From two to three: advice on opening up from an HBB

There’s no one right way to do polyamory, but there are plenty of wrong ways – Miss Poly Manners

At OpenSF last month, a session on Negotiating Non-Monogamy gave me some food for thought on the perils of taking those first few steps into non-monogamy. The truth is that most couples who approach polyamory do so with the best of intentions. And yet, they often so diligently focus on the health of their own relationship that they can fail to consider the needs and health of the person that they intended to bring lovingly into their relationship. The result? Drama and pain for everyone involved!

A novel approach: the HBB speaks

Most books, articles and sessions on negotiating non-monogamy are geared toward the couple who is opening up a relationship. That makes sense; while there are many single polys, it’s often a monogamous couple that is seeking advice on opening up a relationship for the first time. And these books, articles and sessions are inevitably written and developed from the point of view of the couple. But here’s a twist, the secret no one will tell you: if you want advice on how to successfully open up a relationship, ask the people who would be interested in joining it. (Or run away screaming from it.) That is, ask the people you intend to date how you as a couple can put your best foot forward.

So that’s the novel approach here: how to negotiate non-monogamy successfully, from the point of view of the HBB (Hot Boobiesexual Babe) that you hope to bring into it! If you want to know how to get a quality new lover that will get along with your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/spouse and present minimal drama, read on.

This is not a post about general poly skills you need to negotiate your first poly relationship. Instead, this is a list of specific do’s and don’ts that couples often overlook when negotiating their first non-monogamous relationship. First, let’s start with the positive: the do’s.

Newly non-monogamous do’s

OK! You’ve done the scary part and told your partner you want to be non-monogamous, and that partner didn’t leave the room screaming. Great first step! So… now what? What often follows is a series of long talks and negotiations that are all aimed at one thing: protecting the existing relationship. Now, protecting the existing relationship isn’t a bad thing per se, but if it’s your primary concern, you’ll find you won’t have a very positive first poly experience. Most couples begin with this mindset:

“How do we move forward without damaging our current relationship and without my getting hurt?”

This may seem to be a logical question, but in the dating world, fear of change is self-defeating. Of course your relationship will change; you’re adding another full human being to it! Not being open to changes, including those within yourself, is the #1 killer of first-time poly relationships. The first person you date outside your relationship is a human being with needs, quirks, desires, sarcasm, giggles and a whole wealth of emotions, just like you do. And adding another person to a family always changes the dynamic. Going into defensive/protection mode isn’t beneficial for you, your current partner, or your new partner.

Rather, try asking yourselves this:

  • What value do we have to offer to someone else?
  • How can we/I make a new partner feel loved, comfortable and included like I do?
  • How can we enrich this person’s experience with us and with poly?

Think of it this way: if you as a couple discovered you were pregnant, would you sit down to have a lot of talks about how you are going to protect yourself from the damage the new child will do to your current relationship dynamic? Would you plan how you’re going to keep the new child from threatening you and your lifestyle? Would you make a list of rules to prevent the child from crying when you’re having a dinner party and kick the child out if she does? Would you insist on having veto power and kicking the kid out if he doesn’t stick to his appointed nap time?

Well, you could, but it would be a bit cruel. If you’re that worried about maintaining your relationship exactly as it is, you’re probably not ready for a kid. And ditto with polyamory: if you’re more worried about protecting what you have than welcoming change, you’re not ready for a non-monogamous relationship.

Rather, when a couple contemplates a child, they tend to think less of the limits the child will place on their lives and the stresses it will place on their relationship and more about what they have to offer the child and how much joy they will take in watching the child develop and change them as partners and parents. They look forward to discovering a new dynamic with the child: will she bring the family together at her ball games? Will he need a ride to his dance recitals? How much fun will it be to chaperone her first sleepover? Who will support him when he’s down and needs a shoulder to cry on?

