Negotiating Nonmonogamy

Gathered for this weekend’s seminar at A Woman’s Touch in Madison, a rough draft:

10 Things to Be Prepared for When Negotiating Polyamory

  1. Become a different person. Adopting a poly mindset and lifestyle in a monogamous world can be a transformative process. The level of communication, self-examination and brutal honesty with yourself and your partners required for healthy poly relationships is very high and tends to provide a challenge to even the most secure and open of people. As you explore and develop poly relationships, you will most likely discover things about yourself and your partners that will fundamentally change how you think and quite possibly who you are and how you view the world. As with any relationship in which long-term love is involved, you will change.
  2. Welcome change and personal growth. If you crave stability and are most comfortable in a world with minimal change, you probably don’t want to be poly. In fact, you probably don’t want to be in a relationship at all, because exposing yourself to another person’s life will most assuredly change yours, no matter how stable you believe that person to be. Be prepared to find out more about yourself, your fears and your capacity to love than you ever wanted to know. Be prepared to drag your fears and insecurities out into the open, hear the same from your partners, and grow by learning how to accept and cope with your own fears as well as your partners’.
  3. Remain friends with past partners and metamours. The non-monogamous community isn’t all that large at the moment, although we’re growing. Unlike with monogamy, it will be unlikely that you’ll be able to break up with someone and never see him or her again. Tribes and personal networks tend to be interwoven, and you will probably have to deal with interacting with people who have hurt you (or whom you have hurt) in social situations for years to come. Heck, one or more of your partners might still be dating that girl or guy you broke up with! You will have to learn how to negotiate an amicable breakup without making any of your friends and partners take sides. Be prepared to learn how to heal and take care of yourself while respecting your former partner and his/her current relationships.
  4. Experience unflattering, powerful explosive emotions. Even if you think you’re not a jealous person, you will experience jealousy at the most unexpected of times and places. You’ll probably also feel insecure, petty, uptight, varying shades of “weird,” envious, angry, hurt, irritated and annoyed. Be prepared to describe honestly whatever you’re feeling as you’re feeling it. Be prepared to ask for help in processing what you’re feeling, and be open enough to trust that your partner will still love and support you, even when you’re experiencing unflattering emotions. At some point, you’ll probably discover that something you discussed rationally and thought you’d be totally OK with ends up freaking you out and sending you into a fit of unreasonable, unexpected emotion. This is normal. Be prepared by adding an asterisk to all relationship discussions: … and I reserve the right to freak out at any time. Don’t expect to be coddled and given in to for having emotions, but do create a space where they can be discussed safely.
  5. Negotiate as a process, not a set in stone thing. When you first consider diving into polyamory, it’s a great idea to have discussions about how you’d feel if something or other happened. You’ll probably go through a lot of imagined scenarios and guess at how you’d feel and make a few (or a lot) of rules to govern you and your partners’ behavior in those cases. These discussions are a great jumping-off point, but be prepared for everything you discuss to change when dealing with real, live people. As they say in the military, “no plan of attack survives contact with the enemy.” People fall in love or lust unexpectedly, and suddenly, the rules will need to change in order for you or your partners to be happy. You might set a rule about not falling in love with partners only to discover six months later that you yourself are struggling to admit that your casual romance has become something deeper. Or you might have a caveat about partners moving in with you that needs to be rediscussed when your partner’s girlfriend becomes a closer part of your poly family. Fluid bonding agreements may need to change; child-rearing might be open to new discussion as well. Keep in mind that what is most important about your relationship negotiations is the process of discussing them, not the set-in-stone rules you end up coming up with. The rules will end up changing; be prepared to see their establishment as a fluid process of communication, not something to be set in stone and forgotten.
  6. Have every assumption challenged. With a traditional relationship structure such as monogamy, it is common (and relatively harmless) for participants to make some basic assumptions about what concepts like “fidelity” and “monogamy” mean. Sometimes, those definitions aren’t discussed at all; they simply remain as tacit concepts floating at the back of the relationship unless and until something happens to challenge them, which might be never. If you’re venturing into polyamory or some branch of non-monogamy, however, be prepared to have every assumption about basic relationship concepts challenged. Think you know what “sex” is? Ask your partner; you might discover that your definitions of what constitutes “sex” or “sexual contact” are vastly different. How about “cheating”? “Fidelity”? “Love”? Being “OK” with something? How about what constitutes a “healthy” or “successful” relationship? When “only” and “forever” are no longer the markers of a relationship’s success, how will you define your relationships’ relative success?
  7. Talk about everything. Be prepared to discuss and communicate about things you never thought you’d have to. Be prepared to have different discussions about the same issues as life and love change around you. You’ll have to be brave enough to bring up unflattering emotions and strong enough to be patient and loving when your partners do the same. Be prepared to create a safe space for your partners to tell you things that are difficult or unflattering to admit, and then find another space in which you can be brutally honest in return. Lack of conflict isn’t necessarily the sign of a healthy relationship, but lack of intimacy will cause its slow demise. Getting into the painful emotions in a safe space is a type of intimacy, and it can bring you closer to your partners than you ever thought possible.
  8. Have a sounding-board. Polyamory is not a traditional relationship structure. You will not know how to deal with the issues that arise; my gods, how could you? I promise that you do not have all the skills and information that you need to have a successful poly relationship right now. So it’s of utmost importance that you have support. Talking to just your partner isn’t enough; you will need the voices of friends and people who have been through this before to give you insight so that you can make your own, informed decisions. Be prepared to reach out to the poly community, whether it be online or in real life, and create a sort of sounding-board of poly-friendlies that you can run your questions or issues by. Again, simply talking to the person you’re sleeping with isn’t enough. Monogamous types ask their girlfriends, buddies and best friends what they think; they kvetch and ask for advice over coffee. Even if you’re not out publicly as poly, be prepared to do the same. Find a community, listen and ask questions, and choose a few folks you trust as your advisory board. If you can, find a poly-friendly therapist, too.
  9. Ask for reassurance when you need it. Be prepared for this to be a wonderful but tough journey of self-discovery. If you haven’t got the message yet, non-monogamy can be gut-wrenchingly tough to negotiate. There will be times when you feel weak or vulnerable; be prepared to ask for reassurance when you need it. Sometimes your partners will know and be able to tell when you need reassurance and offer it unasked, but sometimes you’ll need to be explicit. Just ask.
  10. Be the bad guy. Relationships might be wonderful and healthy for six months, five years or 18 1/2 years. And then, after whatever period of time, there might come a time when all the communication in the world won’t make the participants happy or healthy. Be prepared to have the courage to acknowledge that things aren’t working and to be the bad guy and end the relationship. No one wants to be the bad guy; that’s why people do things such as act weird and distant so that the other person will get annoyed and break up with him/her. Please don’t do that. Being open, honest and vulnerable extends to ending the relationship as well. Do your partner(s) the honor of respecting what you had by respecting the end of your relationship as much as its duration.

