Before I start answering your questions, I should probably warn you that I’m not only a verbose writer, but that I have done a lot of navel gazing and processing around polyamory. I started having open relationships pretty early, when I was a freshman in college. It happened naturally, rather than having read one of the poly books or a Loving More magazine; I was dating a girl who wanted a threesome with her ex boyfriend for her birthday, and after hashing the whole situation out, it turned into a triad relationship. Once I was able to wrap my brain around dating two people at once, and it felt so natural to me, that any attempts at monogamy after that always went awry. In some ways, I think my romantic brain wiring was permanently changed by being in an open relationship that started and ended well, and now it’s monogamy that feels awkward and hard to navigate.
Also, I notice that your questions are based on an assumed trajectory – that the people involved started out as a monogamous dyad who mutually decided to pursue an open relationship. This is a fairly typical entry point to polyamory, but it’s not the only one. Some of these questions are hard for me to give a straight answer to, since currently my relationship structure is not one where I have a single primary partner in a spousal-type relationship and then additional relationships outside of that one. Instead, I have a bevy of radically different relationships with different levels of commitment and interaction, and no one person is more important or gets more priority than the others. I’ll attempt to answer your questions based on having had done the “dyad-gone-open” model, and then add some insights from my current model.
1. What insight about open relationships do you wish you had when you started?
It took me quite a long time to figure out the one thing about living a polyamorous lifestyle that I adore the most: because you no longer have to ascribe to some sort of culturally or socially dictated definition of what a “real” relationship is/is not, polyamory allows you to have a wide array of emotionally and physically intimate relationships and the ability for everyone in your life to treat them all as equally important. I have a best friend from childhood that although we don’t rub our bits together, doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t drop everything to rescue them from Tijuana at 3am with no notice. Or even possibly cancel a date with someone I’ve seen naked because they had a bad day and need a little Del coaching.
There’s no longer this artificial hierarchy in my life, where those who give me orgasms are somehow inherently more important to me than those who have held my hand while I’ve cried my eyes out. Many people I’ve spoken to have found themselves in situations where someone they’ve been fucking for a few weeks assumes they are entitled to the lion’s share of their new friend’s time and attention, even over blood-family members and long time friends. Now, we’ve all had that person who immediately took residence in our brain and we couldn’t think of anything better than to spend every waking moment with them (which us poly people refer to as “NRE”, for New Relationship Energy), and that can be great. But we’ve also all been the best friend, or other partner, or coworker, and been annoyed and hurt that their newly NRE’d friend has seemingly vanished from the Earth.
But the real thing that has come from this freedom, is that I have the power to allow my interactions with a person become whatever works best for both of us. If we’re hotly sexually attracted to each other, but she’s a Republican who loves to quilt and I’m a Libertarian who plays Halo for hours, we are free to get it on for hours in the bedroom and then go off and do our own thing. And even better, it allows for relationships that have deep rooted emotional intimacy with people who have a sexual orientation that doesn’t include my gender. Instead of finding out six months later that “boyfriend” means radically different things to two different people, it forces us to talk about what I mean, and what they mean, when we call each other that. It makes us make conscious, considered decisions about what our relationship will and won’t include, rather than just pretending that every single romantic and sexual relationship has to follow the rail from dating to going steady to engaged to married to divorced.
2. What has been the hardest thing about opening your relationship, and how have you overcome that?
For me, it didn’t start with being in a dyad and then deciding to pursue other people, but I have a story that relates.
When I started dating A, back in the late 90’s, we both told each other we were poly when we first got together. As the situation would have it, we weren’t dating anyone else when we got together, and as these things go, we spend the first year completely obsessed with each other so dating others really wasn’t an issue. We never really talked about it other than noting attractive people we saw in the mall, or sharing fantasies about having group sex.
This turned out to be problematic. To be fair to both of us, although we knew what polyamory was and had read all the poly bibles at the time (mostly The Ethical Slut and copies of Loving More’s magazine), neither of us had a whole lot of experience with it, so we didn’t really know any better. I had no way of knowing that A’s idea of having an open relationship was me bringing home attractive women for us to share, and mine was more about having fully-fledged romantic and sexual relationships outside of ours. Also, A had assumed that I was only interested in dating women, when in fact I’m queer and date people from all over the gender spectrum. So it wasn’t until I started spending significant time with a man that all of this came to a head. A was very upset, both because they felt left out of this budding relationship, and A’s version of polyamory was more what I would call “soft swinging” – being romantically monogamous, but sharing third-party sexual partners from time to time. All of a sudden, A and I came to a screeching halt. We had never thought to discuss what “polyamorous” meant to either of us, because we both just assumed that what we envisioned in our head was what the other thought, too. We never thought to discuss hypotheticals, to know beforehand what we were free to do without “getting permission”, how much we wanted to know about the other’s outside relationships, etc.