OK, to some extent, it’s a ridiculous analogy to compare a fully-grown adult to a child. But in another way, it’s not. A new romantic relationship can change your relationship just as much as a new child will, and making rules to limit an adult’s love and interactions can be just as cruel as making a list to limit a child’s. In fact, it can be even more so, since the adult is fully self-aware and often capable of clearly stating and negotiating needs and wants, unlike a child.

So sure, be realistic about the relationship change, and make sure you have date nights and some alone time. But it’s far more beneficial to begin opening up your relationship by anticipating the joys of the new relationship dynamic than by fearing the change it will bring. And when you approach polyamory in this manner, you’ll enjoy the added benefit of treating your new partner(s) with respect and love rather than as a disposable test case for your own foibles.

Newly non-monogamous don’ts

This list is far easier to make, since time and time again, new poly couples break hearts in their quest to keep their own relationship primary and protected. Advice from those who have fled unhealthy couples, don’t:

  • Allow veto power. Insist on communication rather than veto power. Veto power too often is a substitute for communication. It’s not wrong per se, but it’s quite often a cop-out and used to wield power instead of communication. Be mindful that you should only be expected to control your own actions, not those of your partner. Wielding veto power often shifts the balance of power in a relationship and causes far more tension and drama than those relationships that don’t offer this easy out. “Because I don’t like her” isn’t good enough; insist on thorough communication, and trust your partner to make choices that benefit everyone involved.
  • Say there’s no hierarchy if there is. One of the things I love about Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up is this relationship structure she named, Partnered Non-Monogamy. This is the structure in which has as its base a couple, and the couple is primary with no other primaries allowed. The parties may have additional lovers, together or separately, but there is no desire or option for any relationship that would equal or rival that of the original couple. This relationship model is often desirable for the couple but can be less so for the partners entering the relationship, so it’s a good idea to be clear if this is the desired relationship structure. If this is your structure of choice, be sure not to mislead new partners by saying “we don’t believe in hierarchies” or “you’re not secondary.” Those phrases may be more politically correct, but they aren’t true in partnered non-monogamy. Respect your new partner by being honest with him/her. And for goodness’ sake, don’t make this rule for one partner but then change it for another! That doesn’t sit well with kids (ask anyone who was the oldest!), and it’s equally unkind to do to adults.
  • Ignore metamour communication. Roughly 50% of the emails I receive asking for advice are from a person in a couple asking how to deal with an issue that arose with a metamour. More often than not, what has happened is the relationship developed between partner A and the new lover, while partner B watched from afar and heard tidbits. Now, oh noes! There is an issue with the new lover and partner B, who have barely spoken before. What to do? Partner B doesn’t have to be best friends with the new lover, but it’s always a good idea to open up the lines of communication. Personally, I like to meet the new lover and then set up a coffee or lunch once a month just to chat. We rarely talk about relationship issues; the idea is to have a line of communication open so that if an issue arises, there is an already-established channel of communication and some trust in the trust bank. This makes dealing with relationship issues a breeze when they do arise. This is somewhat akin to a corporation setting up a blog and blogging on a weekly basis: communication, familiarity and credibility are established, so when a crisis arises (the CEO goes on a sexting binge with Newt Gingrich), there is a channel for communication already open to deal with the tough questions.
  • Have the point of the vee moderate. In cases in which partner B has an issue with the new lover of partner A, and metamour relations have been ignored, it often happens that partner A (the point of the vee) ends up moderating between partner B and the new lover. Anyone who has ever had someone else speak on his behalf in an emotionally charged situation will understand why this is a terrible practice. It puts the full burden of communication among all parties on one person (the point of the vee) while absolving the others of any responsibility to communicate clearly with each other. It’s a stressful situation for the point of the vee and disempowering for the other partners. In interpersonal relationships, every involved party should have a voice. Her own voice. It is simply bad communication practice to disallow a partner from participating in discussions that concern her. Even in hierarchical situations such as partnered non-monogamy, every partner deserves the respect of having a voice in the communications. No two people should ever make a decision in the absence of the third, no matter the hierarchy.