9 comments to Negotiating Nonmonogamy

  • Anonymous

    Whomever is writing this – thank you! This is the smartest such article I’ve seen yet. Clearly based on real life.

  • Some of these hints are helpful, but mostly they’re like saying “be tall.” If you’re not tall, then….

    Polyamory happens, just like shit. I find #10 especially to be like a license for bad behavior.

  • Cunning Minx

    Tom–

    Yeah, it’s true–I can tell people what to expect and say “assume crash positions,” but it doesn’t really show you how to become a secure and whole person, does it?

    Actually, I disagree with you about #10. I’ve seen it much more often that people stay together for a year or ten too long because neither person is willing to be the “bad guy” and admit that the relationship is no longer healthy for him/her than people treating relationships as disposable. And when I say “being the bad guy,” I thought it was clear that that meant having the courage to end an unhealthy relationship. Perhaps I should rephrase.

  • Cunning Minx

    Anonymous–

    Thanks! I write this blog.

  • Satyrblade

    Wonderfully and astutely put. Thank you!

  • Minx,

    I loved the seminar on Saturday. Nyla and I learned a lot from it. Hope you enjoyed the restaurant; it’s one of our favorites in Madison. Though there’s better middle-eastern food here in Milwaukee. Looking forward to seeing you again in March.

    Killian

  • Elizabeth Lane

    Minx,

    I absolutely adore the skills you’ve named here, and the eloquence with which you describe them.

    I do have one favor to ask, however. In your ten points, you describe healthy relationships, not just poly healthy relationships. These are all skills that I have sought all my life, in all my intimate relationships, and I am monogamous. Your first sentence sets up a logic that assumes if you’re leaving monogamy for something else, you won’t have these tools and will need to pick them up. It’s a subtle thing, but it feels quite painful from my end, and I run into it a lot.

