My Poly Set-up: Constellations and Guidelines (Poly Means Many)

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 will be found at www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is “My Poly Set-up”.

 

I’ve interpreted “My Poly Set-up” to mean the constellation of relationships in my life and how they are conducted and connected. I’ll discuss how I came to be in my current constellation and how it works as well as it does.

 

Constellations

 Domestic Life

I have a domestic partner whom I’ve been with for the past 3+ years, and who gets most of my time (mostly as a function of us both being introverted homebodies). I use domestic partner as a label, because we have always resisted the label of “primary vs secondary”. I don’t find that hierarchy helpful or useful in describing how either of us do things. It’s restrictive and, I feel, a potential snag that could cause us to be lazy in terms of communicating and defining our expectations of one another.

 

Other Connections

Beyond my domestic partner, at present I have a few amorphous connections – currently tangential but with potential to become less so in future – with people who live an ocean away from me (where I lived until recently). I would not usually feel comfortable with such an undefined connection, but distance at least partially requires me to be, until I spend enough time with those connections that we can choose to define them in a particular way or not. I generally prefer my connections to be fairly well-defined; or, at least, I like to have 2-3 connections fairly well defined. I would not describe anyone as a “girlfriend” or “partner” until we have a conversation explicitly agreeing such labels. So here I am: many important people in my life, varying types and levels of connection, and distance keeping most of those connections undefined until such point that the distance is closed or, until we have The Conversation from this distance.

 

Relationship Orientation and Sexuality 

Demisexuality

I think a great deal of how I do things as a polyamorous person is impacted by being demisexual (follow this link to read more about demisexuality). Sex is important to me, but casual sex (outside of an established relationship) isn’t, particularly. That doesn’t mean I don’t have sex outside relationships, just that I don’t go out of my way for it anymore (e.g. I rarely attend sex parties these days – this is subject to change). Being demisexual means that I tend to enter into romantic/sexual relationships incredibly slowly.  On average I know someone for a minimum of 6 months (and sometimes much longer) before being comfortable enough to express or even feel an interest in or attraction to them. I tend to prioritise connections that seem romantically substantial and potentially long-term. Any long-term partner is likely to spend considerable time in my home and often with my other partner(s) around.

 

Guidelines 

Defining and codifying ‘considerate behaviour’

I commented to my domestic partner the other day that “we don’t really have a lot of rules”, and they said to me “WHAT. We have more than a pageful saved in google drive!” How embarrassing! I looked at the document and remembered it right away; I suspect the reason I had forgotten is that our agreement with each other (made long ago) is mainly defined by what we both agree is considerate behaviour toward the other person, not by what I think of as hard-and-fast rules per se. This agreement has been so ingrained in the way we do things that I’d forgotten we had a whole document defining precisely what we considered to be considerate behaviour. It includes things like:

  • We agree to update each other on the status of other relationships and our feelings for others.
  • Other dates/partners should not come to the flat unless we both agree to it in advance.
  • We will only get involved with people who the other person respects and is likely to be able to spend some time with.
  • We agree to be positive, constructive and enable other relationships as much as possible; to take responsibility for working through our issues. The other person will recognise that this may take some time.

 

I know other people (couples, triads, etc) who don’t stick by the above (or any) guidelines and it works for them, but both of us know – due to previous experience – that having well defined, codified guidelines ensuring we’re on the same page is a great tool to prevent misunderstandings and heartache. We can re-visit them from time to time to make sure they’re up to date. It’s how both of us have been able to maintain a relatively pretty peaceful poly set-up for the past little while. If/when I enter into another long-term partnership, I’d likely want to come to another agreement with that person defining what we believe to be considerate behaviour in the context of our particular relationship. It’s the set up that works best for me, and although it can take a considerable amount of time to get there, it’s worth it.

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PolyMeansMany: Why I haven’t learned anything from being poly.

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 will be found at www.polymeansmany.com from tomorrow. This month, our topic is “What being poly has taught me”

When the PMMers first picked the topic of “What I’ve learned from being poly”, I  assumed that I could or would have a lot to say about this. I have been practicing polyamory since my first relationship at 15 years old – that’s half my life now – so I thought I would have plenty of material and could write a litany of “poly lessons learned”.

But when I started to really think on this, I quickly realised that being poly has been so infused into my life that I have a difficult time differentiating its place in my life from relationships more generally. And furthermore, I don’t feel that being poly has taught me very much at all in particular. I think non-poly people deal with most of the same issues that we do: jealousy, trust, time management, boundaries, good communication, etc, and most of the seminal lessons I’ve learned from specific relationships would have transpired regardless of whether I was monogamous or polyamorous in that relationship. (I might have learned those lessons a bit differently if I were monogamous, however.)