And what’s funny is that we had a “contract”, so we thought we were covered. When I look back at it, I am amazed we had talked this out without ever discussing what our goals were in being open. Basically, we weren’t allowed to have sex with someone the other hadn’t met yet; we were fluid bonded but any other partners required safer sex protections; if we wanted to initiate a more serious relationship everyone involved would sit down together and agree to a new “contract”. It seemed clear to both of us, and yet it turned out to be so terribly lacking.
In the end, A and I had to split. A was incredibly uncomfortable with me dating or screwing people who weren’t cis gendered females, and was basically interested in a monogamous romantic relationship with me that allowed for a little hanky panky on the side. We tried, very hard, to find a middle ground, but in the end it was too complicated and too dangerous for either of our hearts. It’s sad, because looking back, if I knew more about how to negotiate and to be unafraid to be brutally honest with my partners, it’s likely we could have worked something out.
So the lesson learned here is that the very moment you find yourself assuming that a word means the same thing for your partner(s) as it does for you, it’s time to make absolutely sure. I can’t tell you how many times, with so many people, I’ve had long uncomfortable conversations about what “sex” means. (Think about it. Once I found out, too late unfortunately, that making out with tongue was “sex”; another time with another partner, that fisting wasn’t “sex”.) Is a silicone dildo a “cock”, and does it violate your safer sex agreements if it doesn’t have a condom? Is there a difference in permissions if there is/is not penetration? If no one has an orgasm, but they’re both naked and touching each other genitals, is that sex? Complicated, isn’t it?
Make sure if you use a title to describe your relationship (boy/girlfriend, lover, partner, spouse, primary/secondary, fuckbuddy, etc) that everyone in your love life knows what that means for the people involved. People make assumptions about my romantic/sex life all the time based on titles of my lovers – in fact, I was recently looking through my medical files from a hospital stay, and according to Johns Hopkins: I am straight, gay, and bisexual; I am celibate, married, and have excessive sexual partners; and they assumed that three different people was my spouse.) In reality, I have a “partner” I have never had sex with, a “girlfriend” I’ve never had a date with, an “assistant” (our vanilla-world code word for “slave”) who is my medical proxy and full time roommate, and a “boyfriend” who has G sized tits. All of these titles were agreed upon by both partners, and have been fully explained to each other, so no one gets confused; like I said in the beginning, I don’t have one relationship that holds more power or sway than any other, which can be hard to maintain when one of them lives in the same house as me. But for me, I’m happier when I am the master of my own love life, and I have found (through much trial and error) that having a spousal-type primary partner who comes before everyone else doesn’t jive with the way I want my life to be.
3. What has been the best thing about your open relationship?
I want to take a moment to talk about language, especially after that last answer. It’s important to note that although for some people, “open relationship” and “polyamory” are synonymous, for many others it’s not. “Open relationship” can include a wide range of sexual and romantic arrangements that may or may not include sex, romance, or commitment. Some swingers, who identify as “monogamous”, will in the same breath explain that their relationship is “open”, because they see the sex they have outside of the relationship as purely recreational and having no long term meaning. Most polyamorous people shy away from “open relationship” for this exact reason – they tend to describe their relationships as being “polyamorous”, or “multipartnered”, or other terms that describe the exact flavor of polyamory they engage in, such as polyfidelity. That’s the other thing; I know many triads, quads, and other multipartnered polyamorous relationships that are “closed”; that is, no longer accepting new applications. I just wanted to point this out. As for me personally, I usually say “polyamorous”, or lately “non-hierarchical polyamory”.
Right now, at this very moment?
I am getting ready to have a risky surgery at the end of December. At the same time, I just legally changed my name (which requires changing just about every single document in my life, and all of my bills), I am looking for a new apartment with my slave, I am going through the application process for SSDI, and oh, it’s the holidays.
Yeah, my head is barely hanging on by a thread while Col. Sanders eyes my legs for his fryer. (Get it?)
