“Polyamory is grad school relationship. It’s for grownups only. If you can’t yet bring yourself to communicate honestly with your partner about everything that goes wrong….and don’t wait too long after it goes wrong, and don’t lay on guilt when you bring it up, then don’t do it. Stay monogamous. Polyamory is not the place to work out your neuroses, any more than running a marathon is the best way to exercise your recently-broken and healing ankle.”
– Raven Kaldera, “The Polyamory Contract”
So I spent the bulk of this weekend in Ottawa, and one of the things I did there was teach a polyamory / non-monogamy workshop at Venus Envy. It was cool! Great turnout (22, woo-hoo!), thoughtful people, and a wide range of experiences – from total non-monog newbie to lifetime poly folk. Very interesting.
Normally when I teach, I really like to make things really interactive. But I’ve noticed that sometimes that’s not satisfying to people. For a lot of folks, when they show up to a workshop, they really want to come out of it with concrete, practical tools that will help them incorporate a new philosophy or practice into their lives. Now, telling people how to live their lives is kinda obnoxious, in my humble opinion, so I’m usually loath to approach a topic as though I have the monopoly on know-how. Especially when it comes to relationships, things work differently for pretty much every single person out there. Who am I to pretend I’m qualified to tell people how to run their lives?
That being said, once I started thinking about it and having conversations with various brilliant friends and colleagues, I began to realize that I actually do have pretty strong opinions about what needs to happen in order for non-monogamy to be a healthy and happy experience, instead of being a hornet’s nest of drama and pain. So for the first time, I actually sat down and wrote out the elements that I believe to be essential to doing good non-monogamy. It’s not so much a question of the specifics – how many lovers, how often to see them, etc. – as it is of the approach. I used my ten rules to re-create my poly workshop, and tried out the new formula for the first time this weekend.
Every time I teach, I learn; I think maybe this time I tipped the balance too far in the direction of instruction. Next time, I’ll try to strike a stronger equilibrium so people get to talk more. But teaching technique aside, I stand by my rules… so I figured I’d post ’em here, in case anyone’s curious.
If you want to quote them or link to them, by all means feel free. Please acknowledge where you got ’em from by linking to this or quoting with my name, is all I ask. Thanks!
10 Realistic Rules for Good Non-MonogamousRelationships
by Andrea Zanin
(Please note I said good poly. Anyone can do poly badly, but I don’t advise it.)
1. Know yourself. For starters, be brutally honest with yourself and answer the following questions. I’m not kidding about the brutal part. Sugarcoating will not help you here. Also, remember that the answers to these are never final… you change every day and with every experience you have, so it’s worth revisiting these questions over and over throughout your lifetime.
- What kind of person are you?
- What are your core values?
- What are your life priorities?
- What are your needs within relationships?
- What are your shortcomings within your relationships?
- Why have your past relationships ended? Are you able to articulate what part you played in that?
- How do you deal with conflict and anger?
- How are your communication skills?
- What kind of people are you generally attracted to? Are there any predictable patterns in your attractions? Are they positive or problematic?
- What do you have to offer a partner? What sort of partner, lover, friend are you?
- What does your life look like? Your schedule, your energy levels, your health, your obligations, your stresses, your joys? What would you like to change?
2. Love yourself. Okay, so this sounds like the greatest cliché known to man, but it’s actually the basic ingredient for good non-monogamy. It’s the macaroni in the mac & cheese. You gotta take care of yourself. If you don’t have this one down, you will simply never be able to fully enjoy healthy love relationships with others. Lots of people try to ignore the basic and all-pervasive importance of self-love, and that’s why many people have messy love relationships. You wanna try that with multiple love relationships? Believe me, you will sink fast.
If the answers from the questions you just asked yourself show some areas that may pose challenges, love yourself enough to take up those challenges before you start exploring elsewhere. Go get therapy, take up a meditation practice, start writing in a journal, get more exercise to boost your mood and self-confidence, or attend to your spiritual life. Not taking care of yourself is not an option.