A case study

Here’s common example of this dynamic that the couple might not even realize is disrespectful: partner A is dating a new lover, and the desire has come up for an overnight. Partner A says, “I’ll check with partner B,” and partners A and B have a long, intimate conversation about the merits and drawbacks of an overnight visit. The new lover is excluded from all communication and waits patiently outside the relationship, much like a child waiting to see if he gets a raise in his allowance or not. In this case, partners A and B undoubtedly didn’t intend disrespect, but that brand of communication is setting up a power dynamic in which the new lover is essentially powerless to speak or negotiate on his own behalf. And it’s a shame, because that particular situation is an excellent opportunity to forge a new and powerful dynamic by having all three involved parties meet, express their needs, listen to concerns and create a mutually-beneficial solution. In fact, it’s difficult communications such as this that forge intimacy and trust and make for stronger relationships all around. Don’t waste this valuable opportunity!

19 comments to From two to three: advice on opening up from an HBB

  • Hot Tramp

    I’m a little confused. On the one hand, you seem to be assuming that heretofore monogamous couples considering polyamory will want a triad — hence “adding another full human being to the relationship.” But then you talk about vees and metamours.

    • Cunning Minx

      Both a triad and a vee would entail “adding another full human being to the relationship.” I was referring to the act of welcoming someone, not specifically how many people he/she would be romantically involved with. Make sense?

  • Anna

    1. I have long hated the child to OSO analogy. While I get that no analogy is perfect, this particular series grates on my nerves. A SEXUALLY-BASED relationship between ADULTS is very different than a parent-child bond.

    2. I am unclear from your case study presented what role the new lover has in negotiating the overnight. If Partners A and B are married, this may have more to do with discussing logistics than “getting permission.” Negiotiating involves determining an agreement between two parties. What agreement is NL hoping to make here? “If your husband/wife stays overnight with me and I promise/agree to…” – what? I agree that perhaps NL may wish to seek out B to reassure him/her if there are specific concerns mentioned, but ultimately, what actions A takes (assuming A doesn’t go rogue from his/her agreement with B) are between him/her and B. Remember that hierarchy thing? If this is A and B’s structure, NL should have been made aware of that, and should expect agreements to reflect that.

    However, there is nothing to say that AFTER A and B have an initial conversation, that NL can’t plead his/her case if the reasons given aren’t concrete. If A and B talk, and B’s work schedule is changing to 3rd shift, so A has to be at home with the kids, that’s a pretty concrete reason. If it’s a matter of B feeling uncomfortable about something, and NL feels they can set B’s mind at ease, then NL should be given a chance to do so.

    But any initial conversation will need to be between A and B. And if this is a change from their prior agreement, B might feel pressured and anxious by NL’s presence. I would be interested in hearing more details about your take on this.

    • Cunning Minx

      Anna–

      Apologies for the child analogy. It is one that many people relate to in terms of loving more than one person, and the extension to this situation seems valid in terms of the emotional content of the attachments involved.

      And to address #2–I respectfully disagree with your assessment. I firmly believe that negotiation among adults should include all parties involved. And it’s less a matter of rules being negotiated than each adult having the space to voice his or her needs, wants and concerns. This is the opportunity for the new lover to say, for example:
      “Hey, I probably won’t want an overnight for the first few months, but it’s important to me that it be a possibility after that. How do you feel about that?”
      Or “I have kids, so overnights are probably not ever going to be on the table for me.”
      Or, “I really love waking up with my romantic partner in the morning and making breakfast for him and his wife–how do you feel about that?”
      Or, “I’ve never slept with someone’s wife before, and I feel guilty already. I could use some reinforcement that you both really want this.”