But I have a team. In the closest circle is all of my lovers, each doing things that they are best at, to help me get through this. My partner Winter, that one with all the emotional intimacy? He’s been calming my fears about the surgery, and because our spiritualities are very similar, he has also been helping me in that realm. Also, it just so happens that he legally changed his name a few years ago, and his other partner is about it, so he knows the process really well and can walk me through each step so I don’t accidentally forget to tell the power company and lose power, or end up in this in-between ground for longer than necessary. My slave, Rave, is handling the core of the administrative tasks, like making sure my Will and Advanced Directives are all in order, making my doctor’s appointments and keeping my calendar, looking at potential apartments, making hotel reservations for everyone who’s coming to be here during my month-long hospital stay. When she started feeling overwhelmed, my play partner and service tiger (yes, making up your own titles means that you can end up with a service tiger. You know you’re jealous!) came forward without hesitation and volunteered to work in conjunction with Rave on getting that stuff done. Alex, my boyfriend, has been invaluable in his relentless goal of reminding me that even with all this medical stuff, I’m still sexy and vital and alive and important, and is keeping me from hiding in my cave hating myself and my life for the next month. He’s also very good at grounding me when I feel panicked, or overwhelmed, and he makes me able to focus on getting stuff done. My girlfriend Ruth has plans to come down once I get home because she’s a whiz at both medical aftercare as well as a domestic queen whose cooking can’t be beat. And there are more, people with whom I have a myriad of connections, sending me a little extra money so I can make the deposit on the new place, or giving me their frequent flier miles so others can come visit. I’m almost worried about stopping, and list all the wonderful and amazing people I have in my life who are going out of their way to help me through this quagmire of stress, but that would take way too long.
And never, in any moment, is there a breakdown where one person feels like they’re not intimately involved in my life in some way, or feel like someone else is intruding on their “territory”. Not only that, but I know that when I’m under the knife, all of the people I care about will be together, supporting and calming each other, taking shifts in the waiting room so no one person has to wait all 12 hours, and looking out for each other.
They live all over the country (mostly on the East Coast), and yet we’re all our own little dysfunctional family of choice. My friends and acquaintances (and the occasional stalker fan) make up a support network that bowls me over with their love, support, and devotion. In a time where most people are most worried that they might have to go through a scary ordeal alone, if there’s one fear I don’t have, is a lack of hands to hold, shoulders to cry on, ears to shout or whisper into, etc.
To me, that’s the real beauty in my life. Instead of having to choose one of these wonderfully talented, insanely gorgeous, wickedly intelligent people to be my own and only, I get to experience the wide array that they all bring into my life.
And I’m not even done yet. Ruth’s wife, Lizzie, makes me laugh with her sardonic wit. Winter’s spouse, Fireheart, is the voice of reason when the rest of us slip too far down the rabbit hole. In the polyamory community, your partner’s partners are called “metamours”, and I have some really awesome ones. In some ways, it’s like the prize inside the cereal box you didn’t know was there – you get to have these great friendships with someone you obviously have something in common with, since you both chose the same person to be in a relationship with.
Now, don’t let me be all Suzy Sunshine here. Polyamory is hard work. I recently separated from one of those spousal, “I come first” relationships, and it took a lot of time and energy to reshape things once they were gone. Everyone was worried that I would hole up and decide love was for dummies and walk away. There have been times when I had to break up with someone not because of anything wrong with our relationship, but because a metamour decided they didn’t like me or want me around. Some people are intellectually interested in polyamory/open relationships, only to find out that emotionally they can’t handle it; I’ve had more than one relationship come crashing down because someone was totally comfortable with the idea that they could go out and have sex/relationships with other people, only to find that they’re the ones home alone on a Saturday night while their boyfriend is out with someone else and they’re steaming.
4. Anything else you’d like to add?
I could write a book. Maybe I should write a book. Let me see if I can boil it down into a list.
A lot of people, both inside the poly demographic and not, make being polyamorous as more evolved, a more intellectual way of doing relationships, or meaning that one is more mature emotionally. I don’t think they realize that it sends the opposite message – that being monogamous means that you’re a less evolved, emotionally immature person. This does a lot of damage, as people who are monogamous “force” themselves into polyamory in order to seem hip, smart, and evolved, and just bottle up all the mental anguish they experience. I’ve had clients (as a pastoral care counselor and shaman) who beat themselves up for years, having one unsuccessful relationship after another because they’ve convinced themselves that polyamory is the only way cool people relate these days. It’s 100% okay to tell people you’re not sure but willing to try, or to come to the conclusion that it’s not for you. My friend and colleague Mollena Williams has a brilliant class she teaches at kink conventions (where polyamory is practically the norm, rather than the exception) on how to embrace monogamy as a perfectly acceptable relationship orientation.