    I’m committed to a wonderful man who is polyamorous, so I am a member of the poly communities and a consumer of poly literature. I love to see the joy my honey finds in seeing himself described and understood in poly lit; but I have to traverse a lot of stereotyping and dismissal of my own heart to read such material. The “us vs. them” themes in poly lit are overwhelming, and hurtful to me, when I only want to make my relationship the best it can be, and be honest about our differences. I am surrounded by a lot of purely unintentional, but very real slams against all monogamy, when monogamous hearts are not the problem. It is the cultural enforcement of any single relationship style that is the problem. Humans are too diverse a group to find happiness like that.

    I may be too late to influence this writing, but please encourage poly writers to remember that they have monogamous audience members that are a part of the community, that are eager to support freedom for all hearts and eager to improve intimacy in this culture. It is the accumulation of the big insults, and the small ones like this one, that really wear a person down.

    Elizabeth

  • It won’t be long before there is a reality Poly Bachelor TV show I guess especially with the exposure it’s been getting lately, hell we talked about it as it isn’t easy to find that fit; just finding each other is hard enough. My wife and I, married 11 wonderful years have experienced amazing things on our search for the perfect partner. Some of which has prompted us to write a book about it which is in progress and for the fun side we also write short stories documenting actual experiences. What I realized is most don’t hear the truth about what it takes so I decided to share some with you.
    I forgot as they are just part of us but also some very important rules that we have built into our relationship to keep us sane… This isn’t a how to book but so many people say “i want what you guys have” then show up a month later with someone saying “look, I found someone that’s just like you guys” and we are thinking, how is this person just like us? The fact is, they didn’t understand what it was we do or how, they just saw the sex.

    Some things that I don’t see with most relationships much less individuals
    • The want to build each other’s confidence yet patient enough to notice and change when one of you have lost yours.
    • Using positive motivation to make changes as a team instead of, well instead of belittling your partner thus putting them farther in a hole
    • Understanding that relationships are a constant power play and if recognized can be manipulated to achieve amazing things but if ignored will destroy the team and each other
    • The combined want to be happy and the ability to make it so
    • The want to see your partner, friends and family to do the best they can and not wish against them
    • Finding a way to communicate truthfully but being cautios as everyword you say although needs to be heard should be formed to help… It’s easy for conversations to make a partner feel as if they are constantly doing something wrong or what they do is never enough and it both of your responsibility to care and watch for this
    • Although you are a team, you do not own your partner, you can’t or shouldn’t tell them what they should or should not wear but you should be able to ask with the belief that the other will seriously consider it
    Our Rules or little things that we created
    • Don’t sweat the small stuff
    (addendum_) – If I forgot, don’t bring up the past!! If you forgive then you shouldn’t use it down the road to win a fight.
    • Don’t go to bed angry, hell don’t go to bed separately, we haven’t in 11 years (except when she flies) and very rarely
    • Argue to solve a problem not to win, if you want to fight get boxing gloves but if all you do is fight review what it is you want in life and why you are where you are
    • If you have forgiven for a mistake in the past, don’t bring it up, don’t use it, and don’t dwell on it as it will change the way you think
    • Don’t ever threaten to leave each other during a fight
    • Don’t slander each other during a fight
    • Realize human nature and what it is you will do for your partner and what your partner will do for you and that includes making mistakes on the belief that it might hurt
    • Open your mind and truly think what your partner may see, may be thinking and realize it’s human to see things in your own way even if it is wrong, one of the hardest emotions to deal with but also one that will destroy a couple… If your paranoid by nature, forget it, this will have a reverse effect
    • Don’t ever go number 2 in front of your partner
    • Realize that there is a difference between a mistake or being deceptive and malicious
    • Oh, don’t bring your problems to your friends or family REAlLY FUCKING IMPORTANT, it’s your side of the story and although it may make you feel good, you are breaking down the view that your friends and family have of your partner and that is irresponsible and unfixable
    • Make your own damn rules, these are mine and they work but they don’t take any effort, they aren’t memorized or written in stone but to us they are important
    Now, granted my wife is a flight attendant and is gone 9 days a month (we still talk on the phone every other hour) but we love hanging out together we have no want to go out separately and haven’t in 11 years… Yes, she has went out with friends at work and has some stories to tell but we want to be together, if someone doesn’t accept my girl or tries to take me away from that under the guise of a guys night out, hell, she can hang with any guy I know and besides, I love looking at her ass and so do most of my friends.

  • Cunning Minx

    Atlanta Couple–

    Great points, all! Even if you’re not poly, a lot of those are very useful.

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