problem.
From A (top FtM): I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to settle for so little, that in later decades I’d find much more compatible partners, who don’t leave me feeling emptied or droppy or left-behind or used-up, but mostly just loved and appreciated and well pleased. And they seem to do this by being themselves rather than by making a particular effort. I wish I’d realized earlier that different people (and in different years) have such variable degrees of willingness or ability to soak up affection when it’s offered.
I wish I’d negotiated much more insistently, much more specifically, and many years earlier, for what I was going to need from our relationship in order to stay fueled/nourished over the long term. It’s one thing to anticipate/discuss/memorize a mutually agreeable plan for an evening’s scene, but quite another matter to anticipate a mutually agreeable plan for a year, a decade, or a longer-term relationship. I wish I’d been better able to gather friends around during the roughest patch. It would also probably have been better if I’d sought out a different partner[s] much sooner, rather than trying so hard to make things work with a partner whose interests and skills weren’t (in hindsight) all that compatible with mine.
From Teneo (top man): I wish I’d been more vulnerable overall with friends and acquaintances about what I was going through, and that I’d been more focused on my friendships and social web. To this day I find that vulnerability is hard and I feel that expressing my feelings to others is deeply burdensome to them, but I am convinced that if I had done a better job of this I would have had an easier time finding my way back. I wish I’d kept a consistent journaling habit which would have featured self-honesty and writing out how I felt. I wish I’d been more aggressive and courageous about therapy. I wish I’d paid more attention to my health, which has been on a slow and steady decline.
Vulnerability in dominants is not a trait that feels prized, and indecisiveness or uncertainty is an incompatible feature to many submissives who pursue relationships with dominants. Not every dominant can be “on” all the time just as not every submissive can be “on” all the time…
An a-ha moment for me was listening to Joshua Tenpenny during a session with Raven Kaldera, where Joshua brought up his maxim of, “If the Master doesn’t want it, it isn’t service.” This allowed me to understand finer nuances of my need to please even as a dominant. It helped me get to the bedrock of understanding that oftentimes, I was engaging in dominance not because I wanted it (though at times I did) but because it was expected of me or a feature of my relationship. It helped me understand that I could want things on my own, and whether or not someone else wanted them or was satisfied by them was not necessarily a feature I needed to solve for.
Effective communication is an undervalued trait and I wish I’d had better modeling of healthy communication at different levels, dominant to submissive. Kinksters focus so much on “hard” technique e.g. florentine, knives, needles, kinbaku, etc and I wish there were a lot more classes on modeling “softer” features of competence e.g. motive, vulnerability, communication, negotiation. I sometimes listen to negotiation classes through the lenses I learned in therapy and I am shocked at how little focus there is in some areas.
(I wholeheartedly agree that we don’t talk enough about vulnerability and dominance, and have written about it before!)
What would have helped prevent it
When it comes to burnout, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I asked people directly what they thought would have helped them prevent burnout, but few had specific answers. Mor (sub NB) said that for them, “something that anchors the dynamic and relationship, as opposed to just a bunch of isolated fetishes” was key to preventing burnout. But I think we can find some more implicit ideas in the “wish they’d known/done” section above. Among them are (1) Introspection–particularly geared towards what motivates someone to be in a d/s dynamic, and what enables them to thrive in it. (2) Establishing open and honest lines of communication with a partner to make sure that both people feel like they’re getting what they need. (3) Establishing and maintaining realistic expectations, both for yourself and your partner.
I think that a major factor in preventing d/s burnout may just be reimagining what we think that d/s is and how we understand it.
As a subculture, we love to talk about d/s as a “natural” facet of relationships, even while admitting that relationships themselves “take work.” But as I have reflected on people’s experiences (and my own), I have come increasingly to doubt this inherently relationship-focused vision, that imagines d/s as being all about communication, commitment, emotions, and passion. And while it is definitely about those things…
…Perhaps d/s is also well-imagined as being like a shared (and sometimes very intense) hobby.
