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!

PW 326: Negotiating poly and tantra

Buddha lolcatHow tantric practitioners negotiated non-monogamy

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Under-18 warning and redirection to Scarleteen

1:00 News and host chat

  • Upcoming gigs at Paradise, Polycamp NW and CatalystCon
  • Wanna go to Burning Man? We are raffling off a ticket in July as a fundraiser to send Minx to CatalystCon! For every $10 donation at, you’ll get one raffle entry. On July 30, we’ll draw and announce the winner of the ticket to Burning Man 2012!

3:30 Topic: Negotiating poly with tantra

South African correspondent Erich Viege recorded an interview with Shima and Andrew about teaching tantra while trying to negotiate non-monogamy.

15:00 Happy Poly Moment

Cindy shares a happy poly moment of friendships with metamours and poly going well after communication.

16:30 Thanks

Thanks to Adam for the $69 donation. Woo hoo!

Questions? Comments? Feedback? Email or call the listener comment line at 206-202-POLY. And hey, why not attach an audio comment to that email? 🙂 Check out PolyWeekly at Share this with a friend or write an iTunes review!

Chicago Many Loves and Milwaukee Non-Monogamy Workshop

Two big events!

First, the Chicago Many Loves seminar is this Saturday, June 14th!
A continuing series designed to provide a supportive and safe environment for people to explore issues of non-monogamous practice and identity. Topics for this month are two very different but often related topics, “Poly Community” and “Poly Cheating.” Open to adults age 18 and older who either practice or are curious about non-monogamy, open relationships, and polyamory.

Held Saturday, June 14th, from 10AM to 1PM at Center on Halsted (3656 North Halsted, Chicago, IL 60613). Please contact David Rodemaker at 773.472.6643 x472 or for more details. Come to the second floor reception area and check in there. $15 fee. Space is limited; RSVP appreciated but not required.

Second, Negotiating Non-Monogamy is back!
Location: Milwaukee A Woman’s Touch
Date/Time: Saturday, July 12th, 1:00 – 2:30 PM
Cost: $35 per person; everyone over 18 welcome.

Open marriage, swinging, polyamory, oh, my! These days, more and more couples are choosing non-monogamy for their own intimate relationships. But the path from monogamy to an open marriage, a swinger lifestyle or polyamory can be a tricky one if you’re not aware of the pitfalls you might hit along the way and the discussions that you and your partner need to have in order to avoid them. Plus, those Hot Bi Babes are just a myth, anyway–they don’t actually exist. Like unicorns.

So forget the unicorns and join Minx for a fun and frank discussion of how to negotiate new boundaries–and discover the joy and intimacy non-monogamy can bring to your existing relationship.

Minx is host of the popular Polyamory Weekly podcast, now with over 150 weekly episodes, and has spoken on topics relating to multiple loves at the Heartland Polyamory Conference, GD2 and other events. Her work has been featured on Podfinder, ErosZine and Penthouse Forum, and she currently hosts a poly book club in Chicago. Plus, Janet Hardy once complimented her ass. To register, visit A Woman’s Touch.

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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