      Negotiation is not about making rules and imposing them on others; it’s about open communication among all involved adults about what each one needs and wants to feel safe, loved and happy. And along those lines, if one member of the existing couple is fearful of overnights, it’s his/her job to voice those concerns. For example:
      “I have to admit I don’t know how I feel about hearing sex sounds coming from another room. How would you feel about having overnights be at your place at first so I can work up to that?”
      Or “I am cool with overnights, but to feel taken care of, I need to be able to have a luxury night for myself. If you guys order me a pizza and some porn, I’ll be happy for you AND for me!”
      Or “I would be happy to support you having an overnight with my husband, as long as my husband and I have sex that morning so I feel I’ve got my fill.”

      It’s important for all involved adults to voice not only what they need and want but also what they can do to support the other relationships as well. A lover coming in to an existing relationship is at a disadvantage, so this communication is a GREAT time for him/her to ask about and find out what he/she can do to support the existing couple’s relationship. Cutting a new lover out of these conversations does a huge disservice, both to the lover and to the existing couple’s chance at success.

      I hope that clarifies. Love to know your additional thoughts!

  • Yea! When going through the PW archives, I fell in love with the Miss Poly Manners sections. Thank you for posting this.

  • I don’t think there is any real mixing of triad/V in this discussion being that whether or not someone is dating just one or both of a couple and the same rules of communication and do’s and don’ts apply to all non-monogamous relationships. Minx is right, you have to ask yourself “why would anyone want to date one or both of us?” because even the person not dating the new partner has a huge influence on the success or failure of their partner’s other relationship(s).

  • Sorry, back again, but I really want to say more than I did in my last comment.

    Your comments about veto power really are eye-opening. I had not thought about the problems that veto power could have, such as using it in place of communication or shifting the power in the relationship, allowing control over one’s partner’s actions. Thanks for pointing out those issues with the concept of veto power.

    • Cunning Minx

      You are most welcome. It’s unfortunately that most of us aren’t very good at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. I was once very frustrated in a relationship that my concerns and needs fell on my metamour’s deaf ears… until she was in the same situation with HER metamour. Then the rules suddenly and miraculously changed to accommodate her!

  • Lefey

    1. When I become friends with Bob, I will probably introduce him to my friend Ellen, and the two of them might even become friends as well–maybe all three of us will hang out sometimes–but that does not mean that I am adding Bob to my friendship with Ellen. To be honest it is off-putting to phrase it that way.

    2. When people have kids, they don’t typically expect to have a problem when the child diverts some of their partner’s attention/time/energy. They expect that they will gladly give up some of that to the child, because they will BOTH love and prioritize the child’s well-being, to the point where they would die to save their child’s life if it came to that, and they expect that their partner would also die for the child if need be. This is vastly different than a situation where one partner is in love with someone and the other partner is just slightly friendly with the person.

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  • Ali Golightly

    Thank you for presenting this point of view. I have often heard people in secondary positions say they feel like second class citizens to someone they love and admire. I often play the role of secondary to other lovers in addition to my role as wife and mother in my family. My sometimes boyfriend and his wife are in their second year of opening up, and it has been a rollercoaster. I’ve sent this to them, and again made a point to have friendly communication with her. I’ve watched both of them grow and let go of bits of ego and insecurity and work through struggles, and it has been fascinatingly education. Watching them also makes me watch myself, and grow and work through my own struggles.

    Also, I must disagree with Lefey. Parents get all sorts of bent out of shape because their kid is throwing a tantrum or refusing to go to bed on time or whatever offense there is. Trust me, I’m one of them. ;) But when the parents remember they love the child, and that they are adults with more capacity for ration and self control, things can be worked out. The “child” in this scenario can be looked at as the mutual lover, rather than the new lover. If the metamours remember they both love their mutual lover, and that they are ADULTS, they can talk about things and work it out without making their shared lover feel so much of the stress of their disagreements.

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    two to three: advice on opening up from an HBB

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