There are married couples who occasionally go ice-skating together (“I live the lifestyle when I can”), there are married couples who are professional pairs ice-skaters together (hardcore 24/7), and there are people who pairs skate together who also occasionally have dinner together (“play partners” “secondary/tertiary d/s relationships”). You can imagine how it might affect each of those relationships if one or both people stopped wanting to ice skate at all, started wanting to ice skate with someone else, got injured and couldn’t ice skate any more, and/or decided they wanted to switch to a completely different style of ice skating that their partner wasn’t interested in or just wasn’t good at. Maybe they got tired of pairs skating with their original partner because boredom, or maybe they were always fighting at home so it made it harder to skate together too, or maybe they just got tired of pairs skating in that style, or maybe they honestly didn’t skate very well together but they both enjoyed it a lot conceptually and their shitty skating was having a deleterious effect on the rest of their relationship, or maybe they just needed to take a break from ice skating in general, or maybe they felt like they were better at it or way more invested in it than their partner was… Regardless, d/s and pairs ice-skating are both intense co-created experiences, and if both people don’t actively want to do them, they’re not going to work well. Moreover, at the point where burnout has hit for either one, I don’t think the classic solutions for faltering relationships (communicate more! process a lot! look for new ways to share experiences together right now! reinvest!) are good solutions here.
The reason I think this alternate vision of d/s may be so important for preventing (and managing) burnout is that it takes some of the pressure off of “success” and “failure.” If we imagine d/s as an intrinsic property of relationships, if the d/s fails, THE RELATIONSHIP HAS FAILED, and that’s a lot to ask someone to admit to themselves, their partner, their friends, and their community. But if we imagine it more as something we like to do together that intrinsically relies on our mutual interest and connection, admitting that maybe we’re not as into it as we thought we were or that it’s not really working for us right now doesn’t feel so much like an all-encompassing admission. Thinking of it as something WE LIKE TO DO TOGETHER rather than WHO WE ARE gives us a lot more leeway to reimagine our relationships with it changing or without it at all. And it puts a lot less pressure on us to live up to some imagined expectation about who we’re supposed to be (both to ourselves and to our partners).
Burnout is burnout?
As I read people’s descriptions of their experiences and the things that helped them recover, it became increasingly clear that d/s burnout often isn’t very different from work burnout. The solutions that showed up frequently here looked a lot like the same advice you get for how to handle work burnout. I’m taking most of these from the first google hit I got on the subject here. Namely: (1) Be honest with yourself about what’s bothering you and try to clarify it for yourself (2) Journal (3) Seek professional help (4) Build and maintain a support network (4) Try to generally maintain your physical and mental health overall (exercise, sleep, and nutrition) (5) Set good boundaries for yourself, and try to keep a solid balance throughout your life, and (6) Communicate honestly.
In both cases, some jobs/partners don’t give back or respond to your needs when you voice them, and at that point, you may have to cut and run. That may be extremely hard for partly the same reason in both cases: a lot of your identity and sense of personal self and meaning may be wrapped up in your job and/or your d/s role-relationship. Ironically, in both cases, those feelings of identity might be exacerbating your burnout because you might just straight-up feel like a failure as a person by admitting that you’re burnt out at those things.
Why don’t we form more support groups?
Something I have realized as I have been writing this post is that, as a community, we have for some reason failed to habitually establish support groups. We teach classes, host performances, hold parties, go to munches… But we mostly don’t hold support groups for things like kinksters managing trauma (again, I’ve seen several classes on this, but no support groups), kinksters surviving the demise of d/s relationships (which almost everyone seems to agree is disproportionately awful), and kinksters just trying to manage challenges in their d/s dynamics. In retrospect, reading over multiple people’s stories, I am frustrated that we basically just tried to deal alone with something that all of us were dealing with individually, even though we all agree that we could have helped each other!
So please… some kinky social workers and therapists in training… start leading some online support groups for kinksters to talk about these things. I would love to see “support groups” aimed at specific dimensions of kink life become a feature of “the scene” the same way “rope jams” are.
(I’d do it myself, but I’m a terrible candidate for leading any kind of support group…)
The elephant in the room for anyone trying to identify and manage symptoms of d/s burnout for themselves is, “Am I just not feeling this d/s thing anymore because the problem is me (my physical/mental health? my life issues)? Because something is fundamentally amiss with my relationship? Or maybe something about my overarching relationship structures? Is whatever the problem is even fixable??”
These are not questions that are easy to answer while you’re in the thick of things. You need to be able to take a big step back and assess yourself, your relationship, your relationship structures, and the general picture of your life, and that means you have to take a break from it. You and your partner might both completely freak out at the prospect of that because it can feel like such an utter condemnation of the relationship; maybe the two of you don’t even know how to have sex with each other without d/s. How you manage that will have to depend on the nature of the relationship you have with your partner. For myself, what I’ve done in the past is whittle down the d/s to the smallest of things that make it possible for us to both still feel like we’re on familiar ground in the bedroom, and try to leave off the rest while my partner takes a break. But I’m sure there are other strategies that people will talk about in the comments.
