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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.


  1. We are in a primary relationship with each other and other relationships are not permitted; other than that, the rules are more like guidelines. Anything above-waist is allowed, and below-waist is permitted but not encouraged. Really, though, we operate much like a monogamous couple nowadays. Neither of us is terribly interested in other folk anymore.

  2. I am in an unofficial monogamous relationship with ( lets say his name is Corey) Corey. We’ve been together for about 3 months.
    About a couple weeks ago I went out on a date with Rich ( yay pseudonyms)( due to having problems with corey and wanting him to pull his head out of his ass)
    And Ive ended up going on several more dates with Rich and Dee.
    And Ive fallen for Rich and I like Dee a lot. I see it working out well with me completing the triad.
    I am good with being polyamourus.

    The things that make it complicated:
    I still love Corey and I dont want to lose him, and at the same time I dont want to lose Rich/Dee
    And After I went out on the first date, corey pulled his head out of his ass and started fixing our issues. ( he doesn’t know that I went on more dates.)
    I have no idea on how to approach the subject of being polyamourus.
    I don’t want anyone I love to think/feel/believe that just because I love someone else , that I stopped loving them….

  3. Rosy: Yikes, that sounds like a potentially heartbreaking situation. It's hard to start that kind of conversation ... believe me, I remember. If you'd like my advice, there are a couple of things I'd advise.

    Know that this might be a situation in which you can't make everything work out perfectly. Just keep that in mind. Work for what you want most, but be willing to live with something else.

    As for Corey, if you're invested in that relationship and want to make it work, don't see anyone behind his back. Put things on hold with Rich and Dee, let them know that you're going to talk with Corey, and then tell him that when you two were having trouble you started seeing Rich. If you haven't done more than go out with Rich and Dee, that'll probably make the conversation easier; dating is just a way to get to know people, and there's nothing wrong with that. Dishonesty, on the other hand ... that's messy. I'm not sure of exactly what you mean by "unofficial", but if you haven't agreed to be exclusive, it'll be an easier conversation.

    You could start by telling Corey how much he means to you, letting him know that you want him in your life. Reassurance is a helpful thing in this kind of situation. Once you two are on solid ground in terms of your own relationship, you could mention that you never talked about being exclusive (assuming you haven't, since you said your relationship is "unofficial"), and tell him about seeing Rich and Dee. Let him know what you're interested in - a committed, open relationship. It's ok to do these things in more than one conversation, if it seems like too much to discuss all at once, but I think it'll be easier if you get started soon!

    What are your issues with Corey? I don't need to know, but it's worth thinking about whether they'll resurface or complicate this situation. I can't predict how he'll react, but I wish you the best. Meanwhile, what about Rich and Dee? Do they know all about Corey? Are they totally behind the idea of these new relationship combinations? And - and this is a big one - how do you feel about the idea of Corey (or Rich, or Dee) seeing other people?

    In the end, though, I do believe this will work out. You already know there isn't just "one soulmate" out there for you. If these particular connections fall apart, your life might be completely different in another three months - still wonderful, but with someone else. Life hurts sometimes, but if you aim yourself right, it comes out for the best.

    Either way, I'm rooting for you! Go for it! Feel free to write here again as the story develops.

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