3. Be happy ALONE. Yes, that’s right. Alone. All alone. No partner. Married or otherwise partnered already? That’s fine, but you still need to have this one down. If you approach your relationships with the idea that they’ll make you happy when you can’t make yourself happy, you will inevitably be disappointed.
Very few relationships actually last a whole lifetime; it’s wonderful if they do, but let’s be realistic. You can’t base your entire concept of love and relationship around an ideal that a small minority of people actually achieve. Not to mention that longevity is not an indicator of happiness – some relationships should last a few months, some a few years, some a few hours. This is not an indication of failure, it’s an indication of reality.
Be happy alone first. Then add one or more partners to enhance, deepen and enjoy that happiness with you. But do not make your happiness dependent on someone else’s presence in your life or your bedroom, let alone two or three people’s presence. That’s not relationship, that’s codependence. It also gets real complicated if your honey has three partners and you don’t – unless you are (ta-daa!) happy alone.
4. Communicate. Honestly. Now comes the time where you take all that brutal honesty with yourself, and translate it into brutal honesty with your partner(s). Good poly happens when things are put on the table. Are you jealous? Say so. Are you scared, worried, angry, upset? Use your words. Are you happy, in love, admiring? Spread the joy! Is there something on your mind that you don’t want to tell your partner? MAJOR warning bell… this is almost a guarantee that you should be telling them!
I absolutely promise that if you keep shit to yourself, you will run into problems. If you have the first three rules down and drop the ball on this one, your poly is still going down the tubes. Buy self-help books. Go to joint therapy. Take an active listening workshop. Read up on jealousy and other issues to see how best to deal with them. Whatever it takes, improve your communication skills. You’ll thank yourself for it!
5. Know what you want. Here’s another list of questions for ya. (Hint: Rules 1 to 4 come in real handy before you get to this one.)
- What would your ideal polyamorous relationship look like?
- What joys do you think polyamory will bring to your life?
- What challenges do you think you will face? Do you think you’re equipped to handle those challenges?
- Do the benefits you want match up with the kind of room do you have in your world for multiple partners?
- Do the benefits you want match up with what you have to give in return in terms of time, energy, availability, etc.?
- What do you think an incoming partner might want from you? How might she or he feel about your situation?
- If you have an existing partner, do your values, desires and abilities match up well? Are you looking for the same or compatible sorts of polyamory?
- Are you open to a range of options within the range of polyamorous arrangements, or is your interest very specific? If it’s specific, why? What do you hope to gain from that particular form?
6. Go for content, not form. Once you’ve answered the questions above, you might have a form of poly in mind that you feel would be perfect for you. If so, the next step is to ask yourself what that form means to you… and do a reality check. Two girlfriends = never lonely? Think again. Two couples in a quad = excellent balance? No guarantees. “Middle-aged married couple – he’s heterosexual, she’s bi-curious – seeks hot young bisexual woman with double-D boobs who likes giving head, available every second weekend and the occasional Wednesday night.” Does this sound familiar?
Lots of people have an idealized vision in their minds. We often get caught up in the packaging without remembering that relationship is about what’s inside. You and your honey might spend years seeking out the ideal couple to form the perfect quad, while your best friend and her boyfriend have been working up the nerve to ask you out for months. You might want your wife to have fun with a cute gal for your entertainment, when in fact that guy she met at the BBQ last week would make an amazing addition to your world for years to come, loving her deeply and being a wonderful friend to you… and maybe you should try dating that woman you met at the gym.
Think of polyamory as a state of openness to love in whatever form it comes to you, and then take responsibility for managing that abundance when it arrives… rather than sticking with a particular formula you believe will be ideal. See rule #10 for more.
7. Be nice. Polyamory is not about the technicalities. It’s the spirit, not the letter of the law that counts. Polyamory is not all about you getting laid. In fact it’s not really all about you at all. It’s a philosophy of moving through the world that’s about plurality, generosity and giving, and guess what – it goes way beyond your Friday-night date. Love is not tit for tat; it’s not a pie with only so many pieces to go around; and it’s not there just to beef up your ego. So…
- Don’t date someone else’s partner behind that person’s back just because it’s not “technically” your problem.