At the end of the day, the best advice for d/s burnout is just… take a fucking break.
If you want to get back to it eventually (and especially sooner rather than later), you’ll have to do some real work on yourself and with your partner in the process. But don’t do it now. Do it later. Don’t think of this as a relationship you are failing to save right now–think of this as a shared hobby that maybe you get to come back to with somebody later. I know–oh gods, how I tearfully know–that there are people with whom that shared hobby was most of your relationship, so saying good-bye to the hobby is also saying good-bye to the relationship. But you and I both know that relationships founded on shared hobbies are often fragile, so be brave and leave it on good terms and not after you’ve beaten and battered it and can’t stand the sight of each other. And maybe it’s something you can come back to after you’ve had some time to think more deeply about what you really want.
I was first introduced to the concept of d/s burnout in an instagram post a few months ago. The concept and phrasing was very new to me, but it vaguely resonated with me in a “I-think-that-might-explain-the-behavior-and-actions-of-people-I-have-been-in-relationships-with-and-others-I-know” kind of way. I have had a lot more conversations with a lot of people about it since then, but I still feel like I am just beginning to wrap my head around this idea and the implications of it. To get a better sense of people’s varied experiences with d/s burnout, I solicited stories from strangers and friends a couple of months ago, and I will quote heavily (with consent) from the people who responded to that call here. If you read this and feel compelled to share your own story, please do so in the comments on that writing so they all stay together. My writings here are not meant to be some definitive thesis on this subject; on the contrary, they’re a starting point meant to spur more discussion, more writing, more teaching, more conversation–I want to read your writing on d/s burnout and go to your workshop focusing on it.
What started as a single post (and still sort-of is) got so long that I was sure no one would read it if I posted it as a single thing that FetLife would then tell you took 30 minutes to read. So I’ve divided this into 2 main parts and then what is essentially a lengthy postscript about gender. Please don’t feel like you have to read even a single one of these posts all at once; to be honest, I wouldn’t really recommend it. You’re getting a high-emotion warning here because if you just happened to click on the title of this and thought you’d just learn more about “what d/s burnout is,” you might be getting a lot more than you bargained for. This shit is emotionally heavy and loaded in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind sort of way: if you’ve never been in a d/s relationship, this is probably easy reading, but if you’ve been in more than two, be prepared… Be kind to yourself reading this, and take your time if you have to.
D/s burnout: what is it?
In its ideal type, d/s burnout refers to losing interest in doing d/s, either in general or with a specific partner, for reasons that are not obvious (i.e. not as a result of physical abuse, emotional manipulation, physical/hormonal changes, or identity changes). In its core ideal type, someone in a relationship that they’re actually generally pretty content with, with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs, starts finding themselves increasingly disinterested in doing d/s in general and/or with that partner. (I will explain that important asterisk in the next section). A d/s dynamic that started out as hot and fun and sexy and interesting starts to feel like work without a clear reason why.
Of course, the whole point of ideal types is that real life often doesn’t conform to them. In reality, d/s burnout is, of course, much more likely to happen in relationships that always had some serious weaknesses and flaws (what relationships are perfect???), and it will worm its way into those relationship cracks with grim determination. Most people aren’t in perfectly matched d/s relationships to start with, so there was always conflict over pressure to do things they didn’t want that may become or start to feel more intense. In kinkland, most people doing d/s are doing it in the context of poly, and there may always have been resentments and issues with other partners that also become or start to feel more intense. …And perhaps all of these things were true…
To further complicate matters, in this gourmet kinkland of poly relationship buffet options, lots of people (myself included) often do d/s in a context where the “d/s” part by design basically is most of the “relationship.” Sure, you might hold hands and go out to dinner, and you might even say “I love you” and mean it… But at the end of the day, take the d/s away, and there’s not necessarily a lot of other core relationship left. So if someone in that context starts to burn out on the d/s, it’s really hard to know if “the problem” is “the d/s or the relationship” because the d/s and the relationship are the same thing.
The symptoms of d/s burnout mostly sound exactly like what you’d expect. The symptoms of d/s burnout from bottoms were often being able to take less pain than they used to and a general reluctance to submit (in general, or with a specific partner). For service subs, burnout could mean doing the bare minimum of service tasks that used to give them joy. For example, Sierracita (sub gender unknown) said:
I resented the two of them having their time together. I was the easy thing to give up when something had to go, so I was a very lonely slave girl. I resented being told to do things, feeling like my chores simply facilitated their relationship. I stopped taking a whole lot of care of myself. I did exactly the requirements and no more.