I won’t say “communication, communication, communication”, because you’ve already heard that, or will soon, if you start talking to poly folks. I think, even more important and basic than communication, is “honesty, honesty, honesty”. Not that I think people lie on purpose (or at least, not most people), but I have found that doing this poly thing has really made me do some serious navel-gazing, and to be brutally honest with myself, first, about how I feel and what I think about relationships as a concept. And we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been less than truthful with a partner because we’re scared if we tell them the truth they’ll reject us. No one relishes the idea of having to admit that no, you really don’t like having Moonbeam over every night because he leaves the toilet seat up or makes snide comments about your music, when your partner is totally head over heels for him. Nor do we always enjoy four hour long conversations about whether or not it’s okay to have sex tonight (with each other or with other people). You kinda learn to be a process-junky, but there are some times when it can drive you crazy, too. People tell me all the time that I’m such a self-aware person, and I tell them that 75% of it is because I learned something about myself the hard way, usually by having my heart broken, or breaking someone else’s heart.
And that’s another thing people don’t talk about when it comes to having more than one relationship – heartbreak. One of the things that happens often in poly relationships is that relationships come to their natural end, but because we have other people in our lives, instead of just owning up and recognizing that the relationship is over, things just linger until resentment takes over and you just slowly drift apart. In some ways, it can be a good thing; dying slowly and quietly can be kinder and gentler than a shouting, dramatic fight followed by weeks of Ben and Jerry’s and Gray’s Anatomy. But either way, more relationships means more break-ups, and it can be difficult to feel totally wrecked but still have a date on Tuesday. It is a tricky thing to be there for your lover while they grieve the disappearance of someone else. If you’re the kind of person who ends up needing months of therapy and psych meds to get over a short-lived relationship, just be warned that bringing more people into your love life means that you’re going to be in that dark place often. It’s best if you can figure out what your break-up process is, and be able to explain it to others (“I need a week to listen to the Cure and wear all black, and I eat four pints of Cherry Garcia, and I won’t want to have sex or cuddles for a while.”) because it’s likely you’ll still be expected to be engaged with your other loves while nurturing yourself through it.
There are many ways to do poly “wrong”. Obviously, with any other judgment call, “right” and “wrong” are subjective, but these four are pretty commonly accepted within the poly demographic as being, at the least, problematic.
A. “…but my spouse doesn’t want to know.” It may seem like a good idea to put it in your contract that you don’t want to know about the other loves in your partner’s life, but trust us, that way lies ruin. First off, nobody likes being your dirty little secret – at least not in the long term. It’s hard on the self esteem, and it can be hard to have to be all stealth in public (no hand holding in the movies, or kiss goodnight on the doorstep). Also, information is a common balm for envy and jealousy (two different emotions, by the way); it can be tricky to figure out how much information you should be sharing and what should be just between you and your partner.
B. “Relationship broken; add more people.” Like I said before, sometimes in poly relationships it’s easier to let relationships linger rather than face a difficult conversation. In the same vein, when you’re not getting something fundamental from your current partners, it may seem elementary to go out and find someone else to get it from. This isn’t always a bad thing, but you should be clear with yourself and your partners that this is what is happening. More often than not, adding new people into a dysfunctional or struggling relationship only add complexity and strain; it’s harder for anyone to accept a new love in their partner’s life when they feel like their needs aren’t getting met. It’s a poly adage: love may be infinite, but time is not. If your partner is feeling neglected, or shut out, or disconnected, seeing you share your time and attention with a new person will only make things worse. Before you add a new person into your life, make sure you’re on steady ground. No one likes ringside seats to someone else’s relationship drama, especially if they’re sitting in the splash zone.
“I don’t feel beautiful unless everyone wants me.” As much as poly is touted as a relationship style for evolved, intelligent, self-aware people, I’ve run into more than my fair share of people who use it to feed an unending hole in their self-esteem. Some people can become addicted to NRE, and long term relationships require a lot of work and compromise. It can be easier to just jump from one rope to another, not fully letting go of one before grabbing the next. And if these people do decide to stick it out, be prepared to endure their take-a-number machines next to their bed; it’s not that they have a high sex drive, or that there’s anything wrong with casual sex, but because poly is supposedly “all about the love”, and we all know people who conflate love and sex, you might find yourself watching a glutton at the orgy feast, never having enough love in their life to make them feel whole.
