Poly Means Many: Communication boundaries and privacy

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at polymeansmany.com

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”

– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

What is “TMI” to the non-monogamous?
People who engage in non-monogamous relationships often tend to not only be open-minded but rather open about what goes on in their lives and their relationships. Understandably, self-identified “ethical sluts” are frequently quite happy to talk relatively openly about sex, often because they usually have fewer hang-ups and shame about engaging in such activities. I’ve witnessed quite a few poly people openly discussing intimate details about what kind of sex they have with one of their partners with their other partners. This level of detail is welcomed by many, but not all. I generally tend to fall into the latter camp, so I would like to explain how and why high privacy walls can make some poly relationships work more smoothly when it comes to communication.

How high are your privacy walls, and why?
I would describe myself as an open-minded, sex-positive person, but I tend to have higher “privacy walls” than most. I’m not puritanical and never remotely have been. I’m generally quite happy for my partners to have sex with other people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I need or even want to know the details or specifics of what they do together, when they’ve done it and how. Usually if I’m not somehow involved, I’d rather not know and I’d prefer to not share (unless asked to do so, for some reason).

This is one of the ways I’ve learned to keep my relationships special, separate and unique – the ability to do so is very important to me. Each relationship should enjoy a certain level of privacy and freedom from outside scrutiny.

Privacy walls in polyamorous D/s arrangements
In a D/s context this privacy wall is how I’ve learned to not encourage “competition” between submissives, which I go out of my way to avoid if I can. There was a time when my partners asked me to lower my privacy walls, since it bothered them and they wanted to feel more included in my life. I lowered them, as an experiment, and it did not go as well as they expected. It turns out those kind of details stimulated insecurity and sadness in my partners. Eventually we all went back to my usual privacy walls and everything improved. Had any of the details of what I did with any of them changed? No, it didn’t, but we were all happier having incongruent knowledge levels about each other’s relationships.

Communicating evolving expectations

“The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

The only complication to this arrangement is that expectations about privacy levels and what type of information is communicated needs to be agreed between partners at the very beginning, and renewed throughout the life of the relationship. This can get complex because people may not always be able to anticipate what type of information they would and wouldn’t like communicated to them in any given circumstance. Your partner might make assumptions about what you do or don’t want to hear about, and how. A certain level of flexibility is required to make this work and expectations should be revisited on a regular basis.

Communicating (or not) about conflict
This not only applies to sex in poly relationships, but conflict as well. It might be better for you and your partners to not disclose that you and your other partners have had an argument. Getting involved in the minutiae of a disagreement between your partner and your metamour can be a slippery slope. You run the risk of feeling angry at your partner and/or your metamour for a conflict that has nothing to do with you, and one over which you don’t or shouldn’t have any influence. Not involving yourself in your partners’ troubles can feel counterintuitive however, given that you may wish to support them in every aspect of their lives. But if you don’t keep a certain amount of distance you also run the risk of becoming a relationship counselor, or being seen as interfering in their relationship. Neither of those situations is likely to serve anybody.

Communicating agreements
One final point: privacy walls and boundaries with regard to communication are not necessarily “rules.” For me the very concept of rules in relationships is odd. Instead I view them as agreements. If one partner says ‘if X thing happens, this will hurt me” and the other person replies “I don’t want to hurt you, so I will endeavour not to do that” – is that a rule? No, it’s an agreement that both parties have come to by means of effective communication. If someone cannot agree to do or not do “X,” the person for whom that would hurt has a choice of whether to stay in that relationship or not. To me rules are restrictive and remove a sense of free will, whereas agreements emphasize that will and the active choice to stay in a particular relationship under particular circumstances or not.

I maintain that communication continues to be the most difficult aspect of any relationship. Polyamorous relationships can sometimes require an exponential amount of effort in this regard – but also an exponential amount of love and satisfaction as a reward. Knowing when not to communicate, or what not to communicate about, are an important aspect of this.