Meanwhile for tops, it sounded more like the reports of work burnout generally do–as if topping had indeed become an (unpaid) job they no longer wanted to do. Thus A (top FtM) said:
[When I got burnt out] my ongoing output of kink energy was much bigger than the energy that I was receiving from it. This felt like running out of fuel. It felt like a kind of hemorrhaging.
People on both sides described post-con-drop types of feelings and exhaustion just from playing with a partner alone, as well as a general feelings of cynicism, lack of enthusiasm, and “this just feels like work.”
There’s also a common emotional response that happens as well: the reason for that asterisk next to the phrase “with a partner they abstractly feel* cares about them and their wants and needs” in the previous section is that one of the classic symptoms of d/s burnout appears to be abstractly feeling like a partner cares about their wants and needs, while simultaneously experiencing a conflicting sense that the partner doesn’t care or maybe “doesn’t care in the way I need.” This symptom often leads to frustrating circular conversations in which one person insists that the other one isn’t really paying attention to their wants and needs while offering little concrete evidence for the accusation, and little concrete advice for how to fix it. There’s just this lingering sense that something is wrong, and a constant feeling of being irked by what both parties agree are apparently minor things.
Reasons for it
The reasons people give for experiencing d/s burnout can basically be divided into “relationship issues” and “other.” Unsurprisingly, burnout resulting from “other” is generally a lot more (eventually) recoverable with “this partner” than burnout resulting from “relationship issues.” Those relationship reasons are most commonly: (1) The partner was failing to meet their emotional needs outside of the dynamic which then created problems within the dynamic and (2) The partner was failing to meet many of their d/s needs which created a sense of incompleteness, dissatisfaction, and/or being taken advantage of. Whether tops or bottoms, d/s burnout from relationship issues was often accompanied by a sense of “I’m the one putting all the effort in to make this work.”
Mor (sub NB), for example, said that they got burnt out because they felt like they were never really getting the whole d/s package they were looking for in the play they were receiving:
I think I experienced D/s burnout from constantly getting small tastes of what I was looking for, without getting anything like the whole package. Or, not getting the elements that made it ok. For example: someone that would happily give me a heavy beating, without any of the mental control or actual dynamic exchange. I need more to a dynamic. It is what I take refuge in, to push through and even enjoy the pain. Without it, there is so much work for me–to fabricate a dynamic in my mind, where none truly exists–just to be ok with the pain.
T (sub woman), meanwhile, said she got burnt out because she had an unfortunate tendency to pick narcissistic doms who took advantage of her:
At this point, I am burned out and have pulled the plug on any future relationships until I can figure out where my picker is broken and where I myself am going wrong. I seem to pick narcissistic men, and end up getting hurt. There is never just one side, but it has left me very distrusting and with low self-confidence. One of the major things was that they became very manipulative when I didn’t want to do something sexually that they wanted. At this point, I really don’t want to risk being touched again or opening myself up to more hurt. I am submissive to my core, but I’m not a carpet to walk on. I got where I am through a lot of hard work, I’m intelligent, and as far as I am concerned, I can’t be respected if I don’t respect myself.
For “other” issues, they were most frequently: (1) Personal problems such as being generally depressed, in bad health, and/or stressed for other reasons (2) Unrealistic expectations, either of themselves or their partner (sometimes based on what was possible in their relationship given its constraints) (3) Other seemingly unrelated unmet needs that began to affect the dynamic anyway (most notably, people whose poly needs were unmet and it began to take a toll on their existing d/s dynamics/relationships because they were generally unsatisfied, and switches who wanted both a dom and a sub and only had one). And of course, these “other issues” are often heavily entangled with relationship issues as well.
M (sub woman), said she got burnt out as her 24/7 relationship had to confront the daily realities of everyday life:
I blame the shift of 24/7 to [a play-based dynamic] because of cohabiting and co-parenting and the general stress of everyday life.
Teneo (top man), said he got burnt out from trying to be the top he thought bottoms expected him to be rather than the top he wanted to be:
At the time I began burning out, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman I’d anticipated would be a lifetime partner, but this problem wasn’t partner-specific and actually got worse with later entanglements before I finally realized what was happening. My desire to “stay in it” / “stay the course” / “stay strong you’re already doing it” led to a feeling of becoming a kink-vending machine, and this had compounding effects because the more I tried to live up to the expectations and desires others had of me, the more I felt bad about my failure to execute when I tried to put myself into a headspace.