“Poly is a cure for cheating.” No, it is not. It is totally possible to be poly and still cheat. Cheating is not about sleeping with someone else; cheating is about dishonesty and disrespect. Monogamists get so tied up in the sleeping with someone else part, because that’s the gold standard for being the most important person in someone’s life. But it’s not about where she put her fist last night, it’s that she was able to make the decision that even though it goes against your agreements or contract, she was going to do it anyway. There’s no room in polyamory for “I’d rather beg for forgiveness than ask permission.” If you’re just interested in lots of no-strings-attached sex, be honest and forthright about it, and more importantly, be ethical about it. Don’t let someone believe that you’ll take their desires into consideration if that’s not really your plan. Cheating can be intoxicating: it’s secret, and forbidden, and sexy in the moment. But the core of ethical polyamory is that it isn’t all about the sex, and if you don’t honor all of your different partner’s desires, then you’re not focused on what makes polyamory different from just sleeping around.
One of the best skill sets to have if you’re going to be poly, other than self-knowledge, is the ability to enjoy time alone as much as you enjoy time with a partner. There will be nights that your partner(s) will be off having fun with others and you’ll be stuck with the remote and the cat. It’s not the first mental picture we get when we think about open relationships – we’re so focused on the idea that we can go out with other people and have endless amounts of fun, that we forget that the other side of that is our partner’s third night in a row of snuggling alone with Mr. Teddy Bear. Many of us, having been raised in a monogamy-focused culture, have the expectation that once we’re in a relationship, we don’t have to be alone anymore. Sure, there are business trips and girl’s nights out, but they’re the exception instead of the rule. If you or your partner have other relationships, those other relationships are going to want the same amount of time and energy that your partner wanted in the beginning. I mean, you might be lucky and find another busy poly person (or someone else who has a severe lack of free time) who is fine with only seeing you one weekend a month, and only getting phone calls from your work, but they tend to be few and far between. So it usually means that someone is going to be on their own some of the time. It may help to have hobbies or interests that get you out of the house on a regular basis, or require long stretches of time and attention. This could be seen as an opportunity to pursue interests that your current partner(s) doesn’t share with you – you can turn up your polka music as loud as you want, or get lost in your guild’s weekly raid, or finish the great American novel. But it’s no fun to be sitting at home, trying desperately not to look at the clock, waiting for your partner to come back from a date.
Google Calendar. Or some other program/app where multiple people can see and post their activities in the same place. I honestly don’t remember how I managed before Google Calendar. It is a tremendous help when you’re dating three people who all have different schedules and availabilities, instead of making a hundred phone calls back and forth figuring out who you’re going out with when, or who is available to accompany you to the art gallery opening. I even keep my metamour’s schedules on my calendar, in case a partner forgets to tell me that she and Moonbeam are going away together for a week, or so if my partner is upset that I can’t go to the company picnic, a glance tells me that his girlfriend is available that day. There have been times when I couldn’t figure out where someone was, until I checked the calendar. I’m telling you, it’s a godsend.
Valentine’s Day. There is so much pressure around V-day, and sometimes there’s just no good solution. Sometimes, the best answer has been to purposefully spend the 14th alone, but to make sure to have special dates planned for my loves around that time – there’s too much meaning to being “the one who actually got the 14th”. Of course, this all depends on how you and your loves feel about February 14th in general – if you’re all a bunch of loveless curmudgeons who think it’s an invented holiday to sell overpriced flowers and candy, then don’t stress about it. However, if even one partner is feeling sentimental, it’s best to have a plan in place weeks (or months) before the actual day. Some poly families spend the day together, but if you have a large network of loves and metamours, that might get difficult to get them all in the same place at the same time. Some poly people have multiple dates on the same day. Some go away as a group, and hive off into various conglomerations as the weekend progresses. It’s just best not to forget about this until February 12th, when all of a sudden your coworkers and friends are asking you what your plans are, and you realize you have more than one person to think about. The same thing goes, to a lesser extent, for your birthday or other holidays that you celebrate.
Coming out. Thankfully, the average American is willing to overlook a lot of suspicious behavior if they know you’re already in a relationship, but there are just some things that can’t be hidden forever. Like any other form of coming out, it’s a very personal decision and not one to be made lightly. I haven’t seen as much parental outrage over coming out as poly (especially if you’ve already shocked them once, like coming out as queer, kinky, Pagan, or by having obvious body mods), but if you’re married or in a long term committed relationship and then decide to open it up, you will have to fend off lots of misunderstanding, both from family members and from potential partners who are new to poly. It can take a while for a person who hasn’t been exposed to poly people before to fully understand that yes, your husband knows about you having other relationships, he’s fine with it, he’s actually with his boyfriend right now! For this reason, some people (like me) only date people who already identify as poly (also, breaking in poly virgins, and having to carefully walk them through all the internal processing, as well as education, can get tedious if all you want is a friend-with-benefits who also likes Hitchcock movies) .