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01 January, 2010

Polyamory: Starting the Conversation

Back to basics, gadies and lentilmen. Friends who follow this blog might not have a lot to learn here, but you might have comments to make; I hope you will. Here's taking a swing at this blog's mission statement, reaching out to people who are new to nonmonogamous relationships. Everyone has to start somewhere: how do you begin the conversation about opening a relationship?

Every couple has a different dynamic, and that will change what the "best way" to broach the subject is. It's probably easiest when the relationship begins. With Margaret (yay pseudonyms!), we had the conversation immediately after our first kiss. We'd already talked about it when we were just friends, though, so there wasn't much of a barrier. She knew that, after my last ball and chain monogamous relationship, I wanted to be able to get to know more than one person in a romantic context. I think the key line was, "There are something like 2400 people on this campus, and at least two have to be worth dating!" Luckily for me, she agreed.

If you two have been dating for a while already, though, or if you don't know what your lover's response might be, the situation is more delicate. One suggestion I've often heard is to mention poly friends or a story or news article featuring polyamory, or even one that ought but doesn't. ("All their problems would be solved if she'd just date Oz and Tara!") If you hear a resounding "I know!", it might be the time to mention that this is one thing the viewers can try at home. If the response sounds more like these fine posts, you might have to do a little more ground work before you turn the conversation to your own relationship.

When you do broach the subject, two of the biggest concerns are about disclosure. For one thing, make sure it's explicit that you're going to tell each of your lovers about the rest. Make sure it's explicit, in general - whatever "it" is! If we lie to each other, whether through direct falsehoods or omission, that's not polyamory; it's just cheating. As one poly blogger says, "To me, the bedrock on which all good relationships lie, whether they be friend, family or romantic, is honesty."1

If monogamy has been a premise of your relationship, now's the time to drag out all the premises and see which ones work for you. In an article fresh off the Boston Globe presses, one interviewee said, “I think you can play the part of a monogamous person without necessarily having to think what it means for you. ... There’s a cultural script that we learn from movies, sitcoms, songs on the radio, and watching our parents. Because there isn’t a similar script for poly relationships, you have to think about what you’re doing and decide what you want.” It's like taking the engine out of your car for the first time. Once you're under the hood, it's a chance to see how the whole thing works. You might find parts integral to the system that you never even knew about before - expectations and assumptions that you and your lover have. You might even have different assumptions, but because you were only dating each other, they never came into conflict. It's a chance to set the stage for successful relationships in the future, but it's also a chance to rebuild the relationship that you two have and make sure it's in proper working order before you even think about getting someone new involved.

The other key point to disclose is sexual health. Go talk with your doctor and ask to get tested for every disease they know how to find. (This probably won't include HPV or herpes but will include the other famous ones: syphilis, gonorrhea, HIV, the rogue's gallery of sexually transmitted infections.) Be up-front about the results with every new partner before you have sex. Before you have unprotected sex with a new person, raise it as a question with your other partners. I know painfully well how disappointing condoms are compared to unprotected sex, but I'd rather be alive to enjoy it. Most of all, the difference between unprotected sex in a monogamous relationship and in a poly relationship is the risk to the people you love. In the context of nonmonogamy, unprotected sex can't be a decision that two people make alone. Yes, all this conversation might make sex less sexy, less spontaneous. I've screwed up and crossed that line before (happily, with no consequences worse than a couple of awkward conversations); it's always a bad plan. We have the technology. Use barriers when you do anything more involved than kissing. Then, look forward to how satisfying the night after getting your test results will be.

Now that I'm done evangelizing for the day, I want to ask about Rules. Some people build a lot of rules into their relationships, whether about protection, emotional involvement with other partners, or even scheduling challenges ("But Friday is our date night, honey!"). I don't have a lot of rules in my relationships, other than safe sex; I only have one relationship that's "Have you ever thought about having kids?" serious, but we don't use the term "primary relationship" because that would imply that no other relationship could reach that status, which isn't the case. It's just an accident of history that there's only one such relationship in my life today. So, emotional attachment isn't disallowed; neither is sex with a friend or as a one-time event, as long as everyone's well informed of the situation. There are countless variations, though. Some people guard a primary relationship by making new lovers "secondaries". Others have rules about whether one-night stands are appropriate, with whom you spend your birthdays & anniversaries, or even who can sleep in which bed. What about you? I know you folks just hate to type, but I'd love to hear about the rules (or lack thereof) in your relationships and how you reached them. If you're just surfing around the internet and stumbled across this page, that's doubly true, since you can tell me about a relationship I haven't seen play out in my own living room. If you're monogamous, I'd like to hear from you, too. What rules do you set about friendships outside of your pair? Where is the boundary between friendship and a betrayal of the relationship?

1 That particular blogger appears to have some unusual views on Christianity; see his post on human arrogance, in contrast with his constant talk of prayer.