- Keep an eye out for the people you get involved with to make sure they’re all right, and doing poly for the right reasons, even if that’s not “technically” your call to make.
- Know your boundaries and respect them; watch out for other people’s boundaries too, even if that’s not “technically” your job.
As a poly person, your responsibility toward right relationship doesn’t end when you have an orgasm or when you drop your date off at the door. So don’t be creepy and go out cruising for what you can get out of love, or to see how much you can get away with. You’re missing the whole bloody point if you go at it that way.
8. Have safer sex. This doesn’t just mean use a condom. It means figure out how to talk about sex with all your partners. It means figure out what acceptable risk looks like for you. HIV is not the only risk out there, and condoms don’t protect against everything. For example: if someone has oral herpes, will you kiss them? Will you let them go down on you? This answer might be different if, say, you see them only three times a year… if you have a compromised immune system… if you are healthy as a horse.
Here are a few questions worth thinking about. Remember, this isn’t just about you. Conceivably, your sexual choices could affect dozens of other people… people you care about. Sex is awesome. Keep it that way.
- Are you informed about the relative risks of the various things you like to do in bed? If not, do you know where to find the information you need?
- Are you aware of how and when to use safer sex products like condoms, gloves, finger cots, Saran Wrap, dental dams, silicone toys, etc.? If not, do you know where to find the information you need?
- How much are you comfortable telling your doctor about your sex life? How will those limits affect his or her ability to provide you with appropriate care?
- Do you have access to STI testing? If so, how often do you think it’s appropriate for you and your partners to get tested, and for what?
- How might you deal with an unexpected pregnancy – yours or someone else’s?
- How do you feel about alternative sexual practices, like fisting or anal sex or BDSM?
- Do you have limits around blood play, bondage, penetration…?
- Are your limits different with different people or in different situations?
- How do you feel about your partner(s)’ limits? Are they compatible with yours?
- Where are you willing to compromise, and why?
- What are your needs and limits around your emotional safety in sexual situations?
- What happens if you find out you have contracted an STI – who do you have to tell and what will you do?
9. Be strong. Make no mistake about it: choosing a polyamorous relationship style is a radical thing. It upsets people – some of those people may include your parents, your friends, your work colleagues, members of your religious or spiritual groups, your kids, and more. Just because we have an alternative philosophy about what makes us feel happy in our relationships doesn’t mean the whole world will be on board with us. That creates pressures on everyone involved.
To handle this, it’s really helpful to have strong friendships, a strong philosophy, an independent streak, a lot of self-confidence, a good sense of boundaries (other people’s, not just your own), some well-articulated knowledge and words with which to defend or explain your choices (answering questions in this list can help with that, as can reading a few good poly books), and a community that includes other poly people.
Here are a few more questions to think about:
- Can you deal with the social pressures you will face because you’ve made a different choice than the mainstream?
- How, exactly, will you deal with this? What would your approach be for each of these situations I listed above?
- What do people need to know? How much are you comfortable telling them about your choices?
- Is it safe for you to come out to people about your multiple loves? Will this affect your child custody, your career, your community standing?
- Is it actually unsafe for you to come out to people about your multiple loves? Or are you internalizing social pressures and censoring yourself before even giving your friends and loved ones a chance to show their support and open-mindedness?
- How will you deal with it if you’re perceived as a cheater, a slut, a greedy person, an immoral person?
- What will you do if people whom you didn’t want to tell end up finding out?
10. Go with the flow. In other words, don’t go out looking for anything. The best people show up when we’re just going about our business, doing good things in life, being happy, and being generous. It’s not that personals sites or matchmaking are a bad idea… it’s simply that the joy of non-monogamy is in being open to the many things that may come our way, rather than gunning for any one thing in particular. Life is generous if we’re open to receiving it, and it pulls away when we clutch at it…a lot like people.