What helped them recover
The major themes in helping people to successfully recover from d/s burnout were: (1) seeking support from others–especially kinky community and therapy (2) finding a partner who actually gave them the things they were missing (especially when they didn’t realize it) from their previous d/s relationship–either after a break-up or through poly (3) changing the nature of the d/s relationship (3a) for some switches, this meant playing on the other side of the slash (e.g. bottoms topping, or tops bottoming) (4) most importantly, time and taking a break. For most people, it was some combination of these things.
Thus Mor (sub NB) mentioned kinky community and time:
I think one of the things that helps the most is talking to other kinky people. Talking about new ideas and sharing excitement with them. I can pull off of the interests and perspectives of others. And just… time. Time alone to think, time to relax, time for body and mind to heal.
And Teneo (top man), talked about finding a more fulfilling relationship:
Finding someone who cares for me in the way I didn’t realize I needed to be cared for has had a profound impact on my willingness and competence at engaging in power exchange.
Meanwhile, M (sub woman), who stayed in her long-term relationship with her partner explained:
Our dynamic had to shift as I was never able to recover submission and receiving pain from my partner. We moved over to a daddy/little dynamic which mirrored our everyday life and felt much more natural (at least now). We tried moving back to play-based D/s, but I ended up resentful.
For myself, I would say that the most difficult aspect of managing a long-term partner’s periodic d/s burnout associated with bouts of mental illness has been teaching both of us to externalize his experiences of dissatisfaction (this was not easy and took a long time) so we know when it’s time to take a break. Depression can creep up on a person, and it is often accompanied by an unfriendly companion named Denial. Together, Depression and Denial may try to convince the affected party that the problem isn’t them, the problem is those annoying things their partner does to try to control them! (Conveniently ignoring the fact that those same things are sexy and arousing when the person isn’t depressed). That dance is an especially tricky one, since when he’s just feeling a little bit low, those same activities will energize him and make him feel good, but once depressed, they start to become a source of bitter conflict. In short, one of the things that can work to manage d/s burnout is knowing yourself, knowing your partner, and knowing when it’s time to take a break. Easy, right? If only…
What didn’t work
The most common intuitive strategy that did not seem to work was trying to heavily reinvest in the failing d/s dynamic.
This paragraph from A was hauntingly personally familiar to me:
A (top FtM): I had a series of conversations to let my partner know what was happening and what we might do about it, and to understand their perspective on it. Coming out of one of these conversations, I wrote a how-to manual to tell my partner what would recharge and energize me, including specific sentences that I would welcome hearing. This was illuminating in a way, but it did not work.
It turns out that the problem with d/s burnout is that one or both people are… tired. So if you try to get someone reinvested in the dynamic, you’re actually probably going to tire them out more, both by processing and by asking them to put more into something they already feel like they’re not getting very much out of. Kinkland teaches us that good relationships are built on good communication, and that’s true–but the good communication had to show up earlier. Once you’ve failed at that, your best solution is take a fucking break. It takes energy and conviction to recommit to a d/s dynamic, and those aren’t things that burnt out people usually have a lot of.
To be continued…
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Goddess knows, I am no expert at the shitty art of breaking up with people; far from it. But I have a lot of confidence in my own good advice about breaking up that I’m just not amazing at following. Since my social network seems to be brimming these days with recent broken hearts and I’ve been feeling a bit down myself, I figured now was as good a time as any to write a post I’ve been meaning to write for years.
It’s easy and understandable to agonize over the decision to end a relationship, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty convinced that young or old, poly or mono, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, it mostly just comes down to your answer to three basic questions.
1. Do I like who I am when I’m with this person?
You can rationalize all day about whether you like the person, make excuses for them, and tell yourself that they’re just mentally ill, etc. etc. etc. But take a long hard look at yourself and ask yourself: does this person and my relationship with them make me a better or worse person? Perhaps the answer is “neutral,” in which case, continue on to the next questions. However, generally speaking, unhealthy relationships turn us into the worst versions of ourselves, while good relationships help us manifest the best parts of ourselves.
2. How long has it been since I felt happy/satisfied/fulfilled with this person? How long am I willing to wait to feel that way again?