In my own particular case, I’ve undoubtedly had many more relationships because I am poly, so perhaps my rate of learning from relationships has been greater than if I were monogamous. And as I have covered in previous posts, those lessons often come from loss of relationships – which in my case, has come more frequently as a poly person than it would have if I were mono, simply because I enter into relationships more frequently.

So perhaps in this way, poly has taught me to deal with loss better than I otherwise would have. It has taught me to fully appreciate having relationships that I know won’t last forever or even for very long at all. It has taught me the value of romantic and/or sexual friendships – a type of friendship I might not have been able to engage in if I weren’t poly or at least open. It has taught me to stop taking the damn relationship escalator all the time and to live more in the moment with my loved ones. NB: I got into my relationship with my fiancé thinking we would definitely not have a long-term primary-ish future together, and yet here we are just over three years later about to get married.  I firmly believe that not jumping onto the relationship escalator from the moment we met each other is what got us here, because it meant we could form our own unique bond free of such expectations.

At the same time: I could have learned any of the above while not practicing polyamory, it is simply impossible for me to know since I have never been anything but poly.  But I maintain that being poly has not given me access to a particular set or special level of knowledge that can only be gained by those who are poly. Frankly, I don’t think that kind of knowledge exists. I have learned so much from the many relationships I’ve had, not from being poly, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Styles of non-monogamy: the ideal and the reality (Poly Means Many – May 2013)

The past 15 years have given me the opportunity to be involved in all varieties of non-monogamy (except polygamy/polyandry, but I don’t much miss that). I’ve done open relationships, ‘dating’, non-hierarchical polyamory, hierarchical polyamory, polyfidelity and swinging (in my case, this was more like ‘sluttery’). I’ve been polyamorous when single (solo/unpartnered polyamory), poly while having one partner, and poly in a triad.  I could talk to you for hours about the pros and cons of each of these set ups.  (NB: I won’t go into specific definitions of what these different types of non-monogamy entail, as Rarely Wears Lipstick has a good entry defining many of them here. You can also reference the wikipedia article on non-monogamy:  and this chart by Franklin Veaux highlights some interesting overlaps and differences in styles of non-monogamy.)

I was in a very serious marriage-type partnership for eight years in which I (rather unsuccessfully) dated people outside that relationship nearly the whole time.  I would class this as more of an ‘open relationship’: I had a lot of stability in one relationship but almost none in my other relationships.  I then became single, practicing solo polyamory and the aforementioned sluttery.  This was a lot of fun but offered me no security or greater depth of relationship.  A short time later I experienced being partnered in a triad and as a secondary, which was an entirely new experience for me.  While I enjoyed it I sorely missed having an ‘anchor’, and so I came to have a closer affinity to non-hierarchical poly.  I then became involved in two serious partnership-type relationships and continued to subscribe to non-hierarchical poly during that period.  This time I enjoyed having two strong anchors, but both took a lot of energy to engage in and my other relationships (such as friendships) may have suffered due to lack of time.

For various reasons one of those relationships ended,  and for several months now I have found myself being poly with one partner. Recently, I’ve gone on dates with several people. I’m perhaps ‘dating’ someone I really enjoy spending time with now, but as I will be moving continents in a few months, my inclination to get into another serious intense long-term relationship is not as strong as it has been previously. I’m cautiously realistic about long-distance relationships. If or when I have children, I imagine that I may practice a more hierarchical form of poly, if only because my kids will unquestionably be my top priority as well as any co-parents I might have (please note: this could be more than one other person!).

For ages, I had the closest affinity with non-hierarchical polyfidelity. I think this is because I spent my early teens dreaming about having both a husband and a wife. Although I see polyfidelity in a different (less gendered) way now, it still attracts me in many ways. But my point is that despite whatever ‘ideal’ I have, the right approach for me is as much a product of circumstance. Any ideal simply might not fit with the shape my life is taking. One thing I’ve noticed, is that it can be difficult to find partners who are willing to try non-hierarchical poly when they are already very seriously partnered up or intimidated by my current relationship.

My relationship style may also change and adapt based on the preferences of who I am dating at the time. Some may think of this as fickle, but I think of it as realistic and practical.  One of the most important skills of a polyamorous person is negotiating ‘flexible boundaries’ (a term I first heard on the ALBJ blog on the post about boundaries and rules). While I cannot say whether any given style of non-monogamy is somehow superior to others, being able to negotiate what type of non-monogamy you want to practice over time is one of the most fundamental negotiations of all.  

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.