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.

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