The most damning answer to this question is, of course, “I have never felt happy with them.” But more commonly, people had a glowing period of New Relationship Energy (NRE) in which to enjoy their relationship, and then settled into something decidedly less glowy that they stayed in hoping to return to their former glory days. Or maybe things were good for a very long time until Something Happened (a child was born, a parent died), and the relationship has just never been the same since. At that point, you kind of have to set a timer for yourself, and try to force yourself to keep to it: “I’ll give this six more months to get a lot better, but then it’s time to go” or “I’ll give this a couple more years with some couples counseling before I throw in the towel.”
It’s also important to distinguish where you are on the scale of dis/satisfaction, which spans from “glowing” (spoiler alert: that’s not usually something that lasts very long for anyone) to “happy” to “fine” to “boring” to “miserable” to “abusive.” If you demand “glowing” all the time, you will never keep a relationship for long; for some situations, “boring” might be good enough, but for most situations, “miserable” and “abusive” probably aren’t. Ironically, mediocre relationships are often harder to leave than “miserable” ones (though usually not harder than “abusive” ones), just because your motivation to get out is lower, and you feel guiltier about leaving.
The calculations for how long to wait here are the result of some complex multiplication involving life entanglements (houses owned, children raised), time together spent in joy, and time together spent in misery vs meh. Be brutally self-aware of your math, plotting out the time you spent together happy (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in misery (two months? Two years? Two decades?) vs time spent in “meh” (you get the picture). The most common trajectory I see is people who were happy together for six months who then manage to eke out the next year-and-a-half before finally giving up. 2-3 years is pretty much the well-researched cutoff line for classically defined NRE style affection, so the timeline there is fairly predictable.
3. Would I be happier “alone”?
I’ve put “alone” in quotation marks here because frequently poly people aren’t making a choice to be alone or not, but rather “just” with their other partners vs additionally with this partner. Regardless, the very human temptation here is to ask yourself, “could I get a better relationship than this one?” You’ll never know whether you’ll find another partner, and you may be seeing Potential Competing New Partner over there with the beer goggley gaze of NRE. New Partner looks to be filled with the promise of joy, while Old Partner looks like work. But it’s very hard to know the future of your relationship with someone you haven’t been in one (for long) yet with. one thing you should be able to hopefully calculate with realism is how you’d feel without this person.
Conversely, So. Many. People. Stay. In terrible relationships because they’re convinced that they’ll never find a better partner than this one. But it’s not about finding a better partner or not: it’s about the relative soul rot of being in a crappy relationship vs being without it. Only you can know how unhappy the relationship is making you compared with how unhappy you’d be without it.
There are lots of other considerations that influence whether you should stay or go. These include everything from “we have kids” (which I did mention in the time math) to “my primary loathes this person.” Those factors may all turn out to be much more important for you than any of the ones I have listed here, which are targeted more purely at the relationship in and of itself. If you end up basing your calculations on something other than your own happiness, it’s still at least worthwhile to do so consciously. This can, for example, help you avoid one of the classically stupid poly situations that often arises of “my primary loathes X […because X is actually terrible for me…], but I’m mad at my primary for hating X.” You can get out of that situation by realizing your own damned self that X is terrible for you, irrespective of your partner’s feelings about them. Lots of poly people think they have “jealous partners” when what they actually have are partners who are sick of them dating terrible people. Meanwhile, if you’re basing your decision to stay together on something like supporting your children, for goddess’ sake, try to be good parents together. Whatever devil you choose, do it with your eyes wide open.
I’m going to close this post with some Valentines for my exes. I strongly suspect that some of these emotions will resonate with others, and if they feel painfully familiar to you, maybe that should inform your choices…
It’s amazing how little someone can leave behind when they never intended to stay.
I wish that I could have reflected your best vision of the person you wanted me to be, instead of reflecting your anxieties about the people you were afraid I was.
I worry that the mere fact of loving you made me complicit in the awful things you did to other people.
At least once a week, for years, I still fantasized about having sex with you. I only stopped after you broke my heart again into even smaller pieces of exactly the same shape.
I was always more in love with your kinks than with you.
I wish that our beautiful friendship could have better withstood me falling in love with you.
I don’t get a magical denouement where I get to make everything better. I just have a hole in my life to remind me of the way I failed.
The first time I said I loved you was the last time I ever saw you, and despite the passage of years, I still can’t decide which part of that I regret.
I almost left the scene because I couldn’t tolerate being in it without you.
If I had a chance to be with you again, I would love to be someone I never got to be on the first try